Dorothy Barresi
November 2002


Dorothy Barresi is the author of three books of poetry, All of the Above (Beacon Press, 1991), which won the Barnard College New Women Poets Prize; The Post-Rapture Diner (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), which won a 1997 American Book Award; and Rouge Pulp (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002) Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Antioch Review, and in recent anthologies including The Extraordinary Tide: Contemporary American Poetry by Women, published by Columbia University Press, We Have Our Own Song For It: Modern Poems of Ohio, from the University of Akron Press, and The Milk of Almonds: Italian American Women Writers on Food and Culture, from the Feminist Press. Her essay-reviews have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, American Book Review, and Parnassus. Her awards and honors include a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, a North Carolina Arts Council Individual Writer’s Grant, a Dakin Fellowship from The University of the South, a residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Grand Prize in the Los Angeles Poetry Festival’s Fin de Millennium Poetry Prize competition. This year she serves as a judge for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry, and as the Distinguished Judge of the Bordeghira Prize for Poetry. Dorothy Barresi received her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1985 from the University of Massachusetts. She recently directed the graduate and undergraduate Creative Writing Option for the English Department at California State University, Northridge, where she has been a professor for fourteen years. She also teaches in the California State University Consortium MFA Program. She lives in the San Fernando Valley with her husband, Phil Matero, and sons Andrew and Dante.


Robert Frost once wrote that poetry "is an extravagance about grief," and I like to think of my own poetry as a small but energetic entry in the world’s great book of grief. Not because I am morbid or excessively depressed, but because all poetry in a sense is an argument with God, a human complaint about the human condition, even when it praises. Ecstatic poetry—I’m thinking now of the devotional love poetry of Herbert or Rumi or Hopkins, or even the early poetry of the contemporary pastoral poet Mary Oliver—is rare, and depends on the darker realities of human experience to pack its punch: life is brutish and short, but let us find joy and relief (rebirth) in God’s salvation or nature’s ceaseless cycles. Walt Whitman was certainly America’s truest ecstatic poet. He reveled in the body of man and in America’s body, which he saw as a unifying, democratizing wonder even in the midst of the Civil War’s bloody schism. Whitman didn’t need the promise of resurrection to find glory everywhere he looked. The world hummed with holy presence for him. It filled him up with a grand immediacy and a grander purpose—to catalogue and keep witness to the endless ways in which life delighted him. But most poetry written today is not ecstatic, and is it any wonder? Although we are no longer writing literally in the fin de siècle, much of twenty-first century poetry, new-born, already casts an ironic gaze over a terribly violent landscape, and exhales a seen-it-all sigh, or a shudder, or a well-placed kick. Indeed, the world as I write this is a frightening place—as frightening now as it certainly was in 1914 or 1939--but my job as a poet is to meet the world with words, and reinvigorate a vision of life in calamitous times. And so I am interested in reading and writing poetry that finds its vigor in uncertainty, and that still strives, through its grieving, to delight its reader with language. That, to me, is one of the greatest things about poetry: it is a sensual and cerebral pleasure to read, even as it reminds us that everything and everybody we love shall pass from this earth. What poetry am I not interested in writing? I am not interested in writing poetry that takes my emotional/spiritual temperature moment by moments. There are poets who do that extraordinarily well—Louise Glück and Li-Young Lee come to mind—and I am happy to leave that business to those who possess the rhetorical subtlety needed for limning slight shifts of perception and motivation in a human psyche. Although I certainly use autobiographical elements in my poetry, I’m more fascinated with the world and its stories than with myself. Like most writers, I am a ham, but at forty-four years old, I’m bored by confessionalism’s circuitous endgame. Poetry only matters if it matters to someone else beside the writer. And I am not much interested in writing poetry that carries a banner for a certain formalism, be it the formalism of previously constructed traditions or the formalism of newer, deconstructing traditions. What I am interested in writing, however, is poetry that plays out the black comedy of our lives in language that surprises, and, ultimately, sings. I want equally to write poetry that stings, carrying a recognition and a revelation that was nowhere apparent in the poem’s first line. I want to write poetry that is death-shaded, insecure, funny, tough. Poetry that says to God, "I’m doing the best I can—what the hell more do you want from me?" Poetry that knows what it knows for only a second, and loves the brute world anyway.

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