Interview with Dan Rosenberg

“It is a rare privilege to know Dan both as a poet and as a teacher. Nearly three years ago, I was placed in his poetry workshop at the Iowa Young Writers Studio. Our first assignment was to read Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s surprising poem, “Song.” And I still remember how reading it made me wonder if it had been written for me.  But that was the joy of being in Dan’s workshop. He brought us closer to poetry from all over. He introduced us to poems with a remarkable kindness, love and friendship. And every morning, as we would meditate on language and poetry, Dan made us see how poetry can, in fact, be the greatest love and joy. Dan helped me realize that language can be the light and poetry, its sustenance.”

-Devanshi Khetarpal, Editor-in-Chief

Inklette: How does writing poetry affect your life? Has it made you a better person?

Dan: I fear the long history of poetry doesn’t offer much evidence that writing it makes you a better person. I’ve never thought of it as an external force that can affect my life, really; it’s bred in the bones of my life. What I am. After Auden famously says that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he less famously says it is “A way of happening, a mouth.” That sounds right to me. When I was a child, I wrote for myself, mostly thinly-veiled autobiographical poems. Now that I’m an adult, I write autobiographical poems with veils of various thickness. But everyone does that. I think my poems that are not straightforwardly responding to some aspect of my life remain autobiographical because I have an expansive view of the self – politics are part of my life, faith and the lack thereof, strangers. Which is a way of saying that writing poetry can be a way of articulating empathy.

Inklette: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the process of poetic composition? How do your other interests converge or diverge with your literary ones?

Dan: The boring answer here is time: Having a small child means that I no longer have the same huge swaths of time I once had to stare at the wall and argue with myself over line-breaks. But this happened to me recently: I had brought my son over to his friend’s house for a playdate, and I was talking with the friend’s dad. We’d apparently exhausted all natural conversation topics, because he asked me what I like to do besides work. And I froze. Do I not have hobbies? I spend my time being a father, a husband, a professor, a poet. I like watching TV and movies, but that’s not a hobby. I read all the time, but that’s technically part of my work. I laughed off my lack of response to him, and worried about it quietly for a week until I was going for a walk with a different friend. I told her I wanted to pick up a hobby because I didn’t have an answer to this guy’s question. She asked me if he was an artist, knowing that the answer was no. She reminded me that artists don’t have hobbies; we live our work, and everything we do is part of our work. I don’t know if that’s true, but it made me feel better. Also, I’m excited to get deep into gardening this spring. (“Verse” comes from Latin for a turn of the plow, a row or line.)

Inkette: Can you pinpoint a moment when you fell in love with poetry and writing? How has career impacted your conception of what you do throughout your life?

Dan: I’ve always been in love with reading and writing, and poetry has always been a part of that. It wasn’t until college, though, when I started studying poetry with Peter Richards, that it became something I considered having as part of my professional, public life, as opposed to just a thing I would always do on my own. He was the first person to read my poems critically, to tear them apart, really, and I thrived in his honesty. I had always been a grade-A nerd, and had never received much besides affirmation from my teachers. So there was something shocking and enlivening to bring five poems to Peter and watch him throw four of them into the recycle bin after a quick glance, and then dive deeply into what was working well in just three lines of the one remaining poem. I don’t think this approach would have been successful with everyone, and I’ve rarely felt comfortable approaching my own students’ work in this way, but it helped me immeasurably. That first class with Peter was a turning point, for me. At the same time, I had the chance to work as a TA in some other classes, to study pedagogy a bit, and those early tastes of teaching helped send me down the path I’m on now.

Inklette: How has your experience co-translating Miklavž Komelj’s Hippodrome changed your relationship to language both as a tool for communication and an artistic medium?

Dan: There is something tremendously liberating about translating, the way writing in a form, under strict constraints, is liberating. But unlike any other kind of constraint, working as a translator drives home the contingency of your language, the sense that your language is just one of many ways of construing and constructing the world.

For example, the very title of the collection posed a translation problem: In Slovene, hipodrom refers to a racetrack—where you could go and bet on the horses today—but also to the historical stadiums built by the Greeks and the Romans, the ruins that dot the modern landscape of the ancient world. There is no division in Slovene between the ancient thing and the modern thing. As an American, this notion of a continuous history is in some sense inconceivable. Trying to articulate the inconceivable: is that a definition of translation, or of poetry?

DanRosenbergDAN ROSENBERG is the author of cadabra (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2015) and The Crushing Organ (Dream Horse Press, 2012). He has also written two chapbooks, A Thread of Hands (Tilt Press, 2010) and Thigh’s Hollow (Omnidawn, 2015), and he co-translated Miklavž Komelj’s Hippodrome (Zephyr Press, 2016).

Rosenberg’s honors include a Presidential Fellowship from the University of Georgia, the 2011 American Poetry Journal Book Prize and the 2014 Omnidawn Chapbook Contest. His poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in such magazines as Ploughshares, Colorado Review, Boston Review, Poetry International, and Conjunctions. 

Rosenberg is an Assistant Professor of English at Wells College, where he also coordinates the Visiting Writers Series and the annual Chapbook Contest. He also co-edits Transom, an independent online journal of poetry and translation.