Monday, January 12, 2009

Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn was born in New York City in 1939. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Different Hours (Norton, 2000), Dunn's other honors include the Academy Award for Literature, the James Wright Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Dunn has worked as a professional basketball player, an advertising copywriter, and an editor, as well as professor of creative writing. His most recent book is What Goes On - Selected and New Poems: 1995 - 2009 (Norton, 2009). Dunn lives in Frostburg, Maryland.


And so you call your best friend
who's away, just to hear his voice,
but forget his recording concludes
with "Have a nice day."

"Thank you, but I have other plans,"
you're always tempted to respond,
as an old lady once did, the clerk
in the liquor store unable to laugh.

Always tempted, what a sad
combination of words. And so
you take a walk into the neighborhood,
where the rhododendrons are out
and also some yellowy things

and the lilacs remind you of a song
by Nina Simone. "Where's my love?"
is its refrain. Up near Gravel Hill
two fidgety deer cross the road,
whitetails, exactly where

the week before a red fox
made a more confident dash.
Now and then the world rewards,
and so you make your way back

past the careful lawns, the drowsy backyards,
knowing the soul on its own
is helpless, asleep in the hollows
of its rigging, waiting to be stirred.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

It was written three years ago at Yaddo, and started much as you now see it, the major difference being that it didn’t begin with “And so.”

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Not many revisions, which is unusual for me. It came rather fast. Certainly I had a viable draft after a morning’s work. Maybe about two months later, with just minor tinkerings, I felt that I had it.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

As I said, very little sweat and tears with this one, though I can’t say that it was inspired by anything I’m aware of. I do believe in inspiration, though more often than not inspiration comes from what I’ve found myself saying and doing than by anything that preceded the poem.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

It arrived at its final form after I saw that I used “And so” twice in the body of the poem.

When I decided to then begin the poem with those words, the poem had found its structure. The recurrence of “And so” became an organizing principle.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print? How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

I sent it to APR with a bunch of other poems about four months later. It appeared in print about a year after. When I was younger I used to rush the sending out of poems. Now I’m in no hurry.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

All I’ll say is that nothing in this poem actually happened, though things like it have occurred at various times of my life.

In this poem, as in many of your poems, you manage to include a range of disparate material in a way that seems organic, not at all disjunctive. How did it first occur to you that a best friend, a red fox, and Nina Simone belonged in the same poem together?

It only occurred to me after the fact. As Stevens says in a poem, “things occur as they occur.”

Is this a narrative poem?

I’d say it’s a poem of sensibility with narrative elements. It’s less interested in its “story” than it is in how its details might reveal a consciousness in the act of discovering itself.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?


Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

The most astute reader that I can imagine, someone who might appreciate how a poem might be stitched together, who might perceive its moves and its orchestration.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Larry Raab was at Yaddo with me, but I don’t remember his input on this poem. I show him everything that I write, and he’s enormously helpful. My wife Barbara Hurd sees everything too. They often hasten a poem’s progress.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

I’m not sure.

What is American about this poem?

I don’t know, but it ain’t German.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

This one, I think, felt more finished.

NOTE: Some questions have been adapted from Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process, edited by Alberta T. Turner (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1977).


  1. How easy you make it sound. A tumble of words into that elegant structure. I wish I could do that.

  2. Yeah, my favorite response of Stephen's was the "it ain't German" bit. Hilarious.

  3. Enjoyed reading this - seeing the deer and the fox in their different moves - crossing space - so much in contrasting moves included here - your questions stuctured and open enough for playfulness I find also in this poem.

  4. I love it when a poet can slip a poem under the door of your psyche, just as this poet has done by seemingly creating a trivial surface for the metaphor to move unfelt until the wonderful two lines: "Now and then the world rewards, and so you make your way back..."

  5. In the interview Mr. Brodeur asked some thoughtful questions, but in a way Mr. Dunn made it seem his creative process was rather effortless. I guess that is the way it is when you spent years perfecting your craft.

    I've read the last few verses over and over again, I am amazed with simplicity how the poem just takes off and expresses something beyond words.

    Thank you Mr. Brodeur I enjoyed the posting.

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