The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Dean Young


Every month, the Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with the author of the book we’ve been discussing. This month is extraordinary, however, because our poet, Dean Young, had a heart transplant on April 15, just over two weeks ago. I feel safe in suggesting that no one here believed we would be chatting with Young so soon after his surgery, but his recovery so far has been such that he was able to join us. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion (you can read the unedited transcript here).

Camille D.: Elaine, welcome. It’s game time and you’re here. Want to start with the first questions?

Brian S: I have to ask, before we get to the poems, how ‘s the recovery going Dean? Quicker than any of us expected, that’s for sure.

Dean Young: Well, it’s a low slow battle both with recovery from the operation and then rehabbing and getting used to the meds but making progress.

Elaine Bleakney: Sure thing. There’s been some talk in the discussion about the epigraph to the book. Some felt directly addressed, others felt like it forecasts the self-deprecation throughout the poems. I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the decision to include it? And by it I mean “dumbass.”

Dean: There’s a kind of fallen nature to the concerns of these poems and mostly it is directed at meself, saying to give it a shoot and write as passionately and as differently as you can.

Sean Singer: Many of these poems show the speaker under some urgency and pressure, trying to understand disparate images, or maintain equilibrium, and yet there is little in the poems that might be considered personal. So, can they be considered anti-lyrical?

Dean: I wouldn’t think so because for me the fundamental aspect of the lyric is singing or trying to sing and as I’ve said the poem makes up the poet to write it.

Brian S: One of my favorite poems in the book, though, is one of what I’d say is the most personal–“Late Valentine”–I guess because it’s full of such intimacy even while addressing an unknowable other.

Dean: It’s a bit corny which is ok I guess.

Brian S: I dig corny, which is good given that I’m moving to Iowa in a couple of months.

Sean Singer: I noticed many of the lines here approximate blank verse. I find this a way to resolve deliberately inchoate materials into form. Since blank verse is equivalent in tone and weight to the “heroic” line, and the line of epic, is there an effort in this book to write a modern version of those?

Dean: Well, I count to ten on some kind of inner timer then see what’s happening with the line unless I intentionally interrupt that.

Camille D.: You say that you’re aiming to write “as differently as you can.” Can you speak to some of the things you see yourself doing dramatically differently in this book than in some of your other collections? And did (how?) the compilation of THE ART OF RECKLESSNESS also play a role in this desire to write “differently”?

Dean: I think because of what was happening in my life I felt new musics come upon me, the silliness of those gawky end-rhymed poems and some of the poems that seem to flirt directly with form in a way I haven’t before.

Art of Wrecking is a compilation of years of thinking so that’s been with me for a while.

Camille D.: I sort of loved that portmanteau.

Dean: Thanks.

Brian S: I saw a bunch of references to hearts and many to cutting in the poems in this book. Was that intentional, or was that just your subconscious manifesting itself? Or was it just me noticing it because of your surgery?

Dean: The heart issues have been with me deeply for a long time.

Elaine: Do you have favorite formal poems, Dean?

Dean: Of course, Shakespeare’s sonnets can sure fill the bill and I love some of Koch’s adventures. Favorite poems–hard to say, they’re in the past now, my own that is, my favorites are usually recent writ.

Sean Singer: Many if not most of these poems use some of the strategies of the Surrealists, but in a more earnest or sincere manner. Given that much contemporary poetry has been ironic in tone, is there a concerted effort to adhere fantastic images with a heartfelt view of the world the poems inhabit?

Dean: Sean, that sounds good. I do believe that irony is a big contagion for younger poets and we have to search our way through to new forms of sincerity, through not around

Sean Singer: OK.

Elaine: Shakespeare & Koch. A great cocktail.

Dean: Or weird law firm.

Sean Singer: The images and metaphors here, and the seemingly effortless ability to connect far-flung ideas seems almost electronic, yet . Can this electronic affect be attributed to syntax or to tone or to line, or something else?

Dean: I think I try to pay attention to as many things as I can simultaneously and grab onto whatever wire seems most glowing–sometimes it is the imperatives of poetic concerns others times imagination.

Kevin: Hi everybody, thanks for being here Dean. I’m curious about “The Rhythms Pronounce Themselves Then Vanish.” It makes a perfect companion to Fall Higher—was it written after the book had already gone to the printer?

Dean: Yes it was

Camille D.: The titles of these poems really struck me. They were so often so very direct, and frequently tonally complicated or contradictory (“Fucked -Up Ode,” “The True Apology Takes Years.” Titling is an too frequently underrated skill. Can you speak to your thought processes in coming up with titles for your poems?

Dean: Sometimes the titles present themselves as announcements of the poem’s concern, other they inhabit a space of their own somewhat as a line of poetry.

Brian S: Throw “Is This Why Love Almost Rhymes With Dumb?” as one of those great titles.

Dean: Thanks.

Camille D.: I was thinking of adding that one to the list, Brian. It has that contradiction in it. Among other things, it admits the possibility of failure right away. So often poets are afraid to do anything that might prove they can’t accomplish the perfect poem. But that title, and so many others says to hell with that fear but at the same time embraces it.

Dean: And is comfortably embarrassed by it perhaps.

Brian S: I think I’m the opposite–I figure I’ll never write a perfect poem, so I just run stuff out there and see what happens. 🙂

Dean: That’s the spirit

Camille D.: Perfection is overrated.

PoetonPoetry: Have your health issues changed your view of poetry in anyway?

Dean: No, if anything they’ve just made me miss having the strength and time to get back to that familiar headplace.

Brian S: I figure perfection is impossible, and besides, it’s likely to be a little boring. Give me jagged edges any day.

Dean: It’s better with the cracks–Duchamp.

Camille D.: The eye doesn’t love a perfect object. Nature is asymmetrical. I suppose poetry’s logic ought to be slightly off balance too. Still, there is so often a desire to hide the imperfections. Not the comfortable embarrassment with the reality of those imperfections Dean’s just suggested and this book reflects.

Brian S: I take it the recovery is proceeding according to plan, then? How long before you’re back to, or better than normal?

Dean: Hard to say.

Brian S: There was a recent piece in the Times about how music tickles our brains, and one of the things it likes is the variations, the mistakes, if you will. Seems to me that’s the same with any art form.

Dean: Yes but also the return of melody.

Melody, which is basically return.

Brian S: Absolutely. We like the patterns, but we don’t want them to be exactly alike every time.

Camille D.: Expectation. Expectation. Expectation. Surprise! Expectation.

Sean Singer: My favorite poem in the book was “Articles of Faith,” and I think I laughed out loud when I first read it. What can you say about the element of surprise in a poem versus the element of surprise in a joke?

Brian S: Sean, that was one of my favorites as well.

Dean: I think there’s lots that can be similar about jokes and poems, it was Apolloniaire who put surprise as central to poetry and we can be surprised by many things, none more so than the truth.

Camille D.: Somewhat along the line of this expectation/surprise inquiry, I’m wondering what your take on discovery is on a poem. So many poets talk about the importance of a poem’s journey being a discovery process. Since your poems so consistently land somewhere unexpected for me (as the reader), but the landing always feels right, I wonder if you can speak a little to your drafting process and how you guide your poems towards their conclusions. I suppose this is a variation of the old, “When do you know a poem’s finished” question.

Dean: I know the poems finished when it feels like it’s got somewhere and those last lines have a kind of lyrical power. My process if to begin messily and proceed through drafts by hand and typewriter to some sort of what feels to me coherent charged system.

Brian S: One of the poems that really hit home to me was “The True Apology Takes Years” in part because I’ve had issues with my parents for over a decade now. Can you talk a little about where that poem came from?

Thelma: Typewriter?

Gaby: This seems to be a central theme of the book (the wondrous surprise of the truth). And maybe it’s the same as the return to melody. I love Late Valentine so much. It seems to me to be an “adult” poem in the best possible way. The whole book feels that way to me.

I keep thinking of going back to the typewriter.

Dean: Yes typewriter.

Brian, that’s one of the oldest poems in the book and I can’t much remember what prompted it sorry.

Elaine: Are you a movie, television fan? I’m wondering about pop culture and how the way language is used there may be informing the tone/posture in lines like “Well, screw you, to be sick/of metaphor is to be sick of the otherness/of life…” The way the line breaks deepen the antagonism, yet the antagonism feels culturally familiar, extracted from the days of our lives…

Dean: Maybe not the soap opera itself but Days of Our Lives yes. I try to soak it all up.

Brian S: Okay, now the geek is coming out in me–what kind of typewriter?

Dean: A 1955 Remington Quiet-Riter.

Brian S: Wow. I can’t imagine what it must be like to get parts for it.

Dean: I have two.

poetonpoetry: Wow! 1955, that’s probably worth something, not to mention that it is yours!

Dean: Old as me but with a ribbon that’s easier to change.

poetonpoetry: Didn’t even think about that–didn’t know there were still typewriter ribbons out there.

Dean: Don’t scare me.

Camille D.: That’s a hell of a line: “Old as me but with a ribbon that’s easier to change.”

Dean: Up for grabs.

Brian S: My partner (now fiancee) has a Royal portable, and finding ribbons for it is difficult, though not impossible online. And finding correction tape is even harder.

poetonpoetry: You should raffle it off for medical expenses!

Dean: No way, it’s a limb.

poetonpoetry: Oh, I thought you meant the typewriter was up for grabs.

Thelma: Speaking of your own (new) ribbon, do you know if it came from a reckless motorcyclist?

Dean: No, very complicated and regulated and careful system through which contact can be made with door’s (Ed: Typo left in for reasons which will become clear later) family.

poetonpoetry: What inspires you?

Dean: I try to live constantly inspired. Right now grapes.

poetonpoetry: Are you writing about grapes?

Dean: I’m writing beside grapes.

Camille D.: Back to the poems (not that typewriters don’t intrigue me). So many of your poems are these long justified, unbroken columns. And then on rare occasion you vary that form and make other indention and stanza decisions. Why the variation? Moreover, at what point in crafting the poems do you find yourself compelled to vary your more standard form?

Dean: The variation is sometimes imposed by the sense that damnit I’ve written another poem that looks exactly like the last.

Brian S: So you change to keep from falling into a pattern, a rut?

poetonpoetry: Green or red?

Dean: Yes from red to green and those sorts of changes make others occur.

Camille D.: You needn’t look much further than your own comments on this chat for inspiration. Another line I’m now in love with comes from a typo (and I suppose this might be a compelling reason to use a typewriter, you have to face your typos more profoundly). Rather than donor’s family you wrote “door’s.” In this case, that typo is profoundly and compellingly beautiful to me.

Brian S: I find myself having to change machines, at times. An old laptop for writing and my newer one for grading.

roxanna: Joining late so sorry if this has already been covered, was wondering who you read, which contemporary poets?

Dean: Thanks, those mistakes can seem god-sent.

I read voraciously omnivorously just now reading Matt Rohrer’s and Matt Hart’s new books. I try to be influenced by everyone although if you asked directly who I am influenced by it would be mostly a wish-list.

Rebecca Ruth: I appreciated the variation of forms–especially because I felt the speakers voice remain clear–often times with an episodic offhand nature that you seem to weave well no matter what the chosen structure.

Dean: Thanks.

poetonpoetry: Yes, can you name your favorite poet of all time?

Dean: What day is it? Too many and constantly shifting

Brian S: What about your earliest influence then? The one who made you want to write poetry?

Dean: The first was Dr Seuss then a bit later Hopkins and Frank O’Hara.

poetonpoetry: I LOVE Dr. Suess!

Dean: I’ve been writing poetry since I could write and just never stopped.

Brian S: I envy that so much. I get into dry spells where I can’t write a word for weeks.

Dean: Sure but one must write through them I feel, rather than wait.

Camille D.: I never thought about it, but there is some similarity between Seuss and Hopkins. And I mean that in the most flattering light for both.

poetonpoetry: Go Dog Go-Do you like my hat? No, I do not like your hat. Goodbye! Goodbye! How can you not be moved by that?

Dean: One fish two fish red fish blue fish glory be for dappled things.

Camille D.: hark, wallflowers, only 10 minutes left to get your questions in!

Rebecca Ruth: Those are two poets who make it look pretty easy–but have a depth that leaves one far from whimsy. (O’Hara/ Seuss)

poetonpoetry: LOL I’m loving it! I have even greater respect for you now that I know how much you like Dr. Suess!

Dean: Thanks but doesn’t everyone like the doctor?

Brian S: In “Changing Genres,” you say now you want a Russian novel–is that your next project? My tongue is only partly in my cheek here.

roxanna: Of course! When you’re writing first drafts do you ask anyone’s opinion about your work, who do you trust to give you feedback?

poetonpoetry : Do you write for an audience or for yourself?

Dean: No novels coming. Sometimes I’ll read something to my wife, Laurie but never a first draft.

Probably mostly myself. An audience is such an invisible thing.

Rebecca Ruth: Do you see your poetry as a forum to synthesize nature and humanity- or is it something that happens without conscious effort? I’ve noticed a lot of poems that have the habits of small creatures following or preceding fairly predictable human behavior. (i.e. “Alternating Current”)

Dean: I myself am an animal and do think forgetting that connection is bad for us.

Brian S: We sure act like naked apes often enough. You’d think it wouldn’t be hard to remind ourselves of that.

Camille D.: There was the question earlier about jokes vs. poems, but it does seem that you know how to make your readers laugh. What’s intriguing in your work is that you do so frequently in a bitersweet way. Should I laugh or should I cry? When your writing, is there a primary inclination (to make us laugh or make us cry), or is it just to write a great sentence and the emotion comes through in that manner?

Dean: I’m trying to get at something in my zigzag way and I never really know what people are going to think is funny. Once after a reading someone asked me why my poems were funny and I said because life is brief and full of suffering and the whole audience burst out laughing.

Brian S: Yeah, I’d have laughed.

Lisa: That’s what Shakyamuni Buddha said and he was reportedly a very funny guy.

Camille D.: Yes, well, it’s laugh or cry so often in this life, and crying messes up the makeup.

roxanna: Embryoyo blew my brains out and so did Fall Higher.

Dean: I guess what’s really funny is the statement of truth in a context in which one expects else.

Camille D.: Truth can also be uncomfortable, and we frequently laugh when we’re uncomfortable.

Dean, we’re getting very near the end of the hour you have so graciously shared with us. Anything you’d like to say that we haven’t directly asked?

poetonpoetry: Thank you to Rumpus and Dean Young for such an interesting chat! I hope you continue to heal wonderfully, and you too Dean! Great Sunday afternoon treat!

Dean: Id like to say thank you for your interest in my work and smart fun questions.

Sean Singer: Thank you, everyone. Good evening.

Brian S: Thanks to everyone for showing up, especially you Dean. All best.

Elaine: I like how “Teetering Lullaby” feels unexpected as a last poem in this collection–maybe because the tone in the zag had set us up differently? Oh! It’s over. Thanks.

Gaby: Thank you, Dean.

Rebecca Ruth: Thanks!

Dean: Thank you all now for a nap.

Thelma: Thanks.

Camille D.: I’m so pleased that we were able to read it. It’s a thrilling book. Thanks, everyone for coming out. Thanks again, Dean for joining us. Sleep well. Heal.

Brian S: You’ve more than earned it, Dean.

Dean: Bye all.

Camille D.: Thanks, Brian. Happy May Day all. Goodbye.


This conversation was edited by Rumpus Poetry editor Brian Spears.

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