One Mask at a Time: An Interview with Stephen Dunn

A Pulitzer Prize–winning poet reflects on sincerity, mortality, the buffoonery of Trump, and dogs as comic relief.

STEPHEN DUNN IS a powerhouse of a poet. He is the author of 18 volumes of poetry and two essay collections, including the recently published Degrees of Fidelity (Tiger Bark Press). His 2000 collection, Different Hours, won the Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award for Literature, and his 1996 collection Loosestrife was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award. A Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Stockton University, he has written his own eulogy — twice. 

In his poetry, Dunn blends creative fancy with accessible, impeccably timed verse. Billy Collins has written about his work: “The art lies in hiding the art, Horace tells us, and Stephen Dunn has proven himself a master of concealment.” In “Mon Semblable,” Dunn writes, “Though I know it’s unfair, / I reveal myself / one mask at a time” — an assertion that sets a high bar for any interview.


LAUREN MAULDIN: You don’t come from a family of readers. 

STEPHEN DUNN: Not at all. The only books we had were rented from the drug store and had to be returned the next day. My grandfather would tell stories, but book culture didn’t exist in our house. It wasn’t expected that I would go to college, but I played basketball and got a scholarship — if it wasn’t for basketball, I might never have gone. Please don’t ask me how I became a reader. It would take me too long to say. 

Basketball was your first love. My father maintains that basketball is an emotional sport that rides on waves of momentum. Do you think poets experience waves of momentum like that while working?

When we’re working well, something like that happens. One discovery leads to another, and we find ourselves carried along in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. If poetry and basketball have anything in common, it’s the possibility of transcendence. For short periods, when you’re in the zone, you can be better than yourself.

In “Journal Notes,” from your 2001 essay collection, Walking Light, you write, “I don’t trust people until I know what they love.”

What I meant by the statement has more to do with other people than myself. I was thinking of people who offer regular criticism of this or that, which is fine (there’s certainly plenty to be critical of these days), but you never hear them praise, say, some area of excellence or some exemplar of the very thing they have an issue with. For example, I have an acquaintance who says he hates movies with subtitles. I wish he could name one or two that nevertheless interest him. Or to name any movie that he loves. Or a book or an author that he loves. I would trust or not trust him by his answer.

Authority gained through approval.

As an epigraph to an earlier book, I use this statement from Van Gogh, “The best way to know life is to love many things.”

Is what you love a constant, or do you wake up each morning loving something different?

I’m just happy to wake up in the morning. I’m not very trustworthy until I at least have a cup of coffee. And I’d rather make love than make any distinctions about loving. If I found myself writing about love, I wouldn’t be seeking anything like constancy. To paraphrase Emerson, constancy is the hobgoblin of small minds.

I have not been able to find a copy of your first book, 5 Impersonations (1971).

It was a small, five-page book by an artist of small books. I was very happy to have something to verify that I was a poet. It was printed as a limited edition — 300 copies. They each sold for a dollar. I suspect my wife and a few friends read it. I have one copy left. At a reading recently a man, a collector, asked me to sign his copy, which he said he purchased for $350.

How do you find it now, these many years later?

I think of the poems now as little successes. They show, I think, that the writer of them had some reason to continue writing.

Little successes are sometimes the only things that keep writers going.

Yes, I think you have to love what you’re doing. You keep doing it, because you love it. You realize early on that you’re not going to change the world, or be lavishly rewarded. You have to accept failure, or some sort of neglect. Even poets who are “successful” feel neglected, and they are. Poetry does not have a large audience in America. That’s what you live with. The motive has to be love of doing it, a compulsion. It becomes the way you translate experience for yourself, and sometimes for others.

In your poetry, you often use animals to help translate the world. A poem of yours I particularly love is “Don’t Do That,” where the speaker visits the Rottweilers locked in a bedroom during a party.

The poem is a fiction, and the dogs serve as minor characters. I use them in this case for comic relief.

In an earlier poem of mine called “Something Like Happiness,” I end with a line I may have made up but which has always felt magical to me: “Once a day the flea travels to the eye of the dog for a sip of water,” and then follow it with, “Imagine the journey, the delicacy of the arrival.” Come to think about it, that’s more of a flea line than a dog line.

In your essay “Bringing the Strange Home,” you name different kinds of poetry readers — the poet, the philistine, and those who “fall somewhere in the unconscious middle, hungry for meaning in their lives, in need of poetry, yet unaware of it.” When you start a new poem, is your target audience the poet, the unconscious middle, or both?

I have no conscious target when I begin a poem. Those different kinds of poetry readers do exist, but the way to reach them is to have an allegiance to the poem you’re writing, to be aware as best you can of its problems and its virtues. The target emerges as the poem develops. A good poem needs to find where it’s going, and you need to put some obstacles in the way of getting there. Ideally, each line is a discovery, limited by your intent and the language you’ve found yourself using. The poem is the target. It likely takes several revisions to be something that feels arrived at.

How do you wish our culture would address the overall neglect of poetry?

It seems that poetry finds its broadest necessity during or after some kind of personal or national crisis. I’m not advocating that things like 9/11 happen, but the populace seems to need the solace of poetry when they do occur. In other countries, say the Eastern European countries during the Soviet Union, poetry (to the extent that it offered the unspoken) was dangerous. Here, the more that educators could teach poetry as utterances of the unspoken, articulations of what you half-know or feel but have no words for, the better the chance it would become meaningful to people. I’m not particularly hopeful that this will happen in America unless Trump prevails, and we need to publicly and artfully scream.

In your forthcoming book of essays, Degrees of Fidelity, you have a bit of your own scream about the current political climate in “God, Democracy, Trump, James Hollis, and the American People.” If someone could guarantee that every Trump supporter would read a poem of your choosing, what poem would you pick?

I don’t know, but I now will think of writing one.

The problem with such an undertaking is that one knows his ideas in advance, so the poem might end up as a screed with the absence of discoveries. I might write lines like, “Trump is a liar and a buffoon,” which most intelligent people already know.

True, yes, but not a revelation. In “Artifice and Sincerity,” you write that you distrust sincere people, that in poetry it “implies a lack of play and inventiveness,” with few exceptions. But isn’t a level of sincerity necessary?

A good question. I think so. But it has to be a found sincerity. I forget the poet’s name who said this (probably Fernando Pessoa or Charles Simic) — sincerity in poems is the worst crime. The second worst crime is the lack of it.

You’ve always embraced the fictive, whether in poetry or storytelling. In “The Truth: A Memoir,” you unpack several not-exactly-true stories, and you speak to the writer’s authority to repackage the truth for a better narrative. Is the fictive a tool to disable sincerity?

A great question that I hope I can answer. The fictive is that which holds up and arranges and connects circumstances for us to examine. It suggests that we need to make what’s true true. The sincere person is inclined to say things straight out and to believe he or she is telling the truth. It’s fun to “disable” such assertions.

You said that you tend to like people that read poetry. What characteristics do you think reading poetry develops in people?

I think poetry essentially sensitizes you to the abuses and pleasures and delicacies of the world. It makes you more alert. But a heightened consciousness is often difficult to live with. There’s no going back from what you know. It’s why poets often find themselves living on the edge. It’s an exciting and problematical place to be.

Can poetry be expected to rescue humanity?

Not rescue, but correct what passes for the true. The best poems offer precision. At any given moment, three quarters of the language you hear during the day is false and intends to deceive you. A poem that gets something right is a little correction, a movement toward the truth. But sometimes the truth doesn’t even factor into it — as in “Jabberwocky” and nonsense poems, where syntax and music constitute value. There are many pleasures other than meaningfulness that poetry offers. Think of a well-made bowl. We’d never think of asking what it means. “Beautiful” is sufficient.

Through your many years of teaching, you’ve led a lot of poets to pursue the happy mix of music and language. How did you like to begin with a new class of writers?

Cruelly, I’d say.

Oh boy!

I begin by saying, “I’m already bored by your feelings.” I also say that “a good poem is a very difficult thing to write. It’s unlikely that any of you will write one this semester.” That, of course, is both true and untrue. I always get poems that are wonderful, or moments in poems that are wonderful. But since the students don’t expect me to like what they do, they are frequently very pleased when I do.

I’m sure they are.

If you’re any good at teaching creative writing, you pay attention to diction and rhythm as well as their insights and claims. A good teacher offers a kind of exquisite listening. You’re correcting their versions of themselves. You’re sharpening their neuroses.

One of the things I tell students is that, if they want to be good, they need to treat themselves like any other would-be artist. Absorb yourself in all of the good things that have been written and said. Imagine being a dancer and not being limber. Or a violinist who doesn’t practice.

Treat writing like you would treat any other muscle with training and careful exercise.

Yes, you want to perfect all of your tools, and to be as serious as any other artist is. One of the things about poets is that they think their feelings are important, which they are, of course, but not to the reader unless they surprise themselves and formalize their findings. Very few would-be poets take themselves as seriously as they should.

You’ve written about teaching young writers how important surprise is in poetry. Do you find your ability to be surprised increases or decreases over time?

Certainly, as one gets older, one loses a sense of wonderment. Wonderment is essential for the lyric poet. But I’m a meditative poet, which leaves me room to think my way down the page, to refine what I say and to keep refining it, to even disagree with my claims, or resist them, until something that seems unique occurs. Then resist that. There’s always something smarter that’s waiting to be discovered.

One thing you may find surprising is how your work has invaded social media. The other day I looked up #stephendunn on Instagram and saw many graphics and drawings based on your work — specifically the last two lines of “Mon Semblable”: “I will try to disappoint you / better than anyone else.”

Ha! I don’t do social media, so I don’t know anything about that.

How does that make you feel — that young people are sharing your work on a digital platform?

I get letters from people fairly frequently, maybe two or three a month, where I’ve made some connection with them that they want to champion. That always feels great, because writing is such a solitary act. To make contact with strangers is something I love.

In another “Note” from Walking Light, you write, “When I’ve had an interesting or haunting dream, I know I’d better not try to write about it until it has begun to bore me a little.”

Yes. Since I often compose in the first person, it’s useful for me to be bored with myself before I start. That puts the burden on me to be interesting. My life isn’t interesting until I make it interesting.

Are there times when you’re more drawn to essay writing than poetry? If so, what prompts that shift?

I’m always more drawn to the writing of poetry, but sometimes I’ve either been pushed or commissioned by others to write an essay or a memoir. But once I’ve begun such a process, I find myself moving from idea to idea, much as I do in a poem.

In “Little Craft Manifesto,” you write, “If you’re a serious poet, every poem you write is part of a long unspoken dialogue with the poets who preceded you.” Are there poets you consider required reading for young writers?

I think they need to be plentiful, but I wouldn’t choose who they should be for others.

Do you find you continue to set new goals, or is it always the same goal?

I have no conscious goals. If I seek something of that nature, it is to be true to where the words take me, and to find a form that might give them a sense of permanence.

In Different Hours, and other work as well, your poems often circle around the idea of mortality. Does winning a prize like the Pulitzer change how you think about death, knowing your work will be read for many years to come?

I don’t know that at all, though as Hemingway has his main character say at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

Interesting, though, what you say about mortality, because Different Hours dealt with a moment of my life when I felt I wasn’t going to live past 60. No males in my family had, so there was that pressure on my work. Mortality is something I deal with much more seriously now, which doesn’t exclude being playful about it. I understand it as part of the human comedy.

I’m not sure I should tell you this, but I have a tattoo on my shoulder inspired by your work. It’s an elephant walking toward my collarbone with his trunk swinging. He’s filled with stars and galaxies — swirled purples and gleaming dots. And at the bottom, there are two lines in cursive: “kindred and close / like stars.”



Lauren Mauldin is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of California, Riverside, and editor for the equestrian publication The Plaid Horse.

LARB Contributor

Lauren Mauldin is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of California, Riverside, and editor for the equestrian publication The Plaid Horse. She is writing a memoir that blends animal behavior with her experience as a 30-year-old widow.


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