Mystery Tending: A Conversation with Dana Roeser

Following is an interview conducted by Megan Denton Ray for Sycamore Review on April 12, 2017. 

Winner of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, Dana Roeser is the author of All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts, forthcoming, as winner of the Wilder Prize, from Two Sylvias Press in 2019. Her three previous books of poetry are The Theme of Tonight’s Party Has Been Changed (University of Massachusetts Press), winner of the Juniper Prize, and In the Truth Room and Beautiful Motion (Northeastern University Press/UPNE), both winners of the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. Other awards and honors include the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award (for Beautiful Motion), the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and numerous residencies in the U.S. and abroad. She has read her work widely and taught in the MFA programs in poetry at Purdue, Butler, and Wichita State Universities. Please see www.danaroeser.com.

Megan Denton Ray received her MFA from Purdue University. Her work has appeared recently or soon in The Sun, Salt Hill Journal, Cimarron Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She currently lives and teaches in Tennessee.

Megan: First question, Dana. Many of your poems include memories of family members. Not all of these memories are positive or cast certain family members in a positive light. How do you handle this? Have your daughters read your poetry?

Dana: I was going to say that my work is fiction. It has nothing to do with my life. And then I thought, well you know, my big apprehension about giving my poetry reading tonight is: whom am I going to offend? And how am I going to offend them?

In the PhD program at Utah, I was writing directly out of my life. I had just had a baby. And everybody was carpet-bombing my poems in workshop. They were like, “we don’t care about your baby” and “we don’t care about your dishes” and whatever. Eavan Boland came to visit for a while, and I would give her this huge sheath of poems, and she’d say, “Oh, well I really like your project, but I actually don’t like any of the writing here.” She looked at me very earnestly and said, “You have to stylize it. I’m begging you. You have to stylize it.” It took a long time to learn how to do that. Either you view your life experience as material, or you don’t. Either you’re looking at it as an artist, or you aren’t.

Now, the thing about this—to switch topics slightly—David Sedaris is also one of my models, and he is a nonfiction writer, but he views himself, as narrator, as a character. And that was another breakthrough for me because when I viewed myself as a narrator/character, I was able to view other people as characters, too. And then I had a breakthrough. I don’t feel that the ‘I’ in my poems is necessarily me. How could it be? It’s an artificial thing. Regarding the names thing: I had my daughters under fake names in the first draft of my first book, and a poet friend said, “You know, sometimes you name them, and sometimes you don’t. You need to be consistent. Just let the readers have their damn narrative. Don’t be coy about it. Keep the names consistent.” She said, “Name the immediate people, and the more tangential people—give them fake names.” So, that’s what I have done consistently from book to book. That’s worked out all right. Now, my younger daughter doesn’t read my work. My older daughter is really interested in my work, and I’ve seen her pulling drafts out of the recycling bin. She went with me when I was touring for The Theme of Tonight’s Party Has Been Changed, and when we were in Chicago, someone said, “How does it feel to have your mother writing these things about you?” And she said, “It’s fiction.”

Megan: What is it like being married to a poet? You clearly mention that you’re not a morning person, and Don [Platt] is a morning person. Is there any overlap in your writing schedules? Do you go to each other for feedback?

Dana: I like to believe that I’m completely alone in the world when I’m writing. I’m frantic about being interrupted. It’s really a sickness in a way, because I jump out of my skin if somebody is down the street and making a random noise that I am convinced is meant to interfere with my concentration. So, I wish I had the house to myself. I wish I had the deal that a poet friend of mine has: side-by-side halves of a duplex with her husband. Isn’t that brilliant? So, anyway, Don and I are in the same house. I do have an office downtown that I go to. Sometimes I’m too lazy and I’m too sore and I want to be near food, so I don’t go down there, which is just stupid. I have certain parts of the house marked off. I make Don text me if he’s going to enter a room. If he’s going to come upstairs, he has to text. And Sunday mornings, when I’m in the kitchen and he’s in the study, if he wants to come into the kitchen to start making these huge long meals. See, this is Don, right? He’s going to have greens now, and he’s got to have eggs. There’s no just grabbing a yogurt out of the fridge. There’s this whole platter garnished with parsley and cherry tomatoes that has to happen. So, if that’s going to happen, then he has to text me first so I don’t jump out of my skin when he pops in… because he’s so polite and cheerful in the morning, too.

Our children are no longer living with us, so the cushions are gone. We’re trying to work out the new thing. Don’t tell them I called them cushions. The thing is, it’s really nice to live with someone where you don’t have to explain why you don’t really want to go out this Saturday night. I don’t even really like the concept of going out on Saturday nights. I don’t really care if we ever go out. Maybe on a Thursday night. Maybe in the middle of the afternoon. But the idea of having this model where you have to do it a certain way—no. I like living with another writer. I like having those priorities. It’s been bizarre for the kids. We turn into nerds sometimes and work all the way through the weekend, and we help each other with all kinds of stuff. And now, after various kinds of game-playing on my part, I do use Don as a reader. And he uses me as a reader. Because now I know when my work is finished enough to show it to him, and I don’t show it to him unless it feels like a whole thing. Often it is missing a piece, and he’ll ask for that piece. He tells me where things are missing. And I’m good on certain things in his poems, like sometimes I will help tone down an ending that is, in my view, overly “symphonic.” In terms of the competitive aspect—that’s just alive and well. What can I say? Both of us have our good days and bad days in terms of publishing. It’s very rare that his success will bother me. It bothered me more when I was so loaded down I couldn’t write. You know how cranky you get when you can’t work, and then somebody is winning all this stuff?

Megan: Last semester, Marianne Boruch asked us a very important question about our poetry, and I’m going to steal it. If your poetry lived in one room of the house, which room would it be? And what does the wallpaper look like?

Dana: Yeah, I am really interested in that question because I have a real fear of houses in general… in case it’s not obvious already. I had a really wacky childhood in which my mother was on a rampage a lot of the time, and I never knew when it was going to happen. This ties into why my poems start outdoors. Fortunately, I married someone who doesn’t have that set of characteristics. He’s not a rage-a-holic. So that’s good, but still, I’m always on the edge of my seat. The whole house freaks me out. If my work is going to be in a room, it would need to be in the cupola. Which is at the top of the house—it would be me looking down, trying to be omniscient, trying to see things even-handedly. There was a cupola above my room one time at the Ragdale Foundation (an artists’ colony). It had these little stairs so I could go up and sit there. It had windows all the way around. It was old and slightly crumbling with a view of the whole prairie and not really a view of the house… just an awareness that you were at the top of the house. The widow’s walk on a Victorian mansion would be another metaphorical possibility.

Megan: Yes, many of your poems do start outside in the garden and then turn away and go in completely different directions. What is it about the garden or nature in general that inspires you. And also, why do you hate perennials so much?

Dana: I’m going to talk about perennials first. They’re brown. They’re scraggly. They’re discouraging to look at, and they need some mystery tending that I never understand. Shelly, our gardener, she’s like dancing around about what it is and how great it is. And I’m thinking, “This thing is not what you’re saying it is. It’s just this stick.” So, that’s why I’m mean to perennials. The whole idea of “promise of next year” and having to wait patiently. I just want to get some potted flowers and put them right in the dirt, so you can have some flowers and color right away. The next part of the question—about being outdoors—well, I talked about being claustrophobic indoors… not feeling like any space is actually mine.

In childhood, I spent all my time outside. Back in the day, the 50s, I got to leave the house in the morning and come back at sunset. I walked miles and miles. At the bottom of our street, there was a creek that I could follow to the next town. On the other side of the creek stood an abandoned estate with a marble swimming pool. I had to walk through a bamboo forest to get back there. There was so much underbrush and brambles. Often I was with my friend Susan. My other friend, Kathy, got poison ivy a lot so she wasn’t always with us. I have a really good association with being outdoors. There are no words there, which I appreciate. You know those prayer flags? It’s like taking your mind and hanging it up on a clothesline, like a prayer flag; it just hangs there and flaps for awhile.

Megan: I just realized that you didn’t answer what kind of wallpaper would be in the cupola, and I’m really interested in your answer.

Dana: It’s like kind of old white… not really wallpaper. It’s really just one of those wood or plaster funky things that hasn’t been restored yet, but needs to be. But it’s beautiful nonetheless, that’s the thing. It’s like that abandoned estate. It’s like that marble swimming pool that I have to walk through the bamboo forest to get to. It’s got that feeling to it.

Megan: Many of the themes and characters in your poems are consistent. You did mention that you kept the names consistent throughout the books, and I did notice that. How do you feel like your poetry has changed over the years?

Dana: I’ve thought about that, and I’m trying to figure out how to describe it… how I see it changing now. Stanley Kunitz says that we write the same poem over and over. I think, to some degree, we do, in terms of our concerns.

In terms of subject matter or theme, apart from the unfolding lives of various characters, which you may see from book to book—children who grow up, a father who becomes ill and dies, an evolving marriage—my work has dealt with obsession and codependency, for lack of a better term. Obsession with a troublesome/charismatic mother in the first two books; the obsession of drug addiction and mental illness in the third; a recurring obsession with various “crush” figures in the fourth. I’d like to think that the fifth book is walking toward a more developed awareness of what the need to obsess is about.

In the poems, my relationship with horses continues. An outgrowth of this is a fascination with various forms of language: of natural horsemanship, a non-violent means of training; of workers in the horse barn, where no “non-functional” conversation is used; of birds, dolphins and chimpanzees; of illness and psychosis; of addiction; of plants and landscape considered animistically by native peoples such as the Australian Aboriginals.

Speaking more generally, I suppose I will always have some of the prosaic “what really happened” in me, but I am also more open to questioning the reality of what I think happened, realizing the limitedness of my perception, and using my art to push my awareness outward. For example, I aspire to surrealism! Formally, I am developing various organic forms. I don’t think I’ll ever be dancing the minuet, the quadrille, but I am interested in the short lines growing legs and arms, in variations on syntax.

Regarding politics, since this is so much on all of our minds, I suspect that my constant obsession with what I view as the denigration of our country’s democratic values is something that will get into “the water table” from which I draw my poems. This concern is manifested in myriad ways, some direct and pointed, others more subtle. Art and the imagination are so inherently opposed to fascism, totalitarianism, and oppression. Need I say more?

Megan: You did mention the blending of the narrative and the lyric. After reading your books, and then getting a sneak peek at the new manuscript, I feel that you are consistently somehow able to mix these two impulses seamlessly. I’m wondering how you pull this off. Are you even aware of it?

Dana: I really appreciate you saying that because I don’t want to be pigeonholed as a narrative poet—not that that’s a bad thing. I don’t think the lyric poets envy the narrative poets, but the narrative poets do envy the lyric poets. I think my blend of lyric and narrative has to do with my earlier point about stylizing. I developed a style that foregrounds all the elements. It helped me get out of those big hunks of exposition that no one is interested in and are not interestingly written. There is only one requirement: everything has to have a charge on it. When I teach, I tell my students sometimes to run a Geiger counter over the poem, and if it’s not showing any radiation or charge, it’s dead. If a part isn’t doing anything, you can’t just leave it in there.

There’s a great essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” by Flannery O’Connor that talks about this. She says “The [writer] makes his statements by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason.” That’s a very, very hard thing to learn. Everyone is asking for the details. Describe. Say how it looked. Do all this stuff. And then you do it, and they say that it’s dead or not interesting. It’s very hard to figure out how to charge the language. It takes a lot of practice. Years and years of work. For me, because of my fear of writer’s block, and my fear of God knows what else, I just let myself write badly a lot. Badly, sloppily, whatever. I don’t want that pressure. When I first started writing, I would go to an artists’ colony and just sit there. I was afraid to touch the paper. I had to get around that any way I could. Then, of course, you find out what language can do. You know when you’ve got something original going on.

Megan: Let’s talk about your form a little bit. I’m interested in your short lines and how these short lines are able to handle such heavy topics. How do you decide when to indent your lines? Is it intuitive? Do you have some sort of formula? How does the indentation mirror the emotion of the poem?

Dana: As a roundabout answer to your question, I keep thinking about this rejection I got recently from a guy. He started out saying “Please send again” and then “I really hate your work. I see that you’re really well published, but send back things not like this.” And then he continued, “Aggressive line breaks do not turn prose into poetry” and a few other gems. He just lost it. Then he went back to a form letter and asked me if I wanted to subscribe. He was pouty. He referred to my publishing history as my CV, and then I wondered if I had accidentally sent him my CV. He was just generalizing. He said, “I see your CV, and it just doesn’t make any sense.” I thought … this poor man. So, anyway, aggressive line breaks. I guess he does have a point. When I was at Utah, after I’d had another child and was in a maternal stupor again, I gave Richard Howard a poem, and he said, “Your lines are dead.” I went home and started breaking those longer lines into shorter ones, and that’s how it started. I cannot get over to the right, because if I get all the way over to the right, I’m afraid the poem is going to die on me. So I just try to keep moving.

For me, this is a good thing. I had this narrative drive, and the indented form helped me to keep momentum going down the page. I learned how to work it all these different ways. Now, I think I have a lot of variation. I don’t always have aggressive line breaks, but the main idea is foregrounding the material—whether it’s lyric or descriptive or people speaking or whatever—it gets the same treatment in the line. It keeps everything at the same level. It makes everything equivalent. It helps to bring the material forward. As I’ve said to students before, in my opinion, what you don’t want is a poem that has subordinate clauses, thoughts, ideas… you want to bring everything up to the same level of unsubordinated declaration. Sentence syntax, and the full stop, the period, create counterpoint, syncopation. I really like the jerky thing, but not everyone does. Ellen Bryant Voigt expressed appreciation for my use of lineation and syntax in her introduction to my first book. 

Megan: Do you indent while you’re writing or after you’ve completed a draft?

Dana: I do it while I’m writing. Usually. Sometimes, for some of my poems in couplets, I’ll write in a block. Especially, after having had children, I learned to write anytime, anywhere. And even though my children are grown up, I still have those weird habits, which I consider a virtue. Sometimes I will dictate poems into the phone—while driving or “sleeping.” It will come out in a block, and then I’ll have to figure out what to do about it. Sometimes I’ll put it in couplets that are not heavily enjambed.

Megan: I want to talk about the endings of your poems because I found myself kind of banging my head on the wall—in a good way—at the end of most of your poems. How do you know when a poem is over? How do you arrive at that point?

Dana: That’s really interesting. I used to go down to this artists’ colony [the Mary Anderson Center] in southern Indiana on Mt. St. Francis at a monastery. I’d go down there with poems that had everything but the last three lines and torture myself for days. I’d say to myself, “You’re not leaving until you get these lines.” I did a lot of that. I have several poems right now that I’m in that situation with, where I need to go somewhere and have a horrible, horrible time with them. The ending is harder than the rest of the poem. You’ve got to figure out what’s been prepared for—often, it’s a lot more than you realized. Once, an editor wanted me to change the ending of a poem, and I wanted to get into the journal so badly I changed it in a way that I did not like, and now it’s on the website. Of course, I haven’t looked at it, because I don’t want to see it. I changed it back for my book because I knew he would never look. That was not a good experience. I did see his point a couple of years later, when I looked at my original ending. And I thought it was really tidy. It’s a very tidy ending. I now wonder if that was his problem with it.

My good friend Mary Leader was really good at endings. I learned a lot from her. She would often flip things. Her implication was that some of my endings were slightly pedestrian, and sometimes she’d just flip two adjectives. A couple of those endings you’re admiring might be Mary Leader’s little flips. She also didn’t like the “widows.” Sometimes there’d be a single line at the end of a poem in couplets (or tercets). I did like them, so I’d keep them, and they’d end up in the book. A couple of years would go by, and I’d change my mind.

Megan: You also use dreams a lot in your poems. This is something that also fuels my work. Do you keep a dream journal? Do you make up these dreams you write about? Or both? How do you handle your dream life?

Dana: I love working with dreams. I just had a really bizarre one last night. I can remember only a piece of it, because I didn’t write it down. I think remembering dreams is something that anyone can do if one decides to start writing them down. The more you write your dreams down, the more they pop up. You have to be sleeping decently well, and that doesn’t always happen. I think it’s an incredibly rich and fertile area. Sometimes I describe them as dreams, and sometimes not. Sometimes I’m working off of an image or a feeling that comes from a dream. I’ve been in therapy a lot, so that’s helped too. My therapist is really cool with dreams. If I write them down to take them in, or if we discuss them, they get in my head a little bit further. I really recommend it as a way to work. It’s a portal to the unconscious.

Megan: Thanks, Dana. I have one more question. You mentioned Tony Hoagland, but I’m just wondering who else you’re reading right now. Which poets have been the most influential for you?

Dana: I’m reading Kathryn Nuernberger’s book The End of Pink. She’s a wonderful writer. She has a book of nonfiction [Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past ] coming out. She does all this bizarre research. She was posting every day on Facebook, like a lot of people were, about activism and phone calls. Stuff to do after the election and political mess. One day, she’s posting about phone calls, and then for a break, she shared a link about a “cat piano.” It was this imaginary piano with all these cats lined up inside it with their tails attached to the keys (arranged according to the tone of the their voices, according to Wikipedia). It was like a real thing, like someone’s invention that she found. She does all this arcane research. She is really delightful. I’m also reading a book of translations by my friend Mary-Sherman Willis called Grace Notes/Appogiatures. They’re translations of Cocteau’s prose poems. I recommend this fantastic book. And then I’m dipping in and out of stuff. My room is so crammed with stuff that you could literally fall down. It’s really humiliating, especially right now because I’ve been busy. There’s like ten years’ worth of New Yorkers as the base. You could break a limb in there. And then there’re books that I’ve decided I have to read this minute, and then there’re books right by my head that scream while I’m sleeping, “You must start me now!”

Another influence, a prose writer, is George Saunders. He has a spirit of generosity and a gift for satire. Lincoln in the Bardo—right by my head—is saying, “Hurry up, read me.” And then I just read A Leg to Stand On by Oliver Sacks. It’s about an injury in which he had completely lost sensation in one of his legs. I was interested in it because of the dissociation I experienced after my hip replacement. I read nonfiction, and I also spend way too much time reading the daily New York Times. It doesn’t do much for me in terms of lyricism. But I’ve also pulled a lot of bizarre stuff from there and used it for material. And influences: I’d say Frank Bidart, especially In the Western Night. There are all those persona poems. They’re really raw and ragged, where he takes on other people’s identities, that of the psychopathic murderer Herbert White, the turn- of-the-twentieth-century anorexic Ellen West, and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, for example. If you don’t know Frank Bidart’s work from that period, I highly recommend it and his later work as well. In a similar vein, I’m thinking of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband and her poem “Glass Essay”—in some of her work, she speaks in a raw, neo-confessional mode combined with scholarly references to such writers as John Keats or Emily Brontë. For different reasons, I love Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. Schuyler has these poems… Richard Howard used to call them “skinny little rat tail poems.” My indented form is indented rat tails. He is brilliant with the occasional poem, a form that fascinates me. Howard Moss calls him “singular in his effervescence.” He’s voice-driven, digressive (but clear), gossipy, catty, and yet generous. He has the ability to find the transformative image so that we see through his eyes. And he lets characters speak spontaneously, with no introduction, often to hilarious effect. I would also list Charles Wright and Emily Dickinson as influences, though I wouldn’t expect readers, necessarily, to see that. Charles Wright talks a lot (in his work and outside of it) about surface and depth and how they are the same. This made a deep impression on me and has a lot to do with my idea of “foregrounding” described above. Among other things, the endings in Emily Dickinson’s poems are just mind-blowing. This reminds us of what is possible.

I love so many different poets for different reasons, and then I’ll just get hooked on one poem… like the Berryman poem “Eleven Addresses to the Lord.” When Li-Young Lee was here at Purdue in 2000, he said that he loved “West-Running Brook” by Robert Frost and that he took that poem with him out in the woods to work. He copied it by hand. That was his reading. It’s not always quantity. That made me feel better. When I do love something, it’s like this totally private, possessive thing where I’m embarrassed and ashamed and in love, and I don’t want anybody to know.

Megan: Thank you for your time and for coming out to answer our questions.

Dana: And thank you very much for having me.