Poetry mentors: david dunn

Where do I start? With a winter solstice poetry reading in Brooklyn, in a dark room on a dark night; his poem evoking a Di Chirico painting made my head explode, the work was so much more interesting than anyone else’s. But we didn’t speak that night. I met David before the equinox the following year, at a critique workshop run by the people who had set up the solstice reading: Merle Molofsky and Les von Losberg.

David didn’t have a presence; he was a presence. He read in a growl, with a slight lisp and a Brooklyn accent, and he could quiet a room. The poems were not lyrical or narrative, nor formal, nor confessional–they were jazz-like, full of strange images that sounded like surrealism and yet were not. He wrote prose poems and free verse and tiny little aphoristic pieces that sometimes made me laugh and sometimes broke my heart. He was not famous. He had not studied with well-known poets. But he had much to teach me, I thought, from the first time we sat around a table and read our work to one another.

I found I listened more closely to David’s responses to my work than I did to other participants’, though as a fairly novice writer, I valued any critique. I liked that he often mentioned the work of poets he’d been reading, talked about their approaches and influences on his work. We started going to Gotham Book Mart together, searching the poetry stacks to score exciting contemporary writers and out-of-print classic collections. He told me to read Stanley Kunitz and James Lowell, Faye Kicknosway, Denise Levertov, Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had me listening to avant garde jazz, which I’d been introduced to in college thanks to a friend who was into Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland, and expanded my listening to include Don Cherry, the Chicago Art Ensemble, Albert Ayler, and many others.

His analysis of what was working in my poems, and what could work better, helped me to learn how to revise and rethink my work on my own. I gained a bit of confidence in my ability to figure out what sounded clunky, or wordy, or slightly “off.” He taught me not to be so hard on myself and to feel okay with putting a poem away for awhile–or forever–and letting the piece settle down so that, later, I could read it again and review its problematic areas less emotionally. He made me believe that my writing was worth reading, and that I was really a writer. Really. Not just faking it. In so many ways, he mentored me and my poetry. David encouraged me to submit to magazines and to let the rejections happen without feeling doubt about the value of the work. Although the value of that early work was…probably questionable, we’d look at the rejected pieces again and decide whether further revision might be needed or just a different reviewing editor!

As we got to know one another better, I learned about the challenges of his growing-up years, when he lived with his mother behind his grandmother’s millinery shop while his father was in prison for treason, in the US–following two years in a Chinese prison in Korea as a POW. Gradually, I heard about his dad’s release and inability to re-enter society, his parents’ divorce, his mom’s remarriage to a decent man who loved music but whose son, David’s step-brother, struggled with mental illness and died in a suspicious fire when David was about 20 years old. David’s outlier personality, his temper, his size–he was a large man who had been a fat boy, teased and bullied–found release and love through music, poetry, and dogs.

Also baseball, boxing, Star Trek…but we talked about those less often

posthumous poetry collection by david dunn

The other thing we conversed about frequently was frame of mind, particularly depression. Both of us were visited by depression frequently when we were in our 20s and 30s, and it was such a boon to have someone I loved and trusted who understood the “mood” and what a toll it could take on everyday life. When I married and had children, the need to feel less depressed got me to more reliable psych care–and I had better health insurance than David did. Sometimes he was chronically short of income, laid off, on unemployment, taking jobs in record stores, borrowing from his folks. He went a couple of years without health insurance or reliable health care, even though he was diabetic. So getting good therapeutic assistance for his chronic depression fell to a low priority, unfortunately. I tried to be there to listen to him, however, and he was always there to listen to me. We gave one another comfort during the doldrums, lassitude, and weird loneliness depression inflicts. And we reminded one another to write!

I miss him almost every day, though he died back in 1999. My book Water-Rites contains a section devoted to him and tries to convey the devastation I felt at losing him.

But you never really lose a mentor, right? They are always with us/in us.

Poetry mentor: Ariel Dawson

Adrian Owles. That was her anagrammed alias. She used that name for things like electric and phone company bills when her real name set off “overdue payment” notices, resulting in her inability to get services. She did, in her youth, have a conniver’s sense of how to skive and get away with it. To some degree. She learned the skills from her father, a brilliant alcoholic from a once-wealthy family. From her mother, she learned poetry and an idealistic, romantic outlook on life…but also that she should be independent and never rely on men to take care of her or keep their promises.

Well, maybe she learned that last part from her father. Her parents never divorced, but her father was an absentee dad. That’s the picture she supplied to me. I suspect it was true, but I know only a tiny part of her story. Ariel Dawson, my poetry mentor, was a year younger than I but so well-read, aware of the “poetry scene,” reading craft essays and books before I knew such things existed–and taking reasoned issue with some of the writers, too, in ways it never would have occurred to me to do. Question such recognized authority? I would not have dared.

What is a mentor? A kind of teacher or model of behavior? Ariel’s behavior was far from conventional, which did appeal to me. We hitchhiked from Michigan to NYC and back. We stayed up almost until dawn and drank wine and talked about poetry. We ganged up on the poor man teaching a creative writing class at our college by questioning his pronouncements and asking about poets and poetry he had not specialized in. We sneaked into bars without paying the cover charge or having our IDs checked (Michigan had a liquor law that permitted 18-year-olds to drink, but Ariel was only 17). I kept wondering quietly to myself: Is this how poets behave? Is unconventionality necessary to the craft?

Well, yes and no. A certain aspect of the unconventional probably helps writers of any kind, but risky antics are not required. An individual perspective on heartbreak or trauma can be useful. Some of Ariel’s stories made me fear for her, feel heartbreak for her; if I never knew how factually true they were, I sensed a fundamental truth in what she told me. One example is her “love affair” when she was 13. She believed she was having an affair with a man in his early 30s who was from Pittsburgh, which she thought was an eastern seaboard town (so much for Detroit’s 1970s educational system as far as American geography goes). He disappeared one day, and she set off by herself to find him in Pittsburgh, where the police eventually located her. They sent her home to her mother. Now I look at this story as grooming by a pederast, but at the time she considered it oddly romantic of her. What makes trauma, if the victim doesn’t feel traumatized? If she can imagine the experience into something naive and…sort of like love?

Ariel’s poems appeared mostly in the early 1980s in print magazines; she taught creative writing at a couple of universities, but eventually her love of dreams and the mythic led her to pursue Jungian scholarship. Last I heard, she was working as an analyst in New York state. Perhaps unfortunately, she remains best known for a letter she wrote to the Writer’s Chronicle/AWP Newsletter in which she took a stance against New Formalism. She always did love a controversy.

My book Strange Ladies is dedicated to her memory. For a whole bunch of reasons and for a number of Ariel stories I can’t even begin to relate here. But most of all, because she urged me to write. And to revise. And to read as many poets and as many craft books as I possibly could. And never stop learning, and keep on writing. She got me to give poetry readings aloud to an audience. She kept me laughing. She was wild and lovely, and I am sorry she is no longer among us.

Meanwhile, here is the link to register for an upcoming Zoom reading by some strange ladies, including yours truly:

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZArdOypqj4iG9KaR7UrcoyJzPS3YYLcNCLA

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Poetry mentors

Rosemary loved red roses

I learned, this week, that Rosemary Cappello has died. She was among the first people to encourage my writing and was an advocate for poetry and the arts in Philadelphia, where she lived for most of her life. I would not call her a mentor of mine; but she has been mentor to many other people as well as instrumental in setting up poetry reading series, poetry events, and other gatherings. All while also editing and publishing Philadelphia Poets Journal, a literary magazine that started as an 8-page photocopied zine and became a 100+ page annual journal…what energy, what devotion! And such kindness–when I first met her in the early 1980s, we saw each other often at poetry readings and open mikes. Then I moved away, first to Connecticut and then to the Lehigh Valley. Yet whenever I returned to Philadelphia for a poetry event, it seemed Rosemary was there. She always remembered me, too! In recent years, I’ve encountered her on Zoom readings and events. And I knew she had health struggles and trouble with mobility, but she never flagged in her enthusiasm for the arts.

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If Rosemary, bless her heart, was not one of my poetry mentors, helpful and kind as she was, who were my mentors–and what exactly is a mentor? A teacher, a guide, a supportive expert in one’s field? Someone who advises, offers a network, feeds the soul, provides a model? Yes–but more than that, perhaps.

At my university, there are several programs or projects that purport to offer mentorship, but I get different answers when I ask people who qualifies as a mentor. It has made me think about my own mentors, most of whom have been in the creative writing field. I mean, I could count my dad or mother, but parents generally aren’t considered mentors—they’re doing another job, that of parenting.

This concept came up recently not only from my workplace, where we are launching programs to have our students be mentors to incoming freshmen, but also from a recent interview with Ocean Vuong that has been making the writing-related social media rounds. [link is here]

This video kind of floored me. I am aware that Vuong is young—but 33? He’s my son’s age! Much as I love my intelligent and funny son, he doesn’t possess the insightful earnestness that comes through in Vuong’s presentations, interviews, and writing. Not to mention his teaching! I am not so sure, at twice Vuong’s age, that I possess those qualities, either; yet I know I have been a mentor to some friends and students, mostly by accident. What defines mentorship?

I have not formulated a definition for poetry mentor or life mentor yet, but considering the possibilities may help me recognize what mentorship is and what it means. Therefore, I think I will devote the next few blog posts to beloved and talented friends and colleagues whom I consider to be my mentors. Alas, some of them have departed this earth, but that doesn’t mean their influence has vanished. I hope that writing and posting about them will keep the memory of them alive in that way that human beings have of recalling and integrating the compassionate and useful persons we’ve known and loved into the present moment.

Next time I post, I’ll have things to say about Ariel Dawson, to whose memory my most recent chapbook collection is dedicated.

Volunteers

This evening, a steady rain at last, one I hope continues for hours. It is too late to save my vegetable garden but will help trees, shrubs, flowers as they set seeds, birds as they migrate.

Earlier today, I harvested a few remaining veggies. I cut some zinnias for bouquets and watched as a newly-emerged monarch butterfly unfurled its antennae and proboscis and dried its new wings. As often happens in the late-summer weeks, I pondered what to do for the next year’s garden. A surprising thought took shape: letting the garden go fallow for a year. After all, the patch has been working hard for over two decades now–shouldn’t it get a break?

My thought process then admonished me about weeds. The majority of the weeds that would crop up in a fallow patch well-composted over the years will be non-native plants. Those are what mostly come up in our meadow, though we do have many natives as well. But the meadow isn’t rich soil like the garden is. True, I have nurtured some natives even in the vegetable garden. I grow three varieties of milkweed as well as native asters, rudbeckia, and goldenrod (not to mention the native vine poison ivy, despite my best efforts to eradicate it). The milkweed was, this year, much appreciated and eagerly consumed by monarch caterpillars. Still, if I do nothing in spring but let the patch go fallow, I’m likely to find it has been claimed by white clover, dandelion, purslane, Canadian thistle, mugwort, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, Amur honeysuckle, and other common weeds that originated in Europe, the Caucasus, or Asia.

Okay, but I’m a champion at weeding in the springtime. I could pull out many of the invaders just as they are getting started. What if, however, I allowed some sprouts to grow? The volunteers, as gardeners call them, that come up on their own after wintering as seeds in the ground or in the compost–I could let them stay wherever they popped up. In this way, the garden would design itself, instead of me being the designer. It would be a year of surprises! I like that idea. I love a good experiment…why not find out what my garden wants to do, after 25 years of me trying to tell it what to do?

Hasn’t yet taken its first flight!

I can make some good guesses as to what I might find: morning glories, zinnias, some variety of squash, tomatoes of mixed parentage, nicotiana, sunflowers. Basil, possibly; chives and cilantro and dill, almost certainly.

Anything else really would be surprising, but this year I had a cantaloupe volunteer, and its fruit was quite tasty. It gets below freezing here for months in winter, and I have never had lettuce volunteer; however, I haven’t let it go to seed, either. It might survive, as the radishes seem to do.

The more I mull it over, the more I like the idea. I like the experimental aspect of it, and the speculation and the surprise. It means that instead of preparing the soil in spring, all I’ll do is spread the compost out as usual–but not dig it in. I’ll water if the spring is dry, but mostly pay attention to the things that sprout and determine as early as possible whether those are edible or ornamental, or just weedy. The downside is that I’ll get all those marvelous seed catalogs and…will I be able to resist? Also, my spouse will complain. He likes a well-laid-out, well-delineated garden so he knows where he can step and where he shouldn’t, what to water, and what to pull out. He may also object initially to the aesthetics of an unplanned truck patch. But around mid-June, I will be admiring my volunteers. It will be beautiful.

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Always I find metaphors and analogies between the gardening process and the writing process. The way I put my recent chapbook (Strange Ladies) together was similar to the theory of an all-volunteer garden. I drafted those poems at different times over many years and let them sprout even though they did not seem to fit in with my other writing projects or plans. After awhile, I realized they made their own kind of peculiar and surprising design.

I recognize that experimentation is a big part of my writing process. I love just playing around with words and ideas; when I first started writing more purposefully, my poems were often a bit surreal and strange. Over the decades, I’ve experimented with craft, prompts, natural world imagery, poetic form, philosophical and speculative concepts, and memory. It’s hard for me to say where my style or genre of poetry fits. I experiment, but most of my poems are not “experimental.” Much of my work uses observations of the natural world as major image and motivation, but I am not quite a “nature poet.” It doesn’t really matter how or whether my poetry fits an identifiable description. I weed as I go along, and I let anything that looks interesting (or familiar) show me its stuff.

That’s a natural process that reflects the way I think, the way I experience the world, and the various ways I find to express myself to readers. [Crafting and revising–that’s less spontaneous, though it can have outcomes just as surprising.]

As with my garden idea…wait and see.

Run dry

I think I prefer the lunisolar calendar to the solstice/equinox method of dividing the year into seasons. The Babylonians used it, and if you have that human need to count stuff and divide it into categories for planting and harvesting, the lunisolar calendar makes as much sense and is aesthetically pleasing, too. According to the Chinese calendar, August 23rd marked the “limit of heat.” The heat, and our current drought, may continue well into September; but as the days shorten, at least the nights cool down. The heat gets slightly less oppressive and humid. This coming week (around September 8) marks the 白露 báilù period, when “white dew appears.” I did see dew on the grass this morning.

Well, dew on the weeds. Dew on the clover and crabgrass, because the drought has killed off most of our lawn, and the tall grasses in the meadow do not get dewy. Instead, they are bedecked with spiderwebs. The red-winged blackbirds that perched on the tall grasses in June and July? They took off a little after the swallows did.

The bats, robins, hummingbirds, finches are still in evidence. There’s a distinct late-summer mood in the air, though. It is Labor Day weekend. Summer’s drought has not ended, but the slower pace of the university summer schedule has. Crickets are creaking, the swallows have departed, afternoon shadows grow longer, and the students are back on campus. I am busy.

Meanwhile, three sets of friends have had their elderly, beloved canine companions die. Dry leaves fall from the tulip poplars. Each week, my mother seems to lose a few more words from her lexicon. The jays scream every day at 4 pm.

I have been feeling a bit run dry myself. Like a small stream that needs a thunderstorm or, better still, a few good wet days to replenish it. As in: not writing. Yet I have found Charles Simic’s 1994 The Unemployed Fortune-Teller: Essays and Memoirs quite inspiring, if “inspiring” in this case means nourishment for the mind and heart without actively producing anything in terms of output. The book is part of the University of Michigan’s wonderful, decades-long series Poets on Poetry.

Simic writes, “A poem is an invitation to a voyage.”

Oh, let me never get so busy I cannot go on such voyages!