Q&A: Sharon Dolin
Could you talk a little about A Manual for Living, the larger collection from which these three poems were taken?
Beginning around 2009, and continuing on and off into the present, I found myself once more in my own Dantescan dark wood. I don’t remember how I came into possession of this little book, but I thought, Yes. How ironic. Why not be the one dispensing advice when I feel completely lost? The Enchiridion of Epictetus (written in 135 CE) struck me as an ancient self-help book by a Stoic philosopher, which was translated by Sharon Lebell into a contemporary American demotic. While reading it, I began to write down some of the chapter headings (Lebell’s invention) as a way to begin a poem. Now, I was in the least likely place from which to provide sage advice to anyone — but I began to write, with a certain edge, a series of poems that are my own self-help book and it has grown, over the course of three years, into a series of more than twenty poems.
They are my “ghost poems” — the poems I have been writing even when I feel like I’m not writing poems. At times, I find myself arguing with Epictetus, as in one called “Don’t Demand That Things Happen as You Wish,” especially during his platitudinous moves into a Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” mentality. At other times, I do my best to try on the advice, though sometimes, I must admit, with an acrid edge, while at other times with greater sincerity laced with irony.
The first two poems here appear to be curtal, or shortened, sonnets. Did the sonnet form, or tradition, play any role in your thinking as you composed them?
The imperative mode and mock-authoritative tone, to me, feel all wrong for a sonnet; these are not songs in the sense of “little song” (sonetto), though they both do, now that you mention it, have couplet-like closings. They’re closer to being recipes for the soul.
Clearly, too, the poems partake of the long epigrammatic tradition. Could you talk about that?
I have been very caught up in reading and writing sequences of mostly prose aphorisms over the last few years, so these poems may be a by-product of that activity. They surely derive some of their epigrammatic character from their use of direct address to the reader/self. I hope there’s a healthy mixture of skeptical and faux wisdom along with commonsensical, ageless advice in them.
There’s a lot of wordplay and internal rhyme in all three poems. Could you say something about your sense of music in these?
My goal here is to write poems with the seeming clarity of a manual (do this; don’t do that), but with a linguistic zaniness and obliquity that makes them anything but a transparent guide. These are poems, after all. I fool around with sound and verbal density the way a painter fools around with color and degrees of representation or abstraction. My poetic project is never to tell it to you straight; Epictetus’s little book, which one of his students compiled from lecture notes, already does that quite well.
This poem exhorts a quietist or Zen approach to life, in contrast to what the title — the epigraph from Epictetus—is suggesting. So do you consider the poem ironic?
Well, actually, Epictetus’s sense of a banquet is that with such abundance you should be patient and just wait for the plate to come your way in life; he does say not to fret if something passes you by, so I’m adhering quite closely to the gist of what he says while tarting it up a bit. I like to have it both ways — ironic as well as a gentle self-scold at the end: “Implore no more /for what is, is no more.”
What do “marzipan men” look or act like, do you imagine? Are they rela- tives of gingerbread men?
The whole image is required: “You’re a feathered peahen/preening for marzipan men,” and is, as Pound referred to the image, an “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” that I’d prefer to leave to the reader’s imagination. To parse an image is to lessen its power, which derives, in part, from inchoate associations that the reader brings to it.
What is the context of the Epictetus quotation in “Everything Has Two Handles”?
In Epictetus, there is only one handle that will yield a positive out- come, and the other handle (approach) will yield a negative one. So, of course, Epictetus says to grasp the positive one. By way of example, he says to imagine you’ve been slighted by a sibling. Instead of grasping the handle of “hurt” or “injustice,” grasp the handle of familial bond. Easier said than done!
This amphora has just one handle — the other is broken — so is the poem out to prove Epictetus (as quoted in the title) wrong?
No. The “broken-off arm” is what I imagine happens when you grasp hold of a situation with anger or stubborn insistence on seeing it your way — something that I and everyone else I know are prone to doing.
Could you say a little about the opposites in the poem’s ending: “Vie with hot verities./The pie is getting cold”? Where did this pie come from?
Ah. Another place where I’d prefer to let the readers suss it out for themselves. But coming at these lines as just one more reader (and not necessarily the ideal one), I’d say that the advice is to contend with difficult, painful, pressing (hot) truths. And do it fast before the pie gets cold. The pie is a recurring motif and arises at the end of the previous poem in the series (not published here). It’s my folksy symbol for appreciating the simple pleasures already in your life, akin to Prufrock eating his peach, perhaps.
Here’s my quick, two-handled answer: No. I just grabbed the same metaphor Epictetus used. And yes, it’s probably unavoidable. Let the reader discover what associations are possible.
Could you talk a little about acedia, the state of mind mentioned in the third stanza of “Our Duties Are in Relation to One Another”?
Acedia is the state of torpor from which these poems (and this one in particular) emerged. It is depressive sloth, a melancholic “why bother” state that even impedes writing or stops it altogether. And yet I have found that writing about it or through it is the only way out of it.
The eighth and ninth stanzas make allusion, in quick succession, to “Hansel and Gretel” and to Hamlet—an interesting couple (or three-some!). Could you talk about their roles here?
Hamlet is a paradigmatic case of acedia. And yet, what a talker! Even if you don’t get free of melancholia, at the least one can strive to write memorable lines about it. Hansel and Gretel—symbols of childhood—are a reminder that, like them, you can’t hope to find your way by going over the past. With these three figures, there’s also a sense of a greater impoverishment of spirit, a nostalgia for a time when you felt more equipped to handle life’s difficulties.
This poem is, in part, about writer’s block. Yet it’s considerably longer than the other poems in the group. Is there a paradox here?
It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? It’s probably the longest poem in the entire series. You can call it a paradox if you like. I’d rather say, as I say to my writing students: The way out of a block is the way in. And that can take time.
I’m struck by the near-final image of Death as a tongue piercing. Could you elaborate on that a bit?
It’s accepting my mortality. And perhaps only those of a certain age can practically taste it (or feel pierced by it). Yet to me it’s a hopeful poem. Actually, there’s a Bob Marley echo I’m most happy with in the “livelies up” phrase — his music, for me, being one cure for acedia (melancholia); the company of others being one more.
Finally, is this a sociable or an anti-social poem?
Oh, very sociable. It’s one of the self-scolds I talked about earlier. And this time I’ve decided to let the reader in on my process out of the dark wood. I’m chiding myself for whining, and guiding myself out of solitude into friendship. Isn’t that the basic dilemma of the poet and of so many other artists? We work in solitude, yet we
crave — even thrive on — companionship. ( Just as an aside: I’ve written these answers in an artist colony in France, artist colonies for me providing the near-perfect alternation of solitude and conviviality!)
Sharon Dolin is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Burn and Dodge (2008), winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, Whirlwind (2012), and Manual for Living (2016), all three published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.