Interviews

Poetry as Creative Freedom: An Interview with Dustin Pearson

The author of 'Millennial Roost' on meta-poetry and more.

In Millennial Roost, Dustin Pearson’s debut poetry collection, patient expansions on the themes of childhood trauma and predation create a dynamic conversation. Twenty-four sequentially numbered letters addressed to the monster, “Mr. Hen,” are interspersed with lyrical works that create a meta-narrative. In other words, Dustin doesn’t hesitate to examine both the subject matter of his poems and the artistic processes and personal considerations that were taken in their creation.

The poems in Millennial Roost were previously published in journals such as Yemassee, Blackbird, Maudlin House, and Excavating Honesty: An Anthology of Rage and Hope in America, to name a few.

I met Dustin on a recent visit to Florida State University, where he is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow. He was kind enough to show me around the city. When I found out he had copies of his debut collection in his backpack, I purchased one on the spot. The next day, I read it twice through on the plane ride home.

After leaving Tallahassee, I sent Dustin several questions over email. The following interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

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Aram Mrjoian

You’ve just published your debut collection, Millennial Roost, and you’re a PhD student in poetry at Florida State University, so it’s probably an understatement to say you’ve invested a lot of time and enthusiasm into your craft. What initially brought you to writing poetry and what excites you about the genre? 

Dustin Pearson

I started out as a fiction writer. Fiction writing was so popular at my undergraduate institution that I couldn’t get into an advanced fiction workshop for a time—I think two semesters, but I was only willing to wait one. Someone recommended that I take a poetry workshop. I wasn’t convinced until I attended a presentation by the person who would teach that workshop.

I always considered myself to be a deep thinker, but it wasn’t until I attended that presentation that I realized how untrained or untapped my capacity to think and to think specifically through language was. When I first started writing, it was the most puzzling thing for me to hear someone say, “That’s a beautiful sentence.”

I love that poetry can encompass every other form of writing. Poetry teaches me patience and allows me to be impatient. I love that poetry allows me to start wherever I am in my thinking or being and to capitalize on missed opportunities that would otherwise lead to feelings of angst. Ultimately, I realized that I wasn’t going to miss out on anything investing in poetry. In fact, I feel I gained an incredible amount. I think it’s largely true for the time being that I associate poetry with creative freedom.

Aram Mrjoian

Regarding your collection, Millennial Roost, I’m curious about balancing the confessional nature of these poems with the withholding of information. There’s never a sense that you’re trying to obfuscate things for the reader, but, given the trauma underlying the work as a whole, that perhaps you’ve put much thought into what details you’re willing to reveal. How did you approach this sensitive balance? What concerns or fears did you have in putting together this collection?

Dustin Pearson

I didn’t want Millennial Roost to be a collage of scenes that exhibited the physical act of someone being sexually abused. I tried to be very sensitive to the opportunities I was giving readers to dismiss the speaker and his story or sensationalize those two things in a way that would render the speaker an object or an archetype. I also tried to be sensitive to the reading experience of survivors of sexual abuse, so I thought a lot about which narrative details and which presentation would allow the reader into the complex psychological and emotional experience of the speaker while not interfering with a reader’s ability to contend with their own independent experience. I didn’t want to over-present narrative details to the point that readers could “see” everything as much as “feel” everything. In that way, my major consideration was emotion. Other than that main goal, I didn’t really have other considerations or fears. I ultimately see Millennial Roost as a desperate and resigned reach outward, and so in that way, most of the fears or concerns were exhausted beforehand.

Aram Mrjoian

In “The Egg,” a poem that appears about halfway through the collection, there’s a shift toward meta-narrative. The poem’s first stanza reads, “This is urgent. I’ve begun to run / out of metaphors, and I’m told the egg / in my work has begun to be funny.” The second half of the collection then seems to almost move forward in time. The subject matter remains the same, but it feels as if there’s a slight adjustment, a sort of self-analysis. What considerations went into structuring the collection? How did you select this arrangement of poems?

Dustin Pearson

I’d say that the structure was really intuitive. Instead of arranging the poems in a way that would lead to the “happiest” ending, I aspired toward a more organic and emotionally truthful progression. I also structured the poems to resemble what it would be like for someone to have a prolonged conversation with me about something hard, personal, and important. I rarely have such conversations, but I imagine they are/would be moody, a bit wry in places, present a complicated mixture of literal and figurative, be otherwise roundabout and direct, be self-conscious and anxious, and eventually achieve a kind of intimate tenderness, so maybe it makes sense that kind of thing found itself confined to a book.

I think the turn toward self-analysis that you mention was a way of contending with the artifice of the collection at the same time the speaker is able to wrestle with his own implication into the abuse. It’s the typical psychology of someone who has experienced a traumatic event to struggle with notions of guilt or blame or fault, but synthesizing conversations of artifice, self-implication, trauma, and abuse enable a troubling element of humanity to saturate all of the book’s or the abuse’s characters and figures. In other words, I think the speaker is aware that his perspective is biased and is weary of having too much influence over how readers come to feel having immersed themselves in his perspective, so poems like “The Egg” and poems that take to self-analysis call attention to that element of subjectivity and encourage readers to feel whatever is most natural for them to feel in light of what they’ve heard.

Aram Mrjoian

What’s your writing process like? What tips and tricks do you give your undergrads to help them with their writing?

Dustin Pearson

I typically start with an extreme emotion, or a set of extreme emotions. I guess I could say that I write over those emotions until they stabilize in a sense. I see myself as a person who is lucky to be torn or ambivalent nearly one hundred percent of the time because I’m able to achieve a kind of stability in light of the extreme emotionality I contend with. Since emotions are abstract, I typically work to source imagery or a narrative that matches the emotion that’s provoking me to write in order to concretize them. If those emotions are already attached to a specific narrative or set of images, I’ll likely need to try other methods to resolve the emotions associated with them. I guess that’s why allegory and personal mythology are so useful to me—they are my go-to methods for transforming emotions and other experiences.

In general, I encourage my undergraduate students to start with ambivalence—whatever they might feel ambivalent about—and investigate. I don’t assume that their emotional register or experience is similar to mine, but I’ve found that prompting my students to write over their ambivalence enables them to more quickly write from a compelling place. I feel that ambivalence complicates the notion of “writing what you know” because it forces students to start with an experience that’s powerful and complex and follow that thread into the unknown. I think this method is especially helpful to beginning writers who haven’t yet found their subject matter, even if they are already writing well. I think it also discourages appropriation or at least encourages more thoughtful writing about experiences outside of themselves. Mindfulness is key.

Aram Mrjoian

Returning to Millennial Roost, much of the collection is grounded in twenty-four letters written to a predatory figure, both “chicken, and monster” given the name Mr. Hen. The first letter ends, “Tell me that I shouldn’t have to consider an / audience. That when it was just you and me behind the / curtain, you were able to get what you needed.” Do you see the epistolary form as a way of conveying intimate information to your readers? Artistically, did the letter form allow you to circumvent or directly address certain emotions and subject matter differently?

Dustin Pearson

I do think the epistolary form enables a particularly rich kind of intimacy, but it also enables a greater range of emotionality and disclosure. Morbid as it may seem, childhood sexual abuse and trauma, especially in relation to the clergy or the church, is a narrative that we’re largely familiar with societally.

Mr. Hen enables a few things for me. In one way, he becomes the speaker’s abuser, but if he were only that, that would be a major limitation because the letters would just be an exchange between the two people directly implicated in the abuse. I get much more excited about Mr. Hen as a figure that represents the abuse itself, because then the correspondence between the speaker and Mr. Hen widens to have an implication for everyone reading the correspondence at the same time that the speaker’s voice is always emphasized. The letters are an otherwise wonderful device because they challenged me to go beyond rehashing the physical abuse over and over again throughout the collection, which I imagine would throw readers out of the experience and do no justice to the emotional consequences of the abuse for the speaker, which is too often the case. In Millennial Roost, I think you really get to see the evolution of the speaker’s emotionality. Sustaining that kind of subject matter over the course of an entire book offers a counterpoint to the limited visibility of survivors of sexual abuse in more popular media. All the prompts provoking the speaker to disclose are his own.

I don’t think I was concerned about circumvention or directly addressing certain emotions so much as showing a kind of comprehensive progression of the speaker’s emotion over the course of Millennial Roost, as much as possible, anyway. I told myself that if I was true to that progression then it wouldn’t matter if there was a spectrum of lesser and greater disclosures or displays of emotion because that kind of thing would be more organic to how humans actually communicate over the course of a relationship. I think people in general really like feeling as though they have a special connection to someone or that they’re experiencing a kind of intimacy and so I think that’s one of the rewards of reading Millennial Roost even when the subject matter gets to be more abrasive or heart-wrenching or difficult to read.

Aram Mrjoian

Which poems in the collection were most challenging to write? What obstacles caused that difficulty?

Dustin Pearson

Probably “Letter 4,” “First Kiss,” or “Relapse.” At a certain point I think it’s the hardest thing to admit that the negative consequences of any trauma aren’t contained to the particular time period in which that trauma is initially sustained. Sustaining the trauma is one thing. Reckoning with, reencountering, and re-sustaining that trauma in new contexts is another difficult thing, but disclosing and contending with outside reactions is another invention of the trauma. Each of those poems is a disclosure wherein the original trauma is contextualized in light of a new trauma, so, in one way, each of those poems arguably becomes an invitation for the speaker to sustain more trauma, but that’s not to say that such disclosures don’t also enable the possibility for a wide range of wonderful consequences, and so being careful to represent all of those complexities and possibilities in each of those poems was especially challenging.

Aram Mrjoian

What are you working on now? Are your current projects still focused on similar subject matter? In publishing a focused collection, do you have a desire or feel some obligation to approach a different subject?

Dustin Pearson

My second manuscript is about family. It’s pretty much done. It has placed as a finalist at a few venues already, but I think I will continue to work on it until I’m confident there are no missed opportunities to create the kind immersive experience I imagine for it.

I’ve started writing poems toward a third project about friendship, or, as a professor of mine has me thinking about it now, the failings of friendship. It’s become very obvious to me how much Millennial Roost is also about friendship, but this manuscript explores the subject much more directly.

As for feeling obligation toward or away from a particular subject matter, I try not to impose on myself that way. If I feel compelled to write about something, I hope to at least follow that thread to its end. It doesn’t mean that I have to publish it if I find I’m unproductively repeating myself, which hasn’t happened yet.

Aram Mrjoian

Lastly, on a more lighthearted note, I’m weirdly interested in writers’ eating habits while they work. What’s your go-to writing snack? How do you reward the completion of a poem or other work?

Dustin Pearson

I’m not a huge snacker. I have a wicked sweet tooth, though, so I’ll typically measure out a serving of something sweet (mints, cookies, gummy worms, etc.) and limit myself to eating that serving over a writing session so I don’t mediate writing anxiety with sugar or warrant an uninsured trip to the dentist. I also love cold brew coffee, so I’ll mix a half cup to a cup of cold brew with almond milk and let those two things be my guide. Lately I’ve been relying on Lance peanut butter sandwich crackers to take the edge off when the cold brew doesn’t curb my desire for something savory.

I don’t usually reward myself when I complete a piece of writing, at least not concretely. I’m typically excited when I finish something, so I’ll allow myself to hold on to that feeling by not looking at the finished piece for a couple of hours. It’s likely the case that when I return to that piece of writing, my enthusiasm for it will have lessened, and that’s always a bit of a downer, so I take measures to make sure that I’m being kind to myself at various points in my process.

9781912477098

POETRY
Millennial Roost by Dustin Pearson
Eyewear Publishing
Published March 1, 2018

Dustin Pearson is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing at Florida State University. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, Pearson has served as the editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review and a Director of the Clemson Literary Festival. He won the Academy of American Poets Katharine C. Turner Prize and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. His work appears in Blackbird, Vinyl Poetry, Bennington Review, and elsewhere.

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Aram Mrjoian is an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books and the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Longreads, Joyland, Colorado Review, Tahoma Literary Review, The Masters Review, and many other publications. He earned his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in fiction at Florida State University. Find his work at arammrjoian.com

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