An Interview with Darcie Dennigan
By Kate Berner and Kara Cheever
Darcie Dennigan is the author of Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse (Fordham University Press). She has received the Poets Out Loud prize, Discovery/The Nation award, Cecil B. Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Bread Loaf Writers' Conference fellowship. Dennigan is an associate editor at H_NGM_N and poet-in-residence at the University of Connecticut. She lives in Providence. Poetry by appeared in West Branch Wired, Winter 2010.
West Branch: We noticed that the poems in your first book, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, often play with form. "We Will Meet Again on Other Pages" is structured like an e-mail, and "Seven Generations of Stephen Bruneros" is divided into sections using roman numerals. How do you think working in these forms has changed the meaning or nature of the poem, in contrast to more linear forms.
Darcie Dennigan: Paul Violi (GREAT poet of forms, of forms not normally seen as poetic forms) said, "The poem and the form often arrive together, holding hands."
So I was online, reading postings in this chatroom for Missing Persons, and this one woman kept posting things over the years about her missing sister, Brenda Crowley (http://www.websleuths.com/forums/showthread.php?t=51740) . There was something affecting not only about the loss of the person, but about the website being a place where the searchers met each other over the years. And that's why I wrote "We Will Meet Again on Other Pages" as some kind of email or online chat.
And I was sort of scanning Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, and that's why I wrote the "Seven Stephen Bruneros" in sections, with roman numerals—because there was something about a grand scale of history in that book—some kind of sweeping and omniscient perspective that I was wishing normal families had about themselves.
So the form didn't change the meaning of the poem. It was the meaning of the poem? Not that those are particularly successful poems.
WB: We're surprised you say that the poems are not particularly successful, because we loved them. In your opinion, what makes a poem successful?
DD: I wanted to thank you both for reading the book so closely, and for these questions. The poems mentioned above took too long to write and were tinkered with too much to be much pleasure in the end (no surprises! no blackout moments! while writing them).
I don't know what makes a poem I wrote successful. (That sounds like a cop-out, but it is nicer to have the process remain slightly, gallingly mysterious.) (...which makes it hard when I am the leader of a writing workshop—I've lots of writing processes to share, but no single one in which I wholeheartedly believe. As a teacher, the most valuable thing I have to offer is my own bewilderment, and my belief in the worth of bewilderment.)
But in terms of the finished product, of other people's poems—well, I love voice—if someone's voice is strong (that is, if the voice isn't subsumed by the poem, or by the poetic voice), I'll read on and on. I love big, sprawling poems of excess, possibly because it's easier to hear a voice somewhere in all that mess—Paul Muldoon's poems—I find them so funny and achingly sad and so particularly his—or Matt Hart's love-rant poems. But even austere poems have it. I love the brooding and sort of self-deprecating feeling/voice in Joshua Beckman's haiku. So that might be one element that makes a certain poem, or a certain kind of poem, successful?
WB: We enjoyed listening to your poetry reading at the Stadler Center. Hearing your poetry read aloud illuminated the tone and voice in your poems. We're curious how you craft tone and voice in your writing. Are there any techniques that you use to shape a voice in a poem, and do you find, after reviewing your poems, writerly tics or tendencies that lend to the development of voice?
DD: The first two especially point to matters (i.e., problems) that I think about whenever I write.
How to, as you put it, "shape a voice," in a poem—that problem is galvanizing. Probably the two things I have open on my lap the most frequently as I write, because the voice in each is so loud, are "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Donald Barthelme's short story "The School." Bartleby and Barthelme—if I had any kind of pet-twin doberman pinschers?— (When Barthelme died, the title of one of his newspaper literary obits was "Barthelme the Scrivener.")
BUT— Afterward, when it comes time to see what someone I admire thinks, thinking about the issues around shaping a voice, and the "writerly tics or tendencies" that I might have used to do so—is dispiriting.
You yourselves said that after hearing me read aloud from some of my poems, the poems, the tone and voice became clearer to you. I have never heard a recording of Barthelme reading "The School," and if I stumbled into a room where it was being played (if such a thing even exists!) I would block my ears à la a four-year old mid-tantrum and sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." I hear that story (to me it works more like a poem—I think it is a poem) so clearly in my head—I hear the tone and its nuances clearer than I can hear many of my own thoughts.
But to speak specifically of my failures: ellipses. I have been using ellipses in poems—instead of line breaks, instead of finishing thoughts, instead of giving any complete utterance the kind of finality a period would, instead of a lot of things. And this has mostly met with not much success. The person who used ellipses dashingly, and whom I was copying, is Celine. He said that he was always trying to figure out if emotion & voice could be captured in writing—ellipses were his way of trying to do it. He also said "all kingdoms end in a dream"—I'm not sure the context in which he said that, but I hope it was while defending his use of ellipses! Celine was a prose writer. Technical innovations (beyond plain genius, like Brigit Pegeen Kelly) when it comes to conveying voice, poetry-wise-Frank Bidart? Emily Dickinson? I am definitely the worst-read poet when it comes to the work of Emily Dickinson, and the ellipsis is not the dash, but I also just wanted to say that when I think about how to convey feeling in a poem, I find her use of that punctuation mark inspiring. Those dashes interrupting make me feel as if she is a protagonist and not a narrator of her poem...and that's better, because of course a narrator feels omniscient while a protagonist is just participating, not commenting—not giving us the right answers or filling in the blanks. Also sometimes those dashes make the lines feel, to me, kind of hesitant, and here I will quote a line by Fanny Howe (a line that used to be the signature line on the poet Brent Armendinger's emails): "Doubt is what allows a single gesture to have a heart."
WB: You've mentioned reading a wide range of work. As young writers, we face the challenge of filtering readings and finding creative sparks. How does such a broad range of literature influence your creative process?
DD: Do you feel like I do—that almost nothing makes you want to write except reading?
A really long time ago, the submarine the Kursk sank, and they weren't sure they could rescue the sailors inside—they thought they maybe had four days' worth of air—and I wrote a poem during that four-day period because something about my imaginings off of that story made me kind of spill over—so that was a rare, non-reading inspired poem, but even that poem came from reading the newspaper. No birds, no relationship dramas, no Atlantic tides, no visions—I wish I had visions, I wish I had access to other portals—reading is the only thing that makes me want to write.
WB: Many of the poems in Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse have a prominent mother figure or presence. In "New Mothers," clocks are substitute mothers for orphaned children. In "The Feeling of the World As a Bounded Whale Is the Mystical," there is a reversal of roles between a maternal figure and a child. What is the significance of motherhood in this book?
DD: I can't quite put my finger on the source at the moment, but Eileen Myles—I think in an interview with Maggie Nelson for her book Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions? which is a totally great book for everyone to read (I would say "especially female writers looking for poetic models"—but then again, no, I'm hoping special categories won't be necessary at some point, and really, why couldn't male writers find something in the narratives of the careers of these brilliant women?) but I had to return it to the library—anyway, somewhere, Eileen Myles says "I made the model of what I needed there to be." When I read that line, I wrote it down on an index card right away and put it next to my bed. That sounds dramatic. It's not as if there aren't SO many writers I love and want to emulate, but no matter how many idols I have, there's always a lingering vacuum. How to write and how to live—how to live as a writer—how to be true to your writing and not be an ass—how to be a human in this world and how to bring that experience into your writing—how to write at all, well and true and not waste anyone's time with crappy or unnecessary output—everything! For a long time, I was embarrassed about writing. To write the way I wanted to I needed so much time, and it got in the way of other, more normal-seeming pursuits, and I felt guilty about that. And angry that I felt guilty about it. That's not the case anymore, but I still feel pulled. I could go on & on about this. But the point is, I wanted a model. I wanted just one person in the world, in whose writing AND in whose life I could see my own—and s/he is harder than I thought to find. You could call that person a mentor. I guess in Corinna that person is manifested as a mother figure. And that makes me the child?
WB: You spoke of searching for a model in the arts community. In your opinion, what is your role in it and how do you participate, locally and at large?
DD: Locally—with William Walsh, Amish Trimedi, and John Madera, curating a reading series here in Providence: Cousins.
Sometimes I get to go to the Publicly Complex series at the elegant paradise Ada Books, also in Providence, for which one of the curators, the poet Kate Schapira bakes chocolate chip cherry cookies—sometimes I even bring my daughter. There's a community writers' workshop that my friend Liz Howort and I co-founded, Frequency Providence, and I love to facilitate workshops through that organization. Also, at the moment I have the great luck of being a writer in residence at UConn, and subsequently a part of their talented and very lively creative writing community.
"At large"—it's awesome to be one of Nate Pritt's assistant editors for H_NGM_N, especially now that H_NGM_N is publishing books and chapbooks too.
Official roles—check. But I have a feeling that's not what you were exactly asking? I don't know—work hard—harder, love my friends and their work, love my students and their work, and...