An Interview With Poet Stephen Dunn

Elissa Wald

Next month, Norton will publish Stephen Dunn’s thirteenth book of poetry, The Insistence of Beauty, his second offering since his Different Hours won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. In a writing career that has spanned three decades, Dunn has also been honored with the Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, the James Wright Prize from the Mid-American Review, and the Levinson Award from Poetry magazine, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He divides his time between Frostburg, Maryland, and Pomona, New Jersey, where he teaches creative writing at Richard Stockton College.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Dunn how he came to write poems.

SD: It has something to do with—and this will sound melodramatic—saving my life. I felt that I was living a soulless life. My first job out of college was writing in-house brochures for Nabisco in New York, and I kept getting promoted. I was in danger, literally, of becoming like the men who were around me. So I quit and went to Spain to write a novel, and wrote a bad one. But I was trying to write poetry too, and those efforts seemed more promising. The rest, as they say, is history, or my history. I went then to graduate school at Syracuse, and got lucky by studying with Philip Booth, Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, and George P. Elliott, and to have had, among others, Larry Levis as a friend and fellow student.

P&W: Do you have a writing ritual?

SD: I did. For twenty years, I’d work almost every morning. Of course I was lucky enough to have a teaching schedule where I didn't have to teach until 2 P.M. But I had a kind of driven-ness back then, combined with a kind of writing-as-practice. Maybe it had to do with an early sense of mortality because my parents died so young—a sense that I didn't have a lot of time. Now I tend to do a lot of work in the summers, usually at one of the writers colonies. But during the year I work haphazardly, without a fixed schedule. And my poems have to pass harder tests before I let them go or even call them poems. I spend more time worrying them into existence.

P&W: What constitutes a “failed”poem to you?

SD: A failed poem would be one in which I didn’t get beyond what I already knew. Or one in which I’d deluded myself into believing that my life and its tribulations or joys actually mattered to others. The poem of the solipsistic error. There are any number of ways to fail your subject, and one is not to allow for the unforeseen. But I think there can be noble failures. I think that if you find yourself trying for a lot and falling short, the result might still be a poem you decide to keep around.

P&W: What is the rough ratio of your failures to successes?

SD: In spite of what I’ve just said, pretty good these days—maybe about two or three out of five; that is, with poems I choose to stay with. I’m more likely to abandon those in which I don’t startle myself into some true concern or into some phrasing that seems promising. The fact is that I no longer consciously wish to write a trivial poem. I say "consciously." [Laughs.]

P&W: What is a trivial poem?

SD: A poem that may do it’s little thing, may have some satisfactions, but is not one that anyone should care about, that maybe isn’t contrary or bold enough. Any poem that’s nice.

P&W: What makes a great writing teacher?

SD: The ones who don’t waste time on cosmetic problems when there are fundamental problems with a poem. The ones who can identify those fundamental problems, problems of conception or just bad thinking. The ones who can say, You have three authentic lines here, throw everything else away. And of course the ones who can point to good poems as examples of how certain poems might be pulled off. They’re the great writing teachers. Ruthless and compassionate.

P&W: Has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed your life, and if so, in what ways?

SD: I think I was fortunate when I won it to have been old enough to have many of my habits in place, and to have my friends in place. So not too much changed. Larger reading fees, yes. A more overt sense of a readership, yes.

P&W: What about emotionally—in terms of just having something like that in your back pocket?

SD: It was very sweet, really. And it tends to precede you wherever you go. The other side, of course, is that I likely have more enemies now.

P&W: Has jealousy been a factor?

SD: I’m sure it has, and I’m grateful to those people who’ve kept it to themselves. But does it exist? Of course.

P&W: What has life withheld from you?

SD: I suppose it's invidious to say so, but probably it’s the kind of historical circumstance that would make the personal—my personal—political. I don't, of course, wish for tragedy in my life, or a spate of 9/11s, but I confess to being a little envious of the Mandelstams, the Milosczs, the Ahkmatovas, for whom historical circumstance heightened and deepened their immediate concerns. But the fact is that I’ve had a rather full life. We can only write the poems that are ours to write.

P&W: You’ve written your own eulogy, your own post-mortem guides; you’ve imagined your own brilliant farewells. What about a tombstone inscription?

SD: “He rattled his cage. He would not be appeased.”

Editor’s Note: Stephen Dunn died on June 24, 2021, his 82nd birthday, at his home in Frostburg, Maryland.