Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Interview with C. Dale Young
C. Dale Young is the fifth interview at The Fine Delight; be sure to check yesterday's profile for some great commentary on the genesis of several of his poems. This interview was conducted through email. A bio note, as well as links to C. Dale's books, follow the interview. Thanks, and looking forward to your new book, C. Dale!
1. In "Sepsis," your narrator asks "Dear God, how does a sinner outlast the sin." In "Paying Attention," we see "What can I say / to explain my God?" Do other poems in Torn contain such conversations with, or considerations of, the divine? And do you have a consistent characterization/identity for this God figure or concept?
When I first put together the first draft of the manuscript for Torn, I ran it through one of those word cloud gadgets. I was stunned to find that one of the most common words in the manuscript was the word "God." It was right up there with my all-time favorite word "dark" (which appears with a sickening regularity in all of my books, despite having the word with a line through it posted above my desk!). At first, I sat in disbelief as I looked at the word cloud. How on earth could God be such a common word in the manuscript? But when I went back and read through the poems, sure enough I found God made many appearances.
I wouldn't say that all of the appearances are in "conversations," but many of them are. I guess I blame this on having re-read a lot of my favorite poems by Donne over the time many of these poems were written. But then I would have to also ask myself why I was so attracted to Donne that I was systematically re-reading his poems. And this is a question I am not sure I want to pose. I guess I have always loved the metaphysical and devotional poets. I guess I wanted to take part in that larger conversation.
2. Do you think this desire to participate in the "larger conversation" is endemic to poetry? Does the nature of poetry make such considerations more appropriate or necessary than prose writing?
I don't think it is endemic to poetry. I suspect it is endemic to Art. I don't think poetry is more appropriate or more necessary than prose writing. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
3. I profiled "Paying Attention" at The Fine Delight, but almost selected another wonderful poem of yours, "Or Something Like That," which contains the following stanza:
Easy to doubt. Always easy. And the old Jesuit
who lectured me on this? Well, he doubted, too.
But I am not quite ready to be broken just yet.
Do you find such doubt essential to Catholicism?
I don't know if I am by any means the right person to answer such a question. I don't feel as if I am in any way an authority on Catholicism. I know for myself doubt is essential, but I also know I am probably not the typical Catholic.
4. "Stitch after stitch, the slender exactness of my fingers / attempted perfection." "Torn" is a powerful, passionate poem, so grounded in one night at the ER. What led you to choose Torn as the title of the entire collection?
"Torn" is a poem that for me is filled with contradictions and doubt about humanity. That human beings are capable of tenderness and the ability to heal while at the same time being capable of incomprehensible brutality is something I have always found compelling and powerful. Many of the poems in the book deal with these dualities and doubts. I also realized that in many ways I am torn in that I work both as a physician and as a poet. I am also torn as a man who is part Caucasian, part Asian and part Latino. When I first assembled the first draft of the manuscript and read through it, the title Torn seemed inevitable.
5. Have you found a way to mitigate this sense of tearing/separation; say, between your identities as physician and poet? Are there common humanistic approaches in the treatment of patients as a physician and the usage of language as a poet?
It isn't so much that I have a sense of separation. It is just that as a physician, the great majority of my time is consumed by medicine. It makes creating time to write and do other things difficult. But this is nothing new. All physicians experience this. I do not believe there are common humanistic approaches to practicing medicine and writing poetry.
6. In your insightful interview with The Collagist, you note that you "rely less and less on metrically-informed lines and more and more on the sentence" since your first book, The Day Underneath The Day. Later in the interview you offer a wonderful insight: "The tension between line and syntax is what has always made a poem a flexible and sometimes violent machine." Was the shift from metrically-aware lines to sentences a conscious one for you? As someone who also writes prose (you had a fine story recently in Guernica), do you carry conceptions of poetry across when writing sentences within that other genre?
I believed, falsely, when I finished graduate school that I knew a lot about poetry and the making of poetry. I have very few metrical poems, but my knowledge of and belief in meter was the primary influence on how I made lines, how I wrote poems. I believed in the line without really understanding the crucial fact that line is always in relation to the syntax of a sentence. Line can either support the normal syntax of a sentence or oppose it. That support or opposition is what harnesses the energy in a poem. In prose, we do not have the line to support or oppose standard syntax. The more I became aware of syntax and line in this way, the more I began to vary how I used line, the more I began to use it to establish my own rhythms and cadences. I suspect many poets know this, even if instinctively.
In prose, despite being without line, there are rhythms as well. Well-written fiction has a distinct rhythm to it and varies the rhythm based on the kinds of work being done at that point in the story or novel. The rhythm varies based on the kinds of information being deployed. I don't know that I have carried the things I have learned in poetry to my fiction, but I know I am deeply aware of cadence and rhythm when writing fiction. I just don't have the awesome ability to tweak that with line the way I do in poems.
7. Speaking of graduate school--you teach in the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. Does teaching--lecturing, workshopping, and responding to the work of students--affect your approach toward the reading and writing of poetry?
Yes and no. Teaching does not directly affect my writing, but it reinvigorates my brain and makes me revisit works I love and makes me consider poems I had not remembered or had not considered. I joke that I am on the poetry faculty at Warren Wilson but am also a fiction student. The writers who teach at Warren Wilson are rigorous, challenging and truly intelligent and humane people. They challenge me to be better. They remind me I am not completely crazy in my love of Literature. I also realize that I love poetry so much that if I help even one of my students to write the next “Ode on a Grecian Urn” then I have done a great service to poetry. In the end I want great poems to be written and appreciated, and that is what has kept me teaching.
8. Torn is scheduled for full release later in February, but copies will be available for purchase during the AWP Bookfair (at the table for Four Way Books). How have you approached the collection of your poems into manuscripts? Do you write individual poems with a complete book or project in mind? When did Torn feel finished and ready for presentation as a book?
Torn comes out in full release in early March, but yes, there will be roughly 50 copies for sale at the Four Way Books Table at AWP. As for manuscripts and book projects, I just write individual poems. I am fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) to be rather obsessive-compulsive. I return to many of the same ideas and things over and over again. Eventually, when I have about 40-50 poems, I print them all out and look to see if anything coheres. If I find convergences, then I begin putting together a manuscript. But I never have a clue what a book ms. will look like as I am writing my poems. I suspect if I did know, I would have trouble writing the poems. I have quite a number of poems that have never been collected. But that is okay. A book is different than just putting together a bunch of poems, and not all of the poems I write will cohere. Sometimes, a poem I wrote 15-20 years ago fits with poems written in the past few years. In both my second book and third book manuscripts, I found that a poem or two written back when I wrote most of the poems for my first book fit better with these newer manuscripts. It is almost as if they were written before their times.
I had the fortune to secure a residency at Yaddo in the fall of 2007. There, I wrote 16 poems in two weeks and assembled the first draft of Torn. It was a very fruitful two weeks considering I typically write roughly 4 poems per year!
C. Dale Young is the author of three collections of poetry: The Day Underneath the Day (Northwestern 2001); The Second Person and Torn (Four Way Books 2007 and 2011). He practices medicine full-time, edits poetry for New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. A recipient of fellowships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Yaddo, he lives with his life partner, the classical music composer Jacob Bertrand, in San Francisco.
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