The Long Authentic Process
An Interview with Dorianne Laux
by Meg Reynolds
Meg Reynolds: I noted that you did a lot of different work before poetry. How did you transition from one thing to the next?
Dorianne Laux: I had always written creatively since I was very young. After my daughter was born, I decided to go to a community college and take courses in English composition. Eventually I got into some poetry-writing classes and I started writing in earnest and then got introduced to contemporary American poetry. All the while, of course, I'm working, waiting tables and raising a kid. I began to have some success, sending my work out here and there, getting a few things published locally, and then sending poems up the coast to magazines in L.A. I moved to Berkeley where I began attending poetry conferences and studying in more advanced classes, such as Alan Soldofsky's Cal Extension Poetry Workshop called "Poems in Progress," where I was classmates with poets like Jane Hirshfield and Stefanie Marlis, though they were farther down the road than I was and had books of their own, Jane more than one. And then eventually from all of that, I developed a poetry manuscript.
MR: What poets impacted you the most when you were in this process? Who blew your mind?
DL: My mother had the poetry many people had in their homes when I was growing up: e.e. Cummings, Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost. I read them, though I was more interested in novels, and I wrote poems. But it wasn't until I got to junior college and joined poet Steve Kowit's night class in San Diego that [I was] really introduced to world poetry and contemporary American poetry, with an emphasis on woman poets. He often read to us aloud. When he read "Letter to Miguel" by Pablo Neruda, that poem made me cry. It was about the miners going down into the zinc mines, I think, even children, and Neruda just…it's such a beautiful poem: "When I was writing my love poems, which sprouted out of me on all sides, and I was dying of depression, nomadic, abandoned, gnawing on the alphabet…" I thought, "So this is poetry." It's this very intimate form where you're speaking directly to another human being and you use images as a way to speak about things that are really unspeakable, and it can make you cry. And I thought, "That's good; I'm going to try to do that." I read Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forché. They were also large influences on my poetry. I was very surprised to learn that there were women writing that were around my age, publishing books. That was not something I would have imagined until I found those books through Steve Kowit. And this led me to a host of poets and many of our contemporary greats—Galway Kinnell, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Philip Levine, Ruth Stone—that whole glorious generation of 1928.
MR: Speaking of the kind of poetry you were looking to write and the idea of the confessional poet—do you consider yourself that, and how do you define such a thing?
DL: I hadn't yet read the confessional poets, Lowell and Sexton, Snodgrass and Plath, before I began writing my poems, and so I had no idea whether they were confessional or what the term even meant. And I still don't find much use for the term. It seems to me every poem is a confession of some sort. We're revealing something about ourselves whether we're using the 'I' or not. When we make an image, that's a confession of a sort, we're revealing something about the way we see the world, personally. I see most poetry as personal and revealing. And also, when I think of confession, I think of going to a priest and confessing sins, and I don't feel as though that's what I'm doing in my poems. It's more focused around the idea of secrets. I think there's a long tradition of poets revealing secrets and approaching taboo subject matter. I just don't know how useful the term is. I might better call myself a poet of personal witness.
MR: You talk about an image of a tree in one of your poems—of half of it being above ground and half of it being below, but you seem to want to attend to the entirety of the living thing—what do you believe is the purpose of that investigation?
DL: Well, maybe because what's underground reflects a lot of what's above ground, so if you don't have those two separate entities, you don't have a whole. All of us need to see the thing in its wholeness, conscious and unconscious, light and dark. I think that's a big part of a poet's job, to explore and expose that wholeness, through image and rhythm, syntax and diction and through the choice of subject matter. It's like looking at an ant farm. You need to dig in and look at what's underground in order to understand what's going on above ground. Wholeness. Looking back, it seems a foregone conclusion to me that my poems would engage with these human issues. Those are the issues Whitman engaged with when he wrote about the Civil War, what was going on behind closed doors, the lives of men that were being damaged and cut short—that's the below-ground of the patriotic. I've written about the below-ground of the family. You could say the same thing about Emily Dickinson. She's bringing up issues of death, and that's not something people want to discuss much. And she knew this. I feel as though you could choose any poet you wanted and ask, "Is this poet somehow dealing, directly or indirectly, with issues of shadow or darkness, or the unspoken or the radical—what's hidden, secreted away?"
MR: Where do your poems come from?
DL: As someone without a lot of formal education at the time (I would later end up with a BA from Mills College), I nonetheless wanted to know who I was. I wanted to understand my place in the family of humanity. A way for me to do that was by exploring the self and what constitutes the self. I think maybe musicians do that. I think that painters do that, composers, sculptors, trying to get at something they don't understand about the self. So that's where most of my poetry emanates from. I mean, if you're looking at a tree, why are you obsessed with that particular shape of life? What does it have to do with you? You can't say it has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with you. Even if you are just purely trying to capture an image, you're capturing it for a reason. You don't know the reason until you explore it further.
MR: In terms of connecting this to others—what are the poet's obligations to making work and presenting it to the world?
DL: I'm not sure about this. I have an obligation to myself to try to tell as much of the truth as I possibly can and to bring my artistic knowledge to bear bear on that truth, momentary as it may be. I think if I do my job, then that's at least a possibility, that somebody might look at a poem and say, "That resonates with me; I get it. I'm able to see myself more clearly through this mirror, this piece of art." If the piece manages to rise to that level. Beyond that, I don't feel an obligation. And certainly any obligation I might feel toward the art comes after I've created it. That's not my goal going in. I don't really start out to do that. I don't say, "I'm now be going to be a spokesperson for women, or for the abused." I just have a personal desire to create art out of my life. I think that anybody that goes out and starts a garden, the way Stanley Kunitz did, has this desire to make art from life. For some people, it might begin and end with the garden, though it certainly didn't end there with him, who wrote so many fine poems and mentored so many fine poets. But there are many avenues for expression.
MR: So there is a relationship between poetry and other modes of expression—they are just ways of authentically relating to the world in a way that one feels compelled to do.
DL: "Authentically relating to the world" is a great way to say it. Any time you're out there gardening—or you could be a mechanic or a cook or an electrician or a doctor—like the good Doc Williams—you are authentically responding to the world. The usefulness has always been a big question, you know; is art really useful? Can art just be there to be beautiful? Well, that's useful! Beauty is useful; truth is useful. Language is useful and beautiful. It's meaningful and meaningless at the same time. Artists are the ones who most understand that language can only do so much and yet, it can do, seemingly, everything. Think of Deborah Digges's "Broom," think of Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck," Ruth Stone's "Pokeberries," think of Philip Levine's "Salami."
MR: So the poem or art object is a teacher from one individual to another. How do you strike the balance between your teaching life and poetic life, and how do the two disciplines impact one another?
DL: I love teaching. I'm not particularly thrilled with the institution of the university. It can be hard on a writer. On one hand, yes, we get the summers off, and we can write then, but it's hard to go deeply into our writing life. There are a lot of meetings, a lot of administrative work that many of us are not well suited for, but it ain't going down into those mines. I do love the actual teaching and the students. If I can do anything to forward their personal goals as writers, then I'm happy to do that. Partly because, I think, it's just my nature, but also because that's where I do feel some responsibility. I was helped so much as a young poet coming up, and I'm grateful for that, so I do feel a responsibility to help younger poets find their way.
MR: Do you feel like you had any particular mentors when you were coming up as a poet?
DL: Well, my first teacher Steve Kowit was incredibly generous with his time, energy and passion for poetry. He helped me get my first reading in San Diego, my first publication, and was fully supportive from day one. He trained me to be a poet and showed me by modeling how to be a poet in the world. And so he was a great mentor. Then I met Philip Levine, who was not my teacher, but saw a couple of my poems in a magazine and wrote a note to the editors saying that he admired the work. I asked for his address and wrote him a postcard of thanks. We then began a correspondence. Eventually he asked me for a manuscript which he then sent to BOA Editions. Within a week, they decided to publish the book. We've kept in contact ever since and have become friends. I've had wonderful teachers—Carolyn Forché, Jerry Stern and Jane Hirshfield—all of these people gave their time and energy to me. So I feel that's the way of things—you help each other. We're poets. There aren't too many people out there willing to help us, so we need to help each other. Writing poems is a solitary activity. It can be lonely to explore these fundamental issues alone in a room, in the middle of the United States, in the middle of the world, a speck in the universe. I mean really—we are doing this ridiculous thing alone. When you find someone else who's doing the same thing, your heart just expands when you see them, "Oh my God, there's another one, just like me, who sits alone and frets over one word for weeks and tries to say things that are ultimately beyond language. There's another member of my strange tribe." It's like finding brothers and sisters, the ones you would have chosen if you had been given the choice.
MR: What were some skills you had when you were first starting out and what aspects of poetry were really challenging for you?
DL: I could tell a story. I came from a storytelling family. I could tell a joke. I could tell a funny story. I was a good listener. I could hear and see. I've always had a good eye. I can see a column of ants on a tree. My mother played the piano, so I have an ear for the musical phrase. I have a decent memory. I brought all that to my poetry. What I wasn't so good at (one of the main elements of poetry) was compression. I wasn't sure how to press all this coal down into a nice little diamond. What could I strip away to make this thing start to shimmer? So that would take years and years of practice. One of the poets I would go to for an example was the poet Jack Gilbert. Jack Gilbert could write a six-line poem that would just tear you apart. He would present two characters, a situation, past, present, and future, the landscape—you get the whole damn thing in six lines. So I would practice. I would imitate him. I think that's what allowed me to write a more compressed narrative. I also wrote a lot of haiku. I practiced at the opposite end of what I did well. I would set challenges for myself. I would read other poets and say, "Look what Olds does. I'm going to try to do that." Now very few of those kinds of experiments made it into the realm of poetry, but they were very useful to me in what I do—narrative poems that are peopled and tell mini-stories. Good poetry will offer you options or avenues for your own work. You can copy the syntax or the rhythm, structure, pattern, argument, rhyme scheme, lineation. You do this the way a musician practices scales and riffs, or the way an artist makes sketches and throws them away.
MR: What are you reading right now?
DL: Most of the time I'm reading contest manuscripts, but I just got Kwame Dawes's new book Duppy Conqueror so that's what I'll sit down with next. I have books piled up all over the place. I'm re-reading books I have my students read. I have a course called "First Books" and they read much of what I read and loved as a young poet, Gathering the Tribes by Carolyn Forché, Satan Says by Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee's Rose. In the summers, I get to read whatever I want and often end up reading books on astronomy and biology, subjects seemingly un-related to poetry, or I'll spend the whole summer reading a novel like Anna Karenina as I did last summer. Of course, I'll read all the poetry publications that come through the house, so I'm constantly reading new works. I just re-read Atlantis by Mark Doty because one of my students was reading it—such a good book.
MR: I heard in one of your interviews about giving yourself some advice in a dream. You said, "Don't be in collusion with your poems" and "Don't write sissy poems." Can you expand on what this means?
DL: Well, it was actually, once again, Jack Gilbert who came to me in a dream and said, "Don't be in collusion with your poems, and don't write sissy poems." I thought this was an amazing thing for him to say to me or to any poet. Don't be in collusion. Don't be making yourself look good in a poem. Don't be trying to impress someone with your poem. All these things that are temptations once you get to a certain place in your writing. When you first start writing, you're just writing for yourself. You're not really thinking about the world out there and how it's going to be received or if it's ever going to be received. The only impulse is to write. Well, once you start publishing and begin to realize there are certain magazines that like certain kinds of poems, certain people that might like certain subject matter, you start being tempted by the world. It's like the devil, you know? There's that struggle. You say "wait a minute, I'm adjusting myself." And I get into habits—habits of language, habits of feeling, ways of ending a poem, clusters of syntax that come to me too easily. It's important not to "collude" with these, to continue the struggle to make it new, as Mr. Pound says. And most of all, to not write sissy poems! poems that aren't risking something.
MR: And finally, are there any last pieces of advice that you would give to a young poet just starting out?
DL: Such as yourself?
MR: Such as myself. I'm writing all this stuff down. It's going in the old brain.
DL: How old are you?
MR: I'm twenty-six.
DL: So you're very young. I'm sixty. You're already in an MFA program at twenty-six. At twenty-six, I was probably just starting to divine that there might be a world out there in terms of poetry. I think one of the great temptations is to become too enamored with the whole life of poetry that has to do with publication and grants and awards. I would suggest trying as much as possible to hold off, to get as good as you can before you put your work out there. Hold back, restrain yourself and make sure that you're the best writer you can be before you start putting that stuff on record. There's this rush to publish, like "Oh, if I don't get my work published right away then I'm not really a poet and that's what the whole MFA program is for." No, it's really to give you two years to focus on your work and to meet other people who will support you in this lifelong process of becoming a poet. One of the things I never do is call myself a poet. You know, that's a title that's conferred on you. So, wait until someone else calls you a poet, someone you admire and respect. Then you might have an inkling that it's time to bring your work into that larger world. I was very lucky as a young poet because I had no idea that world existed. That was a blessing because I had as much time as I wanted. I had no idea I was on any kind of track. I was just experimenting, getting lost in the poetry and in myself without any outside influence or temptation. That's a kind of free-aimlessness young poets today have very little sense of, because they already know so much. So, as much as you can, resist going into it. Be patient and do your work.
MR: In our media-heavy world, I feel that having the patience to wait until you really have something to say is really valuable.
DL: And being with yourself, with your poems, as a private thing you're doing. Give yourself a challenge. If you write a poem you love, just say, "I'm going to wait a week to show this to [anyone]. I'm going to walk around for a week knowing I wrote that poem, that I was capable of writing that poem. It says the thing, almost, that I wanted to say, and it almost says it beautifully. Of course, no poem ever captures it all. But I got close to getting it. And I'm going to go about my day keeping that secret inside me." I think that's valuable for a writer because you're going to need that kind of confidence as you move through a life as a poet. Knowing it's you that the poem is important to, not to the world, but to you, first and foremost. If it becomes important to the world, then that's butter, that's great, but who it's really important to is you.
Meg Reynolds lives in Vermont. She holds a BA from Bates College in Studio Art and Creative Writing and is earning her MFA at the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast program. She teaches and volunteers with Women Writing for (a) Change-Vermont facilitating both young women's writing circles and writing circles with incarcerated women at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Her work has appeared in Est journal and The Salon (Burlington, Vermont).