Stuart Dybek
In Conversation with Danielle Susi


Stuart Dybek has published two volumes of poetry, Brass Knuckles and Streets In Their Own Ink. Two new collections of his fiction, Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, were published simultaneously by FSG in 2014. His previous books include Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago—a One Book, One Chicago selection—and I Sailed with Magellan. His work is widely anthologized and appears in publications such as The New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, Tin House, Granta, Zoetrope, Ploughshares, and Poetry.

Dybek is the recipient of many literary awards including the PEN/Bernard Malamud Prize for “distinguished achievement in the short story,” a Lannan Award, the Academy Institute Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Harold Washington Literary Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and four O’Henry Prizes. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry and in Best American Fiction. In 2007, he was awarded both a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Rea Award for the Short Story. He is currently the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University.

Here, we discuss genre distinction, the rebirth of the independent bookstore, and what keeps him in Chicago.

DS: I read in an interview that you escape to the Florida Keys for a month each year to hole up and work on a project. Seeing as you're finishing up your month there at the time of this interview, can you tell us what you've been working on?

SD: I lived in the Keys for a year, and have been coming back pretty much once a year for the last 15 years. It's a great place to work. Usually I come with ongoing projects, but sometimes I schedule pieces that have deadlines for that time. I had three of those—an essay and a couple stories—all of which were completed, as well as set of sonnets, and I've been working on turning a story from Paper Lantern, titled "Four Deuces" into a place. That one I'm still working on.

DS: You're known best, I think, as someone who is very Chicago-centric in his writing. Of course, we're drawn to write about where we're from and what we "know," but I'm curious about what kept you in Chicago or why you come back to the city?

SD: When one thinks of "writers of place," that phrase itself privileges place as the primary element--Ireland, the American South, Moscow, Chicago, whatever. But maybe more often than not place is an important element in an autobiographical urge on the part of the writer, but not necessarily the generating element.

Chicago for me is the city, of course, especially the south side ethnic, working class enclave where I grew up, but the city, and that particular neighborhood, are also the background for themes such as family, youth, right of passage, first love, all those prominent themes in which personal history is juxtaposed for where it took place. The stories that I have to tell that seem to rise from place seem to me instinctive, they come from the bottom up instead of the top down—that is I don't start with a list of oughts and fashionable great thoughts and then look to manipulate the subject to fit them.

The gift of growing up in a port of entry neighborhood is that the classic themes are there woven into the everyday lives people are living—assimilation, class, the American dream, minority culture, etc. Those classic themes are there in the people, living and breathing, rather than reductive academic notions or identity politics.

DS: To me, your fiction and poetry are fairly straightforward and capture a moment so specifically and clearly. Is it important to you that a reader feels a particular way when reading your work?

SD: I've always thought of the art of writing as existing in the context of the other arts. I want it to be beautiful for the reader the way, say, music is beautiful for the listener.

DS: Speaking of writing existing in the context of the other arts, I saw that you did a limited edition chapbook with illustrations by Dmitry Samarov. What was that process like—the mixing of image and text? Had you done something like that previously? How did that relationship with Dmitry develop?

SD: That little project was really the work of several people who were organizing the wonderful idea of celebrating independent bookstores. Both Dmitry and I were more than happy to participate.

There are several generations of Americans who lived through watching corporate chains locate near independent bookstores and undersell them until they perished. It happened in such a short period of time and it was such a beautiful resource to lose, and then that was followed by online purveyors—Amazon in particular—putting the corporate chains out of business. So, seeing a rebirth of the independent store generates a powerful allegiance on the part of writers and readers.

DS: How would you talk about the process of writing Streets in Their Own Ink (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)? Do you feel like it is a departure from Brass Knuckles (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979)?

SD: Streets, like several of my books of fiction, used place as an organizing principle. It collected poems that had been written and published in the two decades after the publication of Brass Knuckles. But I selected only urban poems—city poems—and left out at least a book-length worth of published poems set in other places—particularly the Caribbean and rural settings in Iowa and Michigan.

There's a nocturnal quality to Streets also shared with some of the books of fiction, as if the poems dealing with light are part of a book yet to be published that is set in the tropics. I don't know about it being a departure. What little I thought along those lines at all, I thought of it as a development. There's a section of poems that returns to imagery, anecdotes and narratives that might have fit in Brass Knuckles and then in later sections the poems are more dependent on a denser figurative language that also pays more attention to slant rhymes.

One very conscious difference between those two books of poems was that in Brass Knuckles I was consciously staggering poems in verse with prose poems. By the time Streets appeared I was resolved that the poems in the book would only be in verse. I was still writing very short prose pieces, many of them in the no man's land between prose poem and flash fiction. But I'd long wanted to do a book of short prose so I was saving all those prose pieces for that—the book Ecstatic Cahoots that appeared in 2014.

DS: Because you write prose and poetry, I'm wondering how you feel about genre distinction? Do you think they exist as two separate processes or modes of thought?

SD: I think that genres are identified in most minds by their signature modes: so poetry is lyrical, fiction narrative, drama dramatic, the essay expository. Each of those modes is a different way of thinking. For instance, to think lyrically is to think as we do in dreams by association, which is also what metaphorical thinking is. When we rhyme we think by going from one sound to another and it is mnemonic, which is why we remember songs. Narrative thinking is to arrange events into a story often along a chronological line. It too is mnemonic.

The arts are about remembering. Those are different ways of thinking but they are also allied and those modes overarch genre. Poems might have a lyrical signature but they tell stories and essay thoughts and have drama. Same for all the genres. The art of writing is the mix and interplay of modes. So for me, the most influential aspect of genre is historical. The history of American poetry say, or of women poets. But rather than divided the genres overlap because the modes overarch.

DS: I'd be interested to hear what you think the future of writing will look like. Whether that's who's doing it, what they're doing, where they're doing it, or something completely different.

So far as what is elemental to writing: recasting the chaotic personal and public worlds around us into stories whether in fiction, nonfiction, drama or poetry—that I don't think that is going to change. Human beings are wired to be storytellers, certainly in part due to the relation between story and memory. Even in dreams we have at it. And probably the same can be said of poetry—certainly that part of poetry that intersects song.

We are going through a period in which the great movement of modernism responsible for such classic work in all the arts, such freshness and rebirth, seems at least over the last decade to have run its course. There hasn't been anything to replace it really unless it is in literature (as opposed to music and the visual arts) a turn to reality TV, reality nonfiction, the relativity of tweeting etc. No matter how novel the devices, the end product seems disappointingly conventional.

I think literature has lost some of its role as being a necessary subversive corrective. In its place there's a reflexive political correctness that is as predictable in its way as formulaic genre literature. The victim narrative in the richest country, the biggest polluter and war maker on the planet, rules.

I don't have any predictions on what's next but I do hope that given literary cycles there will be somewhere, sometime in the offing an imaginative explosion that would produce a leap akin to that of modernism. We need it. There is a second way to answer your question: what effect will people who control the capitalist drive harnessed by the internet that finds ways to make money off the creative work of artists and to steal their intellectual property ultimately have on literature itself. I don't know anyone who has addressed this better, more clearly or more urgently than Scott Turow.