5 questions with a premier poet

By

Beth Giudicessi

For Norman Dubie, poetry has been a lifelong pursuit.

The Regents’ Professor of English, who came to Arizona State University in 1975 to establish its creative writing program, has written poems since age 15, though his interest in them was sparked at an even younger age.

At ASU, Dubie has taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, formed a community of poets and been published widely. His work has been bestowed numerous accolades, including the PEN USA prize for Best Book of Poetry. In early June, he was awarded the Griffin Poetry Prize , an international recognition of the best book of poetry published in English, for his collection "The Quotations of Bone."

Here, he talks about the importance of poetry and reads some of his work.

Question: What has it been like since winning the Griffin Poetry Prize?

Answer: Unfortunately, I wasn't able to go to Toronto [for the award ceremony] for health reasons. My editor, Michael Wiegers, represented me and he read poems there on the night of the ceremony in front of 2,000 people, which is very brave of him. …

This competition involves 43 countries — it's an international prize — it’s 43 countries, and publishers in each country nominating books. There were seven or eight hundred titles and three jurors. So all of that is, you know, it's very harrowing and everything. I figured I'd eliminated myself by not being able to travel to Toronto. So I was having Thai food Thursday night with some friends when the phone rang and Michael said, “You’re not going to believe this, but you won anyway.” And I said, “Uh-oh!” [laughs]

Q: Why poetry? Why is it critically important in our lives today?

A: A former student called me this morning explaining that he is suffering from stage II lymphoma and he was reading several poems of mine and that he was greatly consoled by them on a very difficult night when he couldn't sleep. That helps.

One of the first poems I ever published in The New Yorker is called “ Elizabeth’s War with the Christmas Bear .” It’s a poem about a strong woman who survives a privy council of evil men, and an attack by a bear that had been baited out in the gardens in the summer when everyone had fled London because of the plague. I got this letter from a woman in North Dakota who said she had carried two duffel bags full of frozen diapers to this laundromat and sat there while they were in the wash and cried and then looked at the magazines that were discarded on the table in front of her. And there was The New Yorker with this poem for Elizabeth. She read it, she took heart from it and she said “I didn't off myself and my children.” That always helps. That always makes poems seem relevant, when you get reports like that. …

It’s not a question of the art’s relevance, it's just how do you find enough time to really deal with the audience that's out there? … There are people out there who are completely taken up with language. It's our first resource almost after whatever is going on in terms of smart proteins inside our bodies. So, the writing of poetry is redemptive, and the reading of poetry is redemptive. [laughs] Propaganda, right?

Q: Where do you write? Does your writing change when you change places?

A: I write at a kitchen table. I'm from Vermont; the kitchen table was where the family gathered just to talk, to read magazines, newspapers, books. … I like to eat and so I write at a kitchen table, and I have my whole life, pretty much, but I can write in my head walking.

I’ll give you extreme examples about place and writing for me. When I was first writing when I was a teenager, I started writing with the first snow there in northern New England. And I stopped when the lady’s slippers came up through the snow in April — so I was a seasonal writer. I was somewhat like that for a very long time. When I came here, I decided the summer was the winter. … Here in the desert I've written at night and very heavily between June and October.

Q: What are you reading?

A: I'm reading a really sort of disturbing book that I promised myself I would go back to. It’s called “Hope Against Hope,” by Nadezhda Mandelstam. Osip — the Silver Age Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, who Stalin in fact sent to labor camps several times, finally had a fatal coronary on the train going back for the third time. His widow was a brilliant woman, and she wrote this book, “Hope Against Hope,” and then she wrote a follow-up, “Hope Abandoned.” …

I'm also reading a biography on the poet Wallace Stevens, and I'm reading an old student of mine who has many books. I have several of her books open. Her name is Sarah Vap. She’s just brilliant, a wonderful poet.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Once there was an expedition to West Africa — British 19th-century expedition — and they were approaching the forest and this pygmy elder came out of the forest and walked up to them and said, “There is a dream dreaming us.” He turned around and went back into the woods. And that's how I feel about life on this planet. I think in this creation we are immersed in an infinite mind.

'Amen,' from 'The Mercy Seat'

'Ars Poetica,' from 'The Mercy Seat'

'The Night Before Thanksgiving,' from 'The Mercy Seat'

'Letters for Little Mila,' from Griffin Prize-winning 'The Quotations of Bone'

'Sparrow,' from Griffin Prize-winning 'The Quotations of Bone'

Hear more from Dubie on his inspirations and takes on writing:

Interview edited for clarity and length.

Top photo: Norman Dubie, a Regents' Professor in the Department of English in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, answers questions on the ASU Tempe campus on June 6. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now