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The Hard-To-Say


October 27, 2004

Stephen Dunn was born in New York City in 1939. He earned a B.A. in history and English from Hofstra University, attended the New School Writing Workshops, and finished his M.A. in creative writing at Syracuse University. Dunn has worked as a professional basketball player, an advertising copywriter, and an editor, as well as a professor of creative writing.

Dunn’s books of poetry include Local Visitations (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003); Different Hours (2000), winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs (1998), Loosestrife (1996), New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994 (1994), Landscape at the End of the Century (1991), and Between Angels (1989). Dunn’s other honors include the Academy Award for Literature, the James Wright Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. He has taught poetry and creative writing and held residencies at Wartburg College, Wichita State University, Columbia University, University of Washington, Syracuse University, Southwest Minnesota State College, Princeton University, and University of Michigan. Dunn is currently Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and lives in Port Republic, New Jersey.

This fall marks the release of Dunn’s thirteenth book of poems, The Insistence of Beauty, from Norton and Co.

Read Stephen Dunn’s “The Stairway”.

Guernica: Congratulations on your latest collection of poems, your thirteenth collection. The Insistence of Beauty begins with an epigraph by Peter Schjeldahl, “It is always too late to argue with beauty… Beauty isn’t nice. Beauty isn’t fair.” Could you tell me a little more about how the collection’s title came about?

Stephen Dunn: I’m not too sure that I remember except that rather late in the process I found myself writing “The Insistence of Beauty,” which felt strong enough to bear the title of the book. The writing of that poem made me aware of how many other poems in the manuscript mentioned beauty and seemed to have that as well as destruction as concerns. It was certainly not conscious on my part, but I suppose it was a working through of an unconscious obsession.

Guernica: In the opening poem, “The Stairway”, you write, “The stairway would be an invitation/ to anyone who felt invited by it…./ … designed to be ownerless,/ tilted against any suggestion of a theology,/ disappointing to those looking for politics.” Yet in poems throughout the collection there are references to events like September 11th. Is there any relation, in your view, between poetry and politics?

Stephen Dunn: Well, there can be. Certainly a good many of my poems over the years have alluded to or taken on the political. Stevens has a line in one of his essays: “Reality exerts pressure on the imagination.” Inevitably what is omnipresent in the culture exerts its pressure on our imaginations to respond to it, even if indirectly. But in this case the backdrop of 9/11, coincident with the breakup of a marriage, the finding of new love, some kind of personal cataclysm… all of those were forces informing the poems in some way. Though as usual—and I think usefully—I had to write myself into some kind of cognizance of that.

Guernica: “The House Was Quiet” begins “The house was quiet and the world vicious”. What are some things that poetry can do when a narrator (or reader) feels the world is vicious?

Stephen Dunn: There I’m playing off the Stevens line, “The house was quiet and the world was calm.” And of course my little world was anything but calm during this particular compositional time. But the world is always somewhat vicious. I take that as a given, but at various times in various circumstances that fact will be no more than a shadow or an echo behind the poem. Other times it will be more manifest. I try to write myself into articulations of half-felt, half-known feelings, without program. I’m always working toward getting my world and, hopefully, the world outside of me into a version that makes sense of it. Viciousness requires the same precision as love does.

Guernica: In “Winter”, the last poem, you write, “Nor did the day seem to be waiting, as it once did, for what I’d say or do.” Is your narrator less hopeful in this poem than he once was perhaps?

Stephen Dunn: (Laughs) I was looking at that lately. And it seemed like a moment of something between acceptance and resignation of one’s smallness in the world. I suppose that once upon a time I thought the things I said and did mattered. Certainly that’s always been the case in the small. But I suspect that poem and the fact that I chose to end the book with it is revealing. But I remember an interviewer asking James Wright about his “Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm,” which ends “I have wasted my life.” The interviewer asked him, “Well, Mr. Wright, since you have wasted your life…” And Wright stopped him and said, “No, I was only feeling that way that day.” So perhaps “Winter” was an articulation of certain attitudes felt on a certain day. But, as I said, I decided to place the poem last in the book, which makes it resonate more as a final statement than had I placed it somewhere in the middle.

Guernica: In “The Answers” the speaker is being questioned by an interrogator who curses him for not leveling with her, or (perhaps) with us. He says he’d “rather say anything than explain it to you.” How much of a narrator’s inner world can we expect from poetry?

Stephen Dunn: (Laughs) That’s a good question. I think maybe as much as he can manage and accommodate. And maybe transform. A true inner world is often revealed by style and sensibility as much as by what appears to be confession. I suspect I couldn’t have written those “Answer” poems if I didn’t have the distraction of a formal element that I borrowed from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for My Father”—of asking the same question a second time to hopefully arrive at a more substantial answer. But those “Answer” poems I probably know the least about. They were difficult poems for me to write. But to further answer your question, it’s very much a managed inner world that’s revealed, and a rather stylized one. I’ve allowed the reader to know only what I felt was useful for the poem to let him know.

Guernica: How difficult is it to publish such personal poems about the dissolution of a relationship?

Stephen Dunn: Somewhat difficult, but it’s always been the case for me that I don’t let a poem go into the world unless I feel that I’ve transformed the experience in some way. Even poems I’ve written in the past that appear very personal often are fictions of the personal, which nevertheless reveal concerns of mine. I’ve always thought of my first-person speaker as an amalgam of selves, maybe of other people’s experiences as well. When I’ve been too naked and haven’t been able to transform the material sufficiently, when I haven’t been able to make a poem and only, say, uttered it, when I haven’t been successfully in the act of making—that’s when I have kept those poems out of print or, certainly out of books. But, yes, several of the poems in Beauty walk that rather thin line.

Guernica: In your poem “Juarez” there is the question of the ownership of the stories we tell. And you end with a surprising idea— “On that dark Juarez night,/ every step of your troubled descent/ was toward me. I was waiting/ in the future for such a woman.” It seems to reclaim the story for the narrator.

Stephen Dunn: The fact of it was my that ex-wife, when I would tell that story at parties or somewhere, would not let me tell it. And I knew that it was a very good story, and also one of the reasons why I loved her. Not being married to her permitted me to tell the story. But the story of the poem, as you were suggesting, asks to what extent does anybody’s story, retold in your voice, alter the story? At one point the speaker entertains that the story might be more hers but then disabuses himself of that fact. Or he speculates about whether anybody’s story in another person’s voice is always the speaker’s story. So those meta-fictional things interested me in the poem as much as the retelling of the story. But the pleasures of the poem for me were to write a kind of edgy love poem to my ex-wife. I’d hope the poem reclaims some of that experience for her, but I doubt it.

Guernica: As you write, do you think about specific people reading specific poems that might have something to do with them?

Stephen Dunn: I certainly think about it. But I think, again, it has to do with motive. If the motive of writing is for some people a kind of exercise in dirty laundry, that’s one thing. I’ve always thought of my poems as meant to be overheard, as I think all of these poems are. It seems to me if you get experience right, even your most painful or humiliating experiences—if you get those experiences right for yourself and make discoveries as you go along and find for them some formal glue—they will be poems for others.

It seems to me that no matter how perverse or private you might think your attitudes are about anything, if you speak them well there’ll always be a few others nodding. My best experiences with literature as a reader have been when something that I thought was freaky about myself, or something odd or private that I hadn’t told anybody, got articulated or enacted in a poem or story or a novel. It simply brings us into the human fold. Literature at its best is communal in that way. And as much as these poems were written out of a certain personal urgency, I’m always conscious of myself as a maker of poems, thus to some degree a fictionist.

Guernica: What did you read as a younger poet and which poets are you most indebted to?

Stephen Dunn: When I went to Spain at age 27 to see if I could write—I quit my job and lived in Spain for a year—I brought with me a lot of fiction, perhaps because my original intention was to write a novel. The only books of poetry I brought with me were an anthology of Spanish poems in translation and The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Stevens was important to me and still is. But I think the two poets that most mattered to me back then were Roethke and Frost. They’re still important to me.

Guernica: Would it be too bold of me to ask if there are any poets, or poems, you’ve been jealous of recently? I mean—

Stephen Dunn: I know what you mean (laughs). Yes, sure. I think some of Louise Gluck’s best work in the last few years seems to me quite wonderful. Szymborska’s poems, by and large—they were relatively new to me after she won the Nobel—I absolutely love the way she handles ideas in poems, that she can get away with that which we’re not supposed to do, to be abstract, to entertain ideas. She’s quite marvelous in that way. Those are just two people whose work has activated a twinge or two, whose best work challenges me.

Guernica: Is that something you look to do, to get away with dealing with ideas?

Stephen Dunn: Yeah. I grew up believing in Williams’s “no ideas but in things”. But then I found myself not writing like that at all. There’s a certain pleasure, of course, in violating the strictures of your education. The trick is, if you’re going to explore ideas in a poem, to be suspicious of ideas and suspicious of your own mind at the same time. It’s often a matter of orchestration and pacing. Of shaping some kind of dialectic flow.

One way to do that, I’ve discovered, is to resist your poem’s drift. Of course it helps to have a certain philosophical habit of mind. In my case, when I make an assertion, I almost always hear its opposite immediately. My poems are often the poems of an habitual contrarian.

Guernica: You mention above that, apart from two books, everything else was fiction that you brought with you to Spain. Your original intent was to write a novel. So what brought you to poetry?

Stephen Dunn: I’ll just say that I wrote an unsuccessful novel, and learned in the doing that I should be writing poetry. It was very language-y, moved too quickly to get at the essence of things. I stayed with poetry simply because I was better at it, which almost showed right away.

Guernica: Was it a happy discovery for you, this discovery that you were a poet? You’ve obviously had success, and your poems have clearly spoken for so many people and taken the art to new places. Tell me about your understanding of your place in the world as a poet—what does poetry do?

Stephen Dunn: Well, I wrote poetry for seven or eight years, maybe longer, before I could say I was a poet. If people asked, I’d say I wrote poetry; I wouldn’t go further. I was in my mid- to late-thirties before I felt that I was a poet, which I think meant that I had begun to embody my poems in some way. I wasn’t just a writer of them. Hard to say what, as a poet, my place in the world is. Some place probably between recognition and neglect.

Poetry does so many different things, it’s difficult to say anything definitive about its role, which of course varies from culture to culture. It can range from being stories of the tribe to the private lyric, to being “the clear expression of mixed feelings” (Auden) to nonsense verse. For me, it articulates and enacts the difficult-to-say, the half-known; it finds a music and a shape, offers an arrangement, if you will, of words and sentences that better approximate the way things are.

Guernica: What are you looking forward to as a poet? What are your next goals?

Stephen Dunn: Well, I’d like to just keep it going. I’ve had a very good writing period this past summer and I have maybe ten or twelve poems toward another book. But it has no shape yet. I’ll just see what comes. What happened with The Insistence of Beauty is I looked at a bunch of poems that seemed quite disparate, but they also seemed to want to hang around together. With luck that’s how the next book will occur.

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