Who Should Tell the Poem? A Conversation with Stuart Dischell

Stuart Dischell

STUART DISCHELL is the author of Good Hope Road, a 1991 National Poetry Series Selection, Evenings & Avenues (1996), Dig Safe (2003), and Backwards Days (2007), all published by Penguin. His poems have been published in journals such as The Atlantic, The New Republic, Agni, Slate, The Kenyon Review, and in anthologies including Essential Pleasures, Hammer and Blaze, The Pushcart Prize, and Good Poems. A recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, he teaches in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at Greensboro and has been a frequent faculty member at the Sarah Lawrence Summer Literary Seminars and the Low Residency MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

The idea for this interview was generated at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival 2011, during a workshop conducted by Dischell and attended by Maryanne Hannan.

When American poet Thomas Lux selected your first book, Good Hope Road, as a winner of the National Poetry Series, he described your poems as “rambunctious and wise, angry and funny and graceful.”

Thomas Lux’s descriptors were wonderfully generous. The “Apartments” series that opens Good Hope Road was propelled by an energy that was “rambunctious” as a young person’s emotions might well be — although I was well into my thirties when I wrote it. I was trying in those poems to use both anger and humor and to work in a more demotic way than the poems I had been writing earlier. They were also closer to the emotions of their speakers in their effort to capture the cadences and inflections of spoken language. I am not sure what Lux meant by “graceful” — he certainly was not thinking of it in a religious sense. I know when I am being angry or funny. As for wisdom, perhaps he was referring to my being from Atlantic City where there are lots of wise guys.

I see your poems as rambunctious, funny, and wise, but angry and graceful to a lesser extent. I enjoyed the book, especially for the humor. Therein lies your wisdom, or at least its conduit. What makes a humorous poem more than a poem that gets a laugh?

Humor is certainly one of the elements at play in my poetry and was also how I defended myself as a child. Sometimes there was a price to pay for being funny, as well there should be. Some “funny” poetry is indeed as you say “trivial” and appeals to the worst sense of the audience: the wish to be passively entertained. And in the case of poetry readings, it’s especially easy to get a laugh when the reader becomes merely a listener. And that again is “trivial.” I don’t think humor is always so funny. When it works best it’s painful.

How so?

Think about Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Portrait” with its marvelous diction and line-breaks. The subject of the poem, the father’s suicide, is certainly not funny nor is the poem written in a joking manner — yet there is decidedly to my mind a macabre humor at work, particularly in the pacing and line breaks of first six lines of the poem that comprise the opening sentence.

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.

The first line is certainly not humorous, nor is the second but when it is taken together as two pieces of sense, I can’t help but give a little laugh as if to ward off the horror and terror. This is humor that derives from the deep mine of darkness. The word “awkward” seems almost humorous in this context as well. It’s a brilliant opening and shows what free verse can do best with lineation and voice.

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