A Two-Way Interview
In early November 2020, two Bay Area poets, Brian Komei Dempster and Dean Rader, began discussing the role of politics and poetry on the occasion of the recent elections, the uptick in COVID cases domestically and around the world, and the timely publications of two books: Dempster’s second collection of poems, Seize, as well as the release of the anthology Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, which includes Rader’s “Meditation on Transmission,” a poem that first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle toward the beginning of the lockdowns. Both men are also parents and write regularly about their sons. Their dynamic dialogue covers a wide range of topics: from Japanese American wartime incarceration, prejudice, and themes of identity to the paintings of Cy Twombly, father-son relationships, and social justice.
As Dempster and Rader wrapped up their conversation in January 2021, a new president and vice president were being inaugurated. On March 16, the tragic shootings of six Asian women and two others in Atlanta was the culminating event in a wave of anti-Asian violence that has swept the nation during the pandemic. Asian Pacific American community members spoke out, including Dempster. In an April Lyric World podcast interview with poet Shin Yu Pai that later aired on KUOW, Dempster reflected on the connections between past and present racism and violence towards Asian Pacific Americans and shared a piece originally published in Waxwing along with other poems. Attesting to the power of words to make a difference, and the importance of bringing youth into the poetry fold, Rader helped the America SCORES Bay Area team — Alicia Yanow, Angela Bailey, and Colin Schmidt — to organize the first ever SCORES Poetry Summit. At this four day event, he, Dempster, and other poets gave presentations and offered workshops, illustrating the diverse aesthetics and voices of contemporary American poetry.
Dean Rader: Congratulations, Brian, on Seize. It is a fabulous book: personal, political, revealing, and ambitious. It arrives in a bizarre moment — the world and our country feels seized by many things. I’d love for you to talk a bit about reading the world through the lens of your book and also reading your book through the lens of what’s going on in the world right now.
Brian Komei Dempster: I am moved by your gracious words about the book. It does feel bizarre and strange how alive Seize feels right now, which is not something I expected and is difficult to process. We are seized. A country seized by passion and love and hate; a nation split into blue states and red states; a people divided by those who wear masks and those who despise them; by those who march the streets to protest police brutality with signs Black Lives Matter and those who march through towns with torches chanting anti-Semitic slurs and all of us — in the middle of this, trapped inside our homes as we fend off an invisible virus, a virus that our current, outgoing leadership neglects to acknowledge — left walking a daily tightrope. Staying inside, held by love and closeness and warmth while microscopic danger lurks everywhere outside. With soaring new cases nationwide, our lives continue to be suspended between terror and hope.
The lens of my book reveals the world, and the world sheds light on my book. The past and present are mirrors. In fractured glass, history stares back at me. The Muslim ban echoes across decades, brings me back to my grandfather, a Buddhist priest, marched from his house by the FBI in handcuffs. Soon after, his wife and children, including my mother — just a baby at the time — were forcibly removed from their church home. Words are powerful, as we have seen again and again. During World War II, my ancestors were assaulted by the epithet Jap; now we hear the rhetoric of xenophobic hate towards those with Asian faces, like my wife and mother’s, my conversations with friends and colleagues and the news cycle marked by incidents of innocent people accosted on the street, in parks, at hospitals, any random place, told, "Go back where you came from," unfairly blamed for bringing “the China virus” to our shores. As my mom gazed through barbed wire in Topaz prison camp, she could have been one of the children now staring through bars, wrapped in tinfoil, locked in cages. My mom remembers the emptiness she felt with her father missing; this same absence is felt by these kids. The cop’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, and there are no more words to describe this, but we have to find them, to remember James Byrd. Jr. chained to the back of a truck. To understand why these crimes keep repeating throughout history, America’s broken record.
Poetry seizes back what is seized from us. Poetry gives my wordless son, Brendan, a voice and a story, in a culture where disabled children like him are marginalized, invisible. My boy, Brendan — the heartbeat, the life force of Seize. At fifteen, he still doesn’t have the language to describe any of this but senses things are wrong with the world. I know this because for months during this lockdown he wakes screaming in the night. I read him my poems to quiet him. My wife, Grace, and I tell him, “It’s going to be ok, we are going to make it through.” I apologize to him, worry I didn’t get things quite right. In words on the page. In my role as a father. What would he say about us and our world if he could speak?
You, too, write about social injustice, the sobering realities of America. You, too, write about your sons and what it means to raise them in this beautiful, broken nation. How do your own poems help you to be a better father, to express who your sons are — and your wish to protect them?
DR: That is so powerful. It is as though Brendan is the world and your words to him are also words to us; the poetry we all need to help get us through.
Like you, I am constantly thinking about my role as both a father and a poet and how the two might be intertwined. I don’t really have any famous poems, but the two of mine that appear to be the best known, “History” and “America, I Do Not Call Your Name Without Hope,” are interrogations of America’s history of racial violence but also meditations on being a parent. I don’t think of myself as a political poet or as a poet who writes about his kids, and yet, I am and I do. I have a poem, a somewhat funny one, about driving my son Henry to school and playing a favorite spelling game, all the while, in the background on the radio is former President Trump praising gun violence. I feel like that level of disconnect is always already permeating my landscape as a parent and our landscape as a country. Who isn’t living through nearly surrealist juxtapositions?
I have not yet decided if being a poet makes me a better father. I hope so. If anything, it makes me think carefully about words. I try, as both a poet and a parent, to be attentive. I don’t always succeed. It is a lot easier to revise a poem than to revise parenting. But, there is something about having put into poetic language my ideas or fears or hopes for the world that makes talking with my sons about the planet’s demise or our country’s transgressions less like . . . work.
I was struck in your book how current many of the poems felt — not just in form or tone but in content. You don’t really write about 2020 or the pandemic but the poems do an amazing job of intervening in personal and global notions of isolation, marginalization, muteness, loss. Could I ask you to pick a poem, tell us a bit about its origin and composition but also how reading it now, during this moment of COVID proliferation, in the wake of the election, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter rallies, has altered for you?
BKD: I am glad to know that these poems struck this chord with you. My work attempts to mine deep into the core of our experience and crystallize scenes through vivid detail — to demonstrate what James Joyce said: “In the particular is contained the universal.” The inverse of Joyce’s quote is also true: in the universal is contained the particular. Because singular, horrific events — like the murder of George Floyd — become universal when our shared reaction is defined by compassion and worldwide outcries for justice. In these instances, we see how the universal platonic ideals of Good, Equality, Justice, and Virtue are expressed by many in order to honor the sovereign identity of one person’s experience — and our human right to all be protected from such ruthless, heinous crimes.
In light of our current time, “Discovery” comes to mind as a poem that continues to resonate. Six years ago, an earlier version of this piece emerged out of frustration at my inability to protect my son. Drawing upon a troubling real-life incident with Brendan — who is on a ketogenic diet for his epilepsy and not allowed to eat sugar — I describe certain events and their aftermath. Despite our directives to a caregiver not to give him sweets, she feeds him an orange while he is at school, which is toxic to his blood and sets off a chain reaction of scary consequences. In “Discovery,” I face a humbling truth: my son will always be vulnerable to some degree, and certain events are simply beyond our control.
At the time I wrote this poem, Michael Brown had just been killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and shortly before him, Eric Garner in New York City. These tragedies, combined with my fear and vulnerability and outrage, all entered the consciousness of the piece, and unexpected connections occurred. I began to draw parallels between the act perpetrated upon Brendan and the police’s unjust actions towards Brown. In the months and years that followed, I kept hearing of more such incidents, and the poem shifted from focusing solely on Brown towards a more mythic portrait. In the final version, Brendan’s story is juxtaposed with another story about an unnamed boy with loving parents who is gunned down by police. We don’t know the boy’s name. We don’t know where he is killed. We do know, however, that his death is unjust and his story all too common.
This story is a larger social commentary on acts of police violence towards young African American men and other people of color. And while this poem in no way poses Brendan’s experience and these other experiences as equivalent, it infers that they are inextricably connected through the metaphor of seizure: how our control can be seized away in an instant by those who abuse their positions of responsibility and, at times, act illegally, whether through harmful everyday actions or more brutal instances of violence.
It is sad to realize that this poem feels even more relevant than when I wrote it. It feels even more visceral now, during the pandemic, when police and other assaults and murders have been magnified and caught on cell phone cameras and video. Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. And, of course, the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which continues to sicken and haunt me. Even today, the day after Thanksgiving as I write this, video footage has surfaced of French police assaulting black music producer Michel Zecler in his studio, falsely claiming he had attacked them. And there are many more.
As I think of Brendan, who is unable to form words, to tell us what really happened, I am struck by how his silence resonates with the silence of Brown, Garner, Taylor, Arbery, Floyd, and others. Unlike Brendan, they knew someone was trying to hurt them. Like Brendan, they suffered the consequences. As with Brendan, I want to ask them: What did it feel like to be so vulnerable? What was going through your mind as it happened? Can you tell us the real story? I ask these questions fully acknowledging and realizing the limitations of my own perspective, and with the intent to reveal the specifics of a particular case and to amplify our universal feelings of outrage, identification, and compassion.
What angers me, too, is how for the last four years, our government and leadership have stoked these flames. Whether it is our former President’s mocking of a disabled reporter with hyperbolic gesticulations or his comments about the marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, claiming that there were “very fine people on both sides,” this intent to marginalize and discriminate is hateful and encourages further division. In my view then, “Discovery” and, moreover, Seize as whole, acts as a counternarrative, a rebuke, a rebuttal to such disturbing and offensive acts.
I would assert that your work also contains such grounding in and relevance to our current times. In fact, you recently wrote a powerful poem, “Meditation on Transmission,” that explores the pandemic. How did this piece come into being? How does your own work, especially this poem, help you to reckon with and process this current moment?
DR: Wallace Stevens has this great observation in which he says “Poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” I think about this in two ways: first, there is the daily necessity, as a poem to get things right, to be accurate, correct, ethical. But, perhaps we also have a responsibility to right the world — to get it back on track. I think about that a lot. To me, you channel this call by Stevens in your book.
Thanks for the kind words about “Meditation on Transmission.” That poem came, as many of my poems do, out of an actual event. But, of course, I can never just leave it alone; it always winds up taking a series of metaphorical and linguistic turns. In this case, I was standing in my kitchen in the first few days of the COVID-19 pandemic watching the news. The program showed an illustration of a map that slowly turned red day by day to show the spread of the virus. I started thinking about the dual meanings of “transmission” — how the virus is transmitted from person to person but also how information about the virus is transmitted. It is fascinating that the terminologies we use — transmission, communicable, spread — apply both to the disease as well as information about the disease. This pandemic was as much about how and what information is transmitted as it was about the disease itself.
The poem appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle in early April and is reprinted in The World Has Need of You: Poems for Connection (Copper Canyon Press) and in Together in a Sudden Strangeness: America’s Poets Respond to the Pandemic, edited by Alice Quinn. Aside from a poem I wrote about the Golden State Warriors a few years ago, I think I received more notes about this poem than anything I’ve written. The surprising detail about this is that probably 90% of the folks who contacted me thanked me for the last four lines. No one really says much about the poem as a whole — just those last four lines. For some reason, people needed some element of hope; some sense that nature or biology was not out to kill us.
As I was reading your riveting discussion about “Discovery,” I was thinking about how, in 2020, so many aspects of our lives have felt not just precarious but downright dangerous — as though some force, bigger than us, is out to get us. It is so appropriate that your book, Seize, is taking on big issues and asking big questions. Your first book, Topaz, did as well, looking at issues of race, incarceration, violence, memory, and family. Do you see this book as a companion project to Topaz? What are your hopes for Seize?
BKD: The widespread attention that your work and these particular poems have received is well-deserved and doesn’t surprise me at all. One thing I have always respected about your poems is the seamless merging of the personal and philosophical, of aesthetic integrity and social conscience. I believe readers resonate with these pieces because you write in a voice that we can trust, one that is poetic yet accessible, one that taps into our collective consciousness — whether it’s the shared challenge of going through this pandemic or the Bay Area’s love for the Warriors. As a whole, your poems are moving without being overwrought; smart without being pretentious; and, at times witty and humorous, reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously. Your poems, too, as Steven says, are driven by a need to get the world right. And they do.
Your reflections on the current state of our world resonate with me. I do viscerally feel that sense of danger, that sense of a force larger than us. Some days it seems like we are walking on a tightrope that switches between reality and a portal to the dark underbelly of an alternate universe, The Upside Down in the show Stranger Things. Because everything is so fraught and tenuous, I continue to keep asking the big questions you speak of. We all must keep asking these questions, and I am glad this came through in both of my books.
While each book does confront big issues, I’d like to think that Seize takes on certain big issues that make it distinct, allow it to stand alone. In Seize we have a father-speaker who confronts a maelstrom of emotions; his beautiful, vulnerable son becomes a touchstone for the father to see who he really is — the ugly sides and heroic sides and everything in between. The stakes of the book are specific: the father must somehow hold and process seemingly opposing emotions all at once and find some kind of understanding and peace.
At the same time, I do see Seize as a companion project to Topaz. Some characters, like my mother, father, brother — and, of course, Brendan and Grace — come more to the forefront; some, like the speaker’s friend Derek, are reintroduced in new ways; others recede into the background. In Seize the speaker now sees the Japanese American wartime incarceration through a different lens: one which helps him to better understand his son’s seizure by epilepsy, by forces beyond his control. Seize further delves into the speaker’s mixed-race identity yet widens into a panoramic perspective that tries to be inclusive and complicates America’s history of prejudice, violence, and trauma.
Because Seize and my son mean so much to me, I do have many hopes for the work. Let me attempt to crystallize them here. I love poems that possess a kind of heat, whether a gentle glow or singeing fire, what Lorca called the duende. If the reader feels that type of heat, if my poems reach not just their mind but also their heart, then I have done my job. In addition, if I am honest, there is guilt and shame in having a child who is different. If my book can, in some small way, be of comfort to other parents of special needs children or any parents — or really, to anyone who has gone through any difficult journey or trauma for that matter — I will feel very good about that. And finally, there is one thing I fear the most — that I have somehow not done Brendan’s story justice, that I have missed something, inadvertently misrepresented his essence. What is most important to me is that if he could speak, he would say, “Dad you got it right. I am proud of you.”
One of the most gratifying things so far is seeing the work connect with others. At the December 2020 San Francisco book launch of Seize hosted by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, I was excited and nervous to show photos and video clips of Brendan and other family members to accompany the poems. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to reveal so much about myself, about Brendan, about my wife, Grace, about all of us. But it seemed like the right time and place. After doing so, I am glad that I took that first step and plan to do so again. I was touched by the support of you and all those attended, many of them friends and family members, and some of them newfound connections. All these types of moments — from seeing familiar faces and nodding heads on Zoom screens to receiving kind notes and comments — bring me a quiet joy and a sense of relief. The warm reception and honest, thoughtful dialogue about the work underscores an artistic truth: for us, as creators, vulnerability is worth the risk.
In turn, I hope that the book inspires others to be vulnerable and honest, to further engage in what my thoughtful colleague, Tika Lamsal, called at this most recent reading “a quarrel” with the self. To admit that quarrel. To honor that quarrel. To move towards resolving that quarrel. To cross the thresholds of that quarrel and reach the other side, a place of gratitude and peace.
As I reflect upon this notion of the quarrel, and your comments about poetry that asks big questions and confronts big issues, I can’t help but think of your current work. In your artist statement for the Guggenheim Fellowship, you state:
I am working on a new poetry collection that triangulates three seemingly unrelated concerns. On one hand, there are poems that take on controversial issues like climate change, gun violence, and race. On the complete other end of the spectrum is an elliptical and somewhat experimental series in response to specific artworks by Cy Twombly. Between these two modes is another unexpected series — elegies for my late father who died in 2017. Somewhere is a through-line. Somehow, the Venn diagrams overlap and even inform the other. My goal is to find out why. And how.
This project is innovative, timely, and ambitious. Your ideas of the “through-line” and “Venn diagrams” are compelling and things I can relate to in my own work, as I am sure other poets can, too. Can you tell us more about this exciting newer manuscript? Both in terms of the progress you have made on individual poems as well as figuring out the connections and arc of the work as a whole? Moreover, can you speak to how this collection is specific in its themes and interests and, at the same time, builds upon your previous work? And tell us, too, what your hopes are for this project?
DR: Tika may not have known he was quoting Yeats, but as he was talking, and you were reading and speaking about your poems, I was thinking about Yeats and his own quarrel with himself, politics, Maud Gonne, Ireland, the past, and the future. Ireland then, like America now, is a kind of contact zone. In a very real way, our country is — emotionally and intellectually — at war with itself. For a long time I have been asking myself: what is the role of poetry in such a place at such a time?
Over the last couple of years, I have found myself interested in the ways personal and public losses merge — or at the very least how they are mourned. In 2017, my father became very ill. His body started shutting down. He began dialysis — the process that would lead to his death — on the very day of the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in England. I’m not sure how or why, but somehow public and private tragedies, local and global mourning, merged in the poem “Elegy Pantoum.” A Pantoum is an ancient Malay form colonized by the French in which each line in a verse is repeated in the following verse. In the case of this poem, big questions and big emotions just keep looping back on themselves. Loss, identity, language, nationhood, language, race, violence, and of course, language.
Not long after my father died, I made a pilgrimage to New York to a massive retrospective of Cy Twombly drawings. In the case of Twombly, I wanted to see what a life devoted to art looked and felt like. Twombly’s work has always been deeply elegiac to me, and in those drawings, I found what I have come to think of as a beautiful mourning. Entering those drawings, many of which also had lines of poetry scrawled on them, helped me process my father’s death like nothing else. I saw a big mind trying to come to terms with meaning, life, death, the weight of history, and the ability of art to put us in touch with that which is beyond articulation. In those pieces, almost all of which blurred the line between text and image, I recognized Twombly’s inability to choose between the two modes of expression. As though poetry somehow both enhances and expands art’s grasp. As though the images and text both desired, to quote Rilke, “to rise into pure relation.”
Teju Cole says of such experiences, “These moments of pleasure, of epiphany, of focus, of being there, in their instantaneous way can actually feel like a little nudge that’s telling you, ‘By the way, this is why you’re alive. And this is not going to last, but never mind that for now.’” But, I wanted to make the experience last. I wanted to see if I could do in poetry something akin to what Twombly was doing with his drawings. That evening, after leaving the exhibit I went for a walk on the High Line there in Chelsea before heading back to my hotel room where, in the near darkness, I began penning a series of questions to my father and to Twombly. The next morning, I opened my notebook to see what I had written, and before I knew it, I was working on a poem that became the clumsily but accurately titled “Troubled by Thoughts About Infinity and Oblivion, I Exit the Twombly Retrospective at Dusk and Walk the High Line with the Ghost of My Father”.
That poem led to another and then to another. Next thing you know, two years have passed, and I’ve pretty much only written poems about Cy Twombly pieces. A few months ago, I realized these could make a cool book, but I really wanted the poems and the images to be in conversation with each other on the page. Over the last couple of years, I have developed a very good relationship with the Cy Twombly Foundation and Twombly’s longtime partner, Nicola Del Roscio. In fact, I was supposed to visit the Twombly Foundation in Italy in the summer of 2020, but the pandemic had other plans for me. And the world.
The Foundation has been incredibly generous with my poems and about granting approval to reprint Twombly’s work. They have given my publisher, Copper Canyon Press, permission to reprint all of the images I write about. I think it will be a cool hybrid book — half visual art, half poetry. It is slated to come out in 2022, and I have never been more excited about any project.
My hopes are that it pushes ekphrasis in new directions, that it limns the line between the lexical and the visual, and that it advocates for experiencing the formal and emotional contours of a poem like one might experience a painting. Like Twombly, I am more interested in engagement than interpretation, despite the fact that indecipherability on the page tends to create more anxiety than on the canvas. Viewers are willing to appreciate a painting’s abstraction, its lack of linearity, its missing message. We enjoy art’s colors, shape, and energy without worrying about meaning. However, when it comes to poetry, readers expect to arrive at some level of understanding. I have often seen this as a liability, but in this book, I am interested in language’s clarifying properties though not in an explanatory sense. My poems enter into conversation with the images, sometimes as a mode of elucidation, sometimes as a means of reflection, sometimes as a form of participation.
Speaking of participation and of public and private family issues, I was so heartened to see images of Grace and Brendan and your mom during your release for Seize. As far as I know that is the first time you have made images of Brendan public as part of your poetic practice. What was that like? What prompted you to do that? Did you and Grace discuss that decision? I haven’t seen Brendan in a couple of years, so it was great to catch that video of him walking!
BKD: It saddens me to learn more about your father’s slow, difficult passing and how deeply that must have impacted you. Yet, at the same time, I find your response inspiring. In your dual identity as poet and son, you have made an important, courageous choice: to make meaning of your father’s life; to transmute your mourning into art. At the nexus of these dynamic, complex intersections, you shape the contours of his life and legacy. I commend you for this openness. For moving through that space. For embracing, as Cole says, what it means to be fully alive. And who knows when serendipity will strike? When unseen powers will bring us face to face with something we need to see at the very moment that we need to see it — in this case, your meeting with Twombly. It’s as if that artistic conversation between you was always waiting to happen, and your intuition that Twombly would help get you through this challenging time opened up pathways that you hadn’t quite imagined.
Likewise, you must have felt validated and excited when the Foundation gave you their blessing to have the Twombly pieces reprinted in your upcoming book. I am sure they are honored by your thoughtful attention to his work, the way your poems bring his images alive in new ways.
Interestingly, this same spirit and recognition of the resonance between written and visual realms, in part, drove my own decision to share images of Brendan and others in a public space. While I want the poems in Seize to stand on their own and exist independently on the page, and I do think traditional readings are powerful and effective, I began to ask various questions: What would happen if I presented the work in innovative formats? How would that impact the audience? My own sharing of the poems? These questions were also influenced by the well-known phenomenon of Zoom exhaustion, which we are all feeling these days. I had seen some other presenters effectively employ visual modalities; I thought that thinking outside the box could shake things up, liven up certain presentations, give viewers new angles into the work. Add dimensionality to my boy, Brendan, my wife, Grace, and other family members. Show others — especially those new to, less familiar with, or even skeptical of poetry — that poems can be rooted in real things and real people. That they can seek to humanize rather than merely intellectualize. That poems can be the truth shaped from the clay of our beautiful, complicated, and, at times, painful experiences.
The choice was also rooted in an increasing willingness to be vulnerable, to share more of my life. And this was made easier by the fact that, at the San Francisco launch event, I knew there would be a strong circle of support (including you), some of whom had met Brendan at some point or interacted with him to varying degrees. This motivated me to create an intimate communal space, one where I could not only discuss our struggles but also relate certain miraculous events. The video of Brendan walking, as you know, is momentous. Around four years ago, my boy got a very bad stomach flu, and after days of fever and vomiting, his system did a permanent reset. Inexplicably and magically, he started to be able to walk on a consistent basis, not just for a few days, but for weeks, and now months and years. This all happened just as we were coming to the stark realization that he was becoming too heavy for us to lift safely. I’d already had hernia surgery and other injuries, and I was also afraid that Grace, who’d also suffered some aches and pains, might seriously hurt herself one day. We really didn’t know how we would continue bearing his body’s weight . . . and suddenly some force intervenes and saves us. Maybe the intangible force is our own form of language, something in him hearing something in us, an invisible rope of give and take that connects us beyond the realm of everyday words. These are the miracles that help keep him and us going.
And while making things public has been empowering, as you perceptively indicate, this choice to do so has an ethical component due to the impact on others. I did make sure with Grace and my parents and brother that it was ok to show these photos of them. When I asked Brendan, “Buddy, can I share pictures of you with others?” he gave me a light high-five tap, and later, a gentle “Hai hai.” Those signals from him are good enough for me. And I know that I am lucky to come from a family of artists and writers, where showing the truth and being real are valued.
When I think of the last few months and opening more of myself through this work, I arrive at a simple metaphor. Imagine standing at the edge of a lake, wondering what it will be like to step in. First, you touch the water with your toes, wade into your ankles, move forward until the water reaches your knees. Steady, you keep going, reach waist-high depth. Here, the cold brings you alive, your skin shivers; you can turn back but realize it’s easier to plunge in. The more readings I do, the more I realize: people are good at heart; they appreciate hearing the real deal, the difficult truths; they respond to what’s authentic. It’s ok to let down your guard. Reveal yourself. Just be who you are.
On the topic of vulnerability, I would be grateful to hear more about the emotional aspects of your poetic journey. I am really close to my father, and I resist imagining the day when his physical presence will no longer grace this earth. I imagine that this reckoning with your father must have been such an intense process. Yet I’d like to think that the writing has brought you to further understandings and hopefully acceptance and healing. Can you speak about that? And share a poem about your father that is emblematic of your quest and discuss its significance to you?
DR: You know this, but I will now make a confession to our readers. It has taken me how long to respond? Two weeks? Your questions hit a nerve, two nerves, really. I often get a little uncomfortable discussing the emotional terrain of my poems. I don’t know why; I talk openly about their intellectual foundations, their formal ambitions, their influences, but I never really know how to articulate their affective elements. I think, for me, that is why I write poems. Emotions are too laden, too complex, too loaded to be dealt with in normal denotative language. They need poetry’s connotative, associative, and musical properties.
That said, one emotion that runs through a lot of my poems of the last two or three years is loss. The loss of my father, the loss of tolerance in our country, the loss of hope, the loss of American promise. I would also say as well the loss of my father-in-law, Mick Ramsey, with whom I was very close. He died of complications of Parkinson’s in April of 2019. In fact, he died the same week I learned about the Guggenheim; I never got to share that news with him or my father.
It is difficult to choose one poem about my father to discuss, but the one that comes to mind is “Poem begun on the Day of My Father’s Funeral and Completed on the First Day of the New Year.” That poem, with its jagged lines, fragments, negative space, was on one hand hoping to communicate and/or express a sense of feeling shattered, broken, emptied out. But, there are also rhymes and assonance, some lush lyricism that I hoped would communicate and/or express, well, love.
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