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.

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.

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.

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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