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An Interview with Dorianne Laux

Dorianne Laux is one of the best of the West Coast poets. She was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 1994 book, "What We Carry," and with long-time cohort Kim Addonizio (herself a recent National Book Award finalist), she co-authored "The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry" (1997, W.W. Norton). Laux teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

When Laux read recently in my adopted hometown of Tacoma, Washington, I interviewed her for my column in the Tacoma News-Tribune. Considering the paper's lay audience, I thought it would be nice to get away from the constant generalized philosophizing of poetry articles, and instead use the opportunity to hone in on a single poem: "Abschied Symphony," from Laux's book, "Smoke" (2000, BOA Editions). Because of space limitations, I had to use only excerpts of the poem, and cut out large parts of the interview. Here at the TMR website, however, we have no such limitations—and we have the luxury of a poetry-savvy audience. That said, let's begin with the poem itself (which Ms. Laux has graciously given us permission to reprint) and then proceed to the interview.

Abschied Symphony

Someone I love is dying, which is why,
when I turn the key in the ignition
and the radio comes on, sudden and loud,
something by Haydn, a diminishing fugue,
then back the car out of the parking space
in the underground garage, maneuvering through
the dimly lit tunnels, under low ceilings,
following yellow arrows stenciled at intervals
on gray cement walls and think of him,
moving slowly through the last
hard days of his life, I won't
turn it off, and I can't stop crying.
When I arrive at the tollgate I have to make
myself stop thinking as I dig in my pockets
for the last of my coins, turn to the attendant,
indifferent in his blue smock, his white hair
curling like smoke around his weathered neck,
and say, Thank you, like an idiot, and drive
into the blinding midday light.
Everything is hideously symbolic:
the Chevron truck, its underbelly
spattered with road grit and the sweat
of last night's rain, the Dumpster
behind the flower shop, sprung lid
pressed down on dead wedding bouquets --
even the smell of something simple, coffee
drifting from the open door of a cafe;
and my eyes glaze over, ache in their sockets.
For months now all I've wanted is the blessing
of inattention, to move carefully from room to room
in my small house, numb with forgetfulness.
To eat a bowl of cereal and not imagine him,
drawn thin and pale, unable to swallow.
How not to imagine the tumors
ripening beneath his skin, flesh
I have kissed, stroked with my fingertips,
pressed my belly and breasts against, some nights
so hard I thought I could enter him, open
his back at the spine like a door or a curtain
and slip in like a small fish between his ribs,
nudge the coral of his brains with my lips,
brushing over the blue coil of his bowels
with the fluted silk of my tail.
Death is not romantic. He is dying. That fact
is stark and one-dimensional, a black note
on an empty staff. My feet are cold,
but not as cold as his, and I hate this music
that floods the cramped insides
of my car, my head, slowing the world down
with its lurid majesty, transforming
everything I see into stained memorials
to life--even the old Ford ahead of me,
its battered rear end thinned to scallops of rust,
pumping grim shrouds of exhaust
into the shimmering air--even the tenacious
nasturtiums clinging to a fence, stem and bloom
of the insignificant, music spooling
from their open faces, spilling upward, past
the last rim of blue and into the black pool
of another galaxy. As if all that emptiness
were a place of benevolence, a destination,
a peace we could rise to.

Michael J. Vaughn:
Is there a strategy to the stanzaless style (and is there an academic term for "stanzaless")? Driving the narrative forward? Or perhaps just taking out one poetic element to simplify, as in a prose poem? I notice Kim Addonizio likes to do that, too. Or is it just something you do instinctually?

Dorianne Laux:
No, no term for the stanzaless style, at least not one I know. Yes, stanzas do stop the reader for a moment, allow for a rest, as in music, or often are used to signal a transition of some kind. But in a poem like this, the relentlessness of the forward movement is a way to keep the reader in the thrall of the poem's subject, which is death, and which rests for no one and gives no one rest. It was instinctive, though you can look to other stanzaless poems to see where that instinct was developed—Whitman comes to mind, and later, Sharon Olds and C.K. Williams.

Michael J. Vaughn:
I notice in your stanza'd poems, you often organize your lines into twos, threes and fours. Is there an organizational need there?

Dorianne Laux:
Yes, the need to organize, to separate one movement from another, scenes, ideas, images, times and locations, the stanza can help with all these things and more. But this poem takes place on a drive from a parking lot to somewhere. Though we don't know the final location, we can assume it's home. The narrator never gets home though, except in her imagination, which also makes sense in terms of how we respond to death, the pain of grief—it's an endless ride for the living, at least until their own death releases them.

Michael J. Vaughn:
The giveaway first line. There's got to be a term for this, too ("confessional prelude"?), but I did the exact same thing in a novel. Pretty much you're telling the reader, "This is what the poem's going to be about," "Someone I love is dying…" I love the feeling of expectation that this sets up in the reader's mind; it makes them read the poem (or the novel, or the play) entirely differently, hungry for explanations and details. Again, intentional or just "what happened"?

Dorianne Laux:
No, no term for this one either. It's just one of those lines that, as you say, announces itself rather boldly. I think death gives us this boldness of speech. You see the bravery of those facing death and you too become brave in the face of it. I received an email recently from a woman, an ex-student I'd met briefly a few years ago. Her sister's husband died in the Twin Towers on September 11. She said when speaking of her sister: "I worry about her and miss him so much—she of course is deep in the beginning stages of grief; I just hope she makes it to the other stages. I feel as if I can be blunt with you, somehow." Death gives us permission to be blunt, as does poetry. Our defenses are stripped from us, which is why she could speak of the worst when telling me about her sister, and why she could speak to me so openly. What is there to lose when all has been lost? And yes, it was again an intuitive move, but in light of what we know about death, an appropriate move. Something in me said: Just say it. And when I did, the poem began to emerge. Isn't that how we comes to terms with the inevitable, with reality? I have another poem in that section in which the narrator never really accepts the death until she says the actual words, out loud: "He's dead. He's not coming back." It's the first time she believes it. Language is a way to help our vision of the world match up to its reality. It can also release us from that other world we have to live in, with all its protective fantasies and denials, so we can survive. We break out of that psychological world, too. And sometimes, it's poetry that helps us to do that. Poetry that can help us to go on living.

Michael J. Vaughn:
I love the stabs of simple sentences near the end: "Death is not romantic. He is dying." Great rhythmic interruption there. Do you write by musical mandates sometimes? Especially in a "symphonic" poem?

Dorianne Laux:
Yes, rhythm and rhyme; in my case, internal rhyme (there's a term for you!) is always of utmost importance. In this poem, I had the symphony playing in my head and that helped me to find a rhythm for the poem. I tried to be symphonic in my approach, another reason, possibly, for the lack of stanzas. In terms of those specific lines, they act as a different kind of rest, as well as an introduction for what's to come. Think of Beethoven's‚ 5th Symphony for example, the power in those first notes: dum-dum-dum-DUM. The last note deeper to give it even more power: He is dying. Then, what follows, is this lovely high fast sweet music—but it derives its power and texture from those first strong, ponderous, grief-stricken, enraged notes which play in your mind as a backdrop. I hear such suffering behind those sweet desperate notes of his—life is always sweeter when set against death. Or, as one great poet said, "Death is the mother of beauty."

Michael J. Vaughn:
Nasturtiums. Lots of poems with nasturtiums in them. Is there something about nasturtiums? I had a friend who used them so much I started calling him "Nasturtium Boy." He switched to Daturas.

Dorianne Laux:
I had no idea there were so many poems with nasturtiums in them. What are they? I consider them to be my personal flower! I grew up in San Diego where we had nasturtiums growing in front yards all over town. I love them. They're a tough little pinwheel of a flower. And the circular shaped leaves are so beautiful—little green umbrellas. Lilies are the flower of death so I knew I needed another kind of flower, something small and seemingly insignificant, but that had this tenacious upward movement about it. Not quite a vine, but almost. Abundant. Colorful. Relentless.

Michael J. Vaughn:
Ending the poem on a dangling preposition. I love it! 'Bout time we bury that grammatical myth once and for all. And how stilted and British it would be to say, "…a peace to which we could rise."

Dorianne Laux:
Yes, sometimes you have to break the rules to get the sound right, to get the motion into the words. There was a last line I deleted after that line. It was "…a peace we could rise to, if we could rise." I realized I didn't want the poem to be endstopped like that, to conclude on a visually downward motion—the image of someone on the floor in sorrow, unable to rise—but the motion of rising, that yearning we all have to find some explanation, some solace. And maybe, to end somewhere in the realm of possibility, looking up to the universe with a desperate hope.

Michael J. Vaughn:
I know from your booknotes that "abschied" is German for "farewell," but tell me about the symphony itself.

Dorianne Laux:
Haydn had been commisioned to compose music and play for a king in some northern province. He was given a full orchestra and the contract was for a month. The king kept asking them to stay on longer which was a great honor, and even if it wasn't, I guess you don't say no to a king. Months passed. The orchestra members were getting tired and cold as winter came on, and were missing their families who they had left behind. Haydn, unable to bear their suffering any longer, decided to write a symphony to help them leave without offending the king. In succession, each member played their last solo and then left the stage until only a lone violinist remained. When he finished the piece he walked off the stage, leaving it empty. The king then turned to Haydn and said something to the effect of, "I get the message," promptly called them a carriage and they all packed up and went home. Haydn called it his Farewell Symphony. (Absolutely true story. I saw it on PBS.) Contact BOA Editions at (716) 546-3410 or boaeditions.org.


Michael J. Vaughn is the fiction editor for The Montserrat Review. He is also the author of Gabriella's Voice, a novel from Dead End Street, LLC (deadendstreet.com), and books columnist for the Tacoma News-Tribune.
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