Stephen Dunn Retrospective
March 3, 2010
It was wonderful to be back in the Alton Auditorium again for another Stephen Dunn reading. This year, however, there was a difference in that this event accompanied an exhibit currently showing in the Art Gallery. I would like to acknowledge and thank a few of the people associated with the exhibit. The idea for this exhibit focusing on the process of revision in Stephen Dunn's writing came from David Roessel (LANG), the Director of the Stockton Text Center. I thought that this would be a great opportunity to develop a new kind of textual exhibit, so we purchased five splendid cabinets for ARHU, and arranged with the Art Gallery to schedule the exhibit. David then cajoled – though I am not sure how gently – Lisa Honaker (LITT) to take on the work with her students.
The student element in this event is extremely significant. The underlying concept behind the Stockton Text Center, as it was conceived by David Roessel, is that we can push our students to take on work that in many other colleges they will only do as graduate students, and that they will rise to the occasion and perform this work with distinction. This will then inspire them to take on harder challenges and place them in a position to go further in graduate school (if they choose to continue in academe) and beyond.
Certainly this philosophy has reaped great benefits with this exhibit. Lisa chose three students, Nick Leonetti, Christian Ochse, and Desiree Wallen (pictured to the right), to work with her and they took a few trips to Hofstra to look through the archives and to select pieces for the exhibit. As we moved closer to the fabrication of the exhibit, we turned to Michael McGarvey (ARTV) and his visual arts students, Laura Suey and Asuka Nakamura to come up with a design. The results, I think, are very impressive indeed. There have been some problems owing to the snow days, but the exhibit is both attractive and extremely informative, and a credit to everyone involved. I should also thank Denise McGarvey for all the work she did in assembling and advertising the exhibit.
In reviewing the exhibit, I couldn't possibly do better than Joe Rubenstein: "It is more than good; it is fabulous! It is unbelieveable!" It is certainly unique, and I feel that if the Stockton Text Center continues to do exhibits like this one and "Pages from the Pines" it will be able establish a very strong regional and perhaps national reputation. We should certainly explore the possibilities of having this exhibit travel to Hofstra and other venues.
We also paid tribute to Stephen before his presentation with a reading by some of his former students in the upper G-wing. I very much enjoyed this event and would like to thank Peter Murphy and Emari DiGiorgio for organizing it and, along with Nickole Ingram, Laura McCullough, Joe-Anne McLaughlin, Maxine Petroni, and BJ Ward (pictured below), for showing us the wide range of influences and significant impact Stephen has had on other poets over the years. Each poet read a poem of Stephen's, commented on his influence on them, and then finished by reading a poem of their own. Each reading was brief, but nonetheless very powerful, and Stephen's influence was very clear even though the poets were all so radically different from each other. It should be noted that the audience response to this event was really positive.
B.J. Ward, Emari DiGiorgio, Joe-Anne McLaughlin, and Laura McCullough
Maxine Petroni, Nickole Ingram, and Peter Murphy
As mentioned, the exhibit focuses on Stephen’s process of revision. This aspect of his writing was something that I became acutely aware of in some email exchanges I had with Stephen a few years ago. I had sent out an email update to ARHU faculty about Bill Lubenow’s doings and about a week or so later I received a poem back from Stephen as an email attachment. The poem was called “Conservative.” Some discussion about the poem between Stephen and Bill followed, and then a few days later another poem turned up in my in-box – this one called “Absolutely.” Another couple of versions followed, before I finally read the poem in the book, Everything Else in the World. It was now called “The Soul’s Agents“, and its meaning seemed to have transmogrified somewhat also. The point was that to my less-than-fully-trained eye, each one of these poems looked very good – ready to go.
A focus on this poem became a central part of “In the Poet’s Court,” an event we held several years ago during which Paul Lyons and I interviewed Stephen about his writing – and I should note that the recording of this event is being played on the TV screen during the exhibit. For our discussion of this, Paul and I decided it would be fun to demonstrate the radical transformation of this poem by having each of the versions read by Peter Murphy.
These readings were followed by an interesting discussion in which Stephen indicated that he begins to worry when he feels too comfortable with a poem, and so he constantly works them over and over. Indeed, you may even notice in the exhibit that since sending us what we thought were the “final versions” of the poems for the display, Stephen has since revised them – changing the names of a couple of poems yet again. Now I am not one to complain, particularly in the face of this creative impulse, but when someone keeps doing this kind of thing and it messes with an ARHU exhibit, then he needs a good talking to.
But I don’t think it would do much good, because it turns out that this penchant for revising has a long history, and it goes back to Stephen’s days in elementary school. In one of the exhibit cases there is a notebook of compositions in which Stephen wrote when he was in 3rd grade at PS 144 in Queens. What we see in this notebook is that Stephen wrote out a Robert Louis Stevenson poem called “The Wind” on one page. The poem read:
I saw you toss the kites on high
And blow the birds up in the sky;
And all around I heard you pass,
Like ladies skirts across the grass.
O wind, a-blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song!
Stephen was obviously not comfortable with this poem as it read, and felt it was necessary to improve on Stevenson. He clearly felt that it was altogether too romantic, and that it needed something more personal and mysterious injected into it. He also must have felt that while the scanning was good, the manner in which it was written needed to be altered. So Stephen now made one line wrap around; this was clearly the beginning of a new style that he was developing. The poem now reads:
I saw the different things
you did, But always yourself you hid.
I felt you push. I heard you call.
I could not see yourself at all.
O wind, a-blowing all day long.
O wind, that sings so loud a song.
But even this was not enough for Stephen; he remained uncomfortable with the poem. He felt that it didn’t represent a competitive element he noticed developing in himself. He felt he needed to challenge the wind – question whether or not it was really that significant, or whether it was just another child like himself – with the implicit point being that while the wind would never grow up; he would. He would in the process overcome all the elements. He now wrote:
O you that are so strong and cold.
O blower, are you young or old?
Are you a beast of field and tree,
Or just a stronger child than me?
O wind, a-blowing all day long,
O wind, that sings so loud a song!
So you can see that everything from this point on really was predictable and fully determined. Stephen’s life’s work as a poet is encapsulated on the pages of this little composition notebook book from 1947. For, surely after conquering over Robert Louis Stevenson’s wind, a Pulitzer Prize would be a breeze.
[Editorial note: These later poems are in fact the second and third stanzas of the original Stevenson poem, but they read as revisions that a young poet might have made, so I treated them as such for the sake of humor.]
Stephen's reading was another tour de force. It comprised poems that were drawn from throughout his career at Stockton, from his experiences at the race track with Joe Rubenstein in "Luck," to memories of Pat Hecht, and ruminations on the Forsyth wildlife refuge, and the Smithville Methodist Church. These first pieces would comprise a wonderful essay on the early years of the college in their own right, so I am looking forward to the presentation being transcribed. Stephen then followed up these poems from some other favorites, which the packed Alton Auditorium certainly loved also, and some readings of poems from his forthcoming volume -- some of which were poems highlighted in the exhibit.
What a day for ARHU! The unveiling of a thoroughly unique exhibit, highlighting the quality of current faculty and students; a presentation by former students, highlighting the great influence of a member of the faculty who was at the college from its early days; and a reading by a Pulitzer Prize winner very much on the top of his game. One could hardly ask for more.