Interview with Donald Dunbar, winner of the 2012 Modern Poet Series
By Louis Esterhuizen
Donald Dunbar co-curates the reading series If Not For Kidnap and teaches poetry to future chefs at Oregon Culinary Institute. Fence, who released his first full collection, Eyelid Lick, as the 2012 Fence Modern Poets Prize winner. Stylistically, the book is a surreal text whose poetry is anchored by its syntactical coherence. This allows it to be able to diverge and digress, confusing and swapping nouns and pronouns, describing abnormal situations, all while never seeming to really lose the reader. Eyelid Lick is borne out of individual psychedelic experience into a world of streaming communication. These loose, runny poems seek intimacy through testimonial. There’s the sensation of the lick, and the sensation of being licked, and if both people know each other enough both sides of the lick can be felt.
“I think part of the abundance of new poetry is people figuring out that poetry doesn’t have to be dissected to be meaningful; that it can explain personal truths.” – DD.
1.Donald, thank you for this opportunity. You were the winner of the 2012 Modern Poet Series, a prize which resulted in the publication of your collection of poems entitled “Eyelid Lick”. Can you provide us with some background concerning this competition and what it entails?
Fence started out in the late 90’s as a literary magazine, and then began publishing books in 2001. “It is Fence‘s mission to encourage writing that might otherwise have difficulty being recognized because it doesn’t answer to either the mainstream or to recognizable modes of experimentation,” and I think they do that without trying to make a distinct school themselves. A number of my favorite poets have published books with them, and I’m slowly working on collecting every book Fence has put out, but plenty of the books have very little aesthetically in common.
I don’t know the history behind the Fence Modern Poets Prize, besides previous winners’ books, but I’d bet 90% of US poets in general would say the “winning a prize” aspect of competitions is completely secondary to getting a book published.
I think that what the “contest model” allows a publisher to do is a wide search for mostly finished books that they want to publish, while using contest fees to help fund the press, and weeding out the casual poetry writer who probably won’t want to pay the fees. Except for the word “contest”, I’ve never understood a distinction between that and an open reading period.
2. You are, amongst other things, coordinator of the reading series “If Not For Kidnap Poetry”. Can you elaborate on this project, please?
If Not For Kidnap started in April, 2009, after Jamalieh Haley and I met at a few poetry readings around Portland. Portland is a very literary town, with a Do-It-Yourself culture that’s been its defining characteristic for the past 30 years or so, as well as regionally specific mindset that enable arts organizations and businesses like Powell’s Bookstore to thrive. It’s been a very liberal town for more than a century. But Portland’s also had a massive influx of young artists in the last fifteen years—people who move here for cultural, rather than economic, reasons. We started Kidnap in part to provide a space for connecting people with a community, and in part because Jamalieh and I wanted to know what was happening in the various poetry scenes around town. Also, we held it for the first three years in my living room, which meant I didn’t have to leave the house to socialize.
Now, we’ve held about 40 readings in total (over 80 poets, over 30 musical acts), and have brought two more friends, Ethan and Stacey, into Kidnap. We’ve begun branching out more into barbeques and poets potlucks, and are releasing a first anthology of poets who’ve read for us. Our mission evolves weekly, but the thing it’s always been easiest for us to agree upon—and something embraced by every local reading series I know of—is a commitment to the Portland community. There’s always, in my experience, been a genuine camaraderie between the artist groups of Portland, many of whom are doing way different things. It’s like, “oh, you’re a nerd? I’m a nerd too!”
3. Your poems, and especially the one that I copied in my blog, certainly would come as a shock to most Afrikaans poetry readers. (Hence Leon Retief’s comment.) However, I would describe the quoted poem as an example of anti-poetry … Am I correct in this? How would you characterize your own poetry? (And please, you are most welcome to quote examples in order to accentuate your answer.)
I think a lot of what I’ve done is right in the tradition of lyric poetry. The mind/soul/feeling/etc. behind a poem—the poet—and the desire to give a reader access to that. And some of my poems are more traditional than others—the dedication page of Eyelid Lick is also a poem (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOhL6h2kI1s) and it uses a whole bunch of sonic devices, proclaims emotion, etc..
I think the poem you quoted is in this vein as well; it’s more concerned with producing emotion than making rational sense, it uses images to produce emotional effect, it has a speaker… It’s been about four years since I wrote that poem, so I’m not sure what I was thinking at the time, but I do know it was during a time of grief, and I think the kind of nihilistic energy of the piece speaks to that. The breaths/stops (“[ ]”s) are probably the most interesting parts of that poem for me now. They seem to create a rhythmic patterning, much like more traditional lineation would, while being more suggestive of something missing or of possibility than line breaks would.
I’m not sure I can give a clear overview of my work as I’m not done doing it yet, but I can talk about Eyelid Lick. The book is about love and death. The poems in the book tend to melt into each other, entering each other and blooming out into other poems. The speaker of the poems drifts from very sincere to lunatic to wounded to serene to prophetic to lots and lots of things, sometimes very quickly. I appropriate other forms of text into the poems—letters, comment cards, BASIC programming code, text from online games and message boards, etc..
In my view of it, poetry can seep into anything. In the past, media was a lot harder to come by—both because of a relative scarcity and because it used to cost a lot more—so poetry had to use devices like rhyme and regular rhythm so as to be remembered, and thereby distributed. Now, most people in the US spend most of their days consuming media, whether via internet, television, or just listening to music while at work. Part of my project with Eyelid Lick is to expand the notion of what can be done in poetry, and to explore how poetry might be born in and of other media’s secret bones.
4. What is your personal impression of the poetry scene in the USA? I realize that this somewhat unfair question invites generalization, but what I am aiming for, is a response to the enormous volume of poetry production and the implications this has on the reception and appreciation of poetry publications.
I think poetry-as-a-genre is a very different thing than poetry-as-a-culture, and I think both are growing, though in very different ways. Poetry-as-a-genre is literally more accessible than ever. Anyone can self-publish a book, and this most enables people who write poetry do it for a very private audience—themselves, their close ones, or to some notion of “history”.
I love it that civilians don’t hate poetry as much as they used to; poetry became especially unpopular in the US during the last half of the 20th century, due in large part I think to the educational systems. As it was taught to me in school, you had to dissect a poem to find out “what it means.” There was never any suggestion that one could try to experience a poem, like they would experience any other kind of media, and really, the classroom is not the place to experience things like that. I think part of the abundance of new poetry is people figuring out that poetry doesn’t have to be dissected to be meaningful; that it can explain personal truths.
There are still some major differences in poetry-as-a-culture—strains of traditionalism that are concerned primarily with the short narrative lyric and nature poetry, performance-oriented descendants of the 90’s slam scene, the mostly young whole-life-persona-y “Alt-Lit” crew, the new academics incorporating rigorous theory into very avant garde writing, etc. etc. etc., but something most of these cultures share is the belief poetry can do a lot more than explain personal truths.
For these tribes, I don’t know if there’s been a more vibrant time. Although sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the number of readings to go to in a given week, I can’t think of another time when one could read such a variety and abundance of truly great new work. And as poetry grows further out of the notion of “mainstream vs. outsider” into a more rhizomatic understanding of different poetry cultures, this also gives it access to audiences that aren’t excited by the canonical ten poets ever taught in school.
5. We are currently experiencing the first pangs of a “Us vs Them”-scenario in Afrikaans poetry; “Us, the young aspiring poets of new technology” versus “Them, the older, canonized poets of grandeur”. Do you have the same divide in your poetry? What are your personal sentiments concerning this, or is it of no significance?
This used to be a big thing for US poetry. With the consolidation of publishing houses in the 90s, the overwhelming entrenchment of poets in universities, and cases of blatant favoritism for prizes or positions, not only were fewer poetry books getting published, but to get one published it seemed you should write in a very certain way or be friends with some very certain people. This is not at all the case anymore, and I think combined with the near-universal education of young poets—an education that involves learning to appreciate a wide range of modern through ancient poetry—young poets are more able to appreciate older poets, as they do many different poetic traditions and cultures.
As I was thinking about this question, I realized that access to the internet has been far more wide-spread in the US and for much longer than in South Africa. In this time period I was just talking about, it seemed like a lot of older poets kind of resisted the internet, and didn’t know much about it (with some great exceptions, i.e. Ron Silliman). I think pretty overwhelmingly they have discovered it for what it is—an endless text—and have gotten on board with it. You can’t be too hardened in your views when you’re a click away from a hundred different interpretations of a thing, or a hundred different wonders.
This is a poem by John Berryman, from a series of poems he worked on through the 60’s called collectively The Dream Songs. I was obsessed with these for four or five years for their combination of slightly dirty wit, sonic intensity, and tight phrasing. It’d be easy to make a good case for Berryman being one of the very few most influential US poets of the last half-century.
It’s helpful to know that when he’s saying “He” he is usually talking about himself.
Dream Song 96
Under the table, no. That last was stunning,
that flagon had breasts. Some men grow down cursed.
Why drink so, two days running?
two months, O seasons, years, two decades running?
I answer (smiles) my question on the cuff:
Man, I been thirsty.
The brake is incomplete but white costumes
threaten his rum, his cointreau, gin-&-sherry,
his bourbon, bugs um all.
His go-out privilege led to odd red times,
since even or especially in hospital things get hairy.
He makes it back without falling.
He sleep up a short storm.
He wolf his meals, lamb-warm.
Their packs bump on their’ -blades, tan canteens swing,
for them this day my dawn’s old, Saturday’s IT,
through town toward a Scout hike.
For him too, up since two, out for a sit
now in the emptiest freshest park, one sober fling
before correspondence & breakfast.