Stephen Dunn is an American poet and educator born in Forest Hills, New York in 1962. Dunn received his Bachelor of Arts in history at Hofstra University in 1962 and received his Master of Arts in creative writing from Syracuse University in 1970. Since 1974 he has been teaching at Richard Stockton College of NJ, where he is distinguished Professor of Creative Writing. Dunn is author of sixteen books, including Different Hours, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, the New Republic, the New Yorker, The Georgia Review, and the American Poetry Review, to name just a few.
The poem that made me want to interview Stephen Dunn I found in the Best American Poetry book volume 2012. “The Imagined” is about a uncommunicative older couple that let their imaginations run their marriage. The tone of the poem is humorous but discusses a serious topic that many can relate to. The language combined with the perfectly placed enjambments creates this great poem that grabbed my attention.
Cat Bates: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Stephen Dunn: Take yourself as seriously as other would-be artists take themselves. A dancer works at being limber and observes other dancers. A violinist practices every day. Don’t be a weekend poet. Immerse yourself in your art. Read everybody. Try different forms.
CB: If you could go back and change one of your poems, would you?
SD: I have and could. I’m better than I once was, and could make certain poems better. (As well as worse.) I’ve decided to let the chronology of my career to be evidence of a progression,. I changed three poems in my first Selected, then I stopped. But I’m always changing and revising poems before they are book-ready, even if they’ve been published in magazines.
CB: In “The Imagined”, would you interpret the couple as a happy couple? Why or why not?
SD: I’ll tell you how the poem began. It existed for awhile only as the first stanza, what I thought to be a rather typical male fantasy. When I showed it to my wife (who is also a writer), she said she liked it, but added why didn’t I imagine a comparable fantasy for a woman? Thus the second stanza. When I read the poem at readings, usually all the women in the audience are frowning at me, then I read the second stanza, and they get happy. It’s essentially a comic poem that attempts to get right what goes on in the minds of married people. I didn’t think of the poem as a personal, relationship poem, but I understand that it might be read that way. So to answer your question, I’d say that a couple that could think such things, and know not to often speak of them has a good chance of being a happy couple.
CB: What makes a poem great?
SD: A great and difficult question that would probably require an entire essay. For me, it would be a poem of constant discoveries, that pleased and informed us both content-wise as well as musically. And it would need to have found a form that harnesses its discoveries. There are, of course, many different kinds of great poems. I think of Dante and Milton, poets that took on the concerns of their time with particular brilliance, and more recently Frost’s “Home Burial” — a long, narrative poem — and Philip Larkin’s “Talking in Bed” — as short lyrical poem. The great poem must knock us out in some original way.
CB: You won a pulitzer prize for your 2001 collection called Different Hours. Do you think this is your best work?
SD: I’m not sure, though I’ll stand by most of the poems in it. My most recent book WHEREAS pleases me a great deal, as does my 1989 book BETWEEN ANGELS. Best? Better? It’s really for other people to say.