from The Georgia Review, Summer 2011
STYLE. It's like a doctor wishing to have a bedside manner: if it sounds rehearsed, it has been. Some writers think they can will it. When that happens, every effort feels like effort.
No, I don't think the writing teacher in this respect is much different from the physician: the person under examination would like us to keep our private lives out of our diagnoses.
A poet of domestic life? Seems rather reductive to me, even though domestic life is an enormous subject, especially if you believe, as I do, that it has its mysteries. But to unearth things is not enough. You need to find a choreography for them. The detritus of a day, e.g.—not unlike imagining those creatures making their way toward us in Night of the Living Dead ... slowly, awkwardly. Opportunities for movement, for undreamed-of sympathies.
This is what I know about teaching: if you kiss one gorgeous student, you're likely to kiss another. I've always tried to kiss someone else.
I agree: to listen well is an act of curiosity and respect. It presumes that someone has something to say. But I know it's not enough to be a good listener. The best listener listens, à la Wallace Stevens, "with the innermost ear of the mind." Then what he says in response must reflect the quality of his hearing.
I'll answer this way. My favorite dog cartoon is this one: two dogs meet on the street, and one says to the other, "They always call me good dog. They never say great dog."
Well, here's what I used to hold dear. A truth is most comfortably received when preceded by an indefinite article—a instead of the unlocks the noun, makes the truth feel credibly small. Now I think that to make assertions using indefinite articles mostly serves to keep us from making fools of ourselves, and yet, sometimes, don't we have to risk this? Aren't the most memorable statements asserted boldly, like Flannery O'Connor's "The truth will make you odd," or André Gide's "It is with noble sentiments that bad literature gets written"? Actually, there are many things other than truth that are dear to me. The tone with which something is said, for one. My fear is Stendhal's: "I may have expressed only a sigh when I thought I was stating the truth."
The lesson of Scheherazade: The king doesn't need a reason to fuck me. He does need a good reason, however, not to execute me. Every reader is a potential tyrant. Make sure the page gets turned.
No. A fiction is a beautiful thing. Unmediated and untransformed experience is a form of ugliness. It sprawls. You can see its underwear.
Hero is the wrong word. I'd say I've often been a protagonist; that is, someone on the verge of learning what everyone else knows about him.
Well, you have to be careful with what you say to certain students. I said to one young man, "You can't go around comparing the yearnings of vampires with your own criminal desires. You're a guy, not a genre; there's less expected of you." He didn't think that was funny, which worried me.
Occasional mischief always seems more interesting than earnestness of any duration. But what if I were to say that there are issues of design and scope to consider, of how and where things fit, not to mention the indulgences of mischief, the poignancies of something actually meant. Oh, I see ... I'm proving your point.
No, I loved those writers who addressed my daily sense of dislocation. Beckett and Cervantes and Kafka—those serious comedians. Then, later, Roethke. Rilke. James Wright. The list is long. I used to read to be introduced to myself, and to otherness; I used to read in order to feel normal. Now I'm more likely to read to see how a writer got from one place to another, to try to locate the secrets and magic of how something gets made.
Good taste? Nothing narrows what we're able to see and invent more than good taste. Then again, I have to say I've enjoyed many a narrowing.
Sure, I usually find myself rearranging what I've started. I'm fond of those good bad movies in which tornadoes rip through trailer parks, leaving lives and furniture strewn about. I'm the mayor who tells the reporter it's time to rebuild, who's fascinated by the odd, jigsaw-puzzle logic of how things might be put together again. Of course, the stakes become different if, say, my aunt lives in one of those trailers. Lament complicates reconstruction, as it should. I might not want to improve that broken rocking chair, which was hers. Lament just might want me to leave it there next to her son's one shoe and his overturned tricycle.
Special effects? I hate them. It's the fault of Star Wars, a good movie. After Star Wars, lots of dazzle, things somersaulting at terrible speeds. Fewer and fewer depictions of people destroying their lives normally. I hate fireworks. I hate parades. Give me backroom betrayals, or a quiet lie that makes a family cascade downward or, through unlikely courage, transcend its fate. I never have a good time on the Fourth of July. I refuse to wave to anyone riding in an open car.
Here's something that I'd say to writers: At least have the decency to claim your unhappiness. Don't leave it lying around the house, bleeding like that. Make something of it.
Yes, yes, but sometimes the soul is so sick it isn't able to open the door.
What I mean to say is that my soul stays shy when it hears someone spill the beans.
My influences? Claire's Knee. Things half-seen. The impossible shot. The need to make my life appear more interesting. More interesting than what? I come with a magnifying glass to the ant farm.
Oh yes, I've had many plans. But "everyone has a plan until you hit them," said Mike Tyson. Careful now, don't automatically discredit what the discredited have said. One punch from him in his prime, and the last chapter of your memoir would need to be rethought. That is, if you were still capable of thinking. When the verdict is in, I often ask myself how we keep on going.
I'm so tired of defending atheism. The burden, of course, is on the believers. Me, I believe in love at first sight more than in the existence of God. I believe that if you call someone and she answers, she's there.
Really, the obfuscators are cowards. So what if language can only approximate? Some writers approximate better than others. Count me as someone who tries to be as clear as he can about what it feels like to be alive while knowing the heart itself resides in the dark.
Oh, there are all kinds of great sentences. Joyce's "A frowsy whore with black straw sailor hat askew came glazily in the day along the quay towards Mr. Bloom" is one of them. "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe" is another. And then there's Mussolini in 1934 saying, "We have buried the putrid corpse of liberty"—a reprehensible well-turned phrase. Compare it with Eisenhower authorizing the Normandy invasion in 1944: "Okay, let's go." Context raising simplicity to eloquence.
No, I'm a hedgehog and a fox. Sometimes I see the world through a single lens. Sometimes the world overwhelms and brims over. I need to widen my glance as often as I need to narrow it. I love Tolstoy, I love Dostoyevsky—vast and contradictory. Let the fun begin.
Why would I? I'll remind you to look up the definition of self-indulgence.
We are responsible for what we invent; God's loneliness is ours. That's my latest position. From now on, when it comes to God talk, I plan to be merciless.
I'll tell you a pretty story; maybe then you'll understand.
Now, now, I often tell myself, no weeping. There's still time to revise.
About the Author
Stephen Dunn's sixteenth book of poems, Here and Now, was released in June 2011 by W. W. Norton, which has published many of his other volumes, including his essay collection, Walking Light. Among his many awards are the Pulitzer Prize and the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement. He is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College and lives in Frostburg, Maryland, with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd.
The University of Georgia
Editor: Stephen Corey
Assistant Editors: David Ingle, Douglas Carlson
Managing Editor: Mindy Wilson
Business Manager: Brenda Keen