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This Mere Guy


October 27, 2006

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Searching for Dan Chiasson in his poems may or may not be a good idea. “Found not founded,” Dan Chiasson writes in “Self”, a poem from his first book, then later: “Founded on owned ground.” Whether taking on the voice of a bear, Horace, or Randall Jarrell, listing the content’s of America’s self-storage unit, or sounding for a second like Louise Glück, Robert Lowell, or Robert Frost, it’s not at all easy to see where Chiasson ends and the sources, voices, and selves of his poems begin. Anyone who admired the serious intensity of The Afterlife of Objects would have been surprised by moments like “Oh, love is a yo-yo” and “voyeur voyeur / pants on fire” that establish the freewheeling, comic sadness of his second book, Natural History. As Chiasson himself admits, part of his way of moving forward is to renounce his last move.

Guernica spoke with Chiasson in his office at Wellesley, where he was preparing for the beginning of the semester and rereading Lolita. Having been called “one of the most gifted poets of his generation”, Chiasson has also reviewed for Slate, The New York Times Book Review, and Poetry Magazine. His first book of criticism, One Kind of Everything, will be released in February, 2007.

—Gibson Fay-LeBlanc

Guernica: How do poems usually begin for you?

Dan Chiasson: They begin with this powerful desire to have the experience of writing a poem, which I actually lose for long periods because of either great joy or profound distress. Those times I just don’t have the urge to make a poem. When I sit down to write, I feel like I’ve gone to the beach in January: what am I doing here? Who would want to spend any time here? When I am to write though, it feels as though I have been suddenly consecrated for the activity. Not that I’m struck by lightning and some phrase or image just takes over. Maybe that’s happened 4% of the time, but 96% of the time I just feel that the conditions are propitious, as Eliot says. I’ll give this a lot of time, if I have the time, every day, and often I make a lot of things that I think are finished poems, call my friends, read them aloud to my wife—then come to the mortifying realization that I have made a pile of shit. It’s usually a complete disaster—nothing salvageable. But the hunger is felt even more keenly, so the nest poem maybe has a better chance of being real. Not a pile of shit.

Guernica: Do you have any things you do to get yourself writing or do you just wait for something to strike?

Dan Chiasson: I suppose I write to get myself writing. That and read [Wallace Stevens’] “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” for the umpteenth time. Certain authors for me, certain books, just by reading a phrase I feel I can write. But I don’t really enjoy tinkering. I don’t keep a journal. I have no relation to writing except to make things I can send out into the world. I don’t have a lot of pieces of writing in my life that aren’t…published [laughs]. I publish most of what I write, and that’s not that much. It’s not as though there’s this huge storehouse of things I’ve been working on.

I’d rather be derivative of Bidart than anyone, but I would rather die than be derivative.

Guernica: I’m thinking of one poet I know who only writes during a particular season each year.

Dan Chiasson: I envy that. I’m almost entirely haphazard in everything I do. I’m the most attentive listener in the world one day and the biggest space-cadet in the world the next. I’ve been both the worst and the best friend. It doesn’t appear to me looking at it that I have any capacity for disciplined, methodical conduct. I try to stay within some acceptable zone, but I don’t have any way of, as some writers do, methodizing.

One problem with writing on the computer, as I do, is that the page is never really ‘blank.” It is backed by all this energy or potential energy…one can always check the New York Times, or look at real estate, or investigate some intriguing new person in one’s life. The span and space for writing feels like a tunnel under these massive mountains of information.

Guernica: Who do you see as your mentors, whether you’ve known them in your lifetime or not?

Dan Chiasson: For me, there’s a very straightforward story of mentorship. I was getting a doctorate at Harvard in English and studying contemporary American poetry and had no intention of being a poet. I’d never taken any creative writing classes and had done almost no real engaged work with writing poems. I just decided in a kind of brute way that I wanted to start writing poems. I called Frank Bidart, whom I’d never met, but whom I’d seen at various events in Cambridge. A very glamorous person, it seemed to me. And I loved his work, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time. I asked him if I could come and audit his classes at Wellesley, so I would drive out from Cambridge and sit in the back of the room. Of course, the classes here are 99% women, but there are always some oddball guys—some guys from MIT, a local psychotherapist, maybe even a doctor or a rich person from town. I was in this kind of gallery of oddball guys in the back of this class. He became my reader, so for the first couple of years, I was really writing for him and to him. Some of the poems when I read them now feel derivative of what he was doing. I’d rather be derivative of him than anyone, but I would rather die than be derivative. So I had to unlearn that.

Guernica: When did you start writing poetry? When did you think you might be a poet?

Dan Chiasson: I didn’t grow up in a very literary family. I was raised by my mother—she’s a very smart person, but not a writer. We didn’t have a lot of books in my house. I didn’t do a lot of reading growing up. I went to a straightforward Catholic high school in Vermont. It was very easy to outwit the teachers. They were like my son’s stuffed animals: with permanent expressions of joy or anger stitched onto their faces. There was one magnificent teacher, Robert Brown, but it wasn’t the kind of place where you feel totally pollinated by the idea of literature. At Amherst the thing was—still is, I think—to be a critic. There I studied with William H. Pritchard, a person who embodies “the critic” so totally and attractively that to be a creative writer would have been like showing up to class in a clown outfit. It mattered to me not to be in a clown outfit. So it all happened pretty late for me, when I was about 25.

Guernica: Even a cursory look at your two books shows a close attention to a poem’s shape and form. At what point in the writing of a poem does its shape or form begin to assert itself?

Dan Chiasson: My speaking voice, my idiom is naturally kind of shaped. In terms of poetic form and the making of lines, the most revealing example would be in Natural History. Most of the poems are in these stepped couplets, so that the second line is indented. I’ve been asked a lot why I did that. I just had a strong visual sense of the way the poems ought to look on the page. I didn’t count syllables across the line; I’d be really surprised if they scanned. A visual impression is what scored those lines.

This visual impression was so strong that I found I was able to write a lot of things that weren’t very good poems, but that initially looked eerily like good poems. You could make one of those things, and it would live in the sequence for a week or two until you realized that it’s not a poem at all, it just happens to resemble in a superficial way the other poems.

Some of the most recent poems have rhymed, and I’ve almost never done that before. I’ve been reading a lot of Blake and Herbert and wanting to write very simple lyrics with very simple—more Blake than Herbert—rhymes. I’ve wanted a kind of chiming little lyric poem. Or a pop song. What I hope my next book will be like is 50 unconnected short lyric poems—without any framing, concept, and only the continuity from poem to poem that you get because their author is the same person. I love things like—well this isn’t a good example because all the poems are the same form—Berryman’s Dream Songs. I love titles like 77 Dream Songs.

Guernica: In a poem in Randall Jarrell’s voice, you write of your first book, “He tried on the confessional style for a while.” How would you describe the differences between your first and second books? What happened to you as a poet between your first and second books? You mentioned earlier that you needed to shed Frank Bidart’s influence.

Dan Chiasson: There are four or five poems in my first book that are either indebted to Bidart or Louise Glück, another poet I love, that aren’t in what would become my style. The main thing was I learned how to be natural in a poem.

I was conscious in writing my first book of thinking of the claim a confessional poem makes upon the reader, and trying to, somehow, address that topic in feelingful lyric terms. There are a lot of poems [in The Afterlife of Objects] that aren’t so much confessional as about the confessional impulse. They’re about coercion, they’re about persuasion, they’re about charm—they’re about things you can do to somebody by being suddenly candid with them.

I was also trying to represent the word “afterlife”—it’s not only about the afterlife of the confessional mode and the confessional gesture and what might be left in those now emptied modes and gestures. I was raised in a household where a child, my uncle, had just died. And I was living in his bedroom and I’m named after him. I had a lot of his things. I was living in an afterlife of his objects. I hope the book is about inhabiting other people’s distress, other people’s trauma, other people’s pain—both the transgression represented by doing that and the opportunity represented. As a kid, I was a reader of objects.

I seem to thrive by destroying the last thing I did, in a kind of cartoon Nietzsche way. Emerson says in “Experience” something like “every ultimate fact soon becomes the next in a series.” The self feels more real when you are destroying things you’ve made than when you are paying them homage. That’s the good news about being self-destructive. The bad news, I feel I don’t need to deliver.

Guernica: The amount of humor and the way that humor comes into the second book seems very different from the first book.

Dan Chiasson: I wasn’t able to get the full range of the social person into the poems of my first book. They’re much more distilled and concentrated. There are moments that are self-ironizing, but I was never trying to be funny.

Being funny feels to me like an alternate form of confessionality—that is, a way of dismantling the distance between writer and reader, a way of saying, “come in a little closer.”

Guernica: There’s an interest in both books in addressing and defining a “you”, that’s variably an intimate and a distant reader. Your first one ends: “I woke and spoke these words to you since you / were nearest; and / you heard since you were there.” And Natural History begins, “When I say ‘you,’ I mean you.”

Dan Chiasson: I think that last poem [in The Afterlife of Objects] “Orange Tree” is a kind of liaison poem. The last gesture in it is an address to the beloved—it’s an aubade—but at that moment the beloved could be anyone. It’s just sheer proximity that makes her an intimate. “I spoke these words to you since you were nearest”—not, as you would expect “closest” with its suggestion of emotional adjacency. “Nearest.” It’s a structural intimacy, the fact that the person is there. The fact of how the bed is made. As a reader of poems, I’m blown over by the experience of being brought into intimate contact with such strangers. You pick up the Greek anthology and you read these fragments that are on papyrus or stone and you read this little fragment that says, “I press my lips to yours”, and that’s all you have. You have this tremendous experience of intimacy with a voice and a person who’s three thousand years away, or more. Whitman would be the great example of a poet who does this, who makes the reader feel as though he is the one being read, his gestures are the ones being interpreted or analyzed.

Guernica: I can see that. From the first line, the way you use and then shed the quotation marks—“When I say ‘you’, I mean you”—that gesture…

Dan Chiasson: In a crude way, that kind of gesture has been called post-modern, but I really feel like it reestablishes the grounds of intimacy with the reader.

I have relatives who are poor as animals but vote for Republicans. That’s America.

Guernica: How did the persona of an elephant come to play such a big role in your second book? A man held in an elephant’s mouth even appears on the cover.

Dan Chiasson: The first cover I had chosen for the book was a horrific photo of a circus elephant that was lynched in Tennessee in 1916—it’s a kind of caricature of a racist incident. It’s this elephant hoisted up by its neck by a crane just hanging there lifeless and all these people gathered around looking at this spectacle. I’d had that picture in my mind for over ten years. I knew about this incident—there’s even a locally published book about it you can get on Amazon called The Day They Hung the Elephant. So for a long time I connected the ideas of spectacle and suffering and America and all of these issues got crystallized around the image of this lynched elephant—I think her name was Mary actually. In a kind of corny way, I wanted to and attempted to write a poem in her voice, but you can imagine the problems. It’s an almost irretrievable perspective, as it was an almost irretrievable image to use on the cover—I ended up using this much more whimsical image, which is truer to the tone of the poems I ended up writing. That’s the first piece—that I connected the role of pain and suffering and theatricality in poems somehow with the image of this elephant.

And then, Randall Jarrell says this: if Wallace Stevens were an animal he’d be an elephant. Why did that perception strike me so? I don’t know, but I’ve thought about it for many years, over and over.

The third piece is I read an essay by Italo Calvino called “Man, the Sky, and the Elephant” and it’s about Pliny. It’s actually about reading the indices in Pliny and having the experience of seeing this long list of outrageously attractive phenomena. If you go to Pliny and look at the books that are indices—and I’m just going to make something up—it’ll say “Elephants” and then it’ll say “Turning into Birds”, “Flying”, “Eating Humans”, “As Food”, “As Riding Beasts”, “As Prey”, and your imagination just goes wild. So then I went and read Pliny.

I guess what the elephant came to represent is the capacity of animals to bear human representation over time. What I tried to do in those elephant poems is have them be open to all kinds of literary and other kinds of accounts of the elephant, so that my own descriptions were competing with Pliny’s, with Jarrell’s. They were an attempt to make a composite, or alloy of things that had been said about the elephant, things the elephant knows and can name.

It’s often said that elephants are the most human of animals—there’s something comical about their acquiescence, and tragic also. The last poem in the book—the long elephant poem—I was trying to write from the point of view of someone who had been seduced by the logic of his punishers and who, in a kind of awful way, could reproduce the very logic that had put him in this predicament in the first place. And maybe, in some kind of minor way, that’s something I feel about myself, or maybe about all selves, that they fall in love with the thing that oppresses them. In a way I wouldn’t want to overemphasize, I guess I wanted to write about American conduct. In some way, I wanted that elephant to be about what we’re doing to ourselves, as a country. It seems to me we are making this cultural logic that people find very attractive, the very people who should be resisting it. I have relatives who are poor as animals but vote for Republicans. That’s America.

Nature to me was very likely to have a hair-dryer entangled in it.

Guernica: There’s a wide range of sources in both your books: William James, Forrest Gander, Maxim Gorky, Robert Frost, Ovid, to name a few. Is that just a reflection of your reading?

Dan Chiasson: I’m glad it feels like wide reading—to me it feels like incredibly narrow reading [laughs]. Almost everyone you just mentioned is in some way related to New England. I feel most myself when I’m reading, but by that I don’t mean that I’m most comfortable when I’m reading. I feel most fully a person who’s torn between attention and inattention, between loving and hating, between hyper-responsiveness and total dullness. Reading is not a comfortable experience for me. I probably don’t read as much as many poets do, but I read the same things over and over again, and I have a lot of stuff committed to memory.

And I also treat myself as one of the sources. And, again, I think that’s accurate. One of the poets I read most frequently is myself. I really do.

Guernica: The poet’s dirty secret. [Laughter]

Dan Chiasson: Yeah, I read my own poems obsessively. So I am one of my own sources.

Guernica: Do you consider yourself a New England poet working in a tradition of New England poets? You were born in Vermont, now teach at Wellesley.

Dan Chiasson: I feel totally excluded from the literary tradition of New England because I’m a French Canadian half-breed. My ancestors worked in mills. It’s kind of funny that the first poet I fell in love with was Robert Lowell, whose ancestors owned the mills. In terms of the high, New England sophisticated tradition of refinement or the Hawthorne tradition of having a traceable past of ancestors who did things on the public record and wrote—Lowell’s a part of that—I feel totally excluded. From the tradition of natural world, as in Frost, I feel totally excluded. My Vermont was full of fire escapes and convenience stores.

I was dimly aware growing up in Vermont that there were mountains on the horizon, that there was a lake nearby, but it was an urban childhood in a small city, Burlington, which was pretty blue collar at the time and has since become a kind of utopia. We just lived in the city on a busy road with a lot of houses that were apartments. There was a women’s college down the street; I’ve written about our land, which backed onto a ravine we shared with the college. It was full of really disgusting things, like mattresses and old hair-dryers. Nature to me was very likely to have a hair-dryer entangled in it.

The issue is that when you’re a critic it’s hard to tell the difference between the thrill of denouncing and telling the truth.

Guernica: Your reviews appear regularly on some of the biggest stages poetry has to offer, like Poetry magazine, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, and you’ve shown that you’re not afraid to make pointed criticisms, as with your recent review of Donald Hall’s selected poems. How do you approach reviewing, particularly in the poetry world, in which it can seem like everybody knows each other?

Dan Chiasson: The main thing is that I have all these opinions, and I love having something to do with them. And I think it’s important that people try not to be false. The ideal would be that everybody says everything in print. I don’t know that it’s that I’m not afraid. I’m certainly very afraid of meeting Donald Hall. [Laughter]

I do care about the consequences of being negative toward people who are powerful. But I’m more afraid of not being taken seriously as a critic—by editors, by readers. I think on balance, I’m probably about 50-50, but the standard has been, in the poetry world, criticism has been 90-10 [positive]. I think it’s a problem that Poetry magazine, which has sponsored this new frankness, now has. There’s now a kind of vogue for being negative, and some of the gestures of vigorous negativeness in reviewing are quickly becoming cliché. I think [Poetry] does a great job, I think Christian Wiman does a great job, I read it with great delight, but I think it’s an issue.

The issue is that when you’re a critic it’s hard to tell the difference between the thrill of denouncing and telling the truth. Telling the truth to me feels more often like denouncing than like praising. There are many more concrete advantages in the world for people who praise than for those who denounce. So if you want to tell the truth, oftentimes you’re going to err on the side of denouncing. That’s just something I have to work on.

But poetry reviewing to me seems to be getting a little better. If you go back to the 1970s and ‘80s and read the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker and you see reviews by Helen Vendler, whether or not you agree with her canon, the quality of her sentences and insights is superb. I don’t know that there’s been someone that consistently good since her, or that good who’s written that much. But after a few years of poets writing impressionistic sentences about their teachers, there are now some reviewers I love—I love Maureen McClane, I think she’s one of the smartest people; and Laura Quinney, who writes often for the London Review of Books and teaches at Brandeis; Steven Burt is great; Megan O’Rourke is great; Langdon Hammer, Jim Longenbach—these are all people who are writing for the big places now.

Guernica: You’ve also reviewed plenty outside of poetry—novels, a sex guide, Maxim, the air guitar championships. Is that just for fun or a more conscious effort to expand your scope as a critic?

Dan Chiasson: I don’t have any expert opinions on anything except poetry. The substantive thing I would say about the prose I do is that I think I’m actually more naturally a writer of sentences than a writer of poems, whatever that means. I could never have a style that was not made up of complete sentences. I’m resistant to styles that are fragmentary at the level of the sentence. Fragmentary at the level of thought or of stanza I love because that can seem true to the patterns of thought, but fragmentary at the level of the sentence I just can’t read. I’m not a reader of Rae Armantrout, though I’ve been told by people that I admire that she’s a terrific writer. I don’t feel armored against it, I just can’t read it.

Guernica: In your forthcoming book of criticism, One Kind of Everything, you explore the issue of real-life experiences being used as subject matter and source material for poetry.

Dan Chiasson: All the poets I talk about have found a final beauty though they’ve started (I’m sure all of them would quarrel with this point, as would I if someone made it about me) from “life.” “This actually happened” writes Ginsberg. What a thrilling thing to say.

Every poet wants to have that great, transcendent renunciatory power of Whitman, the access to other sites and other persons, that amplitude, that confidence and authority as a voice. Even the most narrowly private or confessional poets want that. 99% of them didn’t get it, and that’s roughly the percentage of poets in any given mode that don’t succeed, so I don’t think confessionalism offers any worse odds than any other mode.

Lowell, for example, not only wants to write from the private, but from a self that is damaged and schismatic, and often he literally can’t participate in the common world because he’s institutionalized. I’m being defiantly faithful to the sixteen year-old French Canadian descendant of mill workers who loved Robert Lowell, and I think that little person should be defended. I guess the heart of it is the sense that Lowell is not as big a presence in our writing as he should be. As a model and as an aspiration, it’s the biggest thing in my writing life to think about him. I don’t know if I’m influenced by him line to line, but I would hope to have something of that intensity, seriousness, unabashed learnedness, unabashed Miltonic ambition but also confluence with daily life and daily kinds of language—all that seems still relevant to me.

Guernica: He was also someone who could, by bringing everything he had to bear on whatever was in front of him, write some of the most political and culturally relevant poems of the last century.

Dan Chiasson: Yeah, I know. And I sound silly to my own ears when I discuss politics. I mean, I feel like puking every day when I read the newspaper, but I haven’t found a register for writing about it, and I haven’t found a register for making it part of my poems. And I really admire his ability to do that. It may no longer be possible. The assumption of centrality that he could make, that gave his political poems and statements authority. I can’t think of anyone who has done it successfully for the latest round of awfulness, which is certainly at least as awful as what Lowell was dealing with.

The events in America now have the quality of things you would find out about long after the fact, and think: if only we had known. Well, we do know now. But what are we doing? Maybe a poet like Lowell brought America a little nearer to its boiling point.

Guernica: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to young poets just starting out?

Dan Chiasson: Develop an effective camouflage. I think camouflage is important in establishing a talent and a sensibility that will be individual and different from the group. I’ve always avoided the tribal markers of being a poet.

The risk with camouflage is that when you’re not writing, the camouflage becomes the real thing, and then you think I’m just a phony, I’m just this person who gets to be a little sullen at Thanksgiving dinner or opt out of taking my kids to the playground. That’s what being a poet amounts to: being perceived as a poet, when in fact you are just this suburban voluptuary. This mere “guy.”

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