DORIANNE LAUX is the author of several collections of poetry, including What We Carry (1994), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Facts about the Moon (2005), winner of the Oregon Book Award and also a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Book of Men (2011), which was awarded the Paterson Prize; and Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected (forthcoming 2019). She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has been a Pushcart Prize winner.
Read Dorianne Laux’s poem “The Ravens of Denali,” originally featured in Issue 17.2, 2005.
Your poem, “The Ravens of Denali,” was first featured with us in Issue 17.2, 2005. Can you tell us a bit about how your writing has changed since then?
I think actually this poem was a big change for me from what I had been writing previously. I had rarely used facts and statistics before, sticking more to what was around me, at hand. Here, I had been listening to my husband talk about Ravens. He’d been reading myths and stories about them as we drove to Alaska to give a reading with Sharon Olds. We saw a number of Ravens, more and more as we drove deeper into Alaska. His fascination was infectious. I was reading about the history of Alaska, and Alaskan wildlife in general, how so many species were endangered by the encroachment of human activity. All this recently acquired knowledge began to coalesce and finally came out in a poem. When I read it to my husband he was torn between loving the poem and being upset that I had used all his good material! Later, he mentioned it to Sharon, saying he didn’t think it was fair that I had stolen a good poem from him. Sharon replied dryly that he had only himself to blame. That it was like putting a big hunk of meat out on the back porch when he knew a wolf was living in the neighborhood.
If you could go back to when the issue came out, what advice would you give yourself then?
I think I learned a lot from all the reading I did outside poetry while we were on that trip, history, geology, biology, customs, myth and story. It made a big difference in the ways I approached poems from then on and gave me a wider pallet. I took my own advice then and kept on exploring ways to get more of that into poems.
How important was submitting to literary journals at the beginning of your career?
Quite important in the beginning. It made me look at the poems over and over, reworking them until I felt they were ready to send out into the world. If they were returned rejected, I looked at them again, revising and refining. Once they were finally accepted I felt a great sense of satisfaction that my hard work had paid off. Also, I began to see that publication helped me to forge relationships with editors and to meet other poets, finding them in the pages of magazines I was publishing in and finally meeting a good number of them in my travels. Those early poems were instrumental in fostering a community for me.
Who are you reading now?
I teach and judge a lot of first book contests and so I read new poetry from emerging writers quite a bit. I’ve had a subscription to APR and a few other magazines for years. I’m looking forward to reading Ada Limón’s new book, The Carrying, and Kai Carlson-Wee’s new book, Rail, as well as his brother’s book, The Low Passions, by Anders Carlson-Wee. One of my students just had his first book win the Crab Orchard Poetry Prize, All the Great Territories, a wonderful book by Matthew Wimberley. In the summers I read novels and my favorites are those that are poetic in some way. Garth Greenwell’s novel about two gay lovers in Bulgaria, What Belongs to You, is gorgeous, as is the delicious Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which is set simultaneously in a small fishing village off the coast of Italy and Hollywood, CA. I also read the non-fiction book H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, which is filled with facts about hawks and reads like a long, delirious poem.