Interviews | April 11, 2017
Sharon Dolin on advice, poetry, and “happenstance”
Sharon Dolin’s poetry feature “Excerpts from The Pocket Oracle” appeared in the Missouri Review’s Winter 2016 issue. Dolin is the author of six poetry books, most recently: Manual for Living (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), and she directs the international workshop Writing about Art in Barcelona: http://www.sharondolin.com/barcelona-workshops/
TMR intern Abigail Jones asked Dolin some questions about influence and process.
Abigail Jones: The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, written by Baltasar Gracián, is often cited as “one of the first self-help books ever written.” Would you say there is truth in this statement?
Sharon Dolin: Baltasar Gracián wrote in the seventeeth century, but there are a lot older “self-help” books out there, such as Ecclesiastes (written over two thousand years ago) and Epictetus from the second century.
Jones: What was your first interaction with Gracián’s writings? And what made you decided to write poems based upon his work?
Dolin: It was pure happenstance that I found an English translation of The Pocket Oracle at a local bookstore in Barcelona, where I had been teaching. Of course, as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I never premeditate my next poetic project. Knocking around, after I had finished the manuscript of Manual for Living, with its title series of advice poems based on Epictetus, not sure what to do, I figured I might try another aphoristic sequence of poems based on Gracián, someone I had never heard of until I stumbled upon his book.
Jones: Manual for Living based upon works of Epictetus, and The Pocket Oracle based upon works of Gracián, are both groups of “aphoristic poems.” How would you say these two sources differ? How did you try to distinguish between these two authors in your own poems?
Dolin: I hoped that the “excerpts” from Gracián were less stoical and more, as I say, Machiavellian. My favorite one (coming out in New American Writing) is called “Don’t expose your sore finger.” That is, The Pocket Oracle poems are more concerned with appearances, with one’s effect on others. They assume a social environment, whereas the core of Epictetus’s philosophy is an argument for self-aplomb, for turning away from what others think of you. Of course there’s some overlap. I see, for instance, that I’ve used the term “self-aplomb” in one of the Gracián poems, which is the goal of the Stoic as well.
Jones: What do you hope readers will take away from your adaptation of Gracián’s work?
Dolin: I must confess that I write these poems for myself as much as for anyone else. They are bits of advice I myself should take. Mostly, I was interested in riffing on these bits of advice poetically, to see if I could give them a poetic charge and thus enliven what might seem overly obvious or platitudinous. I’m not sure that anyone goes to poetry for advice. I can only hope that if they do, these poems will “delight and teach,” as Sir Philip Sydney proposed in his “Defense of Poesy” about a hundred years before Gracián wrote. I’m probably more interested in delighting my readers through language than in teaching them, but I would be happy to hear that someone was inspired to follow the advice these poems offer.
Jones: If you were to write another series of advice poems, who would be your next source of inspiration?
Dolin: When I have attempted to do so consciously, I have failed, so I am waiting for something else to present itself to me. For a number of years, I’ve had a copy of Ben Jonson’s obscure little book Timber on hand, and I want to do something with it. I tried making an erasure book with it and failed. Perhaps I’ll try another series of advice poems based on Timber, but the poems must feel entirely different than the Epictetus and Gracián series.
Jones: Your advice poems draw from Western philosophers, yet there is a riddle-like quality to them that reminds me of the koan. Are there Eastern influences in your work as well?
Dolin: Not consciously, no, but I’ll take that as a compliment. I am interested in the art of compression, and I have sculpted these poems until there is not one extraneous word. I don’t think these poems are as cryptic as koans. After all, each one gives away its answer in the title, so a mystified reader can just return to its clarity at any time.
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