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Stephen Dobyns: There's always
some isolation there. Existential isolation cannot be
overcome. You can be as close to another person as
you can imagine, yet there is a division still
between you and that other person. You cannot get
access to another's mind, and he or she cannot get
access to your mind. The only link, finally, is in
language, and the only really close link is, I think,
in poetry, which creates a metaphor, which enables
the reader to experience what you have experienced
with a kind of specificity and depth that is not
possible in casual language, partly because the form
also communicates the information.
...information presented very
Stephen Dobyns: The long poem
in the center of that book, as you say, has to do
very basicallythe narrative is very
simplewith just getting out of bed in the
morning. What arouses you in the morning? What makes
you put your feet on the floor if you have that grand
disinclination, that apathy, that indifference, that
philosophical angst which leads you to see the whole
human endeavor as somewhat spurious? Then the poem
goes through a series of different attempts to argue
aspects pro and con. It's a poem that goes off in its
tone. I mean the tone of the poem is slightly comic,
and it uses comic elements in which to explore that
idea of immobility, and then the Heart poems in the
second half of the book are much darker, really, than
the poems in the first half of the book.
again, in a whole new way of looking at and laughing
at ourselves, we have Stephen Dobyns' take on the
Stephen Dobyns: Well, there's
a certain absurdness to the human condition. One guy
robs a bank and the next day wins the lottery.
Another guy works all day at the bank and gets hit by
a rock falling out of the sky on the way home. Your
sense of fairness...well, there is no fairness.
Who gets what? Certainly, there are people who get
something because they deserve it. They worked hard.
And then there are other people ...that guy from
Arkansas who won the damned $150,000,000 lottery and
was already a millionaire! How can he deserve that?
Actually, it has nothing to do with deserving it.
[Laughing] He just bought himself a hundred lottery
tickets and cashed in.
Faulkner said the writer is of no consequence, that only what he
creates is important. That may have something else to do with why
you wanted to get the I out of your poems, why you focus so
intently on the poem's aesthetic responsibility, and it's pretty
clear, as well, that you insist on the poem's responsibility to the
reader. Heart has both a moral responsibility and a political one.
SD: Sure, I think the
moment you describe the world, that description has moral and
political aspects, even if your description seems to have no
moral or political aspects. By reflecting no judgment, by reflecting
no political position, you've taken, even then, a political
That's exactly how I'd anticipated you'd answer that question
because it's impossible not to be embarrassed about ourselves when
we read the Heart poems. All our foibles and idiosyncrasies exist in
SD: The poems are not
intended to shake a finger in any way, but they try and describe
human behavior, certainly behavior that I've experienced, that I've
felt myself, things that I've done myself, and things that I've
observed. So Faulkner's right about that: the writer is
unimportant. I think the poet may take on a certain more
importance than other writers, but it's not the personality; it's
simply the things that you've experienced.
You know, in looking at the world, a
writer also trains his or her eye. One of the things I liked about
journalists when I first started was that I felt they could not be
bullshitted, that they could have a very clear eye as to what was
going on around them. I think often they fall victim to this, and it
makes them cynical and even nihilistic. I think it's the duty of a
fiction writer or a poet not to be cynical and not to be nihilistic.
The very fact of writing suggests you have some hope in that you
believe that communication is possible and that something might
happen from that communication, that you're not just shaking your
finger at the reader.
We all have a sense, you know, of how
life should be and how we should be and what goodness is, and we
aspire to those things. We don't make it because we're not saints. I
was thinking yesterday, you know, the mind says lettuce the
body says meat. We're always torn in that dichotomy, that
Existential isolation cannot be overcome. You can be as close to
another person as you can imagine, yet there is a division still
between you and that other person. You cannot get access to
another's mind, and he or she cannot get access to your mind. The
only link, finally, is in language, and the only really close link
is, I think, in poetry.
Speaking of that reminds me of the aphorisms and maxims in your
newest book, The Porcupine's Kisses, another divergence from what went before.
How did you come to write that book?
SD: I like aphorisms,
maxims, phrases. I've read them from several dozen different writers
from the Argentine writer Borges to Pascal to Marcus Aurelius to all
kinds of people, and so I was thinking in those terms, and I started
writing some, and I saw I could work a few of them into prose poems.
Some of them became definitions, and I saw that I could do a whole
section of definitions, and basically I was learning a new way to
approach a certain subject matter. That book was written over
probably about 7 years, and it became the discovery of what I was
Really, the articulation of the
discovery became for me another kind of paradigm that allowed me to
think in terms of the prose poem, in terms of definitions, maxims
and other considerations, and so I pushed that until I felt that it
had a shape that I wanted. All during that period, say from 1995
till now, I was also writing other poems, some of them more
conventional poems, and now I'm going on with that, so I have a book
coming out in 2005 that will have poems that I wrote in 1995 or 1996
that were neither Heart poems for the
Pallbearers book or prose poems for The Porcupine's Kisses.
They were just other poems. [Laughing]
the next book is going to be a miscellany?
SD: [Laughing] Well,
that's an idea. They are maybe more miscellaneous than the others,
but I don't quite see it as a book of miscellany. There are some
sonnets, some formal poems in there. No prose poems, but they're
mostly poems that have a high level of noise. I enjoy playing with
that. A lot of poems in there are mythically based with a mythic
character; there are poems that are biblically based, there are
poems about Noah and Thomas the Doubter and others. I think it will
be called Mystery, So Long. There's a comma there: Mystery,
comma, So Long. Mystery, So Long. That's the title I'm
working with now.
TCR: Mystery, So
Long. That either means the mystery goes on forever or that
it's over: no more Hearts in chaos.
just mentioned The Porcupine's Kisses, and I have to say that is the most
unusual poetry book I've ever seen. I can't help being amazed at the
sheer brilliance of those aphorisms. I can't help thinking that each
one—and there must be several hundred—is a poem you haven't gotten
around to writing yet.
SD: As I said, other
writers whom I admire, had written other kinds of things like that,
and some of mine may be indistinguishable from some of theirs. If
you're going to write just one sentence, it's hard not to have it
reflect somebody else.
Let's give TCR readers an idea of what we're talking about. I
have a few favorites:
When he couldn't brag about
his accomplishments, he bragged about his suffering.
He would have been satisfied
with very little if everyone else had had much less.
Pimple imagined himself a
Dips his words in honey; you
still taste the salt.
Shoots his sperm into the
air; waits for the rainbow.
That's my personal favorite, but
"To the fly, it's all sugar" is a close second.
This is compression beyond
poetry. You say you aren't shaking a finger when you write, but when
I read this, I wonder how you found out about me.
SD: I just started with a list of
words, and I'd try and think what the words elicited in my mind.
There are exactly 400 aphorisms. I tried to divide it up in that
way, and there are 51 prose poems. The book begins and ends with a
prose poem and there are 8 aphorisms—I call them considerations
because they're not all aphoristic—on each page between the prose
poems. To get those 400, I wrote about 1500, and lots of them just
got thrown away. They didn't make their point fast enough, and the
same thing with the definitions. There are probably 800 definitions,
but I probably had 3,000, maybe more than 3000.
TCR: I have some
favorites here too:
Bravado: two handkerchiefs
stuffed in his underwear.
Clothing: another of
Impolitic: the chicken
befriends the cook.
Literate: half a dozen
memorized quotations strategically placed.
Not only are they funny, but if
you stop to think about them for a second, you realize you don't
have enough life left to mentally unravel them.
SD: They all try to make some moral
statement. Some make it more obviously than others. The trick is to
find something that's going to make that moral statement palatable.
Wit can make it palatable, a clever turning of the phrase can make
it palatable, the comic can make it palatable.
reason they're so much fun is that you can find all your friends in
them. And if that isn't enough, they are interspersed with Howie
Michels' woodcuts that add their own humorous comment. These are
your first prose poems, right?
SD: I'd written one prose poem before
TCR: Speaking of
prose poems, Fanny Howe has a prose poem in The Best American Poetry of
2001. It's titled "Doubt." Here's how she describes it:
I intended the piece as a lyrical essay, but
increasingly all of my writing tends toward poetry, including my
most recent novel. I can no longer make distinctions between the
genres....My prose might have had a happier life if I'd called
Is she just blurring the line
SD: I think she's blurring the line. I
think she's making a rationalization. She should try harder to see
things as different between poetry and prose.
certainly write both of them with a pretty clear distinction between
SD: That distinction may change, but
there is no clear definition of a prose poem. The best you can do is
say what it's not, and that's not a definition. The prose poem does
not use the right-hand margin to establish rhythm. That, perhaps, is
almost the only thing that you can say about it. I was trying to use
syntax to control the rhythm, and there's some embedded rhyme within
them. There can be rhythms within a line. I can use little snatches
of iambic pentameter to affect the rhythm, but the main thing is
that I don't have that right-hand margin. Look at prose poems
written since Baudelaire's poems—poems of the 1860's—they can be
The other thing that a prose poem may not have is story
interest. You're in this situation where you have these stories
called short shorts, and often you can see a difference between a
short short and a prose poem. A short short is a narrative with a
story interest. The prose poem is attempting to work toward some
lyric moment in the same way a poem tries to work toward its lyric
moment, but some of Baudelaire's poems have their little story
interest. They relate a short tale, and there are certainly other
prose poems that do that. You can't say that no prose poem has story
interest, but for the most part, the prose poem tries to identify
that lyric moment, whereas the short short puts emphasis on the
There are writers and thinkers whom I respect who say
they don't believe in the prose poem, that there's no such thing as
the prose poem, but I've certainly read prose poems that form
metaphors that I find very moving. Zbigniew Herbert has some amazing
prose poems that I find very moving, and there are other people who
have prose poems that I find very moving, so it's absurd to say the
thing should never have existed in the first place. It's a kind of
bastard category, though, which you define by what it doesn't do. It
doesn't control the rhythm with a right-hand margin, yet it can
still be a metaphor expressive of human emotion, and I can be moved
by it, and that was what I was attempting to do in my prose poems.
don't see it as a body of work; it's an ongoing thing, and they're
just things that have dropped off behind me. You've seen an old
Jaguar driving down the street, and there'll be bits and pieces,
nuts and bolts falling off behind it? It's kind of like that.
TCR: The Porcupine's Kisses, maybe the Heart poems, too, speak to a world
almost victimized by its pop culture. The pop culture and
complacency are two things that truly annoy you from the earliest
poems on, but I can't imagine how you avoid the pop culture with a
teenager in the house.
SD: One now, but five teenagers have
passed through my house. There's no way to avoid it. I try not to
become too much of a victim of it. A lot of pop culture is being
pushed by commercial interests, which are eager to create a certain
kind of complacency—unthinking complacency—which allows a person to
be easily persuaded by advertising or the interests of the pop
distrust of that is in everything you write, just as isolation is.
Another subject you continue to walk around is the passing of time.
SD: It's so striking. You try to talk
about time to students who are eighteen or nineteen, but they'll
have no understanding of time until they've experienced time,
unfortunately, so you can't tell students, "You'll see this
differently when you're sixty-two." They just look at you
with irritation, just as I looked at my parents. Again, what you can
do is show in art this experience of the passing of time. The
novelists have done it very well, certainly.
TCR: You could
have them read "Lullaby," and they'd get it. Well, maybe you do have
to be forty to get it. Could I ask you to read "Lullaby" for the
people over forty?
another of my favorites, was first published in Common Carnage.
SD: I was invited to submit a poem to
an anthology of poems for the end of the twentieth century. I didn't
think I was going to do it, and then I started thinking about it,
and that's how this came about. The people mentioned in the poem are
references to people in the twentieth century. Uncle Joe, for
instance, is Uncle Joe Stalin.
The zero of a yawn eclipses your face,
feeling drowsy, eyelids heavy:
goodnight, goodnight, blow out the light,
the century is going to sleep.
Goodnight, Adolf, you almost prevailed—
your dreams, little fellow, rose to fact
like a swamp beast from the muck, then
they settled back again: good luck for us,
bad luck for you, the century is going
to sleep. And Uncle Joe, your musings
tried to duplicate the density of concrete.
Should we add up the dead millions squeezed
like dry leaves to make your diamond?
But then, oh happy day, you passed away.
Dead brutes, dead bullies, the tyrants
totter past to forgottenhood, the century
is going to sleep. But also the heroes:
Babe Ruth, General MacArthur, Gypsy Rose Lee.
The stages you danced upon are compost now,
the newspapers headlining your exploits
pack the landfill. You imitate your shadows.
All the radio broadcasts have been silenced.
Hush! The century is going to sleep.
Ezra Pound, are you still grinding your teeth?
Robert Frost, is your bricklike heart
the only solid chunk left in your coffin?
Thelonious Monk, are you still bopping
someplace down below? Lady Day hums the tune:
lullabies, lullabies, the century
is going to sleep. And all the objects:
the Model T Fords, the 45-rpm records,
eight-track tape players—see them drowsing
in cobwebbed warehouses. Even the rats put a paw
to their lips. The century is going to sleep.
Maybe in another world John Kennedy was never shot,
maybe John Berryman lived a few years longer,
wrote a villanelle before downing Seconal.
And John Lennon, maybe in another world
the madman missed and more songs got made.
All the Johns, all the Janices, all the Sylvias—
blow out the light, the century is going to sleep.
Dead best-sellers, dead Nobel winners,
dead Academy Award winners, dead football
heroes, World Series champions, Kentucky
Derby winners: all tucked between warm sheets,
sweet dreams carouse across their brains.
My father, my grandparents, my cousins,
your faces slide away in the vapor. How
difficult to see you in memory anymore. You
are the frames from which a photo was stolen.
Or my friends, I have left behind too many—
their stories stopped before mine, their
straight lines banked up at black conclusions:
goodnight Ray, goodnight Betty, goodnight Dick,
the century is going to sleep. And those ideas,
the glad ones, the young ones—integration,
human rights. Goodnight, goodnight. The twelve-
tone scale, abstract expressionism. Sweet dreams,
sweet dreams. A chicken in every pot, two cars
in every garage, three TV's in every house.
Sleep tight, sleep tight. We are retreating
to books, electronic texts, some get paragraphs,
some sentences, some footnotes, most get silence.
Shouldn't we walk on tiptoe, shouldn't we whisper?
Do you have sand in your eyes, little fellow?
Let's take a breather. A baby's about to be born.
I won't see much of this one. Maybe a morsel,
if I'm lucky, of its infancy. This next one
belongs to my children and their children. What
Auschwitzes and Hiroshimas are already being
prepared? What will be the carnage of tomorrow?
What dumb ideas will be used to erase human breath?
But also the good stuff: what jokes, what
laughter, what kisses, will there still
be kisses? Better not know, better let it come,
like always, as a surprise. Feeling frightened?
Are you scared? Blow out the light, goodnight,
goodnight, the century is going to sleep.
TCR: Thank you
for that. That rhythm together with its repetition makes this seem
like a real lullaby, but the fact is that it's not a lullaby at all
because you leave us at the end mourning all that is lost,
recounting the carnage, and frightened, too frightened to sleep,
certainly, at the terrible insecurity in the unknown. We can't even
be sure there will still be kisses. There's no way to sleep with
You know, when I'm reading a
Dobyns poem, I'm experiencing the visceral. There's upheaval,
uproariousness, noise, testosterone, but when I put the book down,
I'm often astounded at what tenderness has come out from behind all
of that, and so, for me, you seem to be this solitary man who has
loved his reader enough to write a poem to connect with him. That
demonstrates for me what you say is the basic reason to write: to
erase the isolation. Your poems demonstrate the isolation; they
highlight it, but then everything that makes up your poems—words,
sounds, metaphor, noise, music, humor, wit—all come together to
connect with readers in the way that art touches us and in a way
that nothing else ever can. I don't know if this is a comment or a
question, but I'd just like to say thank you for that and for all
these books in front of us.
SD: I think you're right about that.
The poem tries to do that; it tries to do other things. There's also
a game element to it. You're trying to sell somebody the Brooklyn
Bridge. You are, after all, making up something that will move
somebody else, but the feelings are not false feelings, they're
feelings that I've experienced, and they do come out of a kind of
isolation. Everyone is in isolation.
I gave some readings last week in California, and after
one reading, a guy asked, "Do you mind that your poems come across
as so masculine?" I was kind of thrown off by the question, thinking
I don't try to make my poems masculine in any way.
TCR: Oh, but
there is definitely testosterone in these poems.
SD: But I don't add it like salt and
TCR: I don't
think it comes across as decoration at all, but it's decidedly
there. If you left it out, you'd be violating your own principle
SD: I write out of my entire
physiology and personality and psychology. You have to write out of
your totality, and I'm a male. I can't help that. I suppose I could
get my wiener whacked and write with less masculinity, but I don't
particularly want to get my wiener whacked.
[Laughing] don't do that. We wouldn't get the whole picture if there
were no poems with testosterone. It's a place women can't write
from, and I'm a little jealous about that, in fact, but before I get
in over my head here, I think I'll just ask you to read "How to Like
It," another of my favorites, but surely lots of people must tell
you it's their favorite.
SD: They do. There's a lot of charm in
that poem, and people like something that's charming.
TCR: "How to
Like It," first published in Cemetery Nights,
is the perfect way to end our conversation.
How to Like It
These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let's pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn't been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let's go down to the diner and sniff
people's legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man's mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let's go to sleep. Let's lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he'll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he'll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let's just go back inside.
Let's not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let's go make a sandwich.
Let's make the tallest sandwich anyone's ever seen.
And that's what they do and that's where the man's
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept—
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.
TCR: And so, Mr.
Dobyns, thank you for your generosity of time, but more especially
for the generosity in this awesome body of work.
SD: I appreciate that, but I don't see
it as a body of work; it's an ongoing thing, and they're just things
that have dropped off behind me. You've seen an old Jaguar driving
down the street, and there'll be bits and pieces, nuts and bolts
falling off behind it? It's kind of like that.
TCR: Right. No
effort at all. But this staggering amount of work in front of us is
only a fraction of the total. You must work all the time. I've never
seen you working or caught you making notes, but I get the idea that
you're thinking about your next poem or novel all the time, that
even now you must be taking note of an uneven hem, the cadence in a
southern accent, how we've shifted in our chairs.
SD: I should do that more than I do.
Chekhov had a little notebook and wrote down bits of physical
description and things that struck him. I don't do that. I have a
little notebook, but I don't use it for that.
TCR: To the
readers' dismay, I won't ask the obvious question that sentence
opens up to. I'll just say we'll be on the lookout for Mystery,
So Long from Penguin in 2005. And by the way, when you write
that book of poems where the lyric moments happen at the beginning
rather than at the end, I want credit for your having gotten that
idea here. Is that a deal?
SD: That’s a deal. I just don’t see how you could
do that. You can certainly eat your dessert before you eat the rest
of the meal, but if you had the end of the poem at the beginning,
you’d be violating ideas of structure.
TCR: Go ahead,
violate the ideas of structure. After all, you're Stephen Dobyns.
You're the one who could pull it off. Thanks, Stephen, from me, from
The Cortland Review, and from its readers.
SD: I thank you for that.
Murchison assists Thomas Lux in directing Georgia Tech's
POETRY at TECH, one of the country's most energetic poetry programs.
A 2003 Pushcart Nominee, she has published poems in several
magazines and journals, the most recent being The Atlanta
Review, and her poems appear in a dozen anthologies.
Married, and the mother of two, she lives and works in Atlanta but
escapes as often as possible to her second home on Florida's Sanibel
Island. She is Associate Managing Editor of The Cortland Review.