A CONVERSATION BETWEEN R. H. W. DILLARD
AND JULIA JOHNSON
Julia Johnson: This is Julia Johnson.
R. H. W. Dillard:
And this is Richard Dillard, and we're
going to be having a chat. We have no idea what it will be about,
but we will try to
make it . . . at least interesting.
JJ: Richard, who are your literary heroes?
just reading Alain Robbe-Grillet, who's
one of my literary heroes, and he always spoke of the paternité of
his work, and he finally said the father of his work was Nabokov,
who's another of my literary heroes. I met Alain Robbe-Grillet,
and it was very embarrassing because the people who introduced me said
to him, "This
is Richard Dillard; you are one of his literary heroes," and he—being
a very smart and a very funny man—also embarrassed, I'm sure, by
the awkwardness of that introduction, said to me, "What? I'm
only one of your literary heroes?" And
I, being equally embarrassed, said to him, “Well, you're
the only one left," whereupon he seemed very nervous. I think suddenly
he had a chill, a premonition of the grave, which I certainly did
not wish to give him. Alain Robbe-Gillet, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis
Borges, Edgar Allen Poe, Dashiell Hammett, and if I get started this
way, I'll go on for twenty-five minutes. And poets—the poet
who, because I could not understand him but I could hear the music, meant
the most to me in figuring out how to write poetry was Wallace Stevens.
When I first tried to read him, unlike you, who seem to understand him,
I couldn't get anywhere. It was just like someone had built a wall,
and then one day the wall fell down, and everything was much better after
JJ: I don't think
I understand him completely.
RD: You always told me you understood Wallace Stevens.
JJ: I think I enjoy
him because I don't
understand him, so I reread him and reread him and reread him.
RD: And do you
reread him to try to understand him, or do you just listen to the music?
JJ: I listen
to the music and try to . . . I don't
think I try to understand him. I think I try to get closer to what he's
up to. I don't think it's about understanding; I think it's
more about—well, not understanding the meaning, but understanding
where he's coming from.
RD: Yeah. That's
the point I was trying to make in the lecture that Blackbird kindlily
printed or electronized or whatever
you do with an online journal.
JJ: Is "kindlily" spelled . . .
and I liked it. I used it in a poem because I wanted the word lily
to be secretly planted in the
line. But anyway,
the point is that we don't read poems and stories the same way
we read the newspaper or a philosophical journal. And I think many people
in the academy who teach literature don't understand that. They
think you can solve it, like an algebraic equation. You give them a Wallace
Stevens poem, and they will solve it—and solve it for all time,
not solve it just for the moment. And how disappointed they must be.
JJ: I think the best
way to understand Wallace Stevens is to read his own writing about
RD: And the Adagia, which are wonderfully inscrutable,
often self-contradictory, and very exciting.
JJ: Do you consider any living writers your heroes?
RD: Of course.
I always try to avoid mentioning living writers because the living writers
you don't mention then get mad at you.
I mean, everyone knows George Garrett is my mentor, and I admire him
beyond saying, so I'll admit to that one. Beyond that, the living
writers have to take care of themselves. When they're dead, then
JJ: What is the first poem you ever memorized?
RD: Holy cow!
The only poems I can memorize accurately are written by Ogden Nash. All
poems that I try
to memorize, the quirk
in my brain that I think probably makes me a writer transforms them,
so they turn into something else. So I'm sure the first poem I
had to memorize—the first song I ever learned to sing was in first
grade, and it was "Bow wow wow, whose dog art thou? Are you little
Tommy Tinker's dog? bow wow wow"—I will not sing it.
That may be the first poem—I'm sure I knew some nursery rhymes
by heart, but I have no recollection. What about you, what's
the first poem you ever memorized?
JJ: I don't think
I ever was made to memorize poems in school, so . . .
RD: I was. I'm
from a generation where you had to memorize the opening speech of
JJ: Can you recite that?
RD: "Now is the
winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun
of York." After that,
on your own, folks! "Thanatopsis." I had to memorize "Thanatopsis."
give you a line of that today.
JJ: I was glad I didn't have to do that in
school, so I've
never made my students memorize poems.
RD: A lot of teachers
still do. I'm of mixed mind about it,
the way I am about most things. I wish I could recite poems. Henry Taylor
knows hundreds of poems and knows them accurately. I would love to be
able to do that, but I just can't.
JJ: Do you have your own poems memorized?
RD: Oh no, no,
JJ: What novel out of all novels do you most admire?
RD: Moby Dick.
RD: I can't tell
you why. Because it still excites me the same way it did the first
time I read it, and
it makes me want to throw
my cap in the air.
JJ: What character is the greatest character in all
RD: I don't think
JJ: Why not?
RD: I really don't. Whenever you think about
always supposed to say, "Well, did it have believable characters,
or engaging characters?" And I never think of them that way. While
I'm reading, I want the characters to be happy. I worry when they're
in trouble, but I don't remember them. I remember the book—I
remember the shape of it. I don't mean the object. I remember that,
JJ: Is that true when
RD: Yeah, I think I'm—which is probably why
I'm not in the Oprah Book Club—I'm too aesthetic. I'm interested
in the language, the rhythm of the language; I'm interested in the
form of the story, the form of the novel. Somewhere back in the past,
told you before, there are probably Frenchmen lurking in my tree because—I
like the idea of Frenchmen lurking in my tree—I impose
formal structures on my fiction in the way that a lot of French writers
do, and the way that probably more American writers don't do.
JJ: Do you think that's
why film is so important to you?
RD: I know film
may have had greater influence on my poetry than a lot of the poets I
but I think in film, too,
us say—Ingmar Bergman, and I show my class Cries and Whispers,
which is an excruciatingly painful movie. To me it's exceedingly beautiful,
and I'm sitting there with a kind of beneficent smile on my face,
loving the color and movement of the story, knowing where it's
going to end. So I don't say I felt this way the first time I saw
it. And around me there are people cringing, hiding under chairs.
They think I'm a fiend, like the little man in the Charles
Adams cartoon who's grinning in the movie theatre when everyone
else is crying. But I do, I think so much of my response to film
is treating film, poetry, fiction all as though it's a branch of
music, and now people who've read my work will say, "That
explains it. That's why we never got engaged. That's why
we didn't care." What about you? You've written story
that's in Blackbird. Is it a character story, or is it a more
JJ: Yeah, I think the
character is absolutely influenced by her surroundings, so in that
way I guess I was more interested
by that, her voice is influenced by what's happening to her.
RD: And we see and hear
what she sees and hears rather than see her. Is she ever described
from the outside? I
don't think so.
RD: So in a sense, the story is all character.
JJ: Okay, so here we are again.
RD: See, it's
a circle. I remember when Richard Adams, the bunny man. Remember Watership
Down? He visited my creative writing
class and said in his wonderfully snobbish British way—and he exhibited
all of the characteristics that gave rise to the American Revolution—he
said very snobbishly, "There are no characters in American literature.
None. Just think of it," he said, "if Sam Weller walked through that
door now, you'd recognize him immediately." Now most of my students
never even read Pickwick Papers; they
didn't know Sam Weller from a watch. But I said, "Well, what if Mickey
Mouse walked through that door, we'd all recognize him, too." And
he became very angry. But we'll tell that story somewhere else—in
my memoirs, which are going to be called Famous Writers I've Infuriated.
JJ: Has a smell or fragrance or taste influenced
your writing ever?
RD: No. How about you?
RD: I don't believe either one of us.
your least favorite thing about writing?
RD: Uh . . .
the writing. It's hard work. That's too
easy a question, in a way. It's hard work. You're sitting there. Your
back hurts. There're so many other things that get interesting to you.
JJ: So is it the physical aspect of it?
RD: The physical,
mental—it makes you tired. Now when
it's really cooking—when it's going great—that's
not true; it's wonderful. You become a megalomaniac: "This is the
greatest thing ever written, I'm the greatest person who ever wrote."
Luckily, we—or at least most of us—come down from that height.
There are some writers I've met who apparently really believe that.
But I think it's hard work. It's gratifying in the way hard
work often is.
JJ: Have you felt that
way when you've
finished a book?
RD: Yeah, or a story
or a poem. I just feel great. And then I'm
almost afraid to look at it. You know it's not going to be that
good. And that's the mystery of what you and I for years have called
going out into the crazy. In other words, you go somewhere else
in your head. And one of the hard things about writing is getting there.
Once you're there, it's cool, you're groovin',
you're doing the thing that we love to do the most, and you bring
back all those words from that place, but I think it's very hard
sometimes to get there.
JJ: How do you get there?
It's such a mood thing. When I was writing a novel, I went through strange
little rituals, as do lots of writers.
Diane Ackerman has written about that, though my method I think wasn't
interesting enough for Diane. (Sorry, Diane, it's not your fault it's
mine.) But when I was working on The First Man on the Sun, when
played Duke Ellington's great song, "It Don't Mean
a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing," which was a little reminder
of what my task was. And that sort of did it. When I worked on an electric
typewriter, I liked that because you could reach down and switch the
"on" button, and it would go whrrrrr and begin to shake. Computers don't
that. They're very quiet and bossy. I can't find any way
to turn myself on that way. But I'm a bad example to younger writers
because I write in spurts, with long empty spaces in between; in other
words, I'll write twenty poems in a row, and then not write another
one for five years.
JJ: I do that, too.
RD: Let's hope
you learn how not to do that.
JJ: But some writers are very disciplined and write
RD: Thomas Mann, according
to the story, wrote a page a day. And he would stop in the middle of
One page a day. Like a German.
He was a German. But that methodical . . . at the end of a year, he'd
have 365 pages.
JJ: A great way to write a novel.
RD: And leap year it's 366. What was it—Robert
Bly recently followed the business of writing a poem every day before
got up in the morning, and then published a book of those poems? They're
good poems. I like them. They're different from his other poems.
JJ: Do you consider your writing a form of self-expression?
JJ: What is self-expression?
RD: Well, I assume
that writing is expression. Something is being expressed, and since
I'm the one doing it, and all of our experience
in one way or another is filtered through the self, in that sense it's
self-expression. But I don't write confessional verse. I'm
very uncomfortable on the occasions when I have had to write straight
JJ: Do you think your poems are more a form of self-expression?
RD: I think they've gotten more personal as they've
gone along, except for gushy love poems. Gushy love poems are personal.
But maybe they're not. Maybe they're just another form that
we work in. I always mean them.
JJ: And your fiction seems . . .
RD: I think my fiction
seems far less personal, far more stranger. And short fiction especially.
I'm very interested in people who've
gone off the rails—that is, narrators who are not quite clear what
they're telling you, you the reader I hope see the real
story. But they usually don't. There's my being rooted in Edgar
Poe again, I suppose. You don't write poems that say, "This
is my life. This is what I did this morning."
JJ: No. I don't
think anyone would be interested in reading about that.
RD: Well, that's my argument, too. All these folks
who want to tell us their lives, they sure must have better lives
than I do.
JJ: Do you think they do?
RD: I don't know. Well, I read their poems, and I
that's so moving. That's so overwhelming. Nothing like that
ever happened to me." Maybe it did, I just don't have
a way to tell it.
JJ: What would your last meal on Earth consist of?
RD: We'll find out, won't we? Isn't it funny
to think everyone does have a last meal on Earth? It's just most
often they don't know it's their last meal on Earth. It should
be what I consider to be mankind's perfect food: it should be a
really good hot dog.
JJ: With chili?
RD: Sure. The works.
JJ: Who is your favorite NASCAR driver and why?
RD: Jeff Burton, and the 99 car. And it's a long
JJ: You have a few minutes.
RD: When I was first getting
interested in NASCAR for reasons that
are highly ironic and strange, I saw Jeff Burton have his car smashed
up in a race, but he was leading the race, and it began to rain furiously,
so the race was stopped, and I've since seen other drivers do rain
dances and this, that, and the other, because if it keeps raining
he wins the race; if it stops raining, he loses. And he seemed deeply
convinced that there was no way that it could keep raining. And there
was something in that kind of despair that I felt a great connection
And it did keep raining, and he won the race. But he didn't believe
it could possibly happen. Then I thought, I like this man. And I've
remained loyal ever since. And besides, he's a Virginian, and so
JJ: Are there connections between NASCAR and literature?
RD: Sure. It's all about turning the other guy around
and getting by him. There's a lot between NASCAR and the lit
biz. In other words, the guy next to you spins out, his car bursts into
flame, you desperately don't want him to be hurt, and at the same
time you're really happy it happened. Isn't that like writers?
Aren't you eagerly waiting for people—especially people who
are roughly your same age—to crash and burn?
JJ: Would you consider being the poet laureate of
RD: No. They have their
own literature and their own lore. They have Sylvia Wilkinson and her
book Dirt Tracks
to Glory, it's
really a kind of poem about NASCAR, and her novel, Cale. She's
done it, she's been there. Her stuff's from the inside.
Mine would be filtered through TV or something; it wouldn't be
the real thing.
JJ: Has NASCAR ever made its way into your poems
RD: No, to my knowledge,
R. H. W. Dillard: So, Julia, who's
your literary hero?
I've been reading Gertrude Stein
again. You didn't
list her as one of your heroes.
RD: I didn't. That's because
I was very sexist and only listed the men.
JJ: That's what I was thinking.
RD: And Gertrude Stein is right up there at the top.
JJ: I like Gertrude Stein for many of
the same reasons I like Wallace Stevens. I don't completely understand
her or understand what she's doing. Do you?
RD: I often think I do. I think I can
read Tender Buttons quite well in the sense of interpreting
it, being able to produce a prose, paraphrase, or explanation. But
something like Stanzas and Meditation,
I can't do that at all. So I assume she's doing something
quite different in those two books. And I think she really is. I think
Stanzas and Meditation is much more abstract, much more detached
from an interpretable ground. People are tending nowadays to read everything
she wrote as strictly autobiographical, and I think it probably is autobiographical,
but I don't think it's any more interpretable that way than
a life is. Biographies and novels are basically the same thing. They're
both fictions. So I read something like Stanzas and Meditation the
way you were saying you just listen to Stevens and see if you get it,
won't necessarily be able to tell the next person what you got.
You just point at the poem and say, "Read that."
JJ: Do you think her writing really is
more like painting than Wallace Stevens, more like visual art?
RD: I don't think so. They often are, they're
often visual on the page. Sometimes when she repeats, when she does
one of those long grooves where the same words repeat, the words on the
an op art painting. They will actually vibrate
while you're looking at them. I find her very stimulating to turn on
the process or get out into the crazy, and more than once I have stolen
a line from Gertrude Stein to start a poem. "When and where
are arches washed, and obelisks?" I mean, how can you not
write a poem . . . or the one called "What Can You Say to Shoes?" I mean,
that's her line. "What Can You Say to Shoes?" How can you not
write a poem after you've read that line?
JJ: And you have a poem that's . . .
RD: I have one that uses that line as the first line.
JJ: What is the title of that poem?
RD: I have no idea. It's so cool. So I find that
whatever she does in her writing—and this is her real writing as
opposed to her memoirs, which I find highly entertaining in a very different
way—whatever she is doing with language, and in particular the
more poetic of her real work as opposed to something like The Making
of Americans—whatever she is doing directly connects to whatever
the processes of my mind are that get me over into that different way.
She was a very smart woman; she was highly intellectual, a pupil of William
James—I mean, this is someone who thought things through. But
she doesn't use that part of herself when she's doing her
best writing. She goes somewhere else, and somehow she leaves the door
open so that, at least in my case, we can go through and get there.
JJ: Do you think it's her use of
RD: I don't know what it is. I've never solved it.
I don't know that I want to solve it because it might shut the
door. And my other heroes don't work that way. I read Nabokov and I
wish I could write like that, wow, I
wish I could write like that.
I have to be very careful when I write fiction to try not to write like
that because I would just be writing bad Nabokov. But with Stein,
I don't want to write the way she does.
JJ: I've always felt that the energy
in her writing . . .
RD: Yeah, the energy comes through. I think you said
the right word.
JJ: It would almost get anyone going.
Her language almost unfolds. It begins one place and then keeps unfolding,
and there's a kind of
momentum that builds.
RD: I can get energy from Henry Miller,
who I think has extraordinarily healthy energy in his writing. Or
Colin Wilson, whom I love to read just
for the energy. At the end of it, I just feel so pumped up. But it's
not the same kind of energy that you find in Gertrude Stein. It doesn't
open the door. It just makes me feel good, and she makes me start writing.
JJ: I actually feel the same way about some very
contemporary writers as well.
RD: Such as?
JJ: Well, I love James Tate for his images—I
just feel like the top of my head is coming off. I don't write like he
his images take me somewhere else, and I'm able to begin . . .
RD: So he opens the door for you?
JJ: He opens the door, yeah. His images
are just wild and strange. And Charles Simic is that way, too. I think
for me it's poets who
lean towards the surreal as opposed to the real.
RD: Assuming that there's a difference.
JJ: Is there a difference? Do you not think there
RD: I don't really think there is, which is why so
much so-called realistic writing is so boring, because those people
think there's a difference.
JJ: Do you think truth is stranger than
fiction? I mean, do you think that realism is just as strange, unexplainable?
RD: Sure. It's just as arbitrary, it's just
as fictive, it's just as unreal. It's also, I think, a closed book, but
so many contemporary American
writers haven't figured that out yet, so they keep writing it.
So tell me this; this is something that interests
me about your work. Is there a line that you could draw—or is there
a line at all—between
your poetry and your fiction? One that says, "This is fiction, and it's
quite different from this other thing which is poetry." I think in my
case there is a line. I think there's a fairly big divide. I just had
a memory of when I was reading at the YMHA in Philadelphia. At the end
of my reading, which had been a fiction reading, a lady came up to me
and said, "I really enjoyed your poem."
JJ: Well, that's what my answer
was going to be. I mean, poetry has lines.
RD: Is it just
laid out on the page? You think one blurs into the other.
JJ: I think so.
RD: I think a
lot of folks wouldn't agree about their work. People who do write both
would say, "Oh, my poems are very different
from my stories."
JJ: I think I have some poems that are
actually more narrative than the fiction I've been writing in terms
of the development of a little story within the poem. Yeah, I think they're
connected. The biggest difference between writing fiction and writing
poetry for me is just that it has to be sustained longer, for a longer
period of time, which is very challenging. But I don't know. I think
that maybe people who consider themselves more fiction writers than poets
not agree with that because . . .
RD: So you think we're both more
poets than fiction writers?
JJ: I think that your fiction is fiction, and I think
that your poetry is poetry. I think that there is a clear difference.
RD: So you think there is a big difference?
JJ: In your writing. I think there's
a smaller difference between my fiction and my poetry.
RD: I would agree.
JJ: But I haven't written that much
fiction. Maybe it will become farther . . .
RD: Well, you may find out when you do
a novel that it's
almost necessarily farther away.
JJ: You say that like I'm going
to do a novel.
RD: Oh, I thought you were working on one.
JJ: Yes, of course. I think to complete a novel
will be very difficult. I think that I will.
RD: It is difficult. It's a lot
JJ: Do you think you'll write another
RD: I would like to. I just don't know what
I'm going to write. The groves of academe have beaten me up. I'm covered
with bruises. We'll just have to see. Once I get back out and do
some road work, skip a little rope, I might be ready to re-enter that
ring. I want towrite some more stories. I like stories.
JJ: So do you think because you have been
a teacher of writing for so many years, do you think your students
have influenced your writing at all?
RD: Sure. The students influence you.
You learn things from student writers. You often don't know that's
where you learned them, just the way from each other they learn things
often without being
aware of where or who they've learned them from. I get a great
deal of energy from my students, that kind of youthful enthusiasm
of seeing the future extending way way out there is a great thing because
it's very easy to persuade yourself, Oh well, I used to be a writer.
JJ: Do you think because you are a teacher of writing,
you are more critical of your own writing?
RD: I don't think so. I really don't. I'm not
a very critical teacher of writing. That is, tha "Father knows best"
model of teaching is not one I can do; I can't even fake it very well
because I know that I don't know best. Once in a while, I do. Once
in a while, I will know something. But very often the student who wrote
the poem or story we're reading knows a lot more about it than
I do. It's my job mainly to get them to figure out what they know.
JJ: Is that difficult?
RD: It is difficult. I think the teaching
of writing is extremely tiring. It's very different from doing as I
do, teach literature
or film study, which I find very exciting and fun. The teaching of writing—you
have to be so alert; you have to be almost working at the level in class
that you are working at when you're writing your own work. I mean,
theoretically, you should be at that level. But certainly every time
you have to be alert, you have to be aware of the dynamics in the
room; you have to be aware of when things are straying off, when personal
are getting in the way of real discussion. And at the end of a writing
class, I'm always really tired.
JJ: And you have to try to figure out
what each person, each student, is doing with his or her own writing.
And you have to be surprised all the
time—I mean, be willing to be surprised.
RD: Willing to be surorised. I think bad writing teachers are
people who know the rules and then force their students to obey them.
That's what I mean by "Father knows best. Teacher knows
best. Do it my way." I don't think that ever produces very
JJ: Yeah, I think that that's one of things I was
really lucky to have had that experience as a writer, to have had
teachers who did not teach me in that way.
RD: And that's why you have such
a distinctive voice as a writer.
JJ: Well, thank you.
RD: Well, that's one of the reasons you have
a distinctive voice. One is, you have a distinctive voice. I think it's
true, it's because no one tried to push you, or if they tried, you didn't
JJ: Before I had you and Cathy Hankla and Jeanne
Larsen as teachers, I had Tom Whalen,
who just introduced
so many different kinds of writing to us as high school
students. So we were able to see what was out there before really forming
our own voices.
RD: So you and Tom Whalen both agree that reading
is an essential component to being a writer?
JJ: Hand in hand.
RD: A lot of folks, I think, don't
do much reading, either.
JJ: That's why I don't feel too guilty when
I'm not writing because I'm always reading, and I feel like that's
the work that any writer needs to do in order to improve, so
if you're not writing for a while, and you're reading, I
think that that's okay because you're storing up a lot for
when it actually comes out. You're always reading.
RD: I agree completely. I'm reading all the time when I'm
JJ: When you're not watching NASCAR.
RD: And see, since I teach film, that means that
watching movies is work, too. So I can watch movies and feel no guilt
what would your last meal be?
JJ: I think a cheeseburger or a shrimp
RD: Your sources in New Orleans need to be honored.
A cheeseburger wouldn't do that. Are cheeseburgers different in New Orleans?
JJ: Yeah, there's a place in the French Quarter called The
Clover Grill that makes the best hamburgers and cheeseburgers in the
entire world because there's a hubcap placed on top of the burger
to make sure the cheese melts. It's really good.
RD: I want one right now.
JJ: I do, too.
RD: Let's go.
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