Putting Pen to Paper: A Conversation with Dorianne Laux
Dorianne Laux’s body of work is as admired by critics as it is by novice readers, possibly for the same reason: her disarming and readable style. Often described as bold, compassionate, accessible, and grounded, Laux’s poems unveil microscopic miracles in everyday occurrences, describe the sensual unfolding of the most mundane task, open our eyes to the tenuous hold we have on this life, and express horrific elements surrounding abuse.
Laux is the author of several collections, including What We Carry (1994), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry; Facts about the Moon (2005), winner of the Oregon Book Award and finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; The Book of Men (2011), winner of the Paterson Prize; and a newly released collection, Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected. She has received fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has won a Pushcart Prize. She has taught poetry at the University of Oregon, North Carolina State University, and Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program, where she is part of the founding faculty. Laux and her husband currently live in North Carolina.
Laux’s newest collection is a generous gift to her readers, a delicious compilation of selected works from her previous books, as well as previously unpublished poems in which she utilizes form more than she has in any of her past works. I recently chatted with Laux about Only as the Day Is Long, how her mother has been her muse, what John Donne’s Holy Sonnets taught her about form, and why we all need poetry now more than ever.
The Rumpus: What prompted you to compile a New and Selected Works?
Dorianne Laux: I had a new book that included poems about my mother. I kept trying to put it together in a way that would work, but those “mother” poems were so overwhelming. I had funny poems, political poems, sex poems, but the mother poems—no matter where I placed them—seemed to overwhelm it and felt incidental to her story.
So, I realized I didn’t want to write a book with nothing but “mother poems.” I’ve written plenty of poems about my mother throughout my writing life; she was always my muse. I thought, if I do a selected, those will be included and then I only have to worry about those twenty new poems. Basically, I thought I could get rid of them, and then I’ll be free to write a new book!
Rumpus: The mother poems are very serious and heavy, but I was completely engrossed in them. They’re gorgeous…
Laux: Thank you. Of course, those poems were both easy and difficult to write. If there’s anyone we all know, it’s our mother, and they sort of get short-shrift in literature. Their work, their personalities, who they were, are locked out of history. I just wanted everybody who didn’t know my mother to know my mother, to somehow preserve her unique personality. She had an extraordinary essence.
Rumpus: Some reviewers say that you carry “themes of death” in your poetry, but I’ve always seen you as a poet of life. What do you think?
Laux: I guess I would say that I am more a poet of life as well, although death hovers, possibly making those poems of life more vibrant. The understory of all our lives is death—our own, of course—which is coming sooner or later, as well as those we’ve suffered. I’m teaching a graduate seminar right now called “The Poetry of Sex and Death” which, as far as many are concerned, are the only two subjects for poetry—the two poles—and we live in that arc between them. Of course, sex is the life-force, birth.
I always think about Li-Young Lee’s poem, “From Blossoms,” where he says, “There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background,” and so I try to write with that knowledge hovering somewhere.
Rumpus: It was good to see Facts about the Moon included in the selected works. “Moon in the Window” is one of my favorites. I identified so much with that child under the covers, reading with a flashlight: “Bright as the moon, a white hole blazing beneath the sheets.”
Laux: That image is clear for some of us, but for the younger ones, that image has been superseded by iPads and iPhones. I don’t know if kids today know about the flashlight under the covers, so whenever I read it to a group of young people, I always let them know how we did things back in the day. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Sharon Olds is an influence of yours, and you dedicate “Ode to Grey” to her. How has she influenced you?
Laux: She was one of the first contemporary women poets I was introduced to in a night class in San Diego. My teacher, Steve Kowit, introduced me to Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forché, who were, at that time, two of the most visible, younger women poets.
Immediately, I was struck by both of them and could not put them down. I read and re-read them and memorized their poems, did imitations of their poems… I wanted to be an amalgam of Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forché, with a little Pablo Neruda thrown in for good measure. [Laughs]
I eventually met [Sharon] at a party and a friend of mine said, “You should go meet her and give her a copy of your book, because you’re so influenced by her.”
I finally got up the courage to give her a copy of my first book, Awake. She said, “Oh, I’m sorry, but I have so much luggage that I can’t take anything with me, but you can send it to me…” and, of course, I didn’t.
A few months later, I got a package in the mail. There was a letter from [Sharon], saying, “Here are a couple of books that I love and I hope you’ll love, too. I just wanted to apologize for not taking your book or not knowing who you were. I know your work very well, but I just didn’t put two and two together. I love your new poems…” and it was just a lovely letter.
She invited me to come and see her when I went to New York, so we did. We became friends. On one visit my husband and I made to her house, we all sat around and wrote—because that’s what we do whenever we’re with other poets—we say, “Okay, let’s all write a poem.” So, we threw out a bunch of words and a phrase and a color, and all of us sat down to write. I think the color that day was gray or we could choose a color, I don’t remember. And I ended up writing “Ode to Grey.” So, it was written with her, side-by-side.
In a way—since I have been so highly influenced by her work—I would say that every poem I write is dedicated to Sharon, in the sense that I wouldn’t be able to write the poems I write if she hadn’t been there to pave the way for me.
Rumpus: That’s wonderful! Now that you’ve been doing this for a while, has your process toward the craft changed?
Laux: Everything I’ve learned about craft I can utilize much more quickly than I could in the past, when I was practicing—trying to learn how to make an image or how to create a narrative, or how to condense a story and turn it into some sort of lyric—I think that I’m better at doing those kinds of things. I can do them more quickly than I could at the beginning. On the other hand, once you’ve mastered some aspect, some part of craft, there is always something new you must master.
That’s why I say [poetry] is a wonderful art to have, because no matter how old you get, you’re going to be learning something new. I think every poem that you write is the inspiration for the next poem that you are hoping to write—more clearly, more succinctly, utilizing more images, pulling back on the narrative and allowing the images to tell the story, or holding back from inserting yourself as a narrator and telling the story. There are so many things to get better at.
I feel that in the new poems I worked more with form, rhyme, and the sonnet. Every year I try to write a sonnet and it’s so difficult for me—to me, it seems like math—but I’d always try. I decided to try a new way by writing toward the rhyme—using John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 7” as model for “Death of the Mother.”
Laux: I was reading Donne’s poems after my mother died, and the one that really struck me was number seven. So, I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to take these final words of the sonnet and put them on the page, and try to write toward them, see what happens….” And this is the only way I’ve been successful in writing a sonnet, is to steal someone else’s rhymes. [Laughs] I was so inspired by Donne’s Holy Sonnets, I thought, “You know, it would be great if I could write a sonnet for my mother, using each Holy Sonnet,” and I did. I tried, I tried with every one, but the only one that seemed to work was “Holy Sonnet 7.”
There’s another rhyming poem in there, “Changeable Weather,” where I made up my own rhyming scheme; that also helped me write in rhyme. The rhyme scheme makes no sense: a-b-b-a until the last two stanzas, where it switches to a-a-b-b, then a-b-a-b, and then there’s that one line, “shout” and later, that line rhymes with “devout.” That was my challenge for this book, trying to contain a world within a stricter form, which I don’t do very often.
Rumpus: So has every book you’ve written had its own challenges?
Laux: Oh, absolutely! I mean, the first book, that’s a challenge right there. Working for fifteen years to produce something you hope hangs together. Then to write a second book, which has to come up to the standards of the first book, exceed them, which is crazy! And then, the third book is even worse…. So, I’m not sure why people even continue to write and produce books. It’s like doing the dishes, you know, it’s never done!
Rumpus: What is a good way for a person unfamiliar with poetry to begin reading poetry? How should someone start writing poetry?
Laux: That’s hard, because you don’t know what to tell a person to read until you know what their entry point is. Have they ever read any poems before? Because if they haven’t, you would want them to read a poem they feel they can learn something from, and that’s all dependent on their prior exposure. As you know, not very many people are exposed much to poetry, and yet, almost every child is exposed to poetry because of children’s rhymes. Most kids have exposure to Mother Goose!
As I was thinking about this interview, you had asked if there was anything that influenced me—are there any photos or art? And I was thinking of how I was very influenced by this group of books I read when I was very young—Childcraft. I loved those books and would pore over the art. One of the volumes was dedicated to Children’s Poems and Rhymes, and as I was going through it, I noticed this poem by Amy Lowell, that I always remembered called “The Crescent Moon,” and it’s a poem about the moon. It’s on the nursery windowsill, and the kid is looking out at the moon. And I thought, “Oh my god, from all those years ago…” Right? That poem—which I knew as a child—somehow influenced me, all these years later, to write “Moon in the Window.” I’m sure that by then, I had completely forgotten about the poem, I am sure it was not in my conscious mind. But when I saw this poem, I thought, “Yeah! I remember the little boy, sitting and looking out the window, thinking about the moon!” I must have gazed at it for hours when I was a child; how could that have not influenced me? Right?
Exposing them to good poetry is important. I give my students poems that I love and I read aloud to them and talk about why I love them, and hopefully one of those poems will affect one of those kids.
So, you sort of have to start from there. What have they read that they loved as a child? Then, try to find them something that could be commensurate with that, as a way in.
Writing is really just a matter of allowing them to believe they have something important to report to the world. Whether it’s looking out their window and telling us what they see, or looking inside themselves and telling us what they feel. What’s best, of course, is telling us what they feel about what they see. How can you make that experience come alive for us on a piece of paper?
Rumpus: When did you first start taking your own poetry seriously?
Laux: Well, I took it very seriously as a young teenager. [Laughs] I thought I was the best writer of them all, but I kept all of it hidden underneath my bed. So, in some ways I was very timid and in other ways I was audacious.
When I took it seriously, I guess I was a young mother. I’m a single mother and my daughter was maybe three or four, somewhere around there. I decided to take a night class in poetry and so I took that class that I spoke about earlier with Steve Kowit. That was my first real foray into taking it seriously.
I didn’t really know what being a poet would entail. I just knew that I had to get all of those poems out from under the bed—because they were piling up and I didn’t know what to do with them. I guess I was around twenty-two or twenty-three.
Rumpus: How did you come to put your first collection of poetry together?
Laux: I just started writing. In fact, the very first poem I wrote in that class became part of my first book, which was called “The Laundromat.”
Rumpus: Oh! I know that one… it’s a good one.
Laux: Our assignment was to go to a public place and observe people and then write a poem. I was a single mother, so I went to the laundromat and I had to do my homework while I was there. I just looked around and I said, “Okay, there’s that person and then that person, and then that person…” and the interaction just went on and on.
You know, the book didn’t come out until 1990. So, I was close to forty, but I had been writing for many years. Terrible poems, but I had been writing. [Laughs]
Anyway, I had been writing in rhymed verse from all those Mother Goose rhymes, I thought that was how you had to write. So, it’s not like I hadn’t done that for many years, but they were terrible. I wasn’t writing adult rhymed verse—I was writing child’s rhymed verse. But it was good practice for later, when I would take it more seriously. At least I was liquid on the page; at least I knew how to put my pen to paper.
Photograph of Dorianne Laux © John Campbell.