Who Should Tell the Poem? A Conversation with Stuart Dischell

Another remark you made in the workshop has stayed with me. You defined a poem as “a little word machine.” Would you expand on that?

That mis-phrasing on my part, comes from William Carlos Williams, who called the poem” a small (or large) machine made of words.” (“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.”) Williams was also thinking of a proletarian model that befit the times. Every part of the poem should be operative and nothing decorative. The parts should engage like the clockwork of a pocket watch… or something like that.

My own obsessions are to discover the secrets of poetically successful narrativity, emotion without the emoticon, and humor called to a higher purpose. You’ve addressed two of these; now let’s go for the softer feelings. Sentimentality is bad, but how about sincerity? A passage from Robert Frost’s notebook is quoted on the Poetry Foundation website: “There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but it is probably nothing more than your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves.” Do you regard sincerity as a good thing, or bad?

Well, Frost’s thoughts are beautifully made. How can I argue with “liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves.” He sounds like Lorca writing on the duende. For me this goes back to your point, Maryanne, about humor. Sometimes I use humor because unpleasant things happen. A voice tries to speak out of that nexus of humor and horror. And the voice has many guises. It can be sincere in the way that William Wordsworth is sincere, speaking as a “man to other men,” or the voice can be more like Frost himself, “let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost.” Wordsworth did not wish to get you lost.

Well, there is no humor in your recent stunning “Evening in the Window, Parts I- IV,” which appeared in Agni. What are the craft considerations that save such a moving poem from being sentimental?

In “Evening in the Window,” I tried to create a structure that might contain in its rhythms the stages of heart-break — from mania to despondency. I guess I opted for the single stanza — in this case nineteen lines — as a large room to hold the rush of obsessive rhetoric and syntax engaged in the repetition of individual words and phrasings as I had tried to build cadence out of them. I wanted the lines to go as far as they could without touching the right hand margin. A friend I showed the poem to was put off by what he construed as my use of narrative — but I was already too close to the people in the poem and needed to have narrator rather than a more intimate speaker. The narrator allowed the voice to be outside the events of the poem yet inside the minds of the participants. Still, I hope the rhythms and cadences of the poem are akin to that of the lyric.

And past selves?

I should take the Fifth Amendment on this one, but I wrote this one while those “selves” were not as “past” as they are now. I was trying to cool hot thoughts with craft.

You seem to have a gift for clarity or maybe the desire to communicate. Or teach. Or, as above, tell the story. Have you written any sustained prose work? Or do you plan to?

For the last number of years I have been researching and writing a book that involves foot-journeys through Paris that I have undertaken through the central and exterior parts of the city.

Finally, what question would you most like an interviewer to ask you?

What bids you to continue to write?
Answer: because it feels so bad when I don’t.

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