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'We're Not Here to Describe Things to People, We're Here to Produce Things in Them': An Interview with Donald Dunbar


Donald Dunbar (sometimes referred to as "Little Donnie Dunbar" by people just outside of my direct line of vision at AWP Boston 2013) holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, where he met many of his best friends and also his wife. Of Donald's book Eyelid Lick (2012 Fence Modern Poets Series), Huffington Post's Seth Abramson writes “…few books of poetry, or indeed few objects of literary art, are as immediately enjoyable.” Donald helps run If Not For Kidnap, and Draft: the journal of process, and teaches future chefs about poetry at Oregon Culinary Institute. His chapbook Slow Motion German Adjectives is now available from Mammoth Editions. He's been touring a bit, and came through Chicago in early April. We met at filipino diner Uncle Mike's Place, where both of us got the anise-wine-soaked pork shoulder with eggs over easy.

[Some topics discussed:  What definitely won't happen if Donald Dunbar gets to be the US Poet Laureate, ideas for new & surprising kinds of mac and cheese, what a poet would have to do to be important enough to get assassinated, why writing is worth doing 'til you die, very specific ways to connect with your audience at a poetry reading, and what Donald Dunbar does when he needs to feel braver.]

Hannah Gamble: People who have been to grad school are often regarded as snobs. Are you a snob? If yes, in which ways?

Donald Dunbar: Yes, about beds. Though I was one of them for a very long time, I kinda look down on (pity, maybe) people who spend their time with anything besides an excellent bed. Sleeping, fucking, reading, cuddling, crying, and you can’t save up $500 for a great mattress?

HG: How has your writing life and ideas about the ideal mode/ purpose of writing changed since your grad school days, if at all?

DD: Most fundamentally, I used to write because I received positive feedback. To a guy who was picked on pretty relentlessly through a lot of his childhood, the respect and affection of students and teachers is addictive. It was a couple years after grad school that I realized that a need for affirmation wasn't a good enough reason to keep writing, especially in the face of rejection after rejection after even personal rejection, and that if I was going to do it, I had to acknowledge that it was going to take my whole life. The decision to do it until I’m dead has made the writing and the writing life so much easier.

HG: What's the poetry scene like in Portland?

DD: Don’t wanna brag, but Portland’s the best. In general people here really take ownership of the culture, and it’s not difficult to get people on board with a new idea. People aren’t too cool for shit, or too proper, or too shy. If I meet someone and they ask, “What do you do?” and I say, “I’m a poet,” they say “Oh, tight,” instead of “Oh, weird.” Probably 40% of any audience for a reading is not poets, and I think that’s a pretty rare thing nationally. The publishing scene is pretty sick too—Octopus (Books/Mag/Poor Claudia), Tin House, Perfect Day, Future Tense, Tavern Books, HOUSEFIRE, Small Doggies, c_L, Lazy Fascist, even If Not For Kidnap is going to be putting out an anthology and broadsides, and I know I’ve forgotten at least a dozen more. The thing I love most though is that it doesn’t usually feel like a scene, but rather a community. People are very keen on helping each other out, and are devoted to the work.

HG: What do you hate to see (experience) at poetry readings? What do you love?

DD: I hate when poets say "This is the last poem" or "I've got two more poems" or "Only three more to go" or whatever, like they feel they should apologize to the audience they're there to entertain. It ruins the combined effect of the poems, refocuses the audience from in-the-moment feeling to considering what's next.

I love when people who’ve never been to a poetry reading are all excited at the end of a night.

HG: How would you describe your own reading style and how it has changed over the years?

DD: My students tell me I’m Books on Tape, and I’m not sure that’s ever been different. My voice is pretty monotonous, a little nasally, and even before I was, I sounded educated. But my performance has changed a lot. I think I’m a lot better at divesting myself into an audience, not standing up there reporting poems to people while wondering if my hair looks stupid or where should I put my hand or what if they hate me... Part of this is trying to gauge the space, the audience’s mood and taste and level of intoxication, what the other readers are reading, and how long the thing’s going on for.

HG: Try to break down for me the different ways you might connect with an audience.

DD: Well, it’s about responding to the actual people actually there, rather than your earlier imaginings of them. If everyone’s standing in the back, ask them to all come forward. If people are talking, tell a joke. If the baristas are clanking shit around, ask everyone to clap for them and show them some appreciation, maybe they’ll stop. Maybe you get the feeling that this particular audience would rather be approached (they look so comfy on those chairs)—why not leave the mic stand and go read right in front of them? Or perhaps your jokes are going to fall flat (there are lots of Republicans in the audience, for instance)—engage the talkers in conversation. Or maybe the baristas are “sick of all the phonies” or something—in which case, prompted applause might further piss them off. Maybe you should roll them a spliff instead. How charmed would certain audiences be watching a poet commit a friendly illegal act right there in the middle of a reading? I learned early on that canned chatter in between poems is a crutch, and that most off-the-cuff chatter is crap and distracting, so I try not to fill those spaces unless I’m really moved to. I stop reading before I see people getting bored.

HG: When you are writing, why are you writing instead of doing other things?

DD: If it’s been too long since I logged some time I get grumpy.

HG: Okay, but what makes you need to write? Why is poetry worth you doing it ‘til you die?

DD: My second year of grad school was the first year since I was eight that I wasn’t depressed. I had no idea I could go an entire year without some pervading sense of futility and worthlessness debilitating me for half of it. I couldn’t remember what it was like being generally okay with people and the world, but I for sure can remember now what it was like worrying over other people’s inherently bullshit notions of who I should be or how I should live. I remember zoning out for weeks on my friend’s Xbox because I hadn’t accepted that I was a poet—that that’s what I did. The world had been unknown and full of hassles, but after I accepted who I was it was suddenly my job to order and shape it.

HG: Do you think you'd ever want to be the US poet laureate?

DD: Of course. Free money, a big megaphone, the chance to be the first USPoLau assassinated with a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone.

HG: What kinds of things would you want to say through that megaphone? Also, what do you think a poet would have to do to actually be important enough to be assassinated?

DD: I’d say the things I say now, and I’d hopefully discover some new things that need saying too. Most Laureates feel they must confine themselves to explaining to children and civilians that poetry is relevant and beautiful and blah blah blah, and seem to have no grasp of basic marketing (a poet explaining that poetry is great is, to the consumer, about the same as a testimonial commercial), nor do they seem to understand the exact nature of the game they’re playing. I feel this about a lot of professors as well. We’re not here to describe things to people—we’re here to produce things in them.

Laureates confine themselves to talking at an otherwise interested audience in the safest and most respectable terms, whereas everything that seems relevant across nearly every non-religious modern spectrum is not safe, not tame, not clean, not officious. If you’re a civilian who uses language and could thus maybe gain a little something from poetry, you’re not going to be convinced by something that smells like sales and doesn’t even bother to be at all transgressive.

There’s two ways for a PoLau to be important enough to be assassinated: The first is to appoint CA Conrad, or another poet truly free of timidity. There’s a reason that establishment figures, exhausted old people, and the occasional mute loner get appointed: the people who appoint them don’t want to ever have to think of them again. The second way would be to wait and do nothing--let our culture whither into a cruel little thing. Hellfire missiles will still exist in 30 years, and if poets let themselves be confined to a cordoned-off Free Speech Zone, it’s not difficult to imagine that the people pressing those buttons will be less interested in where those missiles are headed.

The internet offers hope in a massive new diversity of voices, but, like all language, our use of it can become rote without destruction and renewal. If, for instance, Facebook—a corporate entity—becomes the new commons, how is our potential for novel thought constrained by terms of service agreements and the illusion that what the people we know are thinking about is what everyone is thinking about?

HG: What else are you good at, besides poetry?

DD: Driving for a long time. Inventing new Mac & Cheeses (curry mac, gouda & sauteed beets mac, bacon mac with mustard greens & arugula & balsamic on top). Making and keeping friends. Teaching. Backgammon. Destroying precious memories. Giving head. Carrying plates like a waiter.

HG: Do you think poets (especially poets who teach) have to worry about being "professional" in their interviews/ social media manifestations?

DD: I’ve worried about it, but I’ve come down on the side of being genuine. People aren’t very interesting when they’re being professional, and if you believe in the transformational nature of language, it seems kind of self-sabotaging to hide your little light, and a little ridiculous to think a modern audience is going to be interested by how well you mind your p’s & q’s.

HG: How do reactions to your book differ in people who know you vs. people who don't know you?

DD: Not all that much? I mean, it’s tough to say, but I’ve been really surprised by people I don’t know really getting what I’m doing. Now that I’m thinking about it, it might be easier for someone who doesn’t know me to more lucidly ride the tone of the book. I try to be a kind person in everyday life, and people who see me that way might be more inclined to read the menacing parts as a shallower type of irony than I intend them to be.

HG: What poetry-related wisdoms from peers or elders really blew your brain apart/ changed everything/ heartens you?

DD: My friend Joel Arthur was the first person to suggest charting how an ideal reader would feel at any point through a poem. My teacher Steve Orlen first suggested using repetition. My teacher Josh Bell told me he thought I should do poetry for my whole life, and my teacher Eric Burger was the first poet to treat me like I was one too. My friend Paul Longo introduced me to collage. My friend Lisa Ciccarello made me realize how important community is. I can think of hundreds of these gifts.

Sometimes when I need to be braver I recite to myself a few lines from Aceyalone’s “Anywhere You Go”: “my classes aren’t expensive/ that’s if you are an un-compre-hensive - defensive - sensitive/ toy rapper/ little boy rapper/ Mama’s Widdle Wappin’ Man Wapper” and then be all like, “Man, I’m no mama’s widdle wappin’ man wapper, I am a dope emcee,” and muscle up.

Originally Published: April 16th, 2013

Hannah Gamble is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast (2012), selected by Bernadette Mayer for the 2011 National Poetry Series. She has received fellowships from InPrint Inc, The Edward F. Albee Foundation, and the University of Houston, where she served as an editor for Gulf Coast: A...