Who Should Tell the Poem? A Conversation with Stuart Dischell

Do you embrace being considered a narrative poet?

A number of my poems, particularly in Evenings & Avenues and Dig Safe use narrative strategies such as persona, dialogue and point of view — but these are also qualities common to the dramatic and lyric poem. The Aristotelian classifications have interbred over the course of twenty five hundred years — yet I think it is still useful to see that certain poems are essentially driven by narrative, dramatic, or lyric strategies. Here I must additionally confess that I am a failed fiction writer — that what I might have put into a short story worked better for me in a poem. And when I meet people for lunch or a drink I generally would rather hear them tell some incidents than give me their observations or analysis unless they are brilliant. So I think that poems of mine that might be regarded as narrative owe as much to dramatic and lyric elements.

The narrative and dramatic elements of your poems appear easier for you to achieve. More subtle, it would seem, is working with the lyric elements. How do you meet this challenge?

I was very lucky I had the opportunity to study with Donald Justice and read his work, particularly his book, Departures. You could learn the structure of lyric poetry from that book alone.

And yet as you have said before, you are a very different poet from him. How does his coolness serve your heat? Or what was the most important craft lesson he taught you?

Oddly enough, it was restraint.

Looking at photographs of Donald Justice, I would jump to the conclusion that he was a kind man. What did he teach you about becoming a working poet yourself?

That Justice paid any attention to my work was a great kindness. By the time he was my teacher at Iowa in 1976-78, I think he was a little irritated by the students who were poorly read. It was the beginning of this epoch in which it is possible as a poet to be more knowledgeable of the poets of one’s own time than the poetry and literature of the past. Now I’m the one who sounds cranky. As for Don, he had recently published in that book I mentioned, Departures, a poem entitled “To My Students:” “There has been traffic enough/ In the boudoir of the muse.” I think that tells you a lot.

When I told him that I was moving to Boston, he said it was a good thing that there should be more urban poets in America. I understand that later at the University of Florida he had some reinvigorated years of teaching. At a time in which many of his contemporaries wrote an urgent and timely poetry of message, he remained curious about all the forms of poetry and recognized what strategies are available — or can be created.

The narrator in “Song of the Absent Ian” from Backward Days says: “I am not a real person / And the days I lived in never // Happened…” What is going on here? Would you consider that a representative poem of your later work?

This is the moment in the interview where the interviewed person says “I’m so glad you asked me this” and truly means it. I wrote this poem in the voice of a young friend of mine who wears the death’s head on his shirt and is a kind of nihilist. It was written in the spirit of his words snipped from conversation. It was kind of an accident, and I don’t think it’s representative. I think of myself as a very real person.

How valuable do you think it is for readers to understand a poet’s thought processes or the birth and development of a poem? I am fascinated with the author essays in the Best American series.

Well, getting back to “doing no harm,” it certainly couldn’t hurt. Ultimately, I think these essays show how many different ways there are of putting poems together and the various places they come from. Think about Yeats’ description in his “Autobiography” of how he saw a fountain in London and how it made him think of the Isle of Innisfree. Interesting, but I don’t believe I needed this information to interact with his poem. The birth and origin, the “how a poem happens” is fine and sometimes fun to read. I don’t like to hear much about the intellectual architecture of a poem, especially when it is dependent on another text. I guess I am a little suspicious of writers who understand their process so well that they have such a high degree of consciousness concerning what they are creating. I understand things better retrospectively about my own work rather than in the heat of writing.

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