by Dana Guthrie Martin
For this installment of the Read Write Poem Poet Interview, I interviewed Dorianne Laux via e-mail. I had the pleasure of meeting Laux the summer of 2006 when she was teaching at The Tomales Bay Workshops Writers’ Conference.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Laux’s fourth book of poems, Facts About the Moon (W.W. Norton), is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award, chosen by Ai. It was also short-listed for the 2006 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States and chosen by the Kansas City Star as a noteworthy book of 2005.
Laux is also author of three collections of poetry from BOA Editions, Awake (1990) introduced by Philip Levine, recently reprinted by Eastern Washington University Press, What We Carry (1994) and Smoke (2000). Superman: The Chapbook was released by Red Dragonfly Press in January 2008.
Co-author of The Poet’s Companion, she’s the recipient of two Best American Poetry Prizes, a Best American Erotic Poems Prize, a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work has appeared in the Best of the American Poetry Review, The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Best of the Net, and she’s a frequent contributor to magazines as various as the New York Quarterly, Orion, Ms. Magazine and online journals.
Laux has waited tables and written poems in San Diego, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Petaluma, Calif., and as far north as Juneau, Alaska. For the last 13 years, she has taught at the University of Oregon in Eugene and since 2004, as core faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program. Her summers are spent teaching poetry workshops in the beauty of Esalen in Big Sur, Tomales Bay, Aspen, Spoleto, Italy and Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. In fall of 2008, she and her husband, poet Joseph Millar, will move to Raleigh, where she will join the faculty at North Carolina State University as a Poet-in-Residence.
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Dana Guthrie Martin: You have called yourself, in part, a poet of personal witness. Can you explain what that means?
Dorianne Laux: There seems to be a general discomfort right now with the personal, the private, the confessional and the narrative. Of course, poets have been writing poems of personal disclosure since the beginning of poetry. And since the beginning, people have suffered through great historic upheavals, war, geologic disasters, famine, and enjoyed great times of renaissance, scientific discovery, political change, explosions of art, culture, philosophy.
We know some of what happened. We keep records, diaries, logs, news reports, pictographs, paintings, photographs. But it’s poetry that informs us of what we felt while those times and events rained down, and it’s poetry that recalls us to our selves. It’s our emotions that are in danger of being left out, and it is poetry that accounts for, is responsible to, the human element.
I’ve been re-reading a favorite book of poetry with a student in the Pacific MFA Program. The book is called The Moon Reflected Fire, by Doug Anderson. He was a medic during the Vietnam war and the first section of the book recalls that experience in vivid narrative poems that introduce us to the narrator as well as to the men and women he worked with and for and the Vietnamese people we were making war against. The next section is filled with short, lyric persona poems about Goya struggling to create art during the Inquisition. The third section contains poems in the voices of minor characters from the Odyssey and the Iliad, the voices we didn’t hear in the first telling. The final section returns to the narrative, poems about recovery, from the war, alcohol and drugs, damaged relationships, those broken by the war.
The poems are gripping, wrenching. One of the most arresting and heartbreaking lines is when Doug Anderson, the soldier, the medic, asks a wounded soldier slipping in and out of consciousness: Hey, what’s your mother’s maiden name? He’s trying to keep the man tied to the world though memory.
That seems to me what poems do. They call out to us, not by just any name, but by our particular name, and keep us tied to the world by accessing our memories. Poems keep us conscious of the importance of our individual lives. There are many ways to do this, and combinations of ways to do this, but personal witness of a singular life, seen clearly and with the concomitant well-chosen particulars, is one of the most powerful ways to do this.
When we write a poem of personal witness, a poem about an ordinary day, an ordinary life, seen through the lens of what Whitman called “the amplitude of time,” we’re struggling to find the importance of the individual who is stranded in the swirling universe, a figure standing up against the backdrop of eternity. I think of the fisherman’s prayer: Dear Lord, be good to me / the sea is so wide / and my boat is so small.
DGM: You realized you were meant to write poetry after hearing a poem by Pablo Neruda. Some poets have that feeling when they first start writing but aren’t able to sustain it, at least not all the time. Have you been able to sustain that sense of being meant to write ever since you started writing, or have you ever had times when you felt poetry left you?
DL: I don’t think we ever get back the energy of our youth, the idealism and innocence of that time. But with that loss come certain gains: experience, patience, a sense of wholeness. Once we’ve begun the journey of a reading and writing life, we begin to see certain familiar themes, ideas, language, returning again and again, in our own work and the work of others, and we can sometimes tire of it.
But there is nothing like finding a new love at an old age. Poetry will go underground for a time, but will also pop up when I least expect it, fresh and new again, and more importantly, when I seem to most need it. Poetry saved me early on, and it continues to save me, just at longer intervals.
I also look around at the poets of the generation before mine, now in their 70s, 80s, 90s — Stanley Kunitz just died at 102 and was writing the best poems of his life. Adrienne Rich and Philip Levine, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone. All poets who still have something mighty to say and are saying it with power. These poets inspire me and help me to see again, to feel a life sometimes buried by habituation and stagnation.
And younger poets coming up all the time who give us all a fresh way of looking at the world. I’m moving soon to North Carolina after living on the West Coast most my life. It’s a big move for a 56-year-old woman, and I welcome the adventure of it. I know it will shake me out of certain mental ruts, enliven my art.
I also have a stint this summer at VCCA. I haven’t been to a writer’s retreat in a few years now and just knowing I’m going there has motivated me. Looking forward to a time when I can be quiet and alone with my inner life. I think many times when we think we’ve lost poetry, it is a matter of lack of solitude, lack of support. Poetry is always there, waiting to be unearthed. To be necessary again.
DGM: I’ve spoken to people who think we have too many poets and aspiring poets in this country, and not enough ways to sustain those poets — or enough readers to read their work. Others have a different view, seeing this as one of the most vibrant times for American poetry. What are your feelings about the state of poetry today and its future?
DL: I think a bit of both visions are true. Everyone seems to want to be a poet, though I think this has been the case for a good long time. At some point in a life something happens that is just so incomprehensible and emotionally powerful that it seems the only way to process it is through poetry.
If you went out on the street and asked people if they had ever written a poem, I think most would say yes, at least one. If you asked if they had ever painted a portrait or composed a musical score or sculpted a bust or thrown a pot you’d get fewer yeses. Poetry is the art of the people. Anyone can write a poem. And that’s a two-edged sword.
On the other hand, there can never be enough poetry. It would be like asking a drunk if he’s had enough wine. What’s too much? And how will we find the next Whitman or Dickinson, the next Neruda or Akmatova? One could be living right now, hidden away in an ordinary house on an ordinary street in the middle of America. A young Etheridge Knight in Corinth, Miss., or a Gwendolyn Brooks in Topeka, Kan. That’s the kind of democracy that makes way for genius.
It also makes way for mediocrity, but you take the good with the bad. So yes, this is a vibrant time for poetry simply because so many people are interested in reading and writing it. And no, we don’t have enough support for all these people, but there is also more support for poetry now than there has ever been in the past.
The expectation here is a bit skewed as well. Most of us don’t enter this practice with material gains in mind. The university system has helped to create this expectation of fortune and career, as though poems were a commodity. A good book to read to disabuse oneself of this mindset is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which has just been reissued on Vintage Books. When it first came out in 1983, the subtitle of the book was Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. That’s been changed to Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
Lewis Hyde* uses anthropology, economics, psychology, art and fairy tales to examine the role gifts have played and continue to play in our emotional and spiritual life, and describes how poetry is the one art that resists commodification and holds tribes of people together.
DGM: You’ve talked about being drawn to, and about writing, poetry with some blood in it. Can you describe what that means, both in terms of your own work and the work you are most drawn to?
DL: Yes, blood. In other words, poems that possess a heart beat, the blood pumping, flowing through the veins. Poems with energy and drive, force and counterforce. Poems speaking with directness in the telling, where the reader can feel the human need from which the poem emerged. Hot-blooded poems. Which doesn’t preclude quietude. But a weighted silence, in which you can hear someone breathing. Poems with tension, velocity and vigor.
We get born from salt water into blood, we suffer injustices and loss. Sometimes unfathomable injustice, unbearable loss. And we die. Sometimes quickly, quietly, sometimes slowly, painfully. Always alone. I want a poetry that acknowledges this. I want to be broken into, like a house. I want to have everything stolen from me but my life and I want to wake up grateful for being spared.
I want poetry that tells the truth with compassion. I see so many poems of which anyone could say: There is absolutely nothing wrong with this poem. Or this poem is interesting. Or this poem is so smart. What does that mean? Smart? Was Neruda a smart poet? Or this is so well-crafted. I’m looking for poems that leave me speechless. Breathless. Slayed. My spell check says there’s no such word as slayed. And this is what I mean. I’m less interested in the right way than the only way.
When I read a Sharon Olds poem I think, this is the only way she could have written this. She’s our D.H. Lawrence. When I read a Philip Levine poem I think, this is a poem that has some sweat on it, some muscle and bone in it. Lucille Clifton, daring to tell us what we don’t want to hear, with power and anger. Yes. These are my heroes, not because they have mad line-breaking skills, but because over and over they are trying to say something important about what it is to be human.
Gerald Stern. Talk about energy, force, drive. He’s our Whitman. He cannot be contained! You can’t coolly appreciate Stern. C.K. Williams, his forward momentum, his brooding vision. Adrienne Rich at her fiercest and most direct, Ruth Stone beating out the singular loss of her husband over and over again, struggling, at 93, to get to the heart of it.
Galway Kinnell’s rawness, riskiness and originality in a poem like “The Bear.” Jack Gilbert, a poet of great compression, bearing the weight of his loneliness, his bleakly romantic vision. Stanley Kunitz, the pressure of that early cruelty, injustice and grief forging a poetry of compassion and tenderness. When you read these poets you don’t say, Gee, isn’t this a great line break, you say, Jesus!
And craft is important to all these poets, but it’s not why they sat down to write or why I have to sit down to read them. Craft is important, a skill to be learned, but it’s not the beginning and end of the story. I want the muddled middle to be filled with the gristle of living. Sexton and Plath. Yes. And I expect no less from myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t write poems that fall far short of my own expectations. Every poem I write falls short in some important way. But I go on trying to write the one that won’t. I want blood.
*You can find Lewis Hyde’s The Gift at www.lewishyde.com/pub/gift.html.