© 2022 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Sally Van Doren: 'Distaste for common speech'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 1, 2012 - Sally Van Doren is putting herself on the national poetry map. Born and raised in St. Louis, she is a graduate of Phillips Academy and Princeton University and received an MFA from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Not long after taking her MFA, Van Doren was awarded the 2007 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets for her first collection of poems, “Sex at Noon Taxes,” selected by August Kleinzahler, which was published in the spring of 2008 by LSU Press.

About her work, Kleinzahler wrote, “There are no dead moments, no fill: even the conjunctions, prepositions and assorted connectives carry a charge. The language is alive. The movement of language is alive. The mind at work here is at all points quick, full of play and bite.”

Gently Read Literature called “Sex at Noon Taxes,” “A linguaphile’s dream.” It’s a serious romp through wordplay, puns, anagrams, homophones, riddles, paradoxes, palindromes and sexual imagery. The book demonstrates, as she says in one poem, the author’s “distaste for common speech.”

Van Doren’s newest book, “Possessive,” will appear this fall on LSU Press. The book is a series of journal-like vignettes that portray personal and family relationships with intense lyricism. It’s less sexy than her first book, looking back elegiacally at lost friends and family, but retains the linguistic playfulness and compression. Last month I had a chance to read the pre-proof galleys and chat with the poet.

Newman: Your new book “Possessive ” seems to have many voices and speakers. It describes the anatomy of a marriage or relationship as well as a professional career as a poet, her friendships, and her family dynamics. It journals small triumphs and minor aggravations much like a modern female Catullus, but also the Biblical Eve makes a few appearances. How much do you consider these poems autobiographical, including the Eve poems, and how much do you put on masks and speak through characters?

Van Doren: I am increasingly [more] interested in the idea of a poem being a dramatic lyric construct than I am in my poems being strictly autobiographical. I like the challenge of making a poem sound confessional when it really is more of an imaginative excursion than a factual accounting of events.

I do admit, though, that usually the poems are generated from an emotional experience I have had or have observed in others. Several of the poems were written as elegies to my friend, Courtney Obata, and to my father. I carry strong memories of both of them that seem to make their way into my poems even when that is not my original intention.

Newman: Many readers, even experienced ones, find it hard not to make autobiographical assumptions. This book might indicate that you have numerous extra-marital lovers, both men and women, at least until we come to the poem "Things I Could Say," which seems to act as a disclaimer:

Things I Could Say

Talking is like having sex.
It's a physical interchange

between two people.
The main difference is that

conversation does not
result in fertilization.

Although I am monogamous,
it might look like I am

having sex with someone other
than my husband even when I'm not.

Van Doren: I didn’t write this meaning for it to be a personal disclaimer . . . to me, it’s a poem about the power of stimulation and also an investigation into intimacy and boundaries, how and why people set them and what the nature of monogamy might be.

Newman: What do you think of as some of the key poems in your new book?

Van Doren: I see some of the key poems being the Eve poems you mention. I wrote those after hearing my father-in-law, Charles Van Doren, give a talk on Mark Twain in which he mentioned (and introduced to me) Twain’s “Diaries of Adam and Eve.” Inspired by Twain’s treatment of the subject, I decided it would be fun to play around with Eve’s voice, place her in different times and see what doing so revealed about her relationship to herself, Adam and the world around her.

Newman: Language, word play, palindromes, riddles — these come up in both your first book, “Sex at Noon Taxes,” and this new one. Did you intentionally set out to make the poem "My Alphabet" an Ars Poetica? It reads like a boiled down statement of your poetic creed, especially with its wordplay, riddles and internal rhyme.

Van Doren: While most of the poems in this book were written in the last four years, I wrote “My Alphabet” about eight years ago. This poem is inspired in part by the title poem of Harryette Mullen’s book, "Sleeping with the Dictionary,” which I see as a clever declaration of literary lust. To answer your question, no, I did not intentionally set out to make “My Alphabet” an Ars Poetica, but I do think it reflects my love for language and my attraction to the language of love.

Newman: Your work does read like a dramatic lyric hybrid rather than containing traditional narrative elements. Many poems, like "The Distance Between I and Me," "Brothers" and "Cartographer," read like dramatic lyric poems where the back story has been cut away as unnecessary in order to sing one particular moment. Writers, especially poets, never want to tell too much, but do you ever worry about cutting so much of the context or back story away that you render a poem too private?

Van Doren: I do have to confess that I write first for myself. I am aware that I can’t control someone else’s response to what I consider to be my private expression.

Newman: I enjoyed the wry humor in the book, particularly in poems like "If I Were King of the Poetry World." Do you consider this book funnier or more satirical than your first book?

Van Doren: I’m sometimes surprised when people think my poems are funny when I did not intend them to be. Once, at a poetry festival, I read my poem, “Seventeen,” ;which I had previously thought was a really earnest, serious poem and everyone laughed. Since some of the poems in “Possessive" deal with things like loss, disappointment, anger and illness I think this book might be a bit darker than my first book.

Newman: I agree, although I think all those themes can also be funny, funnier even. “If I Were King” is also a poem about even the smallest power, say the power of the poetry world, going to someone's head. And it’s funny:

If I Were King of the Poetry World

I would eat tapeworm and not get sick.

I would buy a Fendi bag.

I would pose naked for the cover of Vanity Fair with the words of one of my poems covering my privates.

I would stay home and write more poetry.

I would be able to hold my head up high in my bathroom.

I would grocery shop while always checking over my shoulder for the paparazzi.

I would be invited to be on Oprah with the King of the Liposuction World.

I would go to a party with JF and pretend I did not know who he was.

I would sneeze and the 400,000 other poets in the world would say, “God bless you.”

I would be commissioned to write a new innovative edition of the Bible.

My dog would become a spokesperson for the anti-fur movement.

My children would be given backstage passes to the next U2 concert.

My husband would have to sit back and watch all the 200,000 male poets in the world lust after me.

I would not sleep with any of them.

I would think about sleeping with some of them.

I would organize one large orgy for all poets and their willing spouses and significant others.

I would pour champagne in my underwear.

I would stop speaking to everyone I knew before I became King.

I would speak to a therapist daily about power management issues.

I would run away from myself whenever I saw me coming.

I see this poem as a delicious satire of the poetry world and the self as poet—I mean even the king of the poetry world is a ridiculously small and paltry kingdom! But please tell me you meant to be ironic with the line about the champagne in the underwear.

Van Doren: I do think of it as a funny, satirical poem and your explication of it is spot on. I thought you were asking if I thought the poems in general in this book were more satirical than in my first book, which I don’t.

Newman: So if you were king of the poetry world, what would you really do?

Van Doren: If I were king of the poetry world, I would make sure to fulfill my campaign promise that through poetry everyone’s fantasies come true.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.