Stephen Dunn is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. He was also a collegiate basketball player with a good jump shot, an add-man for Nabisco, and by his own account, a failed novelist. He recently gave a poetry reading here at Southeast, and I got the chance to speak with Dunn in the offices of the University Press of Southeast Missouri State University.
Jason Brown, KRCU: Would you talk about the value of lying in storytelling?
Stephen Dunn: In my poetry, I try to say exactly what I mean for as long as I can, and because our lives are complex and our emotional lives are often messy, you reach a point to have to reach for a metaphor, or reach for analogue, and that’s the where the lying comes in. You’re saying something that may not be exactly true, but it serves veracity, it serves the truth, better than just saying “this happened, that happened” does. So it’s good lying.
Brown: You don’t seem afraid to share cringe-worthy details about yourself. I was wondering if you would talk about that, or if you’d agree that some of those details are cringe-worthy.
Dunn: I would and I wouldn’t. I have written such poems, but I try not to publish them. I rarely am interested in myself when I’m writing my first-person poems. I try to be as bored with myself as I possibly can, so that I might be interesting. I think to put down something that happened to you because it happened to you is the worst possible thing you can do as a writer, as a creative writer, anyway. I try to transform things that have happened to me, that are an amalgam of experiences that I’ve observed. I’m rarely confessing anything; I think the key for my students, and for me, is to make the transition from being an utterer of your life, to a maker of something. So the details that you call cringe-details that I’ve allowed in the poems are probably transformations; they may have had something to do with me, they may not. I’m not interested in exploring my life at all, I’m interested in making things that speak to the human condition and may even be beautiful.
Brown: You have a book coming out on September 15th, The Keeper of Limits, the Mrs. Cavendish Poems, would you talk about that?
Dunn: I’ve not done anything like this before. I wrote a poem about this Mrs. Cavendish, who I did not know, and it was a pretty interesting foray into someone speaking to her who was clearly in love with her, but couldn’t have her. Then I wrote another one, and they’re all splattered all over the place, and I felt if I kept writing enough of them they might cohear, which they did. I still don’t know who the speaker of the poems is too well, he may be some guy like me, he may not be. Mrs. Cavendish gets invented totally, and she prevails. He starts out by being smarter than she, and wiser, and likes to give advice, and by the end it’s all turned around and she has the good lines.
Watch a video of Dunn's poetry reading that he gave on Thursday, April 16th on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University.