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"Aroused then Ashamed": An Interview with Patrick Dundon

Patrick Dundon is a graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University where he served as Editor-in-Chief for Salt Hill Journal. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Sixth Finch, The Adroit Journal, Birdfeast, DIAGRAM, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He currently lives, writes, and teaches preschool in Portland, OR.

His poems, "Dream with a Piece of Cake," "Dream with Explanations" and "Dream with a Potted Plant," appeared in Issue Ninety-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Christina Oddo about broken relationships, allegorical violence, and writing & repeating.

What really caught me about this work was the contrasting images, presented line-by-line. The first line, “[w]e are in your garden,” creates illusion of a peaceful continuation to follow. Yet the second line, “slaughtering rabbits,” immediately disturbs this. And so the work goes. What kind of advice can you give to new or aspiring writers who are looking to create stark images like this?

When I wrote this poem, I was in the midst of a sexually ambiguous relationship that was driving me crazy. It was a mixture of tenderness, alienation, fantasy, spastic sexual energy, confusion, hope, and lots of miscommunication. I’d tried writing about it, but everything I wrote felt too forced or cliché, filled with contrived anger or longing. Then one morning I gave up whatever emotional agenda I thought I had, closed my eyes, and imagined us together. Where were we? What were we doing? And there we were, in that garden, killing little bunnies. At first I was alarmed—Why so violent? What did it mean? I had no idea, but it felt like the beginning of a movie I definitely wanted to watch. The rest of the writing process felt less like writing and more like watching that movie play out to its natural conclusion. I hate it when writers say “the poem wrote itself” because it’s the kind of advice that is 100% unhelpful, but some poems really feel that way, and this was one of them. I wrote it quickly, in one sitting. But I’d already spent weeks obsessing about this relationship: writing bad poems, texting friends, crying while listening to the Cranberries, having strange dreams, screaming in my car, soothing myself with frosties at Wendy’s. That was all an essential part of the writing process—the path that led to this particular garden.

I know I’ve hit a good image when I can’t quite parse it, when it’s emotionally impactful but there’s no way to summarize that impact except with the image itself. Before I ever started writing poetry, I obsessively recorded my dreams. I like how the right dream image can be emotionally rich, psychologically ambiguous, and gesture toward many meanings without landing on one. It’s so difficult to offer advice about image-making, because the best images, for me, arise suddenly like waking dreams but feel as real and familiar as my own hands. They are a relief to unearth, not a thrill to invent.

There is also a disconnect between the human-touch and violence. “[S]laughtering,” “knife,” and “blood,” conflict with “lean in” and “kiss.” And then in the second-to-last line, the “fuck you” disrupts anything pleasant already presented, much like “slaughtering rabbits” in the second line. What does this disconnect mean to you, and what were you hoping to convey to readers?

Right after I wrote this poem, I texted it to a friend, expecting her response to be something like, “are you okay?” I set out to write a love poem, and ended up with a pile of carcasses. I was aware of the disconnect you mentioned, between human touch and violence but wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. I’m still not. What interests me most about love isn’t its achievement, but instead the gulf that exists between our fantasies and the messiness of reality. It’s in that gap where the imagination can go wild. It’s the moment in the poem when the speaker sees a piece of cake in a bloodstain. This is a reason I like to write about dreams: they are a space where we reconcile our fantasies, where those fantasies cross-pollinate with our subconscious baggage.

I think it’s important that this poem is, in fact, a dream. There are no real rabbits, no actual fucking. That casts the violence in a different light, one that’s consciously more allegorical. My friend just broke up with her boyfriend and told me she has recurrent dreams that she’s strangling him. The dreams are less about killing him and more about silencing him. My favorite dreams are the ones that resist a single interpretation, that gesture toward a complicated psychological state. Here it’s a mixture of desire, daydream, violence, shame, lust, and working toward a common goal. I don’t like having too tight an analysis on what my poems mean. If I knew exactly what I were trying to say, I’d write an essay. Which isn’t to say that the poem lacks intent. I wanted to show what it felt like to cry to that Cranberries song.

What are you working on currently?

I wake up, drink coffee, stare, write, repeat. Some days, there’s a good line or image. Most days, there isn’t. I can’t seem to get away from writing about love, desire, heartbreak, and alienation. I used to feel a certain pressure to write about other things, but when I forced myself into different subject matters, it never seemed to work. Desire and heartbreak is my particular burrow, my tunnel into the self.

I tend to write the most when I’m emotionally jostled, when I have excess energy I need to transmute with language. My most creative state is probably that moment when I’m waiting for a text from someone I have a crush on. It’s awful. It always yields a poem.

I’ve been writing more prose recently. There’s something about alleviating the pressure to create “a poem” that can free me up to say what I really mean. What results is often a poem without lines. I’ll take it.

What have you read recently?

I recently read “The Idiot” by Elif Batuman and really loved it. I pretty much always have a copy of “The Incognito Lounge” by Denis Johnson with me. My friend Abbey Numedahl just sent me a story she wrote that was stunningly beautiful and made me cry. Oh, and sometimes I re-read texts and emails from former lovers.  Which I don’t recommend, but I just can’t help myself.

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