Interview with Dan Chiasson

by Ann van Buren

Thank you for taking the time to write responses to this interview with KPS. We are looking forward to your reading on November 14, 2021. It will be live at the Katonah library at 4pm.

Ann van Buren: Your reading for KPS was originally scheduled as part of the release of Math Campers, your most recent book, which was published in 2020. My questions are focused on that volume, one of five volumes of poetry that you’ve written. I also have some questions about your writing about other poets’ work. To begin, what is it like to have such a delayed celebration? Do you recognize the writer of Math Campers or have you moved on?

Dan Chiasson: Thanks, Ann. It’s wonderful to talk. In fact, this opportunity to read at Katonah has sent me back to my book for the first time in a year. I still like it. I see it as quite different from anything I’ve ever done: a nesting doll, a series of interiors resting inside other interiors. I think it’s like a Cornell box. I actually make little Cornell-like boxes as a hobby, three-dimensional collages. The book is like that. It has depths and vanishing points. It’s a little more baroque than the poems I’m writing now. I’ll read some of those new poems at the Library. I tend to move contrapuntally, away from my last move. That’s where I am now.

AvB: I’ve read your thoughts on Bishop, Moore, and Stevens and their methods of guarding themselves through metaphor or other abstracted representations of the self. I’d like to tip my hat to one of my professors, Dr. Joanne Feit Diehl. It is from her that I first heard this line of thinking in regard to Bishop and Moore. Moore speaks through the pangolin and other species with a soft interior and hard exoskeleton and thereby conveys the need to hide or to protect what’s within. Stevens’ work, deep as it is, only skates the surface of his surroundings and interpersonal relationships. Much of the most celebrated 20th century poetry removed us from the tendency to gush with feeling, to wear our hearts on our sleeve. Do you think that this reticence or unwillingness to be naked and with our feelings in plain sight will diminish or increase as we are required to become cyborgs in our everyday lives? What are the benefits and dangers of this armoring and obfuscation? How does it allow meaning to seep through in ways that straightforward narrative or poems that follow ordinary logic might fail?

DC: Great question. Of course those writers are also, on their own terms, highly personal, devastatingly personal. Moore’s ostrich poem, “He Digesteth Harde Yron” is one of my favorites. It is about families, about her own father’s absence, even about her own physical appearance, with her much-noted long neck. Stevens: he’s the “scholar of one candle” who steps out of his house to see the Northern Lights. I guess I see all of these poets as designing a collaboration between writer and reader, utterly unique and distinct. With ostensibly impersonal poets, like Stevens, I look for the personal hurt and bereavement in the work. When I write about those obstinately difficult poets, I try to accentuate the biographical “Easter eggs” we find in the work, whatever their own prohibitions against biography. With a more direct poet—one thinks of James Schuyler—the point is to show how straightforward observation has a profound philosophical meaning, and a “made” and crafted quality as an artifact. I guess I try to make the hard poets easier, and the easy poets harder, though I don’t believe in those distinctions finally.

AvB: Math Campers is both erudite and punk. You reference the model Paulina Porizkova and TV stars Bill Bixby and Jo Anne Worley, punk bands Pinhead and The Clash. These pop references, though specific to American culture of the 1970s and 1980’s, are mythologized in that they represent age-old attitudes of bravado, sexuality, partying, youth. Would you agree? Yours is a fresh, youthful voice. I love the line “that was me and that was me” With words, you make it possible to be in two places at one time even as your use of tense acknowledges that a scene of vim and vigor has passed. As you age, as we wade through the permutations of precarious politics and a global pandemic, and as you negotiate your role as a parent and teacher rather than a child or mentee, do you think that these hip references and defiance of time are a way to spin the inevitable losses associated with the march toward the future? Do you think they are your generation’s armor?

DC: I love that insight. Yes, I see myself as distributed across all these cultural sites. Some intentionally arcane or local (Pinhead is a Burlington, Vermont band, our local punk/new wave group in the eighties). I wouldn’t know how not to be the person who listens to Joan Armatrading while reading George Herbert, or who gets an insight about Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse” while singing along to Talking Heads 77. All of these things bring me joy, and the disconnect between them is only theoretical, enforced by institutions and schools. Any one mind has so much from so many of these categories, I think.

AvB: Speaking of allusions, will you talk about your references to euphrasy and rue? Euphrasy is an herb that has been used for treating blindness and John Milton, the blind poet, mentions it in Paradise Lost in relation to The Fall. Milton also mentions rue, the bitter herb associated with the disappointments in life. Two places in your book are titled—or subtitled— “Euphrasy & Rue.” The first reference talks about falling in love. The second reference relates to the birth of your two boys.

DC: Thank you. The manuscript was once called “Euphrasy and Rue.” It’s a reference to psychedelics, for one thing, psychoactive and mind-expanding substances. But you are quite right, thank you –it comes directly from Milton’s Paradise Lost. They are the herbs applied to Adam’s eyes by the Archangel Michael. They allow him to see depth and color and meaning in the garden. To feel, also, “rue”—sadness—at the loss of beauty and meaning. Our two sons are all of these things, showing me beauty and loss.

AvB: Let’s talk about the Adamic power of naming. In what ways are we, as a species, questioning that power? You write:

and for the snowdrops whose dainty
            necks bend under the weight of the flowers
doomed when they hear their name to misunderstand
            their natures, bowed, ruined by one frigid day

Reading these lines— especially in the context of a poem dedicated to your sons and with the knowledge that you are an advocate for those who claim their right to claim their gender— I think about the people whose gender is misunderstood. Is that what you are referencing here? This is a sad moment, one that acknowledges the precarious state of human understanding when it insists upon freezing a definition of someone or something both in language and in time. Can you talk a bit about naming, being, and becoming and the ways in which traditional modes of thinking need to be challenged in order to move forward in a difficult world?

DC: That’s a very generous reading of a book which I fear isn’t political enough. But absolutely. Naming, including the names of my friends from Vermont, from high school, some of them now passed away.The other role of naming is in elegy, as in Milton’s “Lycidas,”where the catalogue of flowers stands in for all the glories of the lost world. And as an ethical matter I now learn and honor the names of my students, sometimes names they’ve chosen for themselves, often encoding the new and empowering embrace of their gender. I am a big believer in etiquette, and I’m fascinated and moved by new forms of etiquette as they emerge in new kinds of communities.

AvB: Let’s discuss ekphrasis. Of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem,” you note that the speaker recognizes a scene in a painting not by what is literally depicted but by another kind of recognition. You write that “the self is not something one comes upon in a landscape but rather a way of seeing that landscape at an emotionally consequential angle” (One Kind of Everything)

The last poem in Math Campers is also based on a work of art, a mural that your friend painted in the stairwell of your house. What do you know of ekphrastic poetry and how would you describe it?

DC: My very unscholarly “angle” on ekphrasis is that verbal imitation, or perhaps description but in the deepest and oldest sense of that word, of visual compositions, teaches us a lot about words, verbal structures, structures of feeling and insight. Those little discoveries catalyze the poem, discoveries about words, the relations among them, the feelings hiding inside them.

AvB: You use repetition in a way that is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein. You write “I was eleven, this was before my father died. Not long before.” This line repeats. There are many other examples of repetition, used in different ways.

God made change, Daniel; he made change change,
            he made reason reason, bother bother, dust dust.
But why, Sister, why, did he retire before
            he made decrease decrease, limit limit?

In another example you write “He was struck.” In the context of the poem the reader reads the word struck as a synonym for impressed by. Later in the poem you say He was struck again, and his right cheek exploded upon the blow.

Do you abide by Stein’s statement that “There is no such thing as repetition?” Can you tell us your interpretation of Stein’s idea and how it finds its way into your poetry?

DC: The Stein quote is marvelous. Yes, I agree. Each time an element is repeated its context is changed. In part changed by its being a second or third or fiftieth instance, with all those prior instances building up behind it. Incantation works that way. Since it’s Halloween, I’ll mention the scene in The Exorcist where the two priests repeat the phrase “The power of Christ compels you” to drive the devil out of the girl’s body. It doesn’t work until it’s reiterated.

I was taught things the old fashioned way, by nuns: you repeated everything as a group. French, math, social studies. It was all “repeat after me.”

But the power of repetition is just as you suggest: it marks change. It dramatizes time’s passing. Same face in the mirror every day, and yet we note the differences.

AvB: Last but not least, your book is dedicated to poet and mentor, Frank Bidart. I’ve noticed that he has come out with a new collection. Against Silence: Poems will be released on November 2nd. Have you read the collection and what do you think? Although Bidart is your mentor and teacher, has your relationship changed as you have come into your own as a poet and critic? Do you feel as though your writings are in conversation with each other?

DC: Frank is the greatest living American poet for me. Also a person I can laugh very easily with, and speak to very candidly. I don’t feel the relationship has changed; I still listen to everything he says, and read everything he writes, for ideas about how to make art, and also how to live—as a son, a partner, a father, a poet, a person making things privately and presenting them publicly. He’s always been supportive, but never false, about my work. He liked The Math Campers but not everything in it, not every structural choice I made. He thought the order of the sections was wrong. He told me this knowing I’m a big boy and could hear it. This is rarer than it should be in arts communities, where, since there is no underlying trust, every comment has to perform “support” as though the writer’s very life were on the line. The main thing is to have an interest in a person that goes beyond the very latest thing they’ve made, and he has, as have I in what he’s written. The new book may be his best. It’s political in thrilling ways, and its visions of a childhood in the desert and those people back there, way back there, parents, family, people from the past—just so moving.

AvB: Thank you so much for your time. We look forward to seeing you in person at the Katonah Village Library on November 14, 2021, at 4PM.