Stephen Dunn is the author of many books of poems, including the recent Whereas (Norton, 2017), as well as two New & Selected Poems, one that includes poems from 1974–1994, and the other titled What Goes On: Poems from 1995–2009. His Different Hours was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Loosestrife (1998) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among his other awards are an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, three NEA Fellowships, and the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. His book of essays and memoirs, Walking Light, is available from BOA, and a new collection of essays will be published by Tiger Bark Press in September 2018. Also forthcoming in the fall of 2019 is a new book of poems Pagan Virtues from Norton. A collection of essays about his work, Essays on the Poet Stephen Dunn, edited by Laura McCullough, was published by Syracuse University Press in 2014. Dunn lives with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd, in Frostburg, Maryland. (web)
CONVERSATION BETWEEN STEPHEN DUNN AND TIMOTHY GREEN
February 18, 2018
GREEN: This issue features athlete poets. You said that basketball was your first love. How did you get into playing?
DUNN: I lived two blocks from the schoolyard, and it’s what we did, most of the boys in that neighborhood. We just played basketball all day—other sports, too, but primarily basketball for me, and I got pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. I was a good shooter. I was lucky, I think, in not being really good, because I would have continued on, and would have ended up being a coach or a gym teacher or something other than a poet.
GREEN: Interesting—so you think you wouldn’t have become a poet if you’d kept playing basketball?
DUNN: It would have been questionable. I played one year of semi-pro ball after college, and it ended on mutual agreement. [both laugh] I was the smallest guy in the league.
GREEN: How tall are you?
DUNN: I’m 5’11” and not particularly strong—I was quick, but not strong—and people would take me inside and just work me over. So they didn’t invite me back the next year, but I wasn’t going to go back anyway.
GREEN: Yeah, I know how you feel. I played in a pretty serious softball league in L.A. for a while, that had some major league baseball players there in the winter. One guy I played with, Brendan Ryan, is the guy who replaced Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees. If you watch him on TV, he looks tiny, but next to me, he’s huge! He’s 6’1” and all muscle. Then I think about how it must feel to be on the field with Aaron Judge and Mike Stanton.
So how did you switch from basketball into poetry?
DUNN: It’s such an unlikely story, but probably how and why poets become poets is always unlikely. The world doesn’t encourage or reward it very much. I think, in fact, one has to tell several stories just to approximate how one becomes a poet. I know that I do. I grew up in a house that didn’t have any books; we only had, as I recall, Reader’s Digest. I wasn’t a good student, but somehow I read a lot, and had a sense of what was interesting, and therefore didn’t speak in class. One story I tell about my beginnings as a writer was writing love poems to girls to get them to like me, which occasionally worked, so there seemed to be a certain efficaciousness to the enterprise. But that’s the glib answer. Another is that, other than basketball, writing seemed to be the only endeavor where I had some ability. Another still is that my first real job after playing a year of semi-pro ball was a corporate one. I answered an ad in the New York Times for a writer and ended up working for Nabisco writing brochures to salesmen. In-house stuff. I was very good at it, actually, and it scared the hell out of me. [Green laughs] I got a big promotion when I was 26, and quit almost immediately. Leaving was an attempt to save my life, really.
GREEN: From a corporate trajectory?
DUNN: I didn’t want to be like any of the men in my office. I knew that. I’d just gotten married—not to Barbara, but to my first wife, Lois, who was very adventuresome—and I saw a Writer’s Digest that had a picture of Hemingway on the cover and an article about his life in Spain. So we went to Spain to see if I could become a writer. We had $2,200 and lived on it for eleven months.
GREEN: Wow. And that would have been mid-’60s?
DUNN: 1967. And I wrote a bad novel. [Green laughs] A bad novel that was all about me—one of those. But it was full of language and suggested that, if I were going to try to write, I should be writing poetry.
GREEN: And that novel was never published?
The poetry that ends up mattering speaks to things we half-know but are inarticulate about.
GREEN: So what drew you to poetry in particular? Was it just that talent for it, or is there something intrinsic to poetry itself as a genre?
DUNN: I think it was finding poems that spoke to me. At Hofstra I was a history major, and poetry didn’t matter much to me. When I started to read on my own and found those poems that spoke to me, that’s when it really happened. The work of Kenneth Patchen, Ferlinghetti, Theodore Roethke. Poetry mattered! That was after Nabisco. And later on, in grad school, I had good teachers, and wrote—and revised—every day.
GREEN: You said that poetry matters, and that’s something I’m always curious about. Why does poetry matter? There’s a sense that it does, that we take it for granted as readers and writers of poetry, but to communicate that to other people who haven’t had the experience yet is difficult. So why does poetry matter?
DUNN: The poetry that ends up mattering speaks to things we half-know but are inarticulate about. It gives us language and the music of language for what we didn’t know we knew. So a combination of insight and beauty. I also liken the writing of it to basketball—you discover that you can be better than yourself for a little while. If you’re writing a good poem, it means you’re discovering things that you didn’t know you knew. In basketball, if you’re hitting your shots, you feel in the realm of the magical.
GREEN: Do you think that writing is that same feeling as being “in the zone”?
DUNN: Yes. But then, almost always, you have to revise.
GREEN: I read that you had a big day and scored 45 points in a game in that Long Island league where you made every shot, pretty much …
DUNN: Pretty much. [laughs] In the very next game I actually scored 47. And then never scored over 40 again in my life. A lot of it had to do with a friend on the team, who recognized I had something going, and kept giving me the ball. But yes, I was in the zone. When I’m really into a poem, time just disappears. I’m taken over by it.
GREEN: Is it the same feeling in basketball? When you had those two great games, did time disappear?
DUNN: No, and yes—well there’s a difference. Basketball is much more visceral. I knew it was happening; everyone else knew it was happening, whereas, with poetry, even if you’re writing your best poem, it might work for you and for a few others, but there’s no universal agreement. In a basketball game, when you make your great shot, it’s inarguable.
GREEN: One of the things I always like about both sports and writing, too, is that, if I’m playing shortstop and the ball’s hit to my left, and I run and dive for it, then throw it to first, there’s no awareness that I even did that. It’s a cessation of consciousness, in a way. And writing is almost the same experience, you almost become unconscious of yourself as you’re doing it. A lot of people mention that in the notes that we’re getting for this issue.
DUNN: Well, there are two processes, I think. One is the process you’re talking about and the other is revision. Most of my poems become poems in revision. It’s a different mentality; it’s a colder enterprise. You don’t want to disappear. It’s problem-solving, really.
GREEN: How do you know what the problem is that you’re solving?
DUNN: Good friends, a wife who knows her stuff and makes ugly faces at your poem. [Green laughs] And I’ve developed a pretty good inner critic, I think. Plus I know that a very good poem is a difficult thing to write. The likelihood that I’ve succeeded in a few drafts is small. And I have a good friend, Larry Raab, who is my toughest and severest critic, and I’m his toughest critic, too. And he makes me wince sometimes. We share a notion of what a good poem is, and we try to hold each other to it.
GREEN: How would you describe that? What is a good poem?
DUNN: Ah. It’s certainly a poem where what you started with is not what you ended up with. A poem that develops different allegiances as it goes, that surprises and subverts. I always tell my students that a good poem is a very difficult thing to write; don’t expect it. Of course they do write good poems now and then, and in retrospect they like that I’ve told them in advance it’s not going to happen.
Larry and I never talk about cosmetic issues with poems until the poems are almost there. Most poems have fundamental problems that can be hard for the novice to see. We, too. We’re all novices at the beginning of a poem. Maybe you’re going somewhere for four or five lines, and then you make a bad choice that leads to other bad choices. Larry and I are good at pointing out to each other where we should have made a different move. And Barbara’s good at that, too. We talk about it as architecture. Even if we say our best thing, our smartest thing, if it doesn’t have a formal apparatus to hold it together, nobody’s going to pay any lasting attention to it.
GREEN: What do you mean by formal apparatus? Because most of your poems are free verse …
DUNN: I spend a lot of time talking about the formalities of free verse, which are essentially hearing what you put in the air of your poem, following it through, shaping it, writing great sentences, knowing what the arc of the poem is—that’s what we mean by architecture. We’ve hastened the progress of each other’s poems enormously. I think, to answer your question from before, I have a few good friends with good eyes and good minds. One of the things that Larry can now say is that this is “only a good poem,” and I know what that means. It’s completed itself, but no one should care about it, really.
GREEN: Do you think, maybe, that people publish too many poems? Because there are a lot of poems that are well-written but not necessary.
But when you think about it, there are worse things than writing bad poems.
GREEN: Yeah, I would say most. Because there’s a sense, too, that it might be important for somebody else. Once a poem is good enough for somebody to publish it, maybe it will move somebody even though it’s not as good as it could be.
DUNN: That happens all the time. There’s a plethora of magazines, more than ever. When I was starting out, there were very few places to publish, and if you got in them you were very happy. One of the worries that I’ve had—this will sound vainglorious—is that, since I’ve won the Pulitzer, editors are inclined to take my poems. So I have to be very judicious about what I send out. But I still get rejections. Most people are just happy to be in magazines. But when you think about it, there are worse things than writing bad poems. [both laugh] There’s nothing intrinsically terrible about writing and trying to publish poems. You haven’t murdered anybody or kicked a dog. But you can get depressed if you read a lot of magazines, because of the prevalent mediocrity.
GREEN: I’d have to agree. So walk through the process of writing a poem. Where does it start?
DUNN: Variously, but I have four or five notebooks that I fill up with fine writing by others. I write down great sentences. Nothing in those notebooks are mine, but often I start with a great line and fuck it up a bit, so it seems like mine. Then I go from there. My barometer for myself is that I’m not in the poem until I first startle myself.
Larry occasionally gives me an assignment, or Peter Murphy has this big book that just came, More Challenges for the Delusional, full of prompts. It’s good to start with something absurd, something paradoxical, something that intrigues you in ways you don’t understand, intrigues enough that you want to pursue it. The inspiration for me is always the language itself. I’m never wedded to the original intention. I may stick with it for a while, but I’ll change it at will. To write a poem is a constant tradeoff of those things—your original intention and the language you find yourself using. The process is finding out how to blend those. Behind this, of course, is a lot of reading of your heroes and what you consider excellence. That has changed over the years, but it’s often Stevens and Frost and Roethke, poets like that.
GREEN: Are you familiar with the Instagram poets? There are several who are very successful, selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their books. But when you talk about original intention, I think the problem with all those poems in that medium, which can be very popular and have redeeming qualities, is that they always fulfill their original intention. That seems to me to be both what’s missing and also why it’s so popular.
DUNN: Well, I don’t know them, but that is a problem. I can always tell when a poem has executed its original intention. It’s flat, and maybe accurate enough, but who cares? The real stuff is when you knock yourself out by discovering what you don’t know you knew. I’m trying to think of Stevens’ criticism of surrealism. It’s something like “invention without discovery.” If you’ve written long enough, if you’re competent enough to make a poem sound like a poem and feel like a poem, there’s still the work of surprise to accomplish. And it also needs to be simultaneously composed by ear. The ear is seeking out both the sonic moments as well as the moments that are content-based.
GREEN: How do you think you develop that ear? Obviously by reading, but do you think everyone has that ability, or do you think—
DUNN: No, I think it’s acquired. I think I’m getting better at it, but I haven’t fully mastered it. It’s related to rhyme, but more like internal rhyme and cooperative sounds, words that like to hang around together. I know when a poem of mine doesn’t have those sounds, or if I need the right consonant at the end to make it feel right. But there’s different thinking about that. Merwin, for example, for a long time, through a few very good books, seemed not to want to end a poem as if it had solved its issue. He seemed to want to suggest a continuum. I seem to want poems to click at the end—I seek that click. It depends on one’s philosophical disposition, I suppose. There’s no one right way.
GREEN: Do you think there’s something universal to that sound? Do you think there’s something in our evolved language processing that makes us all appreciate that, or do you think that it’s emergent within the culture that it appears? If you read Shakespeare now, there’s still that same music, it clicks better than anyone—but will that music last forever? Or is it just this time and place?
DUNN: I think it is timeless. Sometimes a poem doesn’t have to make any sense at all. “Jabberwocky,” for example. I read Wallace Stevens for years precognitively, with pleasure.
GREEN: Well, I still read him that way, I think! [both laugh] I think about that a lot while reading submissions. We receive about 150,000 poems a year, now, and there’s an automatic process almost, just scanning through them, not even paying attention to meaning, and then when something has that music, it just stands out. It’s as easy flipping through a radio dial and coming to a station that’s not static. And you put that aside to read later, to see if it has anything meaningful behind it, but that’s the first filter, just the music. And most poems don’t cross that threshold.
DUNN: I asked John Nims once, because he was getting 1,000 poems a week at Poetry, how he made his choices. He said, “I make sure I’m plenty bored, and I wait to be made alert.” And there are different ways to be made alert. Music is one of them, there’s also the startling phrase.
GREEN: We do another thing where we have an artist, once a month, put up a painting or photograph, and then people write a poem about it, and the artist chooses one of the poems. It doesn’t matter how much of a background the artist has—sometimes English is the artist’s second or third language, even—they always make a good choice. So it does seem that there’s something universal, living as we do in a world that’s governed by language, that gives us a natural appreciation for poetry, even if it’s not studied. Would you agree with that?
DUNN: I’m not sure. I think for the poets who I admire, it’s their life. It’s something other than weekend writing. They’re compelled to do it even though there are so few rewards. And you can sense when you get a weekend poem. [laughs]
GREEN: I like to think of it going back to the sports metaphor. With basketball, we have no problem that there’s a Michael Jordan or a Steph Curry who can shoot three-pointers from half-court with his eyes closed, who has natural talents, but spent 10,000 hours dribbling with his left hand on a playground—but at the same time there are people in their backyards shooting hoops, and they’re still enjoying shooting hoops; there’s no problem with that continuum. We can all get something out of trying to experience and articulate the world more fully, and some people dedicate their lives to that, and become Steph Curry, and some people don’t. Would you agree with that vision for poetry?
DUNN: I don’t think so. I would have agreed with that once upon a time, but now I think I agree with Donald Hall, who said that there’s no point unless you’re trying to write a great poem. Your notion of what is a great poem is different when you’re 18 versus when you’re 40 or 50. Sure there is pleasure for people in writing little doo-dads and doggerel, and even poems that are better than that, but nobody’s going to care about it at all. They will evaporate really quick. I imagine one of the thrills of being an editor is finding one of those poems that really just does it.
GREEN: Yeah, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. So I gather you don’t think you can stumble on that. You can’t get lucky and find a great poem unless you really commit yourself to being a poet.
DUNN: I have a poem called “Lucky,” let me read that to you. It starts with an epigraph from Albert Camus, “Loyal obedience to the rules jointly defined and freely accepted,” on why his true lessons in morality came from sports. It’s a good lesson on democracy, too.
I’m not sure if that speaks to your question, but luck is what Jack Nicklaus said—it’s making the putt because you’ve practiced it a thousand times beforehand. In basketball, you shoot every day so you can someday make the big shot.
GREEN: Who would you say your ideal reader is, your ideal audience? Who do you want to reach?
DUNN: The best reader I can imagine. It used to be Donald Justice. He had the best ear of anybody I knew. I had to kill him off, actually, because I would send him my books, and I don’t think he liked a single poem I wrote. [both laugh] We were friends, but I think it embarrassed him to have to respond. I had to get rid of Donald Justice, because I was writing poems that were much more discursive than he would like—he was an imagist and had a fine ear. I started that way and then found myself writing poems that were quite different than my education had taught me to write.
GREEN: So if you could choose Donald Justice loving one poem, and 1,000 strangers loving one poem, would you pick Donald Justice?
DUNN: Maybe. [both laugh] Though a thousand strangers is pretty nice. I do get a lot of fan mail these days; it’s amazing. So I know my poems are reaching people, even if they’re not reaching critics. But at Syracuse I would be in Justice’s class, and he had such a rich intelligence. He would rummage around in your poem, and always the people who were not very good would think it was praise. [both laugh] “Don really liked my poem!” I’d hear otherwise.
GREEN: We have contributor notes in the back of our issues, rather than listing the traditional publishing credits, which is just a waste of paper in the internet age, I think. Instead, we have the poets say something about what poetry or the poem means to them. And the sample note that we’ve had, at least since I started at Rattle in 2004, is by Erik Campbell. In his description of why he writes poetry, he said he was driving to work one day and heard Garrison Keillor read your poem “Tenderness” on the radio—
DUNN: Yes, someone told me about this—
GREEN: And he pulled over to the side of the road, because he had to stop, and Erik writes because he wants to make someone else late for work. [both laugh]
DUNN: That’s really nice, really nice.
GREEN: But do you ever think of your poems having that kind of impact on people? Is that something you shoot for?
DUNN: No, you can’t. It’s great when it happens, but I just try to make a poem as best I can. If you write any poem at all with the hope of being famous or reaching a specific audience, you’re doing an injustice to the poem. The poem needs to find itself. But yes, every once in a while you hear that your poem mattered a great deal to someone.
GREEN: That sense of trying is always interesting. Have you ever read Zen in the Art of Archery?
DUNN: No, but I used to teach Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
GREEN: That’s a great book, too, but I think Archery is one of the best books about art or writing. There’s a line—he’s talking about shooting an arrow, of course, but there’s a line: “The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will.”
DUNN: That’s great.
GREEN: And then he talks about an artist holding art like a child holding a toy, “and you would think the child is playing with the objects if it were not also equally true that the objects are playing with the child.” So I think of writing that way, and I think of sports that way, too. In a way the sport is playing you—the field and the rules and the guidelines and the ball are sort of using you as the mechanism of play.
DUNN: I think that’s true in team sports, especially. I was mostly, after age 30, a serious tennis player, and that’s different, I think. You’re all by yourself.
GREEN: It is a frustrating game.
DUNN: I play ping-pong now, in the garage, and I can still play even though I can hardly walk. Four of us play two or three times a week.
GREEN: Do you want to talk about the Parkinson’s?
DUNN: No, not really. I’ve had it for 24 years, and don’t think it’s very interesting. I’ve never wanted to be known by my malady. It’s only lately that it’s become visible. Who knows, I might take it on someday.
GREEN: Do you think part of not wanting to write about it is because you have this screen. Your poems are so much everyman, and there’s a genuine, authentic feel, because it’s a fictional you-but-not-you. Do you think it’s too personal to write about, is that a reason?
DUNN: Partly. I don’t think my life is interesting unless I make it interesting. There’s no reason anyone should care about me. The burden is on me entirely to make whatever I’m doing interesting. To me, first of all, and then to others.
GREEN: So how much of a poem is you and how much is fiction?
I don’t think my life is interesting unless I make it interesting. There’s no reason anyone should care about me.
GREEN: Yet there’s this strange thing where readers want to think everything is true …
DUNN: And I want them to believe everything I write. That’s the art.
GREEN: It’s a strange thing. One of our most memorable poems from the magazine is “1969” by Tony Gloeggler, about his brother going off to Vietnam that summer and not coming home. When people find out it’s not a true story, they’re absolutely heartbroken that he didn’t have a brother who died in the war. In a film you have a suspension of disbelief, and you want to believe it’s true while you’re watching the movie, but once the movie is over you’re fine realizing it’s a fiction. Why do we want poems to be true on that literal level?
DUNN: I’m not sure, exactly. Billy Collins has a terrific essay that was in Poetry about that notion that the first person narrator has a covenant with the reader, and is saying what’s true. He was talking about Sharon Olds and Philip Levine, I think. He tells his class—this is after reading these poets—that Philip Levine didn’t grow up in Detroit and Sharon Olds had really nice parents. [both laugh] And the students are furious. Because the covenant has been broken. Those are two poets that work a certain obvious personal territory, but they’re makers of poems, too, if you know what I mean.
GREEN: Do you think it has to do with the age of science? I was listening to a podcast with Sam Harris, are you familiar with him?
GREEN: He’s a neuroscientist and thinker, and he was arguing with someone else about truth. The other guy was a pragmatist, philosophically, and was talking about a higher truth, a moral truth of right action. And Sam, as a neuroscientist, was only interested in factual truth. They spent two hours, and they couldn’t even agree on the definition of truth. That seems to me what’s going on here, because even if the poems aren’t literally true, they’re speaking to a larger, maybe foundational, truth.
DUNN: Barbara and I have this argument all the time, because she’s a creative nonfiction writer. She has friends who argue that facts have to be facts. But that’s impossible, it seems to me. Even someone writing a memoir; we know they’ve engaged in an act of selection to convey what’s true. To tell a story about anything, you have to leave out so much, if it’s going to be a good story. If you ask a bad storyteller to tell you about a movie, they’ll tell you what happened in every scene, and you’ll never know what the movie was about. You have to choose and select, and you’re known by your selections. Do you know my essay called, “Truth”?
GREEN: I don’t remember that, but I probably read it back in 2002.
DUNN: It’s about the three stories I’m most dined out on, which are all untrue. I can’t tell them anymore, but they’re great stories, and everyone believes them. When I give readings from the essay, people are furious with me. I tell them about my blind date with Liza Minelli for one. I have all the details; they’ve increased over the years, all the specifics. And then I say it’s not true, and they laugh. Then I tell them another one, saying in advance that it isn’t true, but when you start using specific, credible details … “I could never live with you,” a woman said to me after a reading of that essay. I understood.
There’s another essay, it was actually the acceptance speech for being inducted into the International Scholar-Athlete Hall of Fame. It’s going to be in my new book. It’s about being worthy and not worthy at the same time. If induction was based on my basketball life, I wouldn’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. The poetry carries the day, evidently. And great people are in this institution—Roger Bannister, Paul Robeson, Galway Kinnell.
GREEN: And this is a new book of essays? When is it coming out?
GREEN: Is there a specific theme that it’s about?
DUNN: The theme is suggested by the title, which is Degrees of Fidelity: Essays on Poetry and the Latitudes of the Personal.
GREEN: Oh, exactly what we were talking about then!
DUNN: The essay with that title is about a poem of mine that has gotten much anthologized, about asking my mother if I could see her breasts when I was twelve. Why I asked, I have no idea. But she did it with such grace, without any sexuality or embarrassment, and then just buttoned up and went on with her routine. The essay raised the question, at what point would you violate the truth? I tell people in that essay that it’s true, but that there are things I wouldn’t make up. It tries to make the distinction throughout about my sense of latitudes of the personal.
GREEN: So would you say you’d always try to be true in spirit?
DUNN: That’s a nice term, yes. There was a guy in graduate school who had a great literary gift. I won’t mention his name. If you read four or five of his poems you’d think he was terrific. If you read ten of them you’d get a sense of vacuity, some emptiness. His poems always felt true if you saw one or two.
GREEN: How do you think about spirituality? Would you call yourself religious?
DUNN: No, not at all. It’s essentially getting things right. My assumption is that most of the language that we hear on a given day is meant to deceive us—overtly meant to deceive us. Do you know Paul Éluard’s quote, “There is another world, and it is in this one.” To get at that world, the world that is right here, but which is not seen, is a spiritual act, I think.
GREEN: Do you think that the primary purpose of the poet is to get to the world, and so to help get readers to that world?
DUNN: Yes. There’s the Wallace Stevens line, “I am the necessary angel of the earth / Since, in my sight, you see the world again.” This might speak to your question about spirituality. It’s from Walking Light:
Stevens defines the imagination as the power of the mind over the possibility of things. The faithful and the innocent call such power “God.” Others of us feel that, whatever it is, it has occurred because we’ve put ourselves in a place (say, the quiet room where we write) where we can be visited by ourselves and maybe make a few loose ends cohere. Of course, included in the possibilities of things are assorted evils, the nay alongside the yea, the despoiled world next to the luscious one, everything that complicates our ability to have certainties. The imagination that entertains a God has much to accommodate.
GREEN: Certainty is an important word. Do you think a successful poem can be certain?
DUNN: Yes, and no. I’ve been arguing with Larry about this. He has a new book of essays out, one on certainty. He argues it very well and—just because I like to be cantankerous [Green laughs]—I think there are things that you can be certain about, but maybe they’re lesser things, really. This is a chair I’m sitting on. Bishop Berkeley might say, “Well, maybe not.” [laughs] I know a chair is a chair, but about metaphysical things, we live in a world full of doubts and uncertainties. Larry makes a great case for that. The classic spiritual journey is from travail to understanding or acceptance.
Here’s another attempt of mine at a definition: “A journey through travail to understanding that leads back to mystery.”
DUNN: You can be certain about certain things. But even Robert Bly, who loves mystery so much, said we have to be clear about our mysteries.
GREEN: So being too opaque is a problem?
DUNN: Big problem. And that’s not saying that poems shouldn’t be difficult. Sometimes poems are difficult because our lives are so complex. Our emotional lives are so murky. Just the effort to get at that truth and be clear can make it difficult. But I have no tolerance for difficulty for difficulty’s sake.
GREEN: Do you think the reason why poetry isn’t as popular is because of that complexity of inner life? Do you think there’s a way that a lot of people flee from that, and so resist poetry and art in general, because they’re frightened of that uncertain complexity?
DUNN: I don’t know, because they can like it in novels. I think it’s the way poetry is taught. I never liked poetry in school because I didn’t run into teachers that made it available to me until much later. That’s why Poetry in the Schools is a good project.
GREEN: I wanted to ask about the area. What brought you to Frostburg?
DUNN: Barbara taught at the college and invited me to read.
GREEN: Is that when you met her?
DUNN: Yes. What was embarrassing and remarkable is that I had chosen her chapbook for a prize nine years before—and totally forgot about it. She had to remind me. But we hit it off right away. I was married at the time. She drove me to the airplane the next day (I was attracted to her already), but she gave me a copy of Best American Essays in which she had an essay, and it was so fucking smart—and smart is sexy—and everything evolved from there.
This may not be entirely relevant, but I want to read to you a section in Walking Light called “The Good and the Not So Good.”
The good poem simultaneously reveals and conceals. It is in this sense that it is mysterious. The not so good poem is often mysterious only by virtue of concealment. Or it wears exotic clothing to hide its essential plainness.
I have one good basketball poem, I think. “Losing Steps.” A few others, but they just don’t seem to …
GREEN: I know that poem. It seems to me that it’s very hard to write good poems about sports.
DUNN: It’s very hard. And if you’re good at sports they’re doubly hard, because no one wants to hear poems of self-congratulation. [Green laughs] You have to have failed. Through failure we tend to learn things about ourselves. It was only when I started to fail as a basketball player, when I was losing steps, that I was able to write that poem. We’re going to fail; we can’t help it. Though the basketball player, maybe more than the poet, learns about failure early. There’s always somebody better than you at the schoolyard. You always lose games. Poets are often blinded to that.
GREEN: Do you think that helps, to be acquainted with failure, in becoming a writer?
DUNN: Yes, it does. The thing is how to continue. How to keep going when nothing’s happening, nobody’s responding, and you’re not even getting into bad magazines.
GREEN: Did teaching influence your work in any way? Do you think you became a better thinker by virtue of having to teach?
DUNN: I think so. I learned I could more quickly identify problems in poems. Whether that makes one write better poetry or just solve problems of lesser poems, I don’t know. But I became a more acute reader of poems. I started as an essayist in my 40s after a student in my class said, “Do you write these things down?” And I had to say, “No.” So I went home and started writing them down. [both laugh] That’s what started my whole life as an essayist. I actually had something to say by then.
GREEN: So you have a book of poems and a book of essays coming out soon, and they just keep coming. Would you say that writing is a way of being, or is there something trying to get out? Could you ever imagine not writing, would that be possible?
DUNN: I can imagine that I wouldn’t have anything else as meaningful to do. It’s what I do, and has been for a long time. I can imagine, out of necessity, being a bricklayer, or doing anything. But I don’t want to. [laughs] For a while, well into my early 40s, I would say, I was still writing the poems of my education. Then I started to write my own poems, in my own voice, whatever that is. And it became a way of translating my experience into meaning. One of the ways I go about that is by doubting my meaning all the time, resisting it. That’s how my poems go down the page: a series of statements and resistances, and then shaping them into what seems like natural talk.
GREEN: What’s the phrase for that? Negative, um …
DUNN: Negative capability. That’s Keats’s line about Shakespeare.
GREEN: Do you think we need negative capability because life is too complicated to not … be complicated? That there’s no way of capturing anything well enough to say it clearly and be done with it?
DUNN: That’s very nice, yes. That’s why there’ll always be poetry. Adorno said that after Auschwitz there can be no poetry. He was wrong. Stevens talks about how reality always exerts pressure on the imagination. There is always going to be a need to interpret things in and for your time. There will always be love poems.
There is always going to be a need to interpret things in and for your time. There will always be love poems.
GREEN: I liked what you said in an essay somewhere about being a person of “and” rather than of “or.” Nothing is simple enough not to be a poem. There’s too much emotion and too much varying of perspective. Stephen Hawking’s most recent book is about how there are different theories of physics—quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory, Newtonian mechanics—and they’re all accurate descriptions from their own perspective, but there seems to be no way to unify them into a single theory. And in a way, human experience is like that. You can come at it from any number of angles, but you can never unify it into a single experience. If you could, there might not be a need for poetry, but you can’t, so there always will be.
DUNN: That’s true, you stand here, rather than there, and the world is a little different. That’s why I don’t like to hear that I’m an accessible poet, unless it’s added that I’m accessible in service of complexity.
GREEN: I think that’s the key. I think when people criticize accessibility, what they’re really criticizing is that it doesn’t offer a door to the complex.
DUNN: It opens the door, but doesn’t shut the door. It leaves a little crack open.
GREEN: I think that’s a great note to end on. Thanks so much for your time, Stephen. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
DUNN: Sure, and thank you for coming out through the snow.
—from Rattle #60, Summer 2018