An interview by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Dustin Pearson’s poetry is next-level. In his newest collection Millennial Roost, Pearson shocks, comforts and thrills, digging into challenging relationships with heart-wrenching, fresh, and often delightfully satirical language. With sly turns of phrase and a punch-in-the-gut command of the emotion, his poetry commands attention.
Pearson is currently a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing at Florida State University, and the recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. He has served as the editor of Hayden's Ferry Review and a Director of the Clemson Literary Festival. He has also 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, and elsewhere. His second full-length collection A Family Is a House, will be released on C&R Press in 2019. Origins has also published his work in past issues here.
In this interview conducted in 2017, we discussed the collection-assembling process, the use of the epistolary, and the role of emotion and location in poetry.
This is a stellar collection. It’s as surprising as it is bold. Would you talk a bit about your original vision for this collection? How did your original vision change as you compiled these poems?
Thanks, Jennifer. I think I knew when I started writing Millennial Roost that poetry was a grand venue for unresolved, neglected, and gone-missing consciousness, so I made it one of my goals to let the eccentricities that I tend to sort or repress exist in their original presentation within the book. In other words, I think I gave myself an unprecedented amount of freedom to preserve my tendency to make jumps in logic or be wildly associative, to talk about things I’d never talk about, and to place all those threads and turns of thought beside each other, even though I was writing over upsetting subject matter. I think there’s something about writing and the process of writing (especially in poetry) that makes that combination of facts and aspirations more ok and “readable” than it would be anywhere else.
I remember being completely surprised when I wrote “Mr. Hen,” the poem that launches the book into allegory and introduces the epistolary arc of the book. I didn’t know I would take that line, “I think I’ll write him some letters,” literally, even if it seems, in retrospect, a completely reasonable thing to do.
The collection features a number of epistolary poems. In “Mr. Hen,” the speaker meets an allegorical chicken who is “equal pitch chicken and monster.” The speaker makes the decision to take the power back and name the "chicken" Mr. Hen, and write letters to him. Would you talk a bit about the use of Mr. Hen, or a "receiver" of the letters to provide cohesion throughout the collection? Why did you choose to write many of the poems in epistle form?
Yeah, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of taking power back through a name. I think it’s true but not the way I picture it when people say that kind of thing in relation to trauma or trauma narratives. Before I wrote “Mr. Hen,” I kept finding that writing in the realm of “reality” wasn’t satisfying or useful because nothing seemed “natural” as much as forced and reductive, at least in light of the trauma or who my speaker had become in the aftermath of the trauma. It would be a certain kind of easy to craft a literal account of the speaker’s abuse, but that account wouldn’t say much to what the abuse means and has meant to the speaker, which I had to believe was more compelling. Starting his meditation in adulthood, the speaker only has one kind of true or faithful access to the abuse explored over the course of the entire collection, and placing the narrative and disclosures in the realm of allegory is a quick and effective way to acknowledge that kind of thing to readers when they start reading the book. Hopefully the result is that readers continue reading for the speaker’s voice, transformation, and his transformation of the abuse, because writing toward a universal sense of what might be perceived as reality is likely impossible, but it feels doubly so in the case of childhood sexual abuse and the spiraling internalizations of that trauma, so I wanted to absolve myself and my speaker from that pressure. All that just to say in the end, I didn’t want my speaker to have to compete with reality in order to say something true about his experience. The cohesion that results from the letters wasn’t something I really thought about, so perhaps it’s just an included gift.
I think the absurdity of writing letters to an egg-laying rooster helps readers to understand that the underlying abuse embedded in that gesture isn’t an isolated incident between two people that will go away once they finish the book. I also think it enables readers to have a deeper level of engagement, inclusion, or implication, and to not focus on one person they can mark as an antagonist and move on from once there’s no more left to read. From a writing standpoint, I was able to write beyond the speaker’s abuser to the abuse itself. The speaker is at once speaking to his abuser, himself, everyone, and perhaps everything. Crafting an environment of intimacy over something horrific was a complication I knew I wanted for Millennial Roost, and I felt the epistolary form helped me achieve that, but the number of epistles was less conscious. I simply wrote letters until I couldn’t anymore, or perhaps until I felt the sequence was done.
Tonally, there is so much richness in this work. The turns of phrase, the rapturous emotional overtures. There’s also this naked simplicity that seriously cut me up. (Can I just appreciate Letter 21’s opening: “I dreamt I was in love last night. When I woke up, that feeling was so heavy on and inside of me, I didn’t know what to do. It’s hard being that confused, and so immediately, I let myself back into reality. It was a great loss. Better to have that loss won in the dreams than out here in the open where loss makes a loneliness that gapes, that has to be maintained and concealed carefully so that it doesn’t attract the attention of others”? Like WOW.) So many poems achieve this delicate balance of the tender, the raw, the horrific. Were you consciously going for a certain tone in this collection or did it emerge naturally? How do you craft your own style?
Thanks again, Jennifer. I think the tone did emerge naturally. My major guiding force when it came to crafting the tone of the poems was to make sure that each poem exhibited the range of emotionality I felt writing over that particular poem’s subject or subjects. As far as the naked simplicity you mention, I knew that I didn’t want to polish or poeticize the poems beyond a vibrant sense of the emotions that provoked the poems in the first place. I tried to only use poetic devices as they were absolutely necessary for communicating something true over the content, so I think my tactic was to use poetry as a means of achieving the most effective communication rather than to use poetry to aspire toward the most beautiful or artistic presentation.
You are enrolled in a PhD program at Florida State, and have written and studied in a variety of other places. Does location influence your work? Does your proximity to workshops, academia, and writers' groups inform your writing in any way?
Emotion is the biggest influence over my work. Location can certainly have a dramatic effect on that kind of thing, but I really don’t think I have the same kind of relationship to location or place as the writers who are famous for writing out of place. I’ve never been able to say, “This is a story that could only happen in the Midwest (or the south, in my particular case),” though I’m not trying to disparage those writers at all. It’s just not an ability I think I have yet.
I think my proximity to workshops, academia, and writers’ groups mostly inform which of my writings I’m willing to subject to those spaces. Millennial Roostwasn’t a manuscript I really workshopped, but I did share it with my committees at Clemson and Arizona State. I’m not the easiest person in the world to make comfortable, so good on them. Spaces like Cave Canem and The Watering Hole always make me want to write a poem two or three times better than I would put pressure on myself to write it initially.
Are you up to any new projects? What’s next for Dustin Pearson?
I think I am up to a new project. I’ve been writing poems about friendship toward a new manuscript for the past few months. I’ve been stumbling around a bit making my way toward a fitting aesthetic, conceptual, and narrative cohesion for the poems. Some of the people that have encountered the poems have framed their subject matter in other intriguing ways. I had a professor frame them in terms of failure or the failings of friendship. More recently, I was asked if I was writing about masculinity. In the end, though, I really do think it’s just friendship, all things considered. I don’t mind that the poems have turbulent subtexts. Sometimes it’s hard for me to distinguish between the text and the subtext of poems.
I’m also headed into my second year of the PhD program at Florida State University.