We caught up with Dean Rader as he marked the publication of his newest poetry collection, Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly.
1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?
This might be because I’m primarily a poet, but I don’t think I have favorite characters in fiction the way most normal humans do. I cannot remember a time I came across a character and thought, “Man, I’d love to have a beer with that person.”
However, I am in awe of the way Toni Morrison figures/builds/shapes Milkman in Song of Solomon. How she crescendos and develops his entitlement and complexity is magical. I remain utterly terrified of the Judge in Blood Meridian. I find that character astonishing. Awful and authentic; real and unreal all at the same time. The character I might be most beguiled by is Agnes Dewitt/Father Damien in Louise Erdrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Agnes is a former nun who assumes the identity of a priest named Father Damien, who is killed on his way to the Ojibwe village of Little No Horse, where he has been sent to do missionary work. Agnes the nun becomes Father Damien the priest and lives as a man among the Anishinaabe families on the reservation for the rest of his life, a life that Father Damien writes about in a series of letters to the pope. S/he is an amazing character that refuses easy assumptions about gender and power.
My favorite character in real life is my wife, Jill. I have always been uncommonly taken with her, but last month we received a shocking and intense medical diagnosis, and how she is going forth is mesmerizing. She is balancing medical research, uncanny thinking, bottomless bravery, and unending humanity. She is a badass.
2. A line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?
Only one? I’m going to take a cue from Jill and ignore restriction.
1. “Ariel was glad he had written his poems. / They were of a remembered time / Or of something seen that he liked.” That is the first stanza of “The Planet on the Table,” one of the last poems Wallace Stevens wrote before he died. After a career of writing abstract, indeterminate, intellectually contortioned poems, he closes his poetic life with this simple statement. I only hope to be half as content as Ariel.
2. “hell must break before I am lost.” The final three sections of H.D.’s “Eurydice” may be the best moments in all American poetry. This is just one of ten-plus outstanding passages.
3. The lines I say in my head most often, certainly these past three years, have been these from Rilke’s Ninth Duino Elegy. To me, they are a prayer.
Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?
Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer
need your springtimes to win me over–one of them,
ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.
Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.
You were always right, and your holiest inspiration
is our intimate companion, Death.
Look, I am living.
3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time? What did it teach you?
I sometimes wish I could read One Hundred Years of Solitude now, for the first time, as a father, a husband; as someone older, better read, and theoretically wiser. It blew my mind in college, when I was an idiot. Coming upon it now would be a revelation. I would say the same about Rilke’s Duino Elegies.
4. What’s a writing day for you?
Sadly, I don’t really have a typical writing day. I try to carve out time when I’m not teaching or parenting. But it really depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing a review or an essay or a scholarly piece—something on deadline—then I sort of default to my journalism days and am very methodical. Banker’s hours.
If I’m working on a poem, it can depend on what stage the poem is in. Drafting, revising, editing, shaping. That can last weeks, months, and take place at 3:17 a.m. at the kitchen table or at 3:17 p.m. in the pickup line at my sons’ school.
5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
Lately, that’s been the work of Cy Twombly (the subject of this most recent book). And, in truth, for the past ten years or so, my go-to to lift my spirit, energize my brain, and (perhaps paradoxically) return me to language, is art. I keep turning to Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, Robert Motherwell, Kara Walker, Barnett Newman, my friend Jordan Kantor’s work. I’ve become re-enamored with Velázquez. There was a period recently of about four months when I was looking at Las Meninas every day. When I see that painting, my heart says to my brain, “You will never make anything that good.” It says the same thing about most Twombly pieces, by the way. And you’d think that would discourage me. But it has the opposite effect—these pieces bring me closer to the divine.
6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?
Page: absence, darkness, god, life, ocean, language, loss, light, death, waves.
Life: wake up!, no, yes, please, thank you, backpacks!, ocean, absence, death, bedtime!
7. What’s your current obsession?
My wife’s health, my kids’ mental, emotional, and intellectual health, Cy Twombly. And maybe, like . . . the earth.
8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?
When she read the first draft of the manuscript for Before the Borderless, my friend Victoria said it was “too perfect”—which felt awesome for about half a second. But then she made it clear that she meant perfect as a critique. For her, the book was too tidy. The poems needed to be messier. They needed to take more risks. She was correct.
As it happens, I always urge my students to take risks in their work. I beg them not to be predictable, boring, cliché. Save that for financial planning. Writing is about taking chances, charting new territory, toeing the line of confidence and terror.
It was deeply ironic to hear my own advice. But incredibly helpful.
9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I knew at twelve how unlikely it was that I would play in the NBA. Perhaps that would have made me work harder on my jump shot. I also think at twelve I was pretty good on the trombone. I fear I’ve forgotten all that, along with too many of my grandfather’s stories about surviving the Dust Bowl.
10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.
I feel like I should call upon Robert Hayden here:
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I feel like I’m just a pilgrim on this journey. But, if I had to boil it down, I would say that love is a practice, an ongoing practice, of giving.
Finally, is there a passage from Before the Borderless that you’d like to share with our readers?
From “Meditation on Circulation”
How does a line point to where it does not go?
How does a note rung into an empty room remind you of silence?
How is anything a sign of what it cannot be?
Our days are a tiny book that can never be filled,
no matter how much we write
or how little we erase.
Is there any secret in skulls, asks Stevens,
things go round and again go round.
Nothing on this earth is straight—
not the sky, the sea, the self—
Even colors curve
in the light of their swerve toward the other—