An email assisted interview series
hosted by C.K. Tower
Verbatim is pleased to have Dorianne Laux as its first guest. Ms. Laux is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon and has published two collections of poetry, Awake* (1990) and What We Carry* (1994), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition, her book The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry* (W.W. Norton, 1997), co-authored with Kim Addonizio, has been chosen as an alternative selection by the Book of the Month Club. Among Ms. Laux's awards are a Pushcart Prize for Poetry and a fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts.
In the book, The Poets Companion: A Guide To The Pleasures Of Writing Poetry, which you co- authored with Kim Addonizio, it states: "...the study of craft is lifelong," and further, the exercises in the book should be useful even for experienced poets... With that in mind, when did you begin to feel the transition toward your important role as a teacher of poetics? What are some of the most important things you hope to instill in your students?
Dorrianne Laux: I'm the oldest child in my family and so teaching has always been part of my personality-- some people have called me bossy, a know-it-all-- my sisters and brothers for instance. When I get new information, or learn something, I'm one of those people who can't help passing it along to anyone who'll listen. I write what I know and I teach what I know. I also teach what I only partly know-- for instance, my next graduate seminar will be on the history of the narrative and the use of narrative in American poetry. I write narrative intuitively which comes from a personal history of reading the novel and narrative poetry, but I don't know its cultural or literary history or very much about how it works. So, I've been reading poems for narrative structure, trying to learn how to break down its component parts: dramatic arc, transition, character development, the use of image as a narrative force, etc... My students think I'm doing this for them, but I'm learning this for myself and, as always, I won't be able to resist passing on the information. This kind of exploration is what I hope to demonstrate-- to find what it is about poetry that interests them, makes it magical for them, and to try to break it down. Of course, you really can't destroy that magic, because no one knows exactly how or why a piece of art works, you can peel the layers away and get close to it, but there are always more layers. That's what I think I love most about art-- there's no end to the mystery of it, no end to the joy of it or the challenge of it. Once you learn how to break a line so that it sings by itself, there's something else you need to learn, like how to make an image also sound like itself or move from one representation to another within a poem. As soon as you learn how to alliterate you have to then learn how to do it more subtly and to make it mean something beyond the mere fun of making similar sounds, use it consciously to underscore and give power to something you're trying to say. The art of poetry can mystify and astound you for the rest of your life. It is because of this that I'm unafraid of aging. No matter how long I live, I will always have poetry as a companion.
Sharon Olds is mentioned several times in, The Poets Companion, as a writer whose work is a good model for students of poetry, as well as for the pleasure of reading well-crafted poetry. You have also spoken of her greatness as a poet of domestic/erotic love. How much of an impact has her poetry had on you and your work? What other contemporary poets have made similar impression on you?
Olds is fearless. Without the model of Olds as a writer who sees heroism in the ordinary, the daily, the domestic, I could not have written the poems I have written. Her sex poems are luminous with darkness and complexity and I am indebted to her for forging that territory. I read her first when I took a night class from poet Steve Kowit and I was absolutely blown asunder. I see in my students' faces the same awe and gratitude that I felt when she first spoke to me. She uncovers so much and is unafraid to bring it up into the light, to turn it in every direction so that each shadow is revealed. What more could we ask of our poets but to be that careful, courageous and precise? That awed by life? Her poems have a raw energy that can only be gotten to if you go down into the mines and haul up their dark fruit. Other poets I am in awe of are Marie Howe, Carolyn Forche, Philip Levine, Pablo Neruda and, of course, Whitman. More recently I've been reading Susan Yuzna's Her Slender Dress, and Belle Waring's Dark Blonde, both poets with enormous energy, and a quirkiness in their rhythms and use of language and humor. Billy Collins is a favorite, as well as the poet Doug Anderson who has written wonderful poems about the Vietnam war in his book The Moon Reflected Fire. I love my husband's poems-- Joseph Millar. I've edited the forthcoming edition of Alaska Quarterly Review and many of these poets have new poems in that issue.
Speaking about contemporary poetry and poets, do you notice a different kind of overall voice in American poets, as opposed to non-American poets, or do you see universal trends transcending cultural and societal variances? What are some of the trends you have noticed in poetry in recent years?
Trends. Are there trends in poetry? I thought there were only a few subjects: Love, loss, betrayal... One thing I guess I see as a trend is more poems about the workplace. Poems about love, loss and betrayal in the workplace? Language poetry is the biggest trend I see, experimental writing. I notice that there seems to be no equivalent to language poetry in other countries and I wonder why this is so-- maybe they simply don't have time to play around like that. I just read an interview with a European poet who said American poets are well liked for their playfulness. I like European poets for their seriousness, their directness and honesty. That's how it often is-- we enjoy from a distance what we lack in ourselves.
When you are writing are you aware of what is or appears to be popular, and if so, does this have any affect on the style or content of your writing?
I don't know that my poetry is popular, or that in general, poetry is what could be called popular. Hair styles are popular, and at parties, a good dip. It is a word I have a difficulty employing in the same sentence with poetry. A fan once remarked to Philip Levine that he must be happy to be such a well-known poet, and he said "Yes, my poetry is known to literally dozens of people." If my work is known to even a baker's dozen, not all of those minions are fans of the poetry. It's certainly not popular with the language poets-- you probably wouldn't see a poem of mine in the New Yorker either. Rather you could say I write a populist poetry, one that has some appeal to the masses. I didn't set out to do this, and I don't consciously continue to do this, though this is what usually happens. I began writing poetry because I needed to say something out loud that was putting significant pressure on my heart and mind. I had read and understood the characters in the novels I had devoured as a child, had been given access to their thoughts and feelings, the questions they asked of themselves in the dark. And so I began to have conversations with them, but since I was a poet, my response came back in the form of verse. And since they had been so open and honest with me, so selfless, I felt I could give no less. I'm reminded of the story of Neruda who as a child was given a tiny toy, a wooden horse I think, through a hole in a fence. The hand of a child reaching through to the other side and opening with its gift. Neruda felt absolutely compelled to rush into his house and find something to give back. That's the poetic impulse. I can't help feeling a deep gratitude to humanity for offering me its gifts. And so I write to the voices of the past who have given me sustenance. I write to the people I love who have given me their secrets and their fears. I write for the ones who are unable to write, for the heroes of my life: my family, my friends, the woman on the corner with a baby on one hip and a bag of groceries on the other, the child rapt in her joy, the man standing on his porch smoking a cigarette and feeling useless. I don't do this because I want to, or because I'm a great humanitarian, I simply can't help writing about these people and for these people-- I see myself in them. And what I want most is to communicate to them that I have seen them standing there, and how, exactly, they have moved me. I am not ashamed of my love for them, or my pity, or my fear.
Poets such as Sexton, Plath, Roethke, Berryman and Lowell, have all been labeled as Confessional Poets, poets who often wrote about the most intimate and excruciating parts of their lives. In recent years we have seen similar styles of profound self-revealing from such poets as Diane Wakoski, Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forche. What is your opinion on this style of writing? Do you consider any of your work to be confessional? Or perhaps is the term confessional when applied to poets, a disservice, if so in what way?
As I said, I'm not ashamed of my thoughts and feelings, whatever they are, and so I don't shy away from writing what's called confessional poetry. But I do think there needs to be some resistance. The religious confessional is an infinite sanctum of release which has found its place in the culture, whereas the poem is a series of walls, each one throwing up its resistance-- each one in a different, difficult way. You have the resistance of form and structure, ie; what kind of container will I pour these thoughts and feelings into, how and in what order will they emerge? You have the resistance of language, how exactly will I say it, which words will I use, will they be short and plosive or Latinate and elegant? You have the resistance of images, how can I make them glow with the energy that infuses me when I think of them? And the story you need to tell offers its own resistance: The events may have happened in one way, in a certain order, between a set of characters who said particular things, but that doesn't capture what you mean so you may have to lie in order to tell this truth, or, you may have to tell this truth even if everything in your body tells you it will crush you to know it. For instance, I am often afraid of how much I love my daughter, how much I trust my husband, how helpless I am in the midst of my own hatred and anger, how terrified I am of death. And so, I watch for the stories that will tell these feelings and thoughts, and sometimes it's not the whole story but merely an image: a boat moored to a dock, the gesture a stranger made before walking into a room. Then I confess what that meant to me using the many and varied resistances of poetry. The religious confessional offers none of these resistances. As soon as you begin to pay as much attention to the language as to what you are trying to say, you've set a challenge for yourself that denies the simplicity of confession. In Tom Lux's poem, Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy, he might have confessed his fear of spiders, or his love for spiders, but instead he wrote: "For some semi-tropical reason when the rain falls, relentlessly they fall into swimming pools, these otherwise bright and scary arachnids." It is Lux's love of language that is fueling this poem as much as his ambivalence about spiders and all their latent symbolism. When you go into the confessional to tell the priest that your parents have done terrible things to you, you do not, as Sharon Olds does, imagine them in their twenties, innocent and hopeful, unaware of the damage they will do. The confession asks nothing of the listener except forgiveness or the possibility of repentance. It's a simple exchange. Poetry asks the listener to become the speaker, to enter the mind and heart of another in order to better recognize the self. Poetry doesn't ask for empathy but for immersion in the human. I think of Edward Hirsh's poem, For the Sleepwalkers: "We have to learn the desperate faith of sleep-walkers who rise out of their calm beds and walk through the skin of another life. We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised." One way to learn that faith is to read poetry. That's what a poem asks you to do, to drink of your humanity or your inhumanity and wake up to yourself. My poetry is called confessional and I have no problem with the term though I think it is often misused in the way I have described. There are poems that have not yet become art, that stay at the simple level of pure confession, or poems that focus more on the psychology of an individual rather than on the psychological moment. That's a major difference for me between fiction and poetry; fiction is about psychology, and poetry is about the psychological moment, the epiphanic. Whatever the case, a true work of art shakes off all labels and becomes a shapely and living thing.
Poets at all levels of experience face periods of self-doubt in their work, regardless of past successes. In what ways can a poet develop a better sense of self-value? How do you assure yourself in times of self-doubt, as regards your work
I write. When I have self doubt I know I am wasting time I could be spending perfecting my craft. A good cure for self doubt is to take on a form: the sonnet is one I find useful, and try to perfect it. It rarely works in my case, but I emerge with a feeling of well-being for having tried it. Or I take on a subject I haven't worked at before, or a new style of writing. Anything to take my mind off those feelings and get to work on creating something. Phil Levine says you have to be willing to write badly and I agree. I have written many, many terrible poems and I am grateful to them because they are what enabled me to write a decent poem.
Most poets are also faced with what I like to call down time, periods when words and ideas aren't flowing and connecting as much as usual. What are some useful ways for a writer to keep up on their writing skills though these times?
Take notes for poems. Garrett Hongo just wrote a poem for his alma mater and he used notes he had taken a couple of years ago when he was in Hawaii. His notes served him well-- it's a beautiful poem. It's difficult to make something from scratch. If you can't make a poem today, you can at least make sure to have some ingredients for tomorrow's poem. Be prepared! You never know when the muse will ask you to bake a cake.
Your precise attention to language is very obvious after reading your poetry. It seems to me that this attention to word choice is in large part what makes your poems so compelling. Is language your primary concern when you sit down to write a poem?
It is always a concern at some stage in the writing of a poem, though it may not be in the first stage when I'm simply struggling to get ideas, images, a feeling, down on paper. Later, when the dust has settled, I'll go back and begin to find traces of language that demand more attention. For instance, maybe when Tomas Lux wrote that first line for Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy, he wrote: For some reason when the rain falls they fall. That's a man thinking aloud to himself, trying to get something down on paper. Later he may have returned to it and discovered the inherent music in the line and sought to enhance it by adding the words semi-tropical and relentlessly, to break up the syllabics, to put some distance between the alliterative f sounds, and to add a bit of humor and gravity to the line. He couldn't have known he was going to write the poem he did until he was finished and so once he was done he knew now how to shape the poem toward its conclusion. Like making a bowl on a potter's wheel, you move the form upward and when you're done you see it's too thin at the top and so you begin again until it makes the shape that pleases you. I know that metaphor has to do with form, but language is part of form and how you shape it adds to the infrastructure of the poem.
How much of your method in constructing a poem is intentional, and how much if any is intuitive? Does the approach change if you are revising as opposed to a first draft?
I've talked a little about intentionality in the answer to that last question. But one thing I've learned is that you have to go back and see what the poem needs, not what YOU desire, ie; I want this poem to sound smarter, cooler, sexier, sadly cynical, wryly wrought, be well dressed and have a red sports car with a CD player hidden in the dash-- but what the poem NEEDS, ie; to have fewer words, brighter language, better transitions, more functional, powerful and resonant images, be more deeply imagined and true to its source. I tend to get tougher with myself in each successive draft, asking more difficult questions of myself and the poem, demanding more from it each time.
Do you schedule times for yourself to write? Are there certain conditions that lend themselves to a better writing environment for you- time of day, place, etc.
Where, when and how I work well may not work for someone else, but for most people, a change in scene is a good boost to writing which is why there are so many writer's colonies around-- writers know this and so get themselves to a nunnery when they can. Other writers already live in a beautiful, quiet, contemplative environment and so need the noise and chaos of a cafe or bus stop bench to do their writing. One thing I learned recently from Philip Levine is that he reads in translation before writing. He says he does this because he is already steeped in the mindset, rhythms and vernacular of American poetry so to read in translation is more inspirational for him. I tried it this summer with Adam Zagajewski's Canvas and Mysticism for Beginners and I got a couple of poems so now I'm a great believer. I'll try just about anything to shake myself out of my habits. The best time for writing for me is when all my loved ones are out of the house, at school or work, and I'm fairly assured they're safe and for the time being, not needful of me. I write very well at those times. I have no idea why.
Are you particularly private with your work before publishing it, or do you prefer to share your poems with others as they develop?
I share my poems with my friends, my husband, Joseph Millar is a great critic and so it's quite wonderful that we happen to share the same house-- I can just run downstairs and try something out on him. Other poets I know cannot abide this and keep their poems to themselves which I can understand. Kim Addonizio and Jane Hirshfield are also good critics for me, as well as my oldest friend Patricia who is a family and marriage councilor and knows little of the craft of poetry but who gives me very good advice. I read drafts to my nephew and stepson and they give me their input, especially if it's a poem about them. But there are some poems that are very private to me for long periods of time, some I have yet to show anyone, and that is fine too, to keep the poem to yourself for as long as it takes.
We've entered a new age of technology, where some poets have given up their pens and paper journals for keyboards and pixels. The World Wide Web and Electronic Mail are bringing together communities of writers that were not possible before. What are some of the advantages you see for poets by accessing these electronic mediums?
Well, I would never give up my pen and journal. There is something secretive to it that I've alluded to in my last statement. I like the intimacy of writing in a worn journal that I can take with me anywhere. It's the same kind of intimacy I feel when I'm reading a good book and the characters or the poems have come alive in me. The book itself begins to take on that aliveness and you find yourself treating it as you would a secret friend. I will never love my computer as well as I love a book-- it doesn't have that wonderful smell for one thing, that tactile delicacy. But I do enjoy the communities that I've met on the web, and the advantages in terms of more venues for publication and exposure to a wider audience are obvious.
A number of your works can be found on the Internet. Do you feel the world of Internet publishing has as much to offer you as hard copy publishing?
I don't know, I haven't been publishing for that long on the Internet. I do know that The Poet's Companion has been advertised and reviewed on the web and without knowing the stats I've made the assumption that it has sold as much as it has in large part because of the web. So Kim and I grateful for that. I've enjoyed reading the good poetry web sites I've had time to browse-- The Alsop Review is quite fine, one of my favorites. And interviews like this are possible.
Finally, what things are coming up for you in your writing life?
I have around two thirds of a new manuscript that I'm working on right now, tentatively titled Music in the Morning. I wrote some drafts of poems this summer that I can't wait to get to work on and see how they fit into the manuscript. I plan to publish it in the year 2000 with BOA Editions. I love the idea of publishing a book in the year 2000. Of course, with all this millennium hoopla, it may be a bad year for book publishing. But that's okay by me. I'm happy to wait until 2001. Give them time to work things out. Maybe I'll change the title to Music in the Morning: A Space Odyssey. Mostly I'm happy to be writing poems. Jack Gilbert says it's a great privilege to be able to write poems and I agree. A great and mysterious privilege.