CONVERSATION


First Book Poets in Conversation:
Derek Mong & Dean Rader

Derek Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books, 2011) and the poetry editor for Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, & Translation. The recipient of fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the University of Louisville, he lives in San Francisco with his wife and son. He and his wife are currently translating the Russian poet Maxim Amelin (b. 1970), a project that received a 2011 Literary Translation Fellowship from the NEA. His poems—which have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, Pleiades, Court Green, and elsewhere— can be read at www.derekmong.com
 
Dean Rader's debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Poetry Prize, was a finalist for the Bush Memorial First Book Prize, and won the Writer's League of Texas Book Award. He has been nominated for two pushcart prizes and will appear in the 2012 edition of Best American Poetry. He is the author of three other books and dozens of articles and essays. He reviews poetry for The Rumpus and The San Francisco Chronicle, he writes columns for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post, and he recently curated the blog 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco where he won the university's 2011 Distinguished Research Award. (www.deanrader.com)

This interview was conducted Summer 2011
Derek Mong: I can't help but notice that your collection Works & Days—a book I've enjoyed immensely—begins, like my own book, in flight. áI'm thinking of course about your wonderful poem "Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother's Funeral, I Write a Poem About Wallace Stevens," which blends elegy, literary history, religious speculation, and humor:

The elderly woman next to me
In 7D has been peeking at this poem
for several minutes.

I don't mind,
Because the next line is this:
She will die before I do
That last line must be the most shockingly comic—to curse an old woman!—I've read in years. áBut what is it about airplanes that prompt us to write poems? áThey remind us, of course, that we can die (or, as you write: "Like everything else, we are in transit") but don't they also remind us where we're from, by launching us away from or toward it? áIt used to be that poets wrote on trains (Lowell's "Beyond the Alps"; Jarrell's "The Orient Express"), but than genre, so very different from the plane poem, has virtually disappeared. áI'm reminded too that you and I met in an airport.
Dean Rader: First of all, thanks for the nice words about the book and the poem. I'm exceedingly happy you like them.

Airplane poems are fun to write, in part because we're all a little anxious to be flying. I know of no one who doesn't think about dying at some point during a flight. So, any poem about flying that acknowledges that tension makes an immediate connection with the reader.

Also airplanes and airports have become the new commons. They are two of the few places nowadays where we sit and actually interact with other humans on an extended basis. It might be awkwardly and nervously, but there are no places quite like them.

Lastly, as your super cool poem "Flying Is Everything I Imagine Now and More" reminds us, planes are inexorably linked with the immortal images of 9/11. Even when planes take you home to some source of magic, they are also (if silently) tragic. I was curious if this is why you decided to begin Other Romes not just with any ol plane poem but with this plane poem. What work did you want it to do in regard to your book as a whole?
DM: Well, I think you've hit upon the reason right there: 9/11. "Flying is Everything" and "Period" (the last poem in Other Romes) both confront the aftermath of those attacks. As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I'm reminded of how ineffectual or openly propagandistic our political poetry became in the years following. David Wojahn has written about this smartly, in his essay "Maggie's Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry" (Writer's Chronicle, May 2007). In both of those poems, I'd endeavored to do better, thinking all the while of Whitman's advice that a poet is nothing "if he be not himself the age transfigured [.] in the swimming shape of today." The news, and our collective nervousness, were in my head throughout this book, and I felt I had to exorcise them. Thus the poem ends with a frankly Whitmanic line: "America, I am // so harmless now, spilling down perpetually / toward you. Draw / your sunroofs back and call me / home. Let your grassblades raise their heads to meet me."

And considering I've just quoted a few, I wanted to ask you about the "dropped line," and form in general. Works & Days, unlike so many poetry books being written, amasses a real diversity of forms. You've a "PowerPoint Presentation of 'The Sonnet,'" prose poems ("The Poem You Ordered"), and a number of poems, seemingly free verse, that throw enjambments in mid-line. I'm thinking of "Self Portrait: One on One with Ezra Pound." What's the appeal of this "dropped line" for you, and form on the whole?
DR: I would agree with Wojahn for the most part about political poetry—at least a certain kind of political poem. American poets tend not to look to the poem as a site of critique for policy decisions. Bob Hicok's recent book is political in a really interesting way. He takes on issues of social and economic class both boldly and successfully. And a lot of women have done incredible work on the politics (and poetics) of gender. But, I'm still waiting to see if contemporary American poetry can be a formidable form of political critique. Would congressmen in the House of Representatives take a political poem seriously? Would The New York Times run a political poem as an op-ed piece?

In the meantime, I'm all about the politics of the dropped line...

I say that with some but not complete irony. Are there moments when I've thought more about poetic form than healthcare reform? Absolutely. Perhaps because one brings pleasure and the other, like, not so much...

To me, the best practitioner of the dropped line is Charles Wright. Wright has said that for him, the dropped line imitates the horizontal rhythm of landscape paintings, a la Cezanne. And, I do agree with the semiotic impact of the dropped line. My eye loves the look of that floating line. But, I also like using it to help push a line along; that drop sort of kicks the line along. It's like sending the poem down the stairs.

Form is one of the best features of poetry. Confining yourself to one form is a bit like only listening to singer-songwriters. You risk mind-numbing tedium. There is Nirvana and Portishead and Mance Lipscomb and Bill Monroe and Kronos Quartet and Cat Power and Neko Case: why not enjoy all of them? Part of the joy of writing poetry is getting to experiment with timeless forms. Right now, I'm writing poems based on syllabic lines. Poems with 7-syllable lines, 10-syllable lines, and 11-syllable lines.

What about you? You seem attracted to classical forms. Talk to me about the ode...
DM: Oh I love this image of the dropped line nudging a poem down the stairs. It's a fine elucidation too. I'm with you on fixed form's myriad possibilites—I say "fixed" because all poetry has form, has shape—a view that seems more widely accepted now that the prosody wars of the 80s and 90s are over. But let me put a word in about syllabics, a woefully neglected metrical device.

I'm thrilled you're writing syllabics right now. Everyone knows about Marianne Moore's exotic stanzas, but who's bothered to check out your pressmate, H.L. Hix, whose book Rational Numbers takes a very different approach to syllabics? In "Orders of Magnitude" he sequences 100 poems, 10 lines each, 10 syllables per line. Between him and Moore you can see the breadth of syllabic possibilities. Moore's organically formed, quantitative syllabics sit at one end of the spectrum, while Hix's near obsessive, normative rigor marks the other. And yet we have no book on syllabics! David Caplan has a chapter, citing Hix, and Margaret Holley writes beautifully about Moore, but where's the devoted study?

Much of Other Romes uses a classical hendecasyllabic line with those dropped lines (I'll think of them now like a landscape!) breaking every other line. For instance, I follow an 11-syllable line with 9 syllables and then (insert dropped line!) a 2 syllable tail, then 11 more, followed by 5 and 6. More enjambments for your money and the sense—at least to me—that a classical meter is fissuring and fracturing at the seams. Rome, of course, split apart slowly. Take a stroll through Washington D.C. today and you'll encounter not just the same architecture, but the same politics too. This, I suppose, is one of the book's other Romes, and a formal hint at the very real fissures tearing apart American democracy. So maybe my visual metaphor, for the dropped line, should be crumbling fašade?

Hmmm, I seemed to have skipped the ode. Can I toss that one back at you? Or perhaps you'd like to chat about poetry that's interested in poetry. So much of Works and Days investigates its own genre.
DR: I actually really liked hearing you talk about syllabics. I think syllables are a more American way of thinking about meter than accents. I also appreciate what you say about Rome, democracy, and even what we might call the architecture of power dissolving or crumbling.

I was wondering if you'd elaborate on the nexus of form and content—in particular, I am curious about how you see your interest in form (odes, sestinas, syllabics)—which some might find "conservative"—with your interest in political critique, which some might find more "progressive." How do you marry the two in your book?

I have my own ideas about how those two seemingly unlike worlds hook up, but I'm hoping you can say more about that.
DM: Syllablics as a more American meter—I like that. Particularly considering it began when Robert Bridges (a British poet laureate) misread the prosody in Milton (the most canonical British poet after Shakespeare) and wrote his own poems in so-called Neo-Miltonic syllabics. As usual, we Yanks appropriate and improve.

Regarding the marriage of supposedly "conservative" forms with "progressive" content, I have to admit I've always struggled to see the politics in, say, the bare framework of a sonnet. I suppose this is my own poetic blindspot. Down at Stanford they talk about the "politics of form" and read Lyn Hejinian's "The Rejection of Closure" and I just don't see it. This might be because the first sonnets I ever loved were in Marilyn Hacker's Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons—a 200+ page lesbian sex romp. Or take Kim Addonizio. Or Terrance Hayes. The list goes on.

What I do think about, however, when I think about form, is the subtle (or not so subtle) ways it echoes a poem's content. Fellini movies are, if nothing else, carnivalesque. So is the sestina. Voila! Sestinas about Fellini! That's an easy example from my work, but it was certainly on my mind. And it follows Cleanth Brooks line in "The Heresy of Paraphrase" that "form and content, or content and medium, are inseparable."

It sounds, however, like you've a more engaging answer here. As for the ode, well, I've always thought of it as more a rhetorical form—of private meditation or public praise—so maybe we can leave them for Allen Tate and his Confederate dead. Now that's a conservative use of form.
DR: Marge Perloff, who I like and respect, has argued for ages that poetic form is a political stance. I guess that's possible, but making that claim too rigidly is risky. I always thought she misread Stevens's poetic politics because she found his form "traditional" or his project "modernist." I'm not so sure about that; I don't know that scattering words across the page makes you a politically edgy poet.

I really like Lyn Hejinian's poetry, but it has never seemed to me to be as reader-friendly as she wants. In "The Rejection of Closure," she claims an open poetic text "is open to the world and particularly to the reader." That's probably true. But, if I showed 50 people walking out of a Giants game a Philip Levine poem and a Lyn Hejinian poem, I'm pretty sure most would feel like the Levine poem is more open to them (and to the world) than Hejinian's. That's not a criticism; just an observation.

Lately, I've been thinking about form as a kind of bridge to the reader. Form can draw a reader in or push a reader away. One reason I experimented with so many kinds of forms in Works & Days was because I wanted to see if poems could connect in different ways via different vehicles. And, indeed, I've been amazed by how many people have a different favorite poem in the book. I figured most people would like something in the book, but I also knew that almost no one would like everything. I've been really lucky; the book has received good reviews, but one reviewer claimed I over-explained some poems, while another thought the book was marred by postmodern pastiche. On one hand, those two things seem impossible in the same book, but on the other hand, I sort of liked that two smart readers had such different experiences—good or bad.

I love that you see the sestina as carnivalesque! I'd never thought about it in that way, but it does border on high camp. To me, that conversation between zany director and zany poetic form is both fun and ambitious. That perspective is just great-rather than seeing a potentially ornate genre as restrictive, you find it celebratory. That's what poetry is about.

Tell me about a poem from Other Romes that you're particularly happy with. What poem just clicks for you? And why?
DM: Considering the way the Giants have been hitting lately, we might have a difficult time catching anyone's eyes, downcast as they all are, with either a Levine or Hejinian poem. But I take your point regarding form as a bridge, and Hejinian's form in My Life—45 sentences per prose poem, for her 45th year of life—has appealed to a wide array of readers, myself included. It's her appellation of "closed text" that I chafe against, as if any poet ever wanted to produce a poem that's "closed." But she needed a foil term to "open," and now "closed text" circulates in the critical dialogue.

It sounds like you're advocating formal diversity, even within one book, while acknowledging some of the risks it entails. Hear hear. The lure of a good move—be it a winning stanza, a resonant subject, or a particular tone—can lead to monotony, if clung to for too long. Louise Gluck has a great rule: whatever she did well in the last book she discards in the next.

One of my favorite poems to return to (and read) in Other Romes is "Octopus." It's a love poem, sure, and one that, like T.R. Hummer's famous poem "Where You Go When She Sleeps," tries to capture that early, eerie realization of new love, or, as I put it: "Here is my confession: surprised by sudden love I am equally / unsure of where in time we are or might / be going." And then there's the octopus, a creature whose whole body works like a mood ring, disappears behind ink, and funnels his environment as he moves. You can see the appeal. It's also the most colorful poem in the book—"O octopus, my umber then amber bundle"—and its 64 lines snake, to my eye, pleasingly across the page.

Some five years after finishing it, and three years into a marriage, it reminds me how I fell in love with my wife. And I got away with pluralizing "octopus" as "octopi" for a handful of internal rhymes. Fun fact of the day: they're technically "octopodes."

How about you Dean? Do you have a favorite from Works & Days? Or, inversely: do you have a poem, or prospective poem, you've always wanted to write but have saved for later or resisted? Do you have a version of Wordsworth's The Prelude?
DR: "Octopus" is one of my favorite poems from your book. It's clever and well crafted. I love that an octopus—one of the least romantic animals on earth—becomes this metaphor for love, endurance, and journeying. There is, of course, that older notion of the gropy male as an octopus that can't help but tentacle its way into the poem. But, it all works together to make meaning on so many different levels. You should be proud of that poem.

I think my favorite pieces from Works & Days are the Frog & Toad poems, specifically "Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness" and "Frog Seeks Help with Anger Management." In these poems I was shooting for a specific formula: smart + funny. I think they more or less hit that target. I'm also proud of "Hesiod in Oklahoma, 1934." It's one of the poems whose heightened language tries to be commensurate with the scope of the poem. On the other hand, there are a couple of poems I think I might take out of the book if I had it to do all over again.

Actually, unlike Wordsworth who intended for his Prelude to begin his incredibly long poem, I've decided to save all of my best poems for an "Afterward." I figure why punish readers now? Make future ones suffer...

Speaking of readers, let me ask you about readership. How often do you think about readers or the reader? Do you have a particular audience in mind?
DM: I've heard you read from Works & Days twice—once with a cackling, rowdy, and possibly medicated woman in attendance—and the Frog and Toad poems were well received both times. Smart + Funny indeed. I'm glad you didn't save them for the "Afterwards."

When it comes to readership, I'm often reminded of John Updike's ideal reader, which he described as a teenage boy lifting books at random from a library shelf in the Midwest. I'd like to think of Other Romes falling into those sort of hands, and I was overjoyed when a friend sent me a link to the book in the Columbus Public Library catalogue. In actuality, though, what readers I do have are probably upper-middle class folks, NPR listeners, advance degree holders, etc. That's the poetry market the country over. Nevertheless, I've every hope (and assumption) that my poems are accessible to anyone with a dictionary and a little patience. That was Elizabeth Bishop's expectation too. One of the best emails I ever received came from a retired woman in New England, a reader of my work, who brought to it little more than her attention.

In fact, maybe this is a good place to wrap things up. We've just appointed a wonderful, and wonderfully accessible poet (Phil Levine!) as our Poet Laureaute. I've not met a single poet averse to this news. Can Levine increase poetry's readership during his tenure? Is that a realistic part of his job description, even as it's a very real part of the appointment? In conversation you use this term, being "pro-poetry," which I've grown very fond of, and I feel like an attention to readership is part of that description.
DR: I've always enjoyed that quote by Updike, in part because that would have been very much me, poking through the stacks of the public library in Weatherford, Oklahoma.

I would agree with everything you've said here. I doubt that Levine can raise the awareness and readership of poetry in any noticeable way, despite the claims by The Onion: (http://www.theonion.com/articles/distressed-nation-turns-to-poet-laureate-for-solac,26109/)

In fact, I don't think poets themselves can do much to raise awareness. As you note, poets tend to be heard by those already attuned to it. However, if President Obama, Oprah, Kim Kardashian, Peyton Manning, Maureen Dowd, J. K. Rowling, Simon Cowell, and folks with actual cultural cache started publicly reading and praising poetry, then, we might see something change. Poetry could do very well in mainstream culture. I've always thought it would be cool if Letterman or Leno had a poet on every night during National Poetry Month. If poetry could be seen interacting with other facets of contemporary life, more contemporary lives would interact with poetry.

Speaking of poetry readership, I think I'll wrap up our discussion with a slight tonal shift. If you had to drive across country with three living poets, who would they be?
DM: Oh, great question! Friends and former teachers aside, I'd probably have to go with Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, and C.D. Wright. Wright wrote a beautiful, book-length pastiche poem—Deepstep, Come Shining—that's all about a roadtrip. The title is from Dylan, so she gets to choose the music. Kinnell's Book of Nightmares remains the single best volume, in my mind, of American verse. Imminently rereadable and so perfect for a new parent. He rides shotgun. And Merwin? Well, Merwin so he can talk to the birds, the whales, and "the seas nodding on their stalks" while lounging in the backseat. And hopefully one of them brings along a copy of Leaves of Grass.








Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761