Thursday, May 15, 2014

Poet Daniel Tobin: Casting a wide Net with his new poetry collection. Interview with Doug Holder

Poet Daniel Tobin

Poet Daniel Tobin: Casting a wide Net with his new poetry collection.

Interview with Doug Holder

Like any fine poet Daniel Tobin casts a wide net in his new collection of poetry The Net. Tobin, like Whitman, takes it all in and uses what he finds for fodder for his accomplished work. He is always on the lookout for what transcends the material world, the steak behind the sizzle, and what makes us run like a mutt after a meat truck.

 Daniel Tobin is the author of seven books of poems, Where the World is Made (University Press of New England, 1999), Double Life (Louisiana State University Press, 2004), The Narrows (Four Way Books, 2005), Second Things (Four Way Books, 2008), Belated Heavens (Four Way Books, 2010), The Net (Four Way Books, 2014), and From Nothing (forthcoming, Four Way Books, 2016). Among his awards are the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry, "The Discovery/​The Nation Award," The Robert Penn Warren Award, the Greensboro Review Prize, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize, a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a fellowship in poetry from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. The Narrows was a featured book on Poetry Daily, as well as a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Poetry Book Award.

I had the pleasure to speak to him on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.


Doug Holder: Dan, the poet Bill Knott died recently. He was a colleague of yours at Emerson College in Boston. Any anecdotes you would like to share?

Dan Tobin:  Bill was a terrific teacher. He was a very important poet of his generation. I was his department chair at one point. Bill was an eccentric. He basically did what he wanted to do. On one hand it was difficult to be his department chair, but on the other hand he was brilliant and you had to appreciate his dedication to the students. He was profoundly dedicated to them. He even bought them books…just one of the many things he did for them. He was very challenging in the classroom, and he would challenge his students very vigorously. He pulled no punches. If you could accept Knott’s stringent evaluation then you could learn a few things.

DH: You have a new poetry collection out The Net (Four Way Books). Can you explain the genesis of this collection—the germ of the idea?

DT: The title came to me after a number of false starts over the years. I saw this pattern of water imagery—things being connected to each other—in ways that were cosmic and intimate. The poems in the collection are philosophical and personal. The book has an epigraph from John Donne’s great poem “Anatomy of the World”:

For our meridians, and parallels,
Man hath weaved
Upon the heavens, and how they are his own.

 This book I suppose is a book of boundaries. Part of it is the human consciousness that shapes our view of heaven. But part of it deals with what is beyond our access—beyond our control. It is book of boundaries between the natural world and internal human space. I have to believe there is something that transcends us.

DH:  You were brought up in the Catholic faith. Did that meet your spiritual needs?

DT: Not always. I always had an ongoing argument with the church when I was young. And of course with the disheartening recent history of the church—well... the argument continues. The Catholic writers I admire most were on the fringes. They went out to the wider world to reach something larger than themselves. Then they reported back. Anyway I struggle with my religion, but I don’t reject it.

DH: One blurb on the back of your book states that you combine the metaphysical with the physical. Isn’t that the definition of poetry?

DT: I think so. Poetry inhabits a strange space. It is physical on the page, and a good poem gets into your body. Poems have rhythms that becomes part of the body. The poems often point to the human questions…the ontological. Poems are clarified boundary spaces. We of course use language in a poem. It is a rarefied space—every word counts.

DH: As we have been taught since grade school point of view is important to all kinds of writing. A critic points out that you write not from the narcissistic “I” but from the “eye” itself.  Hard thing to pull off?

DT: It is always hard when one is going to write autobiographical materials to go above that, so it is not just  a documentary recording. So I allow my form to lead me to a broader perspective. I let the poem lead. I follow clues it gives to me. I see the poem as a path beyond the self. The poem wants something from you. It is very important to remember that.

DH: In the poems I have read in your new collection I get the sense that you want to dissolve into the landscape.

DT: Well… there is something to that. The tension seems to me between being alive in the world and wanting to enter a larger reality through nature or whatever. You want to be inhabited by something larger than yourself.

DH: You weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth. In fact you grew up in a working class family ( In the then unhip) Brooklyn. How did your path lead to poetry?

DT: It is unprecedented in my family. My father never finished high school. He worked as a longshoreman. We lived in Bay Ridge. I got interested in poetry in high school. A teacher Raul Rodriquez, a Cuban gentleman, encouraged me. He even had me read my work with a microphone. I wouldn’t have been a poet if it wasn’t for him.



Translated loosely from a lost Akkadian tablet
discovered among the ruins of Kush.

God of the first waters, Ea, listen,
You who parsed chaos with a net from the day:
Unfasten your knots, let the swells replenish
From subtlest channels, from the seams of flesh.
The galaxies circuit in their bright delay.
The least wind tempts me with what might have been.


This petition you’ve given is nothing new
Since nothing is older than the wish to die.
The dew is famished for the sun’s caress
But disappearance does not bring release.
You long to slip the image from the eye
But the sky’s wide mesh will not acquit you.

Published in The Common.

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