A Conversation With Stuart Dybek and Edward Hirsch
ALTHOUGH STILL QUITE young, Stuart Dybek and Edward Hirsch have made their impressions deep in the American literary landscape. While they differ stylistically, they share a love for vivid explorations — be it of a Chicago street from a souped-up car or the lyrical, deranged litany of an interwar Hungarian poet. Both are also exacting craftsmen, and in this Artful Dodge interview, conducted at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in April 1988, they discuss literary process and influence.
Dybek is the author of a book of poetry, Brass Knuckles (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979), and a collection of short stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (Viking, 1980). His story “Hot Ice” won an O. Henry Award for Best Story in 1985, and he has been the recipient of a number of other literary prizes. He teaches at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, and is at work on a new book of stories scheduled to appear in 1989 from Knopf.
Hirsch is the author of two collections of poetry, Wild Gratitude (1987), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and For the Sleepwalkers (1981), both of which were selections in the Knopf Poetry Series. He is currently in Italy as the recipient of the Prix de Rome, and has also received the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award and other fellowships and prizes. He teaches at the University of Houston. —Karen Kovacik
Benjamin Seaman: Since both of you are from around Chicago, and since you’re both back here today in the Windy City, I wanted to start out by asking if you have anything besides your accents in common? Does being from the same place help you in reading each other’s work?
Edward Hirsch: Well, I didn’t know Stu at all when I lived in Chicago, and I didn’t really become a writer till after I left. But when I first read his work — first his poems and then his stories — I felt this tremendous familiarity and recognition. Of course, the sensibility was different from my own, and the way of organizing the work was different. But the raw material was immensely familiar to me, and reassuring. It helped me to see someone developing this kind of material.
Stuart Dybek: The easiest way to answer this is that my response is very similar. Besides recognizing the raw material of Ed’s work, there’s an attitude he has toward the material I felt immediately at home with. His urban settings are imbued with a living presence, with sentiment, almost a kind of urban animism.
BS: (to Dybek) More than once, Mayor Daley has made an appearance in your stories. Is this just local color, or do you have a specific point to make about Chicago politics? Do you consider yourself a politically engaged writer?
Dybek: I suppose my first sense of political engagement came about during Mayor Daley’s construction projects, one of which cut through the phenomenal Greek and Italian neighborhoods that are now the site of the Chicago Circle campus of the University of Illinois. I was just a teenager at that time, but because I had a girlfriend who lived in that area, I got my first real inkling — before having done any political reading whatsoever — that a neighborhood would be valuable to anybody. Many of the ideas which later I might try to articulate as dislocation came to me firsthand from the fact that these people I knew and this place that seemed kind of magical for me was going to be so easily knocked down. But, although those feelings were genuinely political at the time, in the ways they entered my work, I wouldn’t claim anything but the most general political sense for them.
Hirsch: Stu’s work won’t tell you whom to vote for. It will tell you whom to think about. And it seems to me that in the way that all language is political so is who you write about political. In Dybek’s work, you find a certain stratum of people who are ordinarily kept out of literature — at least a lot of the literature that I have read — and having those people transformed into works of art is tremendously exciting to me. There is a kind of ideology in terms of the characters you write about and the ways in which you write about them.
Karen Kovacik: Your way of capturing lost places is reminiscent, I think, of Isaac Bashevis Singer in his writing about Warsaw before the Uprising, or Czeslaw Milosz about the lost Lithuanian forests of his childhood. Are either of these writers important to you?
Dybek: Well, yeah, those are two of my favorite writers, but at the same time I immediately want to disengage my own small sense of lostness from the apocalypse that they had to come to terms with in their work.
KK: Both you and Edward Hirsch seem to be concerned with the appearance of magic in the midst of realism. Would each of you talk about the other’s writing in this regard?
Dybek: In terms of Ed’s work, one of the first things that attracted me to his writing wasn’t just the Chicago locale — it was what I saw him doing with it. His first book, For the Sleepwalkers, from the title to the last page, is shot through with a kind of urban darkness. The realism of course will be there if you use the place names and so on. But Ed’s combination of city imagery and those colors, those shades he was writing with, struck me tremendously as a kind of poetry that I liked, that I loved, that I admired.
KK: I’ve noticed that the intensification of ordinary things is very much at the heart of your stories and Ed’s poems. Like in the work of Márquez or Fuentes.
Hirsch: Of course, there’s a long tradition in Chicago literature of a kind of gritty realism. But most of this tradition, I’ve felt, has nothing to do with me or I have nothing to do with it. Although I admire it to some extent I feel no connection to it in my work or in terms of the work that I love. It’s only in the work of a few Chicago writers, in Bellow’s, in Augie March’s maybe, and Dybek’s Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, that you get what I think you’re referring to as a kind of Latin American sensibility. Or it could be Eastern or Central European just as well in that the absolute base of the work is the people and places that animate it, but the sensibility taken to it is unquestionably an artistic one, involved completely with formal questions how to shape material, reimagine it in terms of making it into works of art. But here we’re not talking about realism in any ordinary sense. We’re as far from naturalism in the Zola sense as you can get, the kind of naturalism that has a strong tradition in Chicago writing.
Dybek: I shy away from a term like magical realism because it somehow implies to me that I read Márquez and decided, well, I’ll take some of these supernatural elements and graft them on to what I’ve been working with. And in my case anyhow that is not the way it came about at all. It came about more out of a feeling like this: You’re walking down a street, Twenty-Fifth Street say, and right on the corner there’s a candy store and a bunch of kids are coming out of it. They’re arguing about candy, calling each other sonofabitches. On the other side of the street there’s a tavern. You can hear the jukebox music, and you see someone sneaking in for an early drink. Coming towards you is someone eating a bismarck, dripping jelly on their shirt, and there’s a whole bunch of cars, guys cruising up and down, gunning their engines. A truck is going by, loaded with something that’s making a clanking sound. And then there’s a church. In it, a bunch of old ladies are saying the rosary in Polish — or in some language that you think might be Polish, you can’t exactly figure out what it is — and there’s this smell in that church that smells like something out of the fifteenth century. You look up. It’s Lent. There are these crazy statues standing there with their eyes bulging with all kinds of weird visions, except now they’ve got purple shrouds over their heads. That jump from walking off that street and into that church and then back out again, I think, has made my style the way it is. After that, you read Kafka and you say, “Oh my God! Of course, I understand this.” Or I read Ed Hirsch’s poem about his grandmother’s Murphy bed, that when she folds it back into the wall it’s like putting away the night. I see that if I’m writing about my grandmother, who really believed that the dead came back and needed to nibble breadcrumbs off her table, then maybe instead of saying, “My grandmother thought so and so,” I could have a dead person, in the middle of the story, sitting at her kitchen table.
BS: How central is the autobiographical to your work, say in your story “Sauerkraut Soup” or in the story you read today about the employees in the ice cream factory?
Dybek: The important aspect of using autobiography is not recording what actually happened so much as believing that the material is a great gift worthy of being reimagined. Many of the young writers I work with have to try to convince themselves to love their pasts, no matter where they came from. Or at least to find some other handle on how to present the material, rather than just to feel all the time that they live in a vacuum unworthy of being written about. They feel they can’t write about shopping malls. That’s a real literary problem that somebody’s going to solve wonderfully one of these days.
KK: You mean writing about malls?
KK: I suppose there’s something American in being cut off from one’s past. In Europe, people seem to be much more connected to place.
Dybek: I’m hesitant to generalize about America because it’s such a huge place. One could say, Yes, Raymond Carver has written wonderfully about that sense of alienation, but on the other hand one turns to a writer like Flannery O’Connor and says, No. Place remains an essential element. This alienation is certainly a theme in American writing but the treatment of it depends on the writer, the place, the sensibility.
BS: In your story “Horror Movie,” we’re told first that a store detective lops off James’s limbs and then find out a few lines later that it was only a mannequin that was dismembered. In “The Palatski Man,” what looks like blood in the cauldron turns out to be coating for candy apples. Do you feel the need to back up sensational or supernatural elements in your stories with more down-to-earth explanations?
Dybek: I’m not trying to avoid your question, but in the process of writing you don’t exactly think like that. You just find a resonant image and then you explore it. Your main work as a writer is just to create that image as vitally as possible. Writing fiction is image-making as well as storytelling.
Hirsch: Right. It’s not so much a question of fantasy and reality as it is a matter of taking a problem and pushing it. On the one hand, the work of art is a tremendous human statement, but, on the other, for the writer, all problems are technical on some level. You begin with a kind of mathematics; what you’re calling “magic” or “fantasy” is, I think, the logical development of finding out what’s in the material and working through it. To find the means to describe reality as you see it is what you, as a writer, are trying to do. In that sense, you’re always a realist. Márquez says he’s a realist. He doesn’t believe in magical realism. He’s taking stories that he learned from his grandmother and wondered, “How do I describe this world that’s so fantastic and extravagant?” For me, finding the means meant going to Latin American models, Russian models, because the available American models didn’t describe reality the way I saw it, and I wasn’t gifted enough to do it myself. I had this feeling that what I was doing wasn’t enough. There are no neutral descriptions. It seems to me that what you’re trying to find technically in art is a way to both describe the reality that’s out there and at the same time your way of seeing it, your feelings and your emotional responses to it. To do that you need to depart from a more minimalist idea of what external reality is.
KK: Could you be more specific about those models, from the Russian, say?
Hirsch: Well, one of my favorite models is also one of Dybek’s, and that’s Isaac Babel. You want to comment on that, Stu?
Dybek: Well, he’s a writer I greatly admire, though I wouldn’t call him a model. His ability to tell a story on the page resembles that of a very good raconteur. And yet anybody who writes knows there’s an enormous gap between being a raconteur and doing a written story. I really admire the naturalness to Singer’s voice and also the fact that his stories come out fully formed. An equivalent might be a Sonny Rollins improvisation on the saxophone — spontaneous, and yet Rollins has a way of playing in perfect form. When musicologists point this out to him, he shrugs his shoulders. It just came out that way, he says.
Hirsch: (laughs) Are you talking about Singer or Babel?
Dybek: I’ve been talking about Singer.
Hirsch: And I’ve been talking about Babel.
Dybek: Oh! Now Babel’s a different story. He’s hardly a spontaneous storyteller. Yeah, with Babel I feel much more of a sense of kinship.
BS: What about painters? I’ve noticed that you both have Edward Hopper poems. Do you consider painters models or just comrades in artmaking?
Hirsch: Well, I guess they’re both of those things. I really understand what Franz Kline meant when he said, “I’ve given my life to abstract art” because I’ve given my life to free verse. Solving certain sorts of technical problems is a lifelong project. For me, one of the joys of painting is its tremendous visual nature. One of the agonies of writing is that you have to take language and make it signify, to make it imagistic. Painters have given me great models for how to do that. Writing about painting is a way to write about the artmaking process without having to write about writing. Painters have also given me great plots and dramas.
KK: That’s certainly true in your Matisse poem.
Hirsch: You know, in almost all of my poems about painters, I was absolutely faithful to literal, biographical facts. In the Matisse poem, I was not. In his work, you have an enormous explosion of color, of material, and I wanted to recreate a childhood out of that. I wanted to go backwards to the life: what kind of life, what kind of childhood would have resulted in that way of seeing? Rather than to spin forward from the work and create a narrative about it, I wanted to spin backwards to the life that would eventually lead to the work.
KK: The life that would go on to create wild beasts —
Hirsch: That would create fauvism. Exactly.
KK: In the Hopper poem, it seems you did stick more closely to biographical detail.
Hirsch: Well, let me say this about Edward Hopper. I’ve been immensely moved, not only by his paintings but also by his very powerful vision of America. It’s such a desolate vision, one that has always stayed with me. It relates to an America I know as a Midwesterner. So technically I decided to set up a confrontation between Hopper and the house by the railroad. Of course, in the poem, you see not only the desolation that’s out there but also that which is in Edward Hopper himself. That work, which is so scrupulously made in terms of its surfaces, carries a resonance of despair about it. My poem was a way of paying homage to Hopper and of writing about painting and process and also about that idea of America.
BS: Do you become Hopper in that poem?
Hirsch: I would say that in the Matisse poem I was trying to imagine myself as Matisse. In the Hopper, I was not trying to become Hopper. The poem is an attempt to describe a relentless confrontation between an American painter and an American house. (Laughs) Well, it would be a great glory to be Edward Hopper, of course.
BS: Hopper seems to achieve a kind of universality by being very specific. In painting a specific street, he paints Everystreet.
Dybek: I couldn’t agree with you more. And that’s a good description of what I’m after. For example, I pick Twenty-Fifth Street in Chicago. I know that very few readers are going to walk down that street. But nonetheless I’ll provide overlay upon overlay of meaning about it. And that’s how to get this interpenetration of what people are calling realism and fantasy. In terms of Ed’s work, you’ve been talking about specific poems on artists. But two of the really signature interpenetrations in his work are between sleep and waking and between art and life. While he has poems on different writers and on different artists, a recurring theme in his work is the relationship between the intellectual vision and the emotional one. Often an ordinary event is illuminated by the juxtaposition of the speaker’s voice with somebody else’s poem or painting. It’s the tension between these disparate elements that creates an interesting poem. Ed’s poems insist that art is not some category we go to for entertainment, to be sequestered away from regular life. It’s just the opposite. These poems are as essential as walking down the street. They have as strong an existence as a loaf of bread.
KK: Sleepwalking in both of your work seems to be a way station between the dream world and the waking one.
Hirsch: Obviously, these poems are operating both as literal experiences and as metaphors. The key is to define the metaphors in terms of the poems. There’s so much sleeplessness in my work that people often ask me if I’m an insomniac. The answer is yes, but I’m lots of other things, too, and I don’t write about them. The situation of the insomniac is very useful to me as a writer. There is the plot and drama of the sole consciousness operating at night that I like, that I use to create a feeling and a tone.
KK: So you have selected insomnia as a tool to solve the technical problem of describing different kinds or levels of consciousness?
Hirsch: Insomnia chose me. I’m trying to use it.
KK: (to Dybek) Ben and I are both big fans of your story “Pet Milk.” Particularly we are interested in the ending, where there is a contrast set up between the very intimate love scene going on in an empty conductor’s cabin on an El train and an almost cinematic panning of what’s going on outside the train. That splicing of the public and the personal is something that we have seen a lot of in your work. Would you say something about “Pet Milk”?
Dybek: Well, it began as a poem like several of my stories have done. Sometimes, in trying to solve a poem I give up on writing it as a poem. Going back to the matter of painting, I see this story as an attempt to do a still life: a can of Pet Milk, a jar of instant coffee, and a mug. Why do we get emotion from certain images? My poem, I felt, was not satisfactorily answering that question. So finally I reached the point, while playing around with it, when I tried to come up with my first recollection of Pet Milk. And I remembered that my grandmother used it, so I stuck her in the poem. But as soon as I put her in, even a mention of her, I wanted to tell tell a few stories about her. One led to another, and that’s the way the whole story was written. I think that’s why it’s so short; even though I abandoned the idea of writing it in verse, I still maintained the feeling that I wanted it compressed. But I realize all I’m talking about here is process.
KK: Since we are talking about process, how does the poetry affect the fiction? Does it incline you toward the nonlinear?
Dybek: I really don’t know about that. When I sit down to write fiction, I certainly am not conscious of saying, “Now I am writing in my fiction mode.” I do think that I probably read more poetry than I do fiction, and whatever I learn about writing from reading poets manifests itself in my stories. Now, reversing that order — does writing fiction create a different kind of poetry? — of that I’m a lot less sure. I’m much more conscious of borrowing from poetry for my fiction than vice versa. Why that is I don’t really know.
Hirsch: One of the things you were observing about “Pet Milk,” the splicing of the public and the private, is something that happens quite a lot in Stuart’s work. Often, there is a kind of rupture in the fabric of what we think of as public life. This seems to be one of the ways that certain city writers think about experience and define ideas about privacy or place or enclosure. Dybek is able to give, on the one hand, a feeling of ethnographic accuracy and, on the other, one of enormous interiority. The public space is a kind of theater for the private emotions of the characters.
BS: What is the relationship for you between reading and writing?
Hirsch: I’d much rather read than write. Writing is much more difficult; reading is one of the great pleasures of my life. Through reading you sometimes explore other worlds but sometimes you find articulated versions of yourself, which strike you as immensely true. Some writers give that to you more often than not. And when that happens we’re talking about a major writer.
KK: Would you mention some writers who have affected you that deeply?
Dybek: For me, a name that comes easily to mind is the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. I read him over and over and over. And Saul Bellow, to name an American, is for me a tremendously important writer.
Hirsch: Well, there’s the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who, among other things, has given me a tremendous sense of cities. Vallejo’s Paris and his sense of the poverty of the people around him there had a tonality that wasn’t in American poetry when I started reading in the Seventies. Vallejo gave me a way to think about things that I didn’t have. And there’s the Czech poet Jiri Orten, typical of a certain kind of Central European writer, who is a sort of Virgil leading the reader through hell. He can write with absolute critical acuity and, at the same time, a tremendous amount of tenderness. It’s that tenderness that I found lacking in a lot of American poetry, and it was that tenderness that I wanted to establish in my own work.
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