There are books, and then there are books. There are books that we cram into our back pockets, purses and backpacks, books as mere commodities, conveyers of information pulp novels, pop how-to books books that are meant to be pulled out in waiting rooms and in bathrooms, those in-between moments when we are searching for some stuffing to fill the empty spaces of our lives.
I'm not dismissing the value of those books (OK, I guess I am), but I'm talking about a different sort of book. I'm talking about the kind of book that when you take it up into your hand, you know, you can feel it, right down to the grade of the paper, all the way down into the molecules of the ink the actuality of the thing itself that this book is something sacred, an art object, an artifact. Each word, each letter, in fact, is set down onto the page by a pair of human hands. Carmina Detroit, a collection of poems by longtime Detroit poet Dawn McDuffie, is one such book, harking back to a time when both books and the words inside them were placed into the world with a sense of delicacy and directness. These two words, the delicate and the direct, describe the poems of Dawn McDuffie well.
Metro Times: How did you ever get started on a series of love poems set in Detroit?
Dawn McDuffie: I always have loved Carl Orff's oratorio, Carmina Burana, but I always imagined the lovers, gamblers and the dubious abbot as people living in my own city. In the winter of 2002, I looked closely at the medieval Latin poems that Orff set to music, and I started adapting, reworking and transforming them into poems of Detroit.
MT: How important is Detroit, its landscape, its history, to your poetry?
McDuffie: Detroit is my muse. Kind neighbors, broken factories, the old lilacs that bloom every spring in the vacant lots where there used to be houses all these places speak to me. I wasn't surprised that Detroit people and places became the setting for Carmina Detroit.
MT: In the poem "In the Balance," the speaker wrestles between celibacy and sex, and in the end says, "I will pick the burden of love." The speaker in "Burning Inside" tells us, "do whatever love commands, /ignore the weight of the cinder you carry, / your burned heart." But, of course, the heart here has been "burned," is a "weight," not to mention a "cinder." Is Cupid blinded, is this what you're saying, by the poison of his own arrows?
McDuffie: Cupid is a troublesome fellow of many moods, and he is just as susceptible to love as any human. As I was writing Carmina Detroit, I remembered the love and despair of very young people. I taught high school students in Detroit for over 25 years, and I have vivid memories of Michigan in the spring during my own university years. What actually traps Cupid is the sudden love of two people. And, yes, that same love can turn the heart into a burned cinder at some point. Every human being has to choose between love and its opposite. I don't think of Cupid as blind as much as distractible, the way a delightful child is distractible. You can't bully the god of love into compliance. He just laughs and runs the other way.
MT: In "Hail Most Beautiful One" you write, "You are beyond comparison /but I keep on trying, /calling you a jewel, /the light of the world, /the one rose /nature has perfected." How do you, in your poems, view the relationship between beauty and nature?
McDuffie: I always find nature intriguing even on its most sullen days. The different speakers in this book accept nature as an absolute standard of beauty, but they are also sensitive to the shape of something that eludes expression. I love the way they keep trying to create the perfect metaphor that will win the loved one's heart, even though the task is impossible.
MT: Carmina Detroit, the book itself, is a thing of beauty. I know that Adastra Press, unlike most presses these days, still goes about the act of printing by using a letterpress printer, each letter, each word, each poem, set by hand. On the colophon page in the back of the book, we learn that "Production lasted from September to November 2006 as an unusually mild autumn kept trout actively feeding on the printer's favorite dry flies." Could you talk a bit about what it was like to work on and watch your manuscript get turned into a book in this sort of "old-fashioned" way?
McDuffie: Knowing that my publisher Gary Metras printed every page by hand and sewed each book together with a needle and a thimble made me feel humble. I love the idea of hand-set type, because it reaches back into the history of printing, which is so much a part of the history of thought. With so many electronic forms of communication, a highly physical book is a novelty and a treat to the hand as well as to the eye.
MT: What did teaching high school English for 25 years in Detroit teach you about poetry, about yourself, about human nature?
McDuffie: Poetry is one of the most powerful forces a teacher can invite into the classroom. My students at Mumford High loved reading poetry and loved writing original poems. I still have their work, and I'm still impressed that young people struggling with so many issues could write wholeheartedly about love. I believe that love for metaphor, passion to create a work of art, the desire to share one's artistic vision with other people are all an intrinsic part of human nature. As for self-knowledge teenagers give a teacher ample lessons every day. You could say I learned a solid classroom is also a work of art. We cannot live on skills, objectives and annual achievement tests alone. Human beings tune out any setting that ignores the soul. "Good Advice for Happy Times" is set in a high school a few days before the senior prom. The speaker in this poem isn't exactly me, but a person who has had similar experiences, someone who has been a teacher, and who sympathizes with the students and their longings.
MT: Myth, too, along with Detroit, is everywhere in this book? Why the mythic?
McDuffie: I believe the world of myth is with us even when we don't realize it. After a long Detroit winter, spring seems very much like a laughing goddess. Young people fall in love so quickly the myth of Cupid and his arrows makes sense. I know for a fact that all those customers at the casinos believe in the myth of Lady Luck. We haven't given up myths and fairy tales; we have grown unaware of them. I hope the world of myth and the reality of Detroit merge in this book.
Good Advice for Happy Times
by Dawn McDuffie
A poet looks at courtship’s awakening.
Dawn McDuffie reads from Carmina Detroit at 2 p.m., Sunday, March 18, at the Scarab Club, 217 Farnsworth St., Detroit; 313-831-1250.Peter Markus is a poet whose book Good, Brother has been recently reissued. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org