An Interview With Dustin Pearson
After finishing Millennial Roost, I had to return to “Prelude” a few times – just to be reminded what a powerful promise it makes. You all but tell the reader to “Turn back. Go no further.” Yet it pulled me forward. I guess it excited me. It also reminded me of the "Prologue" in “Don Quixote” where Cervantes reminds the reader “you are neither relative nor friend but may call your soul your own and exercise your free judgement. You are in your own house where you are master as the king is of his taxes…” Sound familiar?
Right. “Prelude” is an ambivalent invitation to come in. It’s a filter and a warning for the reading experience of the book. The speaker has been preyed upon and is anxious about perpetuating predatory behavior. Excitement, given the book’s subject matter, is complex. It’s potentially scary. Well intentioned readers and predators could have any number of reasons to be excited. The speaker takes a huge risk with a beautiful optimism.
The speaker in Millennial Roost – through a series of letters addressed to an abuser and poems addressing that abuse – navigates a maelstrom of personal history. The speaker also raises questions about memory, motive, and even meaning during the process. Can you talk about how language can be a compass through trauma in this book?
There’s a way that Millennial Roost shows a reader the abuse—the emotional, physiological and psychological distortion it imposes—without the reader even recognizing that’s what they’re getting. We keep being shown that the physical abuse is easily dismissed. There are a few venues in society reserved for the dismissal of those abusers and abused. Sometimes those venues are behind an elite paywall, but regardless, every venue is reserved at a high cost. Millennial Roost destabilizes the convenience of that dismissal by offering no easy categories and little of the familiar vocabulary, and everyone is implicated.
It feels like Millennial Roost and to a different extent A Family is a House, are books partaking in the tradition of “poetry of the personal.” Is that an accurate reading? How influential do you feel the “Confessional” movement in American poetry is to your work? Who are your influences?
I love that both books are read that way. To me that means that both offer an intimate, moving, and specific reading experience. I don’t think the Confessional movement in American poetry is very influential to my work, or perhaps not especially. I’ve read and (mostly) enjoyed poems by Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Snodgrass, and Berryman, but I don’t specifically think about them when I’m writing. I do feel a kinship with how those poets were seeking truth behind the failures of what the church and the science of their day offered them. I don’t think the truth, subjective as it is, has hit the mainstream yet. I don’t think the truth is lauded or desired a fourth as much as we’re meant to believe by the mainstream, but even saying as much, I think there’s nothing confessional about an abusive egg laying rooster or a mother with an eternal flame inside her mouth even as they were useful ways for me to get at the truth. Some writers I think about when I’m writing include Jack Spicer, Ben Mirov, Jillian Weise, Etheridge Knight, David Ignatow, Nicole Sealey, Suji Kwock Kim, Mo Yan, Joe Wenderoth, and Bharati Mukherjee.
A Family is a House is quite different from Millennial Roost, and yet, reading both books, you find connections. The familial themes that run through both are readily apparent, but there’s a subtle connection, the addition of “We” as a primary pronoun. The book paints a Hieronymus Boschean landscape with fantastic and nightmarish characters who make up the family. I love the line
“our Aunt tells us/ everything about our family is something to stare at”
which is, I think, something everyone can relate to. Can you talk a little about family in your work?
I guess family is inevitable. I’m sure I didn’t process the presence of family in Millennial Roost. I see the appearance of family members in that book as stock or secondary or peripheral or supplemental. Family takes centerstage in A Family Is a House. The whole book was an accident. After Millennial Roost, I had no idea what I was doing. I wrote “The Flame in Mother’s Mouth” and then before I knew it, I’d collected a group of poems about family with magical elements in them. I think I was trying to push my aesthetic in a different direction more than anything else, but I remember having conversations with friends about how much they made reference to their families and various characters / happenings within them. That was something I never did. The way they talked about family was so wholesome and Hallmark. I didn’t get it. I read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in a modernist class near the end of my undergraduate career, and I became really invested in this one scene that discusses motherhood. If I’m remembering correctly, the mother expresses her disappointment at what she was led to believe motherhood was. She says something like whoever came up with that definition didn’t know what they were talking about. She had to come into her own definition, so when I figured out that I wouldn’t be able to avoid writing A Family Is a House, I let that principle be my guide. In a lot of ways, that book is too magical and broad for me to recognize it as my family, but I think the book does relieve a lot of the anxiety and angst I had around that word and the standard thinking around that word.
What are you reading these days that excites you?
I’m reading a lot of Modernist poets in preparation for my preliminary exams. There’s something fascinating about how that work strove and struggled to rise to the occasion of the changing times and how both imminent and dated of a reading experience that work offers now. I’m also teaching fiction this semester, and I’ve loved reading Jonathan Escoffery and Amina Gautier and revisiting Krys Lee, Mo Yan, Bharati Mukherjee.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the seminar “Empathizing the Lyric Narrative” you are going to lead on November 16 and maybe a little bit about what participants can expect?
It’s been an ongoing effort for me to learn the relationship between poetry and empathy, or specifically poetry’s ability to provoke empathy or an empathetic response. I thought the seminar would be an examination of that relationship in lyric narrative poems, the particular tactics lyric narrative poems take to provoke an empathetic response in a reader, but I’ve recently decided that I’m much more interested in climate stress / anxiety and solastalgia, how those terms offer different frames for environmental / ecological / end of the world poems and how those terms are embedding themselves into writing in ways we don't realize, so perhaps I’ll combine the two ideas. Either way, we’ll be doing some great writing and discussing during the session.
Dustin Pearson is the author of Millennial Roost (C&R Press, 2018) and A Family is a House (C&R Press, 2019). He is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing at Florida State University. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Pearson has served as the editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review and a director of the Clemson Literary Festival. He won the Academy of American Poets Katharine C. Turner Prize and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. His work appears in Blackbird, Vinyl Poetry, Bennington Review, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere.