The Missteps of the Father, Tercets vs. Couplets, and Why Community Is Important for Writers: Gary Dop on His Poem "Little Girl, Little Lion"
I have the folks at Rain Taxi to thank for introducing me to Gary Dop, who after shaking hands said “yes” to an interview, told me about his poetry, and within minutes had charmed me into buying a copy of his book, Father, Child, Water ( Red Hen Press, 2015). As I was interviewing him, I saw how this was so. In Gary’s searching poems about fatherhood, masculinity, and history, I found the same warm, vulnerable human pulse that had thudded through our first conversation. For the speaker’s refusal to let himself off easy, for its equal parts introspection, tenderness and grappling with hazard, “Little Girl, Little Lion” is a poem for anyone who’s ever loved a child. In our unedited conversation, the child inside of Gary was also on full display: he aimed to work in the words “Tupperware," “Braunschweiger,” and “Portuguese Man-of-War”, then did so with finesse. – HLJ
Throughout your book FATHER, CHILD, WATER there’s the theme of parenthood, but also this wider lens on your family’s history, the world’s wars, things such as your father’s passion for hunting. Violence, or at least the possibility of violence, seems to loom over even your most playful poems. I think that’s especially true here – the poem’s last line landed cold in my spine.
This might surprise you, but the themes of violence and the darkness in the humor weren't apparent to me in the composition phase.
On one level, I could understand that these things were happening along the way, but I didn't recognize that I was returning to them (or that they were returning to me). My life has been a regular interaction with fear and uncertainty, and the final line of the poem is a reminder of that. I remember being struck by the final line, not knowing how to make sense of it when I wrote it, knowing that it mattered as a larger statement about my daughter (the poem is born of a real experience), and about all daughters, and about me and other fathers. Humor for me has always been a way to connect with people, but when I turn to writing, I think it also became a way to say, "I, too, feel shaken in the world. I, too, need to connect with others who will not hurt me, who want to walk together.”
LITTLE GIRL, LITTLE LION
From the stool above our soaking dishes, she proclaims,
I can never be a poet, like it’s written on a sacred stone
In her identity’s medieval cathedral. I am her father.
She does not turn to me. Why? I ask, pulling wrinkled hands
out of the suds we share. The blue glass she’s holding slips
under the water to a hollow clank. Touching her wet elbows,
I hear, Daddy, girls can’t be poets. I’ve never thought
about how my daughter mirrors herself in Mommy
who doesn’t write. I say the right things, pull her away
from the sink to the floor, and bend to look in her
searching eyes, brown like her mother’s. They ask, Are you
sure? I rush away to find Bishop, Rich, Sexton, Dickinson –
any girl on the shelves above Where the Wild Things Are.
Showing her the stack, she pulls out Plath and opens to
“Daddy.” I snatch the book back like it’s rat poison.
Again, I can’t be trusted. Can I be trusted? How can I
wrecking-ball the commandments she’s constructed? I read
the opening stanza which ends in a sneeze,
and she’s satisfied. More Sylvia later, I say. Oh Darling,
you’ll be whatever you need to be, and if it’s Poet,
the world will learn to welcome your wild words, cathedrals
will crumble, stars supernova, and nothing
that pretends will remain – but your words are water,
your life a metaphor only you complete. I say all this,
our backs resting against the cold oven.
Something you said in an interview with RKVRY Quarterly, and which I loved as a statement of your poetic purpose: “I want a poem that helps me open my eyes, helps keep me awake, and helps me stave off the waking sleep that flesh is heir to.” Here in this poem is a situation with your daughter that I as a reader feel deeply, one in which I am made to participate in that “staying awake.” Tell us a bit more about that experience? The poem does a pretty good job of giving us the narrative, but perhaps a few words about how it became urgent for you in the telling?
So the event "Dad, I can't ever be a poet" happened. Her statement shook me. I couldn't make sense of it. So much of what a child says we place into a box of understanding out of which we recycle a response, but this made no sense. She followed up with her reasoning, and I tried to prove, by bringing her the books, that she could be a poet. And, believe it or not, she did open to Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” in my ear-marked copy of Ariel. This was a gift of a moment, no doubt.
The end of the poem means different things to different people I've talked to, but for me it's the important reminder that all of the wonderful things that the speaker has said to the daughter are not her life already lived. They are a potential that must also wrestle with the oven, and its escape from the pains of life...including the missteps of the father: me. Ugh.
I think that's what strikes me about the ending. The italicized words in this poem – the speaker’s reassurances – are what we as parents say to encourage our children; the reality is that potent feeling of the speaker’s complicity in the patriarchy (which, as it’s argued, brought about the death of someone like Plath).
The title of this poem is honestly so striking and so heartfelt that I nearly wish you’d titled your book with it. How did you arrive at it?
Perhaps I should have titled the book “Little Girl, Little Lion.” I think it was one of the choices I considered, but it was too close to the title of a better book: Phil Levine’s They Feed The Lion. My book already has enough trouble with its nod to Moby Dick on the cover (ha). The poem had several other titles, none of which had a triumphant quality, and that’s what I like about the poem's title. It makes the little girl into royalty: fierce, animal royalty. As I recall, I changed it to its current title just before sending it to South Dakota Review, where it found its first home in their lovely 50th anniversary issue.
Structurally I’m also curious about the pattern of couplets that is suddenly broken by that single haunting last line. Was this its original form, or did you come upon this structure in revision?
Yes. I think my feelings of being an outsider in my life, living all over, walking unlikely paths, feeling rootless, is exponentially more significant to me as a parent. I’m all too aware that every good choice is tinged with danger and possibly upholding a system that hurts the people I love most. Reality is humbling in that way.
To the couplets, I looked back at the earlier drafts, and I was fascinated to see that my earliest saved version, which might not be the earliest draft, is in four-lined stanzas, quatrains. The draft after that was in tercets, three-lined stanzas, and the final version found itself in couplets. The couplet contains a great deal of certainty and strength, but the lone line at the close, while it can be strong as well, also is daring, risky, and potentially weak.
So this poem definitely saw an evolution. Thanks by the way for going back and looking at your drafts. Also interesting that you frame the differences in that way — in this situation, the form would seem to make sense for the poem’s subject: a father and a daughter; an attachment that must ultimately be broken.
Why did you have to remind me that the attachment has to be broken?!
I think of the heroic couplet as a closing punch, and I think of lines in 2s and 4s as expressing confidence. I prefer tercets. And yeah, I really like your notion that the line breaks emphasize the attachment and potential detachment. Okay, I admit it, the detachment is inevitable, but I like "potential detachment" more.
And what do tercets wind up feeling like for you?
I trust the uncertainty of a tercet. They’re odd in their oddly numeric way. I especially like them when they flow into the next stanza and don't end on a period. I love enjambment. I think I ended up going back into my book when it was nearly completed to change a few of the poems out of a tercet structure just so my book wasn't dominated with them. I don't even know how many poems in the book ended up as primarily written in tercets. That was probably an insecure choice on my part...I was afraid of how it might look. Silly me.
Great honesty and I find that decision fascinating. I was just interviewing Joseph Fasano on Monday and we were discussing habits of rhythm, word choice, structure, etc. One could argue in their defense as stylistic trademarks. Or that they are dangerous and should be watched for.
Yes, and as I see it, if the writer is selected and promoted by the gatekeepers, the choice is the writer’s trademark. If she's not chosen, it's a habit.
Because who says who gets “selected”, right?
It's an odd, uneven system, no doubt. I know some people who are gatekeepers — high level publishers, etc. — and some of them are wonderful people deeply burdened by the responsibility and difficulty of walking the lines that society presents. Some are not wonderful people, of course.
Most writers feel they are outside of the game. This is far more common than feeling as if we're inside the game. And it may also be healthier if we're able to keep our outsider feelings from depressing us.
Some people will look at me as a college writing professor with a decent first book and say, "He's inside. He's X. He's established. He's X," but I almost always feel like I’m trying to belong to something too, and in moments of clarity, I know that the thing I am trying to belong to isn't real. It's not a human thing. It's a system. The part I really want is human connection.
The thing I need and no gatekeeper can legislate is meaningful human interaction. I'm not against the people I see as “inside” the system or more established inside the system. I am a flawed part of the whole thing, as we all are. It doesn't do much good to really believe in the “us and them” model. It does a lot better to believe in our local communities and the people we connect with who are open and trying to care for others through their art (some of these people are highly decorated folks, and some are the old guy at the senior center who wants to show you his poems about fire trucks).
I often feel frustrated that I didn't have certain experiences (didn't go to Iowa or NYU, never lived in New York), but that's usually undergirded by a false sense of what it means to be a writer. I think it's the duty of the better angels of the establishment, the prize winners and gatekeepers, to find a way for their voices to continually combat the divide between those who get the sexy book deal and those who don't. Some of them get stuck protecting their tier and lifting each other up, which can reinforce the great divide or the illusion of the great divide.
Such truth. Perhaps tell us a little bit about your other work as a playwright. What influence if any does it have on how you show up to your poetry?
I wrote plays (bad ones) before I studied poetry, and I write better plays now, at least I hope I do. Unlike many writers, when I write poetry or whatever, I think about audience very early in the process. I've often heard writers say that they don't think about what people think or want until late in revision, if at all. I think that's nuts. I don't think it's wrong, but I can't understand it for myself. As an actor and performer, I haven't been able to get out of my head the notion of the relationship between the writer and reader/audience.
Obviously I have a good number of poems that are persona poems – poems that take on a character's point of view — and many of these are simply poetry-crafted monologues, but in all my poems, I'm regularly imagining sharing with an audience. In fact, one of my final phases in editing happens the first time I read the poem in public. I almost always hear two or three little things that I haven't been able to hear in my revision process. The clarity in these stage moments can be electrifying.
Maybe tell us a little about your poetry education. And what advice would you offer to poets writing and practicing without the MFA?
I have an MA in English (which gave me a nice background in literature to undergird my writing life), and an MFA in writing (primarily focused in poetry).
In my thinking, the most important thing for someone who’s not taking the traditional academic route to writing (which is only one path), is to find a community (a small group is enough and maybe best) of people like yourself who can process the journey with you. It doesn't matter if you all write at the same level or if one person is more serious than the others; it matters that you take each other seriously. These are people you can share your successes and failures with. Getting better at craft is the easy part (time, reading, adding workshops if you can, practice, practice, practice), but the most often neglected part is the psychological and emotional journey of being a flawed human trying to believe in yourself on the journey, a journey which often doesn't know how to believe in you. You need people who can walk along the path with you. I think these people don't always have to be other writers. Probably they should be other kinds of artists, and it can be really good if they're serious about writing, as well.
The MFA's best attribute is providing community and encouragement...the learning of craft also happens, but that’s possible in many ways other than the MFA, so those without the MFA track need to focus first on the community and then on the nuts and bolts — which also matter, of course. We best survive the long, lonely journey of the artist in supportive communities.
Your answer really flies against the rugged individualist view that the writer is ultimately on his or her own.
The discipline is ultimately individualized, but the rest need not be. My hunch about you is that one of the significant reasons you’re doing interviews for Primal School is not only that you value sharing writers with the world, but that you also need meaningful interactions with others.
I couldn't disagree with that. It’s one good reason to attend events like AWP, or to be in other spaces where networking is going on. Though some of that networking is happening from a place of need. Any words on that topic?
We make it all quite ugly when we use words like “networking.” At least I think that's an ugly word: it feels devoid of humanity. There's a big difference between genuinely connecting with someone and capturing a person’s value as if they’re a Pokémon character gathered for your fight. I like real people. I like people who want to be better than they are and who know that other people are valuable.
Sometimes when people have a lot of success — you see some of these folks at AWP — they forget that their success is an opportunity for them to bless the people who value them. Even the neediest person in these odd situations should be treated with respect. And I think it's quite okay to be highly needy at moments in life.
Everyone's been there once.
Yes, if someone with success is annoyed by the lowly people who are hoping to gain something by knowing them, they've lost the better perspective. This doesn’t mean that they have to give everyone their time and that they can’t be forgiven their worst moments, but it does suggest a responsibility. Of course, it's equally dangerous, I think, to criticize those who have success simply because we’ve noticed a moment of irresponsibility. There's too much of that going on as well.
And that comes from a pretty shadowy place, often one of jealousy.
Yes. In fact, I think there's more jealousy (I'm highly guilty of this) than disdain from on high.
Although Pulitzer winners are all losers, right?
Ha. Is there any “homework” you’d like to assign our readers?
I have a practical exercise and an exercise that was born in my brain while we've been chatting. Okay, so the practical: Find a poem you love; read it five times out loud, then take five verbs out of the poem and compose a draft of a new poem. When you revise, you can only keep two of the verbs, but don’t decide on the two that remain until you're ready to revise. If you need more guidance for the draft, write the draft with the five verbs about a moment in which someone — perhaps you — lost something. You don't have to use this last portion if the verbs send you in a specific direction. Also, this goes without saying, but don't write something exactly like the poem you originally read. And if you're daring, send me a copy of the poem once you've polished it up over a few months. I'd love to read it: email@example.com
The other homework: talk to someone you trust about a goal for your writing, a dream for your writing, an emotional obstacle to your writing, and a next step to walk forward with your writing.
Share a poem you love, and tell us why you love it.
I have been reading Yeats' poem "A Prayer for Old Age" several times a week since May, and I can't get enough of it. I am regularly wrestling with the tension between what my spirit (an abstraction I can live with in all its muddiness) communicates and what my mind knows. I have learned and want to model a weighty suspicion of my reasoning, my thoughts in “the mind alone.” I could spend hours talking about this poem…the second stanzas consuming question and the closing prayer to seem foolish and passionate.
A PRAYER FOR OLD AGE
William Butler Yeats
God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone;
From all that makes a wise old man
That can be praised of all;
O what am I that I should not seem
For the song's sake a fool?
I pray — for word is out
And prayer comes round again —
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.
This poem is so very Gary, from what little I know of him so far.
If I can write a poem half as good in my lifetime, it'll be a good life.
GARY DOP lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, three daughters, and their dog, Mississippi. Dop is a poet, playwright, performer, and professor at Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA. His first book of poems, Father, Child, Water was a bestselling title with Red Hen Press in 2015. Dop’s work regularly finds a home in magazines throughout the country, including North American Review, New Letters, Sugar House Review, Blackbird, and South Dakota Review.