Hints of Insurrection: a Conversation with Stephen Dunn


Stephen Dunn is the author of seventeen collections of poetry, two volumes of essays, and three chapbooks; his poems have appeared in Poetry, the Atlantic, the Nation, the New Yorker, American Poetry Review, the New Republic, The Georgia Review, and many other journals. Among prizes and awards too numerous to list here, Dunn has won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Different Hours in 2001, the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, three NEA creative-writing fellowships, and a Pushcart Prize. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, where he began teaching in 1974. He has also held visiting professorships at many institutions, including the University of Washington, New York University, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan. 

Throughout his remarkable career, many wonderful things have been said about Dunn’s art, but let me add this to the chorus: perhaps more than any other living poet I can think of, Dunn’s sense of meaning allows for, even relies on, the unforeseen and unknown. His poems use silence and sound, negation and affirmation; they question themselves, search for the materiality of abstractions, and honor the truth of ambiguity. Dunn is fascinated by and fascinates readers with the turns in life and line. He tells us intimacy engenders concealment, and shows us the revelation in restraint. Indeed, as “Propositions,” a recent piece in Poetry, opens, “Anyone who begins a sentence with, ‘In all honesty . . .’ / is about to tell a lie. Anyone who says ‘This is how I feel’ / had better love form more than disclosure . . .” 

In “Essay on Sanity” Dunn contends, “Who is sane is a question / of resistance, the mind saying No / to the sanctioned lies, the body / speaking up to the inner ear / that has been educated to hear it.” Here, as in the poem “Moralists,” readers become joyfully aware that the human is on our side when he smiles to tell us, “Sometimes a bad thing has felt so good / I wouldn’t let anyone name it for me / ever again. And what’s moral / had a new gaiety to it, an exuberance.” Who could help falling in love with such moments, with that which finds “an aliveness / that hints at insurrection / in the deepest part of you”?

In the tradition of Weldon Kees and Wallace Stevens, Dunn voices the well of mute necessity. In “Those of Us Who Think We Know,” in which language can only say what it cannot do, Dunn first asserts that “it’s in disappointment we look for words / to convince us / the spaces between the stars / are nothing to worry about” and then that “the words we find / are always insufficient, like love / though they are often lovely / and all we have.” What remains, Dunn professes in a poem on images of September 11th, is beauty’s insistence on itself.  

A “fictionist,” Dunn maintains in the essay “A History of My Silence” that “all good poetry is [one] of witness,” and in “Poets, Poetry, and the Spiritual” that “The world, properly seen, is vital, various, contradictory,” demonstrating, lyrically and philosophically, that a mistrust of words is a prerequisite for their very best use. Dunn is one of those rare talents able to map the interstitial, the inside and outside of language, the places where the world of thought meets, exceeds, and diverges from the shape of what’s before us. He makes—as he writes in the latter essay—“forays into the mysterious without trying to tame it.”

I was fortunate to sit down and speak with Dunn about his forays, present and past, in verse and prose. We talked in my office at East Carolina University, when he came to read his work in October 2016. My thanks to Stephen for a very engaging hour.


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Helena Feder (HF): You have said there are any number of ways to fail one’s subject. Are there subjects that one can only fail? 

Stephen Dunn (SD): I think subjects, those we consider the important subjects, are likely to fail, because we know our attitudes in advance. The likelihood of making discoveries, which is crucial, is small. A lot of my poems are first-person poems; I begin with profound boredom about my life that nobody is interested in, or should be. Interest has to be discovered. I begin most poems without knowing where I’m going at all. When I reach that crucial stage of knowing what I’m doing, that’s when I have to keep the verve going and not be too purposeful. Any subject that carries with it its significance is a danger to me.

HF: The happy love poem, for example? The most impossible poem to write. 

SD: Yes. Then I found myself able to write them when I married Barbara. Love poems without a “but” in them are almost impossible to write except through relationship and duration. I’ve finally been able to write those, two or three of them. 

HF: That’s truly wonderful, meeting that subject, in both senses. What have you read recently in which the author really meets his or her subject?

SD: I just read a wonderful novel by David Huddle, called My Immaculate Assassin [2016]. It’s a terrific accomplishment in that it’s a kind of love story in which these two ne’er-do-wells meet. This is true science fiction: she has the capacity to murder anybody she wants and never get caught. It seems silly, but it’s wonderful. They’re doomed to break up, and you think she’s going to kill him in the end. It’s full of surprises. I know David’s work and this is his most ingenious book. 

Also, Sharon Olds sent me her newest book, Odes [2016]. Fabulous book. She is able to affirm things that most of us would find ways to be more complicated or evasive about. They’re true odes. Those are the two books I’ve read recently. 

HF: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you compose dialectically, resisting the impulses of your poem or resisting your own impulses. Are your companion poems with two speakers enacting this process of resistance? 

SD: I think you must be referring to the two poems, both called “Answers,” in The Insistence of Beauty [2004]. In those I was imitating what Mark Strand did in his eulogy for his father, which was essentially dialectical. In his poem he asks a question of his father and his father gives him an answer; then Strand asks the same question again and gets a better answer. It’s that resistance to the first thing that comes to your mind, which I find useful. That’s just a philosophical habit of mine. 

HF: I’ve seen your habit of mind referred to as “skeptical pragmatism.” 

SD: I just think I’m a contrarian. 

HF: You do seem to inhabit resistance. Is the poem, then, the product of something negated?

SD: Yes, I think so. I think most poems, if they’re any good, are corrections of what passes as true, as accurate. I once heard Hayden Carruth say, “At any given time, seventy-five percent of the language you hear in a day is meant to deceive you.” It’s close to that percentage. To get little things right is a big thing; it is a form of negation, but I think of it more positively as a correction.

HF: Sounds about right. Adorno calls it negating the negation. In other words, it’s the only way to be affirmative. 

SD: That’s nice.

HF: Along these lines, you talk about resistance helping you exceed your original impulse. Could you discuss the role of resistance in “In the Open Field” and the later poem “Talk to God”?* They seem like companion pieces.  

SD: I  ’d have to look at “In the Open Field” again.

HF: May I read it to you?  

In the Open Field 

That man in the field staring at the sky
without the excuse of a dog
or a rifle—there must be a reason
why I’ve put him there.
Only moments ago, he didn’t exist.
He might be claiming this field
as his own, centering himself in it
until confident he belongs. Or
he could be dangerous, one of those
men who doesn’t know
why he talks to God.
I thought of making him a flamingo
standing alone on one pink leg,
a symbol of discordancy
between object and environment.
But I’ve grown so weary of inventions
that startle but don’t satisfy.
I think he must have come to grieve
a good friend’s death, and just wants
to stand there, numbly, quite sure
the sky he’s looking at is vacant.
But I see that he may be smiling—
his friend’s death was years ago—
and he might be out there to savor
the solitary elation of having discovered
what had eluded him until now. 

SD: I can see the relationship now that you’re talking about.

HF: In “Talk to God,” the persona seems a Prospero figure, explicitly in charge of this white-page landscape, choosing what to put in and what to take out. And yet, somehow there’s an intimacy between the person speaking to us and our own footing on this white page. If you do not mind, I will read this one as well:

Talk to God

Thank him for your little house
on the periphery, its splendid view
of the wildflowers in summer,
and the nervous, forked prints of deer
in that same field after a snowstorm.
Thank him even for the monotony 
that drives us to make and destroy
and dissect what would otherwise be
merely the lush, unnamed world.
Ease into your misgivings.
Ask him if in his weakness
he was ever responsible 
for a pettiness—some weather, say,
brought in to show who’s boss
when no one seemed sufficiently moved
by a sunset, or the shape of an egg.
Ask him if when he gave us desire
he had underestimated its power.
And when, if ever, did he realize
love is not inspired by obedience?
Be respectful when you confess to him
you began to redefine heaven
as you discovered certain pleasures.
And sympathize with how sad it is
that awe has been replaced
by small enthusiasms, that you’re aware
things just aren’t the same these days,
that you wish for him a few evenings
surrounded by the old, stunned silence.
Maybe it will be possible then
to ask, Why this sorry state of affairs?
Why—after so much hatefulness
done in his name—no list of corrections
nailed to some rectory door?
Remember to thank him for the silkworm,
apples in season, photosynthesis, 
the northern lights. And be sincere.
But let it be known you’re willing to suffer
only in proportion to your errors,
not one unfair moment more.
Insist on this as if it could be granted:
not one moment more.

SD: In “Talk to God” I was trying to be as ecumenical and fair as I could be. The only way to raise successful objections to anything is to take the other side a little bit, and show that you know what other people are thinking. My biggest leap here was to pretend that there is a god. 

All poems we write are meant to be overheard by our best readers. I was trying to get the others on my side by acknowledging what they believed, and then taking it away from them. In this regard, my most ecumenical poem is “If the Poet.”

Do you know Spencer Reese’s work at all? Spencer is quite a good poet. He was discovered by Louise Glück, I believe. He worked for Brooks Brothers for many years. He writes very strange (in the best sense of that word), long formal poems. We became friendly at Yaddo. One day he came over to my studio and asked me to read a poem of his about his mother, Hartford (where he grew up), and Wallace Stevens. I liked it but I knew something about Stevens he didn’t. He was leaving, the next day, to be ordained as an Anglican priest. I debated about whether or not to tell him, because it might screw up his poem. In the end, I told him about Stevens’s claim that the poet should never yield to the priest. And he revised the poem. And, as a result of our conversation that evening, I wrote “If the Poet.” 

HF: That’s quite a story, and the turns in “If the Poet” are quite beautiful. 

SD: I think about turns all the time. In my forthcoming book [Degrees of Fidelity: Essays on Poetry and the Latitudes of the Personal, due out from Tiger Bark Press in October 2018], I have an essay about turns using a poem by David Ignatow, a short poem with two turns. A rare thing, two successful turns. 

HF: If I remember correctly, your poem “Propositions” also has two successful turns. Are two turns riskier than one? Or is the poet in a permanent position of risk? 

SD: I think risk is an overrated notion in poetry. There are poems that I wrote when I was younger that failed because I wasn’t good enough to pull off what I wanted to say. When your craft gets better, your poems seem less risky. I remember reading James Dickey’s “The Sheep Child” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. You  ’d think it was a poem one couldn’t write; it is about fucking sheep, and it is a beautiful poem. I thought, If you can get away with this, you can get away with anything if you’re good enough. I don’t know if he thought that poem was risky or not; he was writing out of his own obsessions at that time. But I don’t think I’m taking great risk. 

HF: “The Routine Things Around the House” seems risky; after all, the central event of the poem seems a strange act of love: a mother satisfying her son’s curiosity about the female body by revealing her breasts. 

SD: “The Routine Things Around the House” is a poem that I thought was risky, in the sense that I couldn’t get it right. It was a vulgar poem until I did. And it took eleven years to get it right. I published it in an earlier version, so I knew it had kind of cachet quality, but I felt that I had not gotten it right at the end. I thought that my mother’s legacy was that she made me comfortable with women, which is true enough. But it didn’t seem right. Then one day I was looking at the poem and the truer legacy revealed itself, and I finally decided to put it in a book. Her main legacy was that by stopping where she did, she taught me about boundaries and limits. It’s a poem that was risky for a while because I hadn’t discovered the real essence of the poem yet. 

HF: Getting a poem right seems more like magic than writing it in the first place. How do you know when to stop worrying a poem into more than it is, or taking a different turn? 

SD: I don’t know. I have two very good readers right now, Larry Raab and my wife. Poems that I thought I had finished just right, they shake their heads at. Larry published an example of this in his essay “In a Different Hour: Collaboration, Revision, and Friendship.” It’s in his book Why Don’t We Say What We Mean? [2016]. I think I often believe that I’ve finished a poem when I haven’t. One of the dangers is felicity, a kind of graceful moment toward an end; it’s pretty, it reads well, a lot of people would like it, and I like it too. So I hold off for a while, work on it for a couple more months, and show it to Larry. 

HF: So you have a holding pattern, a place where poems go for a few months even when they seem finished. 

SD: Yeah, but I’m convinced that I’m right until I’m not. I’ve learned how to resist critics too. I know where Larry’s tics are and I try to not take them seriously, as I do with his more general comments. We’ve learned now to say things like “This is only a good poem,” and we know what that means: it works all the way through, but nobody should care about it, really. He will say to me, for example, “You’ve made this move twenty-five times before in your life, so why are you doing it again?” 

HF: At the end of your essay “Forms and Structures” you write, “A form has a curious integrity; it wishes to serve. It only sometimes wants to be only itself.” I love the syntax of that last sentence, because it’s briefly counterintuitive. Is there a tension between the turn in poetry, which you’ve mastered with your well-timed turns, and the way form itself can turn on you? 

SD: It’s a complicated question and a good one. The turn comes about for me out of a certain necessity, because I’ve heard the opposite of what I’ve just written. Timing is of course crucial—just when to evoke that opposite. What ruins most of my students’ poems is a failure to develop new allegiances as the poem goes on. They like their original subject too much. I am in no way wedded to my original subject, ever. As the poem progresses I find myself caring about it less and less. 

HF: That must be remarkably freeing, generative. It’s almost inhuman, in Jeffers’s sense of the word.

SD: It seems quite natural to me. The first four or five lines you write in a poem create a certain series of promises and expectations, in yourself as well as in the reader. If you’re wedded to your original subject, if you don’t hear the language you’ve put in your poem, you’re going to screw up the turn, because you won’t hear that something else which has happened to your subject. You have at least two allegiances when you start: one to what you think you want to say and the other to the language you find yourself using. There’s a trade-off all the way through and, at a certain point, the poem has its own manners, its own decorum. When I get stuck, and can’t find the right next moment, it’s usually because I’m still a little attached to my original subject; when I want to make things symmetrical and use the language that I used at the beginning, I know that I’ve run out of imagination at that point. The poem has to be alive all the way through. 

Richard Hugo’s “Triggering Town” (in his book of the same title) is the best essay on this subject. In it he says essentially what I’m saying now. If you don’t develop new allegiances as your poem goes along, you’re going to bore everybody, including yourself, and you won’t be able to startle yourself into the necessary discoveries. A turn usually suggests that you’ve made a discovery, something you didn’t know you were going to say that you could not have said six lines earlier. You need to hear what you’ve put in the air of your poem. 

It’s always a trade-off for me, between the language I find myself using and what I wanted to say. Then I have to discover what’s beyond what I wanted to say; I know I’ve made a poem the first moment I’ve startled myself. Before that, I’m writing out of my conventional work-a-day mind. The poem might be smart, but who cares? It has to get away from itself. Over the years I’ve learned to think of revision as expansion as well as paring down. I used to see myself as a page-and-a-half kind of guy. Then I reached a point, it must have been fifteen years ago, that I began adding a foreign detail, a detail that the poem could not yet accommodate, to see if my imagination could make it part of the fabric of the poem. That was revision by expansion.

HF: Take “Propositions,” for example. It doesn’t seem like it could end any other way; was that revision by expansion . . . out of the air? 

SD: Yeah, that last line came out of nowhere. Here is the last part of the poem: “I was trying / to be radically honest, I said, but in fact / had another motive. A claim without a “but” in it / is, at best, only half  true. In all honesty, / I was asking in advance to be forgiven.” It seemed exactly right when I wrote it, which rarely happens. I knew it was funny too, in all honesty. Have you read my essay on sincerity? 

HF: I have, and I like it very much. It puts me in mind of your poem “The Good News,” which seems to stand up and say, This is how I write poetry: the good news is always the bad news; the bad news is always the good news. 

SD: Behind all of these kinds of claims was the wish to live a coherent life, one that made sense or would hold up. I gave that up; it was impossible. My first wife always claimed I wanted two of everything. 

HF: Only two?

SD: More. [Laughter] I think behind this poem is Camus’s remark, “I never said I was a good man, I only wished to be a good man.” I’m all these things. I came up with as many claims as I could that seemed to cohere and were also as contradictory as possible. 

HF: Has anyone ever asked you about the influence of Anthony Hecht? Did you have Hecht’s 1967 volume The Hard Hours in mind with Different Hours [2000]? There’s a certainly an affinity between you and Hecht.

SD: No one has asked, but I may have. I certainly knew his Hard Hours. Hecht has been a very interesting person in my life, though I never met him. When I won the Discovery contest in 1971, he was one of the judges, along with Muriel Rukeyser and John Logan. I had read Hecht, and when I went to graduate school at Syracuse, I met George P. Elliott. He was a good friend of Hecht’s and we talked about him a lot. Then, Hecht was on the Pulitzer committee when I won the prize for poetry. 

HF: Wow, he chose you twice. I met him briefly when he read at Mount Holyoke College in the early nineties. He had a wonderfully rich reading voice. When I first read Different Hours, I was struck by the affinity, which makes sense, given that you’re both influenced by Stevens. 

SD: I always thought he was so graceful.

HF: When Hecht died, David Yezzi wrote, “It was Hecht’s gift to see into the darker recesses of our complex lives and conjure to his command the exact words to describe what he found there. Hecht remained skeptical about whether pain and contemplation can ultimately redeem us, yet his ravishing poems extend hope to his readers that they can.” When I saw this I thought, that’s Dunn too.

SD: I would share that view. I’ve mostly been characterized as a poet of the ordinary, which I think of as mysterious, the world that exists inside this one. The ordinary is an immense, grand subject, one that is inherently philosophical.

I should tell you that one of the dangers of reading the book of essays about me that was published, The Room and the World [2013; edited by Laura McCullough], was that I discovered some things that I was doing. It was flattering, but I discovered how important it is to write without that (self)-consciousness. I think that anybody who writes out of any theoretical impulse is in trouble, whether wholly committed to the image or the idea. I mean, you want to bring all that’s in the world to the poem. Theory, or foreknowledge, restricts.

I’ll read from my new book if you  ’d like [Whereas (2017)]. I have the galleys with me. This is late in a poem called “Let’s Say”: “What’s a poet anyway but someone who gives / the unnamed a name? A see-er more than a seer, / a maker of what becomes obvious, that’s been there all along.” 

HF: That’s wonderful. There’s a similar thought in your essay “Willing to Be Led Anywhere.” And as long as we’re talking about theoretical impulses, may I ask you an open-ended question about the aesthetic and the political? 

SD: I never set out to write political poems, though they occur. When I find myself thinking that way, I have to startle myself early. I have to write without knowing where I’m going. The danger of political poems is that we know our ideas beforehand. 

HF: Back in an interview in 1984, you said that you had feeling for nature, but “mostly human nature.” I was wondering if that’s still the case. I ask this because wildness, like desire and difficulty, is important to your work. I’m thinking of poems such as “Nature” and “Backwaters” and “Landscapes with Friends,” as well as “Reconstruction” and “Archaeology” and “Delicacies.” In many of these poems, humans, nonhuman animals, and plants all inhabit a space together. 

SD: It’s a major issue in my life all the time. There are three poems in Whereas that speak directly to that. You can read this one, “Emergings”: 


Let’s say men and women begin
as slime, and some of us crawl
out of the sea, and fall into circumstance
fraught with danger, and cannot survive,
but do, slithering into a cave
where the stories evolve, first as pictures
on the walls, then as grunts that turn
into something like words. For years,
though, biology reigns. Our bodies go
this way or that. Our culinary wisdom
is to eat more than get eaten.
Our good sense is to follow a guess.
Let’s say sometimes the accidental
is the beginning of possibility.
We discover that when most afraid,
when catastrophe looms, opportunities abound.
We learn the power of slings and stones.
And the best storyteller emerges
from all of those wishing to explain.
Let’s say he knows we need someone
to admire, and says a hero is a person
who blunders into an open cave,
and that it takes courage to blunder.
Let’s say he also says something about
the beauty of slime. His story lives
for a while because of its memorable turns,
its strange moral fervor, while the others’—
merely accurate and true—disappear.

HF: In “Forms and Structures,” you’ve written, “The greater the artist is, the more he or she can accommodate the unruly, the serendipitous, the discordant, in a sense the unmanageable, and create for them a livable environment.” Here, the talented poet seems a homemaker for the strange and the familiar. And a homemaker is an oikos-maker, an ecologist. 

SD: I love a lot of things in nature, but I’m more interested in human nature and what we make of things. This is the heart of my ongoing argument with my wife. I say we wouldn’t know anything about nature if it we didn’t have art, if we didn’t have makers. Barbara, my wife, says the opposite. 

HF: This seems to me to be an argument, at least in part, about beauty and truth. I suspect you have Keatsian tendencies, a love-hate relationship with beauty and truth? 

SD: Yes. Very good.

HF: If I can continue to press the point, your negation or resistance or lines of defense—which, by the way, is such a great title—seem a version of Keatsian negative capability. [Lines of Defense appeared in 2014.] But you often have more than two points of tension at play; it’s not always thesis, antithesis. I would argue that once you have three or four or more, you might consider it an ecology. Poetry then becomes the work of expressing and examining human contingency, context, and interrelation. So even though no one would, as Fred Marchant suggests, call you a “nature poet,” we might think of you as an ecological one. As you wrote in one of your new essays, “What are stories and poems anyway if not artificial arrangements of chains, of interconnections?” Even when you’re talking about “artificial” arrangements, as in the recent poem “Unnatural”—which contrasts with “Nature’s” creations “our sleek perfection / of bombs and instruments of torture, / our nature so human we hide / behind words that disguise and justify”—it sounds like an ecology.

SD: I would be happy to be thought of that way; it’s a great thing what you just said. I’m going to repeat it to Barbara.

HF: Is there still a prejudice against discursive poetry? 

SD: Of course. I had to find a way to harness my discursiveness. I used that little William Carlos Williams three-line step-down stanza to do it. But that was just a way of editing poems that were, originally, in block form. I recomposed them, using three-line stanzas to get rid of what was superfluous. 

HF: Was it like training wheels? I ask because you have very few three-line stanza poems anymore. I only saw one or two, I think, in Lines of Defense. There are quite a few in earlier books.

SD: It helped me find my line. When I read, I usually don’t pause at the end of the line. The stanza was really an editing device more than anything else, to get rid of what the poem shouldn’t have in it. 

HF: Speaking of line breaks, as we are in North Carolina right now, what do you think of A. R. Ammons?

SD: I have curious feelings about Ammons. I think he’s the famous poet who is the least read by everybody I know. I know he’s wonderfully ambitious. My favorite poem of his is that two-line one, “Their Sex Life”: “One Failure on / Top of another.” Great line break. 

HF: Some of your poems are wonderfully funny too. Unsentimentally funny; small insurrections.

SD: There’s a commonality between joke-telling and poetry-writing. For example, I can’t bear people who tell jokes that aren’t interesting all the way through, jokes in which the punchline is everything. The good joke-teller finds a way to amuse along the way; he knows where he’s going and he demonstrates confidence that you’re listening. He tells the joke with delight from the beginning. Poets should behave similarly.


* “Talk to God” first appeared in The Georgia Review (Spring 2007).


Helena Feder is Associate Professor of Literature and Environment and Director of Great Books at East Carolina University. She is the author of a number of scholarly articles and one book, Ecocriticism and the Idea of Culture: Biology and the Bildungsroman (Routledge, 2014). She has published poems in North American Review and ISLE, and interviews in North American ReviewGreen Letters, Radical Philosophy, ISLE, and Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.