Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sharon Dolin: Composing for the eye

The lobster and canary are especially delighted to offer today's post: an interview with widely acclaimed poet Sharon Dolin. Sharon has published four books and five chapbooks of poetry. She is Writer-in-Residence at Eugene Lang College, The New School and she also teaches at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in NYC.

Click here for her website.

Lobster & Canary: You frequently give readings. How does reading your work aloud for an audience influence (or not) how you compose in the first place? Talk to us about the interaction of writing and performance as it may apply to your poetry.

Sharon: I don’t think that reading my work aloud before an audience influences the way I compose poetry. Certainly, I read my work aloud to myself while in the process of revision in order to catch the rhythms, to see if there is any unwelcome awkwardness (although sometimes awkwardness is the point). I come out of the Williams tradition and compose much more for the eye than for the ear. I spend a lot of time thinking about how a poem looks on the page. Is there enough white space? Should the poem have uniform stanzas? How long should the lines be? Are the enjambments perky?

Of course I enjoy giving readings, to feel firsthand how a poem goes over to a live audience. But this means that I carefully choose which poems work better at a reading and which poems work much better on the page. There are some poems that I would never read aloud to an audience.

L & C. You pay great attention to formal technique-- you are perhaps unusual in this (?). (Among your peers, I think of Molly Peacock, the late Reginald Shepherd, Susan Stewart, Louise Gluck, W.S. Merwin, but not so many others.) Tell us a little about that, about how you see form in relation to content. Do your words and images arise first, followed by the search for appropriate structure, or vice versa, or in some other order altogether?

Sharon: It’s funny that you should say I pay great attention to formal technique. I think of myself as a free verse poet, but one who has worked very hard, both in my poetry and in my theoretical writings about free verse, to claim that free verse is as formal as any poetry written in a fixed form. That the burden of finding the form is even more onerous for a free verse poet. Of course, I deplore how much sloppy free verse writing is out there, how many poems are merely prose chopped up into lines. I hope my poems never fail in that way. I think very carefully about the constitution of the line. Each line in a poem has to carry its own weight. Charles Wright has written some of the best essays on the subject. So I make no distinction between poems that use a fixed form, such as the ghazal (one of my favorites) and poems that have no identifiable formal label.

That said, usually an image or idea hits me first. Sometimes the form follows almost immediately and sometimes I struggle with making the two marry each other. Here are a few examples: In my first book Heart Work, there’s a long poem called “Praying Mantis in Brooklyn.” I knew right from the start that the poem would take the form of a sestina followed by a free verse expatiation on it. What had happened was a praying mantis appeared several times in very unlikely places: on the windowsill of my 4th floor walkup and on my street gate. The uncanniness of the meeting and the strangeness of the insect got me to thinking about Louis Zukofsky’s famous poem (really my favorite of his short works) called simply “Mantis,” in which a praying mantis flies at his chest on the NYC subway. He wrote this poem during the Depression and the mantis came to stand for the poor. He used a sestina followed by a free verse riff. In the late Eighties, when I wrote my poem, when there were lots of homeless on the streets of New York, I decided I would write my own Mantis poem with a nod to Zukofsky by using the same two-part form.

The same think happened with a poem in Burn and Dodge, my fourth book. I was at the Philadelphia Zoo, watching my niece and her girlfriend watching two tortoises copulate. I wanted to write a poem about the tortoises and about my niece coming out to the family. It seemed necessary to me that the poem take the form of a syllabic, Marianne Moore’s characteristic form, because she loved to go to the zoo and because she was so prissy about any sexual content entering her work. So my poem was an irreverent syllabic.

And here’s one more example of how I think about form over the course of a sequence of poems: In Serious Pink, my ekphrastic collection, I thought about the fact that Howard Hodgkin always paints over his frames. So in my sequence of poems in dialogue with his work, I wanted a flexible framing device. I decided to write 15-line lyrics in varying stanzaic patterns—near sonnets. Of course, in one poem, a ghazal it had to be 16 lines, an even number of lines, to accommodate the couplet form.

Many of the “free verse” poems in Burn and Dodge that deal with contemporary vices are written in tercets because I think of that form as a nod to Dante’s terza rima form in the Inferno.
In one of those poems, “Cursed Anger Sing” (Anger being one of the original Seven Deadly Sins), I chose a backwards moving tercet, because I think of anger as something we are only aware of in retrospect. Here’s the opening stanza:

Wound inside snake coils, cruel lover of blood
who sees only red, unlike Gluttony, Lust
and Sloth, when you are wroth . . .

Here you see I do also enjoy playing with internal rhyme as well.

In the poem “Grudge,” I chose boxy quatrains because there is something closed off about that emotion. Here’s the first stanza:

To have is not to surrender
pockets of the mind
where hurt sojourns.

Finally, I probably feel drawn to couplets when there is a strong sense of a dialogic you and I, or some kind of love, as in the poem written for my son called “Shame.”

When my five-year-old, not listening , climbed over
the broken fence head first

and fell (the gash on his cheek, a huge backward “C”),
we didn’t recognize, as he bled,

what he’d opened up for himself . . .

Again, what I am calling a retrospective lineation, a not-seeing until after the fact, as well a way to represent non-alignment of self with the world at the same time preserving the couplet as a sign of tenderness between my son and myself. I was not trying for radical enjambments in this poem, which tells a story.

Elsewhere, more radical line breaks might be the rule.

L & C: We love your ekphrastic work. Which visual artists are you following with particular avidity right now, and why?

Sharon: First, thank you. Serious Pink remains the book I’m proudest of, in a way. I can’t say I “follow” particular artists. It’s all about serendipity. And I never know in advance what kind of book I’ll be writing. I just write poems and see where it takes me. Serious Pink began with the Joan Mitchell sequence, “My Black Paintings,” because I happened to visit the Robert Miller gallery to see a show of Mitchell’s work from the mid-Sixties that she called her “Black Paintings.” They were painted (I initially wrote “written” here!) when she was recovering from the death of her father and when her mother was ill with cancer. I, too, was slowly recovering from the untimely accidental death of my fiancĂ© who, by the way, liked Joan Mitchell’s work. Perhaps that’s why I attended the show. Anyway, it gave me a way to write about the loss indirectly (I had already written a sequence of poems about him, published finally in Realm of the Possible in a section entitled “Geniza.”). So I bought the catalogue and decided to write about one of the paintings. Then the next. And the next. There are other stories for each of the other sequences, always quite personal. I was also interested at the time (this was in the mid-90s) in how I could write about abstract painting. Most ekphrasis, as you know, is the art of description. How do you describe an abstract painting? You don’t. So I had to do something else. That was my adventure. And in each of the sequences I approached it differently. Here’s one of the poems from the sequence “Black Paintings” that makes the elegiac subject matter quite clear:


Blue winter rain
that's what you’ve become

a cloud
whitewashed by weather

this window
beyond being

the elements eat you

damp cold
of the first winter

now the second
you said you wanted

to travel
now you're still

blotches of flight
descend into your

stationary car

In my last book, Burn and Dodge, where there is a quadriptych scattered throughout the book on Envy, the final one is, as the title says, my “Letter to Seven-Hundred-Year-Old Invidia in the Scrovegni Chapel to be Folded in the Shape of a Snake Swallowing Its Tail.” I imagine Giotto’s figure of Envy looking across at the figure of Prudentia, who looks like a writer to me, and being envious of her. I thought of the poem in sculptural terms: Envy as a circle from which one never exits. Here’s the first stanza, which is almost purely descriptive of Giotto’s Invidia—well, obviously as seen through my manic eyes:

Letter to 700-Year-Old Invidia in the Scrovegni Chapel to be Folded in the Shape
of a Snake Swallowing its Tail

. . . out of your niche, Galatea'd on hate,
if it weren't for the bloody anemonaed
flames (coelacanthed), that hold you phoenixed
rebirthed, recursed
consuming you spewing you flue-ing
you up. Clutching your moneybag already
by the tasseled rope at your waist
and reaching to grasp—what?—You can barely see
for the serpent jutting from your mouth whose head circles
back to flick its tongue
over your eyes—your ears so outsized—batlike cartilage
ram's horns wrap around.

Right now, I am not “following” any artist in particular. A few years ago, I was looking at a painting by Cy Twombly called “Scenes from an Ideal Marriage” and that sparked me to write about my own very imperfect marriage. It’s a poem in four parts that got published by Ducts (

L & C: The canary in particular is struck that so little poetry is written about music (as opposed to the visual arts, and not meaning lyrics composed for and as part of song). A case of sibling rivalry? Your thoughts?

Sharon: I think the tradition of ekphrasis, which began with Achilles shield in The Iliad, has always been one of the visual arts. Lessing’s book on the Laocoon was an entire argument about the strengths of sculpture and painting compared to poetry. Debussy’s Prelude to an Afternoon of the Fawn, was inspired by a MallarmĂ© poem. I think there are lots of contemporary composers who set poems to music. I’m not sure what to call that. It’s reverse ekphrasis: from words to images. We’ve had a few notable examples of that in painting: Charles Demuth’s painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold after Williams’s “The Great Figure.” There just seems to be a primacy to the image as visual as opposed to auditory. Poems are put to music as opposed to poems written about music. Think of the American art song tradition: Aaron Copland’s "Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson,” for instance. And contemporary composers such as Ned Rorem or Tom Cipullo come to mind but there are many others.

L & C: Robert Pinsky, in "Culture" (the first chapter of his Democracy, Culture and The Voice of Poetry) glosses Tocqueville's assertion that American democracy "has dried up most of the old springs of poetry." Pinsky suggests Tocqueville should be read to mean poetry's trajectory in the U.S.A. is the result of "not exactly the absence of legends, memorials, heroes, and pantheons but their insufficiency: a worn, jejune quality--a need for something either more candid, or more candidly fantastic." If the Tocquevillian premise is sound, then how has American poetry become either more candid, or more frankly fantastic over the past 150 years?

Sharon: I understand Tocqueville to mean that we don’t write public poetry anymore: to dead heroes or to living presidents after Whitman. Or, at the least, that’s not the source of our best poetry. I find this question a puzzling one as someone who has always been more interested in the lyric than the epic. I go to poetry—both to read and write it—for what the solitary voice has to say from his or her personal experience. The is one of the oldest “springs” of poetry. I never find myself moved by public poetry. It’s why I love the Psalms, no matter who has written them, because they are the voice of an individual, not a people. I’m not the first one to say that the tragedy of 9/11 reminded people that poetry could offer a certain kind of solace through an expression of grief that can’t be duplicated by other art forms.

American poetry as more candid or more fantastic? These elements have always been present in American poetry. Who is more candid than Whitman? Who is more fantastic than Poe or Dickinson? I think the use of language has changed, perhaps due to a sense of audience: poets more and more writing for each other. Or perhaps the causal connection is reversed: the language has changed and that has led to a falling away of audience. But that is another matter entirely.

L & C: If you were exploring poetry with sixth-graders in NYC, which poems might you include on the syllabus?

Sharon: As the mother of a fifth-grader who rolls his eyes at the mention of poetry, I think I’m going to duck this question and say: That’s why I prefer to teach college students and adults.

L & C: Fair enough! Thank you very much, Sharon, for your poetry and for your thoughts about the craft.

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