Who Should Tell the Poem? A Conversation with Stuart Dischell

Backwards Days

Backwards Days
BY Stuart Dischell
(Penguin, 2007)

Dig Safe

Dig Safe
BY Stuart Dischell
(Penguin, 2003)

Evenings & Avenues
BY Stuart Dischell
(Penguin, 1996)

Good Hope Road
BY Stuart Dischell
(Penguin, 1993)

The next sentence:

She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.

is not as surprising, but Kunitz’s use of “thumping” creates again a macabre-comic image.

Getting back to your question: Poems with their breezy mockeries that are slightly more glib than those who would laugh at them seem trivial to me. It’s not a hanging crime but why bother. Kunitz is dead serious in his use of humor.

Your answer, your generosity in referencing a Kunitz poem, rather than one of your own, reminds me of your teaching style. So often when commenting on one poem, you refer to another, creating rich associations. Do you think a broad knowledge of classical and contemporary poetry is crucial for writing good poetry today?

The Kunitz poem was on my mind. I think it’s essential for poets to have such a knowledge in order to progress in their writing. I also think it’s useful to read your contemporaries in order to find strategies to get yourself on the page, to make something that reads like a poem written in our time. Greensboro used to get more students schooled in the canonical poets, but now it’s tilted toward more having read in abundance their near contemporaries. I can’t fault that. One can read backwards in time as well as forwards. This might be the only time in history, however, that writers are better read in their contemporaries than the authors who preceded them. So now I try to use more examples from poems of age and antiquity and contextualize the way they use craft. I try to find over-arching strategies and structures. Think of epistolary poems or poems written in a question/answer strategy — the latter stretch from the Book of Job to Yusef Komunyakaa.

Has your extensive knowledge of poetic tradition ever been a liability in your own work?

One can read backwards
in time as well as forwards. This might be the only time in history, however, that writers are better read in their contemporaries…

At its best it allows different kinds of poems to be written. There were many strange poems written during the Medieval period — “The Twa Corbies” sounds like something that could be published in revised speech in an avant garde magazine. The problem would be to write poems in an idiom outside your own historical linguistic moment. You don’t see so much of it anymore, but when I used to read as a screener for literary magazines back in the seventies the majority of work submitted was bad formal poetry that sounded archaic. Maybe because this was the kind of poetry most people were exposed to in high school in those days. I marvel at the generation of poets like Merwin, Wright, and Rich whose work moved from a traditional formality to startlingly innovative free verse structures. I think the experimentalism of some truly fine younger writers like Matt Hart and David Blair and Camille Dungy have taken them deeply into a new dialogue with traditional form, especially the sonnet… This is my round-about way of saying “no” to your question. I think such awareness suggests greater possibilities — especially for writing in free verse.

You began our workshop by saying its first goal was to do no harm; then, secondly, that every problem is one we have all had. How do you personally work with narrative, autobiographical material?

For me it’s about proximity and that’s where the pronouns come into play. How close should the speaker be to the material of the poem? That is the “art” part in “artifice.” Who should tell the poem? I have cast poems in the first person that are not autobiographical and I have placed poems in the third person that did have an autobiographical component. Sometimes “I” have become “she” and sometimes “she” has become “I.” All is well as long as the poem doesn’t read like a case history.

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