Will Dowd’s recent book of lyrical essays, Areas of Fog, offers a kind of local pan-literary exegesis that only a New Englander could suss out. His nimble book reads like a stroll with the kind of smart friend that makes you feel more brilliant by association, and it was my pleasure to interrogate Will at his home nestled in the woods of Weymouth, Mass.
Why write about the weather?
To me, one of the reasons why the weather bubbled to the surface of my poetic imagination is because I’ve always felt that poets are weather vanes. So much about being a poet is being receptive and sensitive. Going wherever the wind takes you, feeling the hair stand up on the back of your neck with some idea or some image and then following that. Weathermen, poets and mediums all share the fundamental quality of sensitivity to forces unseen.
As that weather vane but also as a poet, what is your responsibility to truth?
I don’t lie or exaggerate, because to me that would ruin the humor or surprise. What I’m interested in is Jung’s “synchronicity.” Nabokov said that there’s a contrapuntal genius to human life. What I’m interested in is the patterns that seem to arise in our daily lives, which beg the question of whether our lives are authored or the product of accident. Almost every essay in the book somehow asks that question.
Speaking as a New England writer, there are the influences of Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Frost, who are all these sort of poet-philosophers. But really the literary tradition that I’m working with goes back further, to the Puritan diarists who always wrote about the weather. They used the weather in their sermons. They felt the weather was God’s running commentary on the state of their souls.
Let’s talk about your relationship to poetry with regards to this book. Do you even consider yourself a poet, whatever that even means?
I do still think of myself that way. But is poetry a form or is it a way of writing, a way of being as a writer? It doesn’t matter to me what the answer is, but certainly for myself, I side with the latter.
Italo Calvino collected this book of Italian folktales, and in his introduction he had this sentence that for me became my definition of what is poetic: the “best effects [of these folktales] reside in an oscillation between irreconcilable levels of reality.” To me, what’s poetic is this rapid, compressed shuttling. It reminds me of those optical illusions where you wonder “is this two faces about to kiss or is it a vase?” The brain can’t see both images at once, but it can flicker between them.
Marianne Moore compares the head of a chrysanthemum to a lion’s mane. In your brain, you can’t create that image completely, but what you can do is quickly shuttle between the two concepts of a flower and a lion head and if you do that fast enough it creates this almost hologram reality where these two things can coexist. To me that’s the essential ingredient to poetry, and that’s something that can be imported into the essay form.
One of the compelling things about this book is your breadth of knowledge of writers and in particular their writings. You’re in conversation with them, you’re not just pulling out the show horses to display that knowledge. Do you see yourself interacting with them in a different way than they’ve been throughout history and the academy?
When I would write these essays, because I have an associative mind and it’s plugged into this matrix of the canon, I would sometimes develop such complicated of webs of associations that it would risk becoming solipsistic. That was my strongest editorial task every week. Is this complicated knot of connections just completely my own self-indulgent musing? Or is it something that’s going to be interesting and magnetic for the reader? A lot of times I would prune the hell out of it and it’s one of the reasons that I kept things short and worked on them so quickly, because it could get out of hand.
Did you find that other than pruning your own solipsistic tendencies, did imagining a reader twist or direct your writing in any other interesting or surprising ways?
The book is full of spiritualism and ghosts and the dead, and I was absolutely trying to conjure a reader into existence because I was extremely lonely when I wrote this. I felt adrift as a writer and that no one was interested in reading my writing, so I had to summon this reader and entrance them and make them fall in love with me, you know, in the way that some readers fall in love with authors.
It became more explicit as the year went on. To the point that in the final essay I’m addressing the reader directly. The book started from what could have been a very self-indulgent conceit, a way to show off literary prowess by making the weather readable, but ultimately became a letter in a bottle meant for another human being to find.
To me, Areas of Fog is extremely personal, though it may not be apparent on the surface. Every essay dives into some different historical moment or figure, and it may seem random, but it was directly related to whatever was going on or whatever I was feeling that week.
The father of my favorite artist, Andrew Wyeth, died when his car was hit by a train. Afterwards Wyeth went into a depression and regretted never having painted his father, so the next painting he did was called “Winter 1946,” and it’s of this yellow stubbly hill with a few patches of snow. There’s a child wheeling down it with this long shadow behind him, and on the other side of the hill is actually where Andrew Wyeth’s father had been hit and killed. To Wyeth, the hill was his portrait of his father. I relate to that technique of emotional displacement. That’s really what Areas of Fog is up to.
Will Dowd is a writer and artist based outside Boston. His debut collection of essays, Areas of Fog, will be published this month by Etruscan Press. Born and raised in Braintree, Massachusetts, Will earned a B.A. from Boston College, as a Presidential Scholar; an M.S. from MIT, as a John Lyons Fellow; and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New York University, where he was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow in Poetry. His writing and art have appeared in The Rialto, Post Road Magazine, LitHub, NPR.org, and elsewhere.
Levi Rubeck is a writer from Wyoming, though his day job is at the MIT Press in Cambridge, MA.