Interview // Elegies to What Was: A Conversation with Dorianne Laux

by Meryl Natchez | Contributing Writer

I got in touch with Dorianne Laux after reviewing her terrific Only as the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems for PoetryFlash. I remembered a craft talk she gave at the Community of Writers about a period in which she felt very alienated from poetry, but found that when she was ready, the poems were there waiting for her—how generous and joyous that felt. As I had been busy with work and family and alienated myself from poetry, this talk resonated with me. I was especially moved that she found her way back to poetry through reading the work of George Herbert.

Now, of course, Dorainne Laux lives very much in the world of poetry. Her recent book, The Book of Men, won the Paterson Prize. Facts About the Moon won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. And What We Carry was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

She is recognized as a unique voice in the world of letters, and teaches poetry in the Program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University. She is a founding faculty member of Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

This interview took place at a crowded, noisy café a few blocks away from the Oregon Convention Center during AWP. I knew Dorianne’s path towards poetic eminence was unusual, so I began by asking:

What was your path toward poetry?

I began writing when I was very young and after awhile I had all these poems. I thought I should do something with them, so I took a night class in San Diego with Steve Kowit. I was about 28 or 29. He was a wonderful teacher, and then I came to Berkeley and took a poetry class at the extension there with Alan Soldofsky. So I was meeting other poets and learning about poetry.

What were you doing during this time to earn a living?

I was mostly waiting tables.

There are a lot of waitresses in your poems.

A lot of waitresses for sure. I also did some work at old folks homes and sanitariums, but mostly waitressing. I worked managing a gas station for a long time.

I love that poem, “Fast Gas,” a love poem and a poem of such power.

I used that experience. I was doing something completely outside the world of poetry, which none of my fellow workers understood. But that was okay. I had found my people. Whatever poet was out there publishing, I went to hear them speak: Jack Gilbert, Bob Hass, Brenda Hillman, Carolyn Kizer. It was a wonderful education.

I was having a few poems published in little magazines, and finally I put together a book. It was rejected by four or five of the best publishers. Then Philip Levine saw a poem of mine in a little local magazine called Five Fingers Review, and he wrote me a note through the magazine. He said “Please tell this woman I love her poem.” And I wrote him a thank you note that began a long friendship.

He eventually submitted my manuscript to BOA Editions, and they took it within a week. He was really my mentor and a champion of my work early on.

That makes sense. I was describing your work to someone and I said that it is sort of the female counterpart to Philip Levine’s work—your poems speak to the working class life in much the ways his do, but from a woman’s perspective.

Yes, I think that’s true.

So when your book was published, did your life change?

No. In fact, my publisher, Al Poulin at BOA Editions, said “I want you to know that your life is not going to change. You’re still going to have to wash the dishes and get the trash out.” And that was a good thing to be told by a practicing poet and an esteemed editor because of course you think your life is going to change because you have a book. And it isn’t. As Philip Levine said when someone came up to him saying “Oh, you’re so famous! How do you deal with it?” He said, “Oh, yes. I’m famous to literally dozens of people.” You just have to put in perspective—it’s a big deal, but only within a very small, rarified community. Of course that community has grown over the years, but still in the grand scheme of things it’s a very small community. I’m so glad it’s grown as much as it has.

But basically having a book or several books doesn’t change your life. You just keep doing what you were doing before you had a book, which is to write more poems.

You had your book published, were you still waiting tables and working in convalescent homes?

By that time I had remarried, so I quit working. I went back to school and got my bachelor’s degree and started teaching workshops. That kind of grew. I got better known in the academic community even though I only had a B.A. And the University of Oregon asked me to do a reading. Afterward they said, “Would you like to apply for a job here?” I said, “You must have me confused with someone else. I don’t have an upper level degree.” But they said, “You have books, so it doesn’t matter.”

And teaching has supported me all these years. I love the students, but I don’t like the administrative work. So I much prefer teaching at workshops and conferences.

And you have a daughter, I believe? How has being a mother affected your writing?

Well, I was already a mother when I started writing seriously, so there wasn’t really a change. It was always there. Anyone who has been a poet and a mother, especially back in the day when men were not taking as much responsibility, knows the struggle between finding time for writing and being a mother. I always had to work around her life. But there were times when I would say, “Oh, five more minutes, five more minutes.”

This makes me think of that poem “Finding What’s Lost,” that starts: “In the middle of the poem my daughter reminds me / that I promised to drive her to the bus stop . . .” I think any mother who writes can relate to that. Did your daughter mind your preoccupation with writing?

I had a lot of concern about that. But later, when she was in her twenties, I asked if she resented the fact that I was always off to myself writing poems or gone to readings. And she said, “Oh, it didn’t bother me at all. When my friends asked for a ride, their parents would say no, and they were only watching TV. You were writing books. You were doing something important.” And I thought, all these years I’ve felt guilty—it took a lot of weight off to hear that.

I was at your reading at Marin Poetry Center, where you read a lot of poems about your mother who recently died. And I see that this is a whole section in your New and Selected book. Talk to me a little about how that entered your poetry.

Well, of course, my mom precipitated that. She really had convinced us all my life that she was dying. Then she actually died and it was such a shock. It hit me pretty hard. I immediately began writing poems about her. My mother has always been my muse. She’s always been very mysterious to me, and when she died it was a chance to go back and revisit her as my muse.

I think the thing that’s different about these poems is that many of them are formal, and I’ve never really written formal poetry. I do try to write a sonnet once a year; they never seem to work. But for these poems I found I needed form to contain the chaos of her dying. I felt untethered from the world. I never really had a father, so my mother was it. So with her death it felt like being an astronaut out in space and losing the umbilical cord to the mother ship—just free floating. I didn’t know it would be that way. The poems came quickly and naturally.

She comes across as a very vivid, specific person.

For as much confusion and angst I have, I think the poems are really elegies to what was so unique about her. She’s like everyone’s mother, but the details are so specific. I wanted everyone to get a feel for the woman I grew up with. She was a woman I was alternately very angry at but also extremely lucky to have had as a mother.

Even when you were young you felt that?

I always looked at my mother and thought that she was amazing. She was a tall, beautiful, Katherine Hepburn-type woman who played classical piano and read books about philosophy and talked politics. She was just not like any other mother on our block. It was women who cooked and cleaned and took care of the kids. My mother always had interests way beyond the family. She was an intellectual in a working class environment. I admired her so deeply and I was also embarrassed and deeply ashamed by her. That’s a bone of contention in a neighborhood like that. Kids would make fun of us: “So where’s your mother?” Or neighbor kids would come over and beat us up because they knew we had no mother or father in the house. It made us vulnerable.

So you resented her for that?

I wished sometimes I could give her a little primer about being a mother. But what I learned from my mother was discipline. The house was always in chaos but she practiced piano every day. She was dedicated to getting it exactly right, practicing over and over till it was right. And she also went back to school and studied to be a nurse, and I saw her excitement about learning. I watched her study her books and make notes. She studied biology and psychology and things that were impossible to understand. She became the first paramedic nurse in California. She became an emergency nurse and ran an emergency room for awhile.

But as a nurse, unless one of us had an open, sucking wound she would say, “Get some iodine, it’s nothing.” So she was out there taking care of strangers and her own kids were running around half-washed and being beaten up by the neighbors.

There wasn’t really childcare back then.

No, there was me. I was the childcare. I was the oldest.

A lot of that experience comes through in the book. I really love the arc of the New and Selected poems.

Joe (Joe Millar, Dorianne’s husband and also a poet) helped me with that, because I got to a point where I couldn’t decide what to put in what to leave out, and he was really helpful shaping the final manuscript.

So what’s next for you?

I’m not sure. I have a lot of poems, and I kept trying to put them together with the poems about my mother but they just didn’t fit. So Joe and I decided to make them a section of the New and Selected. They are their own group of poems, especially following the poems that lead up to them. So hopefully they will reach others who are dealing with a parent’s death. It makes you think about your life in a new way. It’s a wake up call. I definitely have enough poems for a new book, but right now I’m caught in up in the wake of the New and Selected. I haven’t really had time to think about it.

But as for the future, I guess I am planning to phase into retiring from teaching. Do more workshops, see where it goes. We will be settling in the Bay Area again, and I hope to be doing more workshops there. I really enjoy the workshops, and mostly like to do them as generative. That way participants go home with at least an idea for a poem. I love that kind of teaching and hope to do more of it.

Dorianne Laux’s fifth collection, The Book of Men, was awarded The Paterson Prize. Her fourth book of poems, Facts About the Moon won The Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also the author of AwakeWhat We Carry, a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; Smoke; as well as a fine small press edition, The Book of Women. She is the co-author of the celebrated text The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. Laux teaches poetry in the Program in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University and is a founding faculty member of Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program. Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected, was released by W.W. Norton in early 2019.

Meryl Natchez‘s most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian, Poems From the Stray Dog Café. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001. Her work has appeared in The American Journal of PoetryAtlanta Review, Comstock Review, and others. She blogs at