Making True Things More True: An Interview with Dan Chelotti




Stacy Elaine Dacheux interviews Dan Chelotti

Making True Things More True: An Interview with Dan Chelotti

February 25th, 2014 reset - +

FOR MOST of the 1990s, Dan Chelotti existed only in cursive handwriting, as a figure in letters I received from teenage friends after I moved away from our mutual hometown of Franklin, Massachusetts. Wild anecdotes of his humor, his taste in hats, and his serious passion for poetry were discussed at length. Who the hell was this Dan Chelotti character? I didn’t want to just read about him; I wanted us to meet. In 1996, we finally did, at a house party, during a brief trip back to the Boston area. There, on a crisp dewy night, we swung on a porch swing and talked intensely about writing in a way that was comfortably intimate yet new, and that newness carried the night and my 17-year-old thinking into a place where writing was not just a solitary act, but a community you could grow up with.

After that, the two of us parted ways until 2003, when we discovered one another’s writing, resumed correspondence over email, and, in 2010, reunited and hugged on a Chelsea street corner. Two years later, we met again in western Massachusetts, and then, just a few months ago, I drank wine at a mattress store in San Francisco and saw him read from his debut collection x, published by McSweeney’s Books. The next day, we strolled around Chinatown together, spending absolutely no money before the Red Sox won the World Series.  

While conducting this interview over email, I considered the strangeness of how, across twenty years of my life, Dan has constantly manifested in letters, notes, and poems, punctuated by brief but meaningful face-to-face interludes. His consistent re-emergence connects me to the romanticism of my youth, but even more so to the evolution of his writing — which I now get to hold in hardcover and place on a shelf not far from my high school shoebox of letters — and reminds me of how language has the power to reveal, travel, and transcend. It’s not so much strange as it is fortunate.

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Stacy Elaine Dacheux: So, I must admit, when it comes to books, especially poetry books, I get a little obsessed with dedications. I think it’s a horrible way of me wanting to understand the poet outside of their poems, but I like the idea of the dedication being inside and also outside of the book in some way, like the real life preamble wading alone in the waters of a blank page — its own sort of talisman. On that note, x is dedicated to Herman Gustaf Duvall and to Selma, your daughter. I searched for Duvall on the Internet and found a census bureau status on him. I know he is or was a Massachusetts man. A Somerville man. Beyond that, I am clueless. Who is he — or, who is he to you? Am I cheating by asking you this? I don’t care.

Dan Chelotti: Herman Gustaf Duvall was my maternal grandfather. (His middle name was my great-grandfather’s name; my great-grandfather actually appears in the poem “True Story”). My sense of humor largely comes from him. He was a man who said to me, when he was dying of pancreatic cancer and I was walking out the door of his hospital room for the last time: “Dan, don’t overdo it... you’ll have to do it over.” He was an incredible man with an incredible spirit, and dedicating my first book to his memory was something I never even had to think about.

SED: Do you feel that this idea of not overdoing it or you’ll have to do it over is related to the way you look at writing in general or poetry in particular?

DC: I always talk to my students about not overdoing it, often using a baseball pitching metaphor: if you are pitching, and you “aim” too much, try and be too perfect, you will often miss by a mile. This is why you hear coaches yelling, “Jus’ playin' catch out there!” Same thing with a poem. If I try and write the perfect poem, the perfect ending to a poem, the perfect line in a poem, I often miss by a mile. If I were to translate my grandfather’s dictum into poetry advice, it would become Frank O’Hara telling me to “Go on [my] nerve.”

For the poems in x, I really loosened up after years of overdoing it. I tried to let the world into the poems. For example, in the town where I live (Easthampton, Massachusetts), these enormous military transport planes are always flying overhead into Westover Air Force Base. They are very, very loud and are always interrupting conversations, classes, poems. Three or four years ago, if one flew over while I was writing it would distract my attention. It didn’t have to be a plane. Any small disturbance would take me outside the poem. This all makes me think of that Baudelaire poem in which he describes the grand room the speaker is sitting in, and then there is a knock on the door, and the majestic room transforms into a frigid squat with a couple embers in the fire. So, one day I was writing and the plane flew over and I simply included it in the poem.

The best way I can heed my grandfather's advice is to let the world into my poems, because I would be overdoing it to try and keep it out. In other words, I’m freed of the need to control every move and every syllable (the formal constraints of a piece are already controlling so much!). Ah, the world! As I close this paragraph, a Lockheed C5 Galaxy is flying overhead!

SED: I am drawn to this idea of allowing the world into your poems. Do you feel as though poetry is, in this way, another form of nonfiction? If so, what does it document?

DC: Robert Browning was browsing a book market in Rome when he saw a huge tome detailing a murder trial. He got very excited, bought the book on the cheap, ran home and started figuring out the form of what would become The Ring and the Book. As he put it, the book he bought in the market was nothing but “cruel hard fact.” In order to write a poem ʽabout’ the trial, the fact would be the alloy and his imagination would be the gold that would make the ring (the book). In this way, I would not go so far as to say that poetry is ʽanother form’ of nonfiction, but it certainly has nonfictive elements.

Take my poem “1987”: in the poem there is a melon vendor. That melon vendor is based on a real life melon vendor. It was the fourth of July and I was in Boston when I was a teenager. It was probably one in the morning. I was standing near the fish market behind Faneuil Hall, looking toward the old central artery (which no longer exists). Right underneath the highway was a big pile of watermelons and a very tired man sitting next to them. I thought it was so beautiful, this man who couldn’t leave the melons. I took this all in a matter of seconds. So, the fact that the man was there is true: nonfiction. But what I’ve done with him is to try and make him into a universal symbol for memory and loss and grief.

Barbara Guest said that “poetry is the true fiction,” and by that I think she meant that the kind of universality and timelessness that all poems attempt requires so much raw imagination. When I say that I want to let the world into the poem, I am saying that I will not reject the cruel hard fact in my allegiance to the imagination; instead, I will take what comes and edit it, amend it, alter it freely until it is mine, and then until it belongs to everyone. I love making true things more true, because so often fact is insufficiently true.

SED: I agree with Guest here. I love the idea of poetry as a bin for memory or impulsive fleeting loves: a certain slant of light, a nice linguistic pairing, a melon vendor, etc... or, I don’t know. Maybe the word “bin” feels too static or dumpy here. Poetry is more ephemeral, instinctual, and guttural. It bends and breathes — it feels like psychological run-off at times... or, it’s like digging out the gutters, the little bits that clog your brain.

For instance, last night I was in the car at a red light and I saw a woman hunched down, rubbing a rag over her head for a freakish amount of time. It felt tense. I didn’t want to see her face. Why didn’t I want to see her face? It was sort of funny and then creepy. It had no context. This image and the feeling. It stuck out. This is what I love about reading poetry: I get to start anywhere I want. I am in your language and your thoughts, and sometimes I get lost... but there is always enough freedom for my own garbage to mingle in with yours. The reception of poetry can be like this big intimate mess. Us diving around together in the run-off, the trash, the bin, etc... like teenagers. Poetry has intimacy like that.

How do you read poetry? What is this experience like for you?

DC: Your question made me immediately think of a poem by Max Jacob called “The Beggar Woman of Naples.” In the poem, the speaker throws a coin or two at an old beggar woman who lives outside his palace. One day he realizes that “what I had taken  / for a beggar woman was a wooden case painted green which contained / some red earth and a few half-rotten bananas.”

Sometimes poetry makes the world, and sometimes it unmakes the world. Destruction. Creation. This back and forth is what happens in my brain when I read poetry. The most important element that always brings me back for more is that necessary transformation of thing, person, or idea. It can be as subtle as a logical shift at the volta in a sonnet, or it can be the metamorphosis of a woman into a wooden case. A skillful use of enjambment can set me on fire. Parataxis. Metonymy.

While writing x, I made myself read every book of poetry I picked up, from first poem to last poem. It was something I had never really done. I’d always been a non-linear poetry reader, and I feel that this fact was really holding me back from seeing what a book of poems can really accomplish. I remember reading Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium for the first time all the way through towards the beginning of my time writing the first poems that would end up in x and thinking, Yes, this is how you put together a first book. I began noticing that the transformations I was hunting for in individual poems became even more powerful when seen in the context of the collection. It’s funny, I’d probably read every poem in Harmonium at least five times, but reading it straight through I felt that there were poems that had been hiding from me. I started to do the same with literary journals, and now, after so many years of reading poems, I’m finally a reader of books of poems.

The genius thing about that Jacob poem is that it would be a good political poem about class and how we look or do not look at the homeless if the poem stopped at “wooden case.” But it goes further. The case contains “red earth and a few half-rotten bananas.” Did the speaker go over to the case to investigate? Is this all in the speaker’s imagination? The poet’s imagination? Does the speaker feel bad about his mistake? We’re not told. We’re not told anything, and because of this everything grows more complicated, and the more complicated things get, the more human the problem becomes. The poem becomes a mirror for the mess in my head, in yours. The best books are halls of mirrors, pointing out that the world is always messier than we’d like it to be. This is why I want to read and write more books of poems: they are often the only place where the mess of it all shows up in one place — Jacob stuffing and projecting the entire world into a wooden case.

SED: Dan, poems are so mysterious! Your response makes me feel immediately remorseful about all the lovely poems I sidestepped or hopped over for the sake of my own need for immediate gratification, all the while missing the scope of this bigger, and perhaps more complex and thoughtful, unraveling landscape or moving portrait that reading a collection front to back can provide.

On that note, I wonder how you approach selecting certain poems to read aloud from x when you tour? Do you read only full section blocks, or do you bounce around depending on the mood of the room/city? Basically, does reading your poetry aloud to an audience make the work feel like an entirely different beast and, if so, what does this beast look like?

DC: Don’t feel too remorseful! I often use the books on my shelves as veritable I Chings to lead me down the rabbit hole of my reading day. Just bumping into poems that remind me of other poems, and then those poems point to others, which all makes me feel alive in the tradition. And that is what I love about poetry readings.

I attend a lot of readings; I’m lucky to live in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, where there is an amazing community of poets. When the academic year is in full swing I will sometimes go to four or five readings in a week (that’s a really heavy week; mostly it’s one or two readings). I love trying to follow my brain as it focuses, takes off into a corner, comes back to me, and then, almost out of nowhere, an amazing line or poem knocks me right over.

When I get the opportunity to read, I always try to wait until five minutes or so before the reading starts to set my order. Even though I’ve been thinking about what to read all day long, I like to be in the space — to check in on how I’m feeling in that moment, when the nerves are starting to translate themselves into excitement.

When I’m reading, the work does feel like an entirely different beast, and it’s a different beast every time. I just gave a house reading in Paris, and in that audience were some dear friends who I hadn’t seen in 13 years, and my work that night seemed like it was written just for them. When I read in Amsterdam the week before to a room full of strangers, my work felt like a steamroller trying to run them all over with love. Both of the readings were good readings, I think, but so much depends on the audience, the light, the kind of drinks we all are drinking, whether there is a microphone (I love hiding behind my microphones!).

The bottom line: I love reading my work to an audience. Working so hard on new work all the time, I often forget that the old stuff exists — reading the work brings it to life. I never know what that life is going to look like on a particular night with a particular crowd, but I love knowing that poems have many lives — even though that fact means that some of my poems will lead lives I don’t want them to. I didn’t want that poem to flirt with that girl in Amsterdam, but it did! Bad poem!

SED: When I organize my bookshelves, the poetry ones always end up in some crammed corner, sort of enjoying each other — but, then, there’s always like the star of my collection that gets “propped” up in a random place, like the bathroom or next to a cookbook in the kitchen, so visitors can stumble upon it and breezily enjoy a line or two. My husband laughed at me the other day because Howl was sorta lodged between some sewing materials and he was like, “Oh, just in case you need a little inspiration…” It felt glaringly obvious that I had placed it there as, well, not the star of my collection, but more the “classic accidental find” of my collection. The “classic accidental find” is my favorite. I mess around with that every now and again, like placing a copy of Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer’s Nice Hat, Thanks in my coat pocket before burying it away with my winter clothes for a year. I love forgetting about it and then, next winter, What’s this in my pocket? A book of poetry magically appears when you’re out late waiting for the bus. It’s weird that I only play this game with poetry, never novels. I don’t know why.

Now, I have to ask this. Since I have known you for over 20 years — first as a teenager and now as a published poet — I wonder if you can tell me how your relationship to poetry has changed. Have you lived many lives, as many different types of poets? Not in a Shirley MacLaine way, but, for instance, what do you miss about being a teenage poet? Or do you still feel like a teenage poet in some strange way? Have your poetic aspirations or identity changed much since then?

DC: I love these little poetic booby traps you set for yourself! And I think that the process of discovery that you experience when you find the booby trap you set for yourself in your coat pocket is a process of intentional de-habituation — and that is exactly what poems do. I know when I open a good book of poems that, if I give myself over to it, it has the chance of knocking me out of the world so I can be in it — really be in it — and not fall victim to the deadening quotidians that Viktor Shklovsky raged against. But I must look for this whack in the head; I cannot wait for it to happen.

When I was a younger poet, I was always waiting for the world to give me that moment of delight; I was waiting for the unexpected inspiration that would drive me to the page. I wanted to happen upon the parking cone and the used condom and the broken xylophone all on the same rooftop and be swept away by the magisterial randomness of the universe. When I was a little older, I would look for this feeling in the elegiac laments found in all passing things (I got way too serious — which I send up in the poem “Dead Guy Pants”). I still hunt for this feeling of connection with the living word — I go on massive walks keeping an eye out for the surprise at every turn — but now that I’m older, I know that I cannot sit and wait for these moments to come. I must work towards them. If these de-habituating moments are not present in the phenomenal world it is often because I didn’t get enough sleep, or because this hotel croissant is nothing like the croissants in Paris, or because I’m buried in my phone for an hour. It is so easy to default to those deadening habits.

The job I set for myself as a poet is to sit and write, even if my eyes are glazed and I’m numb to the world, and to find that volta in the line break, or in the word that will make me sit up straight. It’s hard work getting the words in just the right order, so I end up in a different place than I was when I began. But that is the goal — to learn something from the process of writing that I did not know when I started writing. The process of writing is always a process of change. So is reading. When I was that teenage poet that you knew, I always knew exactly where I was going, hoping that the Keatsian “Penetralium of mystery” would spring out from behind a tree and shout, “Hey, poet! Look at me!” These days, I know that I do not have to go looking any farther than my desk chair and the pile of words that I put on paper. I guess it boils down to confidence: that if I give myself over to form and trust in negative capability that I will be able to create these moments for my readers, as I trust the poets I love to do that for me. That is my hope, that we will always be open to the changes that poetry encourages us to make, no matter how bad the coffee or the traffic is.

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Stacy Elaine Dacheux is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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