Interview with Stephan Dunn

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Stephen Dunn, an American poet, has earned many acclamations including a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2001, an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundations Fellowship. He is a prolific poet and taught at Wichita State University, University of Washington, Columbia University, University of Michigan, Princeton University, and at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Howl: What are your steps regarding revision when it comes to publishing? 

Dunn: I revise so that I can publish. It’s a necessary part of the process. It’s very difficult to write a good poem. Early on, except in the rarest of ocasions, I always assume that I haven’t, that there is work still to do.

Howl: Who/what has been your biggest inspiration? 

Dunn: Trying to get my sense of reality to adhere to the tangible world, and as well to the world that is not readily apparent. To make something that might add to our sense of the real.

Howl: What kind of effect has winning the Pulitzer Prize made in your life? 

Dunn: Well, it gave me more of a readership, and it freed me from the ambition of desiring it. Otherwise, I was old enough (61) to have my habits in place, my friends in place, so that very little changed. Maybe I was too happy with myself for about two months afterward, that I didn’t write anything worthwhile then. But soon after I was writing as I normally do.

Howl: How does being an educator affect being a poet or vice versa?

Dunn: I’m not sure. Maybe it’s given me time to write. Maybe it has sharpened my editorial eye. Maybe it has meant very little at all. The human condition is such that it imposes itself on the teacher as well the laborer in a factory. We can’t escape it.  

Howl: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets or educators? 

Dunn: Aspiring poets need to take themselves as seriously as other would-be artists. No shortcuts. Lots of reading and lots of practice. Their teachers need to feel the same way, but also must treat differently the ones who only want to play with language, just want to have a good time with it.

Howl: What is your writing process like? 

Dunn: I’ll answer this with a Japanese proverb.  “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

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