May 15–21, 2023
Dean Rader has authored or coauthored eleven books, including Works & Days, winner of the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize, Landscape Portrait Figure Form, a Barnes & Noble Review Best Book, and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. His most recent book, Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, was published in April by Copper Canyon Press. His writing has been supported by fellowships from Princeton University, Harvard University, Headlands Center for the Arts, Art Omi and the MacDowell Foundation. Rader is a professor at the University of San Francisco and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. On Friday, May 19, he will be a featured poet along with Mónica Gomery at the Brooklyn Poets Friday Night Open.
Meditation on Motion
after Cy Twombly’s Cold Stream
The line like the river does not know to stop
neither does my wonder
I would like these lines to be drawn on my skin
I would like to feel these lines beneath my skin
a current alternating between my body
and the earth galvanized with meaning
charged with inscriptions of infinity like us
o beloved to flow with you through this life
and after the elegant simplicity of effusion
our motion lost in the rolling waves that carry
us out encirclement and continuance and
the connection of everything drawing us in
beloved we don’t have to be beautiful to be beauty
—From Before the Borderless: Dialogues with the Art of Cy Twombly, Copper Canyon Press, April 2023.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“Meditation on Motion” was one of the last poems I wrote for the book. I had been spending a lot of time looking at and researching Twombly’s chalkboard paintings (as they are sometimes called). The pieces look like cursive os or es that have been scrawled on a chalkboard. They possess a sort of primal, spontaneous messiness about them that I find glorious.
Most of the pieces from this era (1966–70) do not have titles, but this one does (Cold Stream). I’m pretty sure these are talking to Leonardo’s deluge drawings, which, if you have never seen them, are amazing and sort of spooky. So, I was thinking about the lines of this piece as waves or ripples or currents. I was thinking about movement and how the currents in this painting never end, like waves in the ocean or currents in a river.
And then I started thinking about the similarities between a line in a painting and a line in a poem—how that word, that concept, is really at the basis of both modes of art. Both the painter and the poet always begin with the line.
So, I just started writing lines. Somewhere toward the end of the poem I realized it was a love poem to Twombly and to art, and then, rather magically, it became a love poem to my wife.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on some prose—two different essays about art and I’m trying to finish a novel.
What’s a good day for you?
Well, a good day now looks a lot different than it did a couple of months ago. In March, my wife received a very serious and very scary diagnosis, and so right now, a good day is when she is doing well and we can go for a walk along the ocean or get good coffee or hang out with our boys.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Such an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I have now lived longer in San Francisco than anywhere else, even my hometown (which is a small farm town in Western Oklahoma). San Francisco is where I live and work, where I met my wife, where our sons were born. We have a house and neighbors and various communities. Having grown up in such a rural setting, I would never have imagined an urban coastal city would feel like home, but it does.
There is much to love about San Francisco—its culture, its history of writing, its politics, its food, its schools, its embrace of trans and LGTBQ+ culture, its beauty. I love that the continent ends a few blocks from where I am writing this.
I feel like San Francisco is always changing. It has made national news lately in largely negative ways (crime, gentrification, homelessness), but left-leaning cities are easy targets for sensationalist stories. San Francisco is a place that has a history of welcoming people who might feel excluded from other cities. People on the margins, who live on the edges. It’s a remarkable place.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Oh, I’ve spent a lot of time in Brooklyn. I remember visiting Bed-Stuy with Brian Clements in the early ’90s—talk about a neighborhood that has changed. I used to stay with my friend Jonathan who lived in Carroll Gardens; we would spend a lot of time there and in Park Slope. I’ve written about a show at the Brooklyn Museum. I’ve visited LIU. I’ve eaten at Grimaldi’s, Lucali, Best, and Joe’s. I think the best pancakes I’ve ever had were in a restaurant in Carroll Gardens.
We almost moved to Brooklyn in 2019. I actually came out and looked at schools and houses; timed commutes via subway to the city for my wife. Ultimately, we decided to stay put. We had just bought our house here. In retrospect, I’m glad we did. We would have landed there a month or two before COVID hit.
I think my favorite memory of Brooklyn is from a few years ago when my son and I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and took a cab to Williamsburg, where we hung out for the day. We stopped in this architecture studio, sort of by accident (we thought it was a store), and the owner spent thirty minutes walking Gavin though the various architectural models they had out. It was super cool.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I am often asked if San Francisco has a poetry community, and I always respond that we seem not to have one poetry community but a lot of small ones. Vibrant, active, amazing and wide-ranging, but smallish. I think of myself as being part of several poetry communities. Some overlap but some do not.
I also believe in online poetry communities. I’ve been active in a small poetry group that started in 2008. We all live in various parts of the country and are at various stages of our careers. One of our members just won a Guggenheim, another won an NEA grant a few years ago. Several had books come out recently. It’s been rewarding to see our work evolve and develop.
Both communities are important to me for different reasons. It is good to have a core of folks who have seen your work over the years who can give honest feedback. It is also really important to me to be part of a community of people who share the love of poetry, who prioritize a life where art lives, who value making.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Wow! There are so many! Do Hart Crane and Walt Whitman count? Crane was really important to me in college and graduate school. Is White Buildings the most underrated debut collection in American history?
Of the current poets, I’ve known and liked Jason Koo’s work for a long time, ever since my friend Simone Muench introduced me to him. Big fan of Monica Youn, Tina Chang, fellow Oklahoma transplant Matthew Rohrer, Tommy Pico. I refuse to let Brooklyn claim Kim Addonizio—she is still an SF poet to me. Edward Hirsch blurbed my first book. I think Earthly Measures is a spectacular collection. I got to hang out with Martín Espada at a conference not long ago. We got the title for Bullets into Bells from one of his poems. I’m reading with Timothy Donnelly soon. Love Dawn Lundy Martin. I really like your whole crew!
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My undergraduate poetry professor was William Virgil Davis, who won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1979. His advanced poetry workshop (you had to submit a portfolio to be invited into the class) is still the single best class I’ve ever taken. From him, I learned patience and care. I remember how he used to use the word “precious”—almost with reluctance—to describe a line or image or gesture he found too manipulative.
My graduate degrees are in comparative literature, so I did not take a lot of creative writing classes. I was doing translation and studying art history, film, Latin American literature, German Expressionism. I worked with Ruth Stone and Arthur Clements. I became friends with Liz Rosenberg, who taught me a lot. I took some master classes with Li-Young Lee (who has since become a friend), Jon Silkin, Yusef Komunyakaa.
I might actually go back to your earlier question about community. As an undergraduate, I had a traditional mentor, but in graduate school, I feel like it was more mentorship via community. I also learned a lot from my fellow graduate students.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I really liked Monica Youn’s From From. Roger Reeves’s Best Barbarian. Brian Teare’s Doomstead Days. All three of these books are interested in the intersection of the textual and the visual. That is my sweet spot.
Natalie Diaz’s poem “Skin-Light” is brilliant. I teach it often. I still think Terrance Hayes’s original golden shovel poem from Lighthead is a near-perfect poem. I’ve been rereading Rilke’s Duino Elegies. I just can’t believe how good they are.
Not long ago, I read my good friend Victoria Chang’s forthcoming book in manuscript. It is fantastic.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Hmmm … good question. Mostly nonfiction. I want to read some Siddhartha Mukherjee books. Atul Gawande. Oh, Trust by Hernan Diaz and Checkout 19 by Claire Louise-Bennett.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I have to say, I love all these questions!
I prefer physical books. I don’t do Kindle. I generally listen to audiobooks when I run or work out. A few years ago, I was training for some long runs, and I would only listen to novels. If you have not listened to the audiobook of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, I highly recommend it. Same with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy—Morrison reads that one herself. It’s glorious.
I am a random reader. In one of our columns, Victoria mocks me for how I start a book of poems somewhere in the middle. And just sort of jump around. That approach appears to be a metaphor for my overall approach to reading. At present, I’m reading the hardback version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger, listening to the audiobook of Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman and poking around in Michael Schreyach’s Totality: Abstraction and Meaning in the Art of Barnett Newman, while also reading some books of poetry by Wesleyan University Press for the above-mentioned Two Roads column Victoria and I do for the Los Angeles Review of Books. LeAnne Howe and I are collaborating on a book about Oklahoma, so I’ve been going back and rereading her spectacular fiction, essays and poetry about our complicated and maddening home state.
And then there is also reading that I think of as “reading for work.” For example, I am in the middle of a poetry manuscript I was invited to blurb. For some reason, I am frequently asked to serve as an external reviewer for professors going up for tenure and promotion. So, I’m reading all of the poetry and prose by this person. For these projects and when I’m reading in order to write a review, I take a lot of notes, usually in the book.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
In Before the Borderless, I have a ten-part poem that is a modified crown. The last line of the previous poem is the first line of the following one. That was new for me.
I’ve never published a sestina. So, I might try that soon.
Right now, all of my innovation is going to my novel. I’ve never written a novel before, and it is, in fact, just like driving at night without the headlights.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I have a lovely office at the University of San Francisco. I love reading and writing there as well as in a couple of the libraries on campus. I used to do a lot of reading and writing in the law library.
I also like writing on airplanes, in airport lounges and in hotels (and hotel bars).
There are a couple of cafés around San Francisco I work well in, but mostly I just move from room to room in our house.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
The Brooklyn Museum. It’s just a great space with great art and wonderful exhibits. I’m a big fan of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Prospect Park reminds me of Golden Gate Park, so that is also a favorite. I also prefer the coffee shops in Brooklyn to those in Manhattan.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate you, Life.
And what I say you may ignore.
For everything tries to kill me. But fails. And yet nothing loves me as good as you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Brooklyn Go Hard
Once, I had a father:
he never set foot in Brooklyn,
but his favorite Dodger
was Sandy Koufax (or Jackie Robinson). Jackie’s real name was Jack
Roosevelt, he would tell me. One time in LA, I saw him rob
a runner of a double just like that. No biggie.
To my father, there was no greater sin
than keeping greatness from greatness. And so to me: Son, a pen
is power. You can make it hate or make it love.
Because you jettisoned Kyrie.