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Spring/Summer 2006, Volume 22.3



Guy Lebeda

Unleashing the Comic Muse: An Interview with Robert Dana

Photo of poet Robert Dana.

The following interview was conducted over the course of a reading tour of Utah, September 24 through September 29, 2004. Our discussion ranged over Dana's long career as a poet and a teacher of creative writing, but returned again and again to the subject of Dana's latest book, The Morning of the Red Admirals (Anhinga Press, 2004).

The book is divided into three parts. Part one, "Walking the Yellow Dog," consists of 18 poems written in what might be called Dana's "usual style." This is not to suggest that there is anything "usual" about these poems, but they are similar in some ways to poems in Dana's other books: the lines are of similar lengths and are arranged together in stanzas. In other words, they behave on the page the way we might expect a "Dana poem" to behave.

Part two is a short essay called "In Panama." In this dense and compact piece Dana introduces the reader to vanessa atalanta, the butterfly for whom the book is named, and prepares us for the "surprise" that is waiting for us in part three. In the middle of this "bridge" essay, Dana tells us, "For a very long time, I've wanted a poetry that was less compositional and more improvisational. Less predictable."

In part three of The Morning of the Red Admirals, Dana makes this happen. The 12 poems that make up "Ten Thousand Wingbeats, Five Hundred Heartbeats" leap and dart all over the page. There are lines that zip all the way from margin to margin together with lines made up of a single three-letter word. The poems in this section seem to mimic the flight of the Red Admiral, completely improvisational, unpredictable, never repeating themselves.

"I don't think the book contains any perfect poems, but that's all right," Dana says in the "In Panama" essay. He quotes Robert Lowell: "The achievement of perfection is the road to silence." Dana concludes, "I'm not ready for silence yet."

Robert Dana was born in Boston in 1929. Living in Iowa for many years, he recently retired as Poet-in-Residence at Cornell College, Mt. Vernon, Iowa. The author of ten books of poetry including Starting Out for the Difficult World (Harper & Row, 1987), Hello, Stranger: Beach Poems (Anhinga Press, 1996), and Summer (Anhinga Press, 2000), he has served as distinguished visiting poet at five universities and was awarded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowships in poetry in 1985 and 1993. Mr. Dana's work won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award for poetry in 1989. In September of 2004, Dana was named Poet Laureate of Iowa.

Read poetry by Robert Dana published in this issue of Weber Studies.  Other work by Robert Dana  previously published in Weber Studies can be seen at: Vol. 15.2.


Photo of Guy Lebeda.

Guy Wade Lebeda writes about art, the environment, and outdoor topics. His work has appeared in publications such as Tallahassee Magazine, Capital City, The Running Journal, the University of Wyoming's Alumnews Magazine, Laramie Daily Boomerang, Valley Horse Journal, Crossroads Anthology, Salt Lake City Magazine, and Land That We Love: Americans Talk About America's Public Lands.

Lebeda also writes humor and is the author of a comedy radio script that was performed on National Public Radio by Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion.

Currently, Lebeda lives in Salt Lake City where he is the Literature Program Coordinator for the Utah Arts Council. Previously, he was the Literature Program Director for the Wyoming Arts Council.

You've been writing and publishing poems for 50 years, and in that long career you've been reviewed and interviewed many times. Is there anything you wished you would have been asked about your work?


I wish somebody had raised the question of humor in my poems, or the presence of satire in them. It's very sly, and sort of understated, but it's there. It has the usual function of comedy, of course, and that is to relieve tension.


How do you deal with the danger that the presence of humor in the poem might undercut, or trivialize, the premise of the work?


I never worry about that, because it's played in such a minor key. Most of the time, it is a sort of an undertone in the poem. Well, that's not quite true; there are some poems [in The Morning of the Red Admirals] like "Ecstasy" and "Five Card Draw" which are more or less outright comic poems. But that's not what we're talking about here.

"Mercy, Perhaps" begins with this really grotesque satirical portrait of a "West Coast romance," which quickly modulates into its extreme opposite: a kind of apocalyptic vision of slaughter. And then that fades out into the more commonplace world.

So what I'm really doing there is establishing two disparate points within the landscape of the poem, against which the other part of the poem—the "normal" handling of the theme—can be measured.


This is the poem that you've characterized as your "9/11 poem" but which you wrote before 9/11. How did that come about?


When 9/11 came along, I had already written the nine lines: "Elsewhere, the world and its children grow more murderous; the blood-soaked beast dervishing in spiritual drag in every broken dusty, public square; damning its offspring unto the lost generation."


Did you think you'd had some kind of premonition?


Well, there has always been this notion of the poet as prophet, and you think about that in a situation like this one. But I don't think that was it. The conditions for 9/11 were already in the air. And that apocalyptic passage was simply registering what was in the air and had been in the air since the Middle
East exploded.


Did you deliberately introduce the humor of this poem, which is clearer here than in some other examples of your humor, into this poem with such a serious subject?


No, you couldn't. My other 9/11 poem, "This Time," was written after 9/11. It begins with a man sitting in his chair, and there's a sudden click of lightning out of what has been a clear blue sky. And that brings into his mind the thought, "They've got a nuke." You couldn't introduce any humor into that poem. Well, maybe a superior poet could (laughs), but I couldn't without trivializing the very serious subject matter.


At a recent reading you mentioned in passing how bad you think most 9/11 poems are, and in fact even mentioned a specific poem that appeared in The New Yorker, written by a very famous poet.


Yes (laughs). He's also a friend of mine.


I happen to agree with you, and I think a lot of readers agree with you, when it comes to the 9/11 poems. My question has two parts: First, why is it that so many of these poems are bad? And, second, what is to be done by the poets?


The motive—the emotion—that lies behind these poems is certainly genuine. Nobody can contest that. But, I think the fault of many of these poems is that they suffer from not having been, as Wordsworth said, "recollected in tranquility." The poet doesn't have enough distance from the subject of the poem. Of course, I don't know where my old friend was when he wrote that poem—and maybe it doesn't matter—but the World Trade Center was probably a part of New York that he treasured. I'm not sure he thought that it was great architecture, or a symbol of anything. But it was part of the skyline that made New York New York. Maybe he should have waited. But maybe he couldn't wait. Maybe it would be a long time before he might achieve the tranquility that Wordsworth was talking about that would enable him to produce a truly great poem on the subject.

He didn't have the luxury that I had of being far away from the site, living in a tranquil environment, with no passionate attachment to New York. So his way and my way of handling the subject were radically different.


Let's get back to the idea of humor in the poem. We talked about the dangers of humor trivializing the serious subject of a poem, but what about the opposite danger? Do you worry that if the humor is too subtle it will go unnoticed?


Absolutely. It has largely gone unnoticed; that's why we are having this conversation (laughs). It's not that I've had lots of critical attention, but my books do get reviewed here and there, and I can't think of a single reviewer who ever remarked on the presence of humor in my poems.

I think in general, at least until the appearance of Billy Collins on the scene, there hasn't been much humor in
American poetry.


Who, then, were your models for this? Do you look to other poets—perhaps poets in the canon—whose use of humor was particularly effective?


Well, of course there is John Berryman. He would be the monumental one. The Dream Songs is really a comic epic. Berryman is brilliant in his insights into American literature, especially into the period we have lived through since the 1930s. He recognized that this is not an heroic period. You are not going to write any kind of heroic poetry—let alone an epic—in the 20th century, or the 21st century, unless it is a comic epic.

He took an indigenous American art form, the minstrel show with its three separate characters, and used that idea to structure The Dream Songs. And this enabled him to use the most elevated kind of English and the most demotic kind of English (black American dialect) and everything in between. And, of course, Henry Pussycat is a comic figure; he's the comic hero of The Dream Songs.

So, this is the gold mine of comic poetry of the 20th century as far as I'm concerned.


Didn't you study under Berryman at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop?


Oh, yes. But he was a long way from The Dream Songs at that point. He had just finished Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, which everyone had difficulty understanding because it's a tortured kind of structure. It's difficult; it's eclectic and difficult. It was widely recognized as a very inventive piece of work. I'm not sure it was regarded as a masterpiece. It was a high-water mark for Berryman's work at the time.

As a teacher, John was very strong on formal poetry—from Shakespeare right up into the 20th century.


As your teacher, did Berryman ever pick up one of your poems and say, "Dana, you need to put some humor in this!"


No. What he did was take a poem of mine that was kind of indebted to Edward Arlington Robinson, and he scrawled some lines of it on the board. He quickly scanned it, slashing where the accents fell, and then he shouted, "Dana, do you know what this is? This is metrical chaos!" (Laughs loudly.)

But John himself was not very funny back then. All those early poems, the "Ball Poems," and "In Memory of Delmore Schwartz," those are serious poems, unrelieved by comedy.

The comic enters John's work with 77 Dream Songs. But he was also writing sonnets at this time. He was writing prayers at the end of his life, like "Master of the Snow Flake." He was writing serious poems with his left hand, while at the same time he was writing comic poems with his right hand. And John's great master, the writer he put above all others, was Shakespeare—who did the same. He was able to write comedies and tragedies, and he was able to introduce, as comic relief, comic figures into his tragedies. Or more. The Fool in King Lear, of course, is much more than
just comic relief.


So, when you look back at your own body of work, did you, like Berryman, start out very serious and only later develop that humorous strain in your poetry?




Was that an organic growth, or did you say to yourself, "Look, I've got to lighten up"?


(Laughs.) Yes and no. It was both. The poets I knew growing up didn't go past the 19th century. I knew a little bit of Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley; Edgar Allen Poe was my favorite because his morbidity matched my own. Those were my earliest exposures to poetry. Later, when I was in college, I encountered the Moderns: Frost and Robinson and Auden and Spender and the usual gang. And, with the exception of Auden—Auden can be funny—these were serious poets.

Actually, I wasn't influenced by John Berryman very much at all when I studied with him, except that I learned a lot about what not to be doing, and also what might be possible and how much damned work it was going to take.

Berryman's influence was to come much, much later—I'm thinking about Some Versions of Silence, The Power of the Visible and In a Fugitive Season. My earliest poems were heavily influenced by Lowell and by Yeats. It wasn't until relatively recently that I sort of unleashed my comic muse. I said to myself, "Why not have some funny poems, some amusing poems?" As long as they are good poems, why not? Within the context of serious poems you can have a humorous undertone, a comic note sounded somewhere low down in the poem.


Do you have any concerns about being evaluated or compared with the other poets of your generation?


No, I don't think about that; you can't—it is unproductive.


Why is that?


I'd say that I've never been part of that "Golden Pipeline" that runs from Boston to New York to Washington, which is where most of the power is in the literary world. Those people barely know that anything exists west of the Alleghenies.

It's amazing that Ted Kooser got to be poet laureate. Somebody west of New York? Unheard of! People ask me, "Is he really that good?" Ted Kooser has been a good poet for years and years and years. He deserves this appointment. And the fact that somebody who is not from Boston, New York, Washington, Virginia, etc. was selected poet laureate is a triumph. It is something to be treasured, and it was totally unpredictable—unexpected.


I think your record speaks for itself. You've published 10 books of poetry with very fine presses, and individual poems of yours have appeared in nearly all of the first-rate literary journals. It's clear that the question of the quality of your work is settled.


Well, perhaps…but I have a number of people to thank for that. You know, I learned something from my experience with Harper & Row, back when it was Harper & Row and not just another of Mr. [Rupert] Murdoch's toys. My editor there was Ted Solotaroff, and he was one of the three best editors I've ever had in my life. He was an editor in the old meaning of the word. The title for my book Starting Out for the Difficult World was his idea. He said, "Since the opening poem is a very strong poem, why don't we just use that as the title and call the book `Starting Out for the Difficult World'?" And I knew the minute he said it that he was dead right, that I had missed the real title of the book.

I was on my way to Europe once, and I was stopping in New York. Ted was always wonderful when I came to town. He'd say, "Call me. I'll take you out to lunch." He would introduce you to this person and that person, people who would be working on your book. On this occasion he wanted me to meet the woman who was going to be designing my cover. So I stopped by to see him, at his insistence. He wanted to go over my book page by page by page. So, after lunch we went to his office, and he stopped all his phone calls, spread the manuscript out on his desk, made me drag my chair around so we sat side-by-side, and then we went through the manuscript. There were a couple of poems where he stopped and said, "Are you really in love with this poem? Are you married to this poem? Because I don't think it's quite up with the rest of them." I could see his point, so we
dropped them. Then, in another place, he said, "I don't understand your use of this word right here. Do you mean this, or do you mean that, or do you mean the other? Maybe you need a different word there." We went through the whole book like that. Hardly any editors will do that anymore. He was marvelous.

One night, after the book came out, Peg and I had gone to bed, and the phone rang. A voice said, "This is M.L. Rosenthal, and I'm calling to tell you that you are the winner of the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize for poetry." I was totally speechless. Then he went on to say, "The award is $1,000, and we will pay your way to come to New York where you'll give a reading at New York University, etc., etc."

When I thought about this later, I thought it was Ted's doing. He must have called up Rosenthal and said, "I've got a book that you must read. This guy deserves to be a candidate for your award. You have got to look at this book." If Ted hadn't pushed the book, nothing would have happened. So I think it's your editor; if he's not everything, he's a large part of what happens to you. I think if Ted hadn't resigned from Harper & Row, I'd still be with them. Ted helped me a great deal.


Where did he go when he left Harper & Row? Are you still in touch with him?


Yes. I send him all of my books. Long periods of time might go by, but he always writes me back. He will have read the book several times, and he will have very interesting observations about it. I knew he would not like my new book, The Morning of the Red Admirals, and I was very interested to hear what he would say about it.


What did he say?


His observations about part one and part three were very interesting to me. He loved almost everything in part one. He thought it was right up there with the very best of my work. He said, "These are poems about our lives and the people we know. They are full of insight and compassion, and they are extremely well written. The poems in part three are interesting, but they aren't about any of those things. They are about the way your mind works."

Actually, Denise Low said something similar to that in the review she wrote about the book for the Kansas City Star. She said it was "like watching the poet's mind working."

But, Ted is great. He has social concerns, so he loves poetry that deals with the social fabric of ordinary life, and the poems of part three do not focus on that; they focus on the way my mind works (laughs).


How did you feel about his remarks?


Well…I'm mulling it over. I don't see why I can't do both—why I can't write both kinds of poem? The second kind of poem is never going to appeal to Ted. The first kind of poem is always going to appeal to Ted. And I suppose the opposite is true for other readers.

I do believe that the improvisational poems do both things at once. The lives of common people are a very important part of the fabric of those poems. Is there more warp than there is woof? I don't know; maybe I just need to adjust the loom.


We talked earlier about how you've been publishing poems for almost 50 years, yet it has only been relatively recently that you've been using humor in your work, "unleashing the comic muse" is how you phrased it. Why do you suppose that is? Especially since I've always thought of you as a pretty humorous person … a guy who likes a joke and knows how to tell a joke.


Maybe that's true. Maybe I kid myself into thinking I am more serious than I am. I'm sure you're right. When I was a kid, there was always a part of me that was the jester, putting burning cowpies on people's porches, and tipping over outhouses on Halloween. But that part of my humor was social aggression, paying back a society that was my enemy.


Yet I don't really see that kind of aggression in the poems.


Well, let's consider my poem, "Mercy, Perhaps." It opens with the guy who is about to marry one of the Doublemint Twins. That's like saying, "I live in a culture that is so corrupt that it is comical!" (Laughs.) And its values are unspeakably banal. And more than that—as it becomes more corrupt and more banal, it finally becomes murderous and dangerous.

There's another poem of mine in which I say to the reader, "Yes, I'm still your old opposer." (Laughs.) So, maybe there is aggression in my humor.


You said earlier that the reason you feel free to introduce humor into your poems now is that you feel you've reached a level where you can do anything you want in a poem.


On a given day (laughs).


As you look back over your career as a creative artist, do you see a certain arc in your development? Were you growing in this direction, back in those early books when you were so serious?


No. I would call this a new development: the introduction of a new element that enriches the work, renders it more complex, and—I hope—renders it more true. And "truth" is something you work at in some form. You hope to gain some kind of reputation for that—truth telling.

But just look at the poets, whose work was so marvelous, who have practically disappeared: Richard Hugo, for example, and Bill Stafford, who was everybody's favorite and wrote many poems—and wrote the obligatory six distinctive poems that William Carlos Williams talked about. And yet if you ask the kids in a college poetry class, they've never heard of him.


Do you view that as a sort of tragedy?


Yes and no. I've come to believe that being remembered was never the name of the game. The name of the game is making the poem, telling the story, writing the novel, and letting the chips fall where they may.

As much as I am in the public eye now—and have been off and on for various reasons—I am not a public person. When I was growing up, for example, I spent more time alone in the woods than I did at the dinner table, or in school. (Laughs.) I was alone … even when I was with a bunch of people. I think I prefer it that way. It was a self-protective strategy I developed in childhood. The only way you'll get hurt in the wilderness is if you do it to yourself, or you are unlucky.

Even now, when I'm at home, I'm something of a hermit. I don't go into Iowa City, which is only four minutes away. There aren't many people back there I would call up to have lunch. They're all much younger than I am. What would we talk about? Plus, they are all working, and busy with their families. They don't have time to go to lunch with this old poet (laughs), but I get along fine—and I enjoy all my close relationships.


But now you've been appointed the poet laureate of Iowa, and that's a highly public job. How does that make you feel?


It's kind of scary. I don't know what kind of people will be contacting me. I don't know how they will react to what I have to say. You have heard me in my talks with audiences: I don't "pad" my comments. I'm really trying to say what is true about my craft. If people only want to hear some kind of "niceness," then I'm probably not going to be a very popular poet laureate. (Laughs.) I really don't know what to expect.

But, I don't want my tenure in this position to be blessed with total neglect. I wouldn't like it if no one wanted me to come to talk to them or come to read poems to them. I think that would be sad for the art.


Do you have a plan, or a sketch, in mind about what you want your tenure as Iowa's poet laureate to look like?


Yes. I have two aims: I would like to be the person who initiates a program that helps teachers who want to teach poetry teach it better than they do now. I'd like to get a program going and funded, perhaps by the National Endowment for the Arts. Dana Gioia has stated that he wants more readers for literature, and the way to get more readers is to get teachers who can interest their students in reading poetry. That would be the greatest thing I could do with the job.

Another thing would be to help my long-suffering publisher [Rick Campbell of Anhinga Press] by selling lots of books. He's been very loyal and doesn't seem to mind if this book or that book doesn't sell as well as we'd hoped. So, for a year or two, I'd very much like that not to be the case. I'd love for Anhinga to have to bring out second editions of everything.

But, I have no idea if any of that will happen. People say they love poetry, but they tend not to buy poetry books. You know what Charles Olson said, don't you?


Not offhand.


"If you say you love poetry, but you don't buy any books of poetry, you're a son of a bitch!" (Laughs loudly.)


Well, then, I'm going to continue buying them.


If for no other reason than to save the reputation of our mothers. (Laughs.) But I suppose there will always be those willing to support poets in some way or another—at least I like to believe it—even if it's difficult to bank on it. (Laughs.)


There's that muse again.


I suppose so—I suppose so.


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