Pure Poetry #34: Of All Poets, Stephen Dunn

Pure Poetry Week(s):

#1 – 2/23/2011 – Intro & Def Poetry Jam, by Riese
#2 – 2/23/2011 – *Eileen Myles, by Carmen
#3 – 2/23/2011 – Anis Mojgani, by Crystal
#4 – 2/24/2011 – *Andrea Gibson, by Carmen & Katrina/KC Danger
#5 – 2/25/2011 – Leonard Cohen, by Crystal
#6 – 2/25/2011 – *Staceyann Chin, by Carmen
#7 – 2/25/2011 – e.e. cummings, by Intern Emily
#8 – 2/27/2011 – Louise Glück, by Lindsay
#9 – 2/28/2011 – Shel Silverstein, by Intern Lily & Guest
#10 – 2/28/2011 – *Michelle Tea, by Laneia
#11 – 2/28/2011 – Saul Williams, by Katrina Chicklett Danger
#12 – 3/2/2011 – Maya Angelou, by Laneia
#13 – 3/4/2011 – Jack Spicer, by Riese
#14 – 3/5/2011 – Diane DiPrima, by Sady Doyle
#15 – 3/6/2011 – Pablo Neruda, by Intern Laura
#16 – 3/7/2011 – Vanessa Hidary, by Lindsay
#17 – 3/7/2011 – *Adrienne Rich, by Taylor
#18 – 3/8/2011 – Raymond Carver, by Riese
#19 – 3/9/2011 – Rock WILK, by Gabrielle
#20 – 3/9/2011 – Veronica Franco, by Queerie Bradshaw
#21 – 3/10/2011 – Poems I Like, by Tao Lin
#22 – 3/12/2011 – William Carlos Williams & Robert Creeley, by Becky
#23 – 3/13/2011 – NSFW Sunday is Pure Poetry Edition, by Riese
#24 – 3/14/2011 – Charles Bukowski, by Intern Emily
#25 – 3/16/2011 – Rainer Maria Rilke, by Riese
#26 – 3/17/2011 – Lee Harwood by Mari
#27 – 3/18/2011 – Jeffrey McDaniel by Julieanne
#28 – 3/20/2011 – *Dorothy Porter by Julia
#29 – 3/21/2011 – Sylvia Plath, by Riese
#30 – 3/24/2011 – *Poems About Being a Homogay, by Riese
#31 – 3/28/2011 -* Mary Oliver by Morgan
#32 – 3/29/2011 – *Gertrude Stein + Mina Loy by Intern Emily
#33 – 3/29/2011 – Sappho by Marisa Meltzer
#34 – 3/30/2011 – Stephen Dunn by Riese, Rachel, Intern Laura & Intern Emily

* = lesbian
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“I admire a great gaggle of contemporary poets whom I regard as a veritable pantheon of secular gods, but Stephen Dunn is my favorite living poet, my high priest of vertically rendered experience. I love his work so much that it seems that he should be dead. You understand.”

- Erik Campbell, The Accidental Plagiarist

Original Illustration for Autostraddle by Maja

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We’ve decided to end Pure Poetry Month with a megapost about our favorite poet of all time. He’s not a lesbian, unfortunately, but he changed our lives just the same and could change yours and has changed, we assume, many lives along the way.

Stephen Dunn was born in 1939 in New York City. Once upon a time he was a basketball player, another time he went to school for writing at Hofstra and then at Syracuse. Stephen Dunn won the Academy Award for Literature, the James Wright Prize, the National Poetry Series Award and a ton of National Endowment For the Arts situations. He has taught poetry and writing at Columbia, Syracuse, the University of Washington, Princeton, the University of Michigan, Wichita State University and others.

He won the Pulitzer Prize for Different Hours, published in 2000. He lives in New Jersey sometimes and Maryland sometimes.

We love him.

Let’s go.

Riese:

I don’t know how to talk about Stephen Dunn, because Stephen Dunn has already dedicated his life to talking about me so talking about him seems redundant.

Those of us who think we know
the same secrets
are silent together most of the time

- from ‘those of us who think we know’

He doesn’t know that he’s talking about me. I mean he’s a middle-aged — well, he must be past 60 by now — white guy who lives, I think, in New Jersey.

I met Stephen Dunn before I knew Stephen Dunn because he was the first poet to visit my first writing class during my first year at Interlochen Arts Academy.

At the time I was still anti-poetry. I didn’t know he was such a big deal. I remember writing notes to my roommate about Ovaltine vs. Swiss Miss while he read.

I wish I’d known then what I know now about how much he knows me, I have so many questions for him. No I don’t. I wouldn’t say a word.

In large groups, create a corner
in the middle of a room.

I remember one line that he read though, from “The Routine Things Around the House.” I realized this line was the truest thing I’d ever read, it described the only solace I knew for “what to do with pain,” and it reminded me of me feeling how I felt when terrible things happened. I used that line to explain myself so many times I don’t even need the book to write it down:

When Mother died I thought:
now I’ll have a death poem.

That was unforgivable

A year later in a poetry workshop, a classmate mentioned her obsession with Stephen Dunn, and how she read New & Collected Poems every night all over again. I didn’t even like that girl. She was a bad poet.

But I’m obsessed with what people become obsessed with. Then I noticed everyone else had remained obsessed since he’d first arrived on campus — all my best friends were into him like teenagers are into Liz Phair or something. Some of my friends were into Liz Phair AND Stephen Dunn.

Why didn’t I notice the first time? He’s not inaccessible or esoteric. He’s one of the most accessible poets I’ve ever read.

It was me, not him.

I remember Stephen Dunn’s reading like you remember the first, incidental time you met your future girlfriend but had no idea at the time, how maybe you smiled at each other across the table and texted kindly the next day in a friendly manner and then boom five months later you’re re-hashing that first glance, turning it into legend, turning memory into forecasts.

Stephen Dunn is a language now. It’s a part of how I talk, and his words are equals to our own in relationships with my Interlochen friends Krista and Ingrid.

“Remember Each From Different Heights, Ris,” Krista wrote me when a boy had just broken my heart. “Remember the bruise turning perfectly white.” And Ingrid, who’d made me a card with Each From Different Heights on it the year prior, so it was right there when Krista brought it up. Right there for me to reference it.+

Each From Different Heights

That time I thought I was in love
and calmly said so
was not much different from the time
I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud
to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius
of my hands

And the times I felt less in love,
less than someone
were, to be honest, not so different
either.

Each was ridiculous in its own way
and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.

I am astounded
by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights
diminished, which is simply the law.

And the big bruise
from the longer fall looked perfectly white
in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.

I was 19 when he did a reading at The University of Michigan and I wrote it up for The Michigan Daily. I wondered if Stephen would see it. He was teaching MFA students that year.

…and the class proceeded to debate
what’s fucking, what’s making love,
and the importance of context, tact
the
bon mot. I leaned towards those

who favored fucking; they were funnier
and seemed to have more experience
with the happy varieties of their subject.

- from decorum

Once we were in the same elevator, I think it was in Angell Hall. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to change our relationship — the one where I read everything he said and he didn’t know who I was.

It was weird to breathe air with him, just riding the elevator like two normal anonymous people. Afterwards I wrote him a letter and never sent it. I’m glad I never sent it.

I brought my best friend Becky to that reading he did at U of M, a Westchester-bred sorority girl who liked Between Angels so much that she’d built an entire photography project around it. I got her that book for her birthday. When I took Advanced Photo that year I took pictures of Becky and this boy Adam for a visual presentation of After Making Love (which Laura discusses, below), but then someone stole it from the Photography classroom. I wonder why.

stephen dunn on the shelf in my old apartment

Most of my best friends know Stephen Dunn because Stephen Dunn is the very first thing I give them for the very first holiday we ever share, but only if I can hand it to them, it’s not the kind of thing you can mail.

I was 20 when I met another best friend, Natalie, and now we speak in a language that consists of our actual personalities augmented by Ani DiFranco lyrics, Lorrie Moore quotes and Stephen Dunn poems.

Here, let me help you, then you me,

——>otherwise we’ll die.

- from kindness

In Wisconsin for a weekend in October of my fourth year of college : Krista and Ingrid and I got cheese curds in a bag and raspberries from the Farmers Market and were eating at their house and taking turns reading Stephen Dunn poems to each other.

Ingrid read “Beautiful Women” and said “I dedicate this to you two because you are the most beautiful women I know,” which we thought was funny because everyone knew Ingrid was the most beautiful woman in the world. We’d gone to high school together. We knew these things.

More things come to them,
and they have more to hide.
All around them: mirrors, eyes
—–>In any case
they are different from other women
and like great athletes have trouble
making friends, and trusting a world
quick to praise.

But she was right. It wasn’t about high school or cheekbones, it was about being exactly who we were/are which is beautiful, all of us.

I wanted to stay in Madison forever with them on that floor, on that mattress, with those words. But I couldn’t — I had to go back to Michigan, to my condo and my boyfriend and the life I’d chosen but didn’t want anymore.

It was like this with him, eventually:

The Answers

Why did you leave me?

We had grown tired together. Don’t you remember?
We’d grown tired together, were going through the motions.

Why did you leave me?

I don’t know, really. There was comfort in that tiredness.
There was love.

Why did you leave me?

You began to correct my embellishments in public.
You wouldn’t let me tell my stories.

Why did you leave me?

She is… I don’t wish to be
any more cruel than I’ve been

You son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I was already gone.
I just brought my body with me.

Why did you leave me?

You found out and I found I couldn’t give her up.
I was as shocked as you were.

Why didn’t you lie to me?

I was already lying to you. It was hard work.
All of it suddenly felt like hard work.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted to try monogamy again.
I wanted the freedom to be monogamous.

You fucker. You fucking son-of-a-bitch.

Why did you leave me?

I wanted you both. I thought I could be faithful
to each of you. You shouldn’t have made me choose.

Don’t you know what betrayal is?

I never thought of it as betrayal. More like one pleasure
of mine you should never have known.

You really are quite an awful man.

Why did you leave me?

It was time to leave.
The hour of leaving had come.

Why did you leave me?

It would take too long to explain. Please
don’t ask me to explain.

Will you not explain it to me?

No, I will not explain it to you. I’ll say anything
rather than explain it to you. Even things that sound true.

These two lines are perfect. I’ve repeated an infinite number of times:

I was already gone.
I just brought my body with me.

So, then Krista was driving me to the bus station. She asked me if my boyfriend loved words. I said he did not. I knew, she knew, we all knew it. I’d already left, but my body lingered on. I came home wanting to touch no-one.

I’ve come home wanting to touch
everyone, everything; usually I turn
the key and they’re all lost
in food or homework, even the dogs
are preoccupied with themselves,
I desire only to ease
back in, the mail, a drink,
but tonight the body-hungers have set out
their long-range signals
or love itself has risen
from its squalor of neglect.

- from i come home wanting to touch everything

Krista spent an entire day hunting down The Insistence of Beauty — where “The Answers” is from — when it first came out. By this point we were living together in Manhattan. When I got home from work she handed me my copy:  Ris, I think Stephen Dunn is getting divorced and I think he cheated on his wife or something.

via flickr.com/photos/tdelosreyes

 

But it wasn’t just the divorce making sneaky appearances in The Insistence of Beauty — though it was that. But it was also losing trust in love, or in the world, or in anything you once deemed reliable or eternal.

It was how people felt right after 9/11 which was right before our early 20s and so by this point in time — the point of when we read this book –we’d already stopped trusting things. It set the tone. That things could be one way, and then another. I trusted no one because that’s what happens after two or three people break your trust, you call the whole thing off. Then the world just reinforces that belief. I didn’t think anyone could write about it without sounding tacky, unless they’d been there, or knew somebody.

It was a relief, then, to learn that Stephen Dunn knew it too.

Grudges

Easy for almost anything to occur.
Even if we’ve scraped the sky, we can be rubble.
For years those men felt one way, acted another.

Ground zero, is it possible to get lower?
Now we had a new definition of the personal,
knew almost anything could occur.

It just takes a little training to blur
a motive, lie low while planning the terrible,
get good at acting one way, feeling another.

Yet who among us doesn’t harbor
a grudge or secret? So much isn’t erasable;
it follows that almost anything can occur,

like men ascending into the democracy of air
without intending to land, the useful veil
of having said one thing, meaning another.

Before you know it something’s over.
Suddenly someone’s missing at the table.
It’s easy (I know it) for anything to occur
when men feel one way, act another.

That last part reminded me of Joan Didion, from The Year of Magical Thinking:

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

And I wrote those things down in my diary over and over again: Before you know it something’s over, life changes in the instant, in the ordinary instant, it’s easy, you sit down to dinner and suddenly someone’s missing at the table. Over and over. It felt true.

Here are just a few of the other things he said that now I think about constantly, and maybe accidentally write myself sometimes, thinking it’s my own idea:

I do not mind living
like this. I cannot bear
living like this.
Oh, everything’s true
at different times
in the capacious day.

(from Between Angels)

 

There are always the simple events
of your life
that you might try to convert into legend.
(from Some Things I Wanted to Say to You)

 

I’ve known an edginess, come evening,
when I haven’t chosen to be alone, but am…
(from Night Truths)

 

Tell your lovers the world
robs us in so many ways
that a caress is your way
of taking something back.
Tell the dogs and the horses
you love them more than cars.
Speak to everything
would be my advice.

(from Some Things I Wanted to Say to You)

 

Intelligence warmed by generosity
is inner beauty, and what’s worse
some physically beautiful women have it,
and we have to be strapped and handcuffed
to the mast, or be ruined.

(from “Beautiful Women“)

 

When you get together
you must feel everyone has brought
his fierce privacy with him
and is ready to share it. Prepare
yourself though to keep something back;
there’s a center in you
you are simply a comedian without…
(from How to Be Happy: Another Memo to Myself)

 

If you want to love Stephen Dunn then a good/ideal place to start is New & Selected Poems (1974-1994). It has so many of my favorites in it. He wrote a non-fiction book too, called Waking Light, with this essay in it about Truth that I based my whole life on. Here’s the books you should read, in order:

1. New & Selected Poems (1974-1994)
2. Between Angels
3. The Insistence of Beauty
4. Loosestrife
5. Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs
6. Different Hours
7. Walking Light
8. Landscape at the End of the Century
9. Everything Else in the World
10. Local Visitations

I said in the beginning that I always buy Stephen Dunn for a new friend when they’re still new, and that I try to make everyone I love, love him too. But I’ve never bought Stephen Dunn for a girlfriend or boyfriend. I’m afraid. What if I see the book, untouched, on the counter? What if they read one thing and ignore the rest? I couldn’t handle it. I have come prepared to hold something back.

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Stephen Dunn plays ping-pong at Rollins College

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Intern Laura:

I don’t know how to talk about things I like so I’m going to talk about me. I liked Stephen Dunn because I learned about him during the year that I learned that I didn’t actually hate poetry. I thought I hated it because poetry is about feelings and I spent a lot of time not feeling up until then. Not because something was wrong or I was damaged or anything, just because I was afraid I would do it wrong. Feelings are messy and poetry is hard if you like everything to have a place. I’m kind of a perfectionist.

This is what brought me to AP English, since I didn’t actually have any specific love for literature. I used to devour books, but I’d slowly forgotten about what books can do as I isolated myself in ambition. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is what made a little crack in my shell during the first week of class because I felt like there wasn’t time. And then “To His Coy Mistress” because it made me laugh and it was written 400 years ago and that’s crazy.

Then my teacher told me I had to write more to practice and so I started by copying things down that I liked so that I wouldn’t mess up. I wrote down those two and then some more. I realized other people’s words weren’t enough and so slowly I started reporting my days to my journal. Every night I wrote how things looked that day and who I saw and where I went.

One day I read “Essay on the Personal” on Riese’s blog and I thought that some of the things he said were about me. I was practicing for all the things I hadn’t felt yet and realizing that now I had more than just things to report because life was feeling like more than just that.

I forgot about him until, having felt a lot of things, I took my lonely-again heart to books for comfort.

After Making Love

No one should ask the other,
“What were you thinking?”

No one, that is,
who doesn’t want to hear about the past

and its inhabitants,
or the strange loneliness of the present

filled, even as it may be, with pleasure
or those snapshots

of the future, different heads,
on different bodies.

Some people actually desire honesty.
They must never have broken

ino their own solitary houses
after having misplaced the key,

never seen with an intruder’s eyes
what is theirs.

I missed my family and I missed the friends I’d made and wished highs didn’t have to come with such low lows. Unlike me, Stephen Dunn’s poems recognized the grey. They weren’t too obvious in their sadness but they spoke about it perfectly. I bought “New and Collected Poems” and read through it in my room because the park next to the bookstore seemed too public and too expected and his poems were neither of those things.

I got through my heartache by listening to it during the day and listening to Ira Glass at night. I worked on my balancing act and moved my headquarters to a tiny room that gets enough sun.

The Room and the World

The room was room enough for one
or maybe two if the two had just
discovered each other and were one.
Outside of the room was the world
which had a key to the room, and knowing
a little about the world he knew
how pointless it was to change the lock.
He knew the world could enter the room
anytime it wanted, but for the present
the world was content to do its damage
elsewhere, which the television recorded.
Always, he kept in his mind the story of a man
hanging from a cliff, how the wildflowers
growing there looked lovelier than ever.
That was how he felt about his one chair
and the geometry of the hangers in his closet
and the bed that fit him like a body shirt.
Sometimes the world would breathe heavily
outside the door because it was obscene
and could not help itself. It was this
that led him eventually to love the world
for its pressure and essential sadness.
One day he just found himself opening
the door, allowing the inevitable.
The world came in and filled the room.
It seemed so familiar with everything.

But one day soon when I’ve learned enough, I’ll move to a room that has space for more than just me. I think what Stephen Dunn does so well is love other people. It’s too easy to be a complete shit and think that you’re the only person in the world who feels like you and not be brave enough to go out and discover that you’re not.

I was watching an interview with Sam Beam (my other favorite poet) and he was talking about how you can’t say “Do you remember when we had french fries?” because that only means something to one or two people, you have to look bigger.

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Next: Intern Emily, Natalie and Rachel talk about how precisely they also love Stephen Dunn

Pages: 1 2 3 See entire article on one page

Avatar of Riese

Riese is the 32-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City, and now lives in The Bay Area. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are!

Riese has written 1744 articles for us.

38 Comments

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    I am definitely craving more of Dunn’s work after this. I can’t even pick a favorite poem or set of lines from what was quoted here. Thank you all. I hadn’t had poetry in my life for too long, and the series – exemplified by this post – brought love for its honesty and beautifully-worked words crashing back in.

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    “I was already gone. I just brought my body with me.”

    wow. that line just hit me like a ton of bricks. didn’t know much about Dunn before, but definitely going to be checking out his work now.

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    Oh man – I love Stephen Dunn. All of you wrote really beautifully about him and basically captured any feelings I could write. This might be my favorite thing you have ever put on your website. I bought New and Selected Poems at a secondhand book store in D.C. (that may have the largest poetry section I’ve ever seen in a secondhand book store) and I always have it close by.

    Welcome

    If you believe nothing is always what’s left
    after a while, as I did,
    If you believe you have this collection
    of ungiven gifts, as I do (right here
    behind the silence and the averted eyes)
    If you believe an afternoon can collapse
    into strange privacies –
    how in your backyard, for example,
    the shyness of flowers can be suddenly
    overwhelming, and in the distance
    the clear goddamn of thunder
    personal, like a voice,
    If you believe there’s no correct response to grief
    (where I’ve sat making plans)
    there are small corners of joy
    If your body sometimes is a light switch
    in a house of insomniacs
    If you can feel yourself straining
    to be yourself every waking minute
    If, as I am, you are almost smiling…

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    Donald Miller wrote, “Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.”

    This month of pure poetry has made me love poetry in a way I never could before. You all have helped to show me how. A few months ago, I bought “New and Selected Poems” when I found it at a used bookstore because you (Riese) are always talking about Stephen Dunn, and now I get it. I get it. I just wanted to say thank you.

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      That Miller quote perfectly expresses my feelings about Pure Poetry Month too! I’ve discovered so many new things and writers to love, I just don’t know where to start sometimes! But after reading this article, I think I’m starting with Stephen Dunn because DAMN. Just…wow.

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    So the thing is that sometimes I read AS and then I panic, because I’m like, ‘God, this is all so exactly relevant and great and I need to remember every single thing and click all the links and assimilate it all so that I can be the person I’m supposed to be and yes, yes, I agree with it all but WAIT panic PANIC this is only on a screen, I can’t touch it, and they update all the time, how can I ever hold enough of it in my head, am I going to die with the only poetry at my immediate recall being Alanis Morissette lyrics?’

    This started to happen to me just now, but then I had a moment of clarity, where I remembered that you guys are basically engraved on the internet and it’s fine, I can click back and remind myself of this whenever I want.

    I feel so calmed. Thank you. Thank you for this.

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    “Those who’ve gotten away from me:
    read this, and call.
    Those whom I’ve hurt:
    I wanted everything,
    or not enough,
    it was all my fault.”

    nothing sums up my life better.

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    So, I have been lurking on this site for several months now, possible already a year, and I have never commented on anything. (Also, I’m beginning to feel my comment phobia flare up again as I type ["Boo! Nothing substantial to contribute!", "Boo! Grammar mistakes!", "Boo! Excessive use of brackets!" etc.].) But now the default picture thingy is this adorable kitty (kitties <3) in this adorable hoodie (hoodies <3) which means that everything has changed!!! Oh, also, this is one of my most favourite articles I have ever read on here and it hasn't got enough comments! So…

    I love to read. I love words. But for some reason poetry has always been kind of inaccessible to me. I think one of the reasons is because, despite my love for words, I read too fast and don't let them sink in. Another reason may be because of this: "I thought I hated it because poetry is about feelings and I spent a lot of time not feeling up until then." and because I am not yet completely at the "up until then" part. I more or less skimmed over your other Pure Poetry posts, to be honest, but with this one: I read it start to finish. Including all of the poems, including that last one which seems never-ending and then ends too soon.

    I suppose this is just a reeeaaally long-winded way of saying that this post quite possibly changed my view of poetry permanently because the first thing I did after I was done reading was ordering Dunn's "New and Selected Poems", simply because I want more; I want more of his poetry in my life, of my life in his poetry (?). This is a first and for that I thank you.

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    I keep coming back to this post and rereading everything and I want to cry, but not in the same way that I used to cry. I am sad, but not in the same way that I am usually sad, but also not in the happy sad way either.

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    I just bought Stephen Dunn’s book for my friend. I’m inscribing it, “For my beautiful friend on her birthday. Read Stephen Dunn with an open heart and he will change your life.”

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    Here I am over a year later, discovering more reasons to love Autostraddle. This is amazing! I hadn’t really payed enough attention to Stephen Dunn until this moment and now I guarantee that’s going to change. As for Pure Poetry, we REALLY ought to bring this back soon! I really hope we do…

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