Dorianne Laux: Poet of Compassion

Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Dorianne Laux was interviewed by Marina Pruna for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

Marina Pruna: I believe that whether attached to age or not, there comes a time when we see who we are and come to embrace this self.  I think that this is true for poets too.   I’m a poet who is trying to “figure out” the world.  I might become a different poet at some point in my life, but today, I have to accept that I am this kind of poet.

Have you had a similar experience in that your poetry has shown you something about yourself as a person or artist or woman that you just can’t deny?  How has your poetry defined you?

Dorianne Laux: I guess I’ve been defined by the fact that I’ve chosen to write in the narrative mode, which many see as easy or self- involved or passé.  And I’ve chosen to write as a woman, which can have its downside as well.  Men are the dominant voice in every field: art, history, politics, literature.  One’s tendency might be to lean in that direction, to develop a sort of genderless poetic landscape and voice, non-domestic, unspecific, one that could easily be mistaken for male. I guess I’ve chosen not to do that.  I could have also chosen to be more ironic, a bit tougher, darker, critical, cynical and less hopeful.   But maybe that hasn’t been a choice.  It’s just not who I am.

MP: I’m always surprised and impressed by your selection of occasion in a poem.  For example, in Facts About the Moon, the poem “Superglue” is as much about the speaker gluing her fingers together as it is a realization that she is alive in this world and in love in this world.  There’s a real sense of fear and awe in the poem.  I find that your poems often do this: talk about something huge like consciousness or love through a very tangible vehicle like superglue or elk crossing the road.  Can you speak to how you make those decisions of occasion when writing?

DL: It seems to me it’s the other way around; the occasion of the poem brings up issues deeply embedded in the subconscious, fear and awe being two overwhelming emotions that if we were to feel them all the time would crush us.  So, they make subtle appearances to give us a portal into that subliminal world.  I’m fairly unaware of the implications of a specific occasion when I choose to write about it.  The experience occurs, I have a human response in the sense that it might seem strange or funny, memorable or striking in some way, and then [I] sit down to reexamine it in a poem.  Both the poems you refer to are humorous situations, and as far as I knew, I merely wanted to capture that humor in image and language.  What arose as I wrote was metaphor, and the truer aspects of awe and fear that were hidden behind the humor, or beneath it.  It seems as we move through life, life also moves through us.  A poem is an attempt to capture and arrest those two movements in time and space, or rather allow them to collide and interpenetrate each other. 

MP: I find that image making has a lot to do with observation.  The keener the observer, the more insightful the image, it seems to me.  I’d like to go back to your first book.  In Awake, you have many poems that have a powerful image followed by an admission or realization from the speaker.  In “Quarter to Six,” for example, there’s the jump from bread to a scar: “Tearing open my bread, I see / the scar, stitches laced up the root of your arm, the flesh messy / where you grabbed at it with the broken glass of an ashtray” (17).  Or in “Bird,” the three lines at the end: “I’m alone with dead roses in a jam jar. / What do I have that she could want enough / to risk such failure, again and again?” (34).  Aside from using images to concretize a moment for the reader, how do you decide to opt for an image, instead of narration, let’s say?  What do you gain and what do you lose by making this choice?

DL: I would most often prefer to opt for an image instead of narration. It’s so clear that the image is the more powerful of the two.  On the other hand, images alone cannot tell the story, and I am nothing if not a teller of stories.  But I’m not sure I consciously “opt” for one over another as I write.  The story itself, as I mentioned earlier, often engenders metaphor quite organically and I simply follow the poem’s lead in that respect.  In revision though, if I see a lax line, I might try to make that line into an image.  This is especially true of last lines in a poem.  I’ll have the urge to sum things up in a statement which is almost always less powerful than the image that often precedes it.  I’m a great fan of lopping off the endings of poems and leaving the reader with an image, trusting it to do the work.  I guess I would say that for me, the success of a narrative poem is in the right balance of narration to image.  What that balance is varies from poem to poem.  I also don’t see the narration as merely a way of getting from one place to another.  An image can do that as well, or a cascade of images.  For me, narration is a complex web that should hold everything in a poem together with an almost invisible and tensile strength. I think of a narrative master such as Larry Levis.  Look at the opening of his poem ADOLESCENCE.

The narration begins simply enough in the first line, a narrator, a character, a setting, but by the second line, we find ourselves contemplating the inner realms of the human mystery. The third line is, again, a simple setting: character, action and place, but by the fourth, we are taken into the past, into death, mystery.  And then the trees appear, as they will in various forms throughout this poem, and we watch them become intermediary or liaison, uniting the past with the present, the heavens with the earth.  So that, when Levis leaps backwards in the next stanza to the age of fifteen, speaking of death in the same breath as the event of a carnival and its silly games of chance, of Laredo, Texas and a stranger, of the girl’s gambler father weeping as the narrator looks off into the trees and makes that absurd and unbearably tender statement, we don’t feel battered around in time and space.  Rather we feel events are “unfolding” as they should, even though we have been wrenched from one set of characters to another, one time and place to another, one way of thinking and feeling to another, and all at lightning speed.  And because of the authority of voice, the meandering style, the slow, thoughtful, intimate tone, we believe that all these oddly disparate details and images will be held together in the shimmering web of the narrative.  This is what I think all poetic narratives seek to do, create stories within stories, layer upon layer of feeling and meaning, spinning it out like a spider, weaving this delicate net that holds time and space, image and language, clarity and mystery.  

MP: I’ve been a fan of your poetry for a very long time, and in preparing for this interview, I reread all of your books in chronological order.  I found that, with your first book, your eye was mostly pointed inward toward self (like creating a personal tapestry), and with each subsequent book, the eye did a couple of things.  First, thematically, the eye seems to have shifted to point more outwardly.  But, also, when looking in, the eye seems to look further in.  In essence, I found that the voice in your work from book to book has expanded both inwardly and outwardly.  How do you sit down to a poem now?  Or does the poem come to you?  (a line? an image?)  Has this act of coming to a poem changed for you fundamentally since you started writing?

DL: I think the fundamental change for me has been in my awareness of myself as a writer, a poet.  When I first began, I was a child who understood very little of the world around me or inside of me.  That was the whole point of writing it down, so I could see it again, study it, contemplate it.  As I grew in experience and knowledge, I came to the page with more formed and formal questions, while at the same time, allowing myself much more freedom of exploration.  Also, the more I read and admired the writing of masters, the more I felt compelled to consciously imitate and experiment.  Even so, the inspired poems come to me on the wings of yes, an image, a line, a snippet of conversation, a look or gesture, a feeling.  There are so many ways into a poem and each poem has its own unique genesis.  I also think what you describe in the arc of my writing is not unique to me. All writers begin with an investigation of the self and move to an examination of the other.  Again, this could be a definition of the act of writing which is first and foremost an exploration, moving from the inner world to the outer world, and back again, each time moving deeper, reaching higher, including more, stripping it down, searching out essence and eternity, the smallest detail that can illuminate, dipping into the darkness.

MP: You did an interview a while back with Willow Springs where, in talking about authors you read habitually and who inspire you, you said, “I love poetry that feels as it thinks.”  What did you mean by that?

DL: In some ways, this is what we’ve been talking about all along, the image that says something more powerful than words, the one word that can join every image.  When that happens, feeling engenders thinking, or thinking links up with feeling, and produces something we don’t know with the mind or heart alone. 

MP: I read in several different interviews with you that your husband, Joseph Millar, is an early reader of your work.  In those same interviews, I remember reading that you have a kind of community of readers, close friends and colleagues, that also have a chance to look at and comment on your work (editing, revision, ordering) before it heads out to a publisher.  This made me wonder how you view community with respect to your writing.  What do these readers point out that you can’t see?  Of what they say, what do you listen to?  Can you write without them at the finish line?

DL: I love and cherish my readers.  They see what I might be too caught up to see.  When one writes with passion and abandon, one can say some fairly silly things or make some pretty ridiculous comparisons.  Of course I could finish a poem without them, but it might take longer.  They save me time, as I hope I save them time.  And more importantly, they ask questions I might not have asked myself, or again, that might have taken me more time to come to. I listen to everything, with gratitude.  Whatever makes sense or feels right, I use.   

MP: During revision and editing, when “tightening up” a poem, what do you do?  What do you ask yourself?  What do you ask the poem?

DL: There’s a great list by Jane Hirshfield, in The Poet’s Companion, of questions to ask of a poem in revision.  A few of my favorites are:  “Is there joy, depth, muscle in the music of its saying?”, “Does it follow its own deepest impulses, not necessarily the initial idea?”, “Does it know more than you did when you started it?”, “Is it self-satisfied, predictable?”, “Does it allow strangeness?”.  Hirshfield asks more practical questions as well, but these are, I think, some of the more important and enduring questions.  But mostly I ask the poem what it wants.  Do you really want to go down that road, I ask.  Yes, it says.  I know that road makes you uncomfortable, and it will be a bumpy ride with few stops along he way, and maybe a wrong turn or two, but yes, I want to take that road.  The poem always knows better and more than I do.

MP: Your latest book is The Book of Men.  In rereading this last book side by side with your previous work, I was particularly taken with the confidence in the writing.  Where the confidence of Awake and What We Carry seems an undercurrent with courage as the star, in this book, as well as in Facts About the Moon, I feel like you are in a groove, writing with the ease of an artist who knows her toolbox well and can just sit back and enjoy the process.  Is this observation accurate?  Are you able to sit back and let the poetry come freely and through you?  Or are there still pockets of unexpressed emotion that keep you up at night?  Or, do you do both?

DL: Writing poems is easy.  Writing good poems is difficult.  Writing a great poem is almost impossible.  This is why I try not to think about it.  If I contemplated how many actual great poems there are in the world, and how hard it is to write one, I would give up.  I just go, as Frank O’Hara says, on my nerve.   I think poets, and artists in general, have to have this combination of audacity and humbleness.  On the one hand, you have to have this grand and supreme faith in yourself that what you see, hear, touch, taste, think and feel, has importance, and will be meaningful to another human being.  On the other hand, you have to know deep down that what you are trying to do is impossible, unattainable, unfeasible, impractical, out of the question, and completely hopeless.  And then you try anyway. 

MP: In an interview with Benjamin Alire Saenz for Birds on a Wire, you said that it was your husband who, in backing up and organizing your computer, ordered and sectioned poems that became The Book of Men.  How did his vision affect the way you saw those poems?

DL: Oh, it affected me completely!  I had no real idea I had written that many poems about men, or that I was so obsessed with my various visions of men.  I would have thought, if you’d asked me, that I was writing more poems about women and family, about myself.  But when Joe brought me the manuscript as he saw it, it rearranged my idea of what I had been doing quite unconsciously.  And I was delighted!  Maybe it took a man to see that I was writing about men.  I also liked the way he put the book in two sections, with the women in the second section playing off the men in the first.  It was truly brilliant.  I’m a lucky woman.

MP: I found out that your new book was out at roughly the same time that I was given an eReader as a gift.  So, I decided to purchase The Book of Men on my eReader to see how the experience of reading poetry there differed.  With the ability to adjust font size, see only one page at a time, and make “marginal” notes as inserts, I quickly found myself really missing the paper-glue artifact and a pen.  How do you feel about poetry on eReaders?  Do they impact your writing?

DL: I love my Kindle and iPad, mostly for travel and for novels or memoir, prose.  The fact that you can choose from thousands of novels on a plane trip without having to haul them all with you is a relief, and the backlighting of the iPad is also great when you want to read and your mate is asleep.   But yes, for poetry, I prefer the paper and glue.  Poetry books are relatively cheap and easy to carry with you in almost any circumstance.   And they’ve become such beautiful works of art.  There’s absolutely no excuse these days for a poetry book cover that isn’t downright gorgeous, or for a font that isn’t exquisite, or paper that isn’t luscious.  It also goes without saying that the intimacy of poetry seems to ask for the slim delicacy of the hand held book.

MP: Of your books, do you have a favorite?  A least favorite?  Why?

DL: Not really.  After five books I have actually begun to forget poems I’ve written- not in a did-I-write-that way, but in a long ago, far away way, as in how-many-eons-have-passed-since-that-poem.

MP: Who are you reading these days that really turns on and stretches your mind?

DL: I remember really liking the unbridled energy of Richard Siken’s Crush when it came out. I always love Lucia Perillo.  Luck is Luck is a good book. But all her books are good.  She is so damn strange.  I just can’t get enough of her skewed visions and quirky way of saying a thing.   Eleanor Lerman’s Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds.  Catie Rosemurgy’s My Favorite Apocalypse.

MP: In today’s world where we’re at once over-stimulated and never fully engaged in one thing at a time, poetry asks us to stop for a minute and just breathe . . .  with our eyes, our fingers, our tongues, our ears and our emotional lungs.  Dorianne Laux, what is your job as a poet?

DL: To keep breathing as long as I can! And to keep writing.

Dorianne Laux: The Book of Men

Mine Own Phil Levine

after W.S. Merwin

What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number

There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page

His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
pointing it out twice

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water

He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed

He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him

The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius

I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
Start anywhere

He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours.

*   *   *


make out with him a bit, this
is what my friend would like to do
oh these too many dead summers later,
and as much as I want to stroll with her
into the poet’s hazy fancy
all I can see is O’Hara’s long gone lips
fallen free of the bone, those two damp slugs
slumbering beneath the grainy soil.
I can hear Frank’s dry voice
combing the air for song, but what I see
is his skeleton entombed in dust, wrapped
in his dapper suit, his razzle-dazzle sunglasses.
She sees him alive, ambling
down a sidewalk, all of New York
clambering into the sky behind him,
cuff links winking, his dear friends waving,
calling him by name like they do in the city:
800,000 people and you step outside for a smoke
and see someone you know.
That’s how it is with death.
Those you love come at you like lightening,
crackle for an instant—so kissable—
and then lips and all, they’re gone.

*   *   *


Heels of the shoes worn down, each
in its own way, sending signals to the spine.

The back of the knee as it folds and unfolds.
In winter the creases of American-made jeans:
blue denim ridged, worried-to-white thread.

And in summer, in spring, beneath the hems
of skirts, Bermudas, old bathing suit elastic,
the pleating and un-pleating of parchment skin.

And the dear, dear rears. Such variety! Such
choice in how to cover or reveal: belts looped high
or slung so low you can’t help but think of plumbers.

And the small of the back: dimpled or taut, spiny or not,
tattooed, butterflied, rosed, winged, whorled. Maybe
still pink from the needle and ink. And shoulders,

broad or rolled, poking through braids, dreads, frothy
waterfalls of uncut hair, exposed to rain, snow, white
stars of dandruff, unbrushed flecks on a blue-black coat.

And the spiral near the top of the back of the head—
peek of scalp, exquisite galaxy– as if the first breach
had swirled each filament away from that startled center.

Ah, but the best are the bald or neatly shorn, revealing
the flanged, sun-flared, flamboyant backs of ears: secret
as the undersides of leaves, the flipside of flower petals.

And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.

Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.

*   *   *


What are the chances a raindrop
from last night’s storm caught
in the upturned cup of an autumn leaf
will fall from this tree I pass under
and land on the tip of my lit cigarette,
snuffing it out? What are the chances
my niece will hit bottom before Christmas,
a drop we all long for, and quit heroin?
What are the chances of being hit
by a bus, a truck, a hell-bound train
or inheriting the gene for cancer,
addiction? What good are statistics
on a morning like this? What good
is my niece to anyone but herself?
What are the chances any of you
are reading this poem?
Dear men,
whom I have not met,
when you meet her on the street
wearing the wounds that won’t heal
and she offers you the only thing
she has left, what are the chances
you’ll take pity on her fallen body?


Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon.
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and winner of the Oregon Book Award and The Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry, Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke from BOA Editions. She teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.