Getting to Know AR Dugan and His New Book, Call/Response

AR Dugan has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and lives in Boston. His poetry can be seen or is forthcoming in a number of literary magazines and reviews, most recently  Sweet , where his poem “Milk Thistle” was a contest finalist.   Finishing Line Press will publish his chapbook,  Call / Response , in March 2019. He taught high school English in southeastern Massachusetts for nine years. AR reads poetry for  Ploughshares  and currently teaches literature and writing at Emerson College and Wheaton College.  

AR Dugan has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College and lives in Boston. His poetry can be seen or is forthcoming in a number of literary magazines and reviews, most recently Sweet, where his poem “Milk Thistle” was a contest finalist. Finishing Line Press will publish his chapbook, Call / Response, in March 2019. He taught high school English in southeastern Massachusetts for nine years. AR reads poetry for Ploughshares and currently teaches literature and writing at Emerson College and Wheaton College. 

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

I read a lot and was read to a lot as a child. There’s lots of poetry in children’s books, even when it’s not billed as Poetry. I imagine that was the genesis. I’m reminded of a crossroads (one of several around that time) that I faced at the end of my first master’s degree, which was in literature. I wanted to do a creative thesis rather than a scholarly one, because I wanted to go on to do an MFA in creative writing. I had to choose between producing a manuscript of fiction or poetry. It’s obvious now, but I felt it was a big decision then. It was like choosing an identity. Though I felt confident in crafting stories in prose (I had been teaching students how to both write it and analyze it for years as a high school English teacher), poetry resonated on a deeper level. I didn’t know why at the time. I couldn’t put my finger on it. 

When I was in high school, I read Howl by Allen Ginsberg. I felt the exalted rebellion that so many others have felt. Moving on quickly, because reading Howl and feeling moved as an angst-filled teen is cliché, there was something about that poem that seemed connected to why I preferred Nirvana to the other grunge rock and alternative bands of that era. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, just like when I chose poetry over fiction in my late twenties. But, I can see now that what I was interested in was art rather than entertainment, or even craft. I don’t have much interest in entertaining you with a ‘good’ story, because I’m way too aware that I’m entertaining you with my story. I’m more interested in why you’re entertained and what that says about you—what that says about me. 

People say (poets say) they write poems because they have to. It’s not a choice. Poetry is how they are able to move through the world. Poetry helps me get out from under the farce of the world. It helps me get out from under the weight of my existence, and my complicity in the cycle. 

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

Yes. I have to schedule. I work and I’m starting a family. Even though I’ve always found routines dehumanizing and inhibiting, I find comfort in them. They make me much more productive. They make me feel more productive, anyway. Productivity and art don’t always go together, so sometimes my “production” is just taking the time to think through a poem. I block certain periods during the week that are designated to work on my writing. I find that the morning is best, before the urgency of the day can affect my thoughts. I stay away from email and other forms of communication during this time. I prefer a mostly distraction free environment. The place, as it turns out, is not all that important, as long as I have most of the above. 

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

I have little notebooks that I carry around and I use the Notepad app on my phone to keep a log of lines and ideas. I can work from an idea or a premise with some success. I have more success if I have a line to work with. My poetry is driven more colloquially than sonically, so I’ll write down phrases in my notebooks that get earmarked as lines. I use these to start writing. When things work out, a poem starts to take shape as I’m writing.  If I have an image I’m interested in, it has to be translated into language anyway. If this happens organically and/or spontaneously, I usually like the result. I’ve made the mistake of trying to force language on an image. Sometimes the right language for an image can take me years to find. For example, I was fixated on the image of a large owl at night that I saw on TV. It took years to find the right language for it. In the end, the poem had little to do, literally, with that image. Anyway, I enjoy the journey, what I’ve heard other writers call the work, from the first idea that goes in a notebook to the finished product typed on a screen. I’m much more confortable doing ‘the work’ than I am with a ‘finished’ piece. I’m suspect of a so-called finished poem. A poem in progress is much easier for me to deal with. 

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?

I mentioned Ginsberg above. Peter Gizzi is an important poet for me and helped me access Ashbery. John Berryman. I could list the rest of the Confessionals here. Some noteworthy writer said that poets can only write about themselves, and I have thought this about myself more than once. I mention Nick Flynn below, and he has probably been the most influential. I’ve read all his books. I find my work is usually less intense and subtler than his, but I aspire to his ability to access trauma and make a reader feel it. As I’ve accepted the surreality of my poems (and the way I see the world), I feel the influence of Zach Schomberg, Asse Berg and Tranströmer. I’m also interested in absurdity, so I feel the influence of Kafka. Some (maybe most) people read Kafka and feel confused and uncomfortable. I read Kafka and feel relieved that someone else sees what I see. 

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: What's the significance of the title? Are there over-arching themes? What was the process of assembling it? Was is a project book?

The book is grouped in two ways: by theme and by structure. In terms of theme, a number of the poems are about surgery. I had a benign brain tumor removed when I was 22. It disrupted my life, as major medical procedures do. I had to learn to walk again. Because I’m now deaf in my right ear, I had to relearn how to function in conversations, which was not exactly my strong suit before the surgery. I’ve spent many hours inside MRI tubes. Many poems deal with this event and things related to it, as I’m still dealing with it myself, nearly 15 years later. Trauma tends to be like that. 

In terms of structure, I mentioned above that I work colloquially. This has led to a number of prose poems. I’m drawn to conversation, so I actually stage them in many of the poems. That was a chief guideline I used to organize the book. I included a majority of poems that use a particular prose form. The form works in two ways. First, I use virgules ( / ) in the poems to indicate the line breaks. This was not new when I started doing it—I first saw Nick Flynn do in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, which was published in 2011—and is now trendy. I do this because I want the lyric element superimposed on the prose. I refuse to give up anything, so I take that element that could otherwise get lost in the conversation and the sentence. This way, I get the line breaks from the margins and the ones I place for pacing or emphasis (or even dissonance and confusion). Prose wants to move the narrative forward. Poetry wants to slow down and magnify a moment. I want both. I want the images on Keats’ Urn to both move and not move.

Second, I create a dialogue that looks like a dramatic script in prose. This part, as far as I know, is unique. The dialogue usually (reliably) moves back and fourth between statements and questions. Sometimes the dialogue begins about half way through; other times it happens at the beginning of a poem. I found myself interested in questions and trying to get more questions into my poems. I also wanted a semi-consistent rhythm or cadence. I like the rhythm of question and answer. It reminds me a little of the hypnotic pace of a Beckett drama (though he uses a lot of repetition), but at the time I had Greek drama in mind—the way the chorus works in a strophe, antistrophe pattern to provide context. Everything is reliable and confortable, until it isn’t. Sound familiar? So, I decided to be rather intentional with the title and spell out exactly what those poems do: they call out and (hope to) get a response. I keep pushing this conversation until it falls apart—the voice dying out. I get to resurrect it in the next poem. Then kill it again. The cycle goes on.