Debts and Debtors: An Interview with R.H.W. Dillard
Conducted by Sean Siobhan at Dillard’s home in Roanoke, Virginia on July 20, 2011.
Sean Siobhan: Many readers of poems from your new collection, What Is Owed the Dead, have found these poems to be compelling but very difficult, even baffling. I wonder if you could help those readers out by discussing the methodology of those poems, of that collection.
R.H.W. Dillard: Usually, in fact almost always, I refuse to discuss my work, using the familiar principle that if the work doesn’t speak for itself, then it should remain silent. But because I’ve agreed to give this interview and especially because it is you, an old friend, with whom I have made this agreement, I’ll do my best to describe those poems for you.
SS: Since I already owe you so much, I’ll just add this to my tab. Please do continue.
RHWD: It’s interesting to me that you’ve, fairly or unfairly, added the metaphor of debts, of owing, to our conversation. What Is Owed the Dead (and, by the way, I’m indebted for that title to a poem by Geoffrey Hill, who is very much not dead) is a sequence of fifty-two poems, each sixteen lines long, each addressed to a dead poet or several times to more than one dead poet. Each is a meditation of sorts upon that poet’s work, secondarily that poet’s life, and ultimately upon the lives of poems themselves in a violent and inherently unjust world. It is in one sense an effort to repay those poets for the gift of their poems, although many of the poets to whom I owe the most do not appear in the sequence, while others do. Unlike you, I’ve found it impossible to keep a running tab. And finally the debt is owed to all of our predecessors, all of our dead poets, or, if I were more of a Platonist and less a radical empiricist and believed that there were such a thing, to poetry itself.
SS: I believe that that’s a clear enough answer, but why are the poems themselves so difficult, so fragmented, so filled with orts and shards of other poems, so anti-historical while being so grounded in history, so (if you’ll forgive me) un-poetic?
RHWD: I’ll most certainly forgive you, and if you’ll allow me to break your question into parts, I’ll try to answer it.
First, I don’t think that the poems, once a reader has read two or three of them and gotten the hang of things, are difficult at all. If anything, they are too simple. Rather than follow John Keats’ advice to Percy Shelley (“‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore”), I wanted to load every rift of my subject with plastique, so that the poems would explode in readers’ minds, making it necessary that they rearrange and rewire their comfortable mental fixtures. But now I find myself wishing that they were even denser, tighter, more hardened (like a bomb shelter), tougher, faster, more passionate, more muscular, more explosive, fierce. But given the responses of my very best readers so far, I think that I am probably wrong about that. As Gertrude Stein once put it (in Everybody’s Autobiography), “I always wanted it all to be commonplace and simple anything that I am writing and then I get worried that it is too commonplace and too simple.” [sic] We’ll just have to wait and see.
Second, they are, as you say, fragmented, in that the syntax is broken up (“interrupted” may be a better word) by bits and pieces of other poems, memories, reflections, echoes, dates, diary entries, explosions, etc., etc. This is not only a strategy similar to the Modernist technique of fracturing as an appropriate response to a fractured age, but also a “demonstration” of how the mind—when it puts aside the falsifying strictures of theory and strictly rational approaches to poems—actually deals with poems (and, for that matter, with the business of living). But I also believe that each poem (and the collection as a whole) is as fully formed and even formal as a traditional sonnet or sonnet collection. The poems are coherent; they begin, they move forward through a developmental middle, and they reach a conclusion.
Third, the “orts and shards” you mention are there for a reason, too. As I was writing these poems, I read through the “complete poems” of almost every poet I address in these poems, as well as letters, bits of biography, etc. I wanted to immerse myself in the poets’ “remains,” the poems that they wrote and saved or that have been saved for them by others, realizing all the while, even as I read, that only bits and pieces of these poems would actually remain with me—that the poems would live on intact and whole but that in my musings they would become fragmented, that bits of them would be taken out of context, that those bits would rouse memories and bring in the world around their writing and the world around my reading, all at once. And that’s what these poems are trying to capture, that complex poetic experience, with the absolute assurance that the readers of these poems themselves will fracture them further in a continuation of that vital process, the making of new poems and new poetic experience.
(And, by the way, you might also have noticed that Keats inserted some words lifted from Spenser’s Faerie Queene in his much quoted advice to Shelley. Poets have been doing this sort of thing since the beginning of poetry—or at least from the first time there existed a poem from which another poet could borrow.)
Fourth, the poems are indeed historical, grounded especially in the war-torn and unimaginably violent twentieth century (so that Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin act as stand-ins for all tyrannical, brutal, bloody-handed authoritarians), but they also look much further back, to the Greeks and Romans, to Caedmon and the unknown author of “Westron Wind,” to Dante and Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila. The poems are, then, historical, complete with dates, and ahistorical in their fusion of past and present in that poetic continuum moving toward the unknowable future (unknowable save by means of poems, perhaps).
Fifth, the poems are “un-poetic” while remaining poetic, I hope and believe, by my making an effort to avoid as many of the tropes, tactical moves, clichés, rhythms, forms, traditions, etc., etc. of poetry, both modern and ancient—to move as far as I could move toward making them look at first glance familiar (the capitalized first lines, the sixteen lines) and then making them, upon closer reading, as unfamiliar as I possibly could. I wanted to write poems that, while obviously and purposefully belonging to the great tradition and continuum of poetry, would be entirely unfamiliar and (pace E. P.) new.
Finally, the whole collection, for all the violence, depression, hurt, and suffering in the poems, is a celebration of the resilience of poems. These poems are filled with examples of the randomness of fame and failure, of long and wretchedly short lives, of homebound life and lonely exile, of critical praise and critical abuse, of understanding and misreading, misunderstanding and willful ideological distortion, of doubt and belief, of violence and peacefulness, of blindness and vision. And yet, despite all the acts of betrayal by political leaders, by generals, by reviewers, by teachers, by lazy readers, by editors, by critics, by scholars, by theorists, by ideologues, by inquisitors, by butchers, and by the poets themselves, the poems survive; whether fragmented or whole, whether alone or in huge collections, they survive, inviolable. When all else comes crashing down, these poems suggest that perhaps poems alone will remain to sustain, console, and remind the spirit of itself, to speak the final healing prayer. It is worth remembering that even Jesus spoke a line from a poem to express the absolute depth and complexity of his suffering on the cross.
SS: Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?
RHWD: Yes. The opening line of Psalm 22.
SS: We need to move along and discuss other things, but before we do, I’d like to ask three other relatively simple questions about these poems. I notice that some of the poems are addressed to writers primarily of prose (Petronius, Laurence Sterne, W. H. Hudson, for example) and even one philosopher (Ludwig Wittgenstein). Why is that?
RHWD: Poetry is, I could say, in the eye and ear of the beholder, and perhaps it is. I believe, for example, the black and marbled pages in Tristram Shandy to be among the most meaningful poems I have ever read. I was particularly convinced that great poetry is where you find it with Wittgenstein who, in the midst of war and anguish and suicide, said that philosophy should be written like a poem, and who, while struggling with the failure of the word, found the Word. If he’s not a poet, who is?
SS: And what’s with all those notes at the end of poems?
RHWD: The notes are, in some sense, essential to the poems. They orient the reader as to which poet is being addressed and where those often puzzling “orts and shards” come from. They are an effort to “come clean” with the reader. And if some particularly determined reader tracks them all down, he or she will, I assure you, find more than one surprise.
SS: These poems, unlike your earlier work, seem almost impersonal. I notice, for example, that the first person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours) never appear until “I” and “us” appear in the last line of the final poem. Why is that?
RHWD: These are the most personal poems I have ever written.