Twenty Questions with William Doreski
Poet William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and teaches at Keene State College. We published his poetry in Issue 1, and he is back with more fantastic poems in our one-year anniversary issue. His most recent book of poetry is The Suburbs of Atlantis (2013). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in many journals.
Empty Sink Publishing: Mr. Doreski, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. We first published your poetry in our inaugural issue, and we’re honored to have you back again for our one-year anniversary. You first caught our eye with a poem called “Our Back Yard Scrolls,” which is about a couple who finds alleged Hebrew scrolls buried behind their vegetable garden. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired that particular poem?
William Doreski: Since childhood I’ve frequently dreamed of digging up odd things (sometimes frightening things) in my back yard. I was reading Biblical Archaeology Review when the notion of digging up Hebrew scrolls here in America came to me. This may have something to do with the old canard about American Indians being one of the lost tribes of Israel.
ESP: One thing we love about your poetry is the incredible imagery. You engage the senses of sight and sound with a ferocious intensity, using phrases such as, “…rattles like a bathtub full of gravel…” “…giggle like a treeful of starlings…” and “…you smiled so absolutely/I mistook the horizon for you.” Why is imagery so important in poetry, and why do you think so many contemporary poets ignore it in their work?
WD: We don’t possess the common beliefs of traditional societies, so rather than relying on the aura of faith we have to imbue ordinary objects with magic by force of expression. Much contemporary poetry seems to me to rely too much on easily invoked emotions, or on startling juxtapositions that after the moment of recognition settle into place without furthering the development of the poem. Strong imagery still seems the best way of arousing and invoking less familiar nodes of awareness.
ESP: The last example from the previous question comes from “Your Sea Bass,” which won the 2010 Aesthetica Creative Works Competition. The poem captures a scene from a day spent fishing by a husband and wife, but elevates the simple beauty of their interactions. How important is it to you to use your poetry to make the ordinary into the extraordinary?
WD: I have to begin with the ordinary because I’m such an ordinary person myself. I think of Wallace Stevens walking to his ordinary (but well paying) job, living in a pleasant ordinary house, and how he not only made wonderful poetry by complicating that ordinariness but by jolting himself—I’m sure—into a sense of his own extraordinariness. Which I believe we all have, if only we find a way to embrace it.
ESP: You write about many different places in your poetry: a bookstore in Boston, a mansion, a New England back yard, but you seem to return to the sea most often. What about the sea captures you and compels you to feature it in so much of your poetry?
WD: It colors the atmosphere and everything it touches. The faint blue haze-line of summer where sea and sky meet, the hard blue rim of the horizon line in autumn, and the cold gray shadows cast by winter chop are the primary colors of creation.
ESP: You’ve been a professor for several decades now. What do you find most rewarding about teaching?
WD: Every day in the classroom I confront some analogue to the person I was when I was twenty. I can try to offer that person something I wish I had received when I was that age. Rethinking poetry in the classroom keeps me mentally nimble, alert, and interested.
ESP: How do you handle students who want to write well, but just don’t seem to get it, no matter how hard they try?
WD: I’m willing to go over their work with them in my office. One-on-one instruction sometimes helps, but some students just aren’t going to be able to do it. And some, although they may think they want to write well, just aren’t willing to make available the time required.
ESP: Any advice for someone thinking of trying to make a career out of poetry?
WD: Yes. Don’t. Unless someone feels compelled to write poetry, regardless of the advice of others, there’s no point. It isn’t a career but a way of dealing with or explaining the world.
ESP: Let’s talk a little about your poetry in this issue of Empty Sink. In “Someone Jonesed Something,” a meat explosion after the “mother of all fixes” serves as the background to a bookstore owner contemplating giving up and declaring bankruptcy. Tell us a little about how this poem came to be.
WD: Many years ago I met a bookstore clerk who turned me on to the poetry of Alan Dugan, Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, and others. He was a heroin addict from whom I first heard “jones” used as a verb. Later I worked in a bookstore in Harvard Square that was always on the verge of bankruptcy. Somehow these unrelated events came together. Most of my poems bring together things that are unrelated in the actual world.
ESP: “In Case of Apocalypse” is, among other things, about a man who “hoarded spiders and roaches in case of apocalypse.” I’m curious about the meaning of that line: why would someone hoard spiders and roaches in anticipation of the end of the world?
WD: Spiders and roaches supposedly will survive disasters that eradicate humanity. So this man may think that keeping these creatures around him might protect him by association. Or maybe he’s just a little crazy.
ESP: “Golem or Ghost” examines a scene where a couple accidentally unearths a bottle containing a spirit of some sort. While they are scared of the spirit at first, it almost immediately returns to its cramped quarters in the bottle. As someone who is currently quitting smoking, it reminded me a bit of addiction: the addict, upon quitting, typically sees how wonderful the world can be without his vice, but something about the vice keeps calling him back—even though he knows it’s terrible for him, it feels like home. What does this poem mean to you?
WD: Probably not as much as it means to you! I just thought it was kind of funny. I think the poem is about breaching the gap between the “what is” and the “what if” and the risks we take in doing so (see next question).
ESP: You were once quoted as saying, “We already know about the ‘what is.’ It’s more fun and more challenging to explore the ‘what if?’” Do you find the “what is” boring, or do you just feel that it isn’t worth exploration outside of our daily lives?
WD: We explore the “what is” all the time just by living our lives. Poetry is an excess, an overflow, and, propelled by its very nature, flows into the space occupied by the “what if.” The “what is” is what Stevens calls “reality.” The “what if” resides in the imagination, and is always there and available to us, if we dare. Poetry is one way of negotiating between those two domains. “Poetry should surprise by a fine excess,” Keats said. But then he added, “And not by a singularity.” I agree with the first part, but if Keats’ stunning portrait of the goddess in “To Autumn” is not a singularity I don’t know what it is.
ESP: You are, very clearly, a storyteller in addition to a poet. Many of your poems are narratives with characters and plots. As a poet, which fiction authors do you admire the most?
WD: Melville, Dostoevsky, Dickens, LeFanu, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Joyce, James (both Henry and M.R.), Lydia Davis, John Banville, Virginia Woolf, David Mitchell, Jean Stafford, Thomas Pynchon, Russell Banks, many others.
ESP: What authors or artists have the biggest influence on you?
WD: Gauguin’s example of dedication to art, Stevens’s way of weaving together art and life, Lowell overcoming mental illness, Winslow Homer for sheer love of his medium, Rimbaud for the joy he took in his own immaturity.
ESP: When did you first start writing?
WD: When I was in high school. A teacher assigned E.E. Cummings and I said, “Anybody can write this stuff.” The teacher said, “Show me,” so I tried. But didn’t succeed—it was harder than it looked.
ESP: When you write, what do you use the most: Word processor, typewriter, or pen and paper?
WD: I begin with pen and paper and work up to my laptop. I like to see how a poem looks first in longhand, then in cold type on a screen.
ESP: If you could ask for a single piece of advice from one person, living or dead, who would it be and what would you ask them?
WD: I would ask Thoreau what sort of socks he wore on his daily jaunts in unpredictable Concord weather. Then I would ask him how he managed his enormous journal while living in such close quarters with his family.
ESP: You’re given the opportunity to have dinner with one living poet. Who would it be and where would you eat?
WD: I would like to eat coconuts and dates with W.S. Merwin on his palm tree plantation in Maui.
ESP: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one book with you, what would it be?
WD: The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.
ESP: If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring poets, what would it be?
WD: Read poetry until it comes out of every pore.
ESP: Thanks again for taking the time to answer our questions. One last one: What’s next for you—any projects in the works we should be aware of?
WD: I’m working on a series of brief ekphrastic poems drawn from the recent photographs of Robert Frank. But I’m always working on several things at once.