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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Dorianne Laux

On Tough Girls, Vulnerable Men

and the Art of the List Poem

An Interview by Lisa Anne Jones

The dead tree rubs its fallen body/against the living, building/its dead music . . .

--from "Cello"

Pushcart Prize winning poet Dorianne Laux is known for her clear and passionate poems on sexual love, family relations, and the everyday lives of American workers. While most of the poems in her latest book, Facts about the Moon (2006), are her trademark lucid narratives, some are more lyrical, often employing cosmic facts and nature metaphors to speak to human struggle, as in the excerpt above, from a poem that sings about grief and beauty in the wake of 9/11.

Formerly a resident of Oregon, Laux recently moved with her poet husband, Joseph Millar, to teach at North Carolina State University, but continues to spend time in the west, as an instructor at Pacific University's Low Residency MFA Program and at Esalen, in Big Sur. She has three prior collections, is the co-editor of the very popular Poet's Companion and has received NEA grants and a Guggenheim fellowship. We conducted this interview through e-mail.

In "The Lost" you write about men and their bodies in a manner that seems to take them out of mythology and the realm of romance or danger. Men become very real, vulnerable and lovable as a group. What other poets do this? Sharon Olds is known for her fresh writing about sexuality and men, but this poem has a different feeling than her writing.

My real father was virtually unknown to me. My stepfather was a violent sexual and sociopathic predator. Growing up, I did not have a good view of men. They were either too far away or too close for comfort. So I set out to find out about them, like a scientist, collecting them like specimens and putting them under my microscope, often sleeping with them as a way toward trying to know them. I watched them closely (I had seen my fathers only from the corner of my eye) to try to figure out who they were and how they got their power. But like a scientist who thinks she's going to reach one outcome and discovers another I was surprised by their vulnerability and complex beauty. And like a scientist, there was a coldness to my gaze; when my experiment had run its course and I was done, I cruelly moved on. Christopher's accident made me shockingly aware of how real these men were, and my heart broke open for them all. This poem is that flood.

Sharon Olds opened up this territory and I'm grateful to her for clearing the path. The early work of Carolyn Forche was also a great inspiration. But yes, the tenderness of men, that's something that interests me. I saw a show on PBS the other night (I watch far too much television) and it was about a scientist who studied a group of monkeys for years. One day the river became flooded with some microorganism that poisoned the fish and many of them died. The scientist had become quite fond of them and was devastated. But as he continued to watch the group he found that it was the Alpha monkeys that had died, the ones who clawed their way to the shore and batted away the weaker others. This left the group with the females and the more passive males. When the babies were born the passive males taught the feisty teenage male monkeys to be kind to the smaller children and females, how to groom and share food. In one generation they went from a war-like group to a thriving peace loving tribe. I've been blessed to know so many tender, loving men, and the young men coming up now that I've had the privilege to know are funny, smart and gentle, not the warlords and C.S.I. serial murderers movies and video games try to push down our throats. I want to show off the loveliness of those other, less often seen men in my poems.

You recently released a chapbook, Superman. Did I hear that theme will be carried over into a new book that will focus less on pop icons and more on men?

The pop icon poems will be included in The Book of Men as many of those iconic figures, like Superman, happen to be men: The Beatles, Mick Jagger, The Oxy Clean guy. Though the women are there, too, as always, making a stand.

In "Moon in the Window," from your book Facts about the Moon, you say "I never wondered. I read," and then, "It took me years to grow a heart." This is such a striking phrase in that context, perhaps because we are prone to imagine a poet being born to wonder and a girl to love, but reading doesn't equal wonder here, the girl reads "dark signs" and the heart develops later.

Girls are tough little creatures. When I was a child, reading was a dead serious endeavor. There was so much about human beings here on earth I didn't understand. I didn't want to wonder, I wanted to know. I left children's books behind fairly early for adult novels my mother brought home and kept in nooks around the house, War and Peace, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as well as biology, psychology and philosophy textbooks from her studies in nursing. Through my reading, I came to know the fullness of human beings, their physical and mental vulnerability, their cruelty to one another, their small acts of kindness, and as this knowledge grew, so did my heart.

Do you have any special advice for writing and revising list poems? You seem to have quite a few of these. What draws you to them?

I love lists. Sometimes I'll be walking along and notice a piece of paper on the sidewalk or left on a bus stop bench, and often it's a list—groceries, school supplies, hardware store, a list of medications or things to do, people to call. It's always so compelling. The stranger who made the list comes alive to me: oranges, cornmeal, screwdriver. Is the screwdriver a tool, or the drink to be made from the oranges? What's broken? What's come loose? What's something sweet, gritty and in need of tightening? A list, even as short and simple as this one, intimates worlds.

When I write a list poem it usually begins as a meditation on an idea, but explored directly through the objects of the world. Fear, poverty: l try to see these ideas take a form, shift from form to form.

Once you begin a list poem and it catches fire, there's almost no stopping it. In revision, I look for ways that the list can be trimmed of any dry brush, or shift the objects around to see if one can feed into another, if one can open another up. And of course I'm looking for music: glissando, fortissimo, crescendo. I think of Whitman, of course, but more of the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, whose poems "Going to Lvov" and "Franz Shubert: A Press Conference" were great models and inspiration for me. They are essentially praise poems, whereas I've taken a bit of a different tack in my poems "Fear" and "Gold". I don't praise the color gold, but rather see it as the color of poverty, and fear rather than wonder colors the world of childhood. I have another short list poem called Ode to Gray, the most cliche-maligned of colors! It needed a poem to stand up for it.

I appreciate the way "Vacation Sex" and "Kissing Again" convey both the heat and the tempered reality of sex in a mature relationship. I see the broader theme of mid-life relationships and aging more and more in poetry. Am I right to think it is a recent change? I suppose it is an issue of the baby boomers moving into this life-stage and a consequent shift in the legitimacy of revealing the secrets of aging.

Yes, we have more poets writing from the middle and late years of life than at any other time in our history. It's astounding. Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, Ruth Stone, Gerald Stern, Adrienne Rich, and before she died at 74, Denise Levertov and Stanley Kunitz at the ripe old age of 100! Imagine if Keats, who died in his mid 20's, had lived as long. Emily Dickinson died at 55. That's young now. Sylvia Plath died at 30, Anne Sexton at 35. How would their work have changed had they lived into old age? Age tempers the passions as it intensifies the spirit and focus. Every touch, every kiss is a gift when the shadows of death and loss and infirmity are encroaching in seeable increments. We stand in a diminishing pool of light, and the poem knows this.

Describe a poet that you believe hasn't yet gotten quite the recognition they deserve. I am forcing you to choose one, so you can tell me a little bit about what you admire in the poet's work.

No poet has gotten enough recognition. . . . I like the work of Frank X. Gaspar, a poet who has won an award for each book he's written, but still does not have a publisher. His poems appear here and there and he does have a devoted following. Born in Provincetown, he's lived in L.A. most of his life and teaches at Long Beach City College. His poems often take place in his backyard where he simply begins musing after a meal or a trip to the store or on a book he's just read. The poems are fluid, easy and intimate, often posing a question or a series of questions, slightly wry, somewhat worried, but always open hearted and utterly gorgeous. Field Guide to the Heavens is a lovely book. His latest is called Night of a Thousand Blossoms and is out from Alice James Books.

Lisa Anne Jones (L. A. Jones) is the Interview Editor for Poetry Now, a participant of the Napa Valley Writers Conference 2009, a member of the Squaw Valley Writer's Community, and the recent co-editor of The Squaw Valley Review 2008, with poems by Dean Young and local Sacramento poets, such as Theresa McCourt and Joseph Atkins--just released and available at Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Find her poetry and publications at http://www.alchemyofbirds.blogspot.com/ where you'll find information about a Squaw Valley Community of Writers reading on December 14, 2009, at SPC.