Conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Stephen Dunn
— Interview by Joseph Osel

Photo courtesy Matt Valentine
A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the work of New Jersey based poet Stephen Dunn, handing me a book, telling me “…this is one of the greatest living poets.” I first ventured into Dunn’s work through his 1996 work, Loosestrife, one of his fifteen poetry collections. I then went on to read 1994’s New and Selected Poems, 2006’s Everything Else in the World, and of course, Different Hours, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize.

Dunn, who moved to Spain in his mid twenties to, as he puts it, “rescue my life from being "successful" in a soulless environment,” says that his latest collection, What Goes On: New and Selected Poems, reflects the struggle of relationships and writing. Dunn calls both of these things, when sustained, “triumphs over the unlikely…” In-fact, with regard to his own writing, Dunn says that he’s most proud of his ability to sustain the “difficult enterprise” of creative writing.

Difficult as being a professional writer may be, you’d think that one might come to view their own writing as an act of pseudo therapy. However, despite the personal nature of Dunn’s poetry, he asserts that his writing is not a therapeutic undertaking, saying that he writes with the reader in mind and that his fidelity is "to the credible, not necessarily the actual."

Last month I corresponded with Dunn over a period of weeks; we discussed the evolution of his poetry, the existential muse, writing poems of “the moment,” and his latest collection, What Goes On: New and Selected Poems (1995-Present), among other things.

CLJ: Your first book, Five Impersonations, was published in 1971 when you were in your early 30’s. What Goes On: Selected and New Poems is your latest collection. How has your writing developed over time? If a reader studied your first and last works what do you think they’d discover with regard to the divergences between them?

Dunn: I think what might be discovered is a deepening of my concerns combined with the development of -- for lack of a better word -- craft. In the beginning, I had a little verbal facility and I suppose some minor sense of what a poem could be. But of course the more one stays with the enterprise, and becomes a maker instead of an utterer, the greater the likelihood that the mysteries of composition will reveal some of its secrets. What a reader might find in my work is a larger commitment to the poem in its entirety, as opposed to any of its moments. And a greater commitment to the poem's sonics as well. Early on, it could be said, I wrote the poems of my education. Gradually, I wrote my own poems.

CLJ: When you say “a deepening of my concerns” do you mean a philosophical/truth-seeking deepening?

Dunn: Yes, that, but also an embodying of those concerns, an exploration of a subject in which you try to feel your way into knowing, or think your way into how you feel. I suspect I've improved my emotional intelligence over the years. To deepen is to reach for what isn't easily said. When I was younger, I wasn't impatient enough with the satisfactory.

CLJ: You’ve been writing professionally for nearly forty years and your work has been applauded by many. When you reflect on your career, what stands out for you; what are you proud of? Is there anything you’re not so proud of?

Dunn: I guess I'm most proud of having been able to sustain my work for so long, to having kept the difficult enterprise going, and to have made a few poems that seem to matter to a few people. And to have written a few essays that have instructed me about what poetry has taught me about itself. Sorry for the generalities, but they seem more accurate than the specifics would be.

CLJ: At numerous times you’ve mentioned a long-standing love affair with existentialism. To what extent is your poetry driven by the urge to make meaning out of existence.

Dunn: Existentialism still has its appeal, or aspects of it. I do believe that there's no meaning to our lives except for that which we create, and can live by. The world, however, occasionally gets in the way. Other people tend to complicate things. Love and duty often muddy up a good plan, scarcity has been known to abrogate dearly held principles, neuroses undermines will; it's pretty hard, and maybe not entirely desirable, to live any ism. My "love affair" with existentialism has a history of break-ups. Fortunately my poetry is also driven by other motives. The wish to make beautiful objects, for one, the wish to frolic with language, for another. Or, a la Auden, enjoying the hard work of pursuing "the clear expression of mixed feelings."

CLJ: In 1964 existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature but refused to accept the prize as a protest against the way such prizes turn writers into institutions. In 2001 you won the Pulitzer Prize for your collection, Different Hours. As the recipient of such an illustrious prize do you concur with Sartre’s assessment? How has winning the Pulitzer Prize changed things for you?

Dunn: Sartre was already an institution, so his was not a gesture that carried with it as much nobility as you might think. I wasn't even close to an institution, so I was rather pleased with the award. In fact, it meant a lot to me, not that I don't think that it could, with a different set of judges, have been awarded to a number of worthy others. But it didn't change the way I work, or inflate my sense of importance. A good poem is a difficult thing to write. It remains so.

CLJ: The subject matter of your poetry, at times, has been especially personal. Is writing a therapeutic undertaking for you?

Dunn: Writing is never a therapeutic undertaking for me. Even when my poems seem most personal, I'm more likely to be thinking, "Is this interesting for others?" or "Would the placement of this word here rather than there accentuate the speaker's crisis?" I'm never thinking that I need to get something out of my system, or that the writing of a poem might alleviate any of my problems. I'm actually fond of withholding, of letting readers know about me only as much as I think it useful for them to know for the poem to work.

by Stephen Dunn
For a while I climbed the ladder,
not realizing I'd placed it
against the wrong house. The window
I tried to look into was a mirror.
I fell backward into the world.

CLJ: In your mind, what’s the difference between a poem written in “the moment” and a poem written out of reflection? Can the reflective poem mirror felt-experience or does it distort the original experience in some way?

Dunn: I must say that while poems of "the moment" occasionally can be pulled off without revision, they are rare in my experience, though I'm happy for the few that have occurred like that. And it all depends on what we mean by "the moment." If the moment includes, say, an imaginative premise that keeps leading to discovered language, then, yes, many poems can take immediate flight that way. But if you mean the poem that originates from some big event in your life, well, too many poets are wedded to such events, and their poems are often constricted by that kind of allegiance.

I would say that if you don't distort the original experience in some way you may be in compositional trouble. I've come to realize that the poem is more important than the experience that triggered the poem. You need to realize that no reader cares about your life, or should care. In the making of many of my poems, even ones that seem very personal, I've distorted many things. I have a fidelity to the credible, not necessarily the actual.

CLJ: A few years ago you told Guernica that at the age of 27 you quit your job and moved to Spain to “see if I could write.” Do you think this quest of finding-yourself-as-you-are is an essential affair for the emerging writer and if so, why?

Dunn: I don't know if it's essential for most emerging or would-be writers, but it was essential for me. There are many paths to becoming a writer, most of them crooked, and it would foolish of me to say that one is better than another. Whatever works for you.

The quitting of my corporate job and going to Spain was as much an attempt to rescue my life from being "successful" in a soulless environment as it was an attempt to see if I could write. That the two motives coincided and panned out I consider great luck. The story is slightly more complicated than what I've said so far, but let's leave it at that.

CLJ: Can you tell me about your most recent collection, What Goes On: Selected and New Poems?

Dunn: It's a "later" Selected & New poems. My first Selected contained poems from 1974-1994. This one draws from my last seven books (1995 to the present), and includes twenty new poems. The title poem, "What Goes On," was in my book Different Hours, and I chose it perhaps for obvious reasons. It's a title that I hope resonates into relationships and into the act of writing itself. Both, when sustained, are triumphs over the unlikely, or so it seems to me. I trust that the book reflects the struggle with both, and takes on other issues as well. In fact, I'd like to think -- despite my reductive comments about relationships and writing -- that the poems from book to book show a wide range of concerns and are not easily pigeonholed. But maybe what one really wants from a later Selected poems is to offer a demonstrable voice and style, something like a signature. I leave all of that for others to determine.

CLJ: Now that your new collection is out, what do you have coming down the pipe?

Dunn: I have a number of new poems that seem to be waiting for me to write a poem or two that might identify the obsessions that connect them. If and when those poems come, I'll be pretty close to having another collection ready for publication. I'm not in any hurry. I'd like What Goes On to breathe for a while. I also have about eight uncollected essays, and would hope, over the next couple of years, to move toward a second book of prose quarrels and meditations.

CLJ: What’s the answer to the question I should have asked you, but didn’t?

Dunn: Yes, but.


Stephen Dunn was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Different Hours. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and has received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Dunn lives in Frostburg, Maryland and teaches at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. His website address is

Joseph Osel is a critical theorist, poet and Editor of Imperative Papers. He is the founding Literary Editor of The Commonline Journal. His forthcoming book of poems is Catastrophe-In-Miniature: Poetry in Fatal Tense (2016-17).Access his complete bibliography-prospectus.

Matt Valentine is a photographer based in Austin. He travels extensively to photograph poets, novelists, musicians, and special events. (