Dodge Poet Spotlight: John McDermott

Welcome to our continuing blog series here on Poetry Fridays, Dodge Poet Spotlight. We are turning the focus over to the individuals who make our programming what it is in the schools, with teachers in Spring & Fountain, and on the ground at the Dodge Poetry Festival — the Dodge Poets.

Each week, a Dodge Poet answers some questions about themselves and provides a selected poem of their own work. We hope that this will be a way for you to get to know the Dodge Poets a little better, and you can get an idea of why we love working with them so much.

We are first featuring leaders of our Spring & Fountain sessions.

Without further ado, today’s Dodge Poet is John McDermott.

Photo Credit: Lauren Rutten

What are you reading?
Right now pieces of lots of stuff.  I start more than I finish and leave half-read books everywhere. And I keep going back  to chunks of favorites like the Education of Henry Adams, Pound, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Durrell, and Sunflower Splendor, a collection of Chinese Poetry, and now I’m listening to Henry VI in my car. And they are different every time.

When did you first discover poetry?  What poets made you want to write poetry?
In high school, I loved a Jerry Jeff Walker song about bumming around with “Stoney,” who “had a grey pillowcase with some books by Durrell,” and that led me to pick up one of Durrell’s Alexandria novels off a table of used books. I got hooked on his language and then on the poems of Cavafy, who Durrell loved.  That’s all it took.

Richard Hugo said we’ve written every poem we ever loved.  He was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.”  What great poem are you proud of having written?
I’d give a lot to have written Yeat’s Aengus or the start of Pound’s Cantos “And then went down to the ship, Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea.”

What is your favorite place to read?
I like anywhere I can squeeze some minutes, maybe in my car if I get to work or an appointment early.  And while I travel or do cooking and chores I listen to books on CD, anything from Kurtis Lamkin to junky detectives to Jared Diamond or a history of Judas.

With all the other demands and distractions in life, how do you make time for poetry?
I focus on how much I don’t want to do what I should, and run away into my notebooks.

Tell us about any personal habits, rituals, ceremonies, superstitions that are part of your writing practice. What are your favorite writing tools?  Paper or computer?  Are there special brands, papers, pens, etc. that are important to you?
Most of my poems come (eventually) from notes I make in junky spiral notebooks from Pathmark when I’m in a mood that “Well, I’ll never come up with a real poem, so I’ll fill some pages.”

I’m a revisiter.  I revisit old notes and old poems, and I revisit favorite places, like a couple of the gardens in Suzhou. They are a pretty good metaphor for writing.  Every time I move ten feet, it is like looking at a different scene, and so many poems have been on the same themes, just from a slightly different place. Each time I go back to a book or a garden, I see more, hear more.

Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
Any time I can grab people and put them into the poem.  I like when people who get dragged to a reading and don’t expect enjoy anything find that the poems do lots of things they never expected and that the sound carries them to a place where the words do much more than anyone could expect from the same words they hear every day.


Near midnight
the dark shapes outside my window
are not so different
from the dark shapes outside yours
or yours, or yours.
City shapes
backyard shapes
empty field or forest shapes.
They are dark. They are shapes.

If you have a window near your bed,
the light flowing down from a sunny sky
a cloudy sky
an April misted sky
a snow bright sky
or a sky full of cold wet sleet
is not so different
from the light that fills
or tries to fill my room
when I wake.

And the loneliness when I think of Mom
or Dad or Pat or Jack is probably
a lot like the ache you feel
for those who are gone,
and the fear I have of losing
those I still hold
may echo with you,
for you have lost
too many of those you loved
and love.

Still, the taste of good bread,
the old friend touch of a favorite shirt,
the tired knees after a long day of work,
the joy of a chair beneath me,
maybe a special chair, maybe not,
the taste of coffee or tea,
of cold water in the sun,
a smile from the one I love,
these are good.

-John McDermott

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