Interview with Iris Jamahl Dunkle (’10)

“I see the poems as a sequence, a lyric narrative about a woman . . . experiencing the deeply informative limbo found between childhood and adult life where the self is discovered.

1.      More than half of the poems in Inheritance are sonnets. Or are they all sonnets? Should we be thinking of this as a book of American sonnets, the form altered, but the vitality of the structure intact?

The book was derived out of a daily writing exercise I started after reading Robert Bly’s book, Morning Poems in 1997.  Bly wrote all of the poems within the collection as poem-a-day exercises.  So, while living in New York and commuting on the F-train from Brooklyn into Manhattan I gave myself the same daily writing assignment: write a sonnet every day.  I am a huge fan of the American sonnet form and spending 65 days writing 10 syllable, 14-line poems has helped me develop an ear for sonnet cadence I’ve never been able to shake.  Over the years as I revised the manuscript, many of the poems have lost the strict American sonnet structure (if there really is such a thing).

2.      Because the poems are numbered rather than named, the suspicion arises that this is a series or sequence of poems, rather than a collection. Is that true? What kind of distinctions would you make between the ideas of collection and sequence or series?

Yes, I see the poems as a sequence, a lyric narrative about a woman who is in a long distance relationship with a man she may marry, and who is at the same time experiencing the deeply informative limbo found between childhood and adult life where the self is discovered.  It became a sequence holistically. As I was writing, themes, or threads of lyric narrative, kept resurfacing and then weaving themselves into the other themes. It took many years for the text to come together as a whole.

3.      The book opens with an epigraph from Amy Lowell that would be apt for any collection of poems: “See! I give myself to you, Beloved!/ My words are little jars/For you to take and put upon a shelf.” How did your study of Amy Lowell alter the way you think about poetry?

I found that quote from Amy Lowell around the same time that I began writing this book and I’ve carried the words on a now tattered scrap of paper in my wallet ever since.  Lowell’s depiction of the expression of love – the words themselves – as containers, as little jars perfectly encapsulated my own perception of words of or about love, or the words spoken by a person in love.  It wasn’t until I entered my Ph.D. program at Case that I found the words of Sappho Lowell was alluding to in her poem.

Come, goddess of Cyprus, and in golden cups serve nectar delicately mixed with delights (trans. Wharton 63).

Finding that connection between Lowell and Sappho not only informed my choice of dissertation topic, but it always helped me understand my own poetic craft: my connection to the lyric poets who came before me and how as a poet I could allude to and emulate my foremothers.
Love lyrics are a visceral thing – a physical construct outside of the self, such as a jar, that contain not only the speaker’s perception of self, the beloved, memories, the blue sky, the bright stars and whatever else reflects back up at the speaker looking into the dark water contained in the jar.  Jean Valentine once told me a sonnet is a little church you build to look into a moment.  The moments that make up this sequence were constructed in jars, jars that spilled over into many other jars.

4. used to have a feature called “Concordance” which would count how many times a particular word was used in a book. Without actually counting, a reader might notice the recurrence of certain words in your poems: love, diamond, sink, ghost, snakes, moths, pink/blue, silver, want. Is this something you are conscious of? Are you deliberately creating an echo of word and meaning from poem to poem for a particular effect or effects?

Yes and no.  Because these poems were all written within a two month period, images, words, and themes overlap and repeat throughout the sequence.  I liked the way the repetition of the words resonated throughout the work so I didn’t revise them out but the actual repetition at the time of composition was completely unconscious.

5.      Although in some ways your book contains multitudes—an opening poem referencing birth and the closing poem forecasting death (“What the beetles will/ discover! The circus of our three rings—/ my false tooth like a tiny beached sailboat.”), still there is a sensibility of the past, of childhood furnishing the emotional and observational world of the poems. Could you comment on that?

Yes, one of the thematic threads that surfaced in this sequence was the theme of looking back into the past.  The images of the mother’s fear of marriage, and her hidden sorrow, were informed by not only my personal experience, but also by cultural representation of wives and mothers.  At the time I was writing this book I was also discovering Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, and Tillie Olson.  I was trying to come to terms with how being a writer and being a wife and/or mother would mesh without my voice going silent.

6.      Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?

The manuscript was completed in 1998, and was actually a finalist in the Wick Poetry Chapbook Open Competition in 2002 but I completely revised it between 2002 and 2009 when it was accepted by Finishing Line Press.  Between 2003 and 2009, thanks to my time at Case, I was completely immersed in poetry spanning from the early Greeks to the present day.  Inheritance, as it appears today was very much informed by all of the amazing poetry I had the pleasure of reading.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle currently lives and works in Northern California.  She received her M.F.A. from New York University and her Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University in 2010.  Her chapbook Inheritance was published by Finishing Line Press in June 2010.  Her work has also appeared in numerous publications including:  Fence, Boxcar Poetry Review, Kaleidowhirl, SNReview, Thin Air, Eaden Water’s Press Home Anthology, Hessler 2006 Poetry & Prose Annual, Cleveland in Prose and Poetry, and The Squaw Valley Writers Review. Her chapter on the cultural context of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar will be published by Salem Press in 2011.