Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Conversations With: Dr. Daniel Dahlquist

Here's what I hope is the start of a new weekly (or so) feature on the blog: a mini-interview with writers about the craft. My good friend and teacher Dr. Daniel Dahlquist inaugurates the series.

Dr. Dahlquist is a wonderful poet; his poetry has appeared in respected literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, New Virginia Review, River Styx, Kentucky Poetry Review, and the Louisville Review. He graduated from the University of Iowa's storied Writer's Workshop and holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from Southern Illinois University. His first book, SPEECH TO THE DEAD PEOPLE, was published in 1997 by Cedar Creek Press. You can read an excerpt from the book (and my favorite of his poems) here.

Without further adieu:

Q: What poets or other writers do you consider influences?

A: The apocalyptic poets appealed to me when I was very young. I started writing poems at age sixteen, on my grandfather's 1928 L.C. Smith typewriter, largely to impress my English teacher. I had a terrific crush on her. Dylan Thomas was a great favorite, although I couldn't claim to "understand," with my conscious mind, all that much of what he was saying. The music appealed to me, the lush language, and of course the romantic image of Dylan the performer, boozing and broading his way across America, I liked this image very much! ee cummings was another great favorite. I was distancing myself from the conformists I saw all around me, as were many young people in my generation, and cummings is one of those poets eternally young, always being "discovered" and re-discovered by new generations. Although it has been said that virtually every one of his poems is "flawed" in some way (don't ask me, I probably couldn't find the flaw), and sometimes he gets a bit carried away in trying to set himself apart by his goofy typeface and punctuation, etc., I still love him, and the permission he gives to young poets. But my greatest influence when I was young was the west coast poet, Kenneth Patchen. I was reading a lot of Henry Miller at the time, and Miller had written a wonderful essay called "Patchen, Man of Anger and Light," and when I read this essay I sought out Patchen, and his intensity fitted my mind and temperament beautifully. (If one finds a writer one loves, it is sound advice to look at the authors that writer turns up one great book after another this way, and it saves a lot of time). Patchen is often associated with the Beats, but it is an uneasy fit, I think. He was one of the first poets to read with jazz. He made "poem-pictures," a marvelous wedding of poetry and graphics, that he published and sold seperately. Today I can't read much of his surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness poetry and prose, but his righteous anger, and his love poems for his wife Miriam, still ring true to me.

But the greatest influence of my youth was James Dickey. His star has been somewhat eclipsed in these feminist times, but in the sixties and seventies, especially when his novel Deliverance was made into a movie, he was the "King of the Cats." He is often compared with Hemingway, of course, but his range is greater than Hem's, to my mind. I met Dickey when he gave a reading at Southern Illinois University in the seventies, and I gave him a magazine with a few of my poems in it. He liked my stuff, and for some reason took me under his wing, and spent time with me, even during the stress of this public performance...We began a correspendence. He made me feel that writing poetry was not only okay, it was the highest and finest thing a human being could possibly hope to do with his life. I ended up traveling to Columbia, South Carolina to study with him, and the two years I experienced in his classes were the best of my life.

Q: There's Southern writing; is there Midwestern writing? Iowa writing? If so, how would you describe it?

A:All writing is regional, to my mind. There is Faulkner's Mississippi, Mark Twain's Hannibal, etc., but the world loves these writer's because they have dug their particular wells so deep that they have struck what Jung calls "The Collective Unconscious." To be honest, I am not often aware, these days, of a particular "region" speaking through a poem, but I am very aware of how deeply observant a poet is, in whatever locale her or she writes from. Poetry is an act of attention, and one can pay attention to a cityscape or a rural New England landscape. One good poet can do both, although there is usually a preference. The genius of the poem is in what the poet chooses to praise. God or the Devil is in the details.

I might add that during the last few years I have been conducting poetry workshops in the south (one in Memphis, one in the Ozarks). Here a group of locals have come together to form a community of writers. In a world that is largely indifferent to poetry, it is a beautiful idea, on the surface. Their goal I think is to encourage one another, to offer constructive criticism, to give praise when praise is due. When these workshops "work" there is the possibility for true growth. I find that the poets whose work has grown the most from year to year have gone beyond the group, however. He or she is reading the best of the nationally known poets. He is aware of what is going on outside of the warm and familiar home front. Alas, when I return in a year's time I find that some have not grown at all, though they might have won some prize or another in one of their state contests (regional writing groups seem to absolutely love contests...contests make one feel good, when one wins, of course). In other words, I think the notion of "regional writer" can be a trap, a trap that recycles the cliches of the particular region: calico, rivers, grandma's quilt, etc....

Someone once said, of the poems that come from the Iowa Writer's Workshop each year, that there are many ruined cornstalks. Well, you look out your window, and if you see ruined cornstalks, you put them in a poem...if the poet is doing his or her job, one could have ten "ruined cornstalks" poems in a single workshop, and each would be startlingly different. Each cornstalk would have been transformed by the poet's individual sensibility. The weaker poet would ride the cornstalk image for what is immediately available to everyone about cornstalks in winter. He wouldn't follow Richard Hugo's famous advice to let the cornstalk transform itself within a few lines, it would not find its true triggering subject (not cornstalks, but something from the poet's unique, interior life). I am confining my remarks to poetry here, because I don't read enough prose to speak about it.

A final thought. I have heard many musicians decry the fact that everyone is "influenced" now. We will not have a Mississippi John Hurt, for instance, playing for five or seven field hands in the Texas Delta, isolated, improvising on his own, going his own way, perhaps "doing it wrong" because he doesn't know any better. Thanks to the internet, cable television, etc., everyone has heard everyone, and I can't help but believe that this would make true innovation, true individuality more difficult. The same argument is made for the proliferation of writer's workshops. Many claim that the workshop poem is instantly recognizable as a small, predictable poem. Workshop poems suffer from sameness (although, in defense of workshops, every great teacher I have known has told his or her students that their best poems would come after they left the workshop) [read about the problem of the 'workshop short story' here] Robert Lowell urged any would-be poet to read everything written in the English language, and then start writing. This would be impossible for me, and for most people, but his principle is strong. One can tell how many poems a poet has read in the first four lines of his poem, regardless of "location." Dylan Thomas didn't know the difference between a turkey and a turkey vulture, or so he claimed. Dickey said he didn't know the names of plants and wildlife the way a Thoreau did, for instance, but this meant that when he went into the wild it was all wondrous, all unknown, all open to his imagination. In this sense, knowing the particulars of a region, or rather not knowing them, may be an asset to a poet. He will be Adam in the garden. Poetry is a naming activity, and one needn't be literally "correct."

I have been told that many songwriters today in Nashiville work in "teams," and this may explain why so many country western songs sound alike. Orson Welles was asked, when he was in his forties, why he hadn't made a film as great as Citizen Kane, which he created around the age of 23, if memory serves...he answered that he "knows too much now." His point is that art involves risk-taking. A life preserver around the neck of an artist eventually sinks him. So, this is the danger of writer's groups that fashion themselves as southern or midwestern this or that. My first teaching job was in Somerset, Kentucky, in the worst educational district in the continental United States. In a year's time I got very tired of hearing about "our Appalachian heritage," and "our Appalachian pride." People who speak of pride in this sense only indicate that they have had reason to feel ashamed. To try to write with such brainwashing going on would be a hindrance, I think, to a serious young poet. James Wright's love of blighted Ohio produced poems that are much truer, to my mind, than any attempt to "lift up" a particular region. Intentionality, in this sense, is death to creativity.

Marvin Bell said that we poets should be "less and less embarassed about more and more." This is the truth about writing well, I think, wherever one lives.

My thanks to Dr. Dahlquist for his time and thoughts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

damn that man is still long winded