The staff members of Switchback are conducting a new series of interviews on the craft of writing with the lauded, loved, and learned faculty members here at the University of San Francisco. In this second installment, we give you a conversation between Poetry Editor Cassie Duggan and poet Dean Rader on the role of titling in poetry. Dean Rader’s first collection of poems, Works & Days, won the2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize. His poem “Self Portrait as Dido to Aeneas” was selected by Mark Doty for Best American Poetry 2012. His most recent collection of poems, Landscape Portrait Figure Form (Omnidawn) was named by the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the Best Poetry Books of 2013. He is the editor of 99 Poems for the 99 Percent: An Anthology of Poetry. Head over to his website to read more.
Switchback: How do you view the function of titling in poetry?
Dean Rader: Titles are a rare opportunity to give the reader a little more information (or not) regarding a poem. Over the last few years, I have read a lot of book manuscripts, and in almost every case, I think the poems need more interesting, more direct, or more provocative titles. Most readers come to a poem prepared to misread it, or they are frightened they will misread it. So, I’m a big fan of titles that help minimize that anxiety and/or bring out the joy of the poem.
For example, I love titles that seem fun, that prepare me to love a poem or the experience of reading a poem, like Jennifer L. Knox’s “Song of the Hoarse Bullhorn Holder.” I see that title, and I think, “I want to read that poem.” The same goes for James Wright’s “A Message Hidden In An Empty Wine Bottle That I Threw Into A Gully Of Maple Trees One Night At An Indecent Hour.” These titles have both a sense of humor and a sense of play. The greatest in this regard is Wallace Stevens. His titles are poems in and of themselves.
I also tend to respond to titles that are slyly self-aware, like Charles Wright’s “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner,” Ander Monson’s “I Have Been Trying to Make Something Happen,” or Robert Hass’s “Envy of Other People’s Poems.”
In general, I think the title should avoid doing the same work as the poem. If the poem is about a field in Nebraska, I would avoid titling the poem “Nebraska Field,” mostly because if the poem is strong, it will convey that message already. An instance when you would want to consider titling your poem “Nebraska Field” is if your poem’s narrative takes on, say, Monsanto. In that case, the title points the reader both away from the poem and toward the poem. Robert Hass is great at this—“Meditation at Lagunitas,” “Forty Something,” “The Apple Trees at Olema.”
However, in certain situations, a title can help augment the complexity of the poem. For example, when teaching William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” I tell my students that originally, it was simply titled “XXII” to indicate the twenty-second piece in Spring and All. We discuss what the poem is like when it deemphasizes the red wheelbarrow. I also tell them that there is a rumor Williams originally had, in the draft stage, given the poem the title “Poetry.” I ask them how the experience of reading and approaching the poem differs based on the three titles.
Aristotle praises the poet’s ability to notice similarity in dissimilars. A title can help a reader see the similarity between the two unlike things your poem is trying to work with. A great example is Terrance Hayes’s poem “Hide,” which plays on the noun and the verb hide and how they are linked, particularly via race. The title works beautifully because it is both helpful and mysterious at the same time.
SWB: In your own writing, how do you go about creating harmony or tension between the title and the poem? Does the title often come before the poem?
DR: If I think the poem, on the surface, appears pretty straightforward, then I might give it a distorted title to 1) dissuade a reader from an overly simplistic reading of the poem, and 2) to suggest another way into, or out of, the poem. Something like “Frog and Toad Confront the Alterity of Otherness” would be an example of this. Here, “Frog and Toad” are accessible, even welcome; whereas “alterity” is not. That dissonance, to me, is intriguing, and it sets up the tension the poem explores. In Landscape Portrait Figure Form, there is a poem titled “Apocryphal Self-Portrait.” That title indicates both truthfulness and . . . not.
Sometimes the title comes before the poem—especially if the poem is a kind of concept poem, like “Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry” or “The Poem Chooses Its Own Adventure.” In these cases I had the ideas for the poems and decided the title would help readers make connections to forms they already know.
Most of the time, the title comes last or nearly last. My fear with any poem is that it is either too accessible or too inaccessible. Depending on how I’m feeling, I might give a piece a title to help or hinder as the case may be. Lately, I’ve been into titles with options like “American Self-Portrait III or What The Poet Thinks of Instead of War,” or “Poem in Which Readers Select Their Favorite of the Following Titles” and I give a kind of multiple-choice menu of options.
SWB: And what would your top five best (or favorite) titles be?
DR: That’s impossible, but there are a few poems that jump out:
Wallace Stevens, “Frogs Eat Butterflies, Snakes Eat Frogs, Hogs Eat Snakes, Men Eat Hogs”
Mary Ruefle, “The Tenor of Your Yes”
Charles Wright, “As Our Bodies Rise, Our Names Turn Into Light”
Dana Levin, “Ghosts That Need Reminding”
Sherman Alexie, “The Exaggeration of Despair”
As far as books go, I’m a huge fan of Dana Levin’s Sky Burial; Karyna McGlynn’s I Have to Go Back to 1944 and Kill a Girl; Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec; Tom Hennen, Darkness Sticks to Everything; and Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box.