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Exclusive Interview With Poet Dorianne Laux

As I’ve mentioned on this blog previously, I have a Facebook account under my full name (Robert Lee Brewer). And as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m all about playing online Scrabble at that account as well. And one of my more consistent opponents is none other than poet Dorianne Laux, who’s authored several collections of poetry and co-authored an instructional text (mentioned below) with Kim Addonizio.

Dorianne will be the first of what I hope will be many poet interviews conducted for this blog. I will categorize all these interviews under the totally misleading title “Poet Interviews.” ;)

So, let’s get started!

What are you currently up to? Any thing new coming up in the near future?

When I’m not playing Scrabble with you on Facebook, I’m packing to move to North Carolina where I’ve accepted a job at NC State.We’re also trying to sell our modest little Cape Cod style house in Eugene so we can buy a modest little Cape Cod style house in Raleigh.In the midst of all this I’m still teaching at UO (Oregon) until the end of the winter term and at the Pacific University Low Residency Program, so, there’s little time for new projects.I am lucky in that I have two new books out.

My first book, Awake, was reprinted in January by Eastern Washington University Press.They did a beautiful job and I like knowing it will have a second life.

And Red Dragonfly Press just put out Superman: The Chapbook, a gorgeous letterpress edition that contains six new poems.

I have a jumble of new work I can’t wait to get to and revise.This summer my husband and I are going to spend 5 fabulous weeks in May at VCCA, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where we hope to write new poems, the Muse willing. I’m going to be culling and reviewing the last few years of poems and see if I can’t cobble together a working manuscript.

Joe and I will both be teaching a workshop this August at TruroCenter for the Arts near Provincetown.It’s a beautiful spot and there are a bunch of wonderful classes and teachers there including Mark Doty and Paul Lisicky, Tony Hoagland, Eleanor Lerman and Martin Espada.

I’ll also travel to Guatemala in the beginning of July where I’ll join Joyce Maynard and Ann Hood to teach a poetry workshop. Joyce has a home in San Marcos on LakeAtitlan and has begun to invite a poet and a fiction writer to join her there for a mini-lit fest. I’ve never been to Guatelmala and am aching to go.

I’m collecting tennis shoes and writing materials to give to the children.It’s a place where paper and pencils are luxuries.I hope to bring poems back from the 10 days there.

Right this minute, I’m working on a series of poetry columns for Writer’s Digest, short essays with model poems and an exercise, much like what’s in The Poet’s Companion.The first one should be out this June.

In The Poet’s Companion, which you wrote with Kim Addonizio, you mention that poets should write what they know. Could you explain this concept a little and why you feel this way?

As I get older, I become more and more sure that I know absolutely nothing.I thought I knew about love, about death, about motherhood, men.I know nothing.I can only guess how much less I’ll know 10 years from now.But, I do know my backyard, my street, the way light bounces off a car windshield in summer, how frost glazes the roses when they are fooled into bud in February.I don’t know who we humans are or why we’re here or where we’re going, but I want to.I think those eternal questions continue to be asked, in spite of their mystery, because of their mystery.I explore those questions by looking deeply into the things I do know, the visible, touchable world. So often young poets try to speak to those mysteries directly, and unless they happen to be Rilke, they more often fail.It seems to me that the world is a pathway, a conduit, to the invisible, the unknowable, and helps us translate what we feel through the bodies we touch and that touch us.

In a review of Facts About the Moon, Robert Pinsky singles out the poem “Little Magnolia” and points to how the tree and man in the poem can be rooted and homeless at the same time. I’m often struck by how your poems are very accessible on one level, but have a lot going on beneath the surface. Do you think poems should try to be both accessible and layered?

I love that Pinsky chose that poem.It’s a small poem, one that could easily get lost in a book of longer, flashier poems.It’s a quiet piece, but yes, there’s more there if you take the time, slow down, look closely.I remember going to one of my teachers to ask about a poem I wasn’t sure I fully understood.She said, “Slow down.”I said, “You mean read it more slowly or slow down in my life?”And she said, “Yes.”Any good poem is asking you simply to slow down and, as Stanley Kunitz said so beautifully, to live in the layers. Do you know that poem?The final lines are:

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

"Live in the layers,

not on the litter."

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.

“Though I lack the art to decipher it.” That’s an important line.He’s not sure what it all means, but he trusts the voice speaking to him.I don’t think we can bend a poem to our will, or that layers can be consciously engineered.Poems that try to do this usually come off as tedious and self-conscious, overwrought, but we can be fully present while writing it and hope that the complexities fold themselves into the words, that the passion we feel for our subject engenders a natural layering.It’s simply not a conscious process and so it’s hard to take credit for it.That said, yes, I want my poems to be accessed by everyone, anyone, as many as possible given the limitations of poetry. I grew up in a neighborhood of military brats, kids who didn’t give a damn if you could read the back of a cereal box let alone a book.I think I often write to those kids, the ones I never fit in with because I wasn’t quite tough enough.I write to the girls with ratted hair and denim skirts, the boys with butch cuts and torn T-shirts.I want to reach them.I also want to give them something beautiful and complex, something they can read again and again.It’s what I want as a reader.

For me, the best poems are the poems I can read and understand.On the other hand, if I understand everything in the first sitting, it’s merely information.I think of a line I love from Li-Young Lee’s poem “One Heart.”He says:“Look at the birds, Even flying is born out of nothing.”That’s a simple line anyone can comprehend on first reading, and yet each time you read it or say the line aloud, the more you think about it, the more it dissolves into mystery.

Do you have any pet peeves with poetry?

The only thing I can’t abide is dishonesty.I don’t care if you’re smart or stupid as long as you tell the truth.That’s all I want to hear.It’s what we all long to hear.

You are married to poet Joseph Millar. So, I’m wondering what it’s like being married to another poet? Do you steal each other’s ideas? Do you share early drafts of poems? Did poetry play a role in bringing you together?

Oh we steal from one another all the time.It’s impossible not to.But then we steal from every great poet we know.It’s all a pastiche.We do share our drafts, though we’ve learned over the years to hold off as long as possible for fear of boring the other to tears with draft after draft.We met in a poetry workshop.I was teaching night classes for adults at an independent bookstore in MillValley.He was a student, though it was more like a group of us who got together to share our work.We knew each other for a couple of years before we began a relationship.

So yes, poetry brought us together, and it has played a role in keeping us together.We find that when we can’t agree on anything, or are pissed off at each other for one reason or another, one of us will bring up poetry.He’ll say, “Hey, did you read that poem in APR by Tony Hoagland,” or I'll say, “Do you want to hear a new Lucia Perillo poem,” and that’s the white flag, the common ground, the fight is over and we can talk again.

You’ve put together 4 collections up to this point (Facts About the Moon; Smoke; What We Carry; and Awake). Do you think about how collections might come together as you’re writing single poems? Or do you work solely on a poem-by-poem basis? Or is it some combination?

I simply write poems.If I was good at the long view I’d be a novelist and make much more money and have a shot at the movies.Not that I care so much about the movies.I think I do, sometimes, but when I go deep, I realize that I am most happy when I’m writing a poem, or revising a poem, or putting a book of poems together.I may be frustrated, but it’s a fruitful, soul-making frustration.At my poetic best, I’m asking a question I have no hope of answering and making something that has little chance of being read by more than a handful of people.And that’s fine with me.I prefer it even. I'm at my best when I’m at my most anonymous, when I am one grain of sand hidden among the many, making my single pearl.

My books have always found their own way into being, poem by poem.When the time comes that I have too many to keep in a binder--an irritation--I know it’s time to make a book.I take them out and spread them on the floor to see what I have.Each time, I’ve found a thread that holds them together.We humans do this.It’s in our nature to make connections.But it’s also a frame of mind.Each of us has a question that haunts us and we pull our poems up over and over, like buckets of water, out of that dark well. The poems may seem on the surface to be a jumble of our days, but they all spring from the same source.

If you could share just one piece of advice with other poets, what would that be?

I once had a dream in which the poet Jack Gilbert came to me in a white room and sat down in a white chair at a white table. We made soup together and his had blueberries in it.I asked him if he had any advice for me as a young poet and he said, “Yes.Don’t write sissy poems.And don’t be in collusion with your own poems.”It’s still the best advice I ever got.


Note to publishers and poets, if you'd like to set up an interview for the Poetic Asides blog, feel free to check out the interview guidelines available here:

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