By Matt Hart
Originally published in the University of Arizona Poetry Center Newsletter Spring 2003.
I first met Dean Young at Warren Wilson College in July of 1999. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but I’m sure I bombarded him with nervously half-articulated questions. He cheered me on, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. As both a poet and a teacher he’s one of the best we have—but also one of the maddest: as in scientist, as in able to see what’s aesthetically real through the haze of what’s factually true, as in able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Dean Young is always alarmingly, disarmingly human, and his poems, including the ones in his latest book Skid (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002) are the best of all possible worlds. This interview was conducted via snail mail in April 2003.
Matt Hart: One of the things I’ve always really admired about your poems is how they seem to go in search of their content. The process seems at once both experimental and conventional, monstrously alien and utterly human. I’m thinking, for example, of a poem like “Whale Watch” from your most recent book Skid which seems really intent on finding the whale in the title, only to become the whale and at the same to remind us that the whale of human life is huge and endangered and fleeting. Is this a fair assessment?
Dean Young: It’s a cliché to say that all poems are experimental and certainly we live in a time where “experimental poetry” has become as institutionalized as prison food, as prone to its own forms of sentimentality and hack formulation as TV sitcoms, but it is true that writing a poem is an experimental act. It is a form of inquiry. Why I am not an experimental poet is because my inquiries (I think) are primarily biological. For me the human drama, the squishy, time-limited pulse, is always at the center of the poem, of its formal questioning and restlessness of content. I’m not particularly interested in the abstract except as an occasional wash of color in my own work. I don’t think abstractly. I walk along and notice the mayflies are out early, the oldest winged creatures, and think how strange it is they are so ancient and brief and that seems to me part of the human drama, at the source of our beauty and sadness, our finest and basest drives. When I don’t sense something cellular in a poem, I’m not happy and there sure better be a giraffe in the mathematics.
Matt: Jean Cocteau said somewhere that “drawing is writing in different apparel, and writing is another way of drawing.” I know that in addition to being a poet, you’re also a visual artist. How are writing and drawing connected in your own poetic/artistic practice?
Dean: It’s a bit of a stretch to say I’m a visual artist, but I do make drawings. I’ve thought about the connection, or rather have been forced to think about it, because people have told me the drawings look like my poems. Huh. I read a poem by Nate Hoks last week called “Intentional Squiggle” which seems to be the right phrase for what I try to do in both tablets. You make a line, be it in some automatic burst or with a more formal, intentional rigor. Make some more. Funny, some start to seem more important than others so those you privilege in certain ways—repetition, color, which cause you to erase others or counterbalance the rest of the field in some way. That statement is to be so abstract as to be an utter mystification of what is actually done. Drawing for me is in some ways an extension of my lousy handwriting where the terms of legibility have changed. I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m doing it, to paraphrase John Cage.
Matt: Your “Lives of” poems (“Lives of the Inventors,” “Lives of the Orphans,” “Lives of the Noncombatants,” “Lives of the Dead,” etc. ) are a sort of ongoing series, which you’ve continued in various ways from book to book. What is it that you find so fascinating/inspiring about the “Lives of…” formula as a poetic generator?
Dean: Well, I think the poems are pretty all over the place, and as a series they aren’t combined to one book nor are they formally, tonally consistent. But the title formula appeals to me because it can help locate a series of poetic tropes (whatever that means) within a single gravitational field. I’m very interested in the autobiographical urge. I know my poems are autobiographical, I just don’t know who they’re about. Someone said that. But this “Lives of…” stuff is a way I think to explore some of that urge, towards both auto and straight biography without being particularly tied to the facts. The facts often have immense poetic radiance because they are so strange and unbelievable.
Matt: Many of your poems seem to have a sort of similar voice—a speaker who isn’t dissimilar from the poet himself—full of wit and energy and endless powers of imagination, and yet who isn’t in any conventional sense confessional. One might be inclined to say that your poems are so fantastically bizarre that autobiography is out of the question. At the same time the poems are so human, so full of frailty and flaws, bare threads and downed power lines, that they’re utterly truthful. Who is the speaker in your poems, or will the real Dean Young please stand up?
Dean: I look at my poems. No one speaking. Bob Grenier went on record years ago with “I hate speech” and that worked as a tidy slogan for the shift to a more writerly discourse as opposed to spoken discourse. I think I keep the ghost of speech always near, but I really think of my poems as occurring on the page even though they behave very conservatively on the page. I hate words just spilled all over the place, so you can see I’m rather inconsistent on this subject. Who cares, consistency is for insects. Anyway, because I care so much about the human (not the human as a series of constructs for crying out loud, the human as a wad of protoplasm, somehow momentarily flying in formation), the coherence of a voice is a consideration. And by coherence I don’t mean logical, thematic or psychological consistency, I mean that it makes some sort of shape. The passage of time, and its effects can be one shape, so can the coming to a question or an exclamation (How did I get this X on my heart? But I love you!) be another kind of shape. I want a poem to be like waking up with a tattoo and also the struggle to read that tattoo. I want to talk to the animals. I want to see my father again. I, how easy it is to spell. Still right side up when turned upside-down. You wouldn’t want to have to swallow one. Dumbbell. Vowel.
Matt: Your poem “I See a Lily on Thy Brow” from Skid is very different for you, very deliberate and becalmed, almost narrative. Yet, the finish/the fix (the “sad electric eyes” of John Keats) is so surprising, so beautifully terrifying. How does this more narrative type of poem fit in with your larger aesthetic project?
Dean: I almost didn’t put that poem in the book because it strikes me as so conventional. But in terms of putting a book together, I like to have as much variance as possible even within my very limited range. It was a way of thinking myself into a biographical truth about Keats—that as a medical assistant at Guy’s [Infirmary] he assisted in surgeries which often just meant holding people down. This was well before anesthetic and it must have been a grisly task indeed. Keats did it though, and thinking of the strength that required—it’s not the image we usually have of Keats. In fact at the base of his training to become a doctor, even abandoned, is a commitment to the therapeutic. His poems are preoccupied with sickness and healing. “Do you not see how a world of pain and troubles is to school an intelligence and make a soul,” he wrote to his brother. He addressed himself again and again towards the site of suffering with the zeal of a diagnostician and the fever of one who suffered the same.
Matt: What are you reading these days that has a heartbeat? And with that in mind, do you still feel, five books into your own poetic career, like you’re being influenced?
Dean: A couple of nights ago, I heard Lyn Hejinian read and it knocked me out. It’s nearly impossible for me to talk to her, not because she isn’t an accessible and friendly person, but we think so differently about poetry. Her work, particularly My Life, has always impressed me and I hope influenced me. Her thinking is highly philosophical, theoretical and abstract, but in that book I feel the presence of something utterly human, of physicality and blood, need, that is what I read for. The new work she read was marvelously nimble and there was a great sense of delight in the mind, and I felt a little bit of the same jolt I get from some of Stevens’ work. Not that the work isn’t serious—it’s a common mistake to assume that humor and seriousness are opposites. I’ve been reading again Peter Richards’ new book, Nude Siren—that’s terrific, spooky, surreally dark. And a lot of poems by my students. I hope I go on being influenced, I hope my river is always moving.