Spring 2004

Stephen Dobyns


Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. He is the acclaimed author of Best Words, Best Order, now in its second edition by Macmillan in 2003. His newest book, The Porcupine's Kisses (Penguin, 2002), is his eleventh book of poems, and Eating Naked (Henry Holt & Company, 2001), is his first volume of short stories. His twenty-one novels, among them the highly-lauded psychological thrillers, Boy in the Water and The Church of Dead Girls (both from Henry Holt & Company), have been translated into more than twenty languages. He is, additionally, a regular contributing writer for the San Diego Reader. He teaches and lives with his wife and daughter in Boston.

The following is Part II of the interview with Stephen Dobyns, "Dobyns on Dobyns."  Part I: Stephen Dobyns on Poetry appears in the Spring 2004 Feature.


Stephen Dobyns has been awarded a Guggenheim, three fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and numerous prizes, including Pushcart Prizes and prizes from Poetry and the American Poetry Review. Showing how easily he moves from one genre to another, Dobyns has had poems selected by Best American Poems, two of the stories in Eating Naked have been selected for Best American Short Stories, two of his novels have become movies, and Best Words, Best Order ranks on everybody's list among the finest books ever written about poetry.

As he concludes his semester as the H. Bruce McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech, Stephen Dobyns—poet, fiction writer, essayist, and journalist of the highest order—has been generous with his time and thoughts about poetry in Part I of this interview. We've come to the place in the interview, however, where we want to drill deeper into his writing journey. So welcome back, Stephen Dobyns. We're glad you're willing to let us poke around some more—and welcome back TCR reader. We're glad you're looking forward, with us, to the exploration of the art and the artist as Stephen Dobyns and the Stephen Dobyns poem emerge through eleven books of poems.

—Ginger Murchison

Audio clips from the interview:

Articulate the question
A writer's duty
Write from your totality
Existential isolation
The prose poem
The first person "I"


The Interview with Stephen Dobyns
Part II — Dobyns On Dobyns

TCR: Somewhere earlier in this interview, Stephen, you said, "I write poems to find out why I write them." That sentence could lead our questioning in a myriad of directions, but it's also why reading your poetry, book by book, allows us to follow the path Stephen Dobyns has taken poetically. While that could surely be said of all poets as new work subtly suggests the poet's learning, exploration, and attitude toward experimentation, it is surely nowhere more deliberate than in Stephen Dobyns' work.

Stephen Dobyns: That's something I've tried to do carefully, especially since the book Heat Deaththat every book has its own defining idea.

TCR: So let's begin with your earliest work and see where the writing has taken you. There is certainly a surreal quality in your first book, Concurring Beasts. Would you have called yourself a surrealist? Did anybody else ever call you a surrealist?

Stephen Dobyns: I was called that just the other day…a "neo surrealist," but that's not a term I would use. The term "surrealist" is a complicated term first coined by Apollinaire. He meant it as any exaggerated idea of reality. And then, when it was taken over by Andre Breton, it became a political response to the world, the idea being that realism itself had led to World War I, and so something above realism would free us from the kind of logic that had led to human kind's self destruction. My sense of it is much simpler than that. I'm thinking of the little poems in Mother Goose, for instance:

Hi diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon

Is that surrealistic? How can you call that surrealistic? That's part of the exaggerated experience that comes through the human mind. There are plenty of times that one dreams things that couldn’t possibly happen, you know—something as simple as flying, for instance—and poems can have the same sense of exaggerated reality that you can find in dreams, in folk tales, or in Mother Goose.

You see the same thing in a lot of early twentieth-century Spanish poetry, which seems, in a way, realistic, but it comes also out of the Spanish folk tale, the same exaggerated reality. I think it was influenced by early twentieth-century surrealist poetry in that perhaps surrealist poetry gave permission for certain kinds of exaggeration, but, as I say, I think that permission was already there in folk tales or even Alice in Wonderland, which is surrealistic, but obviously the term could not technically apply to Alice in Wonderland.

It's always been my sense of what a poem is: that it's a machine made out of words, and that you make that machine in some way, that you have all kinds of different outpourings and vomitings on the page, and that once you have that splop on the page, you try to give it some kind of shape, and the shape is partly what makes it compelling.

TCR: I remember reading an Edward Leuders poem to my high-school students that defined poetry as "blue taillights on Tyranosaurus Rex." They enjoyed thinking about poetry that way, and it was just as you said—an exaggerated reality of poetry. Given that Concurring Beasts might have its exaggerations, it clearly works from both sides of the page, from poet to reader, and I'm going to ask you, if you will, to read the last five lines of the final poem. I should ask you to read the whole poem, but it's especially the last five lines I want to focus on. Would you do that?

Stephen Dobyns: Sure. It's from a poem called "The Ways of Keys."

Let a dark lantern be placed in the circle
And let me lie down by it, becoming
both entrance and exit of light. Let me
be the door and the lock. Let me
learn the ways of keys.

TCR: There's a lyric moment for you, for the poem and for a young poet's first book. Already, at that point in your life, you had developed a clear position about the responsibility of a poet and a sense of control.

Stephen Dobyns: Exactly. The poem talks about trying to translate the world into language to make it understandable and so to make it endurable, to make it seem less random, and to make the speaker of the poem seem not so much a victim within the world, but to have some control simply by being able to turn the world into language and ideally then open to some greater understanding.

TCR: ...and you aren't just saying—as the poet—that you want the keys for yourself. You are actually handing them to the reader...a gift.

Stephen Dobyns: Right. The speaker here wants to become both the entrance and the exit of light, to have it pass through him.

TCR: A strong beginning. After Concurring Beasts, you published Griffon, and the difference is visible. The poems in this book actually come in a different shape than those in Concurring Beasts: they are much less obscure, and beyond that, they begin to exhibit a moral sense that is more directly stated. I can't read the section of poems you call "Grimoire"—a whole catechism of sins as it were—without wanting to shape up. You said once that at the age of nine, you had a moral fiber you couldn't cut with a Swiss Army Knife. Were you always this hard on yourself? How have you managed to hold up under that?

Stephen Dobyns: I'm sure everyone is hard on himself. I'm not sure how much good it does, but you try to develop, it seems, some moral sense of the world. I mean you obviously have a moral sense of the world that is passed on to you by your parents and the circumstances of your growing up—church or school or whatever those things are—and then you have to find some way to make that fit. You can't just become a little echo of somebody else's morality, although that certainly happens often enough. The poems in "Grimoire"—we get our word grammar from that—attempt to make definitions for these certain feelings: sloth, gluttony, anger, vanity, envy, spite, bravado...probably about 20 different things.

TCR: Hmmm. "Grimoire"....grammar....discipline, and more than definitions, they're personifications; they jump off the page and move and speak.

Stephen Dobyns: They are. They are influenced by Anglo Saxon riddles where the subject of the riddle, whatever it is—ice, for example—speaks in the first person.

TCR: It's also clear that in Griffon you are already intensely focused on craft. The poems become tight, and the language already an absolute part of the metaphor. How did you come to be so intently focused on craft?

Stephen Dobyns: The focus on craft was there from the beginning. It came from my own reading.

TCR: Craft requires maturity and discipline, yet there doesn't seem to be a single place anywhere in these two first books where you appear to be learning. You just show up with this incredible if it were part of that moral fiber we talked about, so just as you made moral demands on yourself, you were making technical demands on your poems.

Stephen Dobyns: Well, yes. My sense of what a poem should do might change somewhat from one book to another. Many of the poems in Concurring Beasts are my most obscure poems although they all connect to some specific series of meanings, but they can be more difficult for the reader to grasp. In Griffon, in using that little "Grimoire" and some other poems, you know, there's an attempt to use language more clearly and to give more attention to a more-easily-graspable form, so that's something I would try. What is the form of a poem? What is the shape? So the poems also reflect what I've learned about linebreaks or managing a line or things like that.

TCR: Relevant to that last question, I admit I was assuming that so focused a discipline relevant to craft would have to be imposed. In your case, it's just how you went about a poem.

Stephen Dobyns: It's always been my sense of what a poem is: that it's a machine made out of words, and that you make that machine in some way, that you have all kinds of different outpourings and vomitings on the page, and that once you have that splop on the page, you try to give it some kind of shape, and the shape is partly what makes it compelling. It seems necessary. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There's no chaff.

If there's a consistency in any of the books, it's the fact that I like a long line. It runs from maybe eight to up to even sixteen syllables. In some books it's longer, in some it's shorter, but there's always the long line, then there was also the attempt to use the linebreak to affect the rhythm of the lines, to affect the rhythm of the poem.

Through revision, through argument, you make everything within the poem seem necessary, even the shape. The shape of the poem bears metaphoric relation to the content. They're completely intertwined.

TCR: Well, by the time you're writing Heat Death, I can see you've settled into that longer line. Although you've used it earlier, here it's the norm. As a result, the poems come more packed with detail; they seem to roll forward, picking up intensity, contributing to the reader's sense of the chaos and confusion that the subject experiences, and the reader becomes almost as overwhelmed in the situation as the subject does. The lack of white space in the poem contributes to that. If you have a stanza break, it's perfectly clear why it's there. Unlike a lot of poems that just seem to be written into some kind of shape, your poems are organically shaped.

Stephen Dobyns: Through revision, through argument, you make everything within the poem seem necessary, even the shape. The shape of the poem bears metaphoric relation to the content. They're completely intertwined. And that was there from the beginning though my sense of it changed somewhat.

In January 1978, I started teaching in Ellen Bryant Voigt's M.F.A. program at Goddard College, and at those sessions—one in January and one in July—I had to teach a class or give a craft lecture. Surrounded as I was by other writers, people whom I admired, I had to come up with things that I felt they wouldn't dismiss as absurd, and I had to challenge myself. That's the beginning of the essays in Best Words, Best Order—those lectures at Goddard and later at Warren Wilson—and obviously I learned from the poets I was teaching with: Ellen Bryant Voigt, Michael Ryan, Thomas Lux, Louise Gluck, and a whole bunch of people whom I admired then and now.

TCR: My guess is they'd be as quick to credit you with teaching them.

There's no way to give the body of your work the attention it deserves with our limitations of space, so I'm moving on to The Balthus Poems, to poems that you say came out of your liking Balthus' paintings and wanting to get the emotion you recognized in them into poems. As a consequence, that book became the place where you dropped the pronoun I. Were you making a deliberate comment against confessional poetry or were you just moving on?

Stephen Dobyns: I wanted to try to deal with narratives that didn't use the first person I, and so, as a pretext, I used the paintings. But the paintings really are just that—a pretext. I'd done poems connected to paintings before, and when it occurred to me to focus on one particular painter, I looked at various painters. Balthus' paintings lent themselves to narratives, and so they became, then, a whole body. The poems still come out of my ideas of things, things I've experienced or thought about, but while the poems in that sense are still autobiographical, they are indirectly so at that point, but in any case, I wrote that series of poems to avoid the first person I.

TCR: Why was it so important for you to do that?

Stephen Dobyns: I was just sick to death of it. I thought I was writing poems that were too similar to poems in Heat Death, and I wanted to move away from that and see what other possibilities there were.

TCR: So it wasn't a reaction to confessional poetry as much as it was Stephen Dobyns changing direction again?

Stephen Dobyns: Well, I think it was both. Clearly there are poets who write very successful poems with the first person I. If the poem exists only to reflect some kind of attention on the poet, that seems to be a bad use of the first person I. If the first person I is the reader's representative, that seems to be a good use of the first person I—that we transcend in the reading of the poem the personality of the poet. When the I is the reader's representative, it becomes easier for the reader to enter into the poem than if the I is there to reflect credit or draw attention to the writer.

TCR: I hear an echo in that back to your response that you like to stop before you speak, so it seems absolutely plausible that you would make that decision to step out of your poems. You are no more willing to violate that principle in a poem than in a social situation.

Stephen Dobyns: I want the work to be as good as I can make it, and so I might look at things I've done and think how I can do this differently or what other ways there are to do it.

The book Black Dog, Red Dog was published after The Balthus Poems, but some of the poems in that book were written before The Balthus Poems.

TCR: And from there you go on to Cemetery Nights, Body Traffic, Velocities, and Common Carnage. I'm not dismissing all that work, but I want to say that when I picked up Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides, I knew I'd never seen a poetry book like that before. All the poems are about one central figure, a fictional character by the name of Heart, who is really the weaker side of all of us. He's a loveable, bungling character who bumps into all the challenges of life, and while we're laughing at him, we realize how depressed we are at our own laughter. In one respect, I can see you raucously laughing your way through that whole series of poems, but the poems are not funny. They are comic, but they are not funny.

Stephen Dobyns: There are other poets who used characters that I admired. Berryman has his Henry in Dream Songs, and Zbigniew Herbert has his Mr. Cogito, and I take little epigraphs from those different writers at the beginning of my book, but it was something I liked, something I thought would be freeing—another way of freeing myself of the 1st person I. Once the idea occurred to me, I had a method I could use on a whole series of different subjects and a different voice in which to approach them, so that discovery, for me, was a kind of paradigm that allowed me to do a whole series of things.

TCR: Heart is an enormously funny character at his best in one of my favorite poems in that book, "Can Poetry Matter?" I was on the floor when I read this poem, and I'm sure the poem struck me as particularly funny because you have a lot of narrative in your poems at a time when the powers that be—or the powers that think they be—criticize narrative poetry, but Heart speaks to that and considers his place in the world as a poet.

Stephen Dobyns: ...a post-modernist poet.

TCR: ...and [Laughing] he leaves no doubt about your position on post-modernism. Would you read that poem? Mostly I want to hear how you read the last line.

Can Poetry Matter?   

Heart feels the time has come to compose lyric poetry.
No more storytelling for him. Oh, Moon, Heart writes,
sad wafer of the heart's distress. And then: Oh, Moon,
bright cracker of the heart's pleasure. Which is it,
is the moon happy or sad, cracker or wafer? He looks
from the window but the night is overcast. Oh, Cloud,
he writes, moody veil of the Moon's distress. And then,
Oh, Cloud, sweet scarf of the Moon's repose. Once more
Heart asks, Are clouds kindly or a bother, is the moon sad
or at rest? He calls scientists who tell him that the moon
is a dead piece of rock. He calls astrologers. One says
the moon means water. Another that it signifies oblivion.
The girl next door says the Moon means love. The nut
up the block says it proves that Satan has us under his thumb.
Heart goes back to his notebooks. Oh, Moon, he writes,
confusing orb meaning one thing or another. Heart feels
that his words lack conviction. Then he hits on a solution.
Oh, Moon, immense hyena of introverted motorboat.
Oh, Moon, upside down lamp post of barbershop quartet.
Heart takes his lines to a critic who tells him that the poet
is recounting a time as a toddler when he saw his father
kissing the baby-sitter at the family's cottage on a lake.
Obviously, the poem explains the poet's fear of water.
Heart is ecstatic. He rushes home to continue writing.
Oh, Cloud, raccoon cadaver of colored crayon, angel spittle
recast as foggy euphoria. Heart is swept up by the passion
of composition. Freed from the responsibility of content,
no nuance of nonsense can be denied him. Soon his poems
appear everywhere, while the critic writes essays elucidating
Heart's meaning. Jointly they form a sausage factory of poetry:
Heart supplying the pig snouts and rectal tissue of language
which the critic encloses in a thin membrane of explication.
Lyric poetry means teamwork, thinks Heart: a hog farm,
corn field, and two old dobbins pulling a buckboard of song. 


TCR: You must have had a very good time while you were writing that.

Stephen Dobyns: Well, it obviously came in bits and pieces, and then in revision it came together in that shape, but, yeah, the tone of the poem tries to move between the comic and the serious and interblend those two and obviously there's an element of parody in that poem as well.

TCR: ...and what do you have to say about those "two old dobbins" in the last line?

Stephen Dobyns: Well, [chuckling] that was kind of sneaky.

TCR: The book is a series of Heart poems, then your long personal poem, "Oh Immobility, Death's Vast Associate," then more Heart poems, so it seems to me there are two themes in this book: immobility, procrastination, the state of inertia—what you call "a grand disinclination"—on the one hand, and that irreconcilable isolation on the other hand. What you keep saying is that no matter how much we push ourselves into and up against the life of another, we are still in isolation. That's one subject you keep walking around in all your poetry, isn't it?

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Stephen Dobyns: Interview and poetry (p.1 of 2)
Copyright © 2004 The Cortland Review Issue 26The Cortland Review