Click image to order
Never miss a post
Your email address:*
Please enter all required fields
Correct invalid entries


Dante Di Stefano

The Poem Rivers Forward to the Sea: A Conversation Between Dante Di Stefano and H. L. Hix

1957483067.01.S001.LXXXXXXXDante Di Stefano, Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023).

H. L. Hix, Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark (Middle Creek Publishing, 2023)

H. L. Hix: Not two weeks before we began this conversation, I read Carl Phillips’ My Trade Is Mystery, in which, describing his poetic development, Phillips carefully makes it explicit that the most formative influence on him was “not writers, but what they’ve written.” You say of Midwhistle that William Heyen’s “life and work incited this poem.” I’m inclined to take the two observations as clarifying one another by contrast of emphasis rather than by contradiction of principle, but I wonder what you would say.  I guess I’m asking about the importance of “life and work.”

Dante Di Stefano: Life and work—it’s a conventional figure of speech that you are right to examine. Do these categories really exist separately? I suspect not. I hope not. And why call it “work,” when it is, for me, at least, pure pleasure and leisure and play, unlike any “real” work I’ve ever done? 

Still, though, there is a very real tension and opposition between my “writing life” and my “real life.” As you know, I have two small children, and so, the amount of time I can devote to writing is exceedingly slim. I carve it out around the timetables imposed by the little beings afoot in my home and around the demands of my job, family responsibilities, yard work, cooking, cleaning, et cetera. So it goes for every writer.

I’ve never liked the idea of lived experience furnishing material for poetry. It seems too calculated and cynical. When I was young, I often heard young writers say that this or that bad thing that happened would be good material for poetry. To see the life as mere material for the work impoverishes both. Rather, I like your idea of one clarifying the other—the life fountaining through the work and the work fountaining through the life.

I would refer you back to the introductory statement of your book, Incident Light, a book of poetry that is a biography of your friend, Petra Soesemann, a biography: “of a sort: biography whose first fidelity is not to facts, but to imagination, biography that loosens reality’s hold, releases the life into lyric. Nothing attested, everything sung.” To live a life in poetry, for me, is to be after this loosening, to be a votary of this release, to praise the space where page meets flesh. As you say in Demonstrategy: “in poetry the ideal is not given, but ever at stake.” Perpetual re-staking. Infinite becoming. Faith.

41v3HXnszvL._SX365_BO1 204 203 200_When I write about Heyen’s life and work inciting Midwhistle, I suppose I’m only writing about his published oeuvre. How can we ever really know the closed room of another person’s life? I’ve never met Bill in person, but I know him through his writing better than I know many of my close friends. Or, at least, I think I do. I have a window into his life through his poetry and through his journals.

His journals are a staggering testament to his work and to his life. The tension between the demands of a suburban father and the needs of an ambitious poet are dramatized over the course of decades and span thousands of pages. Those journals date back to 1964. So, I have a grander, more granular, view of Heyen’s quotidian existence than I would with other poets whose work I admire and who have influenced me. Heyen has written an extensive chronicle of the most mundane and sublime aspects of his life in upstate New York. On one page he is having martinis with Anne Sexton, on the next he’s wondering if the garbagemen stole his golf clubs.

The elements of Heyen life that are like my own resonate with me, clarify my one view of my life and work. I live an average uneventful middle-class life that might seem stultifying to poetry. The crass consumerism, anti-intellectualism, and blunt meanness of the American median, the pettiness of the heartland I carry inside my chest seems an overwhelming impediment to living a life in poetry. And yet, here I am, happily frozen in midwhistle. 

I’m interested in how you see the phrase “life and work” when applied to your own lived experience in poetry and in relation to your varied approaches to poetry throughout your many books. Also, Harvey, you don’t write poetry that is autobiographical or confessional in the sense that much of the mainstream of American poetry has been for the past fifty years or so. Sometimes there is a detail that seems autobiographical in your work, but I can never be sure. For example, in Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark, you invoke Eliot in an autobiographical gesture: “Coffee spoons, yes, but also I have measured out my life / in long drives: mile markers, low clearance warnings, / construction zones…” I am interested to know what you think about autobiography in poetry. How does your lived experience filter into your various poems and projects? Into Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark?

HH: The mainstream autobiographical mode that you refer to has done plenty of good work.  Continues to do plenty of good work.  Central to that good work, I would argue, is its equalizing power.  In a society shaped by divisive and dehumanizing forces that work to concentrate entitlement in the hands of a very few, confessional poetry has worked to distribute entitlement, to recognize the validity of all voices, not only those of persons bearing a set of societally-secured identity markers.  Long live confessional poetry.  I read, and value, plenty of poetry in this mainstream mode. 

Its virtues and achievements, though, don’t keep it from also having limitations.  As for example Adrienne Rich points out in her Best American Poetry introduction: “I was constantly struck by how many poems published in magazines today are personal to the point of suffocation.  The columnar, anecdotal, domestic poem, often with a three-stress line, can be narrow in more than a formal sense.”  I take this as one way in which your sensibilities and mine resonate.  Like you, I want poetry to help me “clarify my one view of my life and work,” but also like you I find that autobiography is not the only way to seek such clarity.

To arrive at a capsule account of why this is not a trivial, prudential matter of personal taste, one might juxtapose an insight from Reginald Shepherd with one from Kwame Anthony Appiah.  Shepherd, in “Toward an Urban Pastoral,” notes that in contemporary American poetry there is a tension between our “readily available, thoroughly worked-out” poetic language being pastoral and the fact that “the vast majority of the U.S. population, some 75 percent, lives in … urban areas.”  Appiah opens Cosmopolitanism by noting that for most of human history a given person’s connection was limited to a tiny number of others with whom that person had immediate and ongoing contact, but that now each of us is connected to all of “our six billion conspecifics,” even those whom we will never have any contact.

I take it that the two together imply high stakes in this question of life and work.  Humans have had thousands of years to work out a poetic language for the fact that what has effects on me vastly exceeds my capacity to perceive, know, and control: in traditions that shaped English-language poetry, Greek culture gave us Fate and Furies, for example, and Hebrew culture gave us God scrawling commandments on stone and asserting sovereignty from the whirlwind.  But now — in terms of human history very suddenly — it’s not only what has effects on me that exceeds my capacity to perceive, know, and control, it’s also the effects that my ideas, decisions, and actions have on others.  The worked-out language was worked out for radically different circumstances than those we live in now, and the familiar modes of autobiography take for granted a homology between self-awareness and one’s wake that just doesn’t hold.

That’s why so often I find myself not recollecting my emotions in tranquility, but triangulating: in the case of Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark by reading my life and work through notable works of natural history.  Does “triangulating” seem in any way apt in connection with Midwhistle’s attention to Heyen?  With your other poetry?  (I’m thinking, maybe obviously, of the many phenomena to which your individual poems connect themselves: spaghetti westerns, Sun Ra, 90s mixtapes, the Fermi Paradox…)

DD: I love the idea of triangulating. The lapsed Catholic in me is drawn to trinities of all kinds. I do feel like at least half of my poetry unfolds in a straightforward autobiographical mode, but I also feel the suffocations of that mode, and its limitations in an era when confession and revelation have become atomized and dispersed in a million memes and posts and stories on TikTok and Instagram and so on.

In Midwhistle, Heyen is an interlocutor, an incitement, an apostrophized other, a metaphor for the figure of the poet, an elder I admire, and an actual person whom I correspond with via the United States Postal Service. He is one coordinate. My son, Dante Jr., who was in utero at the time I wrote Midwhistle, is another coordinate. I am writing to and for him (to and for my daughter, Luciana, to and for my wife, Christina). Dante Jr., now almost two-years-old, is a beautiful boy, gentle, and happy, and full of love. When the poem speaks to him, it is crooning to the future, it is lullabying what is best in me forward into a future where I will no longer be. The final coordinate in the poem is the self, myself (“selfwrung, selfstrung,” “selfyeast of spirit,” “clearest-selved spark” as Hopkins would have it). The center of this triangle is poetry, love, family, home—what these experiences (poetry, love, family, home) mean, how they sing themselves out to a fetus, to midlife, and to an octogenarian.

Midwhistle is a long poem, a book-length poem, so it lopes along, loops back, re-triangulates as its metapoetics unfurl. As the poem unfurls, my enthusiasms unfurl as well: Anne Carson’s Sappho is there, along with Eddie Hazel’s guitar work, and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and the poems and poets throughout the ages, and so much more. And the poem rivers onward as poems do.

I’ve been thinking about long poems for a long time—long poems and book-length projects. Rachel Zucker’s new book, The Poetics of Wrongness has a great essay called “An Anatomy of the Long Poem.” Zucker argues a long poem: 1) is extreme, 2) grapples with narrative, 3) takes time to read, 4) is confessional, 5) creates intimacy, 5) is “about” something AND is about nothing but itself, 6) resists “aboutness,” is instead muralistic or kaleidoscopic, 7) discovers itself, 8) allow the poet to change her mind, 9) changes the mind (of the reader and the writer), 10) is ambitious, 11) humbles the poet, 12) highlights process, 13) is imperfect. After reading many long poems and writing Midwhistle, I find myself in full agreement with this anatomy. I would distinguish between a long poem and a book-length project by citing examples: Tape for the Turn of the Year by A.R. Ammons, The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell, Who Is the Widow’s Muse? by Ruth Stone, Playlist by David Lehman, and Deepstep Come Shining by C.D. Wright are all long poems. I’d also classify Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as a long poem, although it manifests elements of a book-length project. Olio by Tyehimba Jess and Shrapnel Maps by Philip Metres, would be book-length projects, as would your books, Chromatic and Incident Light and God Bless and Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark.

I’m still figuring out distinctions within and between these categories, but I think a long poem unfolds either in one motion or in a series of interconnected motions. Its momentum carries it forward to the sea, even as it digresses in a thousand tributaries. A book-length project starts and stops. It tends toward hybridity. It is broken into discrete components (poems and prose) that are closely thematically linked and that diffuse like dandelion puff, but that accrete to meanings greater than the sum of their parts. I think all your books fall under my definition for book-length projects. When I am reading your books, I always have the sense that each line and phrase and poem and section was written with the whole architecture of the book in mind.

In Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark you’ve created an entire ecosystem of texts talking to other texts. The italic portion for your table of contents reads: “Each poem in this collection grows out of a sentence from an historically significant work of natural history. Rather than sequestering them in a separate “Notes” section, I have identified here those soil texts and seed sentences.” Then, you include the seed sentence (which is the sentence that you have planted in the soil of a quote from Darwin or Euclid or Giordano Bruno or whomever). The poems sprout from the soil and the seed. So, for example, your first seed sentence is “My senses straddle any boundary I draw.” The soil text you plant this seed in is from Aristotle’s Historia Animalium: “As to the parts internal and external that all animals are furnished withal, and further as to the senses, to voice, and sleep, and the duality of sex, all these topics have now been touched upon.” The poems grow from there. Each poem, a tree. The book is an orchard, and all the branches of the trees touch their neighbors and form a network. I am wondering how you see this ecosystem you’ve created.

Could you talk about long poems, book-length projects, your books in those terms? What have I gotten right? What have I missed? You always help me to see my way deeper into poetry. What do these longer motions and performances tell us about poetry and the world we live in?

HH: I love your distinction between long poems and book-length projects.  As soon as you introduce the distinction, any of us would add to the list examples that have mattered to us: The Descent of Alette and The Folding Cliffs, say, as long poems, and The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers and Because I Am the Shore I Want to Be the Sea as book-length projects, and so on.  Extending those two playlists would be a pleasurable way for poetry-reading friends to spend an hour over beer.

I take it that the distinction is not a rigid binary, not an opposition of two sharply bounded, mutually exclusive natural kinds, but a loose grouping around family resemblances.  In that spirit, I would add a string of (“fuzzy” rather than “strict”) contrasts: long poem as sequential, book-length project as scalar; long poem as temporal, book-length project as spatial; long poem as organized by looking backward and forward, book-length project by zooming in and out; and so on.  And, yes, I would describe Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark as a book-length project rather than a long poem, and I find your each poem a tree, the book an orchard sense of the work apt. 

The poems all were generated by the same process.  In each case, the poem’s first complete draft had six five-line stanzas.  The end words of the first stanza came from that poem’s source sentence (the one quoted from a work of natural history and now reproduced in the Table of Contents), in the order of their appearance there, and then each of the remaining stanzas ended in one of those words, in the same sequence.  Revision altered that structure out of a lot of the poems, but you can still see its remnants in all the poems, and it survived intact in a few, such as “I gather evidence so I can leave evidence.”

My hope throughout the writing was that this way of relating to these works of natural history was a mode of active listening, with ultimately an ethical and ecological valence: deliberate assembling, as a form of resistance against the pervasive dissembling in the broader culture.  And, in fulfilment of your tree/orchard metaphor, parallel rows of evenly-spaced trunks, tangled roots invisible below, interlocking branches forming a single crown overhead.

Not long ago I read a fascinating book called The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, that early on distinguishes three sources of culture: “vertical” culture, acquired from parents and other given authorities; “horizontal” culture, acquired from peers; and “oblique” culture, acquired from other sources such as school.  It’s easy to unreflectively valorize one source.  Vertical culture is very stable, but, unchecked, is authoritarian.  Horizontal culture is fluid, but, unchecked, reduces to surface (think pop-culture fashions and memes, replacing one another ever more swiftly).  Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark participates in a project I take myself to be engaged in with all my work: trying to be as reflective and intentional as a I can be in what sources of culture I draw on, and how I draw on them.

From the very beginning of Midwhistle, you seem to me to be engaged in a book-length poem that could be described in those same terms.  The first section opens: “I’m listening to the earth, / to Bill Heyen read blackbirds / back into the sky above the earth.”  There is active listening, and reflective choice for oneself of your sources of culture, with Bill as a focal chosen “oblique” source.  I wonder whether to you, too, those terms feel applicable to Midwhistle (and to your work more broadly?), or if they feel artificially imposed.  And whether they seem to you relevant to our concern with integrating life and work.

DD: I do find those categories interesting and would be particularly interested in thinking through how they apply to the lives of whales and dolphins. William Heyen might represent all three cultural sources for me. I first encountered him in graduate school, through his 9/11 anthology and his collection Shoah Train; at that point, he would have been an “oblique” source. I then became press-mates with him and worked on our book, Generations; at that point, he would be a “horizontal” source, although I don’t really consider myself his peer or equal (or yours for that matter) in terms of poetry. As I read his work more deeply and corresponded with him, he became a “vertical” source, a kind of Bloomian poetic father, although one I don’t intend to kill off.

The cultural material that constellates Midwhistle and much of my other poetry comes from my enthusiasms in art, literature, history, music, film, and philosophy. I see my poetry as chronicling my interests as it charts my autobiography. In my poetry, I am saying to myself, to my wife, to my kids: this body of work is the world as I experienced it, this poem is a sliver of that experience to live through, this image/figure/trope/allusion is what I loved and love, and this line/phrase/phoneme is how I loved and love it, and you.

I’m orbiting away from your question, but as I do the penultimate lines from the last poem in Bored In Arcane Cursive come to me: “The whole system’s hum makes this my singing a being sung. / My one location marks my absence from all others.” If my poem sings of Bill Heyen or Charles Mingus or Marvin Gaye or my daughter or my wife or my dead father or my friends in poetry or Cy Twombly or Eavan Boland or whatever and whomever else, it is also sung by those people and things and the cultural artifacts associated with them. The self is a slurry, to borrow from your poem, but in poetry, it can cohere into a rickety coatrack onto which a tanager might alight briefly before taking wing once more.  

One of the stabilizing structures in Bored In Arcane Cursive is the cinquain stanzaic pattern which predominates. Going back to our previous discussion, the formal aspects of this collection tilt it in the direction of a book-length poem. Can you talk a bit about the five-line stanza and how you deploy it in this volume?

HH: I’m interested in the generativity of pattern, the capacity of repetition to invent.

I was not (to torque Theodore Roethke’s formulation) an “English poet who grew up on Greek,” so I didn’t learn until grad school that one of the ways “they” (Milman Parry and other scholars) rediscovered that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed orally, and only later written down, was by noticing that the epithets (rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea) were not applied by how they fit into the narrative context but by how they fit into the metrical pattern of the line.  Achilles isn’t swift-footed Achilles when he’s running and lion-hearted Achilles when he’s being brave: he’s swift-footed when the poet needs that pattern of syllables to round out the dactylic hexameter line, and lion-hearted when dactylic hexameter demands that number of syllables in that order of stress.

I find that feature of those poems illustrative of something potent and inexhaustible: that the decision principle the poet is applying in choosing words is very simple and local, almost trivial, but the resulting word combination is complex and dynamic, even momentous.  It’s a kind of butterfly effect, a sensitive dependence upon initial conditions, that lets me, severely limited in my knowledge and awareness, tap into the limitless knowledge and awareness stored in the language.  The poet is doing one thing (in Homer’s case fulfilling a strict metrical pattern, in my case getting in five lines from one end word to the next), and the poem is doing something else altogether.

The particular formal principle is arbitrary (five-line stanzas are as “random” as dactylic hexameter), but deliberate fulfillment of the formal principle is a way to enhance one’s odds that what is formed according to the principle will, as you put it earlier, “accrete to meanings greater than the sum of their parts.” 

Midwhistle, too, deploys a five-line stanza throughout.  How would you answer your own question?  The Midwhistle stanza is, after all, a departure for you, different from the various stanzas (often no stanza divisions) in the poems in Lullaby with Incendiary Device, Ill Angels, and Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight.  It (your five-line stanza) participates in “reading my own blackbirds back / into my own backbone” and in making Midwhistle “the whole interior jewel / & thiefdom of a poem,” but why and how?  What urgency is it answering to?

DD: Harvey, I love what you’re saying here about the generativity of pattern and the decision principle of the poet. You’ve beautifully articulated everything I feel and intuit about form.  

In my first three books and in my writings that never made it into print, I’ve explored forms like the sonnet, the sestina, the kwansaba, and so on. More than anything, though, I’ve been interested in the ten-syllable line and its expressive and rhythmic capacities. I’ll probably be exploring the musical intricacies of the ten-syllable line for the rest of my life in poetry. In the past few years, however, I became interested in exploring shorter lines.

I read an interview with A.E. Stallings in a literary journal (I can’t remember which one), where she extolled the virtues of the seven-syllable line. I started to explore seven- and five-syllable lines after reading that interview.

When I started writing Midwhistle, it was in seven-syllable lines. My first draft was a ten-page column of seven-syllable lines with no stanza breaks. I mailed it to Bill Heyen. He wrote back something like, “this is great, but don’t you think a stanzaic pattern might give your reader some relief and open up the poem?” He suggested the cinquain. I was reading his book-length poem To William Merwin at the time. That poem is organized into stanzas where the lines are indented in a zigzag pattern. The pattern recalled a kind of lineation that I saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s; it may have been a stylistic fad of that era, although I’m sure one can find earlier and later examples. For an artful example of this style, look at poems in Jason Shinder’s collection, Among Women, such as “The One Secret That Has Carried.” This stepped lineation is a visual gesture, meant to lend velocity to the way the poem unfolds on the page as text, but not meant as a cue for how the poem should be read aloud. From these tributaries, I developed the stanzaic pattern of the stepped-septasyllabic cinquain seen here in a random stanza from Midwhistle:

I don’t want a poem to
            work at doing. Instead, it
should embody its own kind
                        of undoing, the kind of
            loosening that occurs when

When I was writing Midwhistle, there were moments when breaking the seven-syllable per line pattern was unavoidable, but overall, I found the stricture to be endlessly generative and propulsive.

The climate crisis is often on my mind. I often find myself writing about the natural world in terms of our shared impending environmental catastrophe. You’ve written insightfully about issues related to the climate crisis and poetry in Demonstrategy and elsewhere. Throughout your body of work there are many lines and images that could only come from someone whose connection to the natural world is emphatic and deep. Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark feels even more emphatic, more invested, more fraught. As your title indicates, you are exploring the way nature and civilization participate in a mutual script, an inscription process that is both legible and illegible. Could you tell me a bit more about these triangulations? (nature-civilization-script, climate crisis-poetic practice-lived experience, or some other variation?)

HH: No doubt there’s truth to Frost’s famous formulation that poetry offers “a momentary stay against confusion,” but I’m more intent, as a writer of poetry and as a reader of poetry, on tapping into another capacity of poetry, its ability to offer — to be — a provisional stay against reduction.

We have to be reductive to some extent, to survive.  I’ve always got too little information or too much.  I have too little information to know whether to trust the person approaching me down the aisle in the grocery store.  I can’t run a background check on everyone, so I use heuristics: the person is pushing a cart with some groceries already in it from other aisles and is pausing to check the expiration date on that tub of yogurt, so I won’t flee in terror.  I have too much information when I’m driving 80 mph on the interstate, so I narrow my attention: probably there are pretty ducks on that farm pond and maybe a gorgeous old ghost ad on the side of that rustic barn, but I’m going to keep my eyes on the lane stripes and the big truck passing me.

Reduction, though, however practical and necessary, wants limits: unchecked, it readily flips from beneficial to harmful.  If, for instance, I use culturally prevalent stereotypes as my heuristics (that’s an older, petite, white woman in the grocery aisle, wearing yoga pants, not a young, large, dark-skinned man wearing a hoodie — I’m safe!), then in my movement through the world I’m performing prejudice and hate, and furthering structural violence.

Reductiveness contributes to all those ills you mentioned earlier: “crass consumerism, anti-intellectualism, and blunt meanness of the American median, the pettiness of the heartland.”  Consumerism reduces human well-being to ownership of material goods: fulfillment is complicated, so I’ll reduce it to purchasing a pair of the latest style of sneakers, which is simple.  Poetry can be a nonreductive, even an antireductive, space, a stay against reduction.  Central to what I hunger for in the poetry I write and in the poetry I read is recognition of the irreducible: attending to, rather than attempting to eliminate, complexity.  I don’t purport to achieve that, either my life or in my work (to invoke our opening distinction), but I take it as a valuable regulative ideal, one that poetry can serve.

The nonreductive space, though, is inevitably more fraught than the reductive one.  I hope that Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark operates antireductively (“The warning signs / were there, but those same signs normally indicate calm”).  Midwhistle certainly does.  I think of (fraught) moments such as the meditation on watching High Noon with your father:

My father’s assassin face,
            which looked exactly like mine,
presages my son’s.  He will
                        share my name, this junior who
            will turn me senior, chrism

me an internal change like
            grace wrung from the sacraments
in my father’s faith.  Will this
                        son of mine look like me, like
            my father did, or I him?

Is resemblance contagion?
            Inheritance?  Atavism?

It’s not the only time you pose questions in Midwhistle (or elsewhere: I think, for instance, of your “Interrogative Solo” in Lullaby with Incendiary Device).  Which strikes me as another consonance in our work, or shared sensibility.  How would you speak of the question in relation to fraughtness, or to others of the concerns we’ve been thinking toward here?

DD: I love the idea of poetry as a provisional stay against reduction. This returns us again to a Rilkean notion of the poem as an experience itself (not merely as a reflection or as documentary of what happened), poem as experiential nexus, poem as dwelling place, as a Now (forever is composed of). A poem as a moment both capacious and fleeting, one pinprick in the infinite constellation of such pinpricks that make up a life. And, like any other moment, a poem is fraught, fully mysterious, brimming with nuance that is simultaneously imperative, indicative, subjunctive, interrogative, and optative.

You invoke Rilke at one point in Bored In Arcane Cursive Under Lodgepole Bark: “The torso does glow. I did change my life. / The problem is my conditions changed faster than I did. / The problem is my conditions shape me more than I shape them.” Taken out of context, I read into this stanza all that’s fraught and sacred and compelling in a life of poetry. Poetry as avowal, as renewal, as aperture, as ashes of a burned blueprint, as river opening into the ocean beyond the bay.

More and more now, my poetry addresses my loved ones directly. It’s the only conversation I can carry on now. I’m saying over and over: I love you and one day I will die. And what a miracle that is. The awe at what it is to be, the wonder of love, the terrible beauty of the nothingness that most likely bookends this consciousness writing to you. And something else amazing: our interconnectedness, the yearning for camaraderie, the attainment of simple friendship unfolding under the journeywork of the stars. 

What haven’t you done in poetry that you want to try? And what is the shape of your next project? What are you working on now?

HH: I hope your wife now, and your children at some point in the future, will see what you’ve just said, so they can keep it for themselves as one moment in that conversation of love.

For me, there’s something elemental — something very “beauty is truth, truth beauty” — in this association you’re making, of love and poetry.  Each is, or can be practiced as, a mode of attention.  (I’m thinking of Iris Murdoch’s “Love is knowledge of the individual.”)  Both love and poetry offer ways of recognizing totality in unity: “you’re the whole world to me” and “the world in a grain of sand.”  Love and poetry as parallel urgencies to be really with the person one is with, really in the moment one is in.

That urgency means that one answer to your question about what I haven’t done sounds glib, but I think you’ll know exactly what I mean: I haven’t written The Poem, the one that does contain the whole world.  There’s a kind of analogy for me with Wittgenstein’s “The real discovery is the one that makes us capable of stopping doing philosophy when we want to”: I haven’t written that ultimate poem, la última canción, the one that makes me capable of not writing poetry.

So I keep trying!  The next things out will be a poetry book called Constellation, from Cloudbank Books, and a prose three-part invention called Say It Into My Mouth, from BlazeVOX.  And I’m working now on a sister to my American Anger, to be called American Outrage.  It started simply as a memorial to persons killed in acts of gun violence (mass shootings, police killings, …), but has, perhaps predictably, become also a recognition of the various interconnected ways in which the U.S. is an outlier, and not in a good way, among “developed” nations: gun ownership (there are more guns than people in the U.S.), police militarization, mass incarceration, and on and on.  All of which are deeply gendered and racialized forms of violence and injustice.

What about you?  Maybe it’s a way to “wrap” this dialogue, for you to speak to the same questions.  What have you not done yet that you feel compelled to do?  What is your next project?  What are you working on (or what is working on you) now?

DD: I’m always grateful for your generosity of spirit and for your insight, Harvey. I do know what you mean about never having written The Poem. My ambitions tend in that direction as well. Although if finally writing a poem that was undeniable and durable and, in its own way, perfect were to lead me to stop writing poetry, I think I would prefer not to write that ultimate poem. I’d rather continue scrivening out a thousand and one imperfect foundlings, if only to set them consecutively on the doorstep of my heart. Still, I don’t know if I could continue to write without the impetus of the ambition that you invoke.

I’m looking forward to those new books of yours, especially American Outrage. I keep a copy of American Anger on my desk at work. It is the book that most clearly elucidates the state of the union over the past decade or so and explains how we arrived where we are now. I just received a copy of Constellation and I'm only beginning to dip into the luminous silt of its language, its incandescent grit.

There are several projects I want to do, but I’m still only ruminating on. I’d like to do a collection of essays about poetry. I’d like to write a biography of a poet (maybe Heyen or Hix?). I’d also like to uplift some of the books I’ve read recently, or which are coming out soon, by poets I admire.

Here’s a short list of truly amazing books that I haven’t been able to review, but which I wish everyone would read: Zeina Hashem Beck’s O (Penguin Books, 2022), Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s Relinquenda (Beacon Press, 2022), Jameka Williams’s American Sex Tape™ (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022), Tara Betts’s Refuse to Disappear (The Word Works, 2022), and Celeste Lipkes’s Radium Girl (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023).

I’d also mention a few forthcoming titles I’m eagerly anticipating: Danielle Cadena Deulen’s Desire Museum (Boa Editions, 2023), Leah Umansky’s Of Tyrant (The Word Works, 2024), Christian Teresi’s What Monsters You Make of Them (Red Hen Press, 2024), and Marie Howe’s New and Selected (W.W. Norton, 2024). 

As for my own writing, I just finished a collection of poems similar my first three books in style and content. I also finished the first draft of another book-length poem, a sequel to Midwhistle; it unfolds in conversation with your work, Harvey. Each section is titled after one of your books and unfolds in dialogue with your poetry. I directly address you throughout the poem in the same way that I address William Heyen in Midwhistle. For the next few months, I’ll be busy revising these two manuscripts and hopefully both will find a home in the next year or two or three.

H. L. HIX was born in Oklahoma and raised in various small towns in the south. After earning his B.A. from Belmont College (now Belmont University) and his Ph.D. (in philosophy) from the University of Texas, Hix taught at the Kansas City Art Institute and was an administrator at the Cleveland Institute of Art, before joining the faculty of the University of Wyoming, where, after a term as director of the creative writing MFA, he now teaches in the Philosophy Department and the Creative Writing Program. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai University, Fulbright Distinguished Lecturer at Yonsei University in Seoul, and the “Distinguished Visitor” at the NEO MFA.  He teaches in the low-residency MFA at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His poetry, essays, and other works have been published in McSweeney’sGeorgia ReviewHarvard ReviewBoston ReviewPoetry, and other journals, been recognized with an NEA Fellowship, the Grolier Prize, the T. S. Eliot Prize, and the Peregrine Smith Award, and been translated into Spanish, Russian, Urdu, and other languages. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming, with his partner, the poet Kate Northrop.

Dante Di Stefano is the author of four poetry volumes including, most recently, the book-length poem, Midwhistle (University of Wisconsin Press, 2023). His other poetry collections are: Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016); Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, 2019); and Lullaby with Incendiary Device, published in a three-in-one edition titled Generations (Etruscan Press, 2022), also featuring work by William Heyen and H.L. Hix. He co-edited the anthology Misrepresented People (NYQ Books, 2018). He holds a PhD in English Literature from Binghamton University. He teaches high school English in Endicott, NY and lives in Endwell New York with his wife, Christina, their daughter, Luciana, their son, Dante Jr., and their goldendoodle, Sunny.

September 11, 2021

August 27, 2021

June 04, 2021

May 28, 2021

April 28, 2021

April 23, 2021

April 16, 2021

April 15, 2021

February 05, 2021

January 01, 2021

December 21, 2020

October 02, 2020

August 17, 2020

May 02, 2020

April 20, 2020

March 23, 2020

January 05, 2020

December 16, 2019

July 15, 2019

July 07, 2019

click image to order your copy
That Ship Has Sailed
Click image to order
BAP ad
"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


  • StatCounter