I was introduced to the American poet Dorianne Laux several years ago by another poet Martina Evans in that way that poets have of pressing great work on each other—I love this! I know you’ll get it too! It’s a special kind of lyrical evangelism that happens between friends and she was right—I did love the writing. In Dorianne’s work was an earthy sexuality that was sensual and tough but never prurient; a clear sense of how poetry can get to the truth of the moment, and devastatingly clear observations that take their cue from a sense of a real life really lived. Since then on various visits to the States I have picked up as many of her books that I can find, most recently The Book of Men (WS Norton) which has been richly and deservedly praised.
Alan Shapiro says: The Book of Men by Dorianne Laux, could just as easily have been called The Book of Empathy, or The Book of Negative Capability, or The Book of Intimate Awareness of Who We Are and How We Got To Be This Way. Whether she is writing about men or women, the powerful or the powerless, the present day or the past, Laux observes, evokes and meditates with profound compassion and understanding for the delicate complexities of the human heart. Book of Men is a fabulous book that all men and women who turn to poetry for pleasure and knowledge will be reading with gratitude and admiration for many years to come.
Idly tuning into Facebook one day I found Dorianne and became ‘friends’ in that weird virtual way that is possible now for most of us, and this interview is a product of that befriending. As well as this interview she has kindly allowed the Hub to publish three of her poems: ‘Graveyard at Hurd’s Gulch’, ‘This Close’, and from The Book of Men—‘Late-Night TV’. My poem—‘Henfenyw Churchyard’—to which she refers in the interview is available to listen to as an audio recording here.
What drew you to poetry in the first place?
I was drawn to poetry through reading and music. My mother was a great influence as she was a voracious reader and a lovely classical pianist. Nothing formal, though she played organ for her church. Mostly she played for herself, for pleasure. I was a child in that heady atmosphere, reading a book as Bach or Bartok floated near the ceiling. And so language was, for me, linked with music.
My life was fairly ordinary. I grew up in San Diego, California, in a working class family, early on in military housing, later moving from one small newly developed suburb to another. I attended public schools. It would have been a great childhood if my step-father had not been abusive. Some of us are forced inward at an early age. I believe that was so with me. And so I filled my head with words and music in order to keep my particular darkness at bay. Li-Young Lee says we all sing out of a wound. I believe that. I think I began to look around and see that my small life wasn't the only life. I began to notice the things of the world: those who sailed past me, or turned the rope on the playground, or sat down next to me in class. These people became beautiful to me, maybe because I knew I couldn't speak to them and tell them my secrets, nor could they tell me theirs. I bonded with silence and beauty, the beauty in small moments, ordinary people, and knew that they held worlds inside them. I wanted to protect them, as I wanted to protect my brothers and sisters, but I was too young, too weak, so I wrote them poems.
This is what I really admire about your work—that it seems to me to be in conversation with life. Adrienne Rich said of your work that it speaks of 'how the end of the world might come to a woman reaching for a doorknob in the nuclear age . . .' Is poetry a better place to deal with autobiography? Can we write with more truth in the poetic form?
Oh I think poetry goes deeper more quickly. Prose takes time. It can go deep as well, but not with such an arrow on a straight line to the heart. And the music has something to do with that depth as well. In the same way a song can take you back to an original feeling, a moment in time, an aura of "there-ness", "alive-ness", in just three or four notes. Is it more "true"? I don't think so, it just gets to "true" faster, maybe a more potent "true", undiluted by character, plot, psychology. Poetry is not as much about psychology as it is about the psychological moment, that epiphanic moment where it all comes together, like a downpour, a wave crashing. No accumulation of events or personal history. Like your poem about the graveyard. Who is that woman? We know so little about her, and yet we know the pertinent facts, she's been abandoned by her father to the dead, and they make her aware, in her loneliness, of her aliveness, her connectedness. Ah, poetry.
Autobiography is always a part of poetry. That woman in the graveyard is you, but it's not you, it's all of us who have ever felt abandoned, who have ever walked over the bones of the dead. In fiction, we begin with the creation of a "character", a person not us, but a creature we have fashioned into being, and so of course they will display aspects of the self. With poetry, we begin with ourselves, the essence of ourselves, the part that makes us tick, the soul. Poetry is character. And poetry uses an internal voice, the voice of the soul wandering through all time. Poetry possesses an intimacy that can only come when that soul-voice is simultaneously released and engaged. I would say, in general, that fiction is more outward journey, and poetry more an inward search.
Your biography states that you worked before studying for a degree – what affect did that have on your poetry? Or do you think you are working in a particular tradition?
I began working right out of high school—a variety of jobs that kept me afloat. Eventually I went back to school, community college which was cheap, almost free, and began taking classes in composition and literature. Those led me to a night class in poetry and that's when I began to take the writing I had always done in secret more seriously, holding it out for others to see. Those first poems were simple sketches: a child swinging over a canyon on a tire tied to a rope, a day at the laundromat, my daughter sleeping. As I began to get stronger, I wrote more poems about myself and my family, my sister who suffered more than I. Some of those poems and the ones that followed became my first book. Because I had always worked for a living, it seemed natural to write poems about those I worked with. I had great American models: Whitman, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Forche. But I also loved Neruda and Keats. Akmatova and Zagajewski. So many. A hodgepodge. No particular tradition, or at least not one you could trace in a straight line. I imagine because I was older, and had no formal training, I felt more free to write about my life and work; I was not overly educated, I was not worldly, I had never been outside my own country, except through poetry, so it was all I had to offer.
The sexuality in your work is remarkable for its realism and gutsiness—was this a necessary subject for you rather than a political one? And in your new collection 'The Book of Men' you seems to look at the world through the prism of the men you have known—was this your thinking behind this new collection of your work?
As far as sexuality, I'm in a long tradition of poems that combine the spiritual with the erotic, from The Song of Songs to John Donne to Izumi Shikibu. But my real role model was Sharon Olds. She gave the domestic/erotic life a serious look, and rather than speaking of a god through sensual language, spoke of sexuality in reverent tones. Sexuality is a fraught issue for most women of this century, and so to be able to speak openly about that aspect of our lives feels so freeing. And of course it's innately political, but I didn't think that when I wrote of it. Only later did I realize the more political/cultural implications. And I think my latest book, The Book of Men, came out of my interest in women and their hidden lives. The next natural question was what was the hidden life of men? But again, I didn't know this consciously. I simply wrote and the larger subject eventually revealed itself. My husband was the one who saw it. He told me to send him all my poems in a file in case something happened to my computer, or I lost it, forbid the thought! When he went to print them out, he began to look through them and put aside the poems he especially liked. Then he began to put those in an order that pleased him. When he walked back into the living room he said, You know, I think you have a book. I said, Oh really, and what would it be called, and he said, It's called The Book of Men. He saw what I hadn't seen. To me it was just a bunch of poems. He saw a motif, a melody, a theme.
I wanted to know about your work as a Creative Writing teacher—has this helped or hindered your own creative work? Do you find teaching poetry has improved your work? And what do you make of the move to digital? My sense is that this has improved exposure for great poetry, but whether it has improved the living of poets is another matter . . . I see you use Facebook as a way of teaching poetry—I think often I use social media as an extension of my classroom . . .
I love teaching so much that I even hesitate to call it a job. It's more like poetry, a calling. I love my students and their poems, love helping them and encouraging them. My students do inspire me, with their bravery in facing the world head-on, through poetry, in trying to say what's in their hearts through the prism of language and image. They keep me young, keep me thinking freshly. They make me less afraid. And no, the internet isn't going to make any poet rich, but it does get the work out there. So few of us have an interest in poetry, but if you have even an inkling, it's there to be found, the good, the bad and the ugly. I try to post poems on my Facebook page I think are top-notch, worthy of being read and remembered. Some are new, some old or even ancient. It’s like unearthing some lovely artifact made of light. Facebook is a quick and easy way to disseminate a great poem. It's an antidote to all that free-floating narcissism out there. A small island in the stream.