He has given readings, as well as talks on evolution and human behavior displayed in literary works, at many colleges and universities not only in the U.S. but in England, Puerto Rico, China, and Belgium.
He is the author of eight collections of poems and three books of prose—one of which is a memoir about growing up in Sioux City, Iowa—and the editor of three other books. His most recent publication is This Water. These Rocks. His short stories, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous magazines and journals and in over 80 anthologies including Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, Best Poems of 1969 (The Borestone Awards), The HBJ Treasury of Literature, Poetspeak, Imagining Home: Writing from the Midwest, Motion: The Anthology of American Sports Poems, The Sporting Spirit, The Norton Book of Sports, Poets on Place: Tales and Interviews from the Road, and The Poets Guide to the Birds. His poem, “Neighbors,” was the first one to appear in the popular newspaper column/website, American Life in Poetry, initiated by former National Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser.
David Allan Evans Interview with Kaite Hillenbrand
One of my teachers advised to never just describe an event, but to make it more, to add something (he described it as a “turn”) that adds a dimension and transforms a description into poetry. I’m reminded of that advice when I read your poetry because so many of your poems have a consciousness on at least two levels. “Red Fox,” “Primal Winter,” and “At Crystal Lake” are examples of this: all three describe an event with a strong separate consciousness that transforms the description into something more: into art. Do you understand poetry in general to work this way? What must exist to elevate writing into art? How do your Chinese influences fit in here?
Very hard question to answer because it seems to me it raises the question: what is poetry? "Primal Winter" and "At Crystal Lake" came out of real experiences, "Red Fox" came out of a collaboration with a visual artist when we agreed, for an exhibit, to take a subject—a fox—and I would do a poem and she would do a painting.
"At Crystal Lake" came out of a memory that had been with me since I was a mid-teenager. For one thing, when I write a poem on something that happened many years ago, it's important that the memory had the energy in the first place to last this long, to stay with me. I'm not a poet who takes a lot of notes or keeps a notebook, though I do sometimes jot down observations and words and phrases. But I rely on a memory staying with me. That means to me, eventually when I do start to write about an experience, that it's worth exploring (it's already been hanging out in my subconscious, I suppose, even being transformed and edited in certain ways that lend themselves to poetry). Exploring is my way of looking at the art and craft of poetry. First I start describing, usually beginning with an image or picture in my mind, or even a phrase or line that can get me going. I put it down and just see if I can find other possibilities of phrasing. And just go at it. It often goes nowhere, but when I finally get a "hook" on it, when I've reached the point where I know that, yes, there's a poem here if I can just keep letting it happen and keep making it happen . . . . Revision is everything to me. To be able to have something on paper or my screen that I know can work, has worked, mostly so far, and then to be able to improve it—that is what I'm after. And that is what keeps me going as a poet. To be able to make something and then keep making it better and better, until, somehow, I let it go after the 21st or 59th revision (which might mean choosing a comma over a semicolon) and go on to something new. I've always liked Denise Levertov's phrase: "checking for accuracy." I do a lot of that, being so obsessive about making a poem better and better.
"Red Fox" is uncharacteristic. It came out of an idea as much as an image of watching foxes running. I had been reading about protean behavior in certain animals that, when they're chased by predators, are able to escape by being very unpredictable—tricky, we say. I read a lot about natural history, especially ethology (the study of animal behavior) so that was interesting to me, and especially since we humans also display protean behavior when it comes to relating to others. I love Shakespeare's phrase in a sonnet: " . . . the world's false subtleties." Certainly protean behavior comes into play when eluding enemies in war. As a running back in high school and college, I had to make an effort to be unpredictable whenever I got the ball from the quarterback!
"Primal Winter" I think got going, or certainly got a good boost as a poem, with the sound of scraping on a windshield in winter—linking it to ancient humans who scraped bones into useful tools—the hand ax, for instance, which pretty much stayed the same for over a million years. And then too, remembering all those days when I had to get up and go to work in the snow and ice. But that unique sound is interesting to me.
Roethke was right. Description is important in poetry, but the poet has to go beyond description—of an event, a thing, an animal, etc.—to make it poetry. You find a way of saying something that you hope is somehow memorable: through repetition, concrete details, metaphor/simile, rhythm, rhyme, whatever you can come up with to make the poem work and to make it stick with the reader, the way, as Frost said, cockleburs stick to your pantlegs as you walk in the fields.
Chinese poetry (in translation) I have also especially enjoyed, appreciated and used because those short poems generally have a strong sense of place. They allow you to imagine the poet in a particular setting—near a mountain, in the countryside, by a waterfall, and so on. And they also generally have ideas in them that everybody can identify with—universals, we call them; and when you evoke something universal in a unique, memorable way, that's what all artists are after, I believe. That's why translations can work: you don't have to know the language of the poet to understand good translations because all human beings can identify with what is said about missing someone, about the power of a landscape to move us, about friendship, mortality, and so on. "The peach blossom follows the moving water," says Li Bai in a poem. I can see it, and I also understand a lot about eastern thinking with that line—how all things, in Zen philosophy, for instance—are connected; how nothing is superfluous but belongs, fits, is needed to make the "whole" what it is. The is-ness of things, too. The world and all things in it are sufficient.
You wrote that, more so than fiction, “poetry is associated with the older, primitive side of our nature.” I’m very interested in your thoughts about evolution as it relates to art. In what ways do you think that our evolution influences the ways people react to art, and in what ways does that affect the way you write poetry? In what ways do we connect to our evolutionary history through art? In what ways do some forms of art connect us to this past more than other forms of art—or are the connections just to different parts of our history?
Who knows which came first, poetry or fiction? Certainly story is important, and characters. And poetry can contain story and characters. But I just suspect that poetry is primary for its music and for its ability to stick in the mind—short bursts of words being primary. We all know "thirty days hath September . . ." the quality of poetry to help us remember. I'm thinking that, long before written languages, there were certain individuals in every community who had the gift of inventing bursts of words that were memorable in useful ways. You can hear this in nursery rhymes: "One, two, buckle my shoe . . ." and "To market to market to buy a fat pig . . . ." So these persons were useful, and they would've been praised and would've probably had some status because of their gift. But in early times, persons who could use words really well, those were I think the first poets. They could be accurate with their words, could give accurate directions and maybe in the process they would have invented a metaphor or image to make what they said stick better than an abstract utterance. Dylan Thomas describes in a poem the edge of a lake or estuary as a "heron-priested shore." I can see it! And Thomas was a wonderful observer, like all great poets. The impulse to describe is of course also behind science, which also uses metaphors and imagery, but in a much more practical way—essentially to convey information. The poet goes beyond information but the information in his/her poems is also useful. Think of how useful those primitive cave painters of animals were—they could even depict animals in motion! The hunters would've had to lean on those artists quite a lot, I would think, to find out what they were up against in that hazardous world they inhabited. Too bad there aren't any poetry fossils around. I'd bet if there were, a good percentage would be about animals and their habits.
I believe the arts came out of at least one impulse or instinct: the need to belong, to fit into a group or community. This, from the artist's point of view, for sure. And one important result of the artist's creations was and still is to help friends and community members feel that they belong to a group with solidarity that is strong and resilient, able to cope with forces like weather, predators, and certainly alien communities on "the other side of the hill," let's say.
Art is, for Ellen Dissanyake, a person who has studied the origins of art for a long time, "making special." Taking something that maybe was practical or benign in the first place—like shells—and making something special out of it. And when humans began to think of an afterlife, as they grieved over the death of a family member or friend, they began to decorate—do something that would help them remember the dead and buried, and even something that might "prepare" the dead for an afterlife. An ax too, or a knife, could be embellished. Or decorate the body before a battle (the way a football player has dark marks painted under his eyes to deflect the sun, ostensibly) to whip up the endorphins, and to put the fear in the enemy. Community has always been basic. We are a social species. To find yourself lost, away from your group, is probably the worst thing that can happen to you, the greatest fear: the fear of rejection. And our best feelings come when you feel accepted. Art is so important, I believe, in any discussion of community. We may not remember the politics of an ancient civilization, but we tend to remember and celebrate its art.
As a writer of poetry I want to communicate with others. I want to say something that maybe others have thought of saying and even said, but not in the way that I may be able to show them how to say it. And of course, we both benefit: poet and listener/reader. I feel so good when someone has read a poem of mine and gives me a compliment on it. It's something I've worked so hard to communicate to others. And so I, like all poets and artists, can feel pride in being able to do my art and find some who enjoy my creations—and who can even learn something from it. Yeats said it well: poetry shows us how to live. I've learned a lot about how to live by reading poetry over my lifetime, by listening to it early on, with my dad's records of Barrymore reciting Shakespeare soliloquies. I knew that what I was hearing—the music of it, the powerful, memorable language—was important long before I understood how all the words went together into sentences.
I read mainly two kinds of writing: poetry and science, especially natural history. I love to be able to see how these two ways of seeing the world can be in agreement. Take the idea of arms wars between species over millions of years, how animals change and adapt to this pressure to survive—antelope and wolves, for instance. And then consider Robinson Jeffers' lines that capture this evolutionary idea/fact so succinctly, in a poem:
What but the wolf's tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope.
It's what E.O. Wilson calls "consilience"—how all types of knowledge can inform one another: the unity of knowledge. Consider Darwin, who not only had so much information at his disposal through research and study,—and of course came up with one of the greatest ideas of all time—the evolution of species by natural selection (another scientist in his time, named Wallace, also had the idea)—but it's also true that Darwin was a first-rate writer, as is E.O. Wilson in our day.
In addition to being a writer, you are also an athlete, and athletics show up in your poetry and other writings. Do you think that there is a connection between athletics and art? Our society tends to separate these two, and sometimes to pit them against each other. Why do you think that is? How can we change this and bring these worlds together a bit more? Is this something we should work towards?
Yes, I've been in sports much of my life. Poetry and sports—what do they have in common? Drama, action, all the emotions of life from "the agony of defeat" to "the thrill of victory," as the TV commentator used to say. A poem is, as Frost said, as good as it is dramatic. No drama, no poetry. True, I think. All poets are word athletes. Shakespeare was obviously such a physical person who celebrated quickness and grace and physical prowess in his poetry from beginning to end. No sedentary poet, that's for sure. I like poetry that displays energy, motion, not just ideas, but rather can put ideas in motion on the page. Back in the 50s poetry and sports did not mix at all. I, as a jock, had to hide my secret and growing love of words from my fellow jocks—I'd go to the public library alone and sneak into the reading/listening room and put records of poets on the phonograph and just listen for a few minutes, then take off and meet my friends at the YMCA.
But these days it's different. We think of Michael Jordon as "poetry in motion," and famous athletes anymore can be poets, no problem. The 60s I think shook all this up, and the Beats, and Zen and other influences. I've known a number of poets who have been athletes and whose poetry has some really fascinating drama and substance partly because of it. James Dickey is a good example. Frost praised sports as being helpful to him in his development as a poet. I would think that among the earliest poems of prehistory were ones that celebrated sports and athletes. Think: Pindar, for instance.
But what I'm saying is that we're all descended from athletes, people who had to be a lot more physical and graceful and energetic than we are these days. Our ancestors had to constantly be moving, chasing prey, escaping prey. There's even a theory lately that says we evolved as runners, developing over time a capacity for long-distance endurance that our prey animals lacked. We can sweat, they can't, apparently, though they can outrun us in the short run easily. And of course we had spears and knives and bows.
Sports show all of the emotions; the throwing, running, jumping are in our genes, and the poetry that responds to all these things, as well as ideas and ways of life that they engender.
What are you most proud of doing as South Dakota’s Poet Laureate, and what 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 enjoy most of all teaching poetry and the writing of poetry to others, young and older. My position has no requirements except that I be on the board of the SD Poetry Society, which recommended me to the governor as state laureate in 2002. I conduct workshops, I give readings all over the state, take part in panels, and in many ways try to be an ambassador for poetry. I believe the state has really become quite receptive to poetry in recent years. We have poetry slams in the bigger towns and cities, workshops, writers groups. Poets sometimes read their poems with jazz bands.
In Sioux Falls we have at least two regular venues for open readings, one at a cafe downtown and one at a technical school. We also have displays of pairings of poetry and paintings at the Sioux Falls Pavilion (third year in a row), the state's largest art gallery. Our Poetry Society has recently started up a chapbook competition where they publish four poets in one chapbook. And our Society's publication of poetry, PASCQUE PEDALS, is I believe the oldest of its kind in the U.S.
behave in a bizarre, erratic, or seemingly random manner.
. . . This strategy was used by submarine commanders
during World War II who tried to confuse the enemy
by sailing a random course determined by throwing dice.
—David Livingstone Smith, Why We Lie
running—pursued by howling hounds
followed by sweaty horses carrying
hunters dressed in red he’s running every
which way slipping through wild
rye, switch grass white spruce
in and out of muddy
ravines (loving the shadows not
minding the mud)
poker-faced (his exact
expression when tensely
explosions of feathers in
never (if he can help it) surrendering
as much as a glint of or
of red to any open eye trying
every trick he knows (and
ones on the run)—all this
to quell the hellish howling behind
his straight-out white-
tipped tail . . . .
What caveman, scraping rocks and bones
for a million years, ever would’ve heard
anything like the sound—on a cold
December morning—of scraping
a pickup’s ice-crusted windshield?
I get in and look out and see I’ve
skimped again: the holes are no bigger
than the size of a pair of pre-adolescent heads—
yet I drive off anyway (it’s getting late),
one-handed, steam rising from my coffee
mug in the warm grip of my left glove,
leaning forward as far as I can, my jaw
nearly touching the steering wheel—reading
the streets the way a scholar reads a rare text.
Just after passing the freeway sign I open
my side windows for better vision and I’m
hit by a blast of Pleistocene wind on my
neck, and all I can do now is hope
that the gradually-growing heads I’m
peering through—with help from the defrost
and wipers on high speed—will be big
enough by the time I must merge with
the freeway’s primitive, mad traffic.
AT CRYSTAL LAKE, 1957
Waking up in the heat of mid-August in the back seat
of my parents’ ‘54 Chevy in a panic a few minutes from
midnight—our curfew was ten—starting up the car and
spinning the wheels, jerking back and forth from drive to
reverse, going nowhere again except deeper into the sand
because I’d parked too close to the smooth, moonlit water . . .
scrambling down the beach toward the lantern and the huge guy
in a lumber jack shirt (a beef lugger at Armour’s, I was thinking),
sitting on an overturned bucket, sipping on a bottle of beer,
fishing for bullheads, a few swishing around in a nearby bucket . . .
he nodding when I asked could he please help us with our car
down the beach that’s stuck and way past curfew, you adding
one more please . . . a few minutes later the two of us sitting
in the car, watching the huge man trudging toward us, my hands
already gripping the wheel, wishing he’d speed it up but he,
apparently, not a man to be rushed . . . then, leaning on one
Paul Bunyan hand on the top of the opened window, telling me
to just go easy and steady on the gas and steer gradually toward
dry land and we’d be okay . . . me imagining him putting his
lugger’s shoulder to the back bumper, feeling the car moving
steadily under his power . . . then, out of the sand and rolling
free, turning my head and yelling back Thank you! Thank you
man! and he not even looking up and yet his raised hand
saying to us you’re welcome or just keep going or both . . .
getting back to Sioux City, letting you out at your house down
the street, burning around the corner, seeing the light on in
the kitchen, turning the headlights off just before turning into
into the driveway, parking quietly . . . opening the kitchen
door right into my mother’s severe frown and expected
news: no car for me for the rest of the month, period . . .
waking up Sunday morning, opening the blinds to the
bright new sun, knowing the two of us were forgiven and
safe, for now, feeling more in love than ever, with plenty
of summer left before the start of our senior year.
SEEING, NEXT DOOR
in the old woman’s
nimble steps as she’s
the little girl
she once was
Before Maya, I never knew
a dog could love a human being.
Whenever you were home,
she was close by, often
lying down, the whites
of her eyes showing—her ears
and nose incredibly alert
to your every move and mood.
She loved the rest of us too.
When we’d visit from
a thousand miles away,
we’d get out of the car
she’d be there to meet us,
with the whole family—
walking on two legs like all of us.
She’d wrap her front legs around us
and give us a hug, her huge tail
Maya, Maya, Maya, Maya, Maya
I’d say to her cheerfully,
and I’d have to pry her happiness
off of me—one paw, then the other.
Maya never could contain her joy.
Or her sadness, whenever you
left the house: she’d lie there,
close to the door and facing it—
like the needle in a compass
pointing always north—the whites
of her sad eyes showing, waiting . . .
waiting—for the sequence she
must’ve loved: first the sound
of your car; then the garage door
opening; then the kitchen door knob
turning . . . then, like magic,
there you were, with groceries or
one of the kids in your arms,
and Maya’s tail would be wagging
joyously, and her claws clicking
frantically on the tiled kitchen floor.
* * *
One night in October, she wanted you
to open the door for her once again,
and she went out into the backyard
once again. She lay down among
the fallen leaves. I can imagine
her lying there, for a few moments,
the whites of her eyes showing,
looking up at a window
wondering where you were.
And then she died.
* * *
I never knew how much a dog
could love a human being,
or how much a dog could teach us.
There are good lives and there are
good deaths. Sometimes we can be
lucky enough to have had both.
Good dog, Maya!