To kick-start Amoskeag‘s author spotlight series we asked Philip Dacey about his poem, Against Rushing, featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. We then followed up with some questions about writing and Dacey’s current projects.
Philip Dacey, a native of St. Louis, is the author of eleven books of poetry, including entire collections about Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Eakins, and New York City; his latest are Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Short Poems (Rain Mountain Press, 2010) and Vertebrae Rosaries: 50 Sonnets (Red Dragonfly Press). A college teacher of writing in Minnesota for thirty-five years, he moved to New York City in 2004 for a post-retirement adventure.
Amoskeag: Your poem, “Against Rushing,” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?
Philip Dacey: The idea contained in the second stanza was something I had heard years earlier, and it stayed with me; it seemed both witty and probably true in some ways. I perhaps envied that kind of insouciance – I who always tend to get to an appointment early. The idea kept returning to me and seemed to ask for a context. So the poem was my answer. Possibly, too, my living in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, a couple of blocks from Broadway, created the need for a response in some way to the fast pace all around me every day. The fourth stanza certainly owes something to Roethke’s “Worm, be with me, this is my hard time.”
Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form? What were the changes and drafts it went through?
Philip Dacey: Over the years I’ve done a lot of poems that are like musical variations on a theme, comprised of a series of short, independent sections that are united only by the theme or motif they all share. Because the poem is in sections, I’d say silence has a place in the poem, surrounding each section and letting it resonate. And silence would be to speech what stillness would be to rushing. So the form in some way was dictated by the content. Given the form, the drafting had mostly to do with searching for possible variations, condensing material into haiku-like nuggets, then selecting the best and arranging them. Nothing very technical or instructive in this case.
Amoskeag: Why do you write? What made you want to pursue writing professionally?
Philip Dacey: To my surprise, I began writing poetry at a difficult time in my late twenties when I was a bit lost as to direction and goals; in retrospect, I’d say poetry came to my rescue, even though I had always seen myself as a fiction writer, despite – I realized later – not being very good at it. So although it’s corny to say so, I have to say poetry chose me, rather than the other way around. From browsing in the Stanford library – I was in graduate school when I began writing poetry – I knew of the Beloit Poetry Journal, so I sent one of my first poems there, and their acceptance of it plugged me into my professional life. So I owe much to poetry and continue trying to serve it, though my joke – not a joke? – is that if I truly wanted it to serve I would stop writing and just read the great dead.
Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?
Philip Dacey: First, I’d say don’t believe in writer’s block. To believe in it means it’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, it takes only a pencil and a piece of paper to write. Put down whatever comes to mind. There’s of course no guarantee it will improve on the blank page, but then there’s never a guarantee of that, not even when one is supposedly inspired. As Isak Dinesen said: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” Bill Stafford had the right idea: ”How do I write so much? I lower my standards.” Of course, he had very high standards and was being wry; but I think he meant that he gave himself permission to fumble along – “scribble” is the word I like – until he hit a vein that had promise. I would also add: don’t be afraid of using traditional forms. Why not use all the tools in the toolbox?
Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?
Philip Dacey: I’m currently putting the final touches on a book manuscript that collects the poems I’ve written and published over the years about Walt Whitman. I also keep a lot of poems-in-progress going, so I’m always turning to one of those, besides beginning new poems. I have other collections out looking for homes at publishers: including a miscellany and a book of love poems. I believe in being prolific – encouraged students to be “fecund.” The more we write, the greater the chances are we might get lucky – luck often being triggered by hard work – and write something that merits an audience. I’m just finishing a poem about Chiquita – the banana people – and their collaboration with Columbian death squads.