In the Spotlight
Bennington, Vermont Member Since: 2002
About: Michael Dumanis is the author of My Soviet Union and coeditor of Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century. From 2007 to 2012, he taught in Cleveland State University’s NEOMFA program and directed the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. He is a recipient of a 2012 Creative Workforce Fellowship from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture and a member of the literature faculty of Bennington College.
What is the first book you loved?
The first book of fiction would have been Slaughterhouse-Five. The first book of poetry: Reasons for Moving by Mark Strand.
What is the first book you hated?
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Also Ethan Frome. And The Awakening. I’ve never gotten over my high school distastes.
Is there a book you are embarrassed to say you've never read?
I have yet to read a single sentence by Jane Austen or Henry James. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly embarrassed.
What books could you read again and again?
For fiction, Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, White Noise by Don DeLillo, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus. The poetry books I keep returning to are And Her Soul Out of Nothing by Olena Kalytiak Davis, First Course in Turbulence by Dean Young, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, Jorie Graham’s Regions of Unlikeness, James Tate’s Selected Poems, and Mark Levine’s Debt.
And never again?
Jose Saramago’s Blindness. It’s a tremendous novel (which has since occasioned a dreadful movie). I was too emotionally affected by the experience of reading that book to return to it.
What are you reading right now?
I recently spent three weeks in India, so I’m reading E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and Basharat Peer’s memoir about Kashmir, Curfewed Night. The most recent books of poems I’ve read and liked include Zachary Schomburg’s excellent Fjords, vol. 1, The Lamp with Wings by M.A. Vizsolyi, But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Mercury by Ariana Reines, Butcher Tree by Feng Sun Chen, The Trees The Trees by Heather Christle, and Mark Strand’s new book, Almost Invisible.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them?
Everything is broken. Everything is worn. But despite that I don’t write in books—my parents considered it borderline sacrilegious, a kind of defacement, and that stuck with me.
What writing advice do you give your students?
Whenever you put a word on a page, remember that you are making a choice, and you should take responsibility for that choice. Be aware that each word has particular effects on a reader, particular consequences on the rest of the composition. The poet James Galvin told me that when the painter Philip Guston used to teach art at the University of Iowa, he would bring a can of paint to class on the first day and say, "This is all you have to work with. You don’t have images, you don’t have ideas, you just have paint. You can mix your paint in a variety of ways, and these could end up causing someone else to 'see' something, but ultimately all they’re looking at is paint, and the ways you’ve chosen to distribute it on a canvas. "I advise my writing students to approach their craft in the same way—to remember that what they’re really doing when they’re writing is moving twenty-six letters around on a canvas—and to never lose sight of the fact that literature is not made of ideas. Literature is made of words.
And career advice?
Nobody will notice if you stop writing. Nobody will care, except maybe you. Creative writing programs create the illusion that everybody cares about the words you put on a page, by making it seem important, even necessary, to keep going. But in the alleged real world, it is very easy to stop writing, very addictive to not write, very important, even necessary, to prioritize just about everything else. So the goal needs to be to create excuses to keep going, regardless of what you do professionally. Only take those jobs that won’t distract you from writing, stay professionally active in some kind of creative writing community, take every opportunity available to you that will give you more time to write (fellowships, residencies, additional workshops), and continue to surround yourself with readers and books.
Can writing be taught? Why does creative writing belong in the academy?
Can painting be taught? Can the violin be taught? Can figure skating be taught? I think that the process of developing as any kind of artist or performer can be accelerated by study, and by receiving encouragement and feedback from a dedicated mentor. Then again, there are many different ways to paint and figure-skate and play the violin. Conventional approaches can certainly be taught, yet much of the art I personally like tends to subvert or implode those conventions, and I’m not sure to what extent one can teach someone to break the rules, to be original and insightful and honest and reckless, other than by preaching unconvention and recklessness. In his book The Art of Recklessness, the poet Dean Young argues against the teaching of craft, saying, “We are making birds, not birdcages.” I absolutely love that quote, the suggestion that poetry is not about containing language and thought but about liberating it, that the best poets are alchemists and gods, but at the same time I think that if you’ve decided that you’re going to make a bird, it wouldn’t hurt to first familiarize yourself with other birds, with their anatomy and the physics of their flight.
When and where do you do your best work?
In dingy coffee shops an hour before they close. I like to be in a non-sterile environment, where I can peripherally hear and see people. Also, immediately after going to an art museum or poetry reading. I have never been able to write at home. I admire and envy people who wake up early in the morning and write three hours before getting on with their day.
Share a favorite AWP conference moment.
I first met my fiancée at the 2004 conference in Chicago. We wandered the bookfair together.