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Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with Stephen Dunn, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize for poetry, about his collection, titled Different Hours.
The winner in poetry this year was Stephen Dunn for his collection of verse "Different Hours." Dunn is professor of creative writing at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, and author of ten other volumes of poetry, as well as two books of prose. A new book of essays, "Walking Light," is due out in May. He was born in Queens, New York, graduated from Hofstra University where he played varsity basketball, and received a masters in creative writing from Syracuse. Thanks for being with us, congratulations. And what's your reaction to this, you who write so well about the need for limited expectations?
(Laughs) Well, I've changed that little bit. The reaction has been overwhelming, and I'm just getting used to it. I think I actually, though, could get used to it for a long time.
Is it especially sweet now after you turned 60? You write in this book about how so many members of your family died before they reached 60.
Well, the book was composed in the years… the three or four years before I reached 60, and I guess I was sometimes consciously, probably more unconsciously aware that I was nearing the age that nobody in my family… no male in my family had ever reached. And I think that notion, that consciousness, colored a lot of the poems. I think because my parents died in their early 50s, mid 50s, I always thought I would die young. And that's been both a useful thing and I suspect something that's haunted me a little bit.
Tell us a little bit more about the book, the title "Different Hours."
Well, the title… When I wrote the poem "Different Hours," it seemed to collect a lot of poems around it. I think most poets work disparately unless you're working on a sequence of some kind. And so I had many different poems. And then I wrote the title poem, and it seemed to make sense of a lot of other poems around it. And essentially, to be reductive, it started to take on the different hours of not only my life, but I hope that my life resonating into the life of others in this particular time, this juncture in history.
Would you read one of the poems for us? And also, set the context for us.
Okay. Read a poem called "Before the Sky Darkens." The speaker in the poem begins with a certain sense of, I think, bemused despair, and the poem moves through that. "Before the Sky Darkens." "Sunset's incipient storms, the tableaus of melancholy– maybe these are the Saturday night events to take your best girl to. At least then there might be moments of vanishing beauty before the sky darkens, and the expectation of happiness would hardly exist and therefore might be possible. More and more you learn to live with the unacceptable. You sense the ever-hidden God retreating even farther, terrified or embarrassed. You might as well be a clown, big silly clothes, no evidence of desire. That's how you feel, say, on a Tuesday. Then out of the daily wreckage comes an invitation with your name on it, or more likely that best girl of yours offers you once again a small local kindness. You open your windows to good air blowing in from who knows where, which you gulp and deeply inhale as if you have a death sentence. You have. All your life, it seems, you've been appealing it. Night sweats and useless stratagem reprieves."
The you in this poem is redeemed by an invitation or a small local kindness.
I read these poems and sounds you so eloquent about the most ordinary things. Is this something you've always been able to do or is it something that's come late in life?
Well, I think perhaps I have a little more control over it as I've gotten older and a little more crafty. But, in fact, I've always tried to take on the dailyness which– of our lives– which I think is mysterious. I think most of our lives are made up of both things visible and things interior, with a large chunk of them being interior. So whenever I've been able to arrive at clarities about that which is elusive about dailyness, that has pleased me.
How did you start writing poetry?
Badly, I think.
(Laughs) Who doesn't?
I started somewhat late, in my mid 20s. I had been working at a corporate job in New York and doing rather alarmingly well, which frightened me — and quit at some point to take a chance on seeing if I could write. And my wife and I went to Spain to live for a year where I started to write a novel and that turned into poetry — and got lucky with, I think my only literary friend, Sam Toperoff, came over to visit and validated what I was doing, and things really began from there on.
Do your poems come easily? Do they start with an image or a word or an idea?
All of the above. They start variously. I usually have no particular design in mind when I begin. But, yes, sometimes with an idea, sometimes with an image, and my habit of mind is to resist what I find myself saying. So often a poem progresses by a series of resistances, where I might say something… My habit of mind is every time I say something, I almost always hear its opposite. And I think my poems progress… often progress that way, where an idea or a notion is refined as I move down the page.
Mr. Dunn, do you again the Pulitzer will change your life or the way you work inn any way?
I hope not. It might change a few things. I think one of the advantages of winning something like this and being… is being my age, where my habits are in place, my friends are in place; all the things that limit me are very much in place so that I imagine certain… there will be certain opportunities for me that were not there and opportunities for the work itself that were not there before. But in terms of day-to-day living, I suspect not too much will change.
Stephen Dunn, congratulations again and thanks for being with us.
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