KMD: I truly enjoyed your latest collection, Notes on a Past Life, which was just published by BlazeVOX Books. As I read the work, I was reminded of Marianne Moore’s philosophy with regards to poetry. She actually coined the term “conversity” to describe the dialogic nature of the arts, to evoke the idea of the poem as a conversation with other creative practitioners. Similarly, your collection contains references to such writers as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Mark Doty, as well as incisive commentary on the business of poetry. With that in mind, I’d love hear more about your beliefs about contemporary poetry as a dialogue among its practitioners. Which elements of the conversation are you most interested in preserving, and which of these are you most interested in refining, reconstituting, and even discarding? To what extent is your poetry, your participation in this literary conversation, an interventionist gesture, an effort to effect change through narrative, as well as form and technique?
DT: I think Moore’s term is apt. I’m always in conversation with other poets. In Notes on a Past Life, I set out to tell the truth about my own experiences in the New York poetry scene. That was all. But as I was writing the book, I realized it was a fairly stringent critique of the poetry business and ambition in general. Prior to starting the book—and while I was writing it, too—I read a number of poets who helped show me the way. I was looking for direction, and for permission, without really knowing it. It wasn’t a completely conscious process; I don’t know that writing, for me, ever is. Or can be. How do you write about unpleasant experiences with real writers, living and dead? How do you reach back, touch those old hurts, reignite them, and transform them into art?
Two poems I found helpful were Sylvia Plath’s “The Tour” and Ted Hughes’s “The Literary Life.” Both are about Marianne Moore, actually. Thom Gunn’s “Famous Friends” is a poem I’ve argued with for a long time. Ultimately, I think it’s valuable. Certain poems should trouble you. John Berryman’s Love & Fame showed me many things; I’ve been reading that book on and off for years. There were others. Lorca’s Poet in New York was helpful in terms of structure and pitch. Stylistically, Hilda Morley and A.R. Ammons helped me. James Schuyler and Anne Sexton always help me. The poets I’ve mentioned are all dead, of course.
To be honest, I don’t feel that contemporary poetry has very much to tell me.
I don’t think very much is actually being said, or said in an interesting way. There’s a sameness, and a safeness, a mundaneness, an eye to getting ahead that deadens the poetry. There are a few voices that seem distinct, concrete. Maybe there always are just a few. They stand out, but how many hear them? I think of what Elizabeth Bishop said about one of Marianne Moore’s books. She praised “the wonderful ALONE quality of it all—like the piano alone in the middle of the concerto.” I guess that’s what I’m always listening for, that solitary—and brave—individual in the midst of the rabble.
I’m curious to know what you find valuable in contemporary poetry. Does it nurture or inspire you? Who are the living poets you’re in conversation with? Who are the dead poets you talk to?
KMD: I certainly agree with your discussion of the “safeness” of much of contemporary poetry. I think part of this problem of homogenization comes from the increasingly corporate nature of the universities in which creative writing programs are housed. So many contemporary poets write towards what they perceive as the markers of legitimacy, rather than writing from a place of urgency, honesty, or risk. Yet there are so many contemporary writers whose work I return to again and again. For me, the most exciting work in contemporary literature is taking place at the very periphery of what we consider to be poetry, happening at the interstices of poetry and other genres and mediums: lyric essay, short fiction, literary criticism, even photography and the visual arts.
I spent some time at Yaddo in 2011, and remember having a conversation with the poet Sam Taylor, who said that the great frontier in contemporary poetry is not finding new ways to innovate or experiment. Rather, it is integrating tradition and innovation, placing the literary tradition we’ve inherited in new and provocative contexts. The most exciting contemporary texts often arise from the dialogue between the poetry, its tradition, and its artistic resources, and other modes of representation. Recently, I was moved by a collaboration between Sandy Florian and a visual artist, Alexis Anne Mackenzie, who works with collage. The juxtaposition of text with images gave the collection a generative quality, allowing each poem to open out into more imaginative work, more possibilities for readerly interpretation. Similarly, Keith Waldrop’s Several Gravities contains magnificent collages that act as kind of field guide, instructing the reader as to how to understand and appreciate the architecture of the poems. The work of Allison Titus, Julie Marie Wade, Emma Bolden, and Jenny Boully, particularly their experiments in lyric essay, has also been of paramount importance to my thinking about what is possible within contemporary poetry.
And so you’ve probably guessed that the dead poets I talk to include mostly female modernists—H.D., Mina Loy, and Marianne Moore in particular. They really began this undertaking of exploring the possibilities for dialogue between poetry and other disciplines. I’m particularly interested in the ways they placed the literary arts in dialogue with the work of philosophers of the time period—Charles Saunders Peirce, William James, and especially Sigmund Freud. They really showed me that the smallest stylistic choices can convey powerful assertions about philosophy, literary theory, and psychology. And even these seemingly small stylistic choices are often politically charged. They remind me that poetry contains a unique repertoire of artistic resources, which can illuminate and complicate work from other fields of enquiry.
I’d love to hear more about what poetry made possible for you in telling the truth about your experiences in the New York scene. This collection could have arguably taken a much different form—anything from a roman à clef to a memoir. Why did you turn to poetry as a vehicle for representing these experiences? What did the vast range of poetic forms in the book make possible within the narrative, within your own thinking about the past, and within your conceptualization of time?
DT: That’s quite a trilogy of influences—H.D., Loy, and Moore. All troubling figures, in their own way. Eccentrics. I love that Loy described poetry as “prose bewitched.” Not long ago I reread H.D.’s Sea Garden, which I first read when I was in college in the ‘70s. I remembered liking the shorter pieces focused on a single subject, like a flower or tree. But this time I responded to the longer poems, such as “Pursuit” or “Prisoners,” where she gives just a snippet of a larger plot, like a scene from a movie, yet an entire narrative seems to rise up and blossom around it. Something similar happens when I read your poems. They’re full of details—ornate, romantic, and (dare I say) “feminine” objects. Lockets, silver charms, a velvet curtain with “silk tassels and lavish golden trim,” bone china “rimmed with tiny black crocuses.” There are chalets and opera houses and nightingales and chandeliers. Things gleam and glitter. The word “luminous” shows up again and again. It feels as if we’re situated in another time, as if a Victorian novel, or a whole universe of Victorian novels, haunts every page. At the heart is a sense of mourning, desire, the mystery of human experience. I can see your affinity with Jenny Boully, especially in your “footnote” pieces. Though the story itself is intentionally withheld, it’s interesting how much pours in around the “ornaments” and “embellishments,” around a mere gesture or single moment. As with H.D., there’s the suggestion of a narrative, or the trace of one, that gives the writing a ghostly or disquieting quality.
It was only natural that I would write about my New York years in poems, since poems are what I write. Poetry has always been, for me, a place where one can be absolutely truthful. More than in a novel, say, as fiction isn’t real. I guess in my mind that makes it less truthful. Less raw. And in a memoir I would have felt bound by narrative and facts. I’d have to spell everything out, make it all make sense. Notes on a Past Life is, more than anything, an experiment in memory. Often a poem would start with a color or object; images and feelings would begin to swirl around it and the memory would come forth and take shape, as language. A looser and more honest language than I was used to, which I found surprising and exhilarating. I was amazed how much I was able to remember, how much came back.
I outlined the book fairly early on, knew in advance which people and experiences I wanted to write about. Still, it felt, in the two years it took to write the book, like I was retrieving, putting the puzzle pieces of my history back together. To make sense of it. To understand what it was that I actually went through. So in some ways it was a fragmentary process. This allowed me to pull in passages from old notebooks, quotes from writers who were important to me in the past, even old discarded poems. I’m talking about decades-old poems. There was a kind of redemption in being able to include poems I had once considered failures. Or being able to rework some of them into the fabric of the new poems. So they were salvaged, finally of use. No effort is wasted or irrelevant. Or completely abandoned.
By the way, I thought of two more poems that were important signposts for me. Both by May Swenson. One, “March 4, 1965,” is about being a judge for the National Book Award in Poetry and feeling guilty that she played it safe by giving the award to dead Theodore Roethke instead of Galway Kinnell, whose book she preferred. The other, “At the Poetry Reading,” is about being bored at a reading by “stodgy” James Merrill: “The hour seems an age.” These poems were published in a journal after Swenson’s death, but not included in her collected poems. Why? Too honest?