In 2010, Ali Liebegott took a road trip by train. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. Along the way, she interviewed poets—Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, CAConrad, and many more. We’ll be reposting the series to celebrate the release of Liebegott’s fourth book, The Summer of Dead Birds.
I discovered Dorianne Laux’s poetry shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 1991 to be a poet myself. I was twenty supporting myself as a waitress and went to a reading she was doing with Kim Addonizio. I was immediately drawn in by her poems depicting the working class. Laux was reading from her very first book, Awake. I interviewed her in her home in Raleigh, North Carolina in October of 2010 where she lives with her husband, the poet Joe Millar. This is an excerpt from our interview.
THE BELIEVER: Do you remember the first Emily Dickinson poem you ever read?
DORIANNE LAUX: I’m sure one of the first was the carriage, death is like a… I can’t remember how old I was. It could have been as late as when I went to Mills College. And I didn’t like her. I always thought, Well this is too easy. It’s like a kid’s poem. Or conversely, This is too hard. I can’t figure this out. And then I was at the University of Oregon ten years ago now, and I had been made head of the program—and don’t ever become head of any kind of program—and I was completely isolated. I had this huge office. The phone was constantly ringing. I had to write memos. And I could not get back to my poetry. One day I was in my office eating my little sack lunch, feeling like a business woman dressed up in my fucking mauve blouse, trying to be cool, and I just started crying. I thought, Where am I? Why am I here? I hate this. I want to be a waitress again. I’ve lost my poetry. I’m not writing. I’m not reading. All I’m doing is dealing with bullshit. So I went on the Poetry Daily website thinking maybe I’ll just read a poem. That’ll make me feel better. And on that particular day they had an Emily Dickinson poem. I opened it up and read,
There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
and I just collapsed. I said, “Emily, thank you. You know my pain, honey.” I was also going through a tough time. There had been a couple deaths. I suddenly got how soulful she was and how she could get such passion and longing and feeling into so few lines.
BLVR: Have you been to her home?
DL: I’ve never been to Amherst. I want to go. I did go to her garden in the botanical gardens in the Bronx. They did a lovely job. Her dress was there and her things were around and as you walked through the garden there were all of her poems on little plaques. You could go into a reconstruction of her house: her writing room and her bedroom and then her reconstructed garden, so you could see all the flowers she planted.
BLVR: What kind of pilgrimages have you gone on?
DL: When I was on an Edna St. Vincent Millay kick, I went to her place in New York. She had this skinny little apartment in New York, five floors. It’s for sale right now. It’s only a mil. I want to go to her place near Woodstock, New York – the Millay Colony. She’s another one I discovered late. I just didn’t grow up with these poets. I was working class. I had heard of her in the way of: you can’t not know her name. In her pictures, she looked very prim and proper and I thought, “Nah.” Then one day Joe [Millar] was looking for a poem, and he was sure it was an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, and he read me, Assault, and I whispered what the fuck is that. Read that again. I went crazy when I heard that poem, just crazy! Then I got crazy about Edna St. Vincent Millay and read her biography, Savage Beauty. It’s an incredible read.
BLVR: When was the first time you thought of yourself as a poet and writer?
DL: I try to avoid calling myself a poet because I think that’s something someone else has to call you. It’s like bragging. Even though we were working class, growing up, my mom had been classically educated at the French convent school in Maine and French was her second language. She played piano. We were very unusual on our block. Here we were living in military housing, and for some time in Quonset huts which are basically tin cans set down in dirt, but then we really moved up and got to military housing, which had stucco falling off the wall but it was way better than a tin can, especially in San Diego where it can get real hot. While we were growing up she decided she wanted to become a nurse and went back to school. She’d bring home these biology textbooks, plus she took the general courses. We had a lot of books and music around. She read the poets of the day: Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, e. e. Cummings, but she also read the novels of the day which I liked much more than the poetry. And so I read The Arrangement at twelve—I thought I can’t believe people are even alive after living lies like this, it’s crazy—so I was always interested in reading and the whole notion of the imagination and where it could take you.
I started writing at twelve and should have started a novel, which is what I really loved, but I think because I was surrounded by so much music I felt instinctively that it had to be a poem because it had to be like music. So I started writing these rhymed poems. I did that for years until my daughter was born, then I thought, Someday I’m going to have to be something other than a waitress. Maybe I should go back to school. But I know I’m essentially lazy and I’m not going to do anything I don’t want to do. And I thought, I’ve always written. I’ll go back to school and become an editor or a journalist. So I started taking writing classes and they included poetry as part of a comp class and my teacher said, You should be a poet, so I took her at her word and started focusing on it, and later I took a night class from Steven Kowit in San Diego, and that’s when I really started becoming serious and reading the world poets and contemporary American poetry and said, Wow there’s this whole world out there. Because at the time all I knew was what I’d been raised on. All males. All dead. All white. That was another reason I would never think of myself as a poet, there were no models. I thought, That’s poetry. What I’m doing is just fucking writing in my spare time, but when I started taking classes I realized there were all these wonderful women poets and people writing of all colors.
I still didn’t think of myself as a poet. My teacher started encouraging me to do poetry readings and publish in local magazines. But I still thought, This is just a fun thing and I really need to get to work to do something else because I’m certainly not going to make any money, and that was really clear. So I never thought of it as anything other than, This is great. But eventually I started publishing here and there. Then I moved up to San Francisco and actually published a book. And you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. That was not something I thought would ever happen.
BLVR: I read your first book, Awake. You signed it. It had that great cover.
DL: Walker Evans’ Nova Scotia. Which is great because that’s my family history. Even then I would have hesitated to call myself a poet. Although it got easier as time went on and I published a second book. I think part of it is, I do admire true poets so much, I feel like somehow I’m a fraud. Like that Edna St. Vincent Millay poem or that Emily Dickinson poem… I feel I have never and will never write something that’s up to that level, that’s that good. It’s just like, No, I’m not a poet. They are. Part of it is that. The other part is that pretentious thing—I don’t want to be thought of a poet. And I say I’m a teacher, not a professor. I don’t have a PhD.
BLVR: Do you have a set of go-to writers that you read that ground you as you’re working?
DL: Sharon Olds was a huge influence. When I first read her poems in community college, the world was broken open for me. I was like, Wow. You can write about your family and your kids? I had no idea you could do that. Carolyn Forché was huge. She wrote with such beauty and precision. She knows how to withhold, while Sharon was all over the place. I loved the two contrasting styles. I worked to try and get both of those going. And then Pablo Neruda. My teacher was great because he introduced us to the world poets: Nicanor Parra and Miguel Hernandez. Lucille Clifton was huge. Yusef Komunyaka. CK Williams. I could go on and on. I would try to imitate them, take what they were doing, and allow myself to find that voice, that way, that style. I don’t think there’s a poet I haven’t been influenced by, but they were probably the two biggest: Sharon Olds and Carolyn Forché. There was something about their opposite stances stylistically, which I wanted somehow to be able to join.
BLVR: If you had a choice to make out with Emily Dickinson or Rilke who would you choose?
DL: Well, making out with Rilke you would think of angels, and in some ways, Edna, that kind of Savage Beauty, this toughness but with angel wings… what could be better? Emily embodies that same thing but kind of from the opposite end. She’s got that delicacy. It’s like a spider web, delicate but tough. Try to get out of that! Sexy, right? A delicate toughness. That’s what I’m drawn to in poetry – those opposing forces. A true romantic set against the toughness of life, like Neruda. Where there’s an exuberance and an anger. Anyone that encompasses both wholes, I tend to love, and want to kiss.
BLVR: So Neruda or Edna St. Vincent Millay?
DL: Oh, Edna! Come on. Have you read about her life? She was a crazy fucking woman. Thousands of people came to her readings. She was on every magazine cover. You have no idea that this woman was as big as she was until you read Savage Beauty. You think, how could she be forgotten? Edna owned New York. She walked down the street and people followed her. And she was like Emily Dickinson. Very petite. This incredible red hair. Just a cloud of red hair. Beautiful woman. But tiny. And she had this huge voice. She’d get up on stage and people were mesmerized. Now people don’t even know who she is. She’s not anthologized much. I have a little movie about her which was made in Canada. I just watch it over and over. In the movie they show home movies of her, but they’re silent. The first time I saw her move my heart stopped. There’s something about a human body in motion.
BLVR: Do you have a moment in your writing career that you’re most proud of? Or even a book you feel most proud of?
DL: Well, the very first time I published a poem was a huge thing. My first book was delivered to my house, and nobody was home except me. I just sat there looking at the box. Then opening it and seeing my name. The second book was almost as exciting. I remember the first time I ever had a poem published in APR [American Poetry Review]. I cut it out and put it in a frame. I’d walk by and genuflect in front of it. Then I went to the Napa Valley Poetry Festival where I met Carolyn Forché. I couldn’t even breathe sitting next to her. She might as well have been a movie star. And she was looking at me like, What the hell is your problem? I didn’t know what to say to the woman. I think it’s good for young poets to have heroes. I also think it’s important for you to know they’re just people that go to the store and get in family fights. But I also think there’s something about that true admiration and respect for what they’ve done in their lives, because the reason people achieve fame—rock stars, movie stars, whatever—what’s underneath all the bullshit of it, is that they have, on some level, allowed you believe you are not alone on the earth, that there is someone who knows some part of you – again, the subterranean, transgressive, weird, fucked up, secret part of you that you thought nobody knew until you saw that movie or read that poem or novel or saw that sculpture or painting. Van Gogh would be a rock star. You look at his eyes know what it is to be human. I hope I’m always able to feel stunned, and that I’m in the company of people that can create art in a way I admire.
BLVR: Do you have any advice for writers in the world today?
DL: Oh, man. If you want to be a writer in the world you really have to sit down and say, Why do I want to do this and why was I drawn to it to begin with? And keep reminding yourself to return to that original impulse. The genius of your particular work resides in that first time you picked up a pen and said I’ve got to say something. I think that can get lost very easily—jobs and awards, being published in APR. All that’s great, but is that why I started writing? No, that’s butter. That’s something else. The reason I started writing was because I was a little kid in San Diego who was getting beaten up by her dad and sexually abused and because I felt different than everybody else and I had this big huge secret that was tearing me apart. And I wouldn’t have gotten through that without a friend. If I hadn’t been able to talk with myself, with respect, as a whole human being, who had a mind and heart and desires, a goodness, a desire to be good—you know, all of those things, I think, are the original impulse when we sit down and write. I’m not the only person in the world who is suffering. I’m trying to talk to the world, responding to those voices. Emily Dickinson writes to me and I write back. Yes, Emily, there is a pain so utter, it swallows substance up. Yes. Thank you. And here is my cry back to you. And if you can take yourself back into that place, you can write forever, because that’s an endless repository. We’re all writing out of a wound, and that’s where our song comes from. The wound is singing. We’re singing back to those who’ve been wounded. And that’s all of us. We’re not special. Everyone’s been wounded. That’s why they respond. Bob Dylan—he’s singing out of a wound. And everyone goes, Yeah Bob. We get it. We’ve been there. If I was going to give anything as ridiculously pretentious as advice—once again, I’m a kid that grew up in a Quonset hut, I give advice to no one—it’s to return to the original impulse. Or at least work to constantly remind yourself that that’s where you started, and that’s where you want to end up.