Interview: Dan Chiasson

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the second in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Poet and critic Dan Chiasson is author of four books of poetry: The Afterlife of Objects (2002), Natural History (2005), Where's the Moon, There's the Moon (2010) and, most recently, Bicentennial (2014). A book of criticism, One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America, was published in 2006. He has received the Whiting Writers' Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation.

Dan is the poetry critic for The New Yorker, as well as a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, where he writes about poetry, pop music, and film. He was poetry editor, and later advisory editor, of The Paris Review. A Vermont native, Dan teaches at Wellesley College and lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

His 2014 book, Bicentennial is both a book about Chiasson’s childhood in Vermont and an elegy for his father. In her review in The New York Times, Daisy Fried writes, “Dan Chiasson is after beauty of a kind, so his poems are often beautiful, odd and quite moving. He seldom resorts to lilting cadences or glow-in-the-dark imagery to achieve this, and complicates any move toward traditional lyric warmth; his poetry is genially brainy, jokey, casually formal, sometimes essayistic and humorously oracular.”

Thank you, Dan, for your thoughtful answers to our questions!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Dan Chiasson: I write in the mornings, once my kids are off to school, and before teaching or other obligations. I sit at a small, painted farm table, at a purple Eames chair I got 25 years ago. It's in the hallway of our upstairs. I look out at the main street we live on. People scurry by to the T station at the bottom of the hill. If I'm writing poetry, it comes very fast. But I am hardly ever writing poetry. Usually I'm working on a book review, which is like pulling teeth. I get a few sentences down, then a few more. The openings take me forever. Once I have an opening and I can see where the argument is headed, I take a break. Usually I go for a run and think about the sentences I just wrote, and often I think of new ones when I'm out exercising.

LN: What influences have helped shaped you into the writer you are today>?

DC: I would name two especially. Jamaica Kincaid, whom I met at Harvard, was my greatest influence. She has a phosphorescent mind, and we became instant friends—partly because of our connection to Vermont. I was trying to write fiction when I met her; she convinced me that my stories were really poems. We drank gin and tonics at the old Upstairs at the Pudding in Harvard Square and gossiped about people at Harvard. Just talking to her was a training in what words to use, how to be interesting, funny, alert, lyrical and truthful. Around that same time, 1997 or so, I called up Frank Bidart, a poet I admired. He invited me to his classes at Wellesley, where, needless to say I stood out. Frank, too, was such an easy presence, kind, passionate, and (most importantly) incapable of pretending to like things he didn't like. He kept odd hours then as he does still, so often I'd drop a poem off during the day at his apartment in Cambridge, and hear from him late at night, when he woke up.

LN: As the poetry critic for The New Yorker, you share poetry criticism with very literate readers, not all of whom know much about poetry. What goes into deciding which poets and books to share with readers each week?

DC: I think I'm a teacher by nature. A person happiest explaining things to people who are curious to learn. New Yorker readers are the perfect audience because they love critical prose. How many readers of, say, Alex Ross go to the concerts he reviews? Some, but not many. They read him because of his prose, his arguments, his distinctions. The popular music critic Amanda Petrusich may convince more people to go to a show or buy a record, but still, it's her prose, it's the quality of her mind and the cadences of her sentences. So I try to pick books that interest me, that stir up my desire to put good sentences together, that allow me to convey what's beautiful and necessary about poetry. I would suspect that only a small percentage of my readers go out and buy the books. Maybe I'm wrong, I hope so; but I would contend that criticism is its own end, its own fulfillment, and I'm probably at one extreme in that I do not see my essays as serving the books I'm reviewing, but rather the art of poetry, with the books I'm reviewing as especially rich examples of what it can do.

LN: What brings you joy?

DC: Our sons, ages 12 and 14, both bring a huge amount of cultural information into our house. What brings me joy is hearing them argue about the merits of a movie or a band or a performance, which they do constantly. I would say, animated conversation brings me joy. The discovery of a new work of art or body of work. Being in the places that mean the most to me: many of them in Vermont. I would say, swimming in Bristol Falls or at that little rocky public beach in Charlotte. Also, Al's French Frys. The old places in downtown Burlington that are still there from when I was 12 or 13 and discovering the city on my own: Pure Pop Records, Old Gold. Leunig's. Sneakers in Winooski, where I worked from 6th grade until the summer before my last year of college.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

DC: I'm deep in teaching Emily Dickinson now. There's a poem that is not that well known, "I watched the moon around the house—" about tracking the moon as it passes across the windows of her bedroom. These stanzas blow my mind, comparing the moon to a severed head and then a stemless flower:

But like a Head — a Guillotine
Slid carelessly away —
Did independent, Amber —
Sustain her in the sky —

Or like a Stemless Flower —
Upheld in rolling Air
By finer Gravitations —
Than bind Philosopher —

  Photo by BrianSmithBoston.com

Photo by BrianSmithBoston.com