How To Like It, the Stephen Dobyns Way

American poet and novelist Stephen Dobyns believes that, “How To Like It,” is his most well-regarded work. The poem juxtaposes the impulse-driven desires of an excited dog out for his evening walk with the hesitant, even fearful, reservations of the dog’s master, and touches upon themes of change, desire, and the complexities of life. Much of Dobyns’ poetry employs extended tropes (see, “Determination,” in the April 2, 2012 issue of /The New Yorker/, in which Dobyns plays with “that infamously slippery ‘first word’ of the blank page”), using the silly and inappropriate as a means of introducing deeper meditations on life.

Dobyns has responded to inquiries regarding the difficulties of writing across literary forms by declaring that he writes poems to find out why he writes them. Within the lines of “How To Like It,” inklings of the writer’s life emerge, allowing readers to discern possible reasons for why Dobyns wrote /this/ particular poem.

“The wind at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving” (“How To Like It,” lines 1-5).

Perhaps similar unsettled feelings in the blood contributed to Dobyns relocating as much as he has over the past seventy-seven years. The most recent move was from Watertown, Massachusetts to Westerly, Rhode Island twelve years ago. Dobyns was born in Orange, New Jersey, but was raised all over, in Michigan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Though Orange did not have a particularly small-town feel, Dobyns’ mother was born in Port Leyden, New York, a village with a population of only 672. Dobyns spent summers in Port Leyden—a community divided physically by the northwest-flowing Black River—throughout his childhood, an experience he feels contributed to setting a number of his novels in towns where “everyone knows everybody else.”

Dobyns’ adopted hometown of Westerly is undeniably small, although transit to Boston or New York is accessible enough via the Amtrak station located across the street from Savoy Bookshop and Café, which hosted Dobyns last year for a reading and signing of the newest installment in his ‘Charlie Bradshaw’ mystery series, /Saratoga Payback/. If he’s not preparing for an event, or the bookstore isn’t holding one of its regular poetry circles, “there’s always something going on in Mystic, [Connecticut],” and Dobyns will travel by train from Westerly to the opera in New York on a whim.

Westerly originally appealed to Dobyns because of his love of the ocean; the home he lives in at present with his daughter, lawyer Clio B. Dobyns, is three and a half miles from Napatree Point, a peninsula that extends along a bay inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, and a favorite location of the soft-spoken writer. “I like to walk on the beach,” Dobyns says. “I’m not good at sitting in the sand.”

Dobyns /is/ good at swimming, though an experience in which he found himself surrounded by dozens of jellyfish saw him trade the ocean for the pool, where he swam laps regularly for years until problems with a rotator cuff made it difficult to maintain an even stroke. “I like the order of the black line before me in the pool,” Dobyns says.

It was in high school that Dobyns found the order of another set of black lines, and began to write, and the hope of becoming a professional writer was there from the beginning. His initial interests lay in fiction—he read The Hardy Boys, Tarzan novels, H.P. Lovecraft, and John Steinbeck as a young reader—but in college, a well-liked teacher introduced Dobyns to the poetry of T.S. Elliot and Wallace Stevens, and he came to love the form.

Today, Dobyns calls poetry his passion, though he still publishes novels, and is working on a thriller/mystery connected to /The Burn Palace/, a novel set in Brewster, Rhode Island. Dobyns writes much in the same way he used to, although there’s less outlining now.

“Hemingway said that when you’re writing, you have to know each of the character’s grandmother’s maiden names, and this was a daunting thing to hear, so I don’t do that kind of notetaking anymore. I’ll write down paragraphs, ideas for what’s lying ahead. The characters are fairly easy for me to invent. Often I don’t know who they are until I knock on the door; I don’t know who’s going to open it up.”

At least in the case of Dobyns knocking on the door of a contemplative man whose existential crisis was being illuminated by an innocuous refrigerator bulb, readers could relate.

Readers likely related to that contemplative man’s over-zealous dog, too. Stephen’s choice in accomplices for the character at the center of “How To Like It” could very well have been plucked from the annals of his own companion animals:

“A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let's go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let's tip over all the trash cans we can find” (6-8).

Stephen has had dogs all his life, including one very stubborn beagle that, if he got out, proved impossible to find. The dog ultimately ended up with a man employed by Stephen’s father who owned a farm outside of town. “He said that beagle was the best rabbit dog he’d ever seen. He was a wonderful dog.” But Stephen wouldn’t get another dog anytime soon: “Too much trouble at this point. I have a cat. Nueva. She replaced a cat that had been killed before her. So, Nueva.”

Interestingly enough, neither dog nor cat is Dobyns’ spirit animal: “The animal I’ve always been most struck by is the albatross.” Fitting for a man of such literary merit to choose a creature that played central roles in both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s /The Rime of the Ancient Mariner/ and the poem by Charles Baudelaire named for the large seabird. By way of the burdens that face him, and the obstacles he shies away from, (“The man wants to sleep and wants to hit his head again and again against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?” 47), the protagonist of “How To Like It” could be perceived as having an albatross around his neck.

“[...]in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees” (10-14).

Memories can be shifting, fluid things, but some will always be solid, and Stephen’s eyes crease beneath the weight of sadness when remembering his wife. Dobyns met her—his second wife and the mother of his daughter—at a party in Iowa City more than thirty years ago; she was originally from Chile and worked as a biologist. She died several years ago. As with “How To Like It,” the prose is there to dissect. In a piece from his collection, /Eating Naked: Stories/, a character proclaims, “My wife's dying upstairs and I can't do anything about it. I look in her face and I see the memories there [...] You think I'm not preoccupied?”

In “How To Like It,” the dog wants to tip over all the trash cans he and his master can find, because “this is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.” Human beings don’t tip over trash cans to harness their grief, but they certainly write poetry.

Besides the daughter he lives with, Stephen has another child and three step-children, one whom he’s raised since she was two months old. When Stephen talks about his children, the faces he’s remembering seem to be caught up, not among ‘the dark places in the trees,’ but in places of perpetual light.

“Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey” (17-20).

Dobyns’ teaching career has been a journey. He has taught at Emerson College, Syracuse University, Boston University, University of Iowa, and half a dozen other colleges and universities, and was part of a group of writers who formulated the first low residency MFA program in the country, Warren Wilson College, now located in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Stephen has subsequently taught and given guest lectures at Warren Wilson on and off for the last forty years.

Dobyns reveals that when he set himself the task of writing a lecture to deliver at Warren Wilson, he would have “such a terror of getting up there and not knowing what to say, such a terror and a curiosity,” that he’d do his research until fully prepared with what it was he was going to say.

“The best part of teaching is seeing students absorb ideas that changed or expanded what they felt about the subject so that they would have a sense of discovery,” Dobyns said, “which usually began with my own sense of discovery.”

“[...]that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept-
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it" (50-55).

When he was just starting out as a writer, Stephen believed that success would come in the form of some kind of financial security. “Fiction supplemented the money I made teaching, and it meant that I could take a year or two off.” Ideally, he would have done less teaching, although he feels that it’s “good to have something that frustrates you and leads you into wanting to do something else. And teaching offers a community. The act of writing is a solitary act.”

“How To Like It” ends with the poem’s protagonist staring into the refrigerator, searching for answers to the questions of why we get up in the morning, and how we sleep at night. The answer to the question of just how do we go about learning how to like it. Perhaps we learn how to like the joys, heartaches, and banalities of life by trying a little bit of everything: by reading and traveling and staring into refrigerators late at night and owning stubborn but rewarding dogs.

Perhaps Stephen Dobyns has learned how to like it by going to the opera and swimming and nurturing family and walking the beach.

And by writing and teaching and learning and loving.

--Dobyns, Stephen, “How To Like It.” From /Velocities: New & Selected Poems/ (Penguin, 1994).

--Dobyns, Stephen, /Eating Naked: Stories/ (Picador, 2001).

-- /The Cortland Review/, Part II Interview with Stephen Dobyns.

-- /The New Yorker/, Poetry Questions: Stephen Dobyns.
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Published on July 06, 2018 08:48 Tags: authorinterviews-literary-poets
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