Dean Rader’s writing spans poetry, painting, literary criticism, and translation. During our conversation, we discussed landscape, identity, and research. On the sunny windowsill was The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault.
How did you first become interested in research?
I fell in love with researching as an undergraduate. I loved going to the library and wandering around the stacks. I was the research assistant for the poet at our university, and part of my duties was making copies of poems and articles for the classes he was teaching. So, when I made copies for him, I would also, secretly, make copies for myself! Thus began a life of research, reading, and compiling.
Once I became a professor, I expanded the way I integrated research and writing. I was writing poems, doing translation, and writing literary criticism. I found that research made its way into all three, though a little differently depending on the genre. I love wearing many writerly hats, and research helps ensure I look less goofy in each.
How do you navigate different writing identities?
I don’t always think about a genre—at least not as first—when I’m thinking about writing. Usually there’s some sort of problem that I want to solve or some idea I want to explore. When I sit down to start “writing,” I don’t know if it’s going to be an essay or poem or perhaps even the makings of a scholarly article. For me, my hat as a poet and my hat of a critic are often very similar hats, just never berets.
All of the poems in Landscape, Portrait, Figure, Form are about art, use the vocabulary of art, or explore the ways the vocabulary of art and poetry overlap and intersect. For example, terms like “figuration,” “portrait,” “line,” and “grammar” are used in both art and poetry. My interest in the ways written text and visual text talk to each other spills over into other things I write about.
I was recently asked to contribute a long essay for an art exhibit catalogue since I have this poetic interest in landscape. My task was to write about landscape painting, which, I don’t mind saying, was really out of my comfort zone. I did a lot of research on the history of landscape painting and found correspondences with pastoral poetry. And, before I knew it and sort of by accident, I had a way into the topic. Now, I’m writing about the Robert Motherwell exhibit at the de Young Museum. Motherwell is the American painter most influenced by poetry; I’m thinking about the different kinds of visual (and lexical) grammars.
Do you find that you’re drawn to specific elements of the landscape or history of landscape?
I think that landscape painting is in some ways the most literary of paintings. There are often horizontal lines like in a book. I was always attracted to how the poetic line stretches across the page; its ability to live on a page the way paint might live on a canvas. It’s hard to explain it less abstractly than that except to say that my interest in landscape is both formal—how things look on a canvas or on a page—but it’s also interpretive. Writing is often about how we take in the world, how we see ourselves placed in context, how one paints one’s place, how one writes oneself into a world.
In my forthcoming book, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, there are several poems that carry the title “Self Portrait,” often something like “American Self-Portrait” or “Self-Portrait with Reader.” They don’t always have much to do with “me,” but they do explore how the speaker of the poem might be misplaced in a landscape or perplexed in a situation. I think that portraiture, especially self-portraiture, is an interesting way of pretending to write about the self while actually writing about other things; or to be more precise, how the self can look both inward and outward. Landscape can refer to both internal and external landscapes; identity can refer to both individual and national notions of self. I’m very interested in this notion of identity being formed in relation to what’s around you. Perhaps the best way to write about or illustrate the self is to write about or illustrate what’s around the self.
How does translation or working with translation impact other aspects of writing and research?
I was on sabbatical last year, and a former University of San Francisco student, Katie Jan, and I collaborated on a translation of Pablo Neruda’s long poem The Heights of Macchu Picchu. We read what Neruda had written about the poem, we read every translation of the Alturas we could find, and we read what critics had written about the poem—all in order to get things right. We relied on research to help us latch onto rhythm, a political angle, and moments of social commentary. Translation is about being precise, and I think this is what research is also about—precision. Getting things right. That’s what good writing is about. Research moves you closer and closer to the target, decreasing the chance you will miss wildly.
What is the relationship between your research and your writing and your writing and your research?
After you get to a certain point in your career as a reader and writer, it’s hard to know what’s research and what’s not research. Going to a film or going to the ocean might be research the same way as poring over books and articles is research. Hanging out with my kids I think is a kind of research. Just the other day, I was reading a children’s book to my three year old, and the narrative in the story did something clever. I thought you know what I’m going to write a poem that does this very trick. For a writer, life is research. I know that in my head the research switch is never turned off.
How does research work with teaching and vice versa?
I do a lot of research for my classes. When I teach literature classes, I read a great deal of literary criticism on the texts I’m teaching as well as relevant literary theory and poetic theory. Last year, I taught a class on 21st Century American Literature. Everything we read had been published since 2001—poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. One of the things that made teaching this class difficult is that it was nearly impossible to do research on the books because only one or two had been out long enough for scholars to write about them. So, on many days, I felt like I was flying blind.
Prepping for class—whether it’s re-reading, consulting scholarly texts, looking over all your notes—all goes into what I think of as the research bucket. You have this bucket and every time you read a poem it goes in there. Every time you try to explain an Emily Dickinson poem to your students, it somehow goes in there. Every student paper you read goes in there. Every crazy idea you have about literature goes in there. Everything is in the research bucket—everything you think about, every place you go, all the photographs you take, it’s all in there. You don’t always know when you’re going to need those things as a writer or teacher, but one day, you will be teaching some obscure poem, and something you saw in a museum twelve years ago will be there in your bucket to help you not look like a bonehead in front of your students. I think all of that is part of what it means to be a thoughtful teacher and a careful writer.
There’s a great quote that I use in my Engaged Resistance book. A well-known art critic argues that there’s really no difference between art and non-art. For me, there is no real difference between research and non-research. Even if the content of the research winds up irrelevant, the process of combing through and discarding things—that glorious act of culling—is a creative process.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got another book of poems, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, coming out next year with Copper Canyon Press, and I’m finishing up final edits on that. I’m writing about the Robert Motherwell exhibit that’s at the de Young. I have this idea for this half-scholarly / half-popular book on how to read poetry that could be used as a textbook or as a book a general reader might pick up and subsequently ignore. I just sent off the final version of an essay on Wallace Stevens and contemporary poetry that is forthcoming in American Poet, and I’m deep in a collaborative book I’m very excited about. Over the past two years, the poet Simone Muench and I have been writing collaborative poems we’re calling “The Frankenstein Sonnets.” A book of the poems, entitled Suture, will appear in 2017 from Black Lawrence Press. We’ve decided what poems will go in, but we are playing with organization and order. We’re picking out cover images now. We’ve narrowed things down to some beautifully spooky ones.
How does working on the poetry guide change how you talk about poetry or reading poetry?
My thoughts about writing poems and writing about poems are evolving together. Increasingly I’m thinking about ways to write poems that poets would like, respect and respond to and that non-poets would like, respect and respond to. The potential audience of poetry is larger than most people think. I am constantly wondering how I can enlarge the pool. It’s an uphill battle. I keep trying to convince people that they do not need to fear getting poems wrong. They should just concentrate on enjoying them. My hope is that my poems and my writing about poetry will draw people to the field.
What are some other questions that you find yourself thinking about?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about if there’s a way to make poems have an immediate visceral impact the way powerful paintings do. When you go into the SFMoMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) or the Met and see a Van Gogh or a Goya or a Pollock, there is an instant effect. For me, it’s Motherwell, Paul Klee and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. When I look at works by these painters, I feel an immediate emotional and intellectual sensation. It is instant, and it goes beyond simple thinking. We don’t obsess over what a Monet painting means or if we’re getting a Miro painting wrong. We just enjoy them. I’m jealous of a painter’s ability to take up a room and have that immediate impact. I’ve been thinking about ways to make poetry approximate that.
My other obsession is whether literature can have any kind of social and political impact. I try to get at this in a book I edited last year, 99 poems for the 99 Percent: An Anthology of Poetry. Can people turn to poetry as a way to help make sense of pressing social issues like poverty, repossession, unemployment? Can poetry be a viable genre for commenting on and offering insight into our social dilemmas? That’s really an ongoing question for me. Just last week, I was invited to help put together an anthology of poems about gun violence.
Lastly, I always wonder about the relationship between writing and other aspects of living? Does writing and reading make you a better human? I hope so. If they make you worse, I’m in trouble…
How does your writing interact with the world?
As I said earlier, the poems in my new book simultaneously look inward and outward. There are poems that intervene in recent American history; poems that confront racial and gun violence, economic issues, environmental questions, and a seemingly fading memory of the past. There are a series of poems with the title “American Allegory” and a series entitled “American Self-Portrait” as well as some called “American Landscape.” These poems argue that how we make the self—how we fashion the internal landscape—is similar to how we make a nation—how we fashion the external landscape.
Last year I wrote a poem called “Labor.” It’s probably the longest poem I’ve ever written and one of the most personal. When I was 14, I was a carhop at the Sonic Drive-In in Weatherford, Oklahoma, a small farm town out in Western Oklahoma. The poem is about a confluence of events involving bringing Cokes and tater tots to a father and daughter who realize they don’t have enough money to pay for their order and a horrible accident on an oil rig outside of my hometown. These things come together along with my ongoing fear that what I do might not be considered “work” by the people in that very town. My “labor” involves crouching over a notebook or sitting in front of a computer screen, trying to wrestle language and ideas into something meaningful and perhaps even beautiful, which is very hard but very different from working on an oil rig. In my hometown, most people, including my family, would be skeptical of writing a poem being “work.” It is certainly a hugely different kind of labor. I’m always aware of that.
Do you feel a relationship with your work and your hometown?
I’ve found myself writing more and more about Oklahoma lately. I’m collaborating with the great Choctaw poet and fiction writer LeAnne Howe, who is also from Oklahoma. She and I are and trading poems and letters about Oklahoma. We’re both lamenting Oklahoma’s great devolution. The state is in a terrible mess. When I was the age of my sons, the state was much different. Its slow slide into poor health, poor schools, and poor social programs is beyond tragic.
Now that I have kids, I’m thinking more about my own childhood. My childhood could not be more different than the one my kids have. I think rural Oklahoma would be a hard place to live now; so I’m nostalgic for the Oklahoma that I love, angry about the Oklahoma that is there now, and curious about what can be done.
The most personal poem in my forthcoming book is about Oklahoma. I don’t know if anyone from my home state will read it, but I suppose the poem, called “Geographic Self-Portrait” (which was inspired by a poem about Indiana by USF poet Bruce Snider) is a sort of love song to the Oklahoma I used to love.
Does landscape factor into this process?
Yes. Perhaps. I often wonder if where I live in the city, The Richmond, influences how often I think about the landscape of Oklahoma. I see the ocean every day, and in San Francisco, the ocean most resembles the wheat fields of western Oklahoma. I grew up seeing this wavy landscape stretch out in front of me. For me, landscape is always a nearly empty, wavy horizon. Here, when I go out to the ocean, the rippling waves look a lot like the wheat rippling in the Oklahoma wind. For whatever reason I always remember looking west, perhaps that was where the world flattened out a little. This meant I was often looking toward the sunset. When I go to Ocean Beach, I am always looking toward the sunset. Directionally, from a topographical perspective, the ocean and the wheat field are shockingly similar.
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Someone from Oklahoma read it and LOVES it.