"In an era of handsomely written books of poetry largely about their own skill with language, it's more than breathtaking to encounter a poet who writes for the most basic reason: because he has to." - Phillip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012, writing about Dennis Sampson.
Sampson's ninth book of poetry, What More Could The Universe Want, could only have been written by someone who has given his entire life to his art. Every poem in the collection is strong and complete, and each line of every poem is sculpted brilliantly and perfectly placed.
Dennis Sampson was born and raised in South Dakota. His previous volumes of poetry include The Double Genesis, Forgiveness, Constant Longing, Needlegrass, For My Father Falling Asleep at Saint Mary's Hospital, Within The Shadow of a Man, The Lunatic in the Trees, and Selected Poems.
Sampson has received grants from The Virginia Commission on The Arts and The North Carolina Arts Council. Sampson's poems have appeared in such magazines as The American Scholar, New Ohio Review, The Hudson Review, and many others. He has taught as Writer-In-Residence at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and the Visiting Poet in the M.F.A Program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and at Wake Forest University.
This fine book of Dennis Sampson's poems made me jealous of his ability to describe the natural world and consider its mysteries. There are images here made unforgettable by the music of his sentences. More than once I put the book down, suddenly considering my life in a different light.
Dan: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me. I have to mention that there is a comprehensive interview with you conducted by Homestead Lighthouse Press and dated 11/27/2022 at the end of your new book of poems What More Could The Universe Want. I recommend readers buy that book and read that interview to learn more about you and your approach to your poetry.
I have read all nine of your books and what strikes me is how you are able to stay original. You do not repeat yourself. My first question is how do you do this? How do you keep your writing fresh?
Dennis: The powerful poet of the last century Theodore Roethke wrote in his journals of “the eternal virginity of words.” Follow the words given to you and what you have composed will always have the chance to be fresh. That is what the Russian writer Isaac Babel was trying to tell us when he said, “One word in the wrong place will ruin the most beautiful thought.”
Babel by the way was executed in 1940 for thinking this way when that spiritual slob Joseph Stalin deemed him among so many others to be a threat to his flourishing stupidity.
Dan: Lately, some poets have inserted a kind of public service announcement in their readings and public appearances telling audiences that reading poetry is good for them as if reading poems is about self-improvement. What does this say about the state of poetry in our world?
Dennis: I have been going at it as an American poet now for over 50 years.
That gives me the prerogative to say whatever I wish about the largely absurd life of a “versifier” in this country of ours. The falling all over ourselves
for attention regarding our poems because we either don't have faith in what
we have written or because we realize that the educated public does not know
shit from Shinola when it comes to the true beauty of an utterance that is like
no other...who is not willing to bend over a little backward so that the fleeting
light of fame can shine on them?
Dan: In your poems I feel a striving for honesty. There is no attempt at language play or cleverness. No winking at the audience. Am I correct in thinking that honesty is at the core of your writing and teaching?
Dennis: You are fortunate if somewhere down the line another will
tell you the truth. As Ms. Dickinson said, “The truth is so rare a thing, it is delightful to tell it.” This is all my way of saying that if you want to write your own good poems--a dozen true lines is actually a kind of miracle--then abandon yourself to the Imagination while at the same time not cutting yourself any foolish slack.
Dan: Thank you for your time. You mentioned in passing that you are working on your next book. The tenth. Your commitment and discipline inspire. You are showing us all how an artist creates a legacy of quality work. It was a pleasure to speak with you.
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