“Take Yourself Seriously”: Another Five Questions with Stephen Dunn

Stephen Dunn was born in 1939 in Queens, New York and went to college at Hofstra University where he played basketball on a scholarship. After college, Dunn worked in the advertising business. After a few years in the business, Dunn decided to quit his job and traveled to Spain to write his first novel along with some poetry. After he lived in Spain, Dunn studied at the New School and acquired an MA in creative writing at Syracuse University.

Dunn has written over a dozen books of poetry that includes Loosestrife (1996), What Goes On: New and Selected Poems 1995-2009 (2009),  Different Hours (2000), Here and Now (2011), and Lines of Defense (2014). His book of poetry, Different Hours (2000), actually won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2001. Along with the Pulitzer Prize, Dunn has won several more awards and honors that include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Dunn also was awarded an Academy Award for Literature and he won the James Wright Prize. Since 1974, Dunn has been a professor at Richard Stockton College for creative writing and he has been a Visiting Professor at NYU, Columbia, The University of Washington, and The University of Michigan. Today, he resides in Maryland with his wife, Barbara Dunn, who also is a writer.

Fiona Taney: What was your inspiration for your poem “The Imagined” in Best
American Poetry 2012?

Stephen Dunn: I don’t remember exactly, but I was at Yaddo, the artist colony, and found myself writing the first line, and then just riffing on the subject from there. The interesting thing was that I showed what is now the first half of the poem to a friend, a woman, thinking that it was finished. She said why don’t you give the woman a secret man? Which I proceeded to do. When I’ve read that poem at readings, all the women in the audience are frowning at me. When I continue on to the second part they smile and get very pleased.

FT: How did it feel to win the pulitzer prize for poetry?

SD: Wonderful, of course. A great surprise.

FT: How did you discover that you loved to write poetry? Was it in childhood or later in life?

SD: Later life, for sure. I went through college on a basketball scholarship, was a serious student, but not a very good one. I worked in New York after college, a corporate job, which I was good at, but was sure I didn’t want to be like anyone in the office. When I got a big promotion, I quit, and went to Spain with my new wife to see if I could become a writer. We lived for a year on 22 hundred dollars. I wrote a bad novel and threw it away. But I had started to read poetry seriously,– Wallace Stevens, Federico Lorca, others, and gave it a try. My only literary friend visited, and thought what I had written was good. He must have been lying, but I chose to believe him. When I came home, I applied to grad schools, and went to Syracuse where I encountered fabulous teachers. There’s more, of course, but I suggest you read my book of essays WALKING LIGHT if you want a more complete story.

FT: I found the poem “The Kiss” to be very powerful. Was this poem based on true events?

SD: Only the typo is a “true event.” The rest is fiction.

FT: Do you have any advice for a young, aspiring poet?

SD: Yes, take yourself as seriously as other would-be artists do. Read everybody. Practice. Practice.


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