Dahlen reading in New York. Photo by Erica Kaufman.
"Thrilling to Throw One's Voice Out There"
Part Two: An Interview With Beverly Dahlen Conducted in October 2009 via email.
A native of Portland, Oregon, Beverly Dahlen has lived in San Francisco for many years. Her first book, Out of the Third, was published by Momo’s Press in 1974. Two chapbooks, A Letter at Easter (Effie’s Press, 1976) and The Egyptian Poems (Hipparchia Press, 1983) were followed by the publication of the first volume of A Reading in 1985 (A Reading 1—7, Momo’s Press). Since then, three more volumes of A Reading have appeared. Chax Press published A Reading 8—10 (1992); Potes and Poets Press: A Reading 11—17 (1989); Instance Press: A Reading 18—20 (2006). Chax Press also published the chapbook A-reading Spicer & Eighteen Sonnets in 2004. Ms. Dahlen has published work in numerous periodicals and anthologies. Her essay on beauty and her poem called “A Reading…. the Beautiful” were published in Crayon 5.
RTM: What about writing and its address,the address to the other. You write: "the reading of the writing goes on, this is for you because you are not here. you are always not here. you are never here. I make you up, I wonder how you look. and now it is so much easier to write than to speak. an other is so much an hallucination it's scary. I don't know what I speak to." (A Reading 1-7 78) In A Reading 11-17 you write: “ a dead ear, who might be out there listening to this. whoever you are. Foiled” (51). I’m interested in your conception of address in your writing Beverly. What is your work’s relation to its possible or imagined readers?
BD: That first passage is addressed to Rachel Blau duPlessis. We are friends but we rarely see one another. Our friendship is carried on by correspondence and sharing of poetry. It's a kind of lament because the other is absent. And we do invent images of absent others---they become a kind of "hallucination." The other passage is just imagining an audience, or a reader, that unknown other, someone who might be there----or perhaps there is no one listening, nothing, then one is "foiled."
RTM: In 1988 the Socialist Review published Ron Silliman’s “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject.” In it, Silliman introduces a selection of work by various poets. The poets introduced are: Aaron Shurin, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lisa Bernstein, Leslie Scalapino, Bob Perelman, Beverly Dahlen, Nathaniel Mackey, and Carol Dorf. About these eight poets, Silliman wrote: “These poets are different precisely because their audiences are not identical and thus have different needs” (68). Silliman situates these writers as having different audiences and readers while also positing that for some, their relationship to literary experimentation particularly vis-à-vis formal innovations and the construction or deconstruction of the subject is “more conventional.” He does this by setting up a dichotomy between the “subjects of history” who are largely white, heterosexual males and others who have been history’s objects–women, people of color, sexual minorities, etc. You were one of the poets Silliman presented in this selection. What was your response to this presentation of your work at the time and what are your thoughts about this construction of various poetries and modes of investigation now?
BD: I think you've asked me about this before. It's a long time since I've read the article and I can't now find my copy of it. I do think it's one way to proceed with an investigation, surely, though of course there are others. But I can't comment further. Speaking of Silliman, I don't think I've made clear how much I like and admire his work. He did an absolutely heroic reading of Ketjak at the corner of Powell and Market---his throat was bleeding by the end---and Tjanting was read by a group of us standing on a bridge above the trains in the Muni underground at the Church Street station. It was thrilling to throw one's voice out there into that roaring site. The idea of poetry against all that raw noise was somehow exhilarating. It was a wonderful defiant demonstration.
RTM: Beverly---Note: here is your response from an email to me from 5-21-08. I attach it here in case you want to work with this as well.
Note: Beverly agreed to include this May 21, 2008 response here in this interview. It follows.
BD: I suppose I read the Silliman article you quote from, but that was a long time ago and I can't remember much about it now. The particular passage you select for my comment seems familiar, as I re-read it, and problematic because the bias against narrative, lyric, etc. among certain language poets was well-known. I don't mean to generalize here, as I think Ron was doing to an extent that makes the statement inaccurate and misleading. And I frankly don't see that it has much to do with my work, since I have been identified as a woman, as a feminist, but certainly not as a writer of narrative. (I sometimes wish I could write a straight narrative.)
The way the statement is framed clearly privileges some poets as "progressive"--that is, those who explode the literary conventions--and some as those not quite progressive? who are obliged to tell their stories. So story-telling is denigrated as a kind of lower level of development. I thought then (as I do now) that this dismisses the brilliant re-inventions of self in the work of the "new narrative" writers I knew, but beyond the local scene, I felt that we were just beginning to discover the work of writers like HD and Dorothy Richardson, and many others of a previous generation. HD (as novelist) hardly wrote simplistic "stories." Of the novels I remember reading at the time (HD's of course, but also Richardson, Woolf, Mary Butts) "story" seems the least important element.
These works, of course, have been marginalized, and the more relevant question is why?
I note, maybe not so incidentally, that Ron refers to something called "the narrative of history." It's a peculiar choice of metaphor in this context, reifying history (History?) as one long ongoing story. It seems awfully conventional: the sort of thing you saw in old movies where the pages of the book (history?) would appear on screen as the events progressed. And progress. What is that?
This is all I can write today. I'll keep thinking about it.
RTM: I've just been reading a really interesting article by Ben Friedlander on Emily Dickinson called "Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball's Bluff" in the recent issue of PMLA.
Ben explores the complex exploration of war that Dickinson's poetry reveals. He writes,
"Scholars must begin to take account of the fact that Dickinson's wartime writing encompasses multiple, contradictory forms of response, a diversity of representational strategies and of the attitudes expressed that strongly suggests a project of coming to terms with war, a project in which the war provided both a constraining pressure on the imagination and an opportunity for exercising it. This alternative account assumes that Dickinson expressed in her poems what she was willing and able to say about the war but not necessarily what she believed; it assumes that her poems are rhetorical performances in which stances are tried out for reasons that cannot be taken for granted at the outset....Dickinson's war poetry is referentially indeterminate. Its subject matter is rarely set forth in terms that are so explicit, so unmistakable, that an alternative reading is precluded" (1583-1584).
This same referential indeterminacy that Ben locates in Dickinson's work seems active in your own work. Many young writers are still wrestling with the question of how one's writing can engage with the present, with the political. These questions certainly engaged many Bay Area writers in the 70s and 80s and continue to do so. In fact, it seems to me, that there is a kind of implicit demand right now that poetry somehow, in some recognizable way, engage with the political. Sometimes this demand seems to include a clear representational relation--thematically or formally--between poetry and politics.
I'm wondering Beverly what your thoughts are on how poetry engages with the present, with politics and history.
BD: This is a huge question, hugely vexed. There's not much overtly political poetry that's not propagandistic rhetoric. Speaking for myself, I see that these concerns enter A Reading but do so obliquely. And I guess there's a good deal of indeterminacy there. However, in A-reading Spicer & Eighteen Sonnets, particularly in the sonnets, there are political subjects---addressed mostly ironically. Nevertheless, the sonnets are breathless, jagged because they are dealing with catastrophic subjects for the most part. The irony is Beckettian.
RTM: One of the things I'm interested in is your participation or not in the poetry scene here in San Francisco. When and why you were involved and when not and why. Part of this is related to my interest in the reception and life of a person's work and how it relates to their participation in the scene. Kathleen Fraser, as a teacher and Director of the Poetry Center, had a very public role and continues to do so. Many people studied with her and then went on to do critical work on her writing. So, there's an economy there for any writer in such a situation that helps to keep her or his work in the public eye. You've taken up a less public role; your day job was one that didn't necessarily put you always in the poetry world. I'm curious how this impacted you and what you think about this.
BD: My "less public role" is illusory. I've given countless readings and my work has been the subject of many critical articles. Most recently, Paul Jaussen, at the University of Washington, is writing a chapter of his PhD thesis on A Reading. However, I am by temperament reclusive and I do not seek publicity. I have never had any ambition to make "poetry" my "career." For these and other reasons I did not seek work at the college level, and I early on gave up the chance to teach in public schools. (I failed student teaching.) After I left the Poetry Center (I had been Mark's secretary) I supported myself working in programs like Poets in the Schools. I worked with Julia Vose later at Mt. Zion Hospital doing workshops with folks in the Senior Day Center. Later, I worked with young students incarcerated in the Alameda County Juvenile Hall. Our program brought workshops in both writing and photography to them. When Reagan was elected and funding for the arts dried up, I found by chance work with City College's Adult Learning Center. Here were students who, for whatever reasons, had not learned to read. It was and is a literacy program. I think I was always meant to be a poet and a literacy worker. I used to refer to my life then as being divided between "high lit and low lit." And yes, my students fed my writing. There are certainly references to them and even quotations from them in A Reading.
In thinking it over, I realize I should say more about my work at the center. It's probably that I've been drawn to "marginal" populations, and I certainly identify with folks who have trouble reading. I was a slow reader myself, backward. School frightened me and I learned how to be invisible in a classroom. My teachers never noticed that I couldn't read until I was in third grade. (How could this happen? It happens all the time.) My mother, who also thought I was reading at grade level, was informed that I couldn't read at all. Part of the trouble was that I was trying to read backward because no one had bothered to point out that reading goes from left to right. I would never have learned to read in school.
My mother taught me to read. In the safety of my own home, my mother became my tutor. I wanted to read, I was ready to read. But the school, the teachers had all failed me. Thank god for my mom. It seems to me now that after only a little bit of instruction I was actually reading very well, and have always had my nose in a book since then.
RTM: What are you reading these days? What excites you?
BD: I'm just beginning Lewis-Williams' The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Before that I was reading Vitebsky's study of shamanism and his book about the reindeer people of northeastern Siberia, a tribe called the Even or Eveny. Poetry: I love Jeanne Heuving's work, especially her book called Incapacity. I have to credit Jack Spicer, whose work I've returned to over the years, and my friend George Stanley who, in many ways, was my mentor when I was beginning to write poetry. And, like everyone else, I've been reading Roberto Bolano.