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“Discovering the shape of the book as it emerges”: A Conversation with Dana Roeser

Dana Roeser is the author of four award-winning books of poetry. The recently published All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts won the Wilder Prize at Two Sylvias Press. The Theme of Tonight’s Party Has Been Changed (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014) won the Juniper Prize, and In the Truth Room and Beautiful Motion (Northeastern University Press/UPNE; 2008 and 2004, respectively) both won the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. Among her other awards and honors are the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and numerous residencies in the U.S. and abroad. She has read her work widely and taught in the MFA programs in poetry at Purdue, Butler, and Wichita State Universities. Please see www.danaroeser.com.

Kristina Marie Darling: Your new poetry collection, All Transparent Things NeedThundershirts, won the Wilder Prize and will be launched in September by Two Sylvias Press.  What are three things that you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Dana Roeser:  I don’t know that there is anything I’d like to say to the reader about my book before they begin reading it. I’d rather that they’d come at it cold, without any notions of the author’s “self” beyond those portrayed in the poems. It would be like actors coming out to chat with the audience before the performance—I don’t want to break the fourth wall. If they want to read reviews or the beautiful blurbs, that’s fine. I just don’t want to be coming out in ordinary clothing before the performance.

Similarly, I do not deploy a “self” through social media, as I feel it would confuse me, and possibly readers, to try to fit that “self” with the “self” of the poems. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy a few others’ “curated” selves on social media immensely—and consider what they do an art form. Many of the poems (especially in the book’s first half) can be thought of as dramatic monologues, with the stage dark both before and after each poem.

KMD:  As a reader, I’m fascinated by the relationship between form and innovation in your work.  You seem to find the perfect moments to break form, or make it new in some way.  What practical advice do you have for writers who struggle to negotiate innovation with the tradition they have inherited?

DR:  Thank you for that! The practical advice I can offer applies only to people with a real resistance to a direct “craft” approach to writing. I’m sure it slows one’s development considerably to do everything by intuition, but some of us are wired to resist counting, scanning, and so on. I am not implying that formalists have computers for brains and no hearts—nothing like that—it’s just I have a sopping mess inside—for brain and heart.

My “method” of learning how to be a poet is to study how poems are made in poems very unlike my own, which I love and appreciate but have no clue how to emulate directly. So: 1) Study your opposites, whom you love for whatever reason.

Almost every poem I’ve had that’s really been a success has been preceded by one or more failures that I worked on to the bitter end. Then, if I’m lucky, I’ll be handed an almost complete poem on a silver platter by the muse (I am nothing if not dramatic). Work some (problematic) poems to death, if necessary, to find out what all the technical options are. As for technical awkwardness, it’s helpful to keep some encouraging quotes around—like this one from Edward Hopper: “If I were a better painter, I would not be as good of an artist” (I apologize, I paraphrase—I read this quote on a placard at an exhibition and can’t find it in his published quotes anywhere.)

Also, the more one can work orally, the more it will get into one’s body. Listen to poems. Record one’s own poems and listen to them. Cultivate an ability to hear poems as they are dictated to you (by whomever your poem god/goddess/godx is) and write them down. The theory is that your hard work will have trickled down into the water table and will pop back up from somewhere else in the form of the “flower” being given you.

My last piece of advice: Don’t be boring. When you feel you are being boring, change it up. Use the trashcan as a revision tool—but don’t over-edit and revise poems that are alive. William Carlos Williams said, “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem.” There must be pleasure for the writer too.

And, finally, this lovely passage from Robert Frost: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went” (from “The Figure a Poem Makes”).

KMD:  In other interviews about your craft, you have spoken about the crucial role that dreams play in your artistic practice.  In your new prize-winning book, how do dreams manifest in the work, directly or indirectly?  How has the role of the unconscious mind changed or evolved from your earlier collections?

DR:  I’ve had fun looking at my earlier books and trying to ferret out poems that mention/spring from dreams. There are many. In All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts, “The Fire Academy” is prompted by a dream—described in the beginning of the poem. In “Crush,” the dream is a “pop-up” (the poem is made of sections—and it is its own section) on page five of a six-page poem. This poem is more of a montage, whereas “The Fire Academy” is under the influence of the presiding spirit/genius of the dream throughout. I found six poems referring to dreams in my first book, and possibly fewer in the intervening two books (they can be hard to find, and sometimes the dream-impetus has been written out).

I make sort of a big deal out of protecting my sleep and trying to dream and remember my dreams as much as possible. Some say writing poems is a kind of lucid dreaming, which makes sense (though when I looked up lucid dreaming it said to be careful because one can have trouble snapping out of it).

Since my first book, I think I have made more of an effort to always be the-person-who-writes-poems rather than flipping between a “Day-Job” personality and a consciously-aware writing one. This has caused copious problems, and I don’t recommend it to anyone who is not prepared to be fired from their job, dropped by crucial friends, and possibly left by their spouse. (Children seem to be more tolerant—go figure.)

I am fascinated by the relationship between dream and hypnosis. Lately, I’ve let “Kenneth” on Insight Timer (a phone app), hypnotize me into relaxing to sleep at night and spend an hour-plus dropping kind and loving (and repeated) affirmations into my unconscious after I’ve “gone under.”

Significantly, I’ve been a lot more consistent with my meditation practice, so this has affected the quality of my sleep and dreaming and also my conscious awareness. Lots of poets do not have an attention disorder and do not have to make such a project out of gaining access to their imaginations, but I am not one of these poets. I drift to the superficial, the obsession, very easily and have to make an effort to listen at a deeper level. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that sometimes on a day that I inadvertently skip meditation, a full poem will often be waiting for me in my psychic in-box by the end of the day—my mind has written, organized it, and presented it to me. I think this only works if I have a pretty-much daily meditation practice and writing practice (as when I’m on The Grind and have to turn in a poem every day, no matter what).

Now that I am old-ish, I find memories increasingly have the quality of dreams. They will come to me whole, from any part of my past, and have the same incandescence and insistence on their significance as dreams often do. I am really enjoying this and hope it keeps up (but, of course, that I don’t drift off entirely).

KMD:  In a recent interview in Verdad Magazine, you mentioned that “I am a student not only of anxiety but of how to break it up, interrupt it.”  How does this impulse manifest as you craft individual poems?  And as you structure a collection?

DR:  I think my writing practice (and life) is largely about trying not to fall into the hole (the sinkhole) of negative thinking and un-interesting self-absorption. I think I may have addressed this concern in my answer to the question about form and innovation. The trash can as revision tool, and the effort to remain entertaining (which sounds shallow but, in my case, is something for the reader to be grateful for).

In terms of structuring a collection, order is a true conundrum for me. There are so many threads and rhizomes between the poems. I reordered All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts a thousand times. I ended up putting certain people/concerns in the first half and moving to a slightly different cast of characters/concerns in the second (with some characters/concerns going all the way through). I admire and am fascinated by the big- structure poets (Elizabeth A.I. Powell is right now coming to mind) and hope that my love of and study of Shakespeare, as well as so many brilliant poets writing today, will filter through to my understanding of “the book.” Without feeling that I am putting my poems in a tomb.

For me, the avoidance/interruption of anxiety has a lot to do with velocity, kinetics, moving. I am trying to “catch” life and not kill it in art. I am trying to bring my artist’s eye to my lived experience. This seam between life and art is what I find really thrilling and generative. I don’t want to go to my grave having lived my life in a chair. Some of this concern with the body and moving is doubtless temperament, but it may be reinforced by having rheumatoid arthritis and being told rather often that I’m headed to more significant disability. I like the “velocity” sports (is this simply delusions of grandeur, crossed with a generous dollop of narcissism?). In many of the poems of All Transparent Things . . . , the speaker is on or near horses, however ineptly (see “Twenty-Meter Circle”). And I like velocity in poems. To me, to stop and dwell is to risk curdling. This is not to knock those poets who can stop and dwell. My restlessness is not necessarily a virtue (and can be annoying, I am certain), but it helps me to be honest, to have an honest relationship with my reader and with myself. We do not want my thoughts when I sit in an armchair and mull. I will say this, though—my meditation is all about sitting and is all about what happens to one’s relationship to the mind when one stops running.

I want to have “skin in the game,” my “body at risk”—because isn’t this what it means to be human? I read once on Face Book a post about curling up in an armchair with a glass of wine to do revisions. Like it was some cozy activity like needlepoint or knitting. I really thought I would throw up. But I’m sure the deficiency is mine—as I am trying to work with my restless temperament (and attention disorder), to sit in my chair longer, for the benefit of my mind and work.

KMD:  In addition to your teaching and writing, you have attended many artist-in-residence programs, such as Yaddo, Ragdale, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and others. How have artist residencies expanded your sense of what is possible in your artistic practice?

DR:  It’s a discipline, but I’ve learned how not to touch any housework when writing. Also, to leave things piled up in corners in my house for years. To rotate leftovers for days running—until the original “seed” food item is unrecognizable. When my children were young, I couldn’t get away with these things quite as well—and it was essential to have work-dedicated time. Because of artists’ colonies, I mustered up the courage (mostly financial!) to find a ninety-square foot office outside of my house when I got an NEA grant. When the grant was over, I kept the office (and eventually moved to other, equally tiny and cheap, offices—I live in a low cost-of-living town).

I’ve made almost all of the major decisions about my books at artists’ colonies, and I hope to return. And I remember those moments. I ordered the poems in All Transparent Things . . . standing over the dining room table in Maison V at VCCA France (I changed the order subsequently, but the basic idea behind the order I decided upon there).

I have befriended and been befriended by many kind and generous people at artists’ colonies, people who mentored me and people I mentored. It’s a beautiful, non-competitive, non-hierarchical space. Where else does that exist for writers/artists? One friend, a painter (another great benefit of multi-disciplinary colonies), met me at another colony (in France) a couple of years ago. And she allowed me to use her art for the covers of both the current book and the last (The Theme of Tonight’s Party Has Been Changed). She is New York-based artist Melora Griffis.

KMD:  What’s next?  What events, workshops, and readings can we look forward to?

DR:  The publication date for All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts is Sept. 16, and my first reading will be at Second Flight Books in West Lafayette, Indiana, on September 27. I have other readings planned locally and am working on completing my schedule for readings in more far-flung places.

I am writing and revising poems now for my next book. I have copious finished pages (around a hundred), and about sixty of these pages have been published. I look forward to finishing new (and not so new) work and discovering the shape of the book as it emerges.