Poetry News

Donald Dunbar's Marvelous Q&A at BOMBLOG

By Harriet Staff


The great reviewer Donald Dunbar talks to BOMB's Jonathan Aprea about his new book Eyelid Lick (Fence Modern Poets Series Winner 2012), which is, as Aprea writes, "a surreal text whose poetry is anchored by its syntactical coherence." Perhaps this stems from such a theory as Dunbar makes explicit here: "Language is mind control. We don’t get the choice to hear what we want to—if someone’s talking, our brain is processing it—and by reading a thing we’re surrendering our mind to the system of meaning the author has arranged. This doesn’t mean that we’re not able to later make decisions about what’s being said, but that analysis happens at a much higher level than the initial processing of things." More:

DD . . . “He takes pleasure in torturing puppies,” is easier on the reader than, “I take pleasure in torturing puppies,” is easier than, “You take pleasure in torturing puppies.” In each of these we’re still processing the same information—puppies are still being tortured—and we understand the torture is fictional, but when we’re signaled to process information in relation to ourselves, our tendency is to do it.

Then using various levels of realness for “you” (from the most-real reader “you who owns this book” to the apostrophe “O! you muse or angel or country” to a character addressed as “you”) maybe further flattens it out, so the reader is being asked to respond as the characters, as America, as his or herself, and to feel as all these people too.

Have you ever been hooking up with someone in front of a television in an otherwise dark room, and the shifting glow seems to rearrange their face into the exact same face of a different person? Or like how a lover will have the same mannerism, or facial expression, or turn of phrase, or scent, or way of kissing, as someone else. I love this feeling—and the almost, and the hints of, and the sorta—especially in a situation that’s mostly about discovery. In the discovering of this other person, and you in relation to them, to find some shared aspect, not only between the two (or however many) of you there in the room, but between people elsewhere in space/time and memory, and versions of themselves these people are and were . . . This seemed like a fine thing to write poems about.

JA A memorable / important point in reading Eyelid Lick occurred for me when I realized early on in your author’s note that I wasn’t reading what I thought I was reading, that the author’s note read more as a poem than as a note. And the table of contents that follows the author’s note reads like a poem also, and its numbers don’t seem to refer to anything. But even still, some might read your note and table as fulfilling a similar purpose as more traditional versions. Would you say that Eyelid Lick challenges conventional structures found in other poetry collections?

DD For sure. I want my book to be a Pokemon or a secret lover or a cyanide pill.

I have a deep distrust of inherited systems and values that extends from the political to the cultural to the poetic. I think this distrust is an increasingly common thing, especially in people who’ve come of age in the last decade or two. The Internet makes it too easy to figure out who’s lying to us, and it turns out most of the people with most of the power are doing most of the lying. Poets have little power in today’s world, so the lies are less frequent and more innocuous and less likely to end with a drone strike.

But the habit of distrust that one learns from political, religious, and macro-cultural authority will, I think, increasingly carry over into the poetry world. This is where the small press scene comes from, this is where the CLMP code of ethics comes from, but I think there’s an aesthetic in it too.

For me, the aesthetic is not one of reaction—it’s not activism—and it’s certainly not one of submission. It’s a refusal to engage with the often-dichotomous arguments of the world and subvert them into some unrelated purpose, or ignore them. For me, this means trying to show people that even the musts of the world are open to revision, and are ultimately based on the consent of everyone. It’s a long ways from “Maybe a table of contents can be a poem” to “Maybe we shouldn’t base our valuation of other people on how much money they have,” but it’s a lot easier for my mind to get from A to B that way than through a Mary Oliver poem, however much she might talk about such things.

A great interview. Read it all here.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2013