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.