Robert Dana, Iowa
At what age did you start writing?
Do you mean well, or just writing? I started probably sometime around the age of 13 as a freshman in high school, but the poems were pretty awful. I didn’t start writing really well until I was 24, after a couple of years at the original Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That would have been around 1952. I published my first poem in Poetry in 1954.
Can you share some of the inspirations for your writing?
Inspiration isn’t a word I use very often. Someone once said, “Writing is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” I believe that. If you mean what “sources” my writing arises from, I’d reply “The ordinary work of daily life.” The possibility of a poem is always there, right in front of you. You may not be open to it, or you may be too lazy to develop the image or the theme or the possibilities of language, but it’s there. Some of my best work has it’s start when I’m literally sweating--pruning roses on a hot day, chopping kindling, riding an overheated bus to a reading at some college or other.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Mostly just staying alive. I was an orphan at 8 years old during the Great Depression. I was barely 18 and a discharged veteran of WW II, just drifting, when I strayed into college in 1949. I’ve survived some serious surgeries over the years.
As far as literary challenges are concerned, just surviving a workshop class under John Berryman’s very critical eye was a major test.
Describe turning points in your career as a writer.
Well, being a student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where I studied with Karl Shapiro, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman was crucial. The workshop was tiny then and under funded—the Berryman class consisted of only 13 students. But what students my comrades were!! Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Jane Cooper, Philip Levine, Robert Bly, Henri Coulette! The workshop was a hothouse of intelligence and criticism and work.
Later, Robert Frost, Stephen Spender, Denise Levertov, Ted Solotaroff, James Laughlin—all of these people were important to my development in one way or another at one time or another.
Who were some of your mentors?
Well, the list above might serve as an answer. It’s hard to choose among them. If forced to, I’d say Lowell, Berryman, and Spender were the most influential and in different ways. Lowell saw something in my poems before I recognized it myself, and he encouraged me to go on writing. Berryman was a scourge. He tolerated no cheap language, clumsy syntax, and sentimentality. In short, he drove me to improve, to work harder, and to expect more of myself. I think of him often. Spender came into my life much later, in the early 1970’s. I’d already been publishing in the best literary magazines in the country by then—Poetry, The New Yorker, The Sewanee Review. From Stephen I learned what real literary greatness is, what decency is, and how to handle in a low-key way whatever literary success it may be your good fortune to achieve. How to go lightly, you might say.
List some of your favorite books/poems.
Fiction: Hemingway’s Collected Short Stories; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night; Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Henderson The Rain King. Poetry: Robert Frost, Collected Poems; some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos; Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems; Robert Lowell’s Life Studies; John Berryman’s The Dream Songs; William Carlos Williams’s The Complete Poems; and on and on.#