Poet in the Mirror: Dennis James Sweeney
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This month, Dennis James Sweeney—author of You’re the Woods Too (available now from Essay Press)—shares insight into process, vulnerability, and the limits of never giving up.
I loved the different modes that comprise You’re the Woods Too. Could you maybe describe how this structure/shape/hybridity emerged? Did it have other shapes before?
I’m so glad you asked! I’ve always been a big “project” writer—like, I’m working on a “thing” that’s “about” something and I can already imagine the shape of it in my head. But You’re the Woods Too was totally the opposite. I just got obsessed with moss and started trying to figure out ways to write about it. I wrote descriptions of fake mosses, I wrote in the voice of moss, and eventually I happened upon the moss poems in this book. As I did that, I also noticed there were these men haunting the edges of my awareness, these very un-moss-like men, and even though I didn’t like them, I needed to tell their stories too. Around that time, I also had the opportunity to create this intensive seven-day document of a retreat into the woods. So I was writing all this stuff over time, just exploring obsessions, and I had no idea what they would become.
Eventually, years later, I was like, OK, what is this? I made myself sit down and figure it out, doing the intellectual work of something that up until then had been almost purely intuitive. It’s not how I usually write, but I wish all my writing were that way.
On WE vs I
Something that really stood out to me were the sections written like stage directions, often which describe a collective WE. Could you speak to the way you see singular and plural speakers working in your book?
Yes, who are WE anyway? That word can be so harmful and othering, in that by creating an in-group you are always creating an out-group. I often hear it used that “we” read a certain way or do a certain thing, and when people say it they usually mean “people with similar identity and values to me,” usually a group of people who have the privilege to think of themselves as culturally central. I guess what I’m doing here is framing the WE as a contingent group, especially because it’s a bunch of white men. WE, the people who are climbing mountains and trying to find ourselves in the woods, need to be made vulnerable in that act.
The “I” is what emerges from WE when that vulnerability is confronted and experienced fully. When you can see yourself and the deep need that drives intense, athletic, and conquering behaviors, suddenly the collective plan of it seems more like a shared ritual than the definition of a good life. Out of the WE emerges an “I” who is open in his needs and pleasures.
And maybe that means “I” can eventually return to another WE, a reparative one, which acknowledges shared vulnerability and doesn’t police its edges.
What was the most surprising thing—either a joyful one or a challenging one—about ushering your collection into the world?
Publishing a book is so weird! Especially because I write with the feeling that no one will ever see what I have written, even though I like trying to publish and share my work. Recently I keep telling family members and friends, “No, no, you don’t have to read it!” because it’s terrifying to imagine they would. I guess that’s what happens when I enact the vulnerability I was talking about. I like to open, but sometimes I can only do it by imagining that the opening is for me, not anyone else. Maybe, at best, I can imagine my books doing something related mainly to the person reading it, so that it blooms from an experience I’ve had but becomes an experience totally beyond me.
On Navigating Profession with Love and Nuance
When did writing become a professional endeavor for you? How did that begin?
That’s such a tension for me as a writer. On one hand I’m deeply suspicious of anything professional, rejecting the capitalist idea that we must be productive and make art sellable, and I think the increasing economic pressure on writers (and everyone) can often lead people to make decisions about their work that isn’t the best for the work. But on the other hand, I was having a conversation with a friend recently about how the need for an audience and other logistical requirements of the world can often feed into our work in important and beautiful ways, if we’re able to accept the fact that art is always in conversation with its contexts.
There’s a short answer, too, though: We had a baby. And I was like, oh boy, I better let go of some of my attachment to being rock n’ roll and do the most rock n’ roll thing there is, which is listen to the people around me and be in conversation with their needs, including in ways that can lead to making more money. I still hate capitalism and the need to monetize artistic production and artists themselves, but acting from a place of love and nuance rather than a place of disaffection is good for me.
On Giving Up
What is a popular craft advice that you don’t practice yourself?
I don’t know if “Never give up” counts as popular craft advice, but it’s an important mantra that also has its limits. Writing and writing and being in the work is essential. At the same time, my best writing happens when I give up. When I say forget it, I’m just going to do it my way, I’m not listening to anyone about what they think I should do—something important happens, a freeing feeling that allows me to finally give what I have inside me. When I give up, I let go, and suddenly everything I need comes rushing in.
Dennis James Sweeney is a cross-genre writer. He is the author of You’re the Woods Too (Essay Press, 2023) and In the Antarctic Circle (Autumn House Press, 2021), as well as several chapbooks of poetry and prose, including Ghost/Home: A Beginner’s Guide to Being Haunted (Ricochet Editions, 2020). His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in Ecotone, Ninth Letter, The New York Times, The Southern Review, and Witness, among others. Formerly a Small Press Editor at Entropy and Assistant Editor at Denver Quarterly, he has an MFA from Oregon State University and a PhD from the University of Denver. He teaches at Amherst College.