author of Whereas: Poems
Interviewed by Lee Hope
Solstice Editor-in Chief
and Fiction Editor
(From Lee Hope): It is my privilege to interview one of the foremost poets in our country and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, I have read all of Stephen’s Dunn’s eighteen poetry collections as well as his book of prose, Riffs & Reciprocities, one of my personal favorites. I will focus here on his most recent poetry collection, Whereas, but also bring in some themes that have resurfaced with ever more intensity and wit as Dunn’s poems accrue over time. His poetry continues to overturn expectations; just when the reader thinks, Oh, I know where this is going, the poems twist; the reader experiences upheaval, must rethink, reset. Wit resides in such overturning, as does wisdom.
Lee: There are few poets who combine inherent irony with depth perception. In “Let’s Say” you write: “What’s a poet anyway but someone who gives/the unnamed a name? A see-er more than a seer,/a maker of what becomes obvious, that’s been there/all along. What you unearth resembles,/you hope, the real. . .” To help us put your work in a sort of context, care to comment on what you mean by “see-er more than seer.”
Stephen: Well, to see the world beyond its appearances is to see it as it is. It’s in achievement of insight evolving from precision A seer, of course, suggests someone clairvoyant, someone with a third eye, a Merlin. For me, it’s hard work, often a matter of revision. You need to revise the world in order to get it right.
Lee: You have often written poems challenging a prevailing concept of nature as beautiful, even awe-inspiring. The poem “Unnatural” opens with: “I’m sure Nature has disapproved of me/for years, as if it had overheard/one of my silent screeds against it,/and my insistence that only the artificial/has a real shot at becoming more/than what we started with. . .” Would you elaborate on why your screeds have perhaps not been so silent, for instance, with your praise of artifice?
Stephen: The breakthroughs that occur in my students’ work, for example, mostly occur when they begin to think of themselves as makers rather than as utterers. It’s certainly true of my own process. We have to remake experience to, in effect, reassemble it in order to make it ours. Artifice needs to have a good name. When such reassembling doesn’t work, we say the poem is contrived. When it works, we call it art.
Lee: Ah, and then there is desire, and yes, sex, recurring imagery throughout your work, and here again in this collection. Take the poem “The Problem.” The speaker, while visiting a museum, imagines Jackson Pollock wanting to bathe with one of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Even when he leaves the museum, “The streets seemed full of desire/beyond all equivalences . . .”
Such desire cannot be fully contained within a museum or outside of it. Such desire inebriates and infuses many of your poems. Why this sensual focus and how does desire extend beyond the sensual?
Stephen: I really don’t know how to answer this good question, except to say that there are many kinds of desire, perhaps the most trouble-ful and pleasure-ful for me, historically, has been sexual. I conclude an older poem of mine, which is called “Desire,” with these lines: “I praise how the body heals itself./I praise how, finally, it never learns.”
Lee: You also write often with ironic insight into the dynamics of love relationships, sometimes from the point of view of an irreverent, yet highly perceptive, male speaker. For instance, in “For Some a Mountain.” “When it comes to women, I desire them married/to their own sense of accomplishment, each of us/going our own way, coming together when we can.”
And again in “Ambush at Five O’Clock” with the husband’s mystified response to his wife’s sudden weeping: “and I thought Jesus Christ am I guilty again/of one of those small errors/I’ve repeated until it became large?”
Or in “At the School for the Deaf” where the speaker says, “There’ve been others in my life smart enough/ not to let themselves/be loved by me, . . .”
Would you recommend that certain women watch out for this sort of
fellow, sly as a silver fox?
Stephen: No, I wouldn’t, except to say that my favorite line break in the book is the one that occurs after “married.”
Lee: In “Whereas,” there is also a focus on death and dying, such as in the haunting poem, “The First Person,” when we read: “Because sometimes, my dear brother,/like you, the nearly dead never cease/to amaze. Between coughs you told/a bad joke, thanked us for enduring you,/made each of us feel, I was sure, like the first,/the only person, you wanted to reach.” Often in your poetry, a compassion shines within the irony, within the screeds against nature and God. As in “A Card From Me to Me,” you write, “I praise on my seventy-fifth birthday the strangeness, the immensity, of what I have/and have had and every small thing that against the odds continues to be.”
Without the phrase, “against the odds,” the lines might tilt into sentimentality. Can you comment on your celebration of life even as we face the odds of dying.
Stephen: Both of my parents died young, in their late fifties. I always thought I also would die young. It’s perhaps why I’ve gotten, it seems, a lot done, and tried to live my life all the way up. Mortality exerts its pressures. I’ve lived with it pretty consciously since my mid-thirties. Thus, the “against all odds.” And since you refer to me as an ironist, let me say there are at least two kinds of irony. One is the kind that keeps the world at a distance, which I avoid as best I can. The other is the kind that allows one to see the world from both sides, that brings us closer to it. Here’s what I really desire: ironic intimacy.
STEPHEN DUNN was born in Forest Hills, NY in 1939, and earned his BA in History from Hofstra University in 1962. He attended the New School 1964 to 1966 and received his Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in 1970. He’s the author of sixteen books, most recently the poetry collections Whereas, The Keeper of Limits: The Cavendish Poems, and Lines of Defense. His book Different Hours won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Since 1974 he has taught at Richard Stockton College of NJ, where he is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing. He’s also been a Visiting Professor at The University of Washington, NYU, Columbia, and The University of Michigan. He has read his poetry at The Library of Congress and at many universities and colleges throughout the country.
In addition to his books, his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, and the American Poetry Review, to name just a few.