Interview with Philip Dacey
By Karla Huston
[Read three new poems by Philip Dacey in this issue of VWOnline.]
The first time I “met” Philip Dacey was through a jacket blurb he’d written for another author, someone I knew. When I was given a copy of his The Deathbed Playboy, I thought, yes, I’d like to see what his writing is about. Over several years, I acquired some nine or ten of his books. Yet I met his poems in a more personal manner when I chose to review The Mystery of Max Schmidt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins, where I found pleasure in Dacey’s skill as a writer as well as the depth of his research and his sense of wonder (and humor) as he explored the world of Thomas Eakins, noted Philadelphia artist and friend of Walt Whitman.
Not a writer in forms myself, I am always intrigued by those who are, and even more so by those who can write in form so well that the reader is unaware she’s reading a sonnet or blank verse. Dacey is such a writer. He makes it seem so easy. Easy or not, a Dacey poem is not stiff and Victorian. There is no hoity-toity pretention there.
Others agree. In a review of The New York Postcard Sonnets, Larry O. Dean says, “Another key to Dacey’s success is his humility. He may well be keenly attuned, open and receptive to his urban environment, but he’s no poseur, assuming East Village hipster patois, or the cocky posture of a borough lifer.”
Dacey’s writing has been described as “a one-man symphony” by David Smith. Stephen Dunn says, “Dacey plays, as Frost would have it, for mortal stakes.” And “… he demonstrates how form can harness the inchoate, discipline the disparate.” Albert Goldbarth says, “Phil Dacey has been working profitably and pleasurefully for years toward blending literary and artistic biography with lush lyricism, and toward blending the feel of loose, open possibility with the infrastructure of traditional forms.”
Philip Dacey is the author of eleven full-length books of poems, the latest being The Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Poems, (Rain Mountain Press, 2010), Vertebrae Rosaries: 50 Sonnets (Red Dragonfly Press, 2009) and The New York Postcard Sonnets: A Midwesterner Moves to Manhattan (Rain Mountain Press, 2007), as well as numerous chapbooks.
Born in St. Louis, Dacey has received many awards, including three Pushcart Prizes, a Discovery Award from the New York YM-YWHA's Poetry Center, prizes from numerous magazines (The Ledge, Poetry Northwest, Kansas Quarterly, Yankee, Free Lunch, Prairie Schooner, Nebraska Review, and others), and various fellowships (among them a Fulbright to Yugoslavia, a Woodrow Wilson to Stanford, and two in creative writing from the National Endowment for the Arts). He moved in 2004 from Minnesota, where he taught for years at the state university in Marshall, to Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Dacey doesn’t consider himself “a ‘formalist’ any more than a carpenter who sometimes uses a hammer calls himself a ‘hammerist.’” Yet, he has written hundreds of poems in “form” and even his free verse owes its music to traditional rhythms.
Karla Huston: Welcome to this email interview. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me.
Philip Dacey: I appreciate your interest in and attention to my work. I don't know how helpful I can be, but I'll try. I like Randall Jarrell’s remark, when asked to talk about his work: “Don't ask a pig about bacon.”
KH: Neruda says in his poem “Poetry”: “And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived / in search of me.” How did you come to poetry? Was poetry, like Neruda, searching for you?
PD: I began writing poetry at a time of personal and professional drift and uncertainty or worse, had just dropped out of grad school at Stanford, in my twenties, deciding to pick up a Master’s there instead of continuing in the Ph.D. program. My Master’s thesis was on James Dickey; so I was not totally innocent about poetry but also had no intention of pursuing the craft, didn't know what I was going to do except maybe find a teaching job with that Master’s and write the Great American Novel. But I remember the very moment when I began writing a poem, which turned into my first poetry publication, in the Beloit Poetry Journal. I had a menial job in the Stanford library and was looking at a fascinating medieval print when I had the urge to describe it, in verse, in lines arranged like some of Dickey’s, in, say, “The Heaven of Animals.” Thus did my decades as a scribbler of lines begin. In my mythologizing of that moment, I imagine the Angel of Poetry tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, Phil, you're one seriously lost soul. Pick up a pen and write what I tell you. I've come here to save you.” In short, I'm grateful to poetry for giving me the life I've had, and if I've worked hard at it over the years, it’s out of that gratitude, out of a wish to serve the art. Although my self-deprecating joke (but not entirely a joke) is that if I really cared about poetry, I'd quit writing it and just spend the rest of my life reading the poetry of the dead greats, who never have enough readers.
KH: Tell me more about that early interest in fiction and its relationship to your poetry.
PD: The angel knew me better than I knew myself, as my ability as a fiction writer was always woefully lacking despite the fact that my first professional (i.e., for money) publication was a short story. I eventually made a vow to stop writing prose fiction, a good move because all of my narrative impulse and interest in characters thereafter went into my poems, many of which first-person ones are fictions, though they don't seem to be. For example, after my “Deathbed Playboy” appeared in The Hudson Review, a friend of mine, the poet Dabney Stuart, surprised me by sending his condolences on my father’s death. He'd read the poem and had no question about its personal nature; I was happy to inform him that my father was a fit 85 years old, and the poem was a complete invention. So “fiction” means prose to most people, but verse can be equally a fiction.
KH: You said earlier that the “dead greats” could never have enough readers. Many would agree that few writers today read their classical ancestors, and I confess to being woefully guilty of that myself. What’s to be gained by reading the dead greats? What is to be learned?
PD: I hope your premise isn’t true, that few writers read or acknowledge their dead ancestors, but in any case, by reading them, one can gain, among other things, high standards. Which means we don't overvalue our own work. We judge it against literature that has lasted through decades, even centuries. The work of the giants is the carrot held out before the horse; it keeps us going, but we never reach it, so we're motivated to keep striving. Also to be gained: the sheer pleasure of reading them; they're remembered for good reason. As Auden said, “Many books are undeservedly forgotten, but no books are undeservedly remembered.” In addition, there's the sense of continuity bestowed upon the contemporary writer who studies the past, a sense of being part of a long and honorable history; I sometimes speak of “working in the same vineyards where the greats have worked.” Our own work may not be for all time, but to be able to work in those vineyards is nevertheless a privilege.
KH: How did you happen to put together Strong Measures, your anthology of contemporary American poems in traditional form?
PD: After I received my M.F.A. from the Iowa Workshop in 1970 and began teaching in Minnesota at the state university in Marshall, I realized, before long, that I was feeling a little cheated, as formalist poetry was not fashionable in the late Sixties, and there was actually zero instruction at Iowa in using traditional forms. But I figured that if such forms were good enough for the vast majority of poets, including the great ones, who preceded me, they were certainly good enough for me. Who was I to jettison such means? So I decided that my apprenticeship should encompass those means, and in the mid-70s I took my family, wife and two sons, to Spain for a six-month hiatus, during which, besides our holidaying, I set for myself a six-month course of study and practice in traditional forms. So that was the background for Strong Measures, but the immediate trigger was a comment made by a friend's question: “Why don't poets ever use rhyme and meter anymore?” Of course I knew the work of current poet after current poet who worked wonderfully in the tradition (Wilbur, Hecht, early Kinnell, Kumin, Starbuck, Van Duyn, etc.), but free verse and the Deep Imagists and the Black Mountain gang and others were the big guns getting the headlines; the formalists were in the shadows, quietly working away. Bly snarled things like, “Sonnets are where old professors go to die.” A funny line, but it steered countless young writers away from the challenges and pleasures of traditional verse. (Of course, Bly later changed his tune somewhat and started patting himself on the back for counting syllables or rhyming a word now and then.) So I knew, given my friend's remark, that the folks still using traditional forms needed a platform that would highlight them. Thus began the anthology, which may not have been completed or, if completed, certainly would not have been anywhere nearly as good and successful as it turned out to be if David Jauss, a one-time student of mine, hadn't signed on and agreed to be my co-editor. His help and hard work were invaluable.
KH: Your anthology was published in 1986. It is still mentioned by practitioners of traditional forms and in critical essays and articles as a quintessential text. Are you surprised by its success and longevity?
PD: Not surprised really when I consider the great input owed to Jauss. (Ode to Jauss?) Folks say they find it user-friendly, given the ease of identifying the forms used or finding examples of forms one might be interested in. By the way, my two sons and I formed a rock ‘n’ roll poetry trio in the early '90s and named ourselves Strong Measures.
KH: You’ve dedicated your life to poetry by writing and teaching for 35-plus years (no small feat). Teaching is sometimes the perfect job (if you must have a job and most of us do) as a writer, but being a good teacher requires a load of creativity. As a teacher myself, I wonder how you kept it fresh all those years, “it” being your teaching, AND your writing. How did you find that balance?
PD: Starting in the mid-70s, I took many leaves from teaching (mostly unpaid—the trip to Spain took all our savings—though sometimes supported by fellowships/awards/grants). Also in 1989 I began systematically reducing my teaching time (and my salary) from fulltime to 2/3 to 1/2 until I retired. Those “leaves” kept me fresh as a teacher and let me do my writing. And I agree with Goethe that the only thing that works for a poet is to work. Do you remember Groucho Marx's “You Bet Your Life” and his duck that dropped down each week with the magic word? I always told my students about that and said our magic word for the workshops would be “fecundity.” I'm a non-believer in writer’s block; if you want to write, get paper and pencil and write down the first thing that comes to mind and follow it from there. World-class lit may not result, but there's never a guarantee of that anyway.
KH: Yes, fecundity—productivity! Ted Kooser said something similar once at a workshop, something to the effect that if you wrote a poem a day for three months, you’d have 90-some poems and maybe only 9 would be good ones. But if you wrote only three poems in three months, what were the chances that any of those would be good?
PD: And no doubt you remember William Stafford's famous remark. He was known for being prolific and, asked about that, said he had “lower standards” than most people. Of course he was both joking and not; he gave himself permission to write anything but simultaneously kept his eye on the prize, a poem that was a credit to him and to the art. He was a daily writer and also wrote particularly well about the writing process. He didn't wait to be inspired. His workaday approach has been an inspiration to and model for many contemporary poets. One has to enjoy the process, and once you know how to engage with it, anything can happen; but if nothing comes of it, you've still had the worthwhile experience of the process, writing for its own sake, engaging with language for the pleasure of doing so. Donald Hall once complained about graduate workshops and the so-called workshop poem, arguing that you shouldn’t sit down to write unless you intend to write a great poem, but I’d argue that’s a sure way to kill your creativity. The whole notion of play goes out the window. If William Carlos Williams followed Hall’s injunction, would we have “The Red Wheelbarrow”?
KH: Can you tell me about why you became a writer of formal verse, a poet who has certainly dedicated a lot of ink to traditional forms?
PD: Maybe blame the Jesuits, who taught me Latin and Greek and had me reading Virgil and Homer in the original. One picks up a sense of tradition from doing so. But let me be quick to add, as Jauss and I say in our introduction to Strong Measures, that formal verse is not superior to free verse. A good free verse poem is better than a bad triolet. The tools don't dictate the quality of the final product.
KH: I've been told by poets who write formal verse that learning to do so, to work within the container of form, within the requirements of rhyme, meter, rhythm will improve their free verse. Is this true and why?
PD: I'd say sure, simply because any kind of serious work with language will have a spillover into one's other writing, but there are plenty of other ways to improve one's free verse, including simply extensive reading and regular, disciplined writing—or call it practice, how to get to Carnegie Hall. Maybe the worst way to teach someone to write a sonnet, though, is to shove one at him or her and say, “Now you write one.” That's like throwing a non-swimmer into the deep end of the pool and shouting, “Swim.” As a teacher, I preferred to break the process into a dozen or so smaller steps, not learning everything at once—so, for example, one step would be writing iambic, nonsense prose paragraphs; another would be having the class hold conversations entirely in iambics; only later would things like the pentameter or rhyme or metrical substitutions or variations be added to the mix one at a time. The students appreciated that step-by-step approach.
KH: Recent Poet Laureate of Wisconsin and someone who also writes in form, Marilyn Taylor says, “A significant feature of the formal poem is that it can provide a vessel, a container, even a ‘capsule’ to fill with material that might be too volatile—too scary, too close to you—to become a poem instead of an emotional cloudburst.”
PD: I'd say yes indeed. It's like handling radioactive material with special gloves. At the same time, one should stress the possibility that the formal means can stimulate the material—help develop it, push the writer forward into territory not imagined or planned—rather than simply containing it or making it safe. Discoveries can be made while working with traditional forms, as the forms act as collaborators with the poets; there's a give and take. The forms are not passive receptacles that we simply pour pre-cooked material into. Formal means can release as much as restrict, and do both at the same time. It's like gravity, a restriction that frees us to dance.
KH: Can you give me an example of how a poem was pushed into a new territory by the form that contained it?
PD: In virtually any poem that uses rhyme or meter (including a simple syllabic meter), something like that has to happen. Sometimes you may not know until you're into a free verse poem that it wants to be more formal, but sometimes you begin a poem knowing right off that you want to apply formal pressure on the material. In either case, you obviously can't know in advance what words you're going to use in what order to accommodate the form, since, for example, we don't think in rhyming stanzas. Therefore the formal requirements lead you (by the ear, as it were) to discover what both satisfies them but also is consonant with or unpredictably and positively extends the material. In my book The Deathbed Playboy, “Eskimo Joe,” about my father, employs Tennyson's “In Memoriam” stanza, abba iambic tetrameter, as a base from which to operate. I say “base” because the metrical poet can be like a jazz musician, always cognizant of the beat but sometimes playing off it and around it. That would be analogous to off-rhyming. There’s a special pleasure to be had in those slight differences, distances—like glancing blows. The story about my father which explains the title would have been told very differently if I had written it in prose or free verse. Numerous details (his second wife's perfume, the abandoned dream, the frozen river, the final affirmation, and others) only appeared in the story because of the rhyme scheme. Following a rhyme scheme can lead to bad writing as well as to felicities. The reader is the final judge as to which is present in any rhymed poem.
How can I not remember I
rubbed noses with my father in
his lonely bed when I was ten?
Forty years ago. He’s ninety
as he’s telling me this as if
it happened yesterday. “Before
we’d fall asleep. You stayed over
Fridays. It always made you laugh.”
I don’t forget the little room
he lived in for a year or so
after the divorce. Just two
of us were a crowd. Leave your dream
outside. Was there even a chair?
And the rented bed was so small
he’d press himself against the wall
to give me a place to sleep. To hear
of such touching touches me – here
at the heartbreak tip of my nose.
“You know,” he says, “like Eskimos.”
I see an ice floe and many long years
as someone tries to live on it.
When Joe married Rose, whose perfume
meant spring had opened up his room,
he rubbed his nose deep in her wet
promise, though in this late, dry autumn
he would stir my memory. What
I think of is a book about
beavers I read once and the time
that sociable tribe spent a whole
far northern winter in their tight
domed quarters the wind rushed to bite
through, passing the days in gentle
grooming, low sounds, bodily touch.
The author was fortunate to observe
a particular “expressive
behavior pattern”: at approach,
one creature nuzzled the other’s face.
The air was cold. “Do you remember?”
Now I smell the frozen river.
“Oh, yes,” I tell him. “I do. Yes.”
KH: This is a terrific poem; I see what you mean about the pressure of the rhyme pattern directing the poem in unexpected ways.
Are some forms more popular than others? Are there forms you choose more often than others? You have entire books dedicated to sonnets, like The New York Postcard Sonnets or The Vertebrae Rosaries, for example.
PD: Blank verse (a term sometimes mistakenly thought to be synonymous with free verse) is, of course, a basic—the go-to—English form, thanks to Shakespeare and others. Unrhymed iambic pentameter has been a workhorse of the poet writing in English for centuries, and I’ve used it countless times. “Difficult Corners” would be an example from The Deathbed Playboy. For someone learning the forms, blank verse is a good place to start because iambic pentameter can be employed in other, more complicated forms, like the sonnet. The fact that two of my books in a row featured sonnets was something of an accident—the latter brought together poems from several decades and the former naturally happened to coincide with my stay in Manhattan.
You may have seen my brother on TV,
the traffic cop who dances as he works.
Candid Camera had him doing it
to music, a Baryshnikov in blue
stylishly choreographed by Twyla Tharp.
So I don’t think sonnets are a special favorite of mine. I’ve a fondness for villanelles, too, and written lots of them—like “Macaroons” in Deathbed. I should say that I write and publish far more poems than get into my books and that would be true of my villanelles as well.
I brought four dozen macaroons to school
because Nora in A Doll’s House loved them so.
How sweet each bite she took against the rule!
Her husband thought she was a child, the fool,
and wouldn’t let her eat her fill. His no
was law. She taught him lessons in her school.
KH: Are you a purist, expecting sonnets or other forms to march to traditional drums or are you more free with your design a la Gerald Stern’s American Sonnets, which are 16 to 20 lines long instead of the traditional 14?
PD: I am definitely more of a purist—or more conservative or less nervy—than Stern, though even Stern looks more conservative than Ted Berrigan (my teacher at Iowa) in his The Sonnets. But some reviewers have nevertheless chided me for taking some of the liberties I do with the form. My position is that a poem should be judged on not how closely it adheres to a particular form but by the quality of the whole final product. A tennis player who holds the racquet unconventionally is nevertheless judged by his performance on the court.
KH: I'm reminded of Ronald Wallace writing a sonnet-a-day for a year and the essay he wrote to describe it—and the book that resulted: The Uses of Adversity. Have you ever been tempted to do something like this? Is there value in it or is it just a personal quest?
PD: The closest I came (not very close) was typing out a well-known poem a day for a year, my first year in New York, one of my projects. A way to get further inside poems I'd been familiar with, but from a new angle, almost as if I were “writing” them. And as I said I did assign myself a long list of forms I wrote in while in Spain for those six months. Wallace's year of sonnets confirms what I, and others, have said about “just doing it.” Butt in chair and write. I'd argue it’s almost the opposite of a "personal quest," as it seems to me he's chastening the personal self, submitting it to an impersonal and universal discipline.
KH: Have you created a form, like Billy Collins’ Paradelle? For example, are your 5x5 poems (5 stanzas of 5 lines each) a form you invented?
PD: No, I haven’t followed Collins’ example. I believe my 5x5 poems sprang from James Dickey’s “Heaven of Animals.” It had more than five stanzas, but all but one of them had five lines, with no particular metric governing any line. Actually Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Paltry Nude Starts on a Spring Voyage” is a 5x5, but I can’t claim that as a precedent. I frequently return to that form—or maybe format is a better word. I’ve published two chapbooks of them already and would like someday to publish a full-length collection of the best of that sort; I’ve published many more than appear in the chapbooks.
KH: I was surprised to find when looking through your books that you do, indeed, write in free verse. What prompts a free verse poem for you?
PD: I don’t consider myself a “formalist” any more than a carpenter who sometimes uses a hammer calls himself a “hammerist.” The term “New Formalists,” smacks of exclusivity and clubbiness. I object to it because, as Strong Measures shows, the practice of formal poems has been continuous, if in some ways underground (note the irony: the underground is usually associated with radicalism, but the conservative practice of formal writing was underground for a stretch—or at least overshadowed by various free verse movements).
There’s also a danger in dividing poets into free-versers and formalists for the reason that there exists an infinite series of possible gradations between, say, blank verse and free verse. One can operate in any particular poem in some borderland and carefully balance between the two modes; the choice of the poet needn’t be either/or. Finally, can New Formalists ever write in free verse, or can a free verse poet ever write a sestina? The question underlines the silliness of the label.
KH: You’ve spoken about teaching sonnets, for example, by asking writers to create an iambic paragraph—unlined, like prose. What other suggestions might you have for writers wanting to experiment in forms?
PD: One assignment, for the purpose of practice, was an iambic pentameter—blank verse—letter, with content, tone, and addressee wide open. For example: “Dear Santa, won’t you please bring me a bag / Of answers I can give to questions asked / by Karla Huston, cross-examiner / par excellence, so I seem less a dunce?”
KH: I’ve tried to teach meter and rhyme to high school kids and some simply did not hear the regular rhythms in words and sentences, although they all listen to music, however discordant some of it might be. Do some not hear the beats and rhythms? How does one account for regional pronunciations?
PD: I’d distinguish between meter and rhythm, the former being clearly much more regular, subject to counting, to numbers, whereas the latter is like waves on the shoreline—there’s a rhythm there but it can’t be reduced to counting, to a numerical pattern. So prose sentences by definition have a rhythm but no meter. A good dictionary, American Heritage, say, resolves the problem of a word’s pronunciation.
KH: Explain accentual verse compared to metrical verse.
PD: Accentual verse is one of the many kinds of metrical verse. One measures (meters) the line by counting accents. (James McAuley in The Art of Versification makes an important distinction between accents and stresses, but we needn’t explore that here.) Anglo-Saxon verse, Beowulf, is accentual (alliterative, too, but that’s beside the point here). Four beats/accents to a line, with a break/pause (caesura) in the middle. The number of syllables is immaterial. An excellent modern poem in the Anglo-Saxon metric is Richard Wilbur’s “Junk.” My poem “Ars Poetica” in Night Shift at the Crucifix Factory is similarly accentual. Actually, William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” is also accentual, with one beat per line.
Here are a few lines from the middle of my poem Ars Poetica, a poem which is three pages long:
Ars Poetica: A Reply To an Actor
Who Complained That Poetry Is Aethereal
And Doesn't Have Sweat In It
The Way the Acting Art Does
I propose this:
with the solid world:
Our armpits are not
deodorized by artifice;
Rather, form serves
to fan the fumes,
So mankind’s rankness
rises to a rare
gross yet grand.
KH: Do you have advice for anyone interested in trying his or her hand at writing formal poetry?
PD: I’d say definitely go for it if you’re inclined. If you approach the challenge right, you won’t regret it. Why deny yourself pleasures and experiences so many outstanding poets have had in the past? Read, besides the McAuley book I mentioned earlier, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form by Paul Fussell. (The second edition has a pointless chapter on free verse that his publishers obviously pressured him to add.) Then, of course, Strong Measures is a must for your library! (Smiley face.) I know there’s been a proliferation of similar books that are helpful, but I haven’t kept up with them. Take it slow. Be patient. Maybe it’s like a relationship that can be difficult but rewarding—enjoy the partnering with the chosen form; negotiate; give and take; listen to it and learn; find out where it’s leading you. Don’t feel you’re just “filling in the blanks.” Rather, you’re being given an opportunity to write outside the box you’re used to and discover a personal capacity for expression you didn’t know you had.
KH: This is terrific advice and also some good suggestions for further reading.
You have written many poems about Walt Whitman. It’s certainly fascinating and perhaps, a huge irony that you have certain renown as a writer of forms, and yet you have written many poems about Whitman, famously accredited for being one of the first American poets to write free verse. Why Whitman, especially for someone so closely associated with formal verse?
PD: Let me start by quoting from my introduction to my collection of poems about Walt Whitman (now under consideration by a publisher): “Walt Whitman first entered my professional life in the Seventies, appearing in poems with Gerard Manley Hopkins, but before that he had arrived in my life as, I surmise, a kind of antidote to my Roman Catholic education by Incarnate Word nuns (for eight years) and Jesuits (for the following eight). Only a large presence like Whitman’s could have managed to act as a lever countering the effect of such a weight in one’s background.” The Hopkins-Whitman connection stems from the fact that Hopkins knew Whitman's work and was so attracted to it that he swore off reading it—a little like Miles Davis: “I don't play ballads anymore because I love them too much.” As to Whitman being a free-verser, he was that, of course, at least in a sense, but I think of Eliot, “No verse is free for the poet who wants to write well,” and the fact that Whitman kept revising his “finished” poems for decades: so much for his “spontaneous me.”
KH: And what about your interest in artists like Thomas Eakins, for example? Your Mystery of Max Schmidt is carefully researched and wonderfully wrought.
PD: Actually once again there’s a Whitman connection. Whitman connected me to Eakins, who painted a well-known portrait of him; the two were friends, Eakins a Philadelphian who lived across the Delaware River from Whitman in Camden.
My first Eakins poem was a verse fiction in which Eakins tells of painting Whitman in the nude, in the spirit of Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” Let me add the name of Florence Nightingale, about whom I’ve written and who had in common with Whitman the spending of time beside the beds of dying young men, she in the Crimean War, he in the Civil War. If I ever publish my collection of Whitman poems, that will complete my Victorian trilogy, the other two volumes being those already published about Hopkins and Eakins. Then the next step would be gathering for a book selected poems from those three volumes as well as my various Nightingale poems under the title Four Victorians. Dream on, Phil, dream on.
KH: Speaking of dreaming, you moved to New York City in 2004. What prompted this drastic change of scenery for you? The Upper West Side of Manhattan is far from the prairies of southwest Minnesota.
PD: My main goal was to have a post-retirement adventure and see what it was like to live in the City, not just visit it, which I’d done countless times in the past, for both personal and professional reasons; I did stay one summer at Columbia U. but that was for Peace Corps training, pre-shipping overseas, so not really residing there. My mother was born in New York, and we came back every summer by Greyhound bus from St. Louis to see relatives. And one of my sons was living in NYC in 2004, so he was very helpful in shoehorning me in.
Yes, Manhattan is hardly the prairies, but I grew up in St. Louis, in a very small apartment, using public transportation all the time, and enjoying a great city park (Forest Park; here Central Park is at the end of my block)—so in a sense I was “returning home” to the kind of life I knew growing up. The City hasn’t disappointed me in any way. I still have moments when I shake my head in wonder that I’m living here.
KH: What, if anything, has your New York sojourn done for your writing?
PD: Nothing about my writing has changed since I’ve been here, nor did I expect or look for that. My having more time to write here than in Minnesota has been a function of my being retired, not my living here. I think it’s fair to say my coming here was not about professional advancement or something like that. I definitely don’t haunt the reading scene or the lit scene more generally. In coming here, I simply wanted to know the city from the inside, learn its systems, how to navigate, develop a life here, a pattern, a routine, and I’ve done that. My joke now, though it’s more than a joke is, “New York City is a great place to live but I wouldn’t want to visit here.” The truth of that is that a visitor is just getting a very limited glimpse of the city’s meaning and nature, like having a great feast and tasting a crumb of it.
KH: Do you plan to become a permanent denizen of New York?
PD: Given what I said about accomplishing my goal, I find the “adventure” is feeling over—the challenge, the uncertainty, the learning are not there as they were before. I’ve settled in here and don’t go exploring the way I did for the first few years, but that means I’ve come to the end of something, and it’s time to move on. Back to Minnesota, 2012 is the plan, to live somewhere in the Minnesota River Valley with my partner Alixa Doom, who lives there now. [interviewer’s note: Doom is also a fine poet] We’ve been doing citymouse/countrymouse for years, back and forth, her house in a small Minnesota town and my apartment on the Upper West Side, felicitous rhythm, but one more year of that should put the cap on it.
KH: You've retired from years of teaching. Does a writer ever retire from writing? I'm thinking of Stanley Kunitz who wrote and published well into his 90s and Hayden Carruth who did the same. Bly, Kinnell are in their 80s.
PD: I suppose, by definition, we don’t hear about the ones who retire from writing. We just keep assuming another collection will emerge eventually. What’s remarkable about Kunitz is how vigorous his work stayed as he aged. His late poem “The Snakes of September” is nothing if not sexy, about two snakes copulating, nor is the poem ironic, making a point about his distance from them by reason of his age; on the contrary, he participates in their love-making. We should all age so!
KH: You've published countless chapbooks and collections, the most recent being The Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Short Poems (2010, Rain Mountain Press: www.rainmountainpress.com) and in 2009, Vertebrae Rosaries: 50 Sonnets, (Red Dragonfly Press: www.reddragonflypress.org). What's next for you?
PD: I have about ten books in the works. The complete Whitman, Ice-Cream Vigils. Four Victorians, as I mentioned. A collection of my 5x5 poems. The Complete Adventures of Alixa Doom and Other Love Poems (expanded from a chapbook). Choreographing Whitman, a book-length poem in sections. A selected poems, based on my first ten books. A full-length collection of poems about fatherhood and my children (expanded from a chapbook). A collection of miscellaneous poems, currently titled Invitations to the Cockroach Ball. A collection of formalist poems that don’t show up in any of my other books. I might have forgotten one or two.
KH: I look forward to whichever book happens next. Do you have any other plans besides all those books?
PD: For years now I've been working on a project I call the Poetry Jukebox. The idea is I'd turn myself into such a jukebox, a living one. I'd have memorized 100 poems, from all over the poetry map, and audience members would each be given a sheet of paper with the 100 poems listed on them. I'd be behind a kind of cardboard cutout of a jukebox and after an audience member called out a poem from the jukebox, I'd jump out and recite it, then disappear behind the cutout again. I've gotten close to my goal but the problem is like that guy on Ed Sullivan who spun the plates on poles. By the time he was spinning 9 and 10, 1 and 2 were wobbling and he'd have to run back and catch them. So after working on a lot of new poems I find that many of the old ones have faded or gotten wobbly. Anyway, if I don't pull this off in the next 10 years, I think it's a lost cause.
KH: Poetry Jukebox? Words dropping from the sky a la Groucho Marx? A rock ‘n’ roll poetry trio called Strong Measures? Did you miss your calling? Thank you Philip Dacey for your time and your wonderful answers to my questions.
[Conducted November 1-12, 2010, via email.]