Man of Letters

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Dean Rader’s day job is teaching at USF; the kaleidoscopic purview of his interests and accomplishments move far beyond the academy.  Dean’s first book of poetry, Works & Days, won the 2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize.

MEH: How did you become a poet, and how do you stay one while working as an English professor? Academic protocols are so specific, how do you maintain your own voice while satisfying them?

DR: Ha!  I’m flattered you think I am a poet.  I suppose my idea of a “poet” is fairly old-fashioned.  I imagine a poet as someone who always sports at least two of the following—turtleneck, beret, pipe.

More seriously, I tend to think of a poet as one whose main form of writing is poetry. That’s not the case for me, even after this book. I do think of myself as a “writer,” but also, I suppose a “scholar.”  While I was working on Works & Days, I was also researching and writing an ambitious scholarly book on recent American Indian art, literature, and film (which comes out next year).  At the same time, I was keeping up a blog on the intersection of media, culture, arts, and politics, working on the 4th edition of my first book, curating a special issue of a journal, and writing book reviews.

Voice is interesting. My scholarly work has been described as “writerly” and “poetic,” so I hope that I have carved out a distinctive voice regardless of genre.  Although, I think most would say that both my poetry and my scholarship deviates slightly from the norm. For me, working in numerous genres has never been difficult from a voice or expectation perspective but from a time perspective.  It’s just hard to devote yourself to a project as intense and intimate as a book of poems while also doing this other stuff. I love all the hats, but sometimes, they can squeeze your head.

MEH: Your poems cover a broad spectrum of forms.  There’s an improvisational feeling to that, like you’re trying everything out, and it’s fun for the reader.  Do you have a specific opinion about the relationship of form to what you’re writing about, or is that all part of the investigative process of the poem?

DR: That’s a smart question. For me, one of the great pleasures of poetry is the many forms. It’s like getting to play all of these different instruments.  In fact, one model I had for the book was the White Stripes album Get Behind Me Satan in which every song is representative of a different genre—bluegrass, folk, pop, hard rock, blues, Americana, ballads.  That seems very American to me.  I wanted my book to be a sort of melting pot of poetic forms.  One of the themes of Works & Days is that the self is not continuous.  The self is always in flux.  So, I also liked the idea of different poetic forms mirroring the different forms of the self.  Lastly, I would say that I wanted the experience of reading my book to be pleasurable, refreshing, and surprising.  A variation in form helps every poem feel new.

MEH: Yes, you reference Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens, but you also bring Frog and Toad into the proceedings!  I admit that my sense of Frog and Toad as two really good friends got a bit upended by your treatment of them.  Are you deploying them as examples of “alterity”?  What the heck is alterity anyway?

DR: You’re right.  There are many references in the book.  So-called high culture refernces like Pound, Stevens, Yeats, Einstein, Motherwell, Arvo Part, and Hesiod mix with more pop culture figures like Frog, Toad, Oprah, Michael Jackson, and Dancing with the Stars. That is very intentional.  I wanted to suggest that the distance between the two is closer than we might imagine, and that a world in which both realms don’t just co-exist but interact is a fabulous one.

You’ll be happy to know that in my world, Frog and Toad are great friends.  In fact, in one the poems I write that Frog admits that “he does not want to live in a world / where Toad is not his best friend.”  They love each other almost as much as I love them, but, as “Frog Seeks Help With Anger Management” implies, every great love hits bumpy spots.

“Alterity” means, literally, “otherness.” Alter is German for “other.” It was coined by the philosopher/theologian Emmanuel Levinas, and for him, one of the great ethical modes of being is to substitute your own perspective with that of the other.  So, in “Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness,” Frog and Toad both become obsessed with what I call “the Frog and Toadness of the other.”  It sounds crazy, I know, but I think it’s both sweet and funny.

MEH: Lots of brackets in your work, directional pointing to places off the page.  And without actually counting, I think you use the word “absence” more than any other word.  Can you muse for a bit on the subject of absence?  Is the concept a placeholder for unsatisfied desire, because it is the opposite of presence?

DR: Someone told me at a recent reading that the most common word in the book is “God.” That would be fascinating if the two most frequently recurring notions in Works & Days are “God” and “absence.”  Talk about desire . . .

For me, absence comes from influences both geographical and literary.  On one hand, I’m very attracted to Charles Wright’s lifelong exploration of what we might call the presence of absence—our awareness of what is not there. That could be both a positive and a negative (perhaps at the same time). But, on a more visceral and personal level, I’m also heavily shaped by my experience growing up in a farm town in Oklahoma.   Absence is everywhere—the sky, the fields—you name it. I’m aware even as I type this of my absence from my hometown.

MEH: Okay “presence” brings me to the unfolding self.  You have a series of poems commemorating various of your birthdays.  Did you ever consider placing them continuously in the book?

DR: I may not be understanding your question, Mary Ellen.  In my mind, they are continuous.  They begin at 14, then jump to 30 and go continuously until 41.  I wanted the “Days” section of the book to function as a kind of map of aging, pointing the reader (and the author) to where he was at these milemarkers, these signposts, in his life.  One of the arguments the book makes is that what we are is what we read, where we live, where we travel, and who we love.

(MEH note:  I wasn’t clear but meant to ask him about sequencing the birthday poems without other poems in between them.)

MEH: Just a vote here.  “Self Portrait as Antinomy:  32” jumped off the page at me, I think because you reference your parents, especially your mother.  She became the other person in the book for me.  In the poem itself you start out describing “our mother” but then you address her directly. You seem to be taking her side in something.  Any comments about the poem?

DR: First of all, thank you.  I’m so happy you like that poem.

Without question, the biggest surprise thus far has been the reaction to this poem.  At a reading in Austin, a member of the audience asked me to autograph that particular poem, and, toward the end of the poem, when it gets to a series of questions, someone started weeping.  It’s gotten both Facebook and Tumblr posts, and I’m thrilled but just totally surprised, in part because that poem almost didn’t make it into the book.  I feared it was too . . . sentimental.  I think of the whole book as being personal, but I think that poem feels especially intimate.   It’s funny, right before the book went to press, I revised it dramatically, making it less expository, more compact, and more lyrical.

In the “Notes” section at the back of the book, I indicate that this poem is for my sister.  I made a conscious decision to move all dedications to the “Notes,” so as to not steer the reader.  In this instance, I like the fact that the first use of “our” may include the reader.  But, in this poem, I side with my sister, who I love dearly.  As it happens, she lives in Dallas, and was in the audience at the event in Austin.  It was the poem I closed with, and, it remains the only time I’ve read it in public.

MEH:  What are you working on now?

DR:  A lot!  I have a scholarly book coming out in April 2011 on recent American Indian art, literature, and film.  I’m going over the galleys now, and I’m really excited about that book.  I’m also working with my co-author, Jonathan Silverman, on the 4th edition of our textbook, The World Is A Text—a cool reader on visual and popular culture.  Of course, I’m working on a second book of poems, and I’ve started writing a book of  “popular criticism” on American semiotics.  I’ve recently begun reviewing poetry for The Rumpus, and I continue to review for The San Francisco Chronicle. Oh, and I have started a novel.  Most importantly, though, I continue to blog about my son at 52 Gavins.

One Response to “Man of Letters”

  1. Saw him read at LitQuake. Funniest poet there. He stole the show.

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