Philip Dacey is the author of twelve books of poetry, most recently Gimme Five (2013), the winner of the Blue Light Press Book Award. The recipient of three Pushcart Prizes, two NEA grants, and a Fulbright
lectureship for his poetry, he has written entire collections of poems about Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Eakins, and New York City. His work has appeared in the Hudson Review, Partisan Review, Poetry, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Esquire, Paris Review, The Nation,
and The American Scholar. In 2012 he moved from Manhattan’s Upper
West Side to Minneapolis. To learn more about Philip Dacey please visit http://www.philipdacey.com/bio.html
Interview by: g emil reutter
GER:There has been much debate about the relevance of poetry and poets in recent years. Your career spans decades. Has this been a consistent presence on the poetry scene or a new argument?
PD: I think it’s inevitable that the question is a perennial one since
poetry is conspicuously both a necessary and a useless art. “Useless” as in “non-utilitarian.” We know it’s necessary because of its constancy in human history; we know it’s useless because that same history was, and remains, “a vale of tears,” unchanged by the poets. Dr. Williams famously said, “You can’t get the news from poetry, but men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” It so happens I’ve been reading the new book of essays about the work of Stephen Dunn, The Room and the World, where the issue you raised is much explored. A consistent theme there is that poetry serves by shining a light on the limitations of language and human perception, and therefore the limitations of itself, and in the process of doing so points the way toward what truly is as opposed to comfortable illusions about what is.
GER: Your poems have been set to various musical genres. How has this
impacted your poetry and how has the added exposure aided you in your
pursuit of the art?
PD: I’ve always thought that the poet envies the musician, as the musician can make pure music while the poet has to make music through the medium of language, with all its varied baggage. Words as means to an end; the end as music. Maybe I’m a frustrated musician and why I became a Juilliard junkie during my eight years living in Manhattan. Maybe I shouldn’t have quit piano lessons in grade school when it came time to give a recital and I panicked. I’d like to think that musicians’ interest in my work has confirmed my tendency to see poetry as fundamentally a musical art, with words substituting for notes. I’ll call Frost as my witness: “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.” (An interesting coincidence: after answering your second question, I picked up Eliot’s Four Quartets to do some re-reading and the first line I flipped the book open to was “Words move, music moves.”) Poetry as music versus poetry–back to question #1–as tool for accurately describing the self and world seem to conflict, but I’d simply say that Poetry as a Platonic absolute does not exist and instead there are poetries plural; no Chairness but lots of chairs of all sorts.
PD: As with poetry itself, important and not important. Clearly important for a career as poet, maybe too for building self-confidence, but in terms of actually impacting on the poetry and its strength I don’t see how there can be a connection. How many fellowships did Dickinson get? There can be a danger, too, in careerism, where “making it” takes precedence over “making the poems.” And maybe the emphasis should be even more on the making than on the poems themselves; the process as the goal; the journey as destination. It’s easy to forget, given the star-quality of so many poets, that only a small percentage of them will be read by posterity. Yeats when asked to comment on his poet-ontemporaries said, “One thing is certain: there are too many of us.” The many disappear, and the few remain. My way of dealing with that fact is to be grateful for the life that poetry has given me, a life I couldn’t have predicted when I was younger
GER: Tell us of your New York experience, how it impacted your work and about your return to Minnesota?
PD: I don’t think it changed my work–my aesthetic, my work habits–at all but it did me give me some new material for poems. The result was my book of postcard sonnets. I went there simply to learn what it was like to be a resident of that great city. I’d been there many times over the years, starting with summers when my mother and I took a Greyhound bus from St. Louis to visit relatives in New York, where my mother was born. I trained there one summer for the Peace Corps, in 1963. I had been there to give readings. I always knew it as an outsider and wanted to know it from the inside. I discovered, contrary to what many people think, that it is a very livable city. I must quickly confess, however, my apartment was on the Upper West Side, which is not typical of all New York. I always said I lived in the greatest neighborhood in the greatest borough in the greatest city in the world. My reasons for returning to Minnesota were multiple and complicated, involving my partner (her reluctance to live full-time there), my loyalty (sentimental or not) to the Midwest and Minnesota (coming full-circle back to the Mississippi, originally in St. Louis,
now in Minneapolis), the voice of my working-class upbringing guilting me for a certain uppitiness, my having stopped exploring the city and fallen into a pattern of narrowly focussing on my neighborhood (a cornucopian one but still a small part of the whole city), the consideration of where I wanted to spend my last years, and the accomplishment of my three goals (to have a post-retirement adventure, to learn what living in the city was like, and to write a book about New York). Becoming a permanent resident wasn’t an explicit goal, though the possibility wasn’t initially ruled out either.
PD: The publisher of that book, Rain Mountain Press, was also the publisher of the earlier book of New York postcard sonnets; at one point they said they wanted to do another book, and after thinking of various options I decided that scattered throughout my work were a lot of short poems that maybe got lost in the crowd of other, longer pieces. And of course there’s a long tradition of short poems from classical epigrammatists to Basho and company and up to the Imagists. After such big projects of mine as the Hopkins and Eakins books, working with the new and selected short poems felt like a playground to me.
PD: I had previously published two chapbooks of such poems, each with five stanzas and five lines per stanza. It’s a format I fell into early and have frequently returned to over the years. I decided it was time to make a larger collection of the best of my 5×5 poems that hadn’t yet been included in any of my full-length books. One chapbook was called Fives, the other Mr. Five-by-Five. My very first published poem in 1967 in The Beloit Poetry Journal was such a fiver. For me, a 5×5 poem lets me take a stand on a border between free verse and formalism–thus I call it a format rather than a form–though of course I also like wholly entering the territories on either side of the border and regularly do so.
GER: You live with your partner, the poet Alixa Doom by Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. You are both fine poets in your own right. What is it like to be in love with a fellow poet and do you inspire each other’s work?
PD: I’ve published a chapbook of poems Alixa inspired, The Adventures of Alixa Doom, and have since expanded it into a full-length book, The Complete Adventures of Alixa Doom and Other Love Poems, which has no publisher yet. I’m happy to say that as two poets under one roof we are not competitive with each other but supportive, in the form of both general encouragement and regular critiquing of each other’s work. We have significant differences as poets–the term “nature poet” would apply to Alixa but not to me (to my discredit, no doubt)–but they don’t interfere with our teamwork; rather, they provide occasions for affectionate teasing and banter.
GER: What poets inspired you or continue to inspire you and do you consider yourself to have a direct lineage to any of them?
PD: James Dickey was an early influence. Before reading him, I was mainly interested in writing prose fiction (which I was terrible at). He seemed to open the door to the possibilities of poetry for me. Of
course, I was familiar with Hopkins, given my sixteen years of Catholic education, and a book of poems about him was the ultimate result. My favorite living poet was Seamus Heaney; there are no words for the loss his death represents. Another living poet? I’m a fan of Ashbery although he’s hardly like Heaney. I’m at the place in my life generally and as a poet that I feel I should definitely read more dead poets than living ones; thus my re-reading of Eliot, as mentioned above. There’s less time now to “keep up” with new voices than to listen to old ones. I wouldn’t presume to include myself in any literary lineage; I see my fate as that of compost in the vineyard where great writers have labored, a fate I’m happy to accept.
GER: Prior to your university education your received instruction from the Incarnate Word nuns and Jesuit priests. You were a Peace Corps Volunteer and have traveled to such various places as Africa, Asia and Europe. How has this impacted your writing and your life?
PD: I believe I received a good sixteen-year education from the nuns and priests and am grateful to them for that. Part of my education was Latin; five years of it, and I even taught Latin for a year in Nigeria as part of my Peace Corps stint there (just what developing West Africa needed, right, Latin?). In fact, I think my years with Latin have been a plus for my writing as a poet. For a sense of both etymology and syntax. I tend to be what I call a grammar Nazi. I owe that to the Jesuits. As to travel, I’ve written poems about all the continents you mention, so my jaunts have certainly given me material. It occurs to me, now that you get me thinking about it, that all my travelling connects in some way to my eclecticism, for both as reader and writer I tend to be “all over the map.” But now after so much travelling, capped by my eight years in Manhattan, I’m feeling travelled-out.. Time to take stock ? Time to give considered attention to the needs of the home stretch?
GER: What projects are you currently working on?
PD: I’ve written and published a book’s worth of poems on Walt Whitman and am currently looking for a publisher for that. Also, the New York publisher who produced my New York poems and the collection of short ones wants to do another collection of mine, and I’m in the process of putting together a book of–unlike my last five books–miscellaneous poems. The last five all had a special focus: Thomas Eakins, New York, short poems, sonnets, and 5×5 poems. My last miscellany–The Paramour of the Moving Air, a Quarterly Review of Literature book–was 15 years ago, so my problem has been selecting from among all the poems I published during that time; too many to choose from; maybe a nice problem to have but still a challenge. I’m something of a factory–I like to joke that the E. P. A. has threatened to shut me down–and always wince to recall Stevie Smith’s crack: “Mediocre poets publish every day of the week and twice on Sunday.”
The poetry of Philip Dacey is forthcoming in the Winter 2014 edition of The Fox Chase Review. Previous work has appeared at this link in The Fox Chase Review. http://www.foxchasereview.org/11WS/PhilipDacey.html and http://www.foxchasereview.org/11AW/PDacey.html