An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Staff Favorite: An Interview With Poet Stephen Dunn


It is that time of year - lists upon lists of best of's are being written, and we are no exception. Here at WEEKEND EDITION, we've got some of our own favorites. We have asked our staff to think back to some of our best interviews of 2014. This week's pick comes from one of our editors, Barrie Hardymon. She joins me now. Hi, Barrie.


MARTIN: So what did you pick?

HARDYMON: I picked our interview with Stephen Dunn, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He had a new collection of poetry called "Lines Of Defense" out earlier in January.

MARTIN: All right, so we do a lot of book interviews and we have talked to some poets too. What stood out to you, though, about this particular conversation?

HARDYMON: This was one of these moments where, you know, he writes this very accessible poetry - and I mean that not to damn it with faint praise. You are still in the chapel of language that poetry is, but it is so - it still feels like a friend is whispering in your year very wise things. And he had that quality about him.

MARTIN: OK, so let's listen to this. This is the conversation we had with Stephen Dunn. He started by telling us how he has used poetry in his own life.


STEPHEN DUNN: What good literature has always done is give me the language with the occasion - a lot of times not, of course. But I think the poems that matter to me are the ones that speak to that which cannot easily be said.

MARTIN: That is made clear in a couple of poems that you've included in this collection about how we navigate dying and loss. The narrator is talking about the pending death of his mother.

DUNN: Yes.

MARTIN: May I ask you - was this you? Are you narrating this poem?

DUNN: Yes.

MARTIN: This was a loss you had?

DUNN: Yeah.

MARTIN: One called "The Little Details" - I'll read a bit. It says (reading) my brother is talking about his icemaker because his man can't talk about his lymphoma and chemo every minute of the day. Can you describe what kind of relief details the minutia of life can bring?

DUNN: Well, we live with the little things much more than the large things. For me, the latter part of that poem - middle to the latter part - is what's important.

MARTIN: Go ahead and read if you...

DUNN: OK. (Reading) What's a life without little details - trips to the market, a good parking spot? He has to hang up, has a bet on the Jets-Patriots game which is about to start. He's sure the Jets will cover the spread. I make the opposite bet, our old fun. Later, I put on my Maria Callas CD, full of words I don't understand but do. If your brother has cancer, how lucky to find someone to see you beyond what you permitted yourself to feel.

MARTIN: Such ordinary things.

DUNN: Absolutely ordinary things. And then the extraordinary things, like Maria Callas singing, mixed with that give us permission to feel something that we weren't allowed to feel - or we didn't allow ourselves to feel.

MARTIN: I'm afraid we're making this book sound a little heavy.


MARTIN: There are light moments, and I want to talk about another...


MARTIN: ...Another poem - "Pedagogical."


MARTIN: You almost tell a joke. It's a short poem...

DUNN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And it's kind of a biography of your work. You've written in a college paper about Stalin. And you've described his acts as inhuman is the word you use.

DUNN: Yes.

MARTIN: And the kicker is that the response from your professor is as follows - Stephen, when it comes to things like that, human will do just fine.

DUNN: Yeah.

MARTIN: You describe it also as the beginning of your intellectual life, that moment.

DUNN: Yeah.

MARTIN: How so?

DUNN: I think so. I knew what he had written was true right away and it struck me as a great criticism of my calling it inhuman. And to think that things are inhuman are profoundly human was the beginning of the thinking for me that I hadn't allowed myself before - didn't even know about.

MARTIN: While we're on the subject of your college experience, I have to note - and this feels like a bit of a departure from other poets - you had a very serious college basketball career...

DUNN: I did.

MARTIN: ...At Hofstra.

DUNN: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did you go from basketball to poetry, or did the two always coexist for you?

DUNN: No, no, the poetry followed much later, but I was always a serious reader. I was not a particularly good student, and I was a pretty good basketball player. I've written an essay called "Basketball And Poetry," in which I try not to push the metaphor too far. But one of the points that I make in the essay is the similarity between poetry and basketball is the chance to be better than yourself, to transcend yourself, if you're hot that day. And that happens in writing in our best moments, where we find ourselves saying what we didn't know we knew or couldn't have said in any other circumstance. Those are the moments in poetry I live for now.

MARTIN: That was my conversation with the award-winning poet Stephen Dunn. So Barrie, who knew that poetry and basketball had such parallels, right?

HARDYMON: It's so great because we do think of poets as being these kind of, you know, removed from regular life. But this is a man who, you know, has sweated it out with the best of them, not just with the pen, but with - and I love - and I have to say it was so nice to just hear that again, especially in a year where we lost Galway Kinnell and recently Mark Strand. You know, to hear that there are still these giants among us and, you know, these men and women are still telling us things about the world that we all need to know.

MARTIN: Barrie Hardymon is one of our editors here at WEEKEND EDITION, sharing with us her selection for the year 2014. Thanks so much, Barrie.

HARDYMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.