Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stephen Dobyns

Stephen Dobyns was born in Orange, New Jersey, in 1941. He graduated from Wayne State University and has an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. Dobyns has published ten books of poetry and twenty novels. His books of poetry include Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides (Penguin, 1999); Common Carnage (1996); Velocities: New and Selected Poems, 1966-1992 (1994); Cemetery Nights (1987), which won a Melville Cane Award; Black Dog, Red Dog (1984), which was a winner in the National Poetry Series; Heat Death (1980); and Concurring Beasts (1972), which was the 1972 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets. His most recent novels are Boy in the Water (Holt/Metropolitan, 1999), The Church of Dead Girls (1997), Saratoga Fleshpot (1995), The Wrestler's Cruel Study (1993), and Saratoga Haunting (1993). His novels have been translated into more than ten languages. Dobyns is also the author of a collection of short stories, Eating Naked (2000) and a book of essays, Best Words, Best Order (1996). Among his many honors and awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including the University of Iowa and Boston University. Stephen Dobyns lives in Boston with his wife and three children.
From accessed 2/15/09

[Dobyns] was born on February 19, 1941 in Orange, New Jersey to Lester L., a minister, and Barbara Johnston Dobyns. Dobyns was raised in New Jersey, Michigan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. He was educated at Shimer College, graduated from Wayne State University, and received an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1967. He worked as a reporter for the Detroit News.
He has taught at various academic institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University.

As a professor of English at Syracuse University, he was involved in a sexual discrimination scandal. Francine Prose defended him with faint damning of his accuser and the neo-Victorian victim-feminism policies of the school in an article that cast all parties in an unflattering light.
Dobyns' poems are deeply personal, precise renderings of a speaker informed by but not limited to his [Dobyns'] experience. Though the personae in the individual poems differ, they blend together in the collections to act as a voice in wonder of the beauty and cruelty of the world we live in. One might gather that, to Dobyns, the world is a woman he falls in love with who breaks his heart but who is so beautiful that he must fall in love with her again and again.

In much of his poetry and some works of non-genre fiction, Dobyns employs extended tropes, using the ridiculous and the absurd as vehicles to introduce more profound meditations on life, love, and art. He does not shy from the low, nor from the sublime, and all in a straightforward narrative voice of reason. This voice is strongly informed by his journalistic training.

For example, in the poem "Missed Chances" in Cemetery Nights, the nameless speaker wanders through a metaphorical city in which those who missed their big opportunities futilely rehearse for when that moment will next arrive.

His poetic works count among them the 1971 Lamont Poetry Selection (Concurring Beasts), a National Poetry Series award winner, and a Melville Cane Award winner (Cemetery Nights).
Excerpted from accessed 2/15/09

Yellow Beak by Stephen Dobyns
A man owns a green parrot with a yellow beak
that he carries on his shoulder each day to work.
He runs a pet shop and the parrot is his trademark.

Each morning the man winds his way from his bus
through the square, four or five blocks. There goes
the parrot, people say. Then at night, he comes back.

The man himself is nondescript—a little overweight,
thinning hair of no color at all. It's like the parrot owns
the man, not the reverse. Then one day the man dies.

He was old. It was bound to happen. At first people
feel mildly upset. The butcher thinks he has forgotten
a customer who owes him money. The baker thinks

he's catching a cold. Soon they get it right—the parrot
is gone. Time seems out of sorts, but sets itself straight
as people forget. Then years later the fellow who ran

the diner wakes from a dream where he saw the parrot
flying along all by itself, flapping by in the morning
and cruising back home at night. Those were the years

of the man's marriage, the start of his family, the years
when the muddle of his life began to work itself out;
and it's as if the parrot were at the root of it all, linking

the days like pearls on a string. Foolish of course, but
do you see how it might happen? We wake at night
and recall an event that seems to define a fixed period

of time, perhaps the memory of a beat-up bike we had
as a kid, or a particular chair where we sat and laughed
with friends; a house, a book, a piece of music, even

a green parrot winding its way through city streets.
And do you see that bubble of air balanced at the tip
of its yellow beak? That's the time in which we lived.
From accessed 2/15/09

ASIDE: In your poem, "Bleeder," the perverse desire to make and watch a hemophiliac bleed provides a group of kids at a summer camp for retarded and crippled children a moment of shared meanness, a temporary escape from private spite. I'm interested in cruelty, the suffering, the spectacle, as used to unite people, and as very religious dimension, and reminds us that communion is a coming together to re-experience the suffering of Christ. Would you speak of this poem, which seems critical to the religious dimension that is operating in your work?

Dobyns: For two summers when I was fifteen and sixteen, or was it fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, I worked at crippled children's camps in Pennsylvania. They were camps run by the Easter Seal Foundation. Both lasted eight weeks. The first summer I was paid fifty dollars for eight weeks. The next summer I got a ten-dollar raise, I got sixty dollars plus my room and board. It was something that the first five minutes of, when the kids arrived, was horrifying, because they were so crippled. Many of them had polio; there'd be braces, and kids who were mobile. There was another camp for people who were not mobile at all. But many were crippled; many had Down's syndrome. They didn't call them that at this point; they were called mongoloids. Others were hemophiliac. Kids from the age of six to twenty, actually. And then you began to deal with it. After five minutes they were human beings. You stopped seeing their limitations, their physical limitations.

That's one part of the answer. Another part of the answer is, after I finished writing, I spoke of the Balthus Poems, which precedes the book Black Dog, Red Dog, from which the poem "Bleeder" comes. I found myself wondering, "Whom am I writing for?" What do I see, what do I expect from the things that I say? I realized that part of me was still writing for that grade school teacher, from whom I learned writing. Miss Day was a great woman from East Lansing Michigan. She had a pet canary in the classroom and if you were a good kid you got to take the canary home on the weekend. I never got to take the canary home on the weekend. She made us all sign the pledge that we would never smoke or never drink. I went home and tore up a carton of my parents' Camel cigarettes, which irritated them immensely. And I poured out a bottle of sherry. At nine years old I was tough. I had a moral fiber that you couldn't break with a Swiss Army knife.

I realized that part of me was writing to be liked. I was censoring my writing - that I wanted the reader to think that this writer is sensitive thoughtful, responsible - a good citizen. I realized that this was really destroying my writing. That it was inserting in that process an act of censorship, that I was making a judgment within the act of writing of what was proper material, what was improper material, what was a proper approach, what was a proper tone, what was a proper subject matter, etcetera. So, in Black Dog, Red Dog, I try and overturn that urge, and take subjects from everything.
And "The Bleeder" becomes part of that honest exploration. Here's this innocent kid, who is a severe hemophiliac who comes to this camp and who can't do anything. The camp has taken him by mistake. He gets the slightest cut; he'll just drain out like a broken Coke bottle. So he's put in safe places. Well, if you're in the woods of Pennsylvania, there are not a lot of safe places. Suddenly, you realize that you and everyone else would just like to see it happen. What would happen? This perverse "what would happen if he started to bleed? Wouldn't that be interesting? I mean, take this out of any morality, what would happen? And you realize that you and everyone else are thinking the same thought. And you feel immensely guilty--"Oh, God, I shouldn't think this. I should never think this. What an awful thing to think." "Wouldn't it be interesting to see him bleed? No! Don't say that again!" The poem is not the event; the poem is taking that event and turning it into something else. And the actual events of the poem did not occur except the fact that there was a hemophiliac in this camp.

Well, for me, in the writing of that poem, I had to get away from any sense of "Jesus, they're going to think ill of me for this. They're going to think that I was the person. My stock's going to go down. They're going to think, I may not get that gold star next to my name, after all." The poem also was written in a kind of loose blank verse. More blank verse than I'd tried before. And trying to give the subject matter, the kind of, if I can call it that, roughness, antagonism, and soften nature of the subject matter with an iambic pentameter, a loose iambic pentameter.
Excerpted from accessed 2/15/09.

Over a cup of coffee by Stephen Dobyns

Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall some incident
from his youth—nothing significant—climbing a tree
in his backyard, waiting in left field for a batter's
swing, sitting in a parked car with a girl whose face
he no longer remembered, his hand on her breast
and his body electric; memories to look at with
curiosity, the harmless behavior of a stranger, with
nothing to regret or elicit particular joy. And
although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had
traveled, which, in turn, made him ask how he
would look back on the person he was now, this
person who seemed so substantial. These images, it
was like looking at a book of old photographs,
recognizing a forehead, the narrow chin, and
perhaps recalling the story of an older second
cousin, how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia. And he saw that he was
becoming like such a person, that the day might
arrive when he would look back on his present self
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into
uncharted lands.

From accessed 2/15/09

Poetry critic Ralph J. Mills, Jr. suggested that Dobyns's verse contains "wit, intelligence and surrealist obliquity . . . [and] these dimensions of his work are sustained throughout. . . . Dobyns's combination of humor and the bizarre or sinister displays itself most obviously—and to considerable effect—in his socio-political poems, where the odd, seemingly irrational constructions match with terrifying rightness the absurdity and violence of our public life, our foreign wars." Assessing Dobyns's Lamont poetry selection, Concurring Beasts, Saturday Review contributor Robert D. Spector wrote: "Dobyns looks warily at the chaotic world, dislikes what he sees, and responds to its disorder in crisply controlled verse keyed to a sardonic wit one scale above cynicism." In the New York Times Rook Review, Andy Brumer praised Black Dog, Red Dog, the 1984 National Poetry Series winner: "While many of the poems have the illusion of an almost documentary objectivity, they reveal instead the soulful confessions of one individual in turmoil. . . . This is a harrowing book, not meant to please but to instruct."
Excerpted from accessed 2/15/09

It’s Like This by Stephen Dobyns for Peter Parrish

Each morning the man rises from bed because the invisible
cord leading from his neck to someplace in the dark,
the cord that makes him always dissatisfied,
has been wound tighter and tighter until he wakes.

He greets his family, looking for himself in their eyes,
but instead he sees shorter or taller men, men with
different degrees of anger or love, the kind of men
that people who hardly know him often mistake
for him, leaving a movie or running to catch a bus.

He has a job that he goes to. It could be at a bank
or a library or turning a piece of flat land
into a ditch. All day something that refuses to
show itself hovers at the corner of his eye,
like a name he is trying to remember, like
expecting a touch on the shoulder, as if someone
were about to embrace him, a woman in a blue dress
whom he has never met, would never meet again.
And it seems the purpose of each day’s labor
is simply to bring this mystery to focus. He can
almost describe it, as if it were a figure at the edge
of a burning field with smoke swirling around it
like white curtains shot full of wind and light.

When he returns home, he studies the eyes of his family to see
what person he should be that evening. He wants to say:
All day I have been listening, all day I have felt
I stood on the brink of something amazing.
But he says nothing, and his family walks around him
as if he were a stick leaning against a wall.

Late in the evening the cord around his neck draws him to bed.
He is consoled by the coolness of sheets, pressure
of blankets. He turns to the wall, and as water
drains from a sink so his daily mind slips from him.
Then sleep rises before him like a woman in a blue dress,
and darkness puts its arms around him, embracing him.
Be true to me, it says, each night you belong to me more,
until at last I lift you up and wrap you within me.

From accessed 2/15/09


Monique said...

That was an interesting read Andrew. Thank you

Andrew Christ said...

You're welcome! It's kind of you to say so.