THE Q&A: DAN CHIASSON, POET

Dan ChiassonDan Chiasson’s poetry is “unsettled and unsettling,” wrote Kay Ryan in the New York Times. “So much in Chiasson is uncomfortable and misproportioned. So much suffers. At the same time, his poetry is mischievous and meant to be understood playfully.” Ryan made those observations in 2005, just after the release of Chiasson’s second collection of poetry, “Natural History”. But her description remains apt. In “Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon”, published by Knopf on February 2nd (and out in Britain later this year), Chiasson applies his analytical, nervous, literary and often playful sensibility to the poignancy of parenthood. "It's very easy to identify with your child," Chiasson says over the phone from his home in Sudbury, Massachusetts. "It's also very weird because there are things about your child that you'll envy in a way. So there's a split consciousness. You can see yourself as the child and you can see yourself as the father." In new poems, such as "Man and Derailment" and the multi-part "Swifts", Chiasson juxtaposes childhood memories of his own father with a decidedly adult consciousness. (In the former, a man takes his son to a ravine to view a train crash; the child internalises the scene by wondering "how he would remember the scene / and, once he knew his father better, later, / and later, knew himself better, what it would mean.") Chiasson is also a regular contributor on poetry to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He teaches poetry classes and workshops at Amherst and Wellesley colleges in Massachusetts, and received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship for poetry in 2008. He recently spoke to More Intelligent Life about the urge to address his readers through verse, his role as a poetry co-editor at the Paris Review and how a game with his young son inspired his latest book. More Intelligent Life: You've said that you started writing rather late in life, in your mid-20s. How did you first become conscious of this need to create poetry? Dan Chiasson: I was probably conscious of it all along. I dabbled—I think most teenagers write poetry [laughs]. But I was in graduate school, getting a doctorate [in English from Harvard University], and I was aware that because what I really wanted to write was poetry, I was writing very bad prose. My essays were too full of adjectives and decorative language, and they were too personal. And I really needed to find a place where I could explore beauty in language. So that was around 26, and then I just threw myself into it. MIL: When you sit down to work now, how do you construct your poems? DC: These days, I'm conscious of working in a line-by-line way. I can never move on to the next line until I'm totally positive that the line I've been working on is right. Of course, sometimes I'm wrong about that, but if in the moment I just feel like it's right and it's ready, I go on to the next line. If the poem is really coming together I sit down to it as much as I can over the course of however long—a week or two weeks—so it becomes sort of an immersion. I don't have the luxury of getting too immersed because I have a job and a family and so on [laughs]. So part of my brain gets totally immersed and the other part is left to function. I don't think I've ever had more than one poem going at a single time. MIL: Are you very much aware of the reader when you're writing? There's a line in the poem "Swifts" that I love: "And you, reader, I see you nod your head, / treelike, appraising these lines; / I find your standing there— / not disgusting, but not inspiring either." DC: I'm aware of the reader insofar as I'm also a reader of my own poems. So I'm aware of myself of having this curious split identity. The main reasons I like those lines—I think they're kind of funny. But one rationale for them is that I think, as a writer, almost instantly when you finish a line, you become its reader. And also I love Walt Whitman, and Whitman will often address the reader in a very direct way, as though he's speaking directly to you across the ages. And I wanted to do a version of that. I wanted the reader to feel addressed. MIL: A children's game was the inspiration for "Where's the Moon, There's the Moon". Since you write each poem one at a time, were you conscious of the theme from the outset? DC: I had written probably a third or so, the first section of the book—and this has happened to me a lot: I get an idea, I decide I want to write something other than poems—and what I decided I wanted to write was a children's book. I thought of this idea for a children's book that I called "The Moon Keeper's Son", and it was about a little boy whose father is a lighthouse keeper, only it's on the moon, and he has to go up and spend time with him. And then I sat down to write a children's book and I realised I had no way of knowing how to do it. Then I just did what I always do: I wrote a poem. And what I ended up doing was not calling the poem "The Moon Keeper's Son" but having the boy in the poem "Where's the Moon, There's the Moon" reading this story, and drifting into it and out of it. My five-year-old son—this is going to follow him his whole life, but it's true: what I got the title from was that he used to run around in his bedroom when he was about two years old and say, "Where's the moon?" Then he would find it—"There's the moon!"—and then he would seem very depressed because you don't really want to win that kind of game, because the game's over [laughs]. Then he developed this kind of contrivance where he would put his hands over his eyes and then take it away. I felt that was some sort of symbol for the impulse for writing or reading poetry, where you want to arrange for yourself mystery and paradox, and you want to have an alternating clarity and paradox. So that's the reason I titled the book the way I did. I sort of see it as a metaphor. One thing is that games are dangerous as a kid; it's also fun to disappear, reappear, play hide-and-seek. So there are a lot of other versions of this in the book. There are poems called "Hide-and-Seek". I guess that's the big thing in it, this child's tendency to want to be pursued and how that changes in adult life. Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon chiassonMIL: In addition to the childhood themes, there's also an organic feeling in the new collection. It's very close to nature. DC: When I started writing these poems, we had moved outside Boston—we live in the country, sort of—and I just got interested in country matters, things that you really don't notice at all when you live in the city, and you get really attached to them. So that was really the interest behind it. And I'm always interested in nature in poetry because it's one of the oldest things you can do in a poem. So in a way, when you're writing a nature poem, you're not really writing about nature, you're writing about this long human history of other people writing about nature. You're more in touch with the tradition of poetry than you are with the outside world that you're purportedly observing. MIL: Let's talk quickly about The Paris Review. What are the things that you take into consideration when you're selecting work for publication? DC: I literally don't formulate a checklist of things I like in poems. What I do is really test my own attention, and see whether something gets and holds my interest. And that usually means that it does something I've never seen done before or has something that feels so authentic. Really, you just want to be surprised. That's the great thing about poems: they give these little shocks of surprise. "Where's the Moon, There's the Moon" (Knopf), by Dan Chiasson, is out now in America ~ ERIN DEJESUS Image credit: Random House