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.

(page 2 of 2)

Stephen Dobyns: There's always some isolation there. Existential isolation cannot be overcome. You can be as close to another person as you can imagine, yet there is a division still between you and that other person. You cannot get access to another's mind, and he or she cannot get access to your mind. The only link, finally, is in language, and the only really close link is, I think, in poetry, which creates a metaphor, which enables the reader to experience what you have experienced with a kind of specificity and depth that is not possible in casual language, partly because the form also communicates the information.

TCR: ...information presented very deliberately—staged, almost.

Stephen Dobyns: The long poem in the center of that book, as you say, has to do very basically—the narrative is very simple—with just getting out of bed in the morning. What arouses you in the morning? What makes you put your feet on the floor if you have that grand disinclination, that apathy, that indifference, that philosophical angst which leads you to see the whole human endeavor as somewhat spurious? Then the poem goes through a series of different attempts to argue aspects pro and con. It's a poem that goes off in its tone. I mean the tone of the poem is slightly comic, and it uses comic elements in which to explore that idea of immobility, and then the Heart poems in the second half of the book are much darker, really, than the poems in the first half of the book.

TCR: And again, in a whole new way of looking at and laughing at ourselves, we have Stephen Dobyns' take on the human condition.

Stephen Dobyns: Well, there's a certain absurdness to the human condition. One guy robs a bank and the next day wins the lottery. Another guy works all day at the bank and gets hit by a rock falling out of the sky on the way home. Your sense of fairness...well, there is no fairness. Who gets what? Certainly, there are people who get something because they deserve it. They worked hard. And then there are other people ...that guy from Arkansas who won the damned $150,000,000 lottery and was already a millionaire! How can he deserve that? Actually, it has nothing to do with deserving it. [Laughing] He just bought himself a hundred lottery tickets and cashed in.

TCR: Faulkner said the writer is of no consequence, that only what he creates is important. That may have something else to do with why you wanted to get the I out of your poems, why you focus so intently on the poem's aesthetic responsibility, and it's pretty clear, as well, that you insist on the poem's responsibility to the reader. Heart has both a moral responsibility and a political one.

SD: Sure, I think the moment you describe the world, that description has moral and political aspects, even if your description seems to have no moral or political aspects. By reflecting no judgment, by reflecting no political position, you've taken, even then, a political position.

TCR: That's exactly how I'd anticipated you'd answer that question because it's impossible not to be embarrassed about ourselves when we read the Heart poems. All our foibles and idiosyncrasies exist in that character.

SD: The poems are not intended to shake a finger in any way, but they try and describe human behavior, certainly behavior that I've experienced, that I've felt myself, things that I've done myself, and things that I've observed. So Faulkner's right about that: the writer is unimportant. I think the poet may take on a certain more importance than other writers, but it's not the personality; it's simply the things that you've experienced.

You know, in looking at the world, a writer also trains his or her eye. One of the things I liked about journalists when I first started was that I felt they could not be bullshitted, that they could have a very clear eye as to what was going on around them. I think often they fall victim to this, and it makes them cynical and even nihilistic. I think it's the duty of a fiction writer or a poet not to be cynical and not to be nihilistic. The very fact of writing suggests you have some hope in that you believe that communication is possible and that something might happen from that communication, that you're not just shaking your finger at the reader.

We all have a sense, you know, of how life should be and how we should be and what goodness is, and we aspire to those things. We don't make it because we're not saints. I was thinking yesterday, you know, the mind says lettuce the body says meat. We're always torn in that dichotomy, that split.

Existential isolation cannot be overcome. You can be as close to another person as you can imagine, yet there is a division still between you and that other person. You cannot get access to another's mind, and he or she cannot get access to your mind. The only link, finally, is in language, and the only really close link is, I think, in poetry.

TCR: Speaking of that reminds me of the aphorisms and maxims in your newest book, The Porcupine's Kisses, another divergence from what went before. How did you come to write that book?

SD: I like aphorisms, maxims, phrases. I've read them from several dozen different writers from the Argentine writer Borges to Pascal to Marcus Aurelius to all kinds of people, and so I was thinking in those terms, and I started writing some, and I saw I could work a few of them into prose poems. Some of them became definitions, and I saw that I could do a whole section of definitions, and basically I was learning a new way to approach a certain subject matter. That book was written over probably about 7 years, and it became the discovery of what I was doing.

Really, the articulation of the discovery became for me another kind of paradigm that allowed me to think in terms of the prose poem, in terms of definitions, maxims and other considerations, and so I pushed that until I felt that it had a shape that I wanted. All during that period, say from 1995 till now, I was also writing other poems, some of them more conventional poems, and now I'm going on with that, so I have a book coming out in 2005 that will have poems that I wrote in 1995 or 1996 that were neither Heart poems for the Pallbearers book or prose poems for The Porcupine's Kisses. They were just other poems. [Laughing]

TCR: So the next book is going to be a miscellany?

SD: [Laughing] Well, that's an idea. They are maybe more miscellaneous than the others, but I don't quite see it as a book of miscellany. There are some sonnets, some formal poems in there. No prose poems, but they're mostly poems that have a high level of noise. I enjoy playing with that. A lot of poems in there are mythically based with a mythic character; there are poems that are biblically based, there are poems about Noah and Thomas the Doubter and others. I think it will be called Mystery, So Long. There's a comma there: Mystery, comma, So Long. Mystery, So Long. That's the title I'm working with now.

TCR: Mystery, So Long. That either means the mystery goes on forever or that it's over: no more Hearts in chaos.

SD: [Laughing]

TCR: We just mentioned The Porcupine's Kisses, and I have to say that is the most unusual poetry book I've ever seen. I can't help being amazed at the sheer brilliance of those aphorisms. I can't help thinking that each one�and there must be several hundred�is a poem you haven't gotten around to writing yet.

SD: As I said, other writers whom I admire, had written other kinds of things like that, and some of mine may be indistinguishable from some of theirs. If you're going to write just one sentence, it's hard not to have it reflect somebody else.

TCR: Let's give TCR readers an idea of what we're talking about.  I have a few favorites:

When he couldn't brag about his accomplishments, he bragged about his suffering.

He would have been satisfied with very little if everyone else had had much less.

Pimple imagined himself a boil.

Dips his words in honey; you still taste the salt.

Shoots his sperm into the air; waits for the rainbow.

That's my personal favorite, but "To the fly, it's all sugar" is a close second.

This is compression beyond poetry. You say you aren't shaking a finger when you write, but when I read this, I wonder how you found out about me.

SD: I just started with a list of words, and I'd try and think what the words elicited in my mind. There are exactly 400 aphorisms. I tried to divide it up in that way, and there are 51 prose poems. The book begins and ends with a prose poem and there are 8 aphorisms�I call them considerations because they're not all aphoristic�on each page between the prose poems. To get those 400, I wrote about 1500, and lots of them just got thrown away. They didn't make their point fast enough, and the same thing with the definitions. There are probably 800 definitions, but I probably had 3,000, maybe more than 3000.

TCR: I have some favorites here too:

Bravado: two handkerchiefs stuffed in his underwear.

Clothing: another of anxiety's disguises.

Impolitic: the chicken befriends the cook.

Literate: half a dozen memorized quotations strategically placed.

Not only are they funny, but if you stop to think about them for a second, you realize you don't have enough life left to mentally unravel them.

SD: They all try to make some moral statement. Some make it more obviously than others. The trick is to find something that's going to make that moral statement palatable. Wit can make it palatable, a clever turning of the phrase can make it palatable, the comic can make it palatable.

TCR: Another reason they're so much fun is that you can find all your friends in them. And if that isn't enough, they are interspersed with Howie Michels' woodcuts that add their own humorous comment. These are your first prose poems, right?

SD: I'd written one prose poem before that.

TCR: Speaking of prose poems, Fanny Howe has a prose poem in The Best American Poetry of 2001. It's titled "Doubt." Here's how she describes it:

I intended the piece as a lyrical essay, but increasingly all of my writing tends toward poetry, including my most recent novel. I can no longer make distinctions between the genres....My prose might have had a happier life if I'd called it poetry.

Is she just blurring the line here?

SD: I think she's blurring the line. I think she's making a rationalization. She should try harder to see things as different between poetry and prose.

TCR: You certainly write both of them with a pretty clear distinction between the two.

SD: That distinction may change, but there is no clear definition of a prose poem. The best you can do is say what it's not, and that's not a definition. The prose poem does not use the right-hand margin to establish rhythm. That, perhaps, is almost the only thing that you can say about it. I was trying to use syntax to control the rhythm, and there's some embedded rhyme within them. There can be rhythms within a line. I can use little snatches of iambic pentameter to affect the rhythm, but the main thing is that I don't have that right-hand margin. Look at prose poems written since Baudelaire's poems�poems of the 1860's�they can be anything.

The other thing that a prose poem may not have is story interest. You're in this situation where you have these stories called short shorts, and often you can see a difference between a short short and a prose poem. A short short is a narrative with a story interest. The prose poem is attempting to work toward some lyric moment in the same way a poem tries to work toward its lyric moment, but some of Baudelaire's poems have their little story interest. They relate a short tale, and there are certainly other prose poems that do that. You can't say that no prose poem has story interest, but for the most part, the prose poem tries to identify that lyric moment, whereas the short short puts emphasis on the story interest.

There are writers and thinkers whom I respect who say they don't believe in the prose poem, that there's no such thing as the prose poem, but I've certainly read prose poems that form metaphors that I find very moving. Zbigniew Herbert has some amazing prose poems that I find very moving, and there are other people who have prose poems that I find very moving, so it's absurd to say the thing should never have existed in the first place. It's a kind of bastard category, though, which you define by what it doesn't do. It doesn't control the rhythm with a right-hand margin, yet it can still be a metaphor expressive of human emotion, and I can be moved by it, and that was what I was attempting to do in my prose poems.

I don't see it as a body of work; it's an ongoing thing, and they're just things that have dropped off behind me. You've seen an old Jaguar driving down the street, and there'll be bits and pieces, nuts and bolts falling off behind it? It's kind of like that.

TCR: The Porcupine's Kisses, maybe the Heart poems, too, speak to a world almost victimized by its pop culture. The pop culture and complacency are two things that truly annoy you from the earliest poems on, but I can't imagine how you avoid the pop culture with a teenager in the house.

SD: One now, but five teenagers have passed through my house. There's no way to avoid it. I try not to become too much of a victim of it. A lot of pop culture is being pushed by commercial interests, which are eager to create a certain kind of complacency�unthinking complacency�which allows a person to be easily persuaded by advertising or the interests of the pop culture.

TCR: Your distrust of that is in everything you write, just as isolation is. Another subject you continue to walk around is the passing of time.

SD: It's so striking. You try to talk about time to students who are eighteen or nineteen, but they'll have no understanding of time until they've experienced time, unfortunately, so you can't tell students, "You'll see this differently when you're sixty-two." They just look at you with irritation, just as I looked at my parents. Again, what you can do is show in art this experience of the passing of time. The novelists have done it very well, certainly.

TCR: You could have them read "Lullaby," and they'd get it. Well, maybe you do have to be forty to get it. Could I ask you to read "Lullaby" for the people over forty?

SD: Sure.

TCR: "Lullaby," another of my favorites, was first published in Common Carnage.

SD: I was invited to submit a poem to an anthology of poems for the end of the twentieth century. I didn't think I was going to do it, and then I started thinking about it, and that's how this came about. The people mentioned in the poem are references to people in the twentieth century. Uncle Joe, for instance, is Uncle Joe Stalin.


The zero of a yawn eclipses your face,
feeling drowsy, eyelids heavy:
goodnight, goodnight, blow out the light,
the century is going to sleep.
Goodnight, Adolf, you almost prevailed�
your dreams, little fellow, rose to fact
like a swamp beast from the muck, then
they settled back again: good luck for us,
bad luck for you, the century is going
to sleep. And Uncle Joe, your musings
tried to duplicate the density of concrete.
Should we add up the dead millions squeezed
like dry leaves to make your diamond?
But then, oh happy day, you passed away.
Dead brutes, dead bullies, the tyrants
totter past to forgottenhood, the century
is going to sleep. But also the heroes:
Babe Ruth, General MacArthur, Gypsy Rose Lee.
The stages you danced upon are compost now,
the newspapers headlining your exploits
pack the landfill. You imitate your shadows.
All the radio broadcasts have been silenced.
Hush! The century is going to sleep.
Ezra Pound, are you still grinding your teeth?
Robert Frost, is your bricklike heart
the only solid chunk left in your coffin?
Thelonious Monk, are you still bopping
someplace down below? Lady Day hums the tune:
lullabies, lullabies, the century
is going to sleep. And all the objects:
the Model T Fords, the 45-rpm records,
eight-track tape players�see them drowsing
in cobwebbed warehouses. Even the rats put a paw
to their lips. The century is going to sleep.
Maybe in another world John Kennedy was never shot,
maybe John Berryman lived a few years longer,
wrote a villanelle before downing Seconal.
And John Lennon, maybe in another world
the madman missed and more songs got made.
All the Johns, all the Janices, all the Sylvias�
blow out the light, the century is going to sleep.
Dead best-sellers, dead Nobel winners,
dead Academy Award winners, dead football
heroes, World Series champions, Kentucky
Derby winners: all tucked between warm sheets,
sweet dreams carouse across their brains.
My father, my grandparents, my cousins,
your faces slide away in the vapor. How
difficult to see you in memory anymore. You
are the frames from which a photo was stolen.
Or my friends, I have left behind too many�
their stories stopped before mine, their
straight lines banked up at black conclusions:
goodnight Ray, goodnight Betty, goodnight Dick,
the century is going to sleep. And those ideas,
the glad ones, the young ones�integration,
human rights. Goodnight, goodnight. The twelve-
tone scale, abstract expressionism. Sweet dreams,
sweet dreams. A chicken in every pot, two cars
in every garage, three TV's in every house.
Sleep tight, sleep tight. We are retreating
to books, electronic texts, some get paragraphs,
some sentences, some footnotes, most get silence.
Shouldn't we walk on tiptoe, shouldn't we whisper?
Do you have sand in your eyes, little fellow?
Let's take a breather. A baby's about to be born.
I won't see much of this one. Maybe a morsel,
if I'm lucky, of its infancy. This next one
belongs to my children and their children. What
Auschwitzes and Hiroshimas are already being
prepared? What will be the carnage of tomorrow?
What dumb ideas will be used to erase human breath?
But also the good stuff: what jokes, what
laughter, what kisses, will there still
be kisses? Better not know, better let it come,
like always, as a surprise. Feeling frightened?
Are you scared? Blow out the light, goodnight,
goodnight, the century is going to sleep.


TCR: Thank you for that. That rhythm together with its repetition makes this seem like a real lullaby, but the fact is that it's not a lullaby at all because you leave us at the end mourning all that is lost, recounting the carnage, and frightened, too frightened to sleep, certainly, at the terrible insecurity in the unknown. We can't even be sure there will still be kisses. There's no way to sleep with that knowledge.

You know, when I'm reading a Dobyns poem, I'm experiencing the visceral. There's upheaval, uproariousness, noise, testosterone, but when I put the book down, I'm often astounded at what tenderness has come out from behind all of that, and so, for me, you seem to be this solitary man who has loved his reader enough to write a poem to connect with him. That demonstrates for me what you say is the basic reason to write: to erase the isolation. Your poems demonstrate the isolation; they highlight it, but then everything that makes up your poems�words, sounds, metaphor, noise, music, humor, wit�all come together to connect with readers in the way that art touches us and in a way that nothing else ever can. I don't know if this is a comment or a question, but I'd just like to say thank you for that and for all these books in front of us.

SD: I think you're right about that. The poem tries to do that; it tries to do other things. There's also a game element to it. You're trying to sell somebody the Brooklyn Bridge. You are, after all, making up something that will move somebody else, but the feelings are not false feelings, they're feelings that I've experienced, and they do come out of a kind of isolation. Everyone is in isolation.

I gave some readings last week in California, and after one reading, a guy asked, "Do you mind that your poems come across as so masculine?" I was kind of thrown off by the question, thinking I don't try to make my poems masculine in any way.

TCR: Oh, but there is definitely testosterone in these poems.

SD: But I don't add it like salt and pepper.

TCR: I don't think it comes across as decoration at all, but it's decidedly there. If you left it out, you'd be violating your own principle about honesty.

SD: I write out of my entire physiology and personality and psychology. You have to write out of your totality, and I'm a male. I can't help that. I suppose I could get my wiener whacked and write with less masculinity, but I don't particularly want to get my wiener whacked.

TCR: No, [Laughing] don't do that. We wouldn't get the whole picture if there were no poems with testosterone. It's a place women can't write from, and I'm a little jealous about that, in fact, but before I get in over my head here, I think I'll just ask you to read "How to Like It," another of my favorites, but surely lots of people must tell you it's their favorite.

SD: They do. There's a lot of charm in that poem, and people like something that's charming.

TCR: "How to Like It," first published in Cemetery Nights, is the perfect way to end our conversation.

How to Like It

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let's pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let's dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn't been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let's go down to the diner and sniff
people's legs. Let's stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man's mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let's go to sleep. Let's lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he'll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he'll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let's just go back inside.
Let's not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let's go make a sandwich.
Let's make the tallest sandwich anyone's ever seen.
And that's what they do and that's where the man's
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept�
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.


TCR: And so, Mr. Dobyns, thank you for your generosity of time, but more especially for the generosity in this awesome body of work.

SD: I appreciate that, but I don't see it as a body of work; it's an ongoing thing, and they're just things that have dropped off behind me. You've seen an old Jaguar driving down the street, and there'll be bits and pieces, nuts and bolts falling off behind it? It's kind of like that.

TCR: Right. No effort at all. But this staggering amount of work in front of us is only a fraction of the total. You must work all the time. I've never seen you working or caught you making notes, but I get the idea that you're thinking about your next poem or novel all the time, that even now you must be taking note of an uneven hem, the cadence in a southern accent, how we've shifted in our chairs.

SD: I should do that more than I do. Chekhov had a little notebook and wrote down bits of physical description and things that struck him. I don't do that. I have a little notebook, but I don't use it for that.

TCR: To the readers' dismay, I won't ask the obvious question that sentence opens up to. I'll just say we'll be on the lookout for Mystery, So Long from Penguin in 2005. And by the way, when you write that book of poems where the lyric moments happen at the beginning rather than at the end, I want credit for your having gotten that idea here. Is that a deal?

SD: That�s a deal. I just don�t see how you could do that. You can certainly eat your dessert before you eat the rest of the meal, but if you had the end of the poem at the beginning, you�d be violating ideas of structure.

TCR: Go ahead, violate the ideas of structure. After all, you're Stephen Dobyns. You're the one who could pull it off. Thanks, Stephen, from me, from The Cortland Review, and from its readers.

SD: I thank you for that.

<<Previous | 1 | 2 


Ginger Murchison assists Thomas Lux in directing Georgia Tech's POETRY at TECH, one of the country's most energetic poetry programs. A 2003 Pushcart Nominee, she has published poems in several magazines and journals, the most recent being The Atlanta Review, and her poems appear in a dozen anthologies. Married, and the mother of two, she lives and works in Atlanta but escapes as often as possible to her second home on Florida's Sanibel Island. She is Associate Managing Editor of The Cortland Review.


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