Interview with Chris Dombrowski
May 28, 2009 § 9 Comments
I couldn’t wait for Chris Dombrowski’s collection of poems “By Cold Water” (Wayne State University Press). Chris is a wonderful poet, a great angler and a damn fine human being. He was gracious enough to take some time after his book tour to answer a few questions.
Jonah Ogles: I kept thinking of Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares when I was reading By Cold Water, except your book doesn’t seem to be a nightmare, but some dream world where the line between nature and the man-made world was blurred. No question there, just saying.
Chris Dombrowski: That’s kind of you to say. I keep looking through these questions and thinking: Man, this guy really knows how to ask insightful questions. No answer there, just saying.
JO: What’s the first thing you would tell someone beginning to fish?
CD: Go sit on a log and watch the river. Let’s see what we can see, one of my fishing partners always says. We’d go sit in this swamp on the South Branch (of the AuSable in Michigan) and watch the river for a few hours every evening. Mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, would pour off the river, fish would rise, the same sow black bear often walked by, scenting us in the air. Lots of nights we wouldn’t even cast. Each time we sat there we’d stick a fly in the sitting log—we’d leave the flies there until we eventually made a cast at a fish. One May we went 11 straight nights without ever casting—11 flies in the log, and finally this big brown trout chases a school of minnows into the shallows, nearly miring itself in the sand. By then we were so immersed with observation, we had to argue about who would cast for the fish after it returned to its midstream lie—you cast to it! no you cast to it! If we’d been fishing, actively casting, we very likely wouldn’t have seen that happen.
JO: How has writing poetry changed the way you see the world?
CD: Writing poetry has increased my level of astonishment at the world and my existence here. It has given me an enlarged sense of wonder, which, it should be said, can be as troubling a state as it is comforting. As Jim Harrison writes in a recent poem: “We are here / to be curious not consoled.” And as a 7th grade student (I teach as a poet-in-the-schools) wrote last week in her Ars Poetica: “A poem should not mean YOYO (that’s 7th grade texting lingo for “you’re on your own.”) In some of my direst straits I’ve taken great comfort from Berryman’s Dream Songs—utterly un-Halmarkian poems and yet they say to me precisely what Koleena, that 7th grader, said in her imitation of Archibald Macliesh.
JO: You once told Mike Delp, as he was railing against the mfa, that there was no way to get to where he was without having one. talk about getting your mfa, and the goods and bads of institutionalizing creative thinking like that.
CD: This is a great question. I remember that discussion with wild man Mike Delp. I think what I meant is this: Mike Delp has held a job at Interlochen for over thirty years and through which he has helped sustain one of the most vital creative writing programs in the country, exposing generations of students to great literature and the writer’s craft. And if one of his former students came to him and said, “Delp, when you retire, I’d like to apply for your job,” you better believe they’d have a hard time even getting considered for the job without an MFA or a PhD in Creative Writing.
Now, can a person be a practiced/well-published/beloved writer without an MFA? Of course, and many if not most of my favorite writers fit this description. I see the MFA as a fellowship of sorts which buys the writer some time to work on and commit to his or her craft. One of our friends in Missoula, a woman named Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel, has published scads of essays and won two major literary magazine prizes for her nonfiction and yet is entering an MFA program in the fall. You might ask: “What could a person in her shoes possibly get from an MFA program?” And my barest-bones answer would be: “Paid-for time to write.” Who wouldn’t want a little more of that?
As far as the “institutionalizing of creative thinking,” as you put it, I wouldn’t know anything about that. As someone (was it Baudelaire?) once said, “Everything we are taught is false.”
JO: What would your perfect poem involve?
CD: ”Abundance, variety, complete competence, exhuberance of diction”—I forget who said that but I like that very much. I don’t know. That’s a great and impossible question. A previously unarticulated perception/observation/experience rendered in the poet’s very singular tongue, in language that formally enacts the experience anew. That probably sounds stock, but I feel like it’s a question only the greatest poems can answer.
JO: Your poetry seems to move, very fluidly, between ideas, images, locations, etc. Is that the way you think? Or is that the craft part?
CD: To my mind, that’s the biggest compliment you could pay the poems, so, again, thank you. I spend a great deal of my time around or on moving water, whose movements constantly baffle me. A river might not look like it’s working but it always is—ask the rocks it’s moving around, the banks it’s digging out. A river makes its work look effortless which of course is the measure of art. I think it’s a very rare occurrence when a poem of mine approaches this ideal.
JO: What has fishing taught you about poetry?
CD: Not to write about fishing. Not really, but you know, all of these questions about fishing did make me go back and look at the book, and I don’t think there’s a fish in the entire book, which seems about right.
One of my dear friends and mentors, a self-trained, internationally acclaimed novelist, says that before you start writing seriously you should learn to play an instrument. Learn it well and from scratch, play it for five years. He generally says this in conjunction with his “writing can’t be taught” speech. I think that this method of studying some other craft before dedicating oneself to writing can: 1) lead a would-be writer to a place where one can teach oneself and likewise be taught by the given discipline, and 2) offer one a source of inexhaustible metaphors that will aid in the discipline of writing. Maybe fly-fishing has been the instrument I learned to play before starting to write.
This is a difficult question for me to answer because it’s a question I’ve been asking myself for years and whose answer I have for better or worse internalized. Donald Revell said that “Returned to eternity, writing is prophecy. To see poems as the culmination of reading or any process is to turn them against themselves, to make objects out of energies.” You could replace “poems” with fish and “reading or any process” with “fishing” and find a very suitable metaphor. It’s pointless and intuitive, one of Tom McGuane’s fictional characters said of fishing. When I discovered how dramatically it increased my spirit and connection to the world I decided I’d keep at it no matter what, headlong or nothing. Fishing requires a certain readiness of mind that poetry asks for as well. When I think of the similarities between the two worlds—fishing and poetry—I think of Blake’s golden thread, limitless possibilities, infinite approaches, and moments wherein the individual partaking in the act occasionally gets to witness the “world step onto its third rail,” as one of the greatest of fly-fishing writers had it.
JO: Tell me about your relationship with Michigan.
CD: There’s a passage in Bob Hicok’s wonderful Michigan poem “A Primer” that speaks of survival, geologically slow winters, as well as ecstasy and rebirth: ‘The state joy is spring. / “Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball” / is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April, / when February hasn’t ended. February / is thirteen months long in Michigan. / We are a people who by February want to kill the sky for being so gray / and angry at us. “What did we do?” / is the state motto. There’s a day in May / when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics is everywhere, and daffodils are asked / by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes / with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.’
I feel great debt and gratitude towards Michigan. All the seeds are there—wonderful family, teachers like the indomitable Jack Ridl, landscape, heartbreak, old stories turned myths—and of course the requisite water surrounding and shot through the mitt like veins.
JO: If you could only do one of two things – write poetry or fish – for the rest of your life, which would you pick?
CD: That’s a tough one. Write poems, I guess. I’ve fished quite a bit. My learning curve is way steeper with poetry and this is ultimately very satisfying. There are lots of ways to access physical wilderness—fishing among them—but the practice of poetry is the surest-fire way for me to embark on the wilderness of the imagination, spirit, etc. But this is purely hypothetical, right?!
JO: What was the first album you played over and over and over again.
CD: After the Rocky soundtrack, the one with “Eye of the Tiger,” probably my dad’s Harry Chapin cassette, Living Room Suite, or some Jackson Browne album he had. A bit further along it would have been Graceland by Paul Simon: “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a national guitar.” I still listen to albums over and over and over—drives Mary nuts. Now I play-out Bill Frisell or Bach or The National. When I was depressed a few years ago, I listened to Dylan’s Modern Times no fewer than 247 times. I’m the same way with jokes, just play the shit out of them.
JO: A lot of people have literary influences (people who they read and something resonates within them) but just as often, they are influenced by things – birds, trees, god, fathers. what are your non-literary influences?
CD: Water, light, landscape; the photos of Steven Krutek; food we, or our friends, grow, gather or hunt up; the physical comedy of Toby Lawrence, a Portland, OR, performer; impromptu music sessions with friends; the support of an amazing and beautiful woman; the paintings and drawings of our 4-year old son; the way our year-old daughter eats when she is hungry; and more, and more, and more.
JO: You once hung out with David James Duncan and Jim Harrison. If you can imagine something cooler than that, what is it? (and what dog, if any, did harrison bring on the trip).
Have you ever seen a phalarope? Phalaropes are shorebirds that stir up muck and weeds by spinning around on the surface of the water like dervishes, then pick out the dislodged insects and organisms with their beaks from the water. The only thing cooler than hanging out with those two wonderful beings would be hanging out with them AND seeing some phalaropes in a small pond near Melrose, MT—which we did.
JO: What’s the most important thing about poetry? fishing?
CD: The late Larry Levis’ collected nonfiction, The Gazer Within, contains an essay called “Mock Mockers and After That,” in which Levis describes a dream he once had about Yeats–the piece is actually a lecture he gave at Warren Wilson, and in it he pokes fun at himself for referencing his own dream of the great poet in an academic forum, but he says, in essence, it’s what I have. So in the dream Yeats visits Levis’ Salt Lake City apartment and, finding the Collected Yeats on the coffee table, says, “What are you reading this for? Passion is the only thing that matters in poetry. As a matter of fact, it’s the only thing that matters in life.”