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Interview by Aaron Rench
Stephen Dunn was born in New York in 1939. He earned his B.A. in History from Hofstra University, where he also played varsity basketball, and later received his M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in 1970. In 2001, Dunn was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for Different Hours.
Dunn is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, but currently spends most of his time in Frostburg, Maryland with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd. His most recent collection of poems is Everything Else in the World (Norton). Please visit him on the web at www.stephendunnpoet.com.
This conversation was conducted by phone.
In discussing your poetry my friend Douglas Jones pointed out that parts of it read very much like the book of Ecclesiastes.
Because you had mentioned this before, I was rereading Ecclesiastes this morning, and was reminded what great poetry it is.
I have been rereading your poetry, and there is a sense in which it has the quality of poetic wisdom literature.
I know you mean that as a compliment, but it is risky stuff, such thinking. I have written an essay on the difficulty of writing anything like wisdom poetry. Though, because of the difficulty, sometimes one might wish to try and get away with it. If you sound like you are coming from on high, it won't feel trustworthy. If the "wisdom" feels like a discovery for the poet, well, there's a chance. It helps, of course, if you have a genuine sense of being complicit in the ills of the world, which I do. Wisdom that sounds superior, or as received truth, makes me suspicious of it. It is a matter of trusting the voice. Poetry responds to the way things are. If my poetry affirms at all, which it sometimes does, the only affirmations that I tend to trust are ones that acknowledge the condition of the world. Without an acknowledgment of darkness, affirmation is rather vapid.
At the very end of your poem "At the Restaurant," you say, "inexcusable the slaughter in this world, ...