Carl Dennis

Q&A with Carl Dennis

Carl Dennis is the author of ten books of poems including Practical Gods (Penguin, 2001), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; New and Selected Poems, 1974-2004 (Penguin, 2004); and Unknown Friends (Penguin, 2007). He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. His work appears in Smartish Pace, Issues 7, 10 and 15. (2008)


Who are your favorite living poets? I understand if you’d rather not answer this question, but maybe you could still give me a short list of living poets you recommend reading. Thank you.

Peg Miller — Colorado

Rather than making a long list, let me recommend three Polish poets that have meant a great deal to me: Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Adam Zagajewski, three I think you might enjoy and learn from.


What are you thoughts on these strange animals: prose poems? At what point is a poem no longer a poem? I sort-of think that this is decided by the person who writes it, although critics, by definition, must disagree which such a perspective. What do you think?

Bob H. — No. Cal

It’s not easy to think of a gain that outweighs the loss of rhythm substantiated by the line, but I can think of some prose poems that manage to create their own intensity, often by presenting a speaker who is trying to resist the push of passion for a calm examination of a subject. I’m thinking here of Stephen Dunn’s book Riffs and Reciprocities.


Do your books sell well in countries other than the United States? Thanks for answering my question, I’ve recently become very aware and excited about your poetry.

Chad Mann — St. Paul

My books are published only in the United States, and foreign sales are small. Do you have any suggestions?


God (or god) frequently enters your poems. Would you say this is because some kind of god-consciousness weighs on your daily living, meaning you think about God a lot, or because you find God a fascinating subject (if God can be called a subject), or what?

Andy — Belfast, Ireland

My interest in gods does not come from any specific religious commitment but from a general sense that religions raise big questions that are worth considering, such as how should we live and why should we bother. It’s the questioning that interests me. The gods of the book can all be found on earth, rather than elsewhere.


What do you think of “language poetry” in general? Have you ever attempted it? In your opinion, who are the language poets worth reading?

Karis — Minneapolis

About language poets, I appreciate their concern to point out the way in which common language is constantly being corrupted by the discourse of political and commercial manipulation. I disagree with them to the extent they conclude that the only way to resist this corruption is by creating an opaque surface that forces the reader to labor in deciphering. As I write in my book “Poetry as Persuasion,” “In its suspicion of clarity, language poetry tends to limit its task to the undermining of conventional discourse rather than trying to reclaim ordinary speech for truth-telling. We may ask why the intelligence that is exhibited in the clear-eyed cataloguing of linguistic abuses might not be used to help purify more directly the language of the tribe, resisting demotic speech by trying to say as clearly as possible what the poet believes to be important.”


I have a distinct recollection not only of the first, what I thought at the time, real poem I had written, but of what my life was like at that time, what I was up to, what I was thinking about, who I was hanging out with, and what influenced the poem. And that poem was important to me. Is there a similar poem for you? A poem that, when you finished it, you said to yourself, “Yes, I’ve finally nailed a whole poem. Nothing is amiss here.”

Dave — Rock Hill, SC

I do remember the first poem I felt pleased to have written, and the cause and the context of writing it. It’s not a poem that I would choose to reprint now-I was 28 at the time-but I did feel in writing it that poetry could give me a greater sense of satisfaction than any other kind of activity. It’s a poem called “Volunteer Work in the People’s Co-Op,” and came from my working now and then in a cooperative grocery store in Buffalo.


Where did you grow-up in St. Louis? Are you a Cardinals baseball fan? Did your upbringing contribute to you becoming a poet?

Bill S. — St. Louis

I grew up in University City, and wish the Cardinals well, though I can’t call myself a serious fan. I can’t be sure if the city helped lead me to poetry, only that I had a particularly good high school English teacher who helped inspire and encourage me, a woman by the name of Augusta Gottlieb, who somehow made her classes feel that high school was not a prologue to life but the first act, and that if we didn’t want to sleepwalk through it we needed to think carefully about the issues before us, an enterprise for which literature would provide us with crucial help.


Carl, there are times when a particular poem inspires us, shakes us up. Your poem “The God who Loves You” did exactly that. In return, I’d like to share a poem that I wrote using your lines as an epigraph. It will appear in the Adirondack Review and I hope you enjoy it. BEING FLAT It must be troubling for the god who loves you To ponder how much happier you’d be today Had you been able to glimpse your many futures. – Carl Dennis The God Who Loves You Being flat is something. It’s as quiet as that sleeping wild bird on the patio. And it has a terrible meaning left out like last night’s news, or a portfolio of photographs that can’t be wished back. Even a knowing word about the God of each disappointment is nothing but a friend explaining our loss in the places we reach. It’s something etched permanently inside like that maze of scratches in the soft pine desktop, where the past twenty-five years cry out so many conflicting stories of why tonight (of all nights) you ask for the signs of “enduring”, your reasons for having been here. Your poem, or Kunitz writing about Bonhoeffer’s last prayer in his cell – the dialogue with the Absolute, it is disturbing but I would have it no other way. I like the idea of having a friend inside that dialogue, a friend sharing those “disappointments” and the “reaching” for God, or our identity, or just to recapture that wonderful thing called meaning – take care my friend – Barry Ballard

Barry Ballard — Burleson, Texas

Thanks for the poem.


Is there a subject matter that you’ve thought about writing on but for whatever reason are unable to do so? This happens to me with some family subjects, which really eliminates a large amount of potential subject matter. I appreciate you answering my question.

Kitty — Oshkosh, WI

Like you, I have trouble bringing family material directly into my poetry. It has to undergo substantial transformation to be available. Those poems that seem most direct don’t finally please me. The other difficult subject is politics, though I’d like to think I’ve been more successful there. I spell out some of the strategies for making public issues available to the poet in my essay on political poetry in my book of essays, Poetry on Persuasion.


In “From a Practical Reader” in the latest Smartish Pace, you seem to focus on the possible “usefulness” of poetry. Do you feel that poetry is less useful, in the public sphere, than it once was? Do you try to make poems that can be used by your readers in their everyday lives? Thanks for your time.

DC — Baltimore

Poetry is useful in that it allows readers to feel that they are not alone, that others have thought and felt as they have. It can do this more powerfully than any other kind of writing, or at least more directly, because in a good poem we are made to feel that we are in the presence of a whole human being speaking to us directly, or providing a script for us to enter as we see fit. As for public poetry, please see my answer to Kitty from Oshkosh.


Receiving the Pulitzer and the Ruth Lily Prize are both enormous accomplishments, both professionally and artistically. With these awards, do you feel any heightened sense of expectation for yourself, or from others? Or do you feel that the awards are more of a justification for what you have to offer? I guess what I’m asking is this: are receiving the prizes that everyone wants more helpful or burdensome when it’s time to sit down and write again?

Emily Saint — Boston

The prizes you mention have an immediate practical benefit in winning me more readers and so making it less difficult to get my work published. The easier access does mean that I have to be more careful about what I submit. Luckily, I have critical friends who are completely indifferent to public acclaim.


I’m looking forward to your next book with great anticipation. When will it appear and who is the publisher? Did different publishers approach you with book offers after you won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer, you’re a wonderful poet.

Bette — Columbia, MD

Penguin will be publishing my New and Selected Poems (1974-2004) in the spring of 2004. The book was already set in motion before I won the Pulitzer Prize.


Do you think a poet’s power diminishes, as the poet grows older?

Superwomen — Las Vegas

It does in some cases (Wordsworth) and not in others (Yeats).


How long does it usually take for a poem to go from a draft to a finished piece? Have you ever written a poem that was “complete” in a matter of hours? If so, I’d love to know the poem. Thanks for answering my question; this is very kind of you.

Mr. Kent — NY City

It varies from a week to many months of setting aside and returning. Very few only take a few hours.


When you’re writing are you influenced by what you’re reading? I ask this because I look back on some of the poetry I’ve written and I can hear the poets I was reading at that time. I only wish I could have written like you after reading The Outskirts of Troy!

Shawn G. — New Mexico

Sometimes what I’m reading will help me gain a fresh perspective on a poem I’m having problems with. I remember once being stuck until I heard Allen Ginsberg read in Buffalo. Though my work was nothing like his, I found his reading liberating.


Do you look back on your early work with fondness? Are there any regrets and mistakes in your writing (published work) that still haunt you?

Mini H. — Notre Dame

I am indeed fond of some of my early poems, but not fond enough to include very many in my Selected Poems. They are of interest to me as part of my private history, but I don’t expect others to be interested in them. I can see their limitations as part of a beginner’s problems, and I have been a slow learner.


Do you see a poem as Frost did: as a performance? And the poet as the performer? Or has poetry become such a book/page driven activity that the performance aspect is being lost?

B. Halpern — Connecticut

I see a poem as a speech act, with a particular speaker addressing a single listener, an act that will be successful if the speaker enacts certain virtues in the course of the poem and gives that enactment significant form. So I do agree with Frost after all. We have to be made to feel when we read a poem that someone is standing behind the lines whose company is worth keeping.

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