In Conversation with Lauren Haldeman
Dan Rosenberg is the author of The Crushing Organ (Dream Horse Press 2012) and cadabra (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2015). He has also written two chapbooks, A Thread of Hands (Tilt Press 2010) and Thigh's Hollow (Omnidawn forthcoming 2015), and he co-translated Miklavž Komelj's Hippodrome (Zephyr Press forthcoming 2015). His work has won the American Poetry Journal Book Prize and the Omnidawn Poetry Chapbook Contest. Rosenberg earned an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a Ph.D. from The University of Georgia. He teaches literature and creative writing at Wells College and co-edits Transom. Here, Rosenberg discusses patience and the domestic, and how parenthood can make you a formal poet.
LH: Hello there, Dan! I have just finished reading your incredible book, cadabra. First of all: Thank you for writing it! I wanted to ask you a few questions about it because it has been informative not only to how I read poetry, but also how I live, which is incredibly valuable.
Oddly, unlike many other books of poetry I have read lately, I found your collection supremely relaxing. This characteristic immediately seemed unique to me. “Relaxing” is just not a word that describes many poems these days, let alone whole books. Why do you think this collection expresses that quality? I liked it.
DR: Lauren! Thank you, first, for your kind words. I write from a remote geothermal house perched above a newly-thawed lake in upstate New York, from which I only venture, really, to teach, so I’m grateful for such generous contact from the outside world – and particularly from a poet I love and admire.
I’m glad you found cadabra relaxing. This book came about as one coherent unit; I was never unsure of if I was working on a cadabra poem or something else. And writing these poems didn’t involve nearly the kind of tension and torsion I pursue in my other work, so perhaps that’s part of why you reacted as you did. It’s also a deeply domestic book – even the more overt political poems come from a village ethos. I wrote the first draft of this collection while living in a small house on Church St. in Iowa City, right by the cemetery. It was my first experience living with a romantic partner – Becca, who is now my wife. And it was my first experience as an adult with something other than grad school livin’: Our home was a home, not a temporary stop for transient artists and academics, and it bore none of those scars – which made it both nicer and blanker than anywhere else I’d lived. The pressurelessness of that space and that life definitely seeped into the book.
LH: This work reminded me immediately of Issa’s haiku of the micro-world, the small things. Your lines are equally as meditative, equally reminiscent of looking through a magnifying glass. Especially lines (or whole poems) like “Coupling”:
The lawnmower rears back,
blades a fake circle. Damp
grasses launch a halo.
The white dog marks
a perimeter for the mailman
sailing about with shades
like gold coins. Two spiders
in a wind-tossed web hold on.
That last line especially reminded me of Issa's haiku:
Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
Was haiku an influence for these pieces?
DR: Issa is my favorite haiku poet. What I love about him is his explicit humanity, the potency-through-vulnerability of his voice, and his unique, irreverent personality – which I recognize is a decidedly Western thing to celebrate. Robert Hass’s Essential Haiku has been a regular visitor to my desk from my bookshelf for years, but I can’t claim anything more than a subliminal influence from haiku. The more immediate register of influence, for me, was Graham Foust’s work, particularly in Leave the Room to Itself. I don’t know him at all, but he was gracious enough to write a blurb for this book. I think of that act as an act of generosity and good citizenship, which is perhaps a prerequisite for the attentiveness you’re asking about here. Those attributes are salient in his work, and I hope in mine as well.
LH: Expanding on that last question: were you intentionally focusing on the intimate & mundane, the overlooked & the small, in your work, or did it arise naturally out of observation?
DR: I knew cadabra was going to be a smaller book, or rather, a book on/of smaller things, after my first, which feels to me now decidedly like a first book in its aggressive expansiveness. When I began working on it, my life had gotten suddenly more domestic, and the poems arise explicitly from my life. But the domestic is of course inseparable from the political and the social, from history and tradition and our shared human trajectory. Most of my poems begin in observation or a scrap of language, but for the poems in cadabra I refused the pivot; when I’d exhausted the initiating impulse, which was often indeed intimate and immediate, I ended the poem.
LH: I wonder what your editing process looks like? Reading these, I see a meticulous hand, deftly whittling the work down to precise objects, wasting no words. Did this gentle exactitude come out of the edits, or were you initially writing with this style in mind?
DR: These were never going to be expansive poems, and even their first drafts were approaching this style, but the editing process was more often one of paring than not. One exception would be the “after Wyatt” poems. For those, the composition and editing processes were ones of accretion: I took Wyatt’s sonnets, which are bastardizations of Petrarch’s, and I took a couple of more faithful translations of the original Petrarch sonnets, and I mined them for language and imagery that resonated. That’s why the “after Wyatt” poems are visually so different from the rest of the book: the holes in those poems are meant to suggest their status as collected and arranged fragments/associations.
LH: I want to ask a bigger question about process in general: what is your writing routine, day-to-day? You are a new father (to an excellent little baby, I must say), and I know that can change a lot of previous routines. Has your process changed? How have you adapted?
DR: I’d thank you for the compliment about my baby, but it’s an objective fact that he’s excellent, and can stating a fact be a compliment? (Thanks!)
The poems in cadabra required deep stillness to write, and that is just not available to me anymore. I couldn’t write this book today. But I’ve been working on a new project, which I’m calling Esau, and those poems are quite different. They’re all in a strict syllabic form, which gives rise to the voice of the poems, and it allows me to work on them in the scattered rags of time I’ve got these days. Perhaps my posture when I write will best express how I’ve adapted: Now, I write straight onto my laptop, which is usually on a chair or on the bed. I squat beside it like a gangly supplicant, balanced on the balls of my feet, typing away without getting too comfortable. Pouring the language and energy that has built up over the day (or, more often, over the week) into these nonce forms during what stolen minutes I can.
LH: What gives you pleasure, other than/instead of poetry? Are there hobbies/activities that seem unrelated to your writing, but still inform it?
DR: Of course, my teaching, which I love. At Wells College, I have tremendous freedom to teach what I want, and I have exploited that freedom to focus on things that energize not just my students but my own work as well. We spent chunks of time this past semester with Williams, H.D., Celan, Šalamun, and Sappho, all of whom echo through my work.
But the most immediate, personal pleasures that inform my writing have become the ever-evolving silliness at home. My wife and I have always built joking surrealist narratives around our lives, and lately we’ve been developing elaborate plotlines for our 6-month-old. This past week, he’s been threatening to give her demerits in the “report” he is “writing” (which is only sometimes code for poop). She and I try to wrestle the narrative from each other, following the first rule of improv: Always say yes. As we ventriloquize our son, language becomes plastic and joyful again. Becca is way funnier than I am, and the pleasure of chasing after her leaps in language and logic certainly invigorates my writing, on my good days.
LH: One last question: Your poems seem born out of intense scrutiny and enduring observation. There is a patience in these poems that I feel has been lost in most of our lives (I know it has in mine). Are there exercises or habits that you could suggest would help others slow down and begin to see as you see?
DR: I do think of cadabra as a patient book, a book of watching and waiting for the ordinary to unfold extraordinarily. But I can offer no real advice on how to do that, because I don’t think I can do it anymore. When I was writing these poems, I lived such a plugged-in life that this work was a necessary escape from being a creature of surface. And it was possible; I could retreat into my own world and nobody would go unbathed and unfed (except, maybe, me). That escape was similar to what I felt when I moved from New York City to Iowa City: Suddenly, the immediate world was emptier, and it made greater feats of attention possible. But now my world is boiling with excess, with interrupted nights, with faculty meetings and afternoons swallowed up wonderfully but completely by our attention-hungry little man, and I need the advice you asked for more than you do.