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.

Key images

I had intended to post on Denis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution; and I will (I suppose) at some point, because I enjoyed it immensely. Looking through my files, however, I found the transcripts from the initial interview Karen Jogan and Hernán Pereira conducted with me when they were compiling the book So Far…So Close and realized that my answers to some of their inquiries connect with my last post about poetic voice and Kunitz’s thoughts on key images. (The longer, but edited, version of the interview appears in the book).

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  1. What colors or aromas remind you of your childhood?

Cinnamon toast, mown grass, onion grass (wild garlic), lily-of-the-valley, cedar-water and pine trees, the scent of a muddy river in summer, wintergreen, play-dough, school paste, steam-irons, fresh peaches, campfires, burning leaves, talcum powder, Pepto-Bismol, air-dried clothes and linens, mimosa blossoms, roses, strawberries.snowdrops

  1. Describe yourself as a child.

I wonder from whose perspective I should attempt to answer this question. I know from others that I was considered to be shy and polite, talkative when comfortable, imaginative. I certainly felt uncomfortable among groups of people, preferring small groups of friends with whom I played make-believe. I made up stories which I told my sister and brother, and when I was old enough to write I made little children’s books that I illustrated and bound in cardboard.

My sister was my best friend, but I spent a good deal of time all by myself. When alone, I walked my dog, climbed trees, played on the swings, sketched and painted, and read books. I really was a bookworm and spent many happy hours with books and in libraries. Being alone was, and still is, deeply satisfying for me—it helps me regain creative energy.

  1. At what moment in your life did you begin to write?

I don’t remember when I began writing. My storytelling began early, and I suppose the writing developed from there. The first story I recall writing down was about a princess; I was in second grade. I felt proud of myself, even though the story was only about three sentences long. Apparently, the poems started when I was about nine. I don’t remember writing poems then, but I recently found some that I had composed and typed up (I was fascinated by the typewriter), and my mother’s notes said I was nine when I wrote them. What I really wanted to be was an artist, but writing seemed natural to me. I started keeping a journal when I was ten…

9yroldpoems010

Rhyming and typing and illustrating and bookmaking– at nine years old.

  1. What influences have been important to you?

Other writers, naturally, but first of all, visual art. From the time I was very small, I’ve loved paintings and sculptures and architecture. Church hymns and Bible verses and nursery rhymes were influential to me, as well as folk music and the lyricists of popular music when I was growing up. I am also influenced by non-fiction work, especially in the sciences, and philosophy. My early poetry influences were Donne, Shakespeare, Blake, and the King James Bible; but then I fell in love with contemporary women writers, then surrealist poets, then Latin American writers, then Asian poetry, then contemporary lyric poems…it goes on and on. It might be easier to say what I have not found particularly influential!

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With further reflection, I could go deeper about early images that have become, for me, “key” aspects of my writing voice…a particular landscape, the feeling of an empty nave, bees and birds, milkweed, cloud patterns, my parents singing, my little sister beside me in our shared bed, the sound of a symphony. They may not appear in my poems as such, but these images connect with me in ways I probably don’t understand. What do such keys unlock, I wonder?

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Voice

I follow the Women’s Poetry Listserve (Wom-Po), and recently there was a discussion there concerning what poetic voice is. Can it be defined clearly? Does it differ, and if so how, from style? Is it personal, belonging to the writer herself–an attitude? Is it distinct from the creator of the poem, as the “speaker” of the poem arguably is in the case of poetic voice/persona?
A listserv member offered this quote from Kunitz:
“One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images which go back to the poet’s childhood and which are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic. That cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.” … from Stanley Kunitz‘s 1975 lecture at the Library of Congress, “From Feathers to Iron.”

A constellation of key images may seem to be imagery, not voice at all; but Kunitz’s decision to connect distinctive voice with a recognizable beat and images, and to further suggest that these mesh to in the compositions of a poet who is writing with clarity and authenticity (my interpretation of what he means by “working at their center”), indicates that voice is a critical component of poetry. I have read the above-mentioned lecture, but Kunitz does not there elaborate on whether he means the writer’s personality, style, or attitude or whether he means, instead, persona. It seems to me, though, that he wasn’t talking about persona (the “speaker” or mask the writer uses in an individual piece). I interpret that the key constellation of images, the “individuating node,” would have to be personal experience of the actual writer–Roland Barthes be damned.

CH Chucrch

Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological approach to poetics and, to some extent, psychology, appears to jive with Kunitz’s pivotal childhood images. It is easier to recognize one’s own key images in one’s work, of course…and I cannot help but recognize that Kunitz has nailed it for me, at least, if not for all poets (writers, artists, musicians, etc.). My own cluster of images, drawn from childhood, include the church. Also the beat of hymns and responsive readings and the King James and RSV Bibles. Also the bleat and wail of diesel engine horns, the progression of fields and trees and flowers, the hum of highways, the sluggish flow of certain rivers. To mention but a few that stay with me.

I am not an adherent to any particular style or form of literary critique, and I am not a whole-hearted phenomenologist, either–but I have to admit that these concepts (the individual’s key images, the individual voice and the persona voice, the rhythm or beat of a writer/speaker) intrigue me. I find them well worth exploring, mulling over.

See Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa post here for a mini-photo-essay that illustrates what I mean.

Favorite poems

In my last post, when writing about reading poems of grief, I mentioned Robert Pinsky–former US Poet Laureate. When Pinsky was Laureate, he promoted the program now called “The Favorite Poem Project.” The concept was to demonstrate that poetry appeals to a diverse audience; there are so many styles and types of poetry, on so many topics, that anyone can find a poem that appeals. Teachers, plumbers, teenagers, soldiers, business executives, mail carriers, truckers, grandparents, schoolchildren–anyone who had a poem that had special meaning was invited to say a bit about why or how that poem meant so much and then to read the poem aloud to an audience. Pinsky’s project included favorite poem reading events, and videorecordings of such events, now archived at the site…and a book.

This year–this past Tuesday, to be quite exact–I took part in a favorite poem reading at the college where I work. I find these readings rejuvenating. Sometimes the stories that surround the poem choice are heartwarming, sad, or funny. Some readers tell an anecdote about a favorite teacher, relative, friend, or book; it’s wonderful how those stories “work” with the chosen poem. The director of information technology related the story of how, when her mother was in labor with her, her mother was taken to the hospital by hearse because taxis in the south did not serve her “black neighborhood.” A dance professor offered the romantic story of his long-distance courtship with his (now) wife via letters and poems…and Neruda. An instructor spoke of his fascination with attics and his father’s estrangement from the family and then read Stanley Kunitz‘s amazing poem “The Portrait.”

The poem I read was also a Kunitz poem, “The Snakes of September,” one of his later works. I am not sure this is my favorite poem–indeed, I would be hard pressed to come up with one only, and I might choose Ben Johnson’s “On My First Son” or Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” or Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift” or…well, there are dozens. I just chose one I thought would suit the evening, a poem with a garden in it, and an allusion to Eden, and the lovely phrase “the wild/braid of creation/trembles.” It speaks to me.

Look for poems that speak to  you. Keep them near  you, on the fridge or by your desk, in a notebook by your bed, or in your heart. Share them if you feel the urge; you will be doing good.

Blessings for National Poetry Month and always.