Dick Allen Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
When I read “Tip of the Iceberg,” I feel like I’m watching a sculptor chip away at an iceberg, revealing shape after shape. By the end of the poem, the crafting process and the many shapes have merged, revealing one sculpture-poem. Is this what you had in mind when you crafted the poem? Is this an ars poetica?
The technique is what I call “Randomism” and you’ve definitely sensed how I work in a poem of this sort. Yes, it’s akin to how a large block of stone, as it’s worked upon by the sculptor, reveals in many ways its hidden shapes even while the sculptor is also imposing other shapes upon it. I begin with a phrase or situation and relax to it, write to see what happens. It’s important not to know where I’m going, but to let the words, sounds, images take their own courses. So I had the initial phrase, “Tip of the iceberg” to indicate that some evident problem might be only a small aspect of the entire problem, “just the tip of the iceberg.” And the word “tip” that would yield a number of meanings, and a picture of the “iceberg,” and much research about icebergs. These were before me as I began writing and free-associating.
A major difficulty in writing this way is that you don’t know how the poem will end, you don’t know if by the time you reach the end—a process that may well take weeks or months or years—whether or not the poem will be a unity or just dissipate. Too often, the randomism process leaves me with just strands and rivulets. Once in a while, if I’m fortunate, the poem will find a way to conclude. Then I can carry it around for a long while, reading it aloud, reading it silently, making small adjustments (but each adjustment may well throw things off balance and require further adjustments elsewhere in the poem) until the poem seems to “set.”
Yes, there’s a kind of ars poetica here.
Some of the shapes that emerge in “Tip of the Iceberg” are serious current issues, like global warming, and I would consider this to be a poem of witness in which the political issue as well as the form of the poem are metaphors about the human condition, which is a pretty astonishing achievement. What is your approach to writing poems of witness and poems about the human condition? How did you wrangle all of this into one poem?
As a non-“Confessional” poet, I’ve always tried to keep a feeling for the Zeitgeist of the times, to be sensitive to the culture, politics, psychology, philosophies, technology of the century. I’m very much a generalist. Aside from being a concerned American, I try to keep an active interest in and knowledge of a myriad of things so that my poems might reflect/comment on our times as well as connect aspects from our time to all times. This is a high ambition. I’m bound mainly to fail. But sometimes, if I’ve listened well enough, a poem can speak through me and while telling a story may—like the iceberg—bring with it underlying concerns. Ecological concerns are central to a great deal of my work. These are overt in the two anthologies on speculative fiction I edited and co-edited for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, including in them such as an excerpt from the Club of Rome’s famous Limits to Growth, which was way ahead of Al Gore.
Should I have written with overt didactic intent, however, the poem could easily ruin itself and preach vapidly. Whatever it says had to find its own way, just as “Tip” had to ride the iceberg without slipping off.
I don’t want to forget that the poem is, among other things, meant to be funny. Yet my funny poems have a way of turning to sorrowing, I’m afraid.
I’m very curious about the wide range of references in “It Was Always Meant to Be You,” especially the Buddhist references and the idea that “history has purposes.” The images grab me, too, especially the blue frogs with prayers and the eyeglass cases. The white stallion is a great image here, too, especially since this poem’s sense of destiny is similar to the sense of destiny in fairy tales. This is a fantastic love poem. Could you share your thoughts about the Buddhist influences, ideas about history, and the images you included in this poem? Is this poem part of a larger collection?
I’ve been studying Buddhism for over fifty years, so a Buddhist way of apprehending pervades much of my poetry. Instinctively, I believe in reincarnation, rebirth, the transmigration of souls. This poem assumes pre-destination, albeit in a whimsical American Buddhist way that allows shreds of doubt. One of the things I’ve always found myself trying to do is infuse Buddhism into the complex matrixes of contemporary American verse, rather than try to reproduce the quiet syllable count of the Japanese haiku or the brushstrokes of classic Chinese poems. So Frank Sinatra, D-Day, the Catholic church are, in a strange way, the poem’s misty mountains and garden butterflies. Buddhism is non-Dualistic, and as in the understanding of modern physics, all is One. Thus, everything influences and impacts on everything and anything can cause an eyeglass case to snap open. The woman in the poem (as all of us) is a part of cause and effect: what happens, had happened, will happen anywhere in the universe affects her, just as it affects us all. In The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut has fun with a similar concept and calls it the “Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum.”
From one Buddhist perspective there is no History per se, since all always was, is, and is to be simultaneously. In another, there are timelines. Both senses exist and don’t exist simultaneously. In Zen, History both is and is not and is a red wheelbarrow and a fire escape and an otter playing a harmonica.
The white stallion is one of the great American archetypal mythical figures, as important as Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and the witches of Salem. Small blue frogs are a part of the maelstrom. I’ve seen them in a Massachusetts butterfly garden and in Chattanoga, at the Tennessee Aquarium. In the poem, the woman is a very specific woman with some definite things in common with my wife, Lori. But she is also an “every woman.” She was always meant to be herself, and be loved in specific ways, just as all of us in one of our many, many lives are. That is, in one of your lives, “it was always meant to be you” who was/is/will be deeply, truly, and specifically loved—body and soul.
At this point, the poem’s not part of a larger collection, but it could become so.
In an interview, you said, “Writing empathic poems—of praise and mystery and history and mood—that may have some chance of lasting is the only thing my life has actually been about (though my wife and children may differ about that).” To different extents, many of us are driven to create something lasting, and I’m curious about this drive for many reasons. What is it that makes you want to write something that will last? When did you decide, or how did you realize, that this is what your life is about? Why did you choose poetry as your medium? In the same interview, you said that you avoid references that are “trivial” and “passing.” What else can help a poem last? I suspect that your road trips across the country with your wife factor into this equation. Would you say that I’m correct?
I’m thinking now of lines from Shelley’s great sonnet, “Ozamandius”:
“My name is OZAMANDIUS, King of Kings.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
No thing around remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
To make something that lasts eternally isn’t possible for humans. Still, some poems “last” quite a while, at least long enough to affect those like me whose lives have been changed by poems: Blake’s “The Tyger.” The “small rain” poem by Anonymous, verse from holy work like the Bible and the Qu’ran. Basho’s haiku. . . . I’m trying to make something that lasts in this way. Why? Because like all humans I’ve been given the gift of consciousness, the chance to live on the incredible and mysterious planet, in this incredibly mysterious universe, and I want to—in my small way—offer something in return for the gift.
I’ve known this. . . maybe I should call it a duty. . . since I was a child, wandering the hills and meadows of upstate New York, being made ecstatic by the song of a red-winged blackbird and the sight of a small waterfall in a pine forest. . . the coldness of that water on my fingertips, the sun in the pines, then a flock of crows. I’ve written in other genres, but from the beginning it was mainly poetry, probably because of poetry’s concentrations, its ability to make such sudden associative leaps, its sounds and how by following the rhythms and rhymes, consonance and assonance can guide you into images you never expected.
Despite my disavowal, I think some “trivia” is inevitable in the good contemporary poem, to incorporate a sense of the times, and there’s some in my longer “Randomism” poems by intent. But the difference is that—I hope—the poem doesn’t depend on trivia for its meaning. A poem that uses a specific park bench in Hoboken, New Jersey, and only if you think of that specific park bench does the poem come to have meaning—that’s a failed poem. But a poem in which a park bench could be any park bench in the world may well be moving and significant. Common sense comes into play here. A poem that brings in “Stewart’s ice cream” (an ice cream shop franchise based in Saratoga, New York), no. A poem called “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” yes. Imagine a poem called, “The Emperor of Stewart’s Ice Cream” becoming essential, except as a parody? Again, what if Emily Dickinson had written, “There’s a certain slant of light / Winter afternoons / In Amherst, Massachusetts, / On the white dress I’ve just finished ironing / And now I’m putting it in my drawer— / A slant of light that depresses me, / Like the weight / Of cathedral tunes”? No.
Also, a poem might “last” if it has more than one level, if it can be understood on the first reading, but yields further meaning when read again in a New Critical way. Frost is the master, here, with “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And there’s a great poem by Sylvia Plath about blueberrying. Levels, and probably traditional form or variations on traditional form. And choice of subject material and theme. Not Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, but the transformation of melting as it relates to the transitory nature of life. The heft of cathedral tunes, not the heft of an organ playing “Faith of Our Fathers” in a Portland, Oregon place of worship.
Yes, trips around America continually remind us, especially because we live in the Eastern states, that America is primarily found in what those from both coasts too often dismiss as the “fly-over states.” I’m in eternal love with Kansas sunflowers and the patriotic songs of Branson, Missouri, and it was necessary for us to drive across the desert to Roswell, New Mexico and go to the UFO Museum there, in Roswell’s small, dusty, utterly mundane downtown.
You only recently became Connecticut’s Poet Laureate; what has the experience been like? What projects do you have planned? What does your position entail? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen in this regard?
I think there are something like forty state poet laureates now. I’m new to my position, succeeding the great John Hollander, but so far I’m experiencing what it’s like to be a minor—I want to stress minor—celebrity. My neighbor up the street delights in introducing me to the cashier at Home Depot this way: “Do you realize this is Connecticut’s State Poet Laureate who’s buying weather stripping from you?” The poor young woman looks nonplussed. “Oh,” she says. “Yeah, right.” And she adds, “What’s a poet laureate?” Or, “Do you mean poems, like in Dr. Seuss?”
Seriously, it’s a pleasure to occupy his little niche for awhile and maybe it will cause someone, in the distant future, to run her fingers down a list of Connecticut Poet Laureates and maybe see if she can find an online recording of one of my ancient poems in some online archive. That’s a kind of immortality. And a few more places ask you to read and neighbors and friends are pleased and enemies are angry.
The position is mainly to honor poetry and have the Poet Laureate promote poetry in the state. I sit in on State cultural commission meetings in Hartford. I have a small State website. Mainly, I hope to promote the buying and reading of poetry books during my tenure, the books of contemporary Connecticut poets as well as of others. I’d like all libraries to have a prominent and changing one or two foot shelf of poetry right alongside the “New Arrivals,” a shelf devoted to contemporary poetry. There, I’d like displayed such as the newest volume of The Best American Poetry, the books that received that year’s Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, the National Book Award in Poetry, the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, as well as books by Connecticut poets like Gray Jacobik, Marilyn Nelson, William Meredith, Margaret Gibson, John Hollander. And, maybe, some of the truly essential collections of our times, like Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems, a book or two by Wislawa Symborska, Donald Hall’s Selected Poems, Linda Pastan’s New and Selected.
I’m disturbed that, increasingly, people are becoming acquainted with poets only by reading their poems on the Internet. And then, after reading say five or six poems, they say, “There, now I know the poet’s work. I don’t have to buy and read his book.” The thing is, a poet’s book is the entire experience, not individual poems. To not know a poet’s book is to not know the poet as a whole—only as a toe, a left arm, maybe a calf, an elbow, a kneecap. The parable about blind men and an elephant relates to this. Finding a poem or poet on the Internet is wonderful, but only if it doesn’t stop there.
I’d like to encourage looking at books of poetry in a way similar to looking at CD albums. In a book of lyric poems, the reader may get as many as fifty “songs” that can be returned to again and again and again, whereas in a CD, the listener gets, if lucky, usually seventeen songs or less—and a goodly number of them are filler. Granted, a musical CD has auditory music, but as Keats knew, “heard melodies are sweet. . . those unheard are sweeter.”
I’d like also to encourage guests to bring a new book of poetry to a party or dinner or housewarming, in lieu of or in addition to a bottle of wine—choosing a poet or book of poetry that would delight the host or hostess. Bringing examination copies doesn’t count; you must buy the new book! We’ve been doing this for years, by the way, and it’s especially appropriate for teetotaler friends.
The writing of poetry? How good it would be if we could somehow invent an American form—equivalent to the haiku or tanka—that almost anyone could write. And as in Japan to have that catch on as a social necessity or delight. Right now, all most people know how to write is doggerel, the kind of sentimental, nostalgic, cliché-ridden bouncy, rhyming verse crap that one’s forced to listen to at weddings and golden anniversaries and funerals, tears dripping down the amateur poet’s nose—and delivered with great sincerity by people who would never consider offering hot dogs and beans as a fancy dinner dish to their company’s C.E.O. and his or her spouse.
I’d actually discourage the writing of poetry as a way of inducing self-esteem, as the writing of poetry has too often been taught in grade schools, high schools and colleges since the end of the last century. Poetry as self-help therapy? Pah! Such a diminishment. I’d make known more that the writing of actual poetry is difficult, that a good poet will know how to write in rhyme and meter before working in free verse, just as a good painter will be able to draw before going abstract. I’d make respectable and desirable, once again, poetry as a narrative and dramatic art. Less, in this case, is definitely more.
As for successes in reading and writing poetry, frankly I haven’t seen much outside good writers’ conferences and some of the most lasting open mic poetry groups, the ones also featuring guest poets. Both, although they primarily may be for hobbyists, have truly devoted poetry lovers who can offer beginning guidelines to the young or newly-inspired. As for successes as the Connecticut Poet Laureate, could you get back to me in a few years, when I near the end of my term? Then, I can surely let you know. Either that, or I’ll be blithering on about nutmeg, women’s basketball, and dinosaur tracks.
Dick Allen reads:
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
It sounds like a comic book title: Sergeant Preston
of the Canadian Royal Mounted Police,
Tarzan of the Jungle, George of the Jungle,
Tip of the Iceberg,
and it’s not too difficult to picture Tip
in a leopard-skin patterned loincloth
stomping around his iceberg as he beats on his hairy chest,
artic winds howling. Tip may also
refer to tilt, the tilt of the iceberg as it makes its way
down to the civilized world, towards our Pizza Huts,
Ruby Tuesdays and Long John Silvers,
carrying its massive weight beneath it,
tipping and tilting, depending on the currents;
or Tip could also be the clichéish observations and advice
icebergs might give: Still waters run deep,
Don’t be fooled by appearances.
There’s more to this than meets the eye.
You can’t tell a book by its cover.
Beware wolves in sheep’s clothing. A tip
added to the check or left under the plate,
could be a reprimand or a reward,
too much or too little,
too blatant or too subtle. . . . “Tippy”
was the name of one of my dogs,
named so because when he first started to walk
he kept tipping over,
later killed by a car on New York State’s Route 9,
one of the last three-lane highways in America,
its center lane reserved for passing
and heaven help you if you swerved out
left from the north-bound lane when another car
swerved out left from the south-bound lane,
for two lefts do not make a right.
Tip. Tiptop. Tiptoe through the tulips.
Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. Tip O’Neil.
Tip of the Day. Tip of the Week. Tip-in, tip off.
My favorite joke, when I was a teenager
had to do with that Australian creature, the Rary,
a sort of kangaroo on stilts.
Purchased when he was miniscular, he outgrew the household,
so had to be disposed of by being dumped
off a steep mountain cliff. As the Rary went over the edge,
someone sighed and said, “It’s a long way to Tipparary /
It’s a long way to go. ” Knowing that World War I song,
I thought the joke hilarious. Tipster. Tipsy.
And since we’re heading in that direction
we might as well pick up some iceberg lettuce
in the vegetable aisle—not as good as Romaine,
or spinach leaves, but it will do
as long as there’s blue cheese dressing or Thousand Island
and a few sliced tomatoes. . . . The iceberg
that sank the Titanic seems to have been a Pinnacle iceberg,
possessing several spires and looking on the surface
like a death-bloated shark. But it could also have been
a Dome, a Wedge, a Dry-Dock, or a Blocky,
no one quite knows. An iceberg calves off its shelf
before it floats free. Above the sea level,
icebergs might reach as high as a 55-story building
or be just Groaners or a Bergy Bits
emitting the melting, fizzy sound called “Bergie Seltzer”
as their compressed air bubbles pop. . . . Those who camp
on top of flat or hollowed icebergs are known, no kidding,
as icebergers. Perhaps the comic book hero Tip
of the Iceberg is one of them, his parka discarded,
the thought of King Kong clinging to the Empire State Building
obsessing his nearly frozen mind. Yet for certain, I know
that the tip of the iceberg approaching us now
as the 21st Century heads into its own predictions,
seems a face in a dream, an inversion
of an oil rig over an oil well,
surface numbers overlying all they float above
as an elegant Einstein equation
masks the many years that shaped it. And I know
all that floats so stolidly beneath the visible
is up to us to surmise,
respect or avoid. This is the human task,
ask any mystic. Things aren’t what they seem.
Hilarity masks sorrow. A happy face
is put upon many woes.
Your life depends upon your knowing the hidden,
always expecting something else;
it depends on your ability with telescopes, binoculars, sonar,
word games, puns, scratch-off tickets—your ability to manipulate
layers, to read signals and signs
even if Tip of the Iceberg
is making faces at you, brandishing his ice pick,
yelling that he has it all under control
as the iceberg bears down—so much of it
too late now to get out of its passing lane.
IT WAS ALWAYS MEANT TO BE YOU
Not “It Had to be You,” as in the Frank Sinatra song,
not pre-determined as that, but still
someone planned your fate back in the Dark Ages.
It was written up and pasted on plaster walls,
horns sounded its essence. Through swamps and mosquitoes,
fog climbing into boats,
the landing at Normandy, the kiss in the snowy parking lot,
it was always meant to be you.
Candles were lit in tiny red jars for you.
Buddha woke beneath the Bodhi tree.
You recited the Kama Sutra
and eyeglass cases snapped open. For you, leaves fell
onto the backs of soldiers lying in the Argonne woods,
the whippoorwill sang, the mouse ran up the clock,
a white stallion galloped across the plains of inner America,
Broadway’s lights rose. It was always
meant to be you who looked up from the windows of an upstairs bedroom,
named cats “Kaleidoscope” and “Mr. Dalton” and “A Shot in the Dark,”
who dressed like someone never forgetting to refill the blue salt shaker,
teased poems from parked cars,
took prayers from small blue frogs with their tongues extended,
who wept so little your eyes dried out,
filled breathless intervals.
bore a chalice down a small church aisle.
Not the phantom pop song woman who could be almost anyone,
or the woman floating in a veil of sentiment,
but the specific you who cracks her toes at night,
lisps saying “sexual,” dances on linoleum floors,
believes that history has purposes beyond red sofa couch cushions.
It was always meant to be you.
until the stores roll up their awnings on Forever Avenue,
the million-million bodhisattvas have no one left to save.
I’ve not been there lately,
but I remember the saxophone notes
so lowdown they sounded like a dog scratching
at an unpainted back door, and the ache of everything
as if everything had been put in package crates
or covered with tarps. Blue, blue, my world is blue,
L’amour est bleu. Blue indigo Blues in the night. In Blue Funk,
Missouri or Kentucky or Tennessee or West Virginia,
nothing grows but scrub brush. Halfway up a hillside,
there’s a shack and a porch with rocking chairs
no one’s sat in for years. Nothing in the well
but a dreadful brown slush
covered with leaves. And then you start laughing,
a rueful laugh, it’s so absurd—low spirits
flying through the ash and river birch and sourwood,
and the skin turning blue, the growl
of a man with huge shoulders turning around
to face you, to ask you what the freakin’ hell,
in the midst of life we are in death,
in your self-serving grief,
in your blue funk,
you, grieving man, want now.
Two independent data processors,
although highly mobile, sharing the same place.
Differing in design,
with different hardware, different storage banks.
Faulty linkages, but nonetheless
can exchange information
although its transfer takes on different colors
and is always imperfect.
One forever checking numbers and the other
floating in cyberspace.
Both loaded with games
and software they keep hidden in deep files
with secret access codes
and passwords that go back to first beginnings.
but even while they’re printing out their lives
working in the background on new applications,
new programs they are launching into love,
testing its limits
and trying to forestall the certain freeze,
no surge-suppresser can protect them from,
as no retrieval service can bring back
all the words and graphics they must lose:
scraps of memory that chip away,
little dances in the dark of old computers.
How cleverly they’re made, and even more
for although we’ve been warned about
love and ambition,
these pitfalls still trap us. Just when
it seems nothing can happen,
we fall, headfirst,
right through the certain
into the uncertain. And just as now
becomes now and then,
a walk through prime numbers turns
we’ll find something concealed
behind every new plan,
a secret design,
some slight of hand,
so watch your step,
distrust the too-plain,
glue your eyes to the ground,
gainsay what you gain.
is to not take a stand,
and the pitfall of Love
is also quicksand.