Robert Dana Derek Alger One on One

portrait Robert Dana

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 122 ~ July, 2007

Robert Dana, currently Poet Laureate for the state of Iowa, has published 10 collections of poetry, including his most recent
The Morning of the Red Admirals
(Anhinga Press, 2004). His previous poetry collections include

Starting Out for the Difficult World

(Harper & Row, 1987), which was short listed for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize; Yes, Everything (Another Chicago Press, 1994);
Hello, Stranger: Beach Poems

(Anhinga Press, 1996); and

(Anhinga Press, 2000).

Photo © Anhinga Press

Dana also was the editor of
Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers

(University of Iowa Press, 1986) and A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (University of Iowa Press, 1999).

Born in Boston, Dana moved to Iowa and graduated from Drake University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He taught for 40 years at Cornell College, where he was Poet-in-Residence. He has also served as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Stockholm University and at several American colleges and universities.

His poetry has been widely hailed, winning several awards, including two National Endowment of the Arts Fellowships, The Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award from New York University in 1989, and the 1994 Carl Sandburg Medal for Poetry.

Dana was honored earlier this year at the annual AWP (American Writers and Writing Programs) Conference in Atlanta by a panel, chaired by novelist and poet R.M. Ryan, entitled “A Celebration of Robert Dana,” consisting of fellow poets and writers David Lynn of The Kenyon Review, Stephen Corey of The Georgia Review, David Hamilton of The Iowa Review, and Hilda Raz of Prairie Schooner.

Derek Alger: That was quite a tribute to you at the most recent AWP Conference, a sort of coming together of poets past, present and future.

Robert Dana: Yes, it was a humbling experience. I was spooked by the idea when it was first brought to my attention. But I was also honored to think that so many of my younger colleagues wanted to do this. And it certainly did bring together many writers and editors from across nearly 40 or 50 years of my literary life. They make up a kind of extended literary family, I suppose.

DA: Sometimes others see us better than ourselves.

RD: I was certainly reminded of many things I’d forgotten. And so many people to think I’d done work that was worthy of this kind of notice.

DA: It’s probably fair to say that your childhood was not conventional.

RD: I was orphaned at the age of eight in Boston when my mother died and my father deserted my half sister and I. Being put in foster homes certainly alters one’s perspective. Without family, you’re at the bottom of the social and economic scale. I guess I still tend to look at things from the bottom up.

DA: Do you remember writing or having a gift for language during your younger more turbulent years?

RD: Well, I was a terrific liar, a fabulist, I suppose you might say, if you wanted to put a kinder spin on it. In grade school, I made up stories about my father, saying that he owned a horse farm in Virginia and that I had a horse there. I suppose I was trying to create status for myself.

On the more serious side, I also had to try to make sense of the incomprehensible thing that had happened to me. I spent a lot of time in walking the railroad tracks at night, talking to the sky, asking God why this terrible thing was happening to me. Of course, he never answered.

I also spent a lot of time alone in the woods. The small town where I grew up was at the bottom of the Berkshires. So I became something of a naturalist. I probably knew more about birds, snakes, and trees than I did about classmates.

The town also had a tiny library which doubled as a social center on Friday nights. In addition to a multi-volume Natural History which I became addicted to, I also encountered there the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Wordsworth connected to my interest in Nature and Poe’s darkness seemed to match my own.

Of course, I never encountered the work of any modern writers until I entered college.

DA: Serving in the Navy must have given you a wider perspective of the world.

RD: It certainly did. I served on Guam in the South Pacific for a year and a half. The war was officially over by then, but there were armed Japanese soldiers still holed up in the Southern half of the island. Many of my Navy pals were older and more experienced men. One or two even had university degrees.

When I returned to the states in `48, I enrolled at Holyoke Jr. College in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was the first of what are now called Community Colleges. In those days, it borrowed its faculty from Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and other blue ribbon schools. And once I started to read and become aware of the richness of the world, I was a student on fire.

My best friend back then was my roommate Joe Kohler. He’d been a bombardier on B-24’s making runs through German flak over Romanian oil fields. He was 26. A soft-spoken guy from Baltimore with a sly sense of humor.

We roomed in the attic space of an old mansion that was being used as a temporary YMCA. We were so poor back then that we’d often share a pack of cigarettes, stubbing the last one of the night only half smoked to save for the next morning.

DA: Then it was on to college at Drake University.

RD: Yes, when I arrived at Drake I’d already abandoned several versions of myself (jazz musician, philosopher) and decided to be a journalist and novelist a la Hemingway. And I actually worked as a newspaper reporter in Des Moines both of my undergraduate years there.

DA: But you discovered you were a poet.

RD: Another one of those fortunate accidents of my life.

I was assigned as an advisee to E.L. Mayo who, I would learn later, was a major American poet. Ed, who was also from Boston, took an interest in my writing.

At that time, I had trouble finishing short stories. Ed pointed out to me that I was trying to make every word perfect, so I’d start revising the piece before I got three pages into it.

He pointed out that this way of writing was more common among poets than prose writers. He then asked if I’d ever written poetry. I had, of course written the kind of bad poems many of us wrote to girls we had a crush on, the kind that convinced them that they were right: we were weird. I didn’t subject him to any of the silliness I’d written up until then.

I did take his Modern Poetry course where I finally encountered all the wonderful poets whose work I loved and was moved by, and whose poems would become so important to me the rest of my life. I began to write poetry seriously then, and I’ve never looked back.

DA: You edited a book on Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where you quote Engle as saying the workshop was there to offer young, aspiring writers “hard criticism and decent sympathy.”

RD: The workshop was in its infancy then, of course. My class with John Berryman, for example, had only thirteen people in it. But I think Paul’s statement describes perfectly what the workshop was all about back then.

DA: Did you find the workshop at Iowa similar to a sidewalk cafe in Paris in an earlier day?

RD: Well, I don’t really know much about what actually happened between writers at Paris cafes. I think Workshop is a term that really describes what went on at Iowa in the 1950’s. It was something more akin to a bunch of very knowledgeable guys in a local garage arguing over how best to build this hot car.

What kind of streamlining should the fenders have? Do we even need fenders? How much horsepower does it need? What about overhead cams? And for Christ’s sake get rid of that hood ornament!

DA: You had an unusual commute to the Iowa Writers Workshop.

RD: Yes, I hitchhiked twenty-six miles to the university every day, winter and summer. I was taking a full schedule of graduate classes and I don’t recall ever missing a class.

DA: You were fortunate to be with quite a group of poets in the workshops taught by Robert Lowell and John Berryman.

RD: The Berryman class, in particular, was remarkable. Many of its members already had graduate degrees from other schools — Harvard, North Carolina, and so on — in some cases, two degrees.

They were exceptionally well read. They understood poetic form. And they wrote well. I was the youngest member of the class, a marginal man, so to speak, and not as well prepared as I would like to have been.

Before we left Iowa, several members of the class — Donald Justice and Henri Coulette among them — had already begun to publish in major American magazines.

DA: When you were at Iowa, the emphasis really wasn’t on establishing a literary career.

RD: I don’t recall anyone talking as if they expected to make a living writing poetry. Our hopes were more modest: to teach English or American literature somewhere and to write well.

Jobs were terribly scarce in the mid-1950’s. There were, with the exception of Stanford, no other writing programs out there. Teaching what is now called Creative Writing wasn’t an option. And many of the academic teaching jobs had already been snapped up by the preceding generation of GI Bill people with graduate degrees.

Justice wound up at Hamline, Coulette at a high school in a tough part of L.A., Philip Levine at Fresno State College — and everybody, however restless, felt lucky to be employed.

DA: Obviously you found a home teaching at Cornell College.

RD: Another lucky break. After 150 letters of application went glimmering, I phoned Tom Dunn who was the head of the Drake English Department. He knew of the Cornell opening and set up an interview for me.

It turned out they wanted someone to take over a bunch of journalism courses and advise the student newspaper and the yearbook staff. On the side, I’d teach a couple of sophomore literature courses.

Over the years, I began publishing poetry in Poetry, The Paris Review, and other important magazines, and I was gradually able to move into teaching literature full time.

DA: You had an interesting opportunity to talk one on one with Robert Frost.

RD: Yes, I was spending the summer on an old farmstead in Rochester, Vermont, across the White River from Ripton. My first wife and my two daughters were with me.

I paid him a visit one afternoon, and it turned into a once a week talk session for three weeks. He was generous with his time, helpful, intelligent, and contrary to his folksy public image, thoroughly read. Not only did he know his Bible and Greek Drama and mythology, he could quote you the best poem or two from books by good but minor poets among his contemporaries,

I had yet to write a successful poem of any kind. I wrote perhaps two or three flawed pieces a year. When I complained to Frost about this, he asked me, “Have you read my Collected Poems? How many poems do you think that amounts to in a year?” I made a quick calculation and said, “About ten or 12.” “Yes,” he said, and some of those I throw away. Be patient. Keep working. It will come,” he assured me. And I felt as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. A year or two later, I broke through.