The following is Part II of the interview with Stephen Dobyns,
"Dobyns on Dobyns."
Part I: Stephen Dobyns on Poetry appears in the
Spring 2004 Feature.
Stephen Dobyns has been awarded a Guggenheim, three
fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts
and numerous prizes, including Pushcart Prizes and
prizes from Poetry and the American
Poetry Review. Showing how easily he moves from
one genre to another, Dobyns has had poems selected
by Best American Poems, two of the
Naked have been selected for Best
American Short Stories, two of his novels
have become movies, and
Words, Best Order ranks on everybody's list
among the finest books ever written about poetry.
As he concludes his semester as the H. Bruce
McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech,
Stephen Dobynspoet, fiction writer, essayist,
and journalist of the highest orderhas been
generous with his time and thoughts about poetry in
Part I of this interview. We've
come to the place in the interview, however, where we
want to drill deeper into his writing journey. So
welcome back, Stephen Dobyns. We're glad you're
willing to let us poke around some moreand
welcome back TCR reader. We're glad you're looking
forward, with us, to the exploration of the art and
the artist as Stephen Dobyns and the Stephen Dobyns
poem emerge through eleven books of poems.
Audio clips from the interview:
Articulate the question
A writer's duty
Write from your totality
The prose poem
The first person "I"
The Interview with Stephen Dobyns
Part II Dobyns On Dobyns
earlier in this interview, Stephen, you said, "I
write poems to find out why I write them." That
sentence could lead our questioning in a myriad of
directions, but it's also why reading your poetry,
book by book, allows us to follow the path Stephen Dobyns has taken poetically. While that could surely
be said of all poets as new work subtly suggests the
poet's learning, exploration, and attitude toward
experimentation, it is surely nowhere more deliberate
than in Stephen Dobyns' work.
Stephen Dobyns: That's something I've tried
to do carefully, especially since the book Heat Deaththat
every book has its own defining idea.
let's begin with your earliest work and see where the
writing has taken you. There is certainly a surreal
quality in your first book, Concurring Beasts. Would you have called yourself a
surrealist? Did anybody else ever call you a
Stephen Dobyns: I was called
that just the other day
surrealist," but that's not a term I would use.
The term "surrealist" is a complicated term
first coined by Apollinaire. He meant it as any
exaggerated idea of reality. And then, when it was
taken over by Andre Breton, it became a political
response to the world, the idea being that realism
itself had led to World War I, and so something above
realism would free us from the kind of logic that had
led to human kind's self destruction. My sense of it
is much simpler than that. I'm thinking of the little
poems in Mother Goose, for instance:
Hi diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon
Is that surrealistic? How can you call that
surrealistic? That's part of the exaggerated
experience that comes through the human mind. There
are plenty of times that one dreams things that
couldnt possibly happen, you
knowsomething as simple as flying, for
instanceand poems can have the same sense of
exaggerated reality that you can find in dreams, in
folk tales, or in Mother Goose.
You see the same thing in a lot of
early twentieth-century Spanish poetry, which seems,
in a way, realistic, but it comes also out of the
Spanish folk tale, the same exaggerated reality. I
think it was influenced by early twentieth-century
surrealist poetry in that perhaps surrealist poetry
gave permission for certain kinds of exaggeration,
but, as I say, I think that permission was already
there in folk tales or even Alice in Wonderland,
which is surrealistic, but obviously the term could
not technically apply to Alice in Wonderland.
It's always been my sense of what a poem is: that it's a machine
made out of words, and that you make that machine in some way,
that you have all kinds of different outpourings and vomitings on
the page, and that once you have that splop on the page, you try
to give it some kind of shape, and the shape is partly what makes
remember reading an Edward Leuders poem to my
high-school students that defined poetry as
"blue taillights on Tyranosaurus Rex." They
enjoyed thinking about poetry that way, and it was
just as you saidan exaggerated reality of
poetry. Given that Concurring Beasts might have its exaggerations, it
clearly works from both sides of the page, from poet
to reader, and I'm going to ask you, if you will, to
read the last five lines of the final poem. I should
ask you to read the whole poem, but it's especially
the last five lines I want to focus on. Would you do
Stephen Dobyns: Sure. It's from a poem called
"The Ways of Keys."
Let a dark lantern be placed in the circle
And let me lie down by it, becoming
both entrance and exit of light. Let me
be the door and the lock. Let me
learn the ways of keys.
a lyric moment for you, for the poem and for a young
poet's first book. Already, at that point in your
life, you had developed a clear position about the
responsibility of a poet and a sense of control.
Stephen Dobyns: Exactly. The poem talks about
trying to translate the world into language to make
it understandable and so to make it endurable, to
make it seem less random, and to make the speaker of
the poem seem not so much a victim within the world,
but to have some control simply by being able to turn
the world into language and ideally then open to some
you aren't just sayingas the poetthat you
want the keys for yourself. You are actually handing
them to the reader...a gift.
Stephen Dobyns: Right. The speaker here wants
to become both the entrance and the exit of light, to
have it pass through him.
strong beginning. After Concurring Beasts, you published Griffon, and the difference is visible. The
poems in this book actually come in a different shape
than those in Concurring Beasts: they are much less obscure, and
beyond that, they begin to exhibit a moral sense that
is more directly stated. I can't read the section of
poems you call "Grimoire"a whole
catechism of sins as it werewithout wanting to
shape up. You said once that at the age of nine, you
had a moral fiber you couldn't cut with a Swiss Army
Knife. Were you always this hard on yourself? How
have you managed to hold up under that?
Stephen Dobyns: I'm sure everyone is hard on
himself. I'm not sure how much good it does, but you
try to develop, it seems, some moral sense of the
world. I mean you obviously have a moral sense of the
world that is passed on to you by your parents and
the circumstances of your growing upchurch or
school or whatever those things areand then you
have to find some way to make that fit. You can't
just become a little echo of somebody else's
morality, although that certainly happens often
enough. The poems in "Grimoire"we get
our word grammar from thatattempt to
make definitions for these certain feelings: sloth,
gluttony, anger, vanity, envy, spite,
bravado...probably about 20 different things.
more than definitions, they're personifications; they
jump off the page and move and speak.
Stephen Dobyns: They are. They are influenced
by Anglo Saxon riddles where the subject of the
riddle, whatever it isice, for
examplespeaks in the first person.
also clear that in Griffon you are already intensely focused on
craft. The poems become tight, and the language
already an absolute part of the metaphor. How did you
come to be so intently focused on craft?
Stephen Dobyns: The focus on craft was there
from the beginning. It came from my own reading.
requires maturity and discipline, yet there doesn't
seem to be a single place anywhere in these two first
books where you appear to be learning. You just show
up with this incredible discipline....as if it were
part of that moral fiber we talked about, so just as
you made moral demands on yourself, you were making
technical demands on your poems.
Stephen Dobyns: Well, yes. My sense of what a
poem should do might change somewhat from one book to
another. Many of the poems in Concurring Beasts
are my most obscure poems although they all connect
to some specific series of meanings, but they can be
more difficult for the reader to grasp. In Griffon,
in using that little "Grimoire" and some
other poems, you know, there's an attempt to use
language more clearly and to give more attention to a
more-easily-graspable form, so that's something I
would try. What is the form of a poem? What is the
shape? So the poems also reflect what I've learned
about linebreaks or managing a line or things like
to that last question, I admit I was assuming that so
focused a discipline relevant to craft would have to
be imposed. In your case, it's just how you went
about a poem.
Stephen Dobyns: It's always been my sense of
what a poem is: that it's a machine made out of
words, and that you make that machine in some
way, that you have all kinds of different outpourings
and vomitings on the page, and that once you have
that splop on the page, you try to give it
some kind of shape, and the shape is partly what
makes it compelling. It seems necessary. It has a
beginning, a middle, and an end. There's no chaff.
If there's a consistency in any of the books, it's
the fact that I like a long line. It runs from maybe
eight to up to even sixteen syllables. In some books
it's longer, in some it's shorter, but there's always
the long line, then there was also the attempt to use
the linebreak to affect the rhythm of the lines, to
affect the rhythm of the poem.
Through revision, through argument, you make everything within the
poem seem necessary, even the shape. The shape of the poem bears
metaphoric relation to the content. They're completely
by the time you're writing Heat Death, I can see you've settled into that
longer line. Although you've used it earlier, here
it's the norm. As a result, the poems come more
packed with detail; they seem to roll forward,
picking up intensity, contributing to the reader's
sense of the chaos and confusion that the subject
experiences, and the reader becomes almost as
overwhelmed in the situation as the subject does. The
lack of white space in the poem contributes to that.
If you have a stanza break, it's perfectly clear why
it's there. Unlike a lot of poems that just seem to
be written into some kind of shape, your poems are
Stephen Dobyns: Through revision, through
argument, you make everything within the poem seem
necessary, even the shape. The shape of the poem
bears metaphoric relation to the content. They're
completely intertwined. And that was there from the
beginning though my sense of it changed somewhat.
In January 1978, I started teaching in Ellen
Bryant Voigt's M.F.A. program at Goddard College, and
at those sessionsone in January and one in
JulyI had to teach a class or give a craft
lecture. Surrounded as I was by other writers, people
whom I admired, I had to come up with things that I
felt they wouldn't dismiss as absurd, and I had to
challenge myself. That's the beginning of the essays
Words, Best Orderthose
lectures at Goddard and later at Warren
Wilsonand obviously I learned from the poets I
was teaching with: Ellen Bryant Voigt, Michael Ryan,
Thomas Lux, Louise Gluck, and a whole bunch of people
whom I admired then and now.
guess is they'd be as quick to credit you with
There's no way to give the
body of your work the attention it deserves with our
limitations of space, so I'm moving on to The Balthus
Poems, to poems
that you say came out of your liking Balthus'
paintings and wanting to get the emotion you
recognized in them into poems. As a consequence, that
book became the place where you dropped the pronoun I.
Were you making a deliberate comment against
confessional poetry or were you just moving on?
Stephen Dobyns: I wanted to try to deal with
narratives that didn't use the first person I,
and so, as a pretext, I used the paintings. But the
paintings really are just thata pretext. I'd
done poems connected to paintings before, and when it
occurred to me to focus on one particular painter, I
looked at various painters. Balthus' paintings lent
themselves to narratives, and so they became, then, a
whole body. The poems still come out of my ideas of
things, things I've experienced or thought about, but
while the poems in that sense are still
autobiographical, they are indirectly so at that
point, but in any case, I wrote that series of poems
to avoid the first person I.
was it so important for you to do that?
Stephen Dobyns: I was just sick to death of
it. I thought I was writing poems that were too
similar to poems in Heat Death,
and I wanted to move away from that and see what
other possibilities there were.
TCR: So it
wasn't a reaction to confessional poetry as much as
it was Stephen Dobyns changing direction again?
Stephen Dobyns: Well, I think it was both.
Clearly there are poets who write very successful
poems with the first person I. If the poem
exists only to reflect some kind of attention on the
poet, that seems to be a bad use of the first person I.
If the first person I is the reader's
representative, that seems to be a good use of the
first person Ithat we transcend in the
reading of the poem the personality of the poet. When
the I is the reader's representative, it
becomes easier for the reader to enter into the poem
than if the I is there to reflect credit or
draw attention to the writer.
TCR: I hear
an echo in that back to your response that you like
to stop before you speak, so it seems absolutely
plausible that you would make that decision to step
out of your poems. You are no more willing to violate
that principle in a poem than in a social situation.
Stephen Dobyns: I want the work to be as good
as I can make it, and so I might look at things I've
done and think how I can do this differently or what
other ways there are to do it.
The book Black Dog,
Red Dog was published after The Balthus
Poems, but some of the poems in that
book were written before The Balthus
from there you go on to Cemetery
Nights, Body Traffic, Velocities, and Common
Carnage. I'm not
dismissing all that work, but I want to say that when
I picked up Pallbearers
Envying the One Who Rides, I knew I'd never seen a
poetry book like that before. All the poems are about
one central figure, a fictional character by the name
of Heart, who is really the weaker side of all of us.
He's a loveable, bungling character who bumps into
all the challenges of life, and while we're laughing
at him, we realize how depressed we are at our own
laughter. In one respect, I can see you raucously
laughing your way through that whole series of poems,
but the poems are not funny. They are comic,
but they are not funny.
Stephen Dobyns: There are other poets who
used characters that I admired. Berryman has his
Henry in Dream Songs,
and Zbigniew Herbert has his Mr. Cogito, and I take
little epigraphs from those different writers at the
beginning of my book, but it was something I liked,
something I thought would be freeinganother way
of freeing myself of the 1st person I. Once
the idea occurred to me, I had a method I could use
on a whole series of different subjects and a
different voice in which to approach them, so that
discovery, for me, was a kind of paradigm that
allowed me to do a whole series of things.
is an enormously funny character at his best in one
of my favorite poems in that book, "Can Poetry
Matter?" I was on the floor when I read this
poem, and I'm sure the poem struck me as particularly
funny because you have a lot of narrative in your
poems at a time when the powers that beor the
powers that think they becriticize narrative
poetry, but Heart speaks to that and considers his
place in the world as a poet.
Stephen Dobyns: ...a post-modernist poet.
[Laughing] he leaves no doubt about your position on
post-modernism. Would you read that poem? Mostly I
want to hear how you read the last line.
Can Poetry Matter?
Heart feels the time has come to compose lyric
No more storytelling for him. Oh, Moon, Heart
sad wafer of the heart's distress. And then: Oh,
bright cracker of the heart's pleasure. Which is
is the moon happy or sad, cracker or wafer? He
from the window but the night is overcast. Oh,
he writes, moody veil of the Moon's distress. And
Oh, Cloud, sweet scarf of the Moon's repose. Once
Heart asks, Are clouds kindly or a bother, is the
or at rest? He calls scientists who tell him that
is a dead piece of rock. He calls astrologers.
the moon means water. Another that it signifies
The girl next door says the Moon means love. The
up the block says it proves that Satan has us
under his thumb.
Heart goes back to his notebooks. Oh, Moon, he
confusing orb meaning one thing or another. Heart
that his words lack conviction. Then he hits on a
Oh, Moon, immense hyena of introverted motorboat.
Oh, Moon, upside down lamp post of barbershop
Heart takes his lines to a critic who tells him
that the poet
is recounting a time as a toddler when he saw his
kissing the baby-sitter at the family's cottage
on a lake.
Obviously, the poem explains the poet's fear of
Heart is ecstatic. He rushes home to continue
Oh, Cloud, raccoon cadaver of colored crayon,
recast as foggy euphoria. Heart is swept up by
of composition. Freed from the responsibility of
no nuance of nonsense can be denied him. Soon his
appear everywhere, while the critic writes essays
Heart's meaning. Jointly they form a sausage
factory of poetry:
Heart supplying the pig snouts and rectal tissue
which the critic encloses in a thin membrane of
Lyric poetry means teamwork, thinks Heart: a hog
corn field, and two old dobbins pulling a
buckboard of song.
must have had a very good time while you were writing
Stephen Dobyns: Well, it obviously came in
bits and pieces, and then in revision it came
together in that shape, but, yeah, the tone of the
poem tries to move between the comic and the serious
and interblend those two and obviously there's an
element of parody in that poem as well.
what do you have to say about those "two old
dobbins" in the last line?
Stephen Dobyns: Well, [chuckling] that was
kind of sneaky.
book is a series of Heart poems, then your long
personal poem, "Oh Immobility, Death's Vast
Associate," then more Heart poems, so it seems
to me there are two themes in this book: immobility,
procrastination, the state of inertiawhat you
call "a grand disinclination"on the
one hand, and that irreconcilable isolation on the
other hand. What you keep saying is that no matter
how much we push ourselves into and up against the
life of another, we are still in isolation. That's
one subject you keep walking around in all your
poetry, isn't it?