Return From Silence: An Interview With Norman Dubie

Mary Gannon

How do most of your poems arrive?
Voices will invade me and will go to the page effortlessly sometimes. But for the most part, the work that is of an audition is almost always difficult for me technically. There are many drafts and it’s very strange, the way I depend on the first speaking of the poem. My other experience involves momentary linear experiences—I’m writing what I’m seeing, in effect. To say that it’s visionary work is completely pretentious, but I, nevertheless, am making a fast record of what I’m seeing. Those are the poems I enjoy the most and that are the most completely surprising for me. For some reason, when the appeal is to my eye and not to my ear, all the oral properties of the poem or, let’s say, rhythmical contracts, rhyming, concealed rhyming, alliterative effects, all that stuff, seem to work well, even though its source is from a different sensory base—not the ear but the eye.

I am stirred to write poems now. I can’t help but look at what the consequences of our headlines are, and I see real things going on.

When you say one way poems arrive is through an audition, what does that mean?
It means I’m actually hearing these adopted voices that aren’t my own. I don’t know if one wants to admit to that—the guys with butterfly nets will come or something. [Laughs.]

What is your writing like these days?
I would say that for several years now, maybe since the writing of The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake, there’s been a criticism of life that’s emerged in my poetry that wasn’t there before. This doesn’t mean that I’m writing political poems—although people say that I am—but I am touched sometimes and, less commonly, made angry, by events. I am stirred to write poems now. I can’t help but look at what the consequences of our headlines are, and I see real things going on. It’s not just language, or, worse, politicians talking to one another. It’s really disturbing. It’s a kind of consciousness that I’m not sure that I had before, or maybe a lot of what I did in the past has been brought to consciousness more than ever before. It leaves me sometimes terribly sad.

I’m completely dismayed with the Bush administration and all the complicated ways in which the lives of real people are being ruined now and, clearly, deep into the future. I’m not even saying he’s not a likeable guy. God save us, he may get four more years, but I fear that terribly. If they get four more years, I think they’ll try to reverse Roe v. Wade, and then all of our daughters are going to [take to] the streets. And, all of a sudden, all those ungodly provisions of the Patriot Act are going to be used on our own children. Then maybe we’ll begin to understand what this administration represents.

Has your writing process changed because of what’s going on?
I think maybe after all of these years of writing poems, I should finally have some willingness to deal with things that are completely mundane or daily, even though they might be rather extraordinary in other ways. For example, the poem I’m writing now came off the TV news. I was sitting on the sofa in the middle of the night with my cat, Smoky. She had come up to have her arthritic leg massaged and to be given warmth. So I was comforting her and telling her all sorts of stories about herself. She was very happy, and I was with the other hand running across cable looking for something to watch. I didn’t feel like sleeping.

There was this news story about how that very night in Najaf, American marines were involved in hand-to-hand combat with Sadir’s militia in that ancient cemetery where there are hundreds of thousands of people buried at odd levels to one another. So suddenly here was this image of the ancestral dead, their towers, and these young men and women, insanely wrestling with one another—trying to kill one another. Well, I mean the details of it—which I’m cautiously not using here at all—are shocking and gave me this early draft of a poem I may never complete. [Dubie’s voice lowers.] Network journalists rarely share scenes like this with us, and yet it’s our tax dollar gone monstrous and Miltonic.

So there’s a double figure to these kinds of recognitions. That is to say, I’m not sitting in front of the blank page with my pencils in a nice array. Rather, I’m occupied with several things and the poem has to overwhelm them if, indeed, it wants its moment.

What do you think the role of the poet is in terms of politics?
I’m always writing a poem. If I’m making some sort of political statement—I mean, it’s fine for other people to do that—but I should be pretty much checked out, making the poem I have to make at that moment. If it carries a message, or if it carries ideas that could be described as political, then that’s fine, that’s just the gravy.

When you write poems in these other voices, they seem so detailed. What’s the context for that detail and for those images?
I really don’t know. I certainly feel sometimes like I’m making raids on things that are unspeakable almost. And I don’t always have a clear sense of who’s speaking in the poem even when it’s finished. Sometimes I discover soon afterward, and I just—as the laziest bastard on the planet—drop it in the title, which is the last thing I would invite my students to do. But when I discover that this odd poem about two old women who are, arm in arm, walking up a tree-lined street in Iowa City, is really about Madame Blavatsky, then I’m delighted just to title the poem “The Trees of Madame Blavatsky.” It’s great when that happens. But I think it pisses some people off. [Laughs.]

Because I think they want the body of evidence that says that this is me thinking of Madame Blavatsky to be more concrete. They want lighter commerce between the poem and the title. It’s very common for me not to know who the hell is speaking in the poem but having a very real sense that it’s someone, not me. Often as I conjure up another draft, it will suddenly dawn on me who is speaking, and then changes are made to accommodate that voice.

Is it ever you?
Yes. There’s a lot of vivid detail from my life. As I said, I come from a family that cares about the details. There are things from the lives of people around me. It’s all coded into the work, but considering when I was born, when I began writing, it’s fairly understandable that I would have moved away from all of the notions of the Confessional poets, the Lowell gang. Although it’s unfair to describe them in that way.

There was a great lie being told to us after the Second World War. It was there in the fifties kitchen, it was there in the fifties suburbs. There were artists all over who had survived unthinkable things like the depression and the war—the bloodlust of that war, the crimes of that war. And, of course, everybody would want to look around and smooth their shirt and pretend that nothing’s wrong and nothing will ever be wrong again. It was a lie, and it made some people damned anxious and left them tormented. A lot of these people were artists, and they healed themselves and others—I do believe the making of art can be hugely redemptive for a culture, even; it can be incriminating for a culture. These people whom we call Confessionalists or the Lowell gang, they’re very separate, immensely different people who just wrote truthfully about what was going on for them.

But after that example, I didn’t feel like telling people that I was going nuts. There are other ways of representing it that were equally healing for me. The world drives all of us nuts from time to time. Sometimes it’s our best-kept secret, but it comes from that original privacy of mind that is so stunning, say, in Emily Dickinson.

In Ordinary Mornings of a Coliseum, you open with a prologue—the poem “Confession,” which had originally been published in 1991. It ends with the lines: “Something inhuman in you watched it all. / And whatever it is that watches, / It has kept you from loneliness like a mob.” Why did you open the book this way?
I wrote this poem, oddly enough, when the elder George Bush was invading Panama. I was watching coverage on television. It was one of those situations where the journalists were heavily left out rather than embedded, so I was imagining what was going on, and suddenly this poem occurred. It surprised me in the very end with a huge criticism of what I was doing—an American citizen watching another one of our wars on television—so it was a stick sharpened at both ends, that’s for sure. An undergraduate of mine [suggested] that I should use this poem as a prologue. It made sense to me, especially in terms of this book.

Why in terms of this book?
It’s about the objective datum. There are all sorts of things that are commonplace and extraordinary being witnessed in this book. [My student’s idea of] inserting it there asks you right from the start to think of me as someone who is witnessing for you. And it’s an invitation, perhaps, for all of us to reexamine our point of view, our assumptions about what we are seeing, how we scrabble together our sensory gifts and make judgments about things.