Novelist Stephen Dobyns on the kick of a good poem
Stephen Dobyns is a rare breed, an award-winning poet and a crime novelist whom Stephen King praises. The Rhode Island resident mixes his usual dark comedy into his new whodunnit, “Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?”
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
DOBYNS: I never read Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier." I've been reading books that I should have read years ago and did not. That's one of them. I also just finished Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels. They grip you violently.
BOOKS: What's so gripping?
DOBYNS: She sets up a series of little crises, one after the other. There's also constant fighting. Except for the main character, people are unable to discuss situations that upset them. Instead they turn to violence.
BOOKS: When did you start filling in your literary holes?
DOBYNS: About a year ago. I majored in English in college and that was my major in graduate school before switching to creative writing. I read a lot of Dickens and Trollope, but there was lots of stuff I hadn't read like Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," which is so well written and funny.
BOOKS: What other literary holes did you fill in?
DOBYNS: All of Jane Austen. I had not read George Eliot, so read a few. I felt ashamed I hadn't read "Middlemarch" before. I think I made a mistake with Austen by reading all six in a row. There are similarities to the plots so by the time I got to the last one I could anticipate what was happening too easily. But her characterizations are amazing.
BOOKS: Do you read largely fiction?
DOBYNS: Other than fiction and poetry I tend to read history. I'm reading "The Sunset of a Splendid Century" by W.H. Lewis. He was C.S. Lewis's brother. He wrote two books about the French court of Louis XIV that are incredibly detailed. They are books that on every page you say, "Wow, think of that."
BOOKS: How do you pick what you read?
DOBYNS: Sometimes someone will tell me about an author I've never heard of before and that will send me to that person. That's how I discovered Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian novelist whose novels tend to be one long rant. The friend who recommended them to me said that they were incredibly funny, which is true, but sometimes I find the rants so ferocious the humor slips by me. The same thing is true with the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St. Aubyn. They are full of funny but nasty people.
BOOKS: What are you reading for poetry?
DOBYNS: I'm reading a manuscript by Rodney Jones, "Village Prodigies," which will be published next year. It's one of the best contemporary poetry books I've ever read ever. It's about a group of boys who grew up together. The poems keep moving back between these boys over the time. There's a Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. He died about 10 years ago. He was a very crotchety, strange man, but his poems are wonderful. He was nominated for the Nobel in the 1990s but never won.
BOOKS: Do prizes influence what you read?
DOBYNS: Not necessarily but I had a period when I read Nobel Prize winners. I figured they had to be good. I discovered some people I didn't know about, like the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness, who wrote "Independent People."
BOOKS: Who are your go-to poets?
DOBYNS: Jones, Louise Gluck, C.K. Williams, Thomas Lux. A lot of the poets that I like are the ones that influenced me as a writer. I remember coming upon Philip Larkin in my 20s in the early '60s and when Sylvia Plath's "Ariel" came out it knocked me off my feet. Reading a good poem can give me a far bigger kick than a novel. But it's not something I can keep doing. It would be like shooting up 10 times a day."