RUSTY TALK WITH NORMAN DUBIE
Dominique Bernier-Cormier: Congratulations on being the International Winner for the Griffin Poetry Prize.
You grew up in Vermont, which borders Quebec, and one of the first poems in The Quotations of Bone actually references the province. Could you tell us about your relationship to Canada and Canadian poetry? Was that proximity ever felt, literarily or otherwise?
Norman Dubie: I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in northern New England—in fact, in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. My people are from the Stowe region of the Green Mountains and, again specifically, Waterberry Center. My great grandmother’s mother was, in her language, “a whole-blooded Indian”—she was in an unusual marriage to a French-Canadian trapper and was considered to be a holy woman. This was on my mother’s side where there also exists under my mother’s maiden name, Morrill, an endless line of wonderful scoundrels, including a Senator Morrill, a Big Jim Fisk, and an indentured servant who virtually came over the pond with the pilgrims. All flower compacts aside, there are with my father’s family a wonderful congregation of Welch and French-Canadian quarrymen. My paternal grandfather indeed required that we speak French at the supper table, which delighted me to no end. Sadly, he passed late in my sixth year of a devastating coronary. Now I should leap forward and say that my dearest friends in high school were all French-speaking and I remember them as much for their spontaneous, colorful adjuncts of language as for what was coincidentally their brilliant athleticism. We often made journeys up into the Laurentian Mountains as well as to Montreal. I don’t think I’ll share any details with you of our visits to the magical city. When we went on these trips, our parents always believed we had chaperones and, of course, we didn’t. I have memories of fishnet stockings that should probably place me in my father’s generation. So much for lost youth!
DBC: Can you tell us a bit about The Quotations of Bone as a collection? Were there specific concerns, ideas, circumstances that framed its writing?
ND: These poems were written very much in the order in which they appear in my table of contents. So it began with this very painful, long poem that in a sideways manner spoke of a dear friend’s family and how the history of that family turned on a brother’s death in Vietnam and the father’s suicide. This poem, with shocking folds in time, was also entangled with a dear student who had just left Tempe for Colorado where he committed suicide. I consider the balance of the book a miscellany of lyrics. It was never really like that—please remember that I said I wrote these poems in almost the exact order in which they appear to the reader. I love making books. I love making the individual poem. This miscellany of lyrics was written to a great extent during a long winter when I was convalescing from a radical insult to my left knee. I was, during this period, reading from old books to my youngest friends Mari and Mila Mestaz and this children’s hour, as it were, became infectious for the poems. The whole experience forces me to be open to the imagination of children. This leads to a surprising mischief and surprisingly old Greek tropes.
DBC: Your poems are often described as “political,” which means nothing and everything at once. How do you define the political in poetry, and in your own work? How do you respond to this labeling? Do you think it implies an intention that’s not necessarily there?
ND: These poems you’re referring to, clearly wrote me! In other words, they arrived involuntarily and are not willful compositions. This sort of work is acceptable to me. The other implied proposal—forced placard speech—is not!
DBC: Time and space work in fascinating ways in your poetry. There’s a freedom of movement across those planes. As if moving from Beethoven’s house in 19th-century Germany to the backseat of a Mercedes in L.A. was as easy as opening a door and walking into a different room. Is that how your poetic brain naturally works, or is that freedom of movement something you consciously cultivate?
ND: Your intuition here is absolutely correct. I’ve had the privilege over the last thirty years to be in the company of Trappist monks and High lamas from Tibet. So there is in my functioning consciousness a ready gift for bi-location. There are large, scary episodes and lovely episodes in dream yoga. Then, also, in a secret female tradition of CHOD one becomes actually ubiquitous within all possible histories, all possible futures—personal, mythologized, and other. Point of view, in my dreamlife, is also very unpredictable. Rapid shifts in consciousness, for me, are not just a result of meditation or the making of poems. Yes, this sort of phenomena that sometimes find me writing poetry is kept honest by formal obligations, say, such as rhyme, meter, and stanza construction. What’s often disquieting about this experience is that I may see a horrific earthquake bringing a hospital to ruin in Haiti and then discover the very scene in detail with an ancient autoclave on CNN just hours after the premonition visited me.
All I know is that in this creation we are immersed in infinite mind.
DBC: There seems to be a deliberate dismantling of conventional, prosaic logic in The Quotations of Bone (as there is, generally, in poetry). At the same time, your poems often center around (historical) narratives. They tell stories. How do you reconcile that strong storytelling impulse with the rejection of traditional narratives?
ND: Perhaps through the medium of very smart readers. However, are there not wonderful, leaping narratives of ochre deer on the walls of Lascaux? This seems a very traditional narrative. Ancestral storytelling is wildly impulsive and strangely vehicular. No?
DBC: One of my favorite aspects of your poetry is the hyper-specificity of your metaphors and similes. From “The Mercy Seat”: “the living run around, not aimlessly, but / Like two women in white dresses gathering / Hymnbooks out on a lawn with the first / Drops of rain already falling on them.” Or “The Quotations of Bone”: “these winter tapestries focus like the white fields on a red boar draped / from a long pole over the shoulders / of peasant men deploring / the children who are skating in the flooded medieval graveyards”. The narrative, or scene, of the simile is often as strong and developed as the original one. Can you talk about how and why you use this (hyper)specificity?
ND: It is routinely almost a form of journalism—with expected detachments. I’m merely describing what I see. But my mind, of course, makes rhythmic demands on such passages and so, oftentimes, there will be a musical discipline that alters what I believe I am seeing. This can create an obvious tension, which I am obligated to transcend—such moments are especially fun while making poems. Maybe not so much for my reader!
DBC: Writing poetry sometimes seems like a religious impulse, in that it is an attempt at ordering the chaos of the world. At the same time, poetry often tries to disorder, to disrupt, to dismantle traditional structures. Do you see poetry as an attempt to order or disrupt? As a Tibetan Buddhist, do you see any connections between religious and poetic impulses?
ND: I’m thinking now more of Rimbaud than of, say, the Tibetan saint and poet Milarepa—we think commonly of our five senses as being enabling, but actually a great deal is being filtered out and denied to us as experience through our five or six senses. Mindfulness practice, in the tradition of, say, a kundalini yoga, overcomes many of these filters and can leave one exposed to so much experience that practitioners have been known to go mad. They also inflate, and think they’ve become small gods. Frankly, in the writing and in the meditation, there must be acquired skills, a formidable preparation over decades, and then there needs to be an extra sensibility that says this far, but no farther. These states of mind are much more heavily protected when I’m writing as opposed to when I’m sitting. Perhaps this is because, while writing poetry, I am truly lost to the labor of the right hand of the devoted clerk or scribe.
DBC: Reading The Quotations of Bone, I sometimes found myself disoriented by the abundance of very specific images and the dream-logic. But I loved it. I like poems that spin me around and make me lose my balance. How do you manage to keep the reader curious, perplexed, without alienating them? How do you make the reader stumble but not fall, the trees spin but the vision not blur?
ND: Well, I think people testify to both experiences with my work. That is, testifying to falling or to somehow gyroscopically surviving the lyric vertigo of my narrative poem. Either way, they probably get what’s coming to them. No, I’m joking of course. Indeed, I am hedging here. I think over time, important art is most often made by artists who are pleasing themselves first and above all else—then if they please others as well, that’s certainly the gravy. Even as an undergraduate, I would say to friends that the poems I was writing were the poems I wanted to read, poems that no one would write for me!
DBC: What and who is exciting in poetry right now?
ND: I am always reluctant to answer this question because I inevitably fail at answering it. (Then, there are friends who never speak to me again.) Currently, I’m enthralled with work in manuscript by Sam Pereira and David St. John. Like many American poets in this summer’s reading, I am pouring through the collected poems of Adrienne Rich. What a great miraculous body of work is there. I’m also taken up now completely with the recent work of two of my former students Sarah Vap and Dexter Booth. My friend here, Alberto Ríos, has just published a book with a long love poem in it that I found completely captivating just last night. I had a happy night Sunday reading Thomas Hardy. This is a little awkward. Though I’ve never personally been introduced to Tracy K. Smith, and we’ve never corresponded—she was a juror for the Griffin Award this year—I’ve believed for several years now that she is by far and away the most talented poet of her generation. I’ve been working my whole life with very gifted twenty-somethings and there’s no poverty of great poetry in my life. Forgive me, but I could go on forever answering this question.
DBC: What’s next for you?
ND: I have two open manuscripts. One is called The Egg Clock and plays sensibly out of The Quotations of Bone. I’m also recovering from a sabbatical where I wrote, what was for me, a deliberate and serious work about aging and death—it is called Robert Schumann is Mad Again. I’m once more testing the limits of the lyric, as my old friend Marvin Bell wants to say of me, and I do suspect that in this particular manuscript I don’t even know yet what the full compass of anxieties are that push the music and story. But doing the work was scary and great fun. I have real affection for President Obama, but things are not rosy. I’m afraid this country and this planet are in very deep trouble. And there are certain birds circling above our heads.
Description from the publisher:
Norman Dubie's distinctive voice and color-saturated imagination have propelled his poetry for more than forty years. This collection confronts viciousness in its many forms - the exploitation of Chinese laborers, the splitting of Germany, humankind's headlong ecological disaster - linking the seemingly unconnected and dismissing boundaries that define problems as exclusively personal, social, or historical.
A Beethoven String Quartet
of course— birdsong. More
birdsong. We descend the common stairs,
foghorns, and now a reversal
where stairs are ascending
through us. The repetitions
of near human voices
that are almost disquieting, save
for the subscription
of the Esterházy ballroom…
Mirror glass. Brief foghorns again.
Someone working in the small orchard
while humming in summer. Scampering mice, then
the dark viola who eats them.
Rusty Talk Editor:
The Rusty Toque interviews published writers, filmmakers, editors, publishers on writing, inspiration, craft, drafting, revision, editing, publishing, and community.
Unless otherwise stated all interviews are conducted by email.
Our goal is to introduce our readers to new voices and to share the insights of published/ produced writers which we hope will encourage and inspire those new to writing.
Andrew F. Sullivan
Brian Joseph Davis
Dina Del Bucchia
Griffin Poetry Prize
Ivan E. Coyote
Jacob Mcarthur Mooney
Jeffrey St. Jules
Jennifer L. Knox
Michael V. Smith
M. NourbeSe Philip
Short Fiction Writers
Ulrikka S. Gernes