August is usually the hottest month of the year. And so, it’s only appropriate we bring on one of poetry’s steamier mistresses.
The first time I came across Dorianne’s poetry, I was standing (well, reading) at the portal of The Alsop Review. I thought I detected the presence of Eros in some of her verse. And since she subsequently didn’t deny it, I introduced her to the good people at the International Journal of Erotica, out of the U. K. They published her without a second thought. However, that issue was also the last in which print of any kind appeared. From that point on, the Journal published only pictures. In this, they no doubt took some, uh, “poetic license.” (I suspect they knew they’d never be able to improve upon the poetry – so quit while they were ahead.)
RRB:So tell us, Dorianne – what’s it like to keep house with another poet? Is either of you able to come down from the ether long enough to sweep the kitchen floor or take out the garbage? Can you and Joe actually act as muse to each other, or do you keep your work lives and private lives separate?
DLL: I work full time at NCSU, and Joe works full time for Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA program – and we both teach at summer conferences and give a good number of readings throughout the year. We’re about as busy as two poets can be. We share a lot of the duties of home, though Joe is very good at keeping the house from falling apart, literally. He keeps the roof repaired, the basement free of water, the attic free of mice. He keeps the yard and garden in good shape. Except for the 10 days twice a year that he’s in Oregon teaching, he works from home, and so he’s in charge of the meals on the days I teach. I manage to get the clothes washed once a week and we share the dirty dishes and bathroom duties.
When is there time to write poetry? Well, we manage to find it. We’re both used to catching poems on the fly, but we also try to put our butts in our chairs and get some work done on the weekends. Summers, we tend to take a month or more if we can and find a writer’s residency. Last year we stayed at VCCA and got a lot of work done. Next summer, we hope to travel to VCCA-France in Auvillar for a residency there. We just don’t seem to have a problem traveling together or working side by side in close quarters. We give each other lots of personal space – psychic space, emotional space, creative space – but we share a lot, too. We enjoy having one another nearby to try a new poem out on, or a revision. We urge each other on and shore each other up.
Right now, I’m working on a book manuscript, and Joe has been great with helping me with order and arrangement, and topped it off by giving me a working title. And yes, he’s often my muse. I think having met later in life, both of us with a couple of marriages behind us, has helped. In fact, we moved across country last summer and had only one major fight during the entire business. I think that says something about our ability to compromise and cope.
RRB:It does indeed, Dorianne. The two of you would be the envy of millions of couples who can barely get through morning coffee without a squabble, not to say an attempt at assassination.
I recently found a piece of yours at PoetryMagazine.com I’d like us to take a look at it. The title is “How It Will Happen, When.”
Give us some of the background to this piece if you will. Our readers are interested in knowing the process: how you start – from an event, an incident, an emotion, maybe just a moment of inspiration – and build from there.
DLL:That poem was written many years ago now and came out in my third collection, Smoke, a book informed by the death of a number of people close to me. A friend of mine was also going through the recent death of her husband – and so, this poem became a kind of elegy to our shared experience. I was seeing myself, there on the floor, as from a great distance. I also saw my friend many miles away struggling with a similar loss. I thought about what we might have in common.
I notice a typo in the poem: "for instance" should’ve been "for an instant". The typo reminds me of how important every word choice is in a poem. I remember that the poem came out fairly quickly, but that I labored over three words: ‘cup,’ ‘gate,’ and ‘wisp.’ I wanted them to be simple, but evocative. I also worked to make the objects simple, common, elemental.
Death strips us down. When you look at someone who has lost someone she loves, it’s as if you can see her bones glowing through her skin. She seems like a betrayed child, wrenched open, defenseless. I wanted to get that feeling into the piece – somehow – as well as the awakening back to life. Not to acceptance, mind you, but to that first moment of harsh awareness that leads to acceptance.
RRB:You say “A friend of mine was also going through the recent death of her husband…I was seeing myself, there on the floor, as from a great distance.”
I don’t want to seem calculated or callous, but this remark leads me to a discussion I once had with the Headmaster at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School here in Brooklyn concerning empathy. I maintained that it couldn’t be taught – that it could be learned only through first-hand experience. The concept, of course, could be taught; but not the thing in and of itself.
There wasn’t much more I could say. I was the janitor – well, the janitor’s assistant. I wasn’t being paid to offer dissenting opinions to the Headmaster, but to clean floors.
I wonder what you, as a poet, would argue pro or con – and if this second piece might shed some light on the discussion.
DLL:Maybe. And here it is – “Aphasia” (for Honeya) – then let’s consider your question in light of the poem.
"Aphasia" is from my second collection, What We Carry, and is dedicated to a friend who fell from her horse and hit her head. I’d always wanted to write a poem for her, but had been unable to find a way. Years later, I heard about the husband of a friend who’d been struck with aphasia after a stroke. This new story led me back towards the poem. I combined the stories and made a composite character of the two, then added my own imagination into the mix.
I’d been listening to Tom Waits, a song called “Putnam County,” where he sings about the “dark, warm, narcotic American night.” I loved that line and wanted to steal some of its fire for the poem. I kept having visions of the shape of Venezuela – not from a traditional map, mind you, but from an old game called “Risk” I used to play with friends. Somehow or other, I always ended up with that little oddly-shaped peachy pink country as we all threw our dice in an effort to take over the world. That made its mark on the poem as well.
Poems are often puzzles in this way – a jumble of images that come together in the mind to shape an experience. In this case, the actual experience could only be imagined, but I used what I knew well to create it. On an emotional level, I’d felt sadness and fear for my friend who was suffering from this condition; she seemed so helpless and confused. And I had to face my own fears of the same thing happening to me as I aged, complicated by the fact that I’m a poet, and language is my palate, words my keys and tools. What if I lost that?
I was talking about this the night I heard about my friend's husband, who’d had a stroke. I was taking a hot tub with a group of women friends when someone told the story. My friend Jane Hirshfield was among us, and I think she might’ve been the one who asked the question: “If you could choose only one word to use for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
I don’t remember what any of the chosen words were – except one, Jane’s, which was “Yes!” That night, I began to think about my friend in another way. I remembered how she’d seemed so content, so peaceful and calm – and I suddenly realized that I’d been the one who’d seen her as fearful and confused. The poem then became a way to reframe my memory of her. The tenderness in the poem is her tenderness: something else I wanted to capture and convey. I realized her loss of language didn’t affect the essential thing about her that I loved.
Li-Young Lee says all poems are love poems, and maybe that’s true. This is a love poem to my friend.
RRB:And a better love poem, Dorianne, I can’t imagine. Your explanation here reminds me a lot of the film “Iris” – a biography of Iris Murdoch. Quite honestly, I don’t know how closely the film adheres to Iris Murdoch’s real life. I’m not sure it entirely matters. We all live a real life. And if we’re very, very lucky, someone takes the time to write our biography. Yours, I’m sure, will be written.
Thank you, Dorianne, and goodnight.
(The following is taken, verbatim, from Poets.org – the Website of the Academy of American Poets.)
Dorianne Laux was born in Augusta, Maine, in 1952. She worked as a sanatorium cook, a gas station manager, a maid, and a donut holer before receiving a B.A. in English from Mills College in 1988.
Laux is the author of Facts About the Moon (W. W. Norton 2005), which was the recipient of the Oregon Book Award, chosen by Ai, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Her other collections include Smoke (BOA Editions, 2000); What We Carry (1994), finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Awake (1990), which was nominated for the San Francisco Bay Area Book Critics Award for Poetry.
Superman: The Chapbook was released by Red Dragonfly Press in January, 2008. With Kim Addonizio, she is the co-author of The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997). Her poems have been translated into French, Italian, Korean, Romanian and Brazilian Portuguese.
About Laux's work, the poet Tony Hoagland has said, "Her poems are those of a grown American woman, one who looks clearly, passionately, and affectionately at rites of passage, motherhood, the life of work, sisterhood, and especially sexual love, in a celebratory fashion."
Among her awards are a Pushcart Prize, an Editor's Choice III Award, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Laux has taught at the University of Oregon's Program in Creative Writing. She now lives, with her husband, poet Joseph Millar, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she serves among the faculty at North Carolina State University's MFA Program.
After the stroke all she could say
was Venezuela, pointing to the pitcher
with its bright blue rim, her one word
command. And when she drank the clear
water in and gave the glass back,
it was Venezuela again, gratitude,
maybe, or the word now simply
a sigh, like the sky in the window,
the pillows a cloudy definition
propped beneath her head. Pink roses
dying on the bedside table, each fallen
petal a scrap in the shape of a country
she'd never been to, had never once
expressed interest in, and now
it was everywhere, in the peach
she lifted, dripping, to her lips,
the white tissue in the box, her brooding
children when they came to visit,
after each kiss. And at night
she whispered it, dark narcotic
in her husband’s ear as he bent
to listen, her hands fumbling
at her buttons, her breasts,
holding them up to the light
like a gift. Venezuela, she said.
There you are, exhausted from another night of crying,
curled up on the couch, the floor, at the foot of the bed,
anywhere you fall you fall down crying, half amazed
at what the body is capable of, not believing you can cry
anymore. And there they are: his socks, his shirt, your
underwear, and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile
next to the bathroom door, and you fall down again.
Someday, years from now, things will be different:
the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows
shining, sun coming in easily now, skimming across
the thin glaze of wax on the wood floor. You’ll be peeling
an orange or watching a bird leap from the edge of the rooftop
next door, noticing how, for instance, her body is trapped
in the air, only a moment before gathering the will to fly
into the ruff at her wings, and then doing it: flying.
You’ll be reading, and for a moment you’ll see a word
you don’t recognize, a simple words like cup or gate or wisp
and you’ll ponder like a child discovering language.
Cup, you’ll say over and over until it begins to make sense,
and that’s when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead.
He’s not coming back, and it will be the first time you believe it.