Poet Stephen Dunn on "Lines of Defense"

Stephen Dunn was joined by his wife, Barbara Hurd,
who read from her newest book: Stepping into the Same River Twice
Acclaimed poet Stephen Dunn stepped to the podium at the Sacramento Main Library Galleria to read from his new collection: Lines of Defense. It was his first visit of Sacramento and the West Coast premiere reading from his new book. The sold-out event, which included music by the Sonoma County-based ensemble “Take Jack,” was sponsored by the Sacramento Poetry Center and the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission.

During a recent NPR interview, Dunn talked about his work, which includes 17 books of poetry, including Different Hours (2000), which won the Pulitzer Prize. He said as a mature writer, he’d changed from poems of “telling” into something more exciting:  “I’ve been writing hoping that every line is a line of discovery, rather than something experiential that I’m just saying.
“I think one of the great dangers of people who write experiential poems — which I have written many — is that you might just say what happened, as if it were important. You wouldn’t be exercising any degrees of selection that you need to exercise if you’re going to write a good poem.”

How long do you have one poem in the works? Do you let drafts sit before looking at them again?

Dunn: I’m often working on a poem six months to a year. I begin with the premise that a good poem is a very difficult thing to write, that it’s unlikely I’ve succeeded, even though I have many ways of deluding myself in this regard. It helps to have a few good, severe readers who have your interests at heart. I have a few.
If the process is a long or circuitous one, does revisiting an old draft demand forgiveness of your earlier ideas, efforts, self?
I’ll quote myself here. In my self-guided interview in The Georgia Review, I said, “Now, now, I often tell myself, no weeping. There’s always time to revise.” And there is, without regret or any need to forgive myself. I tend to resist even the smart things I might say. There’s usually something better, waiting in the nether world of the white space. My revision practices are ones of refinement, movements toward greater precision.
From The Georgia Review, Dunn says:  “To listen well is an act of curiosity and respect. It presumes that some- one has something to say. But I know it’s not enough to be a good listener.The best listener listens, à la Wallace Stevens, “with the innermost ear of the mind.” Then what he says in response must reflect the quality of his hearing.
“Here’s something that I’d say to writers: At least have the decency to claim your unhappiness. Don’t leave it lying around the house, bleeding like that. Make something of it. Yes, yes, but sometimes the soul is so sick it isn’t able to open the door. What I mean to say is that my soul stays shy when it hears someone spill the 
beans.
“Really, the obfuscators are cowards. So what if language can only approximate? Some writers approximate better than others. Count me as someone who tries to be as clear as he can about what it feels like to be alive while knowing the heart itself resides in the dark.”

If a clown
came out of the woods,
a standard-looking clown with oversized
polka-dot clothes, floppy shoes,
a red, bulbous nose, and you saw him
on the edge of your property,
there’d be nothing funny about that,
would there? A bear might be preferable,
especially if black and berry-driven.
And if this clown began waving his hands
with those big white gloves
that clowns wear, and you realized
he wanted your attention, had something
apparently urgent to tell you,
would you pivot and run from him,
or stay put, as my friend did, who seemed
to understand here was a clown
who didn’t know where he was,
a clown without a context?
What could be sadder, my friend thought,
than a clown in need of a context?
If then the clown said to you
that he was on his way to a kid’s
birthday party, his car had broken down,
and he needed a ride, would you give
him one? Or would the connection
between the comic and the appalling,
as it pertained to clowns, be suddenly so clear
that you’d be paralyzed by it?
And if you were the clown, and my friend
hesitated, as he did, would you make
a sad face, and with an enormous finger
wipe away an imaginary tear? How far
would you trust your art? I can tell you
it worked. Most of the guests had gone
when my friend and the clown drove up,
and the family was angry. But the clown
twisted a balloon into the shape of a bird
and gave it to the kid, who smiled,
let it rise to the ceiling. If you were the kid,
the birthday boy, what from then on
would be your relationship with disappointment?
With joy? Whom would you blame or extoll?
                                                            — Stephen Dunn
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