Kyle Schnitzer Reviews Bicentennial: Poems by Dan Chiasson


Dan ChiassonBicentennial: Poems

Publisher: Knopf

Release date: March 4, 2014


In the forward address to his Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, W.H. Auden speaks about dishonesty in poetry. He explains how a dishonest poem is a piece of writing that expresses “feelings or beliefs which its author never felt or entertained.” And while some poets might fall victim to this philosophy, Dan Chiasson clearly writes from experience, carving truly honest poetry as he revisits his past in his third collection, Bicentennial.

Growing up in Vermont in the seventies, Chiasson writes through observation and experience. As he explains it, Bicentennial is a collection that includes: “early VCRs, snow, erections, [and] pizza.” While the collection focuses on adolescence and growing up, Chiasson is not shy of mixing memories from the past to address larger implications.

Take for instance “Star Catcher,” a nineteen-line poem that focuses on the New York Yankees and their former Hall of Fame catcher, Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash.  Speaking from a Boston Red Sox fan’s perspective, Chiasson’s opening stanza offers a somber tone, yet hints at brighter times from someone else’s tragedy, with just enough ambiguity to keep the reader guessing:

“We felt like dying when the Yankees won.

In 1979, they seemed to win all summer.

Our luck changed when the plane went down.”

What is noticeable with “Star Catcher” is how Chiasson immediately places his reader back in time.  The use of “1979” effectively evokes the original experience, inviting the reader to look at the incident through Chiasson’s mature lens.  And while specifically focusing on the 1979 baseball season, Chiasson throws a curveball to the reader at the start of the second stanza: “My friend was born because his brother drowned.”  Tangling something distant from his control, like a death of an all-time great baseball player, with a personal experience reflects the majority of Chiasson’s poetry in Bicentennial, but throughout the effort is polished and potent.

While these poems display their regionalism for the northeast, specifically Vermont, the title poem, “Bicentennial,” captures the reader in an adventure celebrating the United States’ anniversary.  Chiasson jumps around from the present to the past, in a perpetually interlocking relationship, as a mature, occasionally nostalgic persona tries to make sense of his childhood.

In the opening stanzas of “Bicentennial,” Chiasson speaks directly, pleading: “Move with me now, for I need company— / I have this wish to get caught up in something.”  With all his poetry, his vernacular makes the subject so strong, as if Chiasson is directly speaking to you.  In a subsequent stanza, he creates a strong metaphor as the speaker is desperate for a kick start in his daily experience: “My mind sits on its small white tee and waits / For something like what others experience.”  Whether or not this poem is a search for one’s identity, the speaker clearly yearns for “something” real to happen, as the ecstasy the speaker consumed earlier in his life seemed to provide only a temporary enhancement and inauthentic experiences.

Chiasson visits many scenarios within this poem, from the aforementioned raving days in New York City to a nun who carries a coin that holds special meaning from her life before she took her vows.  Each of these moments sets up the ending, when Chiasson poses a question to his children about how their childhood is going:

“Jokingly, but not really, how do you feel it is going,

And they light up and they say, Great

Which is just what I would have said as a kid

If someone—though who would it have been?—

Had asked me this very same question”

In this excerpt, the speaker places himself into his children’s position, specifically at the time of the Bicentennial when he would have answered the same way his children did.  But Chiasson speaks from a much older perspective and relives this specific moment in time that had such an impact.  His precise language paints such a vivid image that the reader can see the colors of the day—the red, white, and blue—and his diction in the final stanza traps the reader inside the mind of a 5-year-old.

Bicentennial does not shy away from the truth.  Dan Chiasson not only gives the reader a mature perspective of a child’s memory, but with careful honesty he carves and shapes his words into that at-home feeling that everyone craves, where the past is not all that distant, forever lingering in the present with its unanswered questions.  This collection fields just about everything—from play, to pizza, to puberty, and an elegy to his father—and in that way, Bicentennial offers a true representation of life in the United States.

Kyle Schnitzer

Kyle Schnitzer interviews Jess Walter

Jess Walter on Beautiful Ruins: A Novel
February 19, 2013


Kyle Schnitzer: In Beautiful Ruins, you place Pasquale in the fictional town of Porto Vergogna. Why did you decide to create this fictional town, instead of placing the story within one of the five towns that create Cinque Terre?

Jess Walter: I sometimes like the freedom of creating a fictional town. I always envisioned this story as fanciful and larger-than-life, and creating my own village allowed me to open the story up in that way. That word, vergogna—shame—struck me as a theme I wanted to work with, but it’s not a very Italian trait, naming a town “Shame” or a hotel “Adequate View.” Italians tend to not be very self-deprecating. Creating my own town also allows readers, I hope, to give themselves over to the fictional aspects of the story.

KS: Italy is full of beauty and I know all of it that is stored within the coast of Genoa. For someone who is observing and scaling the area, how did you decide to create your scene? The area is full of many colors and just breathes a different vibe than other parts of Italy. Was it difficult to try to encapsulate the area into words? Did any other cities of Italy influence Porto Vergogna?

JW: Creating a scene in fiction is a bit like being an expressionistic painter—providing enough details that you suggest a real place. It isn’t nonfiction or nature-writing; your requirement isn’t to record every plant and animal, but to sketch it—the trails, the olives, the fishing boats—so the reader sees it in his or her mind. Italy definitely has its own feel; it’s a place of great cultural and natural beauty. My wife is second-generation Italian and I bounced a thousand questions off her family and a handful of others to make sure I got as much right as an American author can.

KS: Before creating a setting, you have to observe your surroundings. What do you look for when you are deciding to write about a specific place?

JW: I like to immerse myself in the locations I write about, for me as much for the reader. It’s hard to write fiction and you have to believe in every detail you’re creating. If you don’t believe it, you’ll break out of the fictional dream, and the reader likely won’t stay absorbed either. For me, location isn’t something I think too much about. I write about the places I know, the places I love, the places that haunt me. I first went to Italy in 1997 and the Cinque Terre stayed with me years later. I returned in 2007 and hiked the trails there again just to immerse myself again.

KS: The character selection is interesting. In general, how do you decide who is going to become a character for your novels / short stories? Do you have a specific process of analyzing people or aspects to help make a character?

JW: I don’t really analyze people with the intent of making them characters in fiction. I sometimes will notice traits or bits of description, a way of speaking, a carriage, even a line of dialogue, and write it in my journal. But more often, the story dictates the characters and I build them a sentence at a time, always trying to keep in mind their motivation, who they are, their pasts and, most importantly, what it is they want.

KS: How has Beautiful Ruins been perceived by Italians?

JW: The book hasn’t been translated into Italian yet, but the Italian readers who have read it in English have loved it, at least the ones who have written me. I did get a few notes on my Italian translation from an English teacher in Rome and I made a few changes based on her suggestions for later editions of the book. I expect Italians will be like other readers; some will like it, some won’t. As a writer you quickly realize not everyone can like everything.

KS: What time do you usually write? Where do you generally write? John Updike said he’d only write in the morning hours and wouldn’t think about his writing until the next day. Does writing ever haunt you?

JW: I generally write in the morning, but I’m thinking about writing all day. I carry a writing journal with me all day, jotting down notes, thinking about the work I’ve done that day. Unlike Updike, I feel like I’m always writing, just not always at the computer.