The Colorado Poet, #17, Winter 2012

Interview: Dan Guenther

Dan Guenther’s The Crooked Truth won the 2011 Colorado Author’s League for Poetry. 

Bob King: Dan, when I interviewed you way back in Issue 3 as part of a group of poets who are also fiction writers (or vice versa), you spoke about the difference for you: that your fiction is more ‘purposive’ being usually written with a specific audience in mind. “When I write poetry,” you said, “I am not concerned about a specific audience…. What is important for me is to capture a lyric truth, so to speak.” Can you go further in defining “lyric truth” as compared with some other truth?

Dan GuentherDan Guenther: Norman Dubie introduced me to the term lyric truth many years ago. I define lyric truth as a revelatory, subjective thing, a feeling realized in the energy and emotion generated by the images and power of language as the poem unfolds. In his wonderful book The Gazer Within, Larry Levis writes of how a particular image in a poem may “catch our breath” with its power. Later, Levis states in the same book that this “intellectually and emotionally complex” power can at times go “beyond words” to capture the universal essence or heart of some shared experience. I once had the opportunity to talk to Levis about that subject, and came away from that conversation with a new view of what reality was all about. For me, lyric truth has to do with that elevating power of language Levis describes. It also has to do with a kind of fidelity to the real, and perhaps a quality of poignancy that we discover in a great piece of writing.

BK: The opening poem, “Trail Dust,” deals with you, coming back to the U. S. after Viet Nam and working in the backcountry of Yellowstone, a pivotal experience after which you were “ready to mingle with people once again.” The poem is dedicated to Cheryl, your wife, and concludes that the only thing worth remembering is “our own story” and “that love is the only path beyond grief.” It sounds like there were some things you really had to grapple with personally. Were you writing poems then and did they help or did that come later? And were you a poet in Viet Nam or did that come later?

DG: Poetry was something I grew up with, my mother publishing poems in a local newspaper when I was a youngster. She once took me to a Carl Sandburg reading in Chicago during the Fifties when I was still in elementary school. My father was a physician who had an interest in literature and I grew up with every advantage. At an early age I was drawn to writing, especially poetry. In the fall of 1966, when I first discovered Donald Hall’s anthology, Contemporary American Poetry, I was in my first semester of law school at the University of Iowa, one of those disaffected, emotionally cool, spoiled, and upper-middle class youth coming of age in the late 1960s.

For the next two years I carried that book [Hall’s Contemporary American Poetry] in my backpack from the seething jungles of the Laotian border to the bamboo hedgerows and rice plains south of Da Nang.

My friend Dow Mossman gave me the anthology shortly before I was called to active duty in the Marine Corps, and in it I discovered Robert Bly, Donald Justice, and James Wright.  For the next two years I carried that book in my backpack from the seething jungles of the Laotian border to the bamboo hedgerows and rice plains south of Da Nang. Reading that book changed my life, and I began keeping a journal containing both poems and vignettes. The vignettes eventually became China Wind (Ivy, 1990) my first novel. A number of the poems were published in Dow Mossman’s lyric novel, The Stones of Summer (Bobbs-Merrill, 1972)

When Hall’s anthology came out, many of my friends were already caught up in the skepticism of the times, rejecting the traditional bourgeois values of their parents, and looking for answers in counter-culture art, music, and literature, including the work of poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I found most of the Beat Poets lacking in lyricism, and often governed by a pretentious rhetoric. On the other hand, with their plain, imagistic styles, Robert Bly and James Wright offered the reader poetry of power and clarity. I learned a lot from reading Donald Hall’s anthology, later acquiring Bly’s Silence In The Snowy Fields (1962), and Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break (1963) For a time Bly and Wright became my models.

BK: Your title poem, “The Crooked Truth,” seems to be set in Australia as a husband and wife “catalog the insects in our garden.” The poet speaker says “The child in me still believes in magic, / that we all may be governed by an invisible energy…” but then considers this “high-minded” and possibly the result of having a bottle of wine. Nothing is clear cut, you write, outside of science, but “what is most often true is in the glitches.” The final stanza speaks of wild dogs in the distance “living moment to moment with the crooked truth.” Glitches, crooked truth—is this the kind of wisdom poetry is good at expressing?
DG: Oh yes, these crooked truths that make up our lives and provide lasting meaning. Here, in addressing the kind of wisdom poetry is useful at expressing, we might go further into the notion of that subjective, lyric truth mentioned earlier. To me wisdom is something acquired through various experiences, and indeed we all have our unique stories to tell. Wisdom I think of as an evolving and inward state of being that is always in the process of becoming.

I think much of the wisdom we find in poetry we already know intuitively and inductively. Poetry is a way of bringing that knowledge or wisdom to the surface, so-to-speak. Poetry helps clarify the crooked truths as we move forward with our lives, each of us carrying our own unique emotional burdens.

I think much of the wisdom we find in poetry we already know intuitively and inductively. Poetry is a way of bringing that knowledge or wisdom to the surface.

B K: Following up, you have many references to nature in your work as well as to science itself. You appreciate the lyric moment of a natural detail as well as the scale of the cosmos or geologic history. How do these two concepts go together for you?

DG: For me the lyric moment of a natural detail and the scale of the cosmos are deeply connected and related. As we all know some poets have the gift to tap into those connections, and their work carries a certain energy, as if they were linked to some mystical source. In addition, when a poem inspires a sense of awe and/or wonder in the reader, once again we are in the realms of truth and meaning. I believe we are then crossing thresholds into unknown corners of the mind similar to those discovered through meditation. In a given body of work, like that say of Robert Bly, the poet may create a collective vision that touches the soul of the reader.

However, unlike the existence of  those objective, scientific truths which are difficult to deny, and provide a kind of lens through which we view the cosmos, it seems to me that learning and/or finding understanding through poetry can only happen when we are ready to accept that kind of revelation. What we find in art and/or religion is a means or process, or perhaps a better word is a spiritual path to that understanding in its various forms.

BK: Seven of the poems here have “Elegy” in the title, both to animals, frogs, an antelope, cicadas—and to people, comrades of yours, an uncle. That’s not many poems in relation to the total, but it’s a fair number of elegies. Where does this elegiac impulse in your work come from?

DG: In my case the elegiac impulse has to do with ways of completing the process of grieving and mourning. There is also that sense of obligation I feel to honor the dead. Certainly, in my case some of it has to do with being a witness to the tragedy of war. The guilt of surviving and the sense of further obligation gave rise to such poems as “Elegy for Jock,” “Elegy for a Lost Comrade,” and “:Elegy for a Rare Forest Antelope.” For me the poem helps inter the lost, at the same time honoring their memories.

There is also something in our psyche that I’m sure we all have observed, a thing ancient and atavistic that through ritual provides for closure.

But clearly some of that elegiac impulse has to do with catharsis and release. It begs the obvious to say that the conditions of grief and mourning are different for each situation, yet similar in the need to purge something inside. For me the need to honor the dead through writing gives meaning and helps suppress the anger. But there is also something in our psyche that I’m sure we all have observed, a thing ancient and atavistic that through ritual provides for closure.

BK: “Memory” or remembering has a place in many of your poems, that personal knowledge of the past. I also note that you’re aware in another way of time—that you’re hiking along a trail the Ute once used, or that you’re walking on a Civil War battlefield. How important for you is this kind of connection between the past and present? How important for your work?

DG: Memory and longing are closely linked in my work, both in my poetry and fiction. That longing can trigger memories that I draw upon in my more reflective writing, such as the voice in the personae poem “Letter from the Plains of Central Asia.”At other times, when absorbed in meditation, or walking an old trail once used by the Ute, the past and the present connect for me in ways that may inspire a more surreal and almost hallucinatory writing. My poems “Listening Through the Silences” and “Elegy for the Gulf of Mexico” are examples of this particular mode. What I am describing in this latter process is a spontaneous thing that arises, I think, from those memories and images buried in the depths of my past, not always a nice place to visit, and often triggering events that take me back across that wine-dark sea. 

BK: Many of your poems seem to be constructed as a series of images and I think “Slowly Waking” is a good example. The poem is set in Australia, opening with a thousand dolphins heading south. In the third line, “across the street the post office is full of insects.” Later in the poem, a lot of parties are ending and crowds are turning out and “the mosquitoes are at the walls of the city.” Finally we get to the personal situation, which is your pregnant wife sleeping. Then the poem ends by moving out to sea again: “The glint of small fish massing to spawn / flashes like rifle fire in the moonlit water.”  It seems, in many of the poems, you move from image to image in search of a connection. Is that fair?  How do you view the structure of a poem like “Slowly Waking”?

DG: Many of my poems are indeed in search of connections, especially those written during the time I wrote “Slowly Waking,” a period when the subject of my poetry was mostly about the realities of the moment, and often filled with diverse and hallucinatory imagery.  In 1976 when that poem was published, we were living in a community of American expatriates in Sydney, Australia, and starting a family. I was also trying to come to terms with my experiences in Vietnam. The images in Slowly Waking, with the “lizards taking command of the window screens” and “the hibiscus exploding” reflect my attempts to work through that process.  

[Robert Bly] and I once had the opportunity to meet and talk about the Vietnam War. That meeting was a real learning experience for me, and influenced my writing.

I was also reading a lot of Robert Bly at the time. He and I once had the opportunity to meet and talk about the Vietnam War. That meeting was a real learning experience for me, and influenced my writing.  That influence can be seen in “Slowly Waking.”

I view “Slowly Waking” as an example of the way a series of images can be used for dramatic effect, with all the subtle emotional undercurrents coming together at the end of that poem, a spiritual intensity captured in the final deep image of combat, “the glint of small fish massing to spawn flashes like rifle fire in the moonlit water.” With that last deep image I am writing from a memory, and at some distance from the subject of a landscape that has been lost forever, hoping to make the moment of my perception everyone’s moment. (i.e., In the Sept/October 2011 issue of The American Poetry Review, in his masterful essay “The Village Troublemaker – Robert Bly and American Poetry,” Tony Hoagland writes about what he terms the Deep Image aesthetic, a label now as much a part of our vocabulary as the tag of Confessional or Beat.)

BK: Several years ago in our interview you spoke of your personal definition of poetry being “the art of using figurative and image-laden language that is often rhythmic, to teach and delight.” And that mostly you teach and delight yourself. Any additions or changes to that definition?

DG: Yes. I would add more about how poetry develops from a longing and primal source within us, often driven by unrest, and draws from that wilderness of our subconscious, providing us with a process to find the beauty in our lives as well as realize the spiritual dimensions of the self. To quote from my elegy for the Australian poet, my friend Jock:

“Jock, who all his life yearned to
understand infinity,
who believed in a karmic chain
woven intimately into everything,
who believed that beauty
offered the only path through the
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Guenther’s website is: