Poet of Restraint and Extravagance: A Conversation with Stephen Dunn

March 2, 2000, Frostburg State University
Nightsun # 20, 2000

Stephen Dunn's eleventh collection of poetry Different Hours was published by Norton in October 2000. A new and expanded edition of his Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs will be issued by BOA Editions, Ltd. in April 2001.

Nightsun: In "Ars Poetica," you use Fred Astaire's dancing to consider the issue of extravagance and restraint. Could you elaborate on how they interact in your poetry?

Dunn: The notion of restraint and extravagance has interested me for a while, I think especially because I tend to be someone who is temperamentally restrained. The great danger for somebody like me is that he might employ restraint out of habit, as opposed to employing it to heighten effects. I think restraint matters when it is harnessing something of size, something a little uncontrollable, something wild. I use the example of Fred Astaire, who seemed to me and to everybody, always under control. He was really using his skill to regulate emotion and to keep out the extra gestures that make art feel false.
I like the poets of extravagance too. I love Whitman, I love Ginsberg's "Howl," but I'm just not that kind of expansive poet. I like Donald Justice's definition of what he wants in a poem, which is the maximum amount of wildness a poem can bear. You want your form to harness and reveal content. That's restraint at its best. For example, all of my best stories come out of having done excessive things, when I've transcended my nature and education. My style is to tell them rather quietly, to keep something back, for better or worse. And then there are poets like Emily Dickinson, both extravagant and restrained at the same time. That seems something to strive for.

Nightsun: How do you find the balance between these opposites in your poems?

Dunn: I'm not sure. I think that whatever we do, the kind of judgment that we exercise comes down to the difficult simplicity of knowing what to put in and what to leave out. It's always a compromise between original intent and the language we find ourselves using. The balance you refer to is dependent on so many things that I can't answer that question abstractly. Perhaps suffice it to say that we will be known by the choices we make. Ultimately, over time, it will be clear whether we're the kind of poet who, in Stevens' terms, prefers "a hard rain in Hartford" or "a drizzle in Venice," or if we're somewhere in between.

Nightsun: The tension between extravagance and restraint seems also relevant to why so many fail when trying to write "the heartfelt poem." Can you talk about that?

Dunn: You need to let your poems get away from you a little so that they may find themselves. Richard Hugo talks about this--that if we are still singularly in love with our initiating subject, our triggering subject, by the end of the poem, we've probably written a bad poem. If you haven't developed different allegiances in the act of composition to language, texture, tone, if you're still fond of "she left me last night" and you write out of that impulse all the way down the page, that if you're still committed to that one feeling, well, it's likely your poem is in trouble.
After the first four or five lines you put down in the poem, you have commitments to rhythm, to texture, as well as to content. At the beginning you could have said anything; by your tenth line your choices are seriously narrowed. If you are not attuned to this, and if you don't hear the sounds of the words you've already employed, you are going to fail your poem. You are not going to be able to find the necessary next moments. Even if you find them sense-wise, they're likely to sound wrong.

Nightsun: How do you see your "Ars Poetica" as taking up this issue of extravagance and restraint in our moral, as well as poetic, lives?

Dunn: Well, the Ten Commandments, those extravagant rules for restraint, came about because we are who we are, because, as a species, we need to be contained. In the poem, I invoke the Commandments as if they constituted a kind of poem that we must struggle with. Most religions, of course, began in mystery; almost all religions end up as ethical systems that try to make us behave in society. The Commandments rose out of somebody's understanding of human nature; given who we are, we need a lot of Thou shalt not's.
We who think of ourselves as civilized essentially have decided to give up what we really want to do for the general good. Sometimes, that is. Or mostly. We all know what we really want to do. A "moral life" is always a negotiation between desire and the need to temper it. Thus to lead a perfectly moral life, if there is such a thing, is to me to have not sufficiently lived. To be middle class, in one sense, means never to have gone all the way with anything, never to have extended an idea to its logical conclusion, never to have completed a gesture, always to stop. Safety is rewarded; that kind of middleness is rewarded in almost every culture and certainly in ours, and the spirit wants something else. I've wrestled with this dilemma all of my adult life, and no doubt that struggle has gotten into my poems.

Nightsun: Even when writing about angels and dancing with God, you seem more concerned with earthly things than with the transcendent. What place do you feel the spiritual has in your poetry?

Dunn: I have enormous respect for the spiritual and only some respect for the religious. I think it's very hard to be spiritual unless you have resisted the religious ideas that were first given to you, unless you resist dogma. It seems to me that great religious or spiritual journeys are just that: journeys; they are passages from one side to another. If you buy what has been given to you as dogma, you may be religious in some terms but you probably know very little about the spiritual. There are of course ways of taking journeys within one's own religion. I've always liked that Buddha, in order to talk about sin and temptation, had to pass through the city of sin and temptation. He didn't avoid it, he went through it, came out with a vision that exceeded it. That's a spiritual journey. If you stand still, you know nothing about spirituality.

Nightsun: Your poem "Tiger Face" is about a spiritual journey. How did you come by that stunning myth?

Dunn: Joseph Campbell came to the college where I teach about 20 years ago. Eighty years old at that time, he spent a whole Saturday, the entire day, talking. He was remarkable. He told that story about the tiger and he was using it as an example of how all of us needed, by the time we're 35, to find our essential faces. I stole the story from him, and embellished it a little.

Nightsun: Is there one school of philosophy which is particularly compelling to you?

Dunn: I came of age intellectually at a time when existentialism was predominant and I still find myself enormously attracted to forms of it. I buy it a little less wholesale than I did then. I have more competing ideas in my head but still, of all the "isms," it's probably the one that I've lived my life by the most.

Nightsun: There's a balance in your poems between thought and emotion. Do you form the poem around an idea or are you writing about a feeling and the idea develops from that?

Dunn: The ideas usually arise out of the circumstances of the poem. They rarely precede it. The older I get, the fewer distinctions I make between emotion and thought. We need to be thoughtful about our emotions, and passionate about ideas. But I rather like abstraction, as long--as I say in my poem "Tenderness"--it has an ache in it. As a young man, William Carlos Williams posited, "no ideas but in things," which had its usefulness. As an older man, he entirely violated his dictum. I think that our best poets will not restrict themselves to even their best ideas.
One of my methods, though, is to be dialectical, that is, as soon as I find myself saying something that sounds smart I tend to resist it. I think that comes out of a philosophical predisposition more than anything else. No matter what I say, I almost always hear the opposite immediately. If I find myself saying something that seems to hold up, that has the pretension of wisdom, I've learned to bury it in the poem, certainly not to end with it. And it must feel like a discovery, probably must be a discovery. I think anybody's "on high" wisdom is very tiresome.
The best reason to tell students not to use abstract ideas in their poems is because they have probably little familiarity with the history of ideas. Their startling idea is often somebody else's old news. I think in order to even engage the notion of ideas you must have some sense of the history of ideas and even then they need to be couched in situations, the more emotional the better.

Nightsun: You've mentioned the notion of the fictive in poetry. Could you expand on that?

Dunn: Among other things, I was thinking that, for me, the most dangerous people in the world are those who believe in only one idea, fundamentalists of any kind. One of the reasons I like to do readings and be in this kind of environment is because the people who come usually believe in many stories. There is great hope for people who believe in various versions of experience and the world. I like competing versions especially.
I'm frightened of people who believe in just one story. The advantage of studying literature is that you learn many stories, philosophy, history, etc. You learn that we have commonalities of strangeness and secrets with our fellow humans. Because of many stories, we are that much more open to otherness.

Nightsun: Does it concern you that so much of modern poetry seems limited in what other disciplines or interests are brought to the poem?

Dunn: One of the things that I despair about with my students, say, is that those of them who read at all, don't read much beyond their major area of study. I love, for example, this last semester when I had a young man in class who was a physics major. He brought a lot to the table; he was more serious than my other students perhaps because he had read a lot about science and history. I had to teach him not to be so abstract, but I loved the breadth of his learning. I think the more we can bring to the poem, the more that can broadly inform the poem, the better.

Nightsun: How often in writing a poem do you know when it's going to work, that you're going to be able to take the poem to some satisfying conclusion?

Dunn: My barometer for myself is that I'm not even in my poem until the first moment I've startled myself. Usually if I'm wise that day I throw away everything that precedes that moment. I'm interested in my life, of course, but when I write poetry I'm not interested in my life, per se. I'm interested in using it to talk about concerns of mine, perhaps ones I didn't even know I had. I usually trust that I might be able to bring the poem to some fruition when I've written myself into some locus of concern. I'm certainly always ready to fictionalize what appears to be my life for the sake of exploring my subject matter. And I'm not aversed to creating some obstacles for myself, creating things that the imagination must reach toward in order to accommodate. That's the illusion of good writing, I think, that something might finally seem effortless, seamless, which may have once had many disparate parts. Essentially I'm talking about how a poem finds its structure and shape. Often a poem is a problem solved.

Nightsun: Do you have any rituals or superstitions about writing?

Dunn: No, but I think it's really important to go to your room and sit there. I couldn't mean that more seriously. The amateur writer only writes when something big happens in his or her life. Unless you have a better life than I do, you would write only three or four poems a year. So you go to your room and you wait for something to happen. You do that regularly.

Nightsun: A number of your poems have epigraphs and I'm wondering how you keep track of pertinent quotes?

Dunn: For many years now, I have kept notebooks that are mostly compilations of pithy things from my reading or things that I have heard. Such sentences or ideas have keyed and started a good many of my poems for years now. Sometimes I repress the epigraph so it seems that I was smart from the beginning. One of the reasons for keeping a quote as an epigraph is if it contributes in some way to the entire fiction of the poem, becomes part of the illusion.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

Dunn: It seems to me a good poem is a very hard thing to write. If you believe that and also have models of excellence in your memory to prove it, you are always tempted to come back to your poem and see if you can make it a little better. At some point, as Auden says, you abandon it, you must leave it alone. Yet, anybody who has written, who is serious, will tell you how many times they've deluded themselves that what feels right is right. I delude myself all the time, especially in the first blush of composition. I suppose there are some poems of mine that have, finally, felt just right, some combination of sound and sense coming together happily. It's always a complicated relief when book galleys come, and you send them back, and there's nothing you can do anymore but own that those are your poems.

Nightsun: You've lived in Spain for a while and outside of Jersey. Do you find it easier to write about places that you visit or places where you reside?

Dunn: I don't think of myself as a poet of place, though in Loosestrife it might seem otherwise. I'd lived in New Jersey for 20 years and realized that I had not taken on my environment, that most of my landscapes were psychological. So in Loosestrife I tried consciously to redress that, to actually physically take on the place I lived.

Nightsun: Does the poet have an obligation to do that?

Dunn: No, absolutely not.

Nightsun: Why did you feel that you should?

Dunn: I don't know. I suppose it seemed like a kind of neglect to have lived in South Jersey all those years, and not have many poems which reflected that. I'm famous in my family for missing the most obvious things. I'm also famous for paying acute attention to people. So it was an attempt to look at nature and environment with some of the acuity that I had always brought to a social dynamic.

Nightsun: Your recent book, Riffs and Reciprocities, is a series of prose poems. Was that another conscious decision to try something you hadn't done before?

Dunn: Yes. I was committed to writing pithy paragraphs freighted with contraries and paradoxes. I wasn't thinking that I was writing poetry. I don't mind that they're being thought of as prose poems, but I was trying to write very good sentences, and I gave myself over to a redefinition of words. I tried to make them my own through stories or acts of clarification. I was concerned with balance and pacing of sentences, and with surprising myself. What that form seemed to provide for me was an opportunity to handle ideas more directly than I could in a poem. I could be more overtly philosophical.

Nightsun: What are you working on now?

Dunn: I've finished a new collection of poems called Different Hours, which will be published in October, 2000. I don't know what to say about it, except to say that after I gave a reading recently, and read many poems from the book, a poet came up to me afterward, shook my hand, and said, "Mortality: a poet's best friend."

S. Dunn: "The Metaphysicians of South Jersey"