Hairy spiders, forgiveness, and mortality: Talking with poet Stuart Dischell
Stuart Dischell’s “Days of Me” has one of my favorite beginnings in modern poetry:
When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too
Rather than mentioning that, I ask what the hell the furry thing on the cover of his new book Children With Enemies, just published by University of Chicago Press, is supposed to be. The acclaimed poet and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, who has taught at University of North Carolina Greensboro’s M.F.A Writing Program since 1992, takes my cheeky question in stride.
“I asked the book designer to create something bright, child-like and menacing,” he said. He’ll be reading from it at the UNCG Faculty Center on Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Stuart (I’ve known him for 25 years, so it’s difficult to write “Dischell”) is the author of four other poetry collections. One, Good Hope Road, won the National Poetry Series award and is in the Contemporary American Classics Series from Carnegie Mellon Press. His poems have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Slate and such anthologies as Essential Poems, The Pushcart Prize and Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems.
He describes Children with Enemies as being about forgiveness and mortality. While writing it, he said he was affected “by the death of my father and too many of my friends.” He lost another longtime friend, Thomas Lux, just before the book went to press, and then Stuart’s mother died.
“I also know that there are terrible things happening at this minute to people I don’t know but should care about,” he said. “The borders between life and death, peace and war, and democracy and chaos appear on the surface to be strong but are actually extremely fragile.”
I say the work of most writers, regardless of genre or seriousness, becomes reflective or nostalgic if they live long enough (even James Bond indulged in Proustian recherché in Ian Fleming’s final years). Are there ways unrelated to the weight of memory or mortality in which his poetry has surprised him as he’s aged?
“My ongoing delight in the making of poems has been a surprise,” he said. “I always liked to write, but in my 60s it’s clear that what once was an infatuation has become a long-term relationship with the work, one with all the difficulties of passion.” But he qualifies my reference to nostalgia by saying that, if he’s nostalgic, it’s “for a world my generation was supposed to have created.”
Garrison Keillor’s 2002 Good Poems made Stuart’s lovely “The Yellow Slicker” one of his most widely-read works. What it smart when a review in Poetry Magazine called that anthology an example of everything wrong with contemporary poetry?
“Gee whiz,” he says wryly. “Mr. Keillor seems to like my poems and two others have been read on his Writer’s Almanac show.”
Stuart said that one of the things he found most valuable about Keillor’s anthology was that the former National Public Radio host chose poems he enjoyed rather than the ones he was supposed to choose from some set of received aesthetics. “The gatekeepers of the literary world do not like vertical invaders like Mr. Keillor, who has a large following of literate people,” Stuart said. He said he never read the review in Poetry. “It’s not a magazine that interests me very much.”
I’ve not read his new book yet and am looking forward to hearing him read from it on Thursday. So I ask another question about his older work, how much of it was inspired by someone he was in love with?
He says that, like many poets, “among the reasons I started writing was because of a person in my life who loved poetry and that seemed to be the best way to gain her attention and ultimately affection.” He tells me that one of his teachers, William Matthews, once half-jokingly quipped that lyric poems had few subjects, two being “Honey I’m so lonely in this bed without you” and “Honey I’m so lonely in this bed with you.” He admits some of his work has fallen into those patterns. “My poems are always a mix of fiction and autobiography and secret encodings,” he said. “Now that I am in a fulfilling relationship, my newest work has become more imaginative and social.”