Living within questions

A prosperous year for a poet (if prosperity is even an option for poets) sees the publication of a book. For some poets, it might be years — even decades, if you're Jack Gilbert — between books. What a bounty it must be for a poet to see two books come into print within the same year. That's the good fortune 2006 brought to former Downriver poet Dan Featherston, 39, who originally hails from Riverview.

In his first full-length book, Into the Earth, Featherston hones in on objects and obsessions, ranging from a tomato to the human hand, reporting that "From now on all messages will be buried in common objects."

"We leave our print in the name of the hand placed upon objects," he tells us. "Your hands reach upward like birds tethered to your wrists. Your hands fold inward like sleeping animals. When you thread a needle or twirl a fork, when you hold a pen or sprinkle salt, the whole world sifts between your fingers ..."

In his other new book, United States, the world that "sifts between fingers" branches out even wider to include such places and events as Rwanda, Kosovo and Hiroshima, and, of course, the United States. In Featherston's hands, a line plucked from the quintessential American poet Walt Whitman — "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" — is served up with a politically ironic twist.

In between his teaching duties at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and a long weekend hanging out in the Catskill Mountains, Featherston was good enough to field a couple of questions:

Metro Times: From one Downriver boy to another, how did growing up there have an impact on you becoming a poet?

Dan Featherston: The working-class suburbs of Detroit didn't offer much of a cultural climate for poetry as a means for communication, but this in turn became an inspiration in absentia.

I left the Downriver area 20 years ago to live in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. I left Michigan over a decade ago to live in Arizona, then New York and now Pennsylvania. Because I've moved around so much, no one place has informed my work in any sustained sense of the word. But half my life was spent Downriver, which continues to inform my poetry indirectly. My sustained interest in the natural world is influenced by those pockets of nature that persist there — wetlands, woods and, of course, the Detroit River.

MT: As a reader, I'm keenly attuned to the obsessions that a writer brings to the page. Yours seem to be made up of the most elemental of things: stone, water, earth, the hand, not to mention more abstract notions such as memory and language itself. What draws you to them?

Featherston: A poem often begins for me as a meditation on a particular object. The "first principle" of the imagination is a kind of negotiation between myself-as-writing-subject and whatever material object has my attention. And, yes, oftentimes these meditations are obsessive or what I like to think of as devotional, like the Buddhist mantra or Catholic rosary endlessly returning in each turning forward of word or bead. I call this "in-situ poetry": poems that stay put in sustained meditation on one thing versus the "I go here, I go there" impulses of, say, the Frank O'Hara school of writing. And then there are sociopolitical correlatives for me — staying put as sustaining compassionate and critical dialogue versus the rush to closure in, say, the act of war.

I learn from various models of in-situ practices, from Loyola's spiritual exercises and Buddhist mantras to the psychological imperatives underlying obsessive-compulsive disorder to Peter Greenaway's cinematic chronicling of objects. This discipline of "staying put" has been lost in so much contemporary poetry that wants to embody or mimic the dynamic distractions and confusions of modern life. Moving off, for whatever reason, be it fear, frustration, confusion, boredom, causes a lot of poems to lose their potential depth.

MT: In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke writes: Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.

What are the questions that you live with, as a poet?

Featherston: Letters to a Young Poet was an important early book for me. The Rilke quote gets at the spirit of poetry formed out of resistance — not simply something to be solved or answered but lived with, and that living-with-resistance is a form of answering.

I am most drawn to those poems that dwell within difficulties, the complexities, subtleties and bewilderment that arise out of asking questions. At the same time, I am also drawn to the didactic poetry of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, for example, as a form of declaration.

It is tempting to think of life as a series of answers in the form of actions, and maybe that's because the questions underlying and motivating actions are often invisible. They are what Rilke calls "the unlived life." I look out my window and see a man walking, but I doubt that he's thinking of his walking as evolving out of a series of questions. Or, if he does, the questions are mostly unconscious: Where am I going? Why am I going? Shall I go? In what direction? How fast? How slow? Often, people see questions as deficits or, at best, a transient state of being on the way to the fully formed answer.


Dan Featherston reads along with legendary language poet (and former Detroiter) Ted Pearson at 8 p.m., Wednesday, June 20, at Zeitgeist Gallery, 2661 Michigan Ave, Detroit; 313-965-9192.


A poem from In the Earth by Dan Featherston

by Dan Featherston

Ponge’s radio was a dung heap spread in the sun;

Lowell’s—a bleating box tuned to the dead.

The neighbor’s radio is a voice filling empty morning air.

It says, I am the window you listen through, stumbling into noon,

rinsing moonlight out of the little house,

& crank it up to disguise death’s amplitude.

That man in the car next to you—

his life is a radio heart

throbbing in death traffic.

But the words are unintelligible,

all bass & trouble at the red light of heaven,

revving to drown out silence—

life’s little radius

inside the music of the spheres. Peter Markus's latest novel, Bob, or Man on Boat, is forthcoming next fall from Dzanc Books. Send comments to [email protected]

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