Q & A: Charles Baxter

The poem is numerically symmetrical: each stanza contains seventeen lines. What does the poem gain from the symmetry and the stanza break?

The poem moves from a dreamlike present and hypothetical future in the first stanza to a dug-in and, to use a word from the poem, intractable past in the second stanza. The poem’s elongated syntax binds the two together.

In Sunset Boulevard, the aging former movie star Norma Desmond is a rather “camp” figure. Can you say a little more about this cinematic allusion?

The aesthetics of camp are complicated, and Susan Sontag has not had the last word on the subject. Campiness often takes the form of mockery, but it can also take the form of hyper-stylization of an emotion, so that any particular expression of, literally, anything can be inflated to grandiose proportions and theatricalized. Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard is an old silent movie star, so of course she inflates every gesture, every statement. Sincerity gets buried underneath her own personal expressionism. (Billy Wilder hired Gloria Swanson to play her in part because Swanson knew everything about that arcane acting style.) Such emotive inflation (which can also seem comic) is what signals the territory of camp. But emotive inflation is also a telling feature of alcoholism in many alcoholics: drunks have a way of acting out their emotions theatrically right in front of you, and it’s the same emotion every night. Thus the poem.

Epigraphs are usually snatches of “real” text. Why this epigraph from “unknown woman, in a dream”?

I wanted the reader to have the quotation in mind before arriving at it within the poem itself.

In another famous epigraph, allegedly from an old Irish play, Yeats quoted, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” Do you agree?

Well, if you can take a statement’s contradiction and find something truthful in it, then you can neither agree nor disagree. What if Yeats had said, “In dreams begins irresponsibility”? Both statements, Yeats’s and its contradiction, seem true to me. Why? Because dreams don’t appear to make assertions. They postulate hypothetical conditions. You can’t really agree or disagree with a hypothetical condition, can you?


This poem originally appeared in the December 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2010

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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