Andrew Hincapie talks with Stephen Dunn
I’m interested in how your writing process may have changed over the years from your first book to this most recent, Whereas. Are there themes that you find yourself returning to, maybe that you’ve tried in earlier books that now you’re able to do better years later, or things that you cycle back to in recent work?
I’m often, I think, wrongly reduced to being a poet of domestic life. I hope my poems are more rich than that, more philosophical. I don’t mind if a person who says that also find the mysteriousness of domesticity. I’m interested increasingly in that great statement of Paul Éluard: “There is another world, and it is in this one.”
When we’re working well, we’re always plumbing the appearances of things and seeing what’s behind them – and if I make it seem simple, I’ve succeeded, I think. If it seems overly complex – well, I shouldn’t say that. Sometimes things have to be complex because they can’t be said straight out. Our lives are messy in many ways, and our emotional lives especially. I hold to the position that you say what you mean for as long as you can – and when you can’t say anything more straight out, you reach for analog; you reach for metaphor; you reach for that surprising thing.
It’s no surprise that some poems are difficult, but difficulty is often overrated. My students, for example – often somebody in the class will write a line like, “I went to the store and bought a loaf of bread.” And then somebody says, “What does that mean?” They’re trying to figure it out because they believe that poems are written in code. The teacher knows the code and you don’t know the code, and if you break the code you get an A.
Given this domestic or autobiographical impulse that may not happen as much in your newer work, how does this translate into your essays if you’re now resisting autobiography in verse? Do you find yourself being more vulnerable in the essay where you couldn’t in a poem?
It’s the same process where I hope to say things in the essay that I didn’t know I knew beforehand. It’s interesting how the things you discover become your autobiography in a way. In all memoir, there’s an element of fiction. Just think of all the things you’re leaving out. Even when you’re trying to tell exactly what happened, you are leaving out a large part of it. You’re known by your selection.
It’s a fictive act, to choose, right? And I think in my essays, when I do them at my best, I discover what I didn’t know. If I don’t, it’s a dull essay, It lies there, flat.
I wanted to touch on your idea of experience versus sensibility, and maybe connecting to this persona might be a good way to approach it. For example, interactions with your mother are clearly poems of personal experience, but then something like the Mrs. Cavendish poems are more a persona or a fiction you’ve created. Do you see persona as a way to create a more pure sensibility, or what risks do you see in speaking through or with a character you’ve created or a real body you’ve fictionalized?
Do you know Fernanda Pessoa’s work at all? He has five heteronyms, he calls them. They’re five different personae. All of them are different: one of them is even a critic who criticizes one of the others. He has something called “The Five Stages of Lyric Poetry,” and I think I’m around the third stage by his definition. The best is Shakespeare, he said, where the narrator disappears. All those characters are Shakespeare’s, but it’s very hard to find Shakespeare in them. I’m sure a good Shakespearean expert could explain that better than I.
His book of essays is called “Always Astonished.” It’s a great book. In his real life, he really didn’t have a life by his own admission and by others as well. He was always one of these people, always one of his characters. He was a total persona, and it worked for him most of the time. It’s more interesting and curious than truly created, I think. It comes out of a way of being for him, a way of seeing. That’s the key.
In the 70’s, when everyone was writing surreal poetry and deep image poetry, I realized I could do that, but it just wasn’t the way I saw the world, so I stopped doing that. With Pessoa, it’s all vision. He believes all those characters. He believes he is that person. He’s made some great comments about “God poems,” that if you don’t believe in God, you have to believe in God during the course of the poem. Or you choose not to believe in God, but the truth exists in the poem itself, it has nothing to do with you.
I’m not sure that will help anybody write any poems, but it seems true enough.
Stephen Dunn is the author of twenty books of poetry and essays, including his most recent poetry collection, Whereas, and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Different Hours. 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 the Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College and lives in Frostburg, Maryland, with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd.