Christine Davis interviews Dorianne Laux
CD: Along with your poems being lovely on the page, you are such a great reader which is not necessarily true of all writers. What do you think makes a good reading? Do you have any favorite writers whom you love to hear read?
DL: Thank you. I think I originally patterned my reading style after Carolyn Forché who reads beautifully. Clear, precise, incantatory diction, you can hear every word, and wonderful phrasing. Others I enjoy listening to are Yusef Komunyakaa, his deep basso profundo intoning each word:
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
Hearing his voice speak each word distinctly, attending to the line breaks, the periods and punctuation. He’s a joy to listen to.
Marie Howe has a lovely reading style, direct, sometimes deadpan, but always open and filled with humor and the life force. Galway Kinnell who rolls the language over his tongue like a priest or shaman.
For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run
Again, an attention to line breaks, though the breaks are entirely natural and conversational, and the awareness and consideration and affection for vowel sounds, pulling out words like “snore” and “bullhorn” “deeper” and “dreamless” and “breathing”. I love how he says the word “wrench”, pursing his lips and lingering on the “wr” as if the word itself were being wrenched from his mouth.
I grew up as a poet listening to these great readers of poetry who really cared about the conveyance of language. Philip Levine, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds. You can’t think of Clifton without also hearing her say of her hips: they need SPACE (pause) to move around in.... I have KNOWN them/ to put a SPELL on a man and/ SPIN him like a TOP. She gets so much power out of the phrasing and emphasis, the strongly-tongued T of top and the plosive P she belts out like an opera singer from the diaphragm of her mouth and pushes through the plushness of her lips- Clifton gets so much out of a one syllable, three letter word!
Nothing fancy, just an attention to the individual sounds of words, a certain sense of the dignity of language, and the old-fashioned sensual musical joy of elocution. I also think that anyone who grew up listening to Frank Sinatra’s musical phrasing, the pauses between the notes and words, a kind of lazy syncopation, learned a lot about how to present language on air, or Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, great lyricists who knew how to weave the words into the music rather than simply laying a word on top of each note or rushing through a word to fit it within the boundaries of the musical phrase. Just sing to yourself the lines: Toss me a cig-ar-ette I think there’s one in my raincoat. (So natural) Pause. We smoked the last one an hour ago. (The way the music rises on the words, or the words rise on the music) Longer pause. She looked at the scenery. Pause. She read her magazine. Pause. And the moon rose over an open field. Long pause to give the image time to settle and enlarge. The way Simon lingers on the words “moon" "rose” and “open”. Beautiful. The words become a part of the music. It’s conversational, but at a higher level. Cigarette, scenery, magazine, open field. The use of three syllable words and phrases, how the words lilt in time with the music. It was a great era for language-- the speeches of Martin Luter King, John Kennedy, the breathy smoke of Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburns’s clipped diction-- and I was imprinted with the way the rhythms of language could be a kind of music in the air if you slowed down and paid attention.
CD: It seems that giving readings is a very important part of the contemporary poet’s life and it also seems that some people really dislike doing them. What are your thoughts on readings and/or traveling on a book tour?
DL: I enjoy book tours for the most part. I like people, so I enjoy reading and interacting with audiences. I especially like reading for groups of young people who are always so receptive and excited. Most often the teachers have prepped them, they’ve read your books, and so the questions are thoughtful and very specific, completely sincere and questing. I’m usually put up in very nice digs, given a fee and travel money and treated to lovely dinners. Readings are the only way I can travel around the country and experience cities and towns I’ve read about but never seen. I meet poets I wouldn’t have a chance to meet any other way, and reach audiences that wouldn’t otherwise know my work. I still remember with great affection some of the readings I’ve given over the years, audiences that possessed a group personality that was just infectious. I’ve become fairly loose on stage so it really has become more of a conversation rather than a performance. I like it when that happens.
CD: When you were giving a reading in Oxford, you recited a few poems and spoke a bit about the importance of recitation. What do you think are the biggest benefits of recitation and/or memorization?
DL: One of the greatest benefits gained is an appreciation of sound. When you read a poem on the page, you get a sense of the sound of the poem, but hearing it out loud, over and over in your own voice, tunes the ear to the hums, chirps and whirrings of a poem, the wind, rain, snow, and thunder of individual words, the whistles, crackles and creaks that aren’t as readily apparent in the language until it’s riding in the air around you. I also notice little things about a poem I might have missed had I not set out to memorize it: new meanings, deeper meanings, puns, fuller metaphors, repetitions and patterns. I think there’s no better way to fully understand and appreciate the deep inner structural mechanisms of a poem than by memorizing it.
CD: Not too long ago you moved from the Pacific Northwest to the eastern coast. Has that change of scenery changed your writing in any way?
DL: Certain images of the Southeast are popping up here and there, the impossibly red cardinals and long-beaked thrashers, the languid humidity, the friendliness of the people and the slowed pace, a tiger-striped mosquito or two. It took me a while to really begin to write poems of the Northwest. I was there 13 years and only began to write about the trees toward the end of my stay, in Facts About the Moon. I suspect it will be a while before the Southeast begins to permeate my work.
CD: It isn’t uncommon that poets teach to pay the bills, but there are also just as many poets who teach because they love being in the classroom with students. How has teaching played itself for you over the years?
DL: Well, my students are terrific and I’ve taught for so long now that I am able to see them come of age in the form of stunning first books and lavish awards, making me quite proud, as if I actually had something to do with it! Teaching is a job I enjoy. If I retired tomorrow I would still teach, though maybe not quite as much. I’ve learned a lot from my students. One thing I’ve learned is that they actually take what I say seriously— like, write every day, pay attention, read and memorize exceptional poems, work hard, be strong, stay focused, make each word count. When I see them doing exactly as I say, I think, Wait a minute, am I doing that?? They keep me on my toes, and very humble.
CD: When I teach, I know that revision, more than anything else, is a lesson that I encourage students to learn. When you teach, what are some of your favorite lessons? Do you have favorite exercises or poems that you love to teach?
DL: We do focus on revision, and I have students turn in 5 revisions of a poem during the course of a semester. They have to approach the poem in five very different ways. We use the chapter on revision in The Poet’s Companion which still holds up. Jane Hirshfield’s list of questions that should be asked of a poem in revision are especially useful, as well as the exercises at the end of the chapter.
CD: Where do you think your love of words and/or poetry comes from?
DL: I think it came from an early love of reading, my mother’s love of music and the piano, and my family’s colorful use of language. We hailed from Maine where people say things like Uglier n' a burnt stump, Bright as a two watt bulb, Screwier than a 10 ton truck, Sharper n' a beach ball, Softer n' Church music, Couple pecks shy of a bushel, Couple sandwiches short of a picnic, Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, One oar in the water. And you don’t throw a rock, you huck it. Or if you’re depressed you’re darker than a pocket. If you’re pissed, you’re tougher than a boiled owl or a board of nails. Along the Maine coast, nobody is ever struck in the face, it’s always between the face and eyes. It can involve a physical blow with a fist, or some startling news that leaves you stunned. My mother said when I was born prematurely that I was no bigger than a minute. My favorite though was Jesus Christ on a crutch. What the hell does that mean??
CD: Your books tend to be thematic—do you set out for that or does this tend to occur organically? Your next book is The Book of Men, which is forthcoming from Norton in 2011. How did the idea for the poems in that book come about?
DL: It just happened. I wasn’t really much aware that I was writing poems about men until my husband, who had asked me to email him my file of new poems so in case my computer crashed I’d have a back-up, came in the house with the poems in his hand and said I think you have a book, and I think it’s called The Book of Men. I said okay. I’m very agreeable. Facts About the Moon was also a book that just happened. There actually aren’t that many poems about the moon in it but it does center around that poem. I have, in fact, written more poems about the moon since the publication of that book, but I really didn’t mean to. I was simply obsessed and my obsession outran my book. Superman: The Chapbook, is mostly poems about pop figures, but I didn’t know I had that many until Scott King asked me if he could publish a chapbook. I took a look at what I had and was surprised and delighted at how many of those poems I’d written. Of course now I have more, but the book is already done and out of print.
CD: If you couldn’t write what would be your creative outlet?
DL: If I was rich I’d make movies or become a photographer or painter. I love the visual arts. If I wanted to make money and had a lot of time on my hands, I’d become a novelist. I do love story and characters. I just can’t get the hang of plot.
CD: You spent your childhood in Maine. What kinds of things bring the good moments of childhood back to you? That is, what triggers happy memories for you?
DL: I actually spent very little of my childhood in Maine, though my mother brought all her Maineisms and Canadian Frenchisms with us to California which is where I grew up, in the small border town of San Diego, populated mostly by the military and in the fifties and sixties, still very wild and untamed. My happiest memories are of the canyons and beaches, places that were very open and feral, quite undomesticated, where a child could get lost in play and nature and the imagination. We had very little, but we did have this kind of freedom that the terrain and the times and the mild weather provided. We wore little: flip-flops, shorts, t-shirts, and we stayed out late into the heated evenings running around the neighborhood, riding our bikes without head gear or lights, taking the sidewalks on our metal roller skates, or riding our Flexy Flyers, sidewalk sleds you rode on your stomach with hand brakes at the helm, though most were homemade from discarded plywood and had no brakes, we simply used the scuds of our tennis shoes or a stick or a length of rebar that threw sparks when we tried to stop. Except for a horrifically dysfunctional home life, it was a great place to be a kid.
CD: This interview will be published in the winter issue. What do you love about the season?
DL: Winter is not my favorite season— I like the fall, and the seaside in summer, and the gaudiness of spring— but I do love the quiet of winter, the stillness. I do not like the holidays, but I do like the lights and the food and the fireplace. I read a lot in winter. It’s the only thing that makes the cold and darkness bearable.
CD: What’s your most treasured and impractical possession?
DL: Almost everything I own. I’m a collector of objects that are ridiculous. My husband is always saying, Can we move these Muldar and Skully action figures and the Jesus on wheels and the James Dean snow globe and the four headed blue dog with spike collars from Yellow Submarine over to the left a bit so I can see the TV? It’s junk, cheap pop junk, and I feel sorry for whoever will have to sort through it all when I die.
CD: Pretend you are a fortune teller for a moment—what’s your prediction for the future of poetry? For yourself?
DL: Oh I think our poetry is in great shape. American poetry is just going nuts, in a good way, and I predict we will see the next Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson arrive on the scene soon, if they haven’t already. I think young poets like the Dickman brothers are leading the way into a whole new kind of poetry. I like the direction we’re headed in. For myself, I’ll be happy and grateful if I can snag a poem that’s any good at all today.
Christine Davis earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Mississippi in 2007, where she was the poetry editor of The Yalobusha Review. Her poems have appeared in a variety of literary magazines. Christine is currently teaching English courses at various colleges in the Chicagoland area and working on a poetry and short fiction collection.
Dorianne Laux’s fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon (W.W. Norton), is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions, as well as Superman: The Chapbook and Dark Charms, both from Red Dragonfly Press. Recent poems appear in Cimarron Review, Cerise Press, Margie, The Seattle Review, Tin House and The Valparaiso Review. Her fifth collection, The Book of Men, will be published by W.W. Norton. She teaches poetry at North Carolina State University.