Comment on this article


Sharon Auberle interviews Bruce Dethlefsen, author of Breather–his latest collection of poetry (Fireweed Press, 2009) and two previous collections, A Decent Reed (Tamafyhr Mountain Press); and Something Near the Dance Floor (Marsh River Editions). Bruce lives in Westfield, Wisconsin and has served as the secretary of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets for six years.

So the poet, Bruce Dethlefsen, and I are sitting in the (virtual) Mimi’s Golightly Café, (virtual) cups of coffee in hand, our (virtual) chairs quite comfortable…it’s snowing out there in cyberland…perfect weather for talking poetry…

SEA: I know you are a fine musician as well as poet, and have a band by the name of annaRANaway. I have to ask, is there a story behind this name?

BD: We lost a member of our original band, The Courthouse Boogie Band, and wanted to change our name. My all-time favorite name, The Dead Sea Squirrels, I found, was already taken. Heartbroken, I kept coming up with and suggesting new names, but for some reason all my ideas were, one by one, rejected…The Organic Republic, Muck Farm, The Girl at the Picnic, and Soylent Helper…can you believe it? Anyway, at one point we had to sign a contract for an upcoming gig and I had to put a name down, so I put annaRANaway, the title of one of our new songs. I really liked the sound of it and, so far, it’s stuck.  annaRANaway is on hold now and I’m working musically with Bill Orth, our lead guitarist, as a duo called Obvious Dog, from Marilyn Taylor’s description of a poem in progress that is beyond resuscitation. It kind of fits. What was the question?
SEA: When did you begin writing poetry?

BD: I remember in seventh grade writing a poem about a key in a tree that needed to be freed. It was horrible. I did, however, continue to write down lines I found intriguing to me. I didn’t share them, though. It wasn’t the sort of thing an all-star baseball catcher would do back then.

In college I fancied myself a surrealist, and wrote poems on demand. Most of them were awful, too.
SEA: Who were your models and/or inspiration? Were they the classical poets—Whitman, Blake, Yeats, etc. ? Do you think it’s important for poets to have a knowledge of the “old” poets? In other words, do you think poets should know the rules before they can break them? I know in your poem The Way of the Poet Warrior there is a line that says just this…learn each rule, then break each rule. Is this poem your manifesto?

BD: Very early on I was absolutely knocked out by a book I found in the attic, a big orange volume slipped into a shiny black box, Translations from the Chinese by Arthur Waley. I read Li Po, a drunken poet who howled at the moon. The same moon I saw centuries later. I also read William Blake.

As a college freshman, I thought Rod McKuen wrote directly and only to me. I got over that pretty quickly when I discovered the romance of Leonard Cohen and the tough Detroit housewife, Marge Piercy. And then, god help me, I found Richard Brautigan. I’m still not over that.

Yes, I think a poet needs to understand the craft first …choose each tool carefully and build up the tool chest. Picasso wasn’t Picasso till he put in the work, if you know what I mean. The Way of the Poet Warrior reminds me of what I’m trying to do. It compiles writing ideas from Thomas Lux, other teachers, and my own ideas as advice to poets. In that sense, you could call it my manifesto. Yeah, I guess so.
SEA: Did your childhood pre-dispose you toward poetry? Do you think there is a common childhood factor in poets?

BD: I watched my mother, a displaced Okie, in her house-dress dance and sing around the kitchen. She loved to make up songs and little rhymes. The sillier, the better. She gave me permission to mess with words, the sound of words strung and unstrung together. e. e. cummings also told me it’s okay to play.

Most poets I know read and were read to as children. I remember fondly the words, the pictures, the touching, the warmth of hand and voice as my mother read to me.
SEA: Is there such a thing as “a Midwest voice?” Do you have it?

BD: Garrison Keillor is the Voice of the Midwest. Bless his heart. I have a touch of Missouri twang that still pops up every so often.
SEA: Do you still go to workshops? Do you give workshops?

BD: I go to workshops whenever I can afford to. I’ve been to workshops at the universities of Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and Sarah Lawrence. For me, it really depends who’s teaching there. Yes, I give workshops and I’d love to do more.
SEA: Do you write every day? A certain time, a writing schedule? Or just when inspiration strikes?

BD: I write every day, the fourth thing every morning for the last twelve years or so. Thank you, Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, for giving me “morning pages” to write. I buy cheap spiral notebooks and use purple ink from my Waterman fountain pen. Sometimes poems wiggle out of these pages. Otherwise, I wait for and try to snatch poem ideas that fly by. My first three or four drafts are done with pen and paper. There’s something very important about that feel, the scratchiness, of the process for me.
SEA: In some of your very painful poems, is the speaker you? Or just a made-up composite, perhaps? (Two Kleenexes; November Lake) If the speaker is not you, do you care if people think that it is? Is this something that concerns you?

BD: The speaker in my poems is me sometimes and not me sometimes. If someone asks me directly, I’ll tell them. It really doesn’t matter to me. Verisimilitudinity (you try spelling a nine syllable word) however, does.
SEA: A related question—do you ever hold back work that is too personal?

BD: Yes, I do hold back. I write and collect poems that are too personal in a notebook I call Cobwebs. These poems are not for public consumption. I find I am compelled to write them.
SEA: On the lighter side…do you use your Poetic License a lot? Keep it renewed?

BD: My Poetic License allows me to add one “lemon drop,” something that only I understand, into each poem. I hope to get my license stamped for haiku, sonnets and trout fishing eventually.
SEA: Do you continually submit poems for outside publication? Is this important to you? Should it be important for other poets? As we all know, it gets to be tedious and downright painful.

BD: I wish I was more comfortable submitting my poems. I have a tendency towards shyness. I am, however, convinced that the artist has an obligation to share the work. It’s just part of the deal.
SEA: Do you feel it’s important for poets to write about world concerns? Your poems from the Breather collection--Paso del Norte and Behind the Davenport are beautiful examples.

BD: Thanks. Poets need to write about everything and get up on their voice boxes when necessary. Who else is going to tell the truth?
SEA: Is there a group you work with, or would like to, that would benefit by hearing or learning to write poetry? (Alzheimers; homeless, prisoners, etc.)

BD: I love working with librarians (they’re smart, co-dependent, vote correctly, and they recycle) to set up regular poetry readings at public libraries. Every little town has poets hiding in the bushes who are just waiting to be asked to share their work. It’s wonderful.
SEA: Would you be interested in a collaborative effort with another poet, along the lines of Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser’s Braided Creek? Do you think this is a good idea?

BD: It’s too early to tell. I’m awfully protective of my words. Collaboration works so well for some poets, they build on each other. I’m not ready yet. Maybe I simply haven’t found the right partner so far.
SEA: What is your definition of poetry? How do you define the “poetry” in a piece of writing as opposed to a simple narrative written vertically?

BD: Poetry is a written image, more an outline of an image that evokes some reaction in the reader. It is music and contains little drops of water from one very big river.

I have a theory. If a novel is winter and a short story is a blizzard, then a poem is a snowball, a single shot, squeezed.
SEA: Congratulations on your Pushcart Prize nomination! Is this your first?

BD: Thank you (and here’s to your nomination, too). I was also nominated in 2003 by Linda Aschbrenner at Free Verse.
SEA: Your poetry is so accessible. Is this a conscious choice on your part? How do you keep it from being too specific to your experience, and express the universality in a poem? Your poem Up In the Cupboard, went straight to my own experience and pain---simply perfect, in nine short lines.

BD: Readers aren’t stupid. All the reader needs is a little place to stand and something interesting to look at and they’ll fill in the rest. For the poet, it’s sort of a catch and release process. Poets take the world so personally and then return it universally.
SEA: So you’re retired now, I hear. Do you find that you’re writing more?  Is there another book in the wings?

BD: I can devote more time to writing and thinking about writing now that I’m retired. My hope is to write, say, ten decent poems a year and continue to put books together. I would also like to collect and edit a volume of poems by other poets about the first thing they remember.
SEA: Who are your favorite poets now?

BD: My favorite poets are (and this list changes) Carl Dennis, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, Ted Kooser, and Mark Doty. And, of course, my Wisconsin poetry sisters and brothers.
SEA: Poet Mary Oliver says be ignited or be gone. What, besides poetry, lights your fire these days?

BD: I firmly believe that in order to be “burned out” you have had to have been (don’t you love auxiliary verbs?) actually “on fire” at some point. Besides poetry I love creating, performing, and listening to music. Music makes us human. Reading, gardening, and fishing make good kindling, too. I do regret, however, missing the opera bus…..oh well, maybe next time.


Ordering information:
"Breather" may be ordered from:
Bruce Dethlefsen
422 Lawrence St.
Westfield, WI 53964
$15.00/copy + $2.00 shipping & handling

Return to:

[New] [Archives] [Join] [Contact Us] [Poetry in Motion] [Store] [Staff] [Guidelines]