Are You Listening to the Cloud in the Tin Cup: A Conversation with Meghan Maguire Dahn about Domain– curated by Tiffany Troy

Meghan Maguire Dahn grew up in the middle of the woods. Her first book, Domain, was selected by Jennifer Chang as the winner of the 2020 Burnside Review Press Book Award. She is also the author of the chapbook Lucid Animal (winner of the 2021 Harbor Review Editor’s Prize). Her work has appeared in Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Bennington Review, and the anthology Best New Poets 2017. A winner of the 92nd Street Y’s Discovery Contest in 2014, she has an MFA from Columbia University’s School of the Arts and lives in New York City with her family.

In Domain, “We build our language like a map/ of electromagnetic fields,” and behold the moment “[w]hen a queen confesses/ the whole world wants a piece.” In “form [that] had been perfect,” Dahn lends her thread of logical consistencies to lead the reader through the labyrinth of shrikes and drones, towards lightning and immortality.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “Facing the Water,” set up the rest of the collection that follows?

Meghan Maguire Dahn: I spent a lot of time re-sequencing this book, so it was in many, many, many iterations before it reached its final form. I was keeping in mind something Lucie Brock-Broido had said about wanting to have an ars poetica or come-hither poem in the opening. That’s what I was going for.

“Facing the Water” in particular went through many drafts and was something that, for a long time, I considered to be a bit of a dud. It was a much longer poem – maybe five pages – and years after I wrote it and workshopped it, I was looking at the manuscript as a whole, thinking about what it needed and that’s when I pared it down to what it is now, three pretty short stanzas.

It sets up the book for a reckoning with the logic of contingency. The anaphora that comes into play helps with thinking through if-then scenarios, and always trying to reconcile the speaker’s place not only within a certain community or environment but, crucially, within a logical field as well. One of the things that I really wanted that poem to do was immediately to put readers into the kind of logical enmeshment that I see my speakers often being a part of.

This particular speaker – which is meant to be somewhat fluid, shifting between an individually-situated voice and a collective voice – has its origin in the writing of Ida B. Craddock. I found her writing at Columbia’s Libraries and got sucked in. When Craddock was a kid, she was a part of this particular religious community that would go to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, every summer, and the first thing they would do at dawn was to go out to the beach and stand right there on the edge of the water and sing hymns. I thought about that process of being part of a sonic community, and of trying within that community to find an individual voice to calibrate yourself in relationship to the group. The demands in poetry as a field are different than in singing and different than in religious groups, but not unrelated. The poem itself asks the question of what is a body that conducts itself in concert with others, breathing and singing and performing rituals with others?

I was a classically-trained singer and I had a voice coach who, when I was deciding to quit, said that I would miss it too much, and my soul wouldn’t be right without it. That stuck with me. When I think about singing and poetry, I often wonder how I can position myself within a tradition: Can you have creativity without having submission too?

But this wasn’t always the opening poem. I really didn’t think of it as something that could stand alone and open the book, and not be a part of the structured sections that follow until I did that really radical edit on it. The poem needed breathing room.

TT: You spoke of radical editing and sequencing. Can you describe the process of writing Domain?

MMD: It took nine years between starting the MFA program and getting the book accepted. Half of the poems started during my MFA; the other half I wrote after. A number of things come up a lot: the logistics of how we relate to the natural world (like how we deal with animals that fly into airplanes) or of how we view it (for instance, the satellite poems) came from reading the news. Other writers are central just because enmeshment is a big deal to me, how I’m enmeshed in the history of poetry. I wanted to really stake a claim, and orient myself within the tradition. That obsession with enmeshment and contingency was super present.

 In terms of a regular practice that I engage with writing: the thing that I do not compromise about is I read every day. I read both some kind of poetry every day, and some kind of information about the natural world. It’s something I can be consistent with. I hate the feeling of forcing myself to write, so this is my solution.  I know that if I’m not doing something every day, that I will get very rusty and start feeling stupid.

I have reading as a fertile ground. From there I tend to start poems from one of two places. Either I am in some kind of mood, or have some problem that I can’t get it out of my head, and it’s not going to go away until I deal with it. How I deal with things is by writing about them. Or, I get a line stuck in my head, and I know that I’m not going to be able to concentrate on anything until I do something with that line. It’s basically a kind of spiritual agitation. Then I draft.

Sometimes the poems come perfectly formed or near-perfectly formed, like the poem “To Shrike.” It was almost entirely how it was when I woke up in the middle of the night, and wrote it—not even in the Notes app but in a text message to Richard Quigley and Elizabeth Metzger—who I was in thesis with at the time. It’s still there in our little text chat group. Maybe the position of two words has changed in that whole poem ever so it really just had the feeling of coming prepackaged.

About that poem, I had read about shrikes and seen shrikes and thought they were weird and interesting. When I was a little kid, there was a book about birds that had a picture of a grasshopper that a shrike had impaled on a barbed wire fence. For whatever reason, the idea of that little bird impaling little things and waiting for them stuck with me. Maybe the way I read is a little shrike-like: collecting little things and piercing them for later use. But here’s the other part of it. If I read like a shrike and I pierce useful things, then they also pierce me. It’s very much akin to Roland Barthes’s punctum, that thing which captivates us without our studying it. At any rate, the image was there, so that when the emotional upheaval that led to the poem happened there was something to put it into.

Making Domain an actual book took a lot of time. For whatever reason,  I did what  everyone cautions you against, of very quickly taking your thesis and building it into something that’s long enough to submit and farming it out. I started right away. I did a year of submissions. I don’t think the book was a finalist during that first year, and I got a little discouraged. I sat down and said, “OK, Well, if this isn’t it, then what do I need to do to make this what it has to be?” Then I took a break from submitting it for maybe two years, and really worked to understand the book. I wrote new things and filled things in and really, really worked it, particularly in terms of coming to terms with the ways speakers situated themselves in the landscapes of the poems. Part of that work was shifting from thinking “I’ve done this work already” to “what work does this demand?”

When I was starting to submit it again, I was getting more positive feedback on those rounds, and still not getting it accepted. Then I talked to Carlie Hoffman, and I asked her if she would look at it, not just as a friend, but as a poet and reader who I really admire. I paid her a manuscript consultation fee and asked her to give me the harshest feedback she could. That was so valuable because Carlie reads a lot as an editor in addition to as a poet.

I would call what Carlie did a kind of diagnosis. First of all, she gave me some tough love about the title. So that changed (though if I ever write a scholarly book about medieval mystics it’s coming back). And then one of the biggest things I did was remove an eight-page poem. I had wanted it to anchor the book, but I think it ended up exhausting people. So I removed it.

Then there’s the sections. I really admire books that hang together without them – what a precise sense of structure these poets have! But, because I was concerned so deeply in the book with logic, I have these concrete sections. The speakers in my book are obsessed with contingent thinking and with understanding their enmeshments, so these categories are the mode those obsessions seem generally to articulate through. In Greek, the word for “stitch” shares its root with our word “rhapsody.” The sections show the sutures of thought, what comes between the “if” and the “then.” I placed everything into those categories: which poems seem like they fit with this mode of cultivation, feeling of revelation or clarity, or attempt at restraint or constraint.

There was a process that Lucie Brock-Broido taught us, of setting sections of the book up like physical folios. She would talk about having your strongest poems be on the first sheet of paper that gets folded in. So, in other words, it would be the first and last couple poems that are favorites. I followed this process when I first put together the manuscript, so that ghost of influence is there. Part of what had slowed me down in the editing was that the manuscript felt like a throughline to her. I could feel the work we did together when I went back to the manuscript as she sequenced it. It felt almost like I could still talk to her. But I did have to have, ultimately, a moment of reckoning with Lucie’s influence, and as soon as I did that last round of edits was when the book got a lot of positive feedback and it won the Burnside Review contest before the year was out.

TT: I really admire your perseverance and dedication to Domain, and how you made the conscious choice to deviate slightly from the “physical folio” sectioning technique in organizing your poems. Thank you for sharing that with me. What you said about constraint applies to the poetic as well, with the tension between form and content. Do you usually write with a poetic form in mind, or do the words come perfectly formed, like the text that became “To Shrike”?

MMD: Sometimes the poems come perfectly formed in very, very strict form. For instance, “The Other Trodden in Clover and Timothy” is written  after Carolina Ebeid. I wrote to her stanzaic form and line length, and even to an extent some of the alliterative patterns and rhyming schemes that she had at play in her poem.

The poem after Hopkins is not exactly like Hopkins, because what I was finding was that if I kept it without the kind of spacing that it ultimately ended up having, the nesting doll structure, the if-then logical pattern was off-putting for people. I thought the spacing helped with setting that up. Then other poems, like “To Shrike” were more organic.

I do love tercets and couplets a lot; they became a way of thinking for me. When we think in couplets, for instance, what does that imply about the kind of a power dynamic we want to set up between what comes first and what comes second?

In the first few lines of drafting a poem, if it appears to me that being in tercets is going to work, I’ll often like to stick with that. I don’t usually write a block and then go back, and lineate. I tend to feel those tensions that forms can set up are very helpful. It helps me know what I want to say.

Having said that, I also think that there’s something in the tentativeness of many of these speakers that is a little essayistic. They’re often trying really hard to understand what their position is. Sometimes, that comes off as being a bit more assertive or bold; and sometimes it comes off as being pretty vulnerable or submissive. They are always really trying to understand, and for me sometimes, that became easier to do with strict form.

“The Ecstatic Limit of the Thou Art That” came from a Frank Bidart poem. I don’t think I have strict writer’s block in the way that people talk about looking at a blank page and going, “Oh, I don’t know what to say.” If I really feel that way, I just won’t write at that moment. But if I have an inkling of what I want to do, or if I’m agitated in some way, and I know I need to do something, one way in is form.

In this case, I liked the stifling feeling that the negative space in that Frank Bidart poem was giving me. And I thought a poem about a satellite and negative space seemed like a good match formally. I basically just turned it into a mad lib where I emptied out his poem of all its words, and kept its punctuation, and wrote the poem into his punctuation and spacing (this is a method Henri Cole talked about when he visited Alice Quinn’s fantastic class on The Sentence).

I’m not the kind of writer who would do very well with writing into a formal void. I grew up in the middle of the woods, and my parents’ land was surrounded by thousands of acres of conserved woodland. My parents were hippies who didn’t want me to have TV or anything like that. So much of my foundational stimulation came from being outside in the woods when I was little. I think a lot about the ways that animals communicate as a formal thing, right? When you think about bird song, it’s extremely formal, and it gets the job done, and yet there’s urgency about it.

“Can you find a space of urgency within form?” is a killer question to me.

TT: Definitely, and in “The Ecstatic Limit of the Thou Art That,” the negative space really did allow the logical contingency to shine through.

MMD: I had a fantastic professor of symbolic logic when I was in undergrad. I loved that class. I was not his best student, but he was very patient with me, and he opened every class by reading a poem, and not commenting on it. It was almost like the class bell, him reading a poem. Because Scott Lehmann did that, I will always connect poetry with this kind of space of logical reasoning. I can’t wait to give him a copy of the book. I am really excited to have him read it, and I wonder what he will see of his influence there because it was really so revelatory to me that he did it.

TT: I hope Professor Lehmann reads your poem to begin one of his classes!

Meghan Dahn: Oh, my gosh! Well, he may be retired now, but I would be so thrilled just to know that he was reading it. It would make me so happy.

TT: The speakers of the poems are always in this conversation with the “you” or with himself/ herself, in thinking through the logical contingencies. How do you go about crafting the different voices?

Meghan Dahn: That’s such an interesting way of putting it – “in conversation with the ‘you.’” I don’t think that I make particularly naturalistic speakers, they have a hard time conversing with a you or even themselves. That leads to syntactical tension and part of that is to do with what the way they obsess demands and part of it is to do with me. They have a kind of idiosyncratic word bank at their disposal because I had that weird kind of non-pop culture-informed early childhood with my parents.

I really credit my parents with a love of libraries; we were always at the library, and they would let me read whatever I wanted, even if it was clearly going to go over my head. The first time I read Leaves of Grass, I was six. I am pretty confident that most of it I did not understand, but I loved it, and I read it over and over and over again. My father was a big fan of the Beats, so I read a lot of Beat poetry when I was younger. I remember him finding a Gary Snyder reading to bring me to, and I saw Allen Ginsberg when I was thirteen. These idiosyncratic speakers come partly from the idiosyncratic diet of books I gave myself when I was little.

I don’t talk like other people and I am sometimes weirdly formal in intimate conversation. With my kids, I’ll sometimes say things like, “Are you trying to make an overture to me right now?” I have a different glossary, a different way of thinking about language, and I wanted to give space to speakers that were similarly quirky in that way. Also, it’s fun to mix registers.

The other thing that I think about is how that quirkiness of tone and mixing of registers into a power dynamic with the you of the poem if there is one. And there usually is a you, even if it’s not physically on the page. It’s very close to whatever is going on in the poem, and I think about that image of the cat laying on their back to show you their belly. You’re like, “Oh, that’s vulnerable!” “They seem like they’re being submissive, clearly. They’re showing you that they’re not a threat,” when really what they’re doing is setting you up to go in for whatever predators go for in their belly, and then they get you with their very strong back paws. It’s actually this position of submissive aggression in a weird way. I think about that a lot with the I-thou.

If you’re mixing your register as a speaker, it’s a way of calibrating right where you are in relationship to the other person you’re talking to. Some of my speakers are talking to a you that’s really defined, like the poem “Matthew,” that’s written for my husband. But some of them have a more general you, and that you is the speakers attempting to talk to the world, like, “Hi, world. Where am I? What’s my place in this? Are you there?”

I was really charmed by Jennifer Chang calling this a book of ecstatic doubt. I felt really seen by that, because the speakers are often trying to find ecstasy in the strictest sense, right where it’s about your station. They are trying to find a kind of ecstasy within their complete uncertainty about their safety, their position, and their place in the world. So that mixing of registers is a tool of calibration.

TT: I enjoy so much the story of the genesis of the quirky tone and mixed registers of the speakers of Domain. What are some themes or motifs that the variegated voices give space to?

MMD: There’s a lot of violence in this book, even if it’s not always apparent. There’s a lot of cruelty too, and the speakers are reckoning with that. Like, How do you find something worthy in a world that will be cruel—or maybe even worse, indifferent—to you?

A lot of that comes from being so immersed in the natural world when I was growing up. I love that the cover of the book has this little bunny chomping away at whatever leafy bit it’s chomping away at. It’s a little hard to see, but there’s a newt down there too. As a girl, I would very coyly go up to my dad and say, “Oh, Dad, do you love me?” And he would look at me, and he would go, “Oh, you know, I guess we won’t return you back to the rock we found you under yet.”

I grew up in this beautiful, totally sublime place, but weird place. I would often tip over rocks, or logs, to see what was underneath. So the little kid me thought, “Oh, my gosh! If there’s a God, I guess the origin of being is under a rock, which is where my dad said he wouldn’t send me back to yet, and newts are under rocks, so then I guess God must be a newt.” I remember distinctly reasoning that out for myself.  I was blown away a couple of years ago at the Hilma af Klint exhibit at the Guggenheim when there is this prismatic painting that had a little tiny newt at the top of the prism. I felt a real kinship with that.

The speakers in my poems are often in this position where they are close to the natural world, almost like the Romantics, and the tiny particulars of that proximity are so beautiful. And then the animals die or get eaten or get mauled or something bad happens, and that indifference is something inextricable to me with beauty. I don’t think that this book necessarily solves that problem, but a major preoccupation was trying to find speakers that would work through that rupture.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers of the world?

MMD: I write things without the expectation that anybody’s ever going to read them or be interested in them, and that’s for me, at any rate, the only sane way to go about writing. If I were thinking about people reading it, I would be way too bothered with what they would think of me, and I would clam up and not write.

But now the book is out there, and you have your core group of people who are always like your first readers, who are always going to have enough of a common frame of reference to know what you’re up to. But now I also have people who knew me from when I was a kid ordering the book, and my mom came up to me the other day and was like, “What would you say to people who just really didn’t get your book?” At first I threw the question away a bit, but the more I thought about it the more it seemed like a really important question.

I ended up thinking about Keats’ negative capability, and that was my first answer to her: Reading poetry can be about putting yourself a position of uncertainty, and just allowing that process to happen to you. Aside from the surface and textural beauty, I hope the poems give space to moments of upheaval I’m attempting to grapple with.

Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought is a beautiful book. It’s long – a thousand-page philosophical book – and we’re all going to die without having read all the books we want to read. But she’s writing through the problem of, in extreme grief, how do you do a process of thinking that you’re trained in with the interruptions of grief? Much of what I’m doing is trying to write through in a logical way these moments of upheaval. So I hope that people would allow themselves to have a space to let language serve them in that way.

Tiffany Troy is author of Dominus (BlazeVOX [books]) and co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (forthcoming, Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the 4W International Women Collective Translation Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Managing Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and Book Review Co-Editor at The Los Angeles Review.