A Dialogue with Dabney Stuart
An Interview by Cy Dillon
Dabney Stuart has published eighteen books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, he has won awards including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Governor's Award for the Arts, the Dylan Thomas Award of the Poetry Society of America, Poetry magazine's Bess Hokin Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. A college teacher for forty years, he has been a member of the English department faculty at Washington and Lee University since 1965 and currently serves as the S. Blount Mason Jr. Professor. Stuart read at the Author's Luncheon during the 2001 VLA Annual Conference.
VL: Listening to you read during the author's luncheon at the VLA Annual Conference, where the audience was completely absorbed in the reading, made me wonder about your consciousness of audience or need for an audience when you write. Do you imagine yourself writing for any person or group in particular?
DS: I don't think about "audience," in any sense of the word. I never have. As with so much else that is peripheral to the work itself, such a concern is a deflection. Hallmark cards have an audience. I have, however, thought often of a reader, after the manner of George Herbert's wish in "-Obedience":
How happy were my part,
If some kind man would thrust his heart
Into these lines.
I would add "or woman," which troubles the meter only slightly. This is a reader like Frost's winter man in "After Apple Picking," or Yeat's fisherman, "A man who does not exist/ A man who is but a dream," Henry Vaughan became Herbert's "kind man," followed by many others in the past 370 years. Even this imagining strikes me as mightily ambitious, but it is in keeping with the solitude of the writing, and is an affectionate way to extend that toward another person.
I also return sometimes to Santayana's saying (in The Realm of Matter, I think; I am quoting from my daybook), "I am addressing only those who are willing, for the time being, to accept my -language."
In these two suggestive contexts, though, I think even the modest wish for a modest reader involves imagining someone very like one's self, someone who, in Herbert's terms, can enter the net and wind of making. In ways that can be overwhelming to study on too closely, we create our readers (plural!) as we go. In Herbert's conditional happiness, the lines precede the possible reader.
Over the years I've heard questions of this kind-all versions of "Who do you write for?"-and early on they puzzled me. I've developed an answer by now, though I don't quite understand what this sort of question means, or why it recurs as a kind of betraying refrain. I say to myself in reply, "I write for the angels of air, and the sweet dark. "
VL: Then you would continue to write if you knew there were no audience at all?
DS: Yes, of course I would write if I knew "no one would ever read my words." I always have written under this necessary condition. I still do. Perhaps this section from my poem "Well Being" will help put my perception of the audience question in perspective:
here at the bottom
of the well-
tuned channel, my
vistaed O, I shoot
off into the little
mike various degrees
its perforate domette.
They climb the cord
end, unconnected, frays
into the dark, a wild
names to airy
The voice winding
in its lines. A version
of root and
bole and branch,
photosynthesis, by which
we breathe each
other, and ourselves.
VL: A related question about why a person writes is motive. Do you think poetry has to be useful in a social sense?
DS: It's probably a mark of the popular and critical focuses of our pragmatic culture that one would raise the question of whether or not poetry is useful. It's a non-issue to me. A screwdriver is useful. Perhaps an automobile is, too. But poetry, by a fundamental kind of contrast, is necessary.
W.H. Auden's famous assertion in his elegy for Yeats-always quoted out of context as if it were a proclamation-is only half of his consideration in that poem. "Poetry makes nothing happen" plays against the later lines, "It is a way of happening, a mouth" (my italics). Auden had, of course, a facility with aphorism, which intensifies the temptation to excerpt the first of these assertions and let it stand on its own. Even if one does that, however, I think we're not dealing with "usefulness"; I think it's not a true assertion, either, in terms of the effect of poetry on history (we might say), since we have no way of measuring the effect a word, a line of poetry, or a poem might have on a person's behavior over an extended period of time. There's always a potential of absorption whose transformation into action may be untraceable. But Auden was probably less interested here in truth than in friction.
"Poetry is a way of happening" is one way of hinting at its primacy in our lives. Poetry is also a way of knowing, different in kind from other, important ways, like mathematics, or quantum theory. One of my distresses, not entirely professional, has been the compartmentalization of these ways. I see them as complementary, or potentially so. A poem may be, metaphorically, an isotope, or a surd. Conceptions may cross boundaries where language may seem to thicken them.
VL: You take on some very difficult challenges in writing, dealing with some of the very difficult regions of the self as well as attempting demanding forms in both prose and poetry. In fact, you are drawn to risk as surely as a rock climber or whitewater enthusiast. This need for excellence has haunted many writers. Henry Miller used to sign his letters "The Failure." How do you think about failure?
DS: Primo Levi, in The Monkey's Wrench (a horrible translation of La Chiave a Stella), says perhaps the most appealing things about failure I've read. He was a practical chemist as well as-after his experience at Auschwitz-a writer; the combination is fascinating. ee cummings, as part of his ongoing melodrama, said, "I am a man, a poet, and a failure." Samuel Becket, leaner of aspect and more terse, said, "Fail. And fail better." We all dance with this partner. I think, however, that our measurements are against a standard, an imagined possibility we reach for and rarely, if ever, touch to our satisfaction. For me, failure is opportunity. Levi is grateful, as we all are, for the chance to revise, an advantage a writer has over an architect, for instance, or, in Levi's book, a rigger-one who builds derricks, bridges, towers and the like. But the music I'd like to make-that I hear teasing me just out there in the next line, or stanza, or poem-I never quite measure out the way I hope to. Approaching it, though, is a joy. Being able to approach it and live in its slow modulations over a period of 40 years is a gift I never dreamed of. Perhaps "failure" is the wrong term for all this, since coming up short means continuing, "failing better." Maybe the most striking instance of this in my work is the story "The Egg Lady" that appeared in No Visible Means of Support this year. That began as a novel, written over an eight-month stretch in 1968-69. I put it through revisions of various sorts over the next 30 years, each time believing I had finally finished it. Wrong, the little voice kept murmuring through the binder. It was always right. It was a happy time when we came to an agreement late in 1999.
I've heard Shakespearean actors speak of "playing the contradictions" in a character. Perhaps that's a way to express what the dance of revising and rehearing entails-the ability to note the discrepancy between what we imagine and what we actually compose, and then composing that.
VL: Over the course of your career as a writer you have tried and mastered an exceptional variety of forms in poetry, fiction, and criticism. Most notably, you have avoided writing book after book of the same kind of poetry that led to your early recognition. Do you see yourself as restless?
DS: My use of a variety of forms doesn't involve restlessness, or at least I don't experience restlessness. But, of course, a madman doesn't feel mad. I have begun only a few poems knowing ahead of the first line what verse pattern they would take. The same is true for my procedure in fiction; if the story isn't a continuing discovery I tend to lose interest. The process is mostly ad hoc for me, a matter of finding what best enables the need to say the thing of the moment. (Sometimes "the moment" extends over several years.) I've tried most verse patterns except Byron's Childe Harold stanza, and Spenser's famous seven-line pattern. I've invented different approximations, played with various structures for the sonnet, used what I called "skinny odes" for a while (perhaps too often), and written, less interestingly, poems in what some editors call "open forms," one of those problem phrases that contradicts itself, like "free verse," though in the latter case I have written many poems whose rhythm does not include metrical regularity. I remember a lovely sense of freeing accompanying my "discovery" of half rhymes, and then, in the ensuing years, realizing how much richer music can accompany their subtleties. I suppose this variety is partly a matter of not wanting to repeat the same formal challenges, but it has more to do with finding what best suits a given poem's possibilities. I think, too, in the manner of Borges' story about Pierre Menard's Quixote, that sonneteers, like Sidney or Shakespeare or Hopkins, never use the same form twice.
Besides the poets I've already mentioned in various contexts, a partial list of others whose work I've attended includes John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Elizabeth Bishop, Geoffrey Hill, and, more recently, Seamus Heaney. There are single poems as well that are marvels: Robert Lowell's "A Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," Thomas Traherne's "Salutation," Philip Larkin's "Church Going." What involves me isn't so much the verse patterns these poets challenge themselves with per se, so much as the tension-evocative, provocative-between the pattern and the voice playing within and against it, needing its controls and restrictions for solace and the illusion of stability, as well as a resistance it may break through into discovery. The vitality of Herbert's lists disguised as verse is stunning. So are Donne's leaps and Marvell's apparent diversions. In the most engaging work of this kind one hears resilience, a voice embodying it. (How can a voice "embody" anything? How about "a voice transposing it?")
VL: Both your fiction and poetry often address family relationships and sometimes you include family members, such as your father, as a subject or character. Some passages draw, at least from me, intense emotional response from the reader, but you manage to avoid the sentimentality that so often intrudes when writers consider family. Can you describe how you write about family?
DS: I have used family as one of my materials, in both poems and stories, for most of my writing life. None of the figures I've invented since the early 1960's exists apart from the pieces I've made them in. I use aspects of "real" people, of course, but I remember fewer details than I invent, and the composites don't exist prior to their appearance on the page. This seems a commonplace procedure to me, but then I work inside it. Its mysteriousness resides in the relationship of the procedure to the psyche of the writer-my psyche, in this case. I compose my self's need, so to speak, in the family "members" I create. The father I keep returning to in my work is the father I need, not someone who had a historical existence that I try to commemorate. It's dynamic, ongoing (so far, anyhow), perhaps the most complex of the needs I make characters of. The "truth," then, that my family work elicits has to do with my "psychology," as we say-half-perceived, half-created, though I mean that quantification less literally and in a different context than Wordsworth did, a hint at what transpires in composition.