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“First Book Poets in Conversation: Derek Mong & Dean Rader” and “99 Poems for the 99%” - March 11, 2014

My sojourn from Portland to the AWP conference in Seattle last month gave me an opportunity to chat with the poet Dean Rader, the first time I’ve been able to do so since  November of 2012 when the family and I left San Francisco for the friendlier environs of the Pacific Northwest. Dean is a generous and intelligent poet teaching at the University of San Francisco, a fact I came to learn when 1) I visited one of his summer creative writing classes, and 2) conducted a “First Books Poets in Conversation” interview with him for Boxcar Poetry Review. And then there’s the pleasure in knowing our kiddos hung out.

Below is an excerpt from that conversation, with topics range from “dropped lines” and the politics of form, to a fantastic exchange on the Americanness of syllabics, my favorite form in Other Romes. The entire exchange is still archived at Boxcar.

This is also a good place to mention one of Dean’s other publishing projects: 99 Poems for the 99%. The 99 poems began as a once-a-day web series, but will soon be available in a print anthology of the same name. I was delighted to contribute a poem, “Upon Learning That All the Gold in the World Would Fill Just Two Olympic Swimming Pools” (it originally appeared in Court Green 8) and was pleased to see the result in an “AWP Exclusive” edition of the book, available during the bookfair. Stay tuned for news of wider publication soon.


Excerpt from “First Book Poets in Conversation: Derek Mong and Dean Rader”

DEREK MONG: I can’t help but notice that your collection Works & Days—a book I’ve enjoyed immensely—begins, like my own book, in flight.  I’m thinking of course about your wonderful poem “Traveling to Oklahoma for my Grandmother’s Funeral, I Write a Poem About Wallace Stevens,” which blends elegy, literary history, religious speculation, and humor:


The elderly woman next to me

In 7D has been peeking at this poem

for several minutes.


I don’t mind,

Because the next line is this:

She will die before I do


That last line must be the most shockingly comic—to curse an old woman!—I’ve read in years.  But what is it about airplanes that prompt us to write poems?  They remind us, of course, that we can die (or, as you write: “Like everything else, we are in transit”) but don’t they also remind us where we’re from, by launching us away from or toward it?  It used to be that poets wrote on trains (Lowell’s “Beyond the Alps”; Jarrell’s “The Orient Express”), but than genre, so very different from the plane poem, has virtually disappeared.  I’m reminded too that you and I met in an airport.

DEAN RADER: First of all, thanks for the nice words about the book and the poem. I’m exceedingly happy you like them.

Airplane poems are fun to write, in part because we’re all a little anxious to be flying. I know of no one who doesn’t think about dying at some point during a flight. So, any poem about flying that acknowledges that tension makes an immediate connection with the reader.

Also airplanes and airports have become the new commons. They are two of the few places nowadays where we sit and actually interact with other humans on an extended basis. It might be awkwardly and nervously, but there are no places quite like them.

Lastly, as your super cool poem “Flying Is Everything I Imagine Now and More” reminds us, planes are inexorably linked with the immortal images of 9/11. Even when planes take you home to some source of magic, they are also (if silently) tragic.  I was curious if this is why you decided to begin Other Romes not just with any ol plane poem but with this plane poem. What work did you want it to do in regard to your book as a whole?

DEREK: Well, I think you’ve hit upon the reason right there: 9/11.  “Flying is Everything” and “Period” (the last poem in Other Romes) both confront the aftermath of those attacks.  As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I’m reminded of how ineffectual or openly propagandistic our political poetry became in the years following.  David Wojahn has written about this smartly, in his essay “Maggie’s Farm No More: The Fate of Political Poetry” (Writer’s Chronicle, May 2007).  In both of those poems, I’d endeavored to do better, thinking all the while of Whitman’s advice that a poet is nothing “if he be not himself the age transfigured […] in the swimming shape of today.”  The news, and our collective nervousness, were in my head throughout this book, and I felt I had to exorcise them.  Thus the poem ends with a frankly Whitmanic line: “America, I am // so harmless now, spilling down perpetually / toward you. Draw / your sunroofs back and call me / home.  Let your grassblades raise their heads to meet me.”

And considering I’ve just quoted a few, I wanted to ask you about the “dropped line,” and form in general.  Works & Days, unlike so many poetry books being written, amasses a real diversity of forms. You’ve a “PowerPoint Presentation of ‘The Sonnet,’” prose poems (“The Poem You Ordered”), and a number of poems, seemingly free verse, that throw enjambments in mid-line.  I’m thinking of “Self Portrait: One on One with Ezra Pound.”  What’s the appeal of this “dropped line” for you, and form on the whole?

DEAN: I would agree with Wojahn for the most part about political poetry—at least a certain kind of political poem. American poets tend not to look to the poem as a site of critique for policy decisions.  Bob Hicok’s recent book is political in a really interesting way. He takes on issues of social and economic class both boldly and successfully. And a lot of women have done incredible work on the politics (and poetics) of gender. But, I’m still waiting to see if contemporary American poetry can be a formidable form of political critique. Would congressmen in the House of Representatives take a political poem seriously? Would The New York Times run a political poem as an op-ed piece?

In the meantime, I’m all about the politics of the dropped line .  .  .

I say that with some but not complete irony. Are there moments when I’ve thought more about poetic form than healthcare reform? Absolutely. Perhaps because one brings pleasure and the other, like, not so much . . .

To me, the best practitioner of the dropped line is Charles Wright. Wright has said that for him, the dropped line imitates the horizontal rhythm of landscape paintings, a la Cezanne. And, I do agree with the semiotic impact of the dropped line. My eye loves the look of that floating line. But, I also like using it to help push a line along; that drop sort of kicks the line along. It’s like sending the poem down the stairs.

Form is one of the best features of poetry. Confining yourself to one form is a bit like only listening to singer-songwriters. You risk mind-numbing tedium. There is Nirvana and Portishead and Mance Lipscomb and Bill Monroe and Kronos Quartet and Cat Power and Neko Case: why not enjoy all of them?  Part of the joy of writing poetry is getting to experiment with timeless forms. Right now, I’m writing poems based on syllabic lines. Poems with 7-syllable lines, 10-syllable lines, and 11-syllable lines.

What about you? You seem attracted to classical forms. Talk to me about the ode . . .

DEREK: Oh I love this image of the dropped line nudging a poem down the stairs.  It’s a fine elucidation too.  I’m with you on fixed form’s myriad possibilites—I say “fixed” because all poetry has form, has shape—a view that seems more widely accepted now that the prosody wars of the 80s and 90s are over.  But let me put a word in about syllabics, a woefully neglected metrical device.

I’m thrilled you’re writing syllabics right now.  Everyone knows about Marianne Moore’s exotic stanzas, but who’s bothered to check out your pressmate, H.L. Hix, whose book Rational Numbers takes a very different approach to syllabics?  In “Orders of Magnitude” he sequences 100 poems, 10 lines each, 10 syllables per line.  Between him and Moore you can see the breadth of syllabic possibilities. Moore’s organically formed, quantitative syllabics sit at one end of the spectrum, while Hix’s near obsessive, normative rigor marks the other.  And yet we have no book on syllabics!   David Caplan has a chapter, citing Hix, and Margaret Holley writes beautifully about Moore, but where’s the devoted study?

Much of Other Romes uses a classical hendecasyllabic line with those dropped lines (I’ll think of them now like a landscape!) breaking every other line.  For instance, I follow an 11-syllable line with 9 syllables and then (insert dropped line!) a 2 syllable tail, then 11 more, followed by 5 and 6.  More enjambments for your money and the sense—at least to me—that a classical meter is fissuring and fracturing at the seams.  Rome, of course, split apart slowly.  Take a stroll through Washington D.C. today and you’ll encounter not just the same architecture, but the same politics too.  This, I suppose, is one of the book’s other Romes, and a formal hint at the very real fissures tearing apart American democracy.  So maybe my visual metaphor, for the dropped line, should be crumbling façade?

Hmmm, I seemed to have skipped the ode.  Can I toss that one back at you?  Or perhaps you’d like to chat about poetry that’s interested in poetry.  So much of Works and Days investigates its own genre.

DEAN: I actually really liked hearing you talk about syllabics. I think syllables are a more American way of thinking about meter than accents. I also appreciate what you say about Rome, democracy, and even what we might call the architecture of power dissolving or crumbling.

I was wondering if you’d elaborate on the nexus of form and content—in particular, I am curious about how you see your interest in form (odes, sestinas, syllabics)—which some might find “conservative”—with your interest in political critique, which some might find more “progressive.” How do you marry the two in your book?

I have my own ideas about how those two seemingly unlike worlds hook up, but I’m hoping you can say more about that.

DEREK: Syllablics as a more American meter—I like that.  Particularly considering it began when Robert Bridges (a British poet laureate) misread the prosody in Milton (the most canonical British poet after Shakespeare) and wrote his own poems in so-called Neo-Miltonic syllabics.  As usual, we Yanks appropriate and improve.

Regarding the marriage of supposedly “conservative” forms with “progressive” content, I have to admit I’ve always struggled to see the politics in, say, the bare framework of a sonnet.  I suppose this is my own poetic blindspot.  Down at Stanford they talk about the “politics of form” and read Lyn Hejinian’s “The Rejection of Closure” and I just don’t see it.  This might be because the first sonnets I ever loved were in Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons—a 200+ page lesbian sex romp.  Or take Kim Addonizio.  Or Terrance Hayes.  The list goes on.

What I do think about, however, when I think about form, is the subtle (or not so subtle) ways it echoes a poem’s content.  Fellini movies are, if nothing else, carnivalesque.  So is the sestina.  Voila!  Sestinas about Fellini! That’s an easy example from my work, but it was certainly on my mind.  And it follows Cleanth Brooks line in “The Heresy of Paraphrase” that “form and content, or content and medium, are inseparable.”

It sounds, however, like you’ve a more engaging answer here. As for the ode, well, I’ve always thought of it as more a rhetorical form—of private meditation or public praise—so maybe we can leave them for Allen Tate and his Confederate dead.  Now that’s a conservative use of form.

Derek MongComment