Wednesday, August 5, 2009
"Litany's Citizen: An Interview with Michael Dumanis" by Philip Metres
An Interview with Michael Dumanis” (2007)
By Philip Metres
(This interview was taken at John Carroll University in October 2007, as part of a conversation with undergraduate writing students. Special thanks to Rhiannon Lathy for her help transcribing. Below, Metres' questions will appear in italics, Dumanis' answers in regular font.)
One of the things I find so interesting about your book My Soviet Union is the way in which it is driven by hectic language play and yet is pervaded by a melancholy. I’m thinking of poems like “Directions to the Brothel:” you have words then also lonely/You have dark you have always/You have death so they tell you/You have breath and the faces of babies/You were once inside you along with whatever.”
The poems are almost a way out of the melancholy. I have been called a maximalist because of how I try to pack as many things as possible into a poem. I feel that the engine that you create in your poem is what drives you into some kind of communication with somebody else. I’ve always been interested in litanies, and I have a lot in My Soviet Union—poems that gather energy through repetition of certain words and certain structures. What I love about litanies is that a litany staves off death. Litanies push against solitude by not ending or by extending themselves as far as they can to avert a kind of ending.
For me, poetry is inherently a verbal act, a sonic act, a musical act. I came to poetry through a Russian father who would stand up in the middle of dinner and pick up a volume of Robert Burns’ poetry in Russian and make us all sit there and listen to him declaim it. The poem rarely had anything to do with what we were talking about, but the tone of voice that he was using had everything to do with it. I always thought of poetry as creating this container or creating this machine made out of words. And I think that resists melancholy. I associate minimalism with melancholy, with silence. To me, poetry is the rage that forms on behalf of the speaker in resisting the surrounding darkness.
There are a lot of examples of writers who do this, who mix humor and comic disjunctiveness with very grave moments, with moments of despair. If you look at Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, it’s comedy in the face of an existential purgatory, right? I think No Exit, the Sartre play, is pretty funny, and funny at its most disturbing moments.
Can you say more about your Russian immigrant background, and how that impacted your poetry?
We didn’t leave Russia, we were in the Soviet Union, and now the Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. So I come from a country that doesn’t exist. So the citizenship my parents renounced when they sent their passports into the Soviet Embassy in Washington back in 1981, they renounced their citizenship of something that no longer exists. Growing up, I would feel a conflicting set of identities—Soviet Immigrant identity, and the American identity of a kid in Buffalo. There’s also the very vague Jewish identity of my parents, who as refugees never really thought about being Jewish. Once they got here, they suddenly thought about being very Jewish, but I never quite felt comfortable with it. As Soviet Jews, they would say, “well we’re not Russian,” because Russians are the government, and “we’re not Jewish by religion, we’re Jewish by nationality.” So I went to Hebrew school, not to learn anything about the religion, but because you’d go to an Italian school if you were Italian.
This is going to sound like a mini-victimization narrative, but I grew up in the 1980s at a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, which hit its peak right before Gorbachev came to power. I was in third grade being chased around a bush in Buffalo, by several kids in my class shouting, “U.S.A! U.S.A.! U.S.S.R., GO HOME!” Russia was very active in the American imagination, and it was very hard to meet anyone without their bringing up the fact that I was Russian. I remember visiting the school psychologist and the first thing he said was, “so what do you think about this miniseries ‘Amerika’ on TV right now?” (a show about the destruction of the United States by the Soviet Union). I constantly would be asked about Red Dawn, a similar movie. I was thrust into this, as a kid, not really understanding what was going on. I was very eager to assimilate, I was always proud of being able to really eliminate any trace of an accent. Or to graft on the accent of whatever area I happened to be living in. For years, I would try to avoid any mention of anything that could point someone to knowing I was Russian, or to knowing that I was an immigrant even, where I felt that that was irrelevant and immaterial and an accident as opposed to poetic identity. I guess I’ve changed my mind about that over that past few years.
So how did you find your way to literature, and poetry in particular?
I read a lot when I was growing up, usually books translated into Russian. Literature was definitely a cultural value in my house. My parents’ background was in the sciences, but there was a definite sense that literature was an important thing. For Russians, literature is not a vocation, it’s a hobby, it’s an avocation for people who are in the sciences. We had a lot of books and most of them were in Russian. So I you know, when I was bored, since we didn’t have a TV for a few years, I would try to read what I could read… and poetry was held up as much as any other kind of literary genre.
I’m kind of mortified remembering this but when I was in eighth grade, I had to give a presentation—it could be a speech or a monologue of some sort. My father insisted that my presentation be a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, a terrible ballad called “The Secret of Heather Ale,” about honor and valor and the destruction of the Picts by the Scots. And I did it, right in front of my class and nobody knew what I was talking about. Having to memorize this really bad nineteenth century ballad, I knew it was poetry by its sound. Because obviously it wasn’t the content.
I happened to go to a high school with a really good creative writing class. I didn’t think I was very good, but I went to Johns Hopkins, which has a creative writing major and thought, I’m going to major in writing, because I can’t imagine what else I would do. Honestly it was like the last major on the list. At the time, Hopkins made you check off a major in order to give you an advisor when you entered. So I signed up for it, and I thought, well, I’m obviously not going to be good enough to do this. I had this definite idol worship of writers. I thought I’d do this for a while and when I couldn’t do it anymore, maybe go into publishing or editing.
And just by luck, a poet that I loved when I was in high school came to teach at Hopkins: Mark Strand.
I was miserable in college, and I didn’t do all that well for the first couple of years. I went out of my way to just get by. Then, I went into Strand’s class—it was this very old-school class where you’d have thirty-five people in the room, and you’d get up recite your poem and he’d tell you what he thought. I was in awe of him. He’s very Clint Eastwood-like. He was a wonderful teacher and I was very cocky. I remember walking up to him and saying I don’t really want to be a class with thirty five people; can we do an independent study? And he said, you know what, for you, yeah. And I didn’t realize that he had just agreed to meet with me once a week for an hour and expected one or more poems every time. Often I would come in and he wouldn’t like what I wrote and he would cast it to the side and say, I don’t want to talk about this. And my goal became, please Mark Strand. So I would go home and write other poems. Then, suddenly, he wanted to talk to me about grad school. That was my real formative experience with studying writing.
I remember asking him what I should read for the independent study and he said, read all of John Ashbery, read all of Jorie Graham, read all of Wallace Stevens, and nothing else, and when you’re done with the Wallace Stevens, go back to the John Ashbery and go through that cycle again. Comments he made I now catch myself saying to students, such as “when you’re writing a poem, don’t worry about the ideas, the ideas will come.” The words are important the ideas are not important when you’re writing. “Don’t worry about making sense.” And “the first line in your poem gets the reader’s attention; it’s the second line of the poem that really holds the reader in.”
I did the semester with him and by the end of that semester, every poem I wrote was in the portfolio that I sent to grad school.
Which writers did you idolize back then?
I think anyone you idolize when you’re in high school or college you continue to idolizing at some level. I remember reading Slaughterhouse-Five in Russian before reading it in English. I don’t think I ever really liked anything else by Vonnegut, but that shaped me. When I was in college, I started reading Wallace Stevens and John Berryman for the first time. I loved Berryman. You look at photos of him and you think, he looks kind of homeless. There’s a famous photo of Berryman and Lowell at an Academy of American Poets reading, and Lowell looks very conservative and prim and proper and Berryman has his hands up in the air and his beard off to the side and he’s clearly ranting about something. And I always loved that image of him. In terms of his poems, The Dream Songs fractures his persona into three, where he speaks as Henry, Henry Pussycat is a character he created… he speaks as this kind of Death figure, Mr. Bones, or superego figure, Mr. Bones, and as an “I.” That split of persona is very interesting to me. That’s an example by the way of a poet who I think is very funny in expressing his despair while being quite formal and quite attentive to meter and syllable and the line.
My sense of what is real is comes to life with an early memory of reading Gogol’s “The Nose.” In it, a man accidentally cuts off his nose in a shaving accident, and the nose takes on a life of its own. The nose starts traveling through the city in a carriage and casting himself as this very important figure while the protagonist is nose-less. That kind of weird sense of villainy really appealed to me when I was growing up.
I do see your work in that kind of fabular tradition—Gogol, Vonnegut, Berryman. What do you hope to give in terms of permission to writers reading your book?
I think that a poem can do anything as long as it sets up its own rules. You know, that I don’t like putting any restriction on a writer.
How do you create the rules for each of your poems?
When I was a student what I was most invested in was doing the things that I hated. If I came across a word I couldn’t stand seeing in a poem, I would find a way to use it in a poem and like how I used it. If I was really resistant to a writer, I would imitate that writer, because I knew that by the time I imitated that writer, enough of me would filter in and I would just be using the ghost of their poem. I would give myself permission to write on certain topics that I wouldn’t have been able to write about without those kinds of imitations.
Now your question was a little different than that. I’m interested in the reader reacting to a series of effects of a poem. I think that a big struggle in teaching poetry from the 1950s on is to get students to read poetry not necessarily as a product but as a process. To not have people think, I don’t understand this poem because I don’t get the narrative through-line on it, but to have people look at every individual effect and to appreciate the sum of the effects; to appreciate the architecture of something, how you attach one part of the building or house of your poem to the rest of it. I want people to hear it. I want people to be able to look at the subject matter of the poem in a different way than they did before they read the poem.
Given the fact that you don’t rely on “traditional” forms and given the fact that you often don’t have a linear sense of narrative, how do you find a way to create sort of central organizing principle around which you can build these poems? For example, today we read “Professional Extra” in class and noted the powerful music of its amphibrachs, and its imagination of this subjectivity of periphery—which is to say, how to imagine oneself as peripheral and yet also part of the big picture. Do you find that the poems come to being in different ways? Is there always some kind of central question around which the whole thing accrues?
I think it all goes back to creating a speaker who you want to listen to. I would think of myself writing this book as mainly a ventriloquist, where I created every poem as a dummy I’m speaking through. Let’s say that I’ve been told that I don’t have a unified voice, and I think, well I do have a unified voice, I’m just picking up different dummies to speak through, but creating a dummy you want to listen to. A voice you want to listen to. I think of my poems as very performative and very boisterous. I’m always aware of an audience—asking myself, how will this resonate? What is the effect of the small line? I see it as a performance. It’s not, I’m trying to express something, what is the best way to express it? It’s, I’ve been given the stage, I have to earn my keep. And I feel like there’s an element of that through my work. I’m very interested, maybe more than I should be in my reader. How will the reader react to something? In terms of setting up rules, I think that I am setting up somewhat metrical rules. I know as I’m starting a poem, what was the breaking of the stanzas, or if this was going to be one long thing, or I’m going to be very plain-spoken here, I’m going to be very arch here. I’m mixing registers most of the time. But I think of it as musical composition also, a composition of instrumental music. I’m trying to align various moods, various tones, and various sounds in a way that will interest somebody.
That makes me want to circle back to this question of identity. You wanted to escape from any sort of essential sense of yourself as an émigré or as a Russian, maybe even as American. American writing is always trying to do is un-invent itself at every point, so there’s something incredibly Franklinian about your project. You invent these selves through which you are going to speak your work rather than taking it for granted that one can rely on identity alone.
I think that in a very New Critical way, the speaker is not the writer, ever. You know, that it’s always a dummy, that it’s always something filtered from the self.
Do you believe that strategically (i.e., for the span of the poem) or philosophically? In other words, do you believe that in order for yourself to be able to write whatever you need to write about—
No, I think that the self is never genuinely represented in a poem. I believe that both from personal experience and from my reading. I remember as child wanting to keep a diary, and knowing that this was a fool’s error because what I would put in the diary was what I wanted to project of myself. I wouldn’t discuss certain things and I would always make myself seem much better than I really was. Well, you’re creating a persona, you’re creating a voice. To me it’s always mediated in some way. It’s what I choose to represent. It’s always about creating the speaker. At the same time, in terms of how I philosophically approach poetry, I was always struck by something Rodney Jones said, where he claimed that poetry was a way for one’s interiority, one’s soul to communicate with another’s interiority, another soul, through space and time. And that you couldn’t do that with any other medium. So it’s not one person speaking to another, but it’s one’s interior speaking to another interior. I’ve thought about that a lot.
It’s actually tremendously liberating not to feel like you have to represent an authentic self at every moment. And I’ve seen many contemporary poets do it in a way that makes them seem better than they are—“this is my best self”—but it renders the poem sort of uninteresting because it becomes so safe in how they represent themselves.
When you’re a ventriloquist and you say things to your dummy, you don’t have your dummy say things that you don’t really mean. Right? You’re creating a distance, you’re complicating the conversation, but you’re still speaking what you believe. I’m not trying to take my corporeal self and put it in the poem. If I was to name myself, I would still change details. Sylvia Plath changed details, Robert Lowell did. Both of them would argue that their poetry is not autobiographical. People tend to mistake Sylvia Plath’s speaker for Sylvia Plath. It’s not Sylvia Plath. And when Sylvia Plath died we started taking the fact that she committed suicide for example to read the poems differently than before she committed suicide. I once heard the poet Dean Young remark that, had she not killed herself, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel would have been seen as the second book of poems in the arc of a career, with a lot of dark subject matter, with a lot of commentary about suicide, but not the suicide book of poems that it’s thought about. The happenstance of her actual suicide completely affects how we read that book.
You probably already know the controversy about how Ted Hughes ordered the poems in a way that made her suicide seem as if there were no other way out. And one of the ordering possibilities that she could have intended suggests a narrative of survival, of making it through. The last line would have been: “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” In Hughes’ selection, the second-to-last poem begins: “The woman is perfected./Her dead//body wears the smile of accomplishment.” It’s totally different. I still can’t quite get my mind the dance that we play where we become fascinated with the potential collapse of our own life. In other words, I can imagine Plath and Lowell getting a lot of energy courting the relative distance between the speaker of the poem and the life. I think even of Kurt Cobain, who seemed to buy the myth of his own suffering subjectivity. So I see your writing as a way of avoiding that problem that always happens with autobiographical writing.
This is maybe my own failing but I’m never interested as much in the details of a life as I am in the falls that come from it.
So you don’t watch E! True Hollywood Stories?
You know, I have, plenty of times. The only thing I remember from the E! True Hollywood Story of the drag queen Divine, who starred in those John Waters movies, is that the day that he died, Divine was seen—this large man in drag—was seen on a balcony in Rome, singing “Arrivederci Roma.” I’m interested in the occasion of him doing that. But that’s not about Divine, it’s about humanity. And it’s about the sight of this enormous man in a dress singing “Arrivederci Roma” shortly before he died that moves me. I’m not interested in all the details of a life, I’m not interested in who did what when and where, I’m interested in the effect of it on them. I’m interested in their emotional reaction. I’m interested in their mind. And I’m interested in what people can do with language and what they can do to order the world around them. But I don’t really care whether or not Robert Lowell was in a mental hospital, I care about his saying in “Waking in the Blue,” “we are all old-timers/ each of us holds a locked razor.” That’s powerful to me, but I don’t need the context for it. All of us holding a locked razor—I don’t need to be in the poem in a mental hospital to be affected by that. It’s the line that I love.