“Each Drop Is Its Own Light”: Tiffany Troy in Conversation with Dara Barrois/Dixon about Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina

Dara Barrois/Dixon (née Dara Wier) is the author of the Wave Books titles In the Still of the NightYou Good ThingReverse Rapture, and also in 2022 two new chapbooks, Two Poems from Scram Press and NINE from Incessant Pipe. She’s received awards and fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, American Poetry Review, The Poetry Center Book Award, Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Massachusetts Cultural Council. She lives and works in western Massachusetts.

Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina, Barrois/Dixon’s latest collection, looks to inhabit a place where a poem can be concurrently a bit ahead and a bit behind itself. In three parts, mostly in Barrois/Dixon’s signature couplets, the poems’ more lenient, less traditional logics expand to allow a single poem to be, depending on someone’s circumstances, sad as can be or a joyful relinquishing of pain. The book’s title depends on what someone thinks about what might be called unequal access to free will. It brings up the way an author (Tolstoy) creates a character (Anna Karenina); it involves characters’ author-crafted fate, it depends, often, on whether a reading’s justification depends more on illusions of reality or the reality of illusion.

Tiffany Troy: How does the first poem of Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina, “If You Are Lucky,” teach the reader how to read the collection?

Dara Barrois/Dixon: I know it’s common for us to say or hear, “Does this poem teach you how to read it?” or “Does this book teach you how to read it?”

There’s truth in that because it’s no different from meeting someone for the first time—how do you get to know them enough to feel you’re following what they’re saying or doing? When do you feel you get their tone? Encounters with poems bring with them thoughts and feelings the same as human interactions do, I hope.

If you’re talking exclusively to poets or in a poetry classroom, the act of writing can seem way more conscious or strategic than it is. That’s okay, because at times there’s a need to bring things into consciousness in order to see the pieces that might be moved around while something is being made or understood. Self-consciousness is more evident in revision, I think.

I like the meaning of understood that lays claim to understanding. We understand one another. This is what I mean when I say getting someone’s tone.

“If You Are Lucky” is a poem of psychological drama that happens to plenty, maybe most of us. The poem’s bare bones are not being subtle about it. One of the many subtle things about writing is not being subtle.

TT: What is your writing process like? How does humor find its way into your work?

DBD: The same way humor finds its way into conversations. Humor has to be part of your outlook. It’s not as if you can sit there and say, “Now, now I’m going to be this kind of funny.” That would not work for me, it would guarantee me to be humorlessly panic stricken, it would paralyze my brain.

Way into the book there’s a long, maybe the longest poem in the book, called “I Feel Sorry for You Someone Said to Me Over and Over Again.”

That poem came about because somebody said to me, “I feel sorry for you.” They were talking about a specific thing that had happened to me. And I said, “No, don’t feel sorry for me, you don’t need to, it’s okay.” And they said “No, BUT I feel sorry for you.”

And so I think—“What is this person doing?” I could sense how much they wanted the power to decide what I should feel. So, of course, I immediately went home and started writing to see where this dynamic might go. I shaped that encounter into extremely, absurdly, exaggerated repetitive dialogue. I think I was thinking some of KRAZY KAT, that fantastic George Herriman comic strip that ran from 1913 to 1944 because a good friend had given me an enormous book, twenty pounds or so of Herriman’s bold strips. He played out an identical plot throughout his years of KRAZY KAT.

When I wrote the poem I didn’t think it was particularly funny. I thought of the dialogue as absurd. I rarely, maybe never, think what I’m doing is humorous or not. But I went to the New Orleans Poetry Festival the following week, scheduled to read at its festival-wide luncheon. I read “I Feel Sorry for You ….” Miraculously, early on someone laughed a little bit and then everybody really laughed, a lot. I was very happy because first off, I felt the poem’s tone was absolutely clicking with this audience. There’s a thrill when a situation’s absurd exaggeration becomes trusted enough to find a point of understanding.

TT: Your poems often inhabit the space where the speaker is a bit ahead of himself/herself/ themselves and a tiny bit behind.

DBD: I hope that’s true. That’s sort of how I feel, in life. Like you’re a little bit ahead of yourself and a little bit behind. For years and years, there was a staircase I had to walk down all day and some of the night. I would almost always feel I can fly down those stairs. I felt as if I could do that. I’m glad my danger-dreaming didn’t cause me to act. When you say a bit ahead and a tiny bit behind—I like this idea very much. It nicely touches on how we can be and likely are unconscious, subconscious, ultra-conscious, and self-conscious all at once.

TT: How do you structure your poems and put together a manuscript? Why choose a three-part structure for Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina?

DBD: I’ve lived with a very big table for a very long time. I bought it for ten dollars because it was being thrown away. It’s probably about eight feet long and a little over three feet wide. I’ve put most of my books together on it. When I think I’m done or want to be done with a book or I sense I’ve written enough for one book, I lay out the poems on the table so I can walk around the table to look at them all together.

And I think, “Okay, this is a good poem to start with, let’s start with that.” Then I go on, “Okay, this might be a good poem to follow that one.” “Okay, this one goes here.” I keep doing this until the poems have all moved around and maybe will have found good pausing places. Then, as days go by, I move them some more. I’ll do that for about a week at different times of the day and night until a book’s shape seems to materialize. At this point it’s a visual process because I know the poems pretty much inside and out.

Moving them around has to do with making an arrangement—not really by theme, not really by any kind of theoretical development I can name—it’s more by “Oh, this goes with this,” or “This follows that,” or “What if this comes next.” Some of my books have parts and some don’t.

For this book, I just wanted to have a part one, part two, and part three. I wanted the word One and not 1 or a roman numeral. Turns out the book’s parts are named Part One, Part Two, Part Three. It sounds logical, organized, as if when I say part I mean part, which I understand is an illusion and possibly wishful thinking. When I read the proof of the manuscript, I thought—Oh, this order has stayed all right, a relief.

TT: I was really impressed by how logical you seemed. And with the couplets.

DBD: I love couplets, I always have. If you look back at my books, I’ve slipped over into couplets often. Some people, meaning me and some others, would say I depend on them, maybe too much, but I respect and love them because they make what’s on the page look totally sane. Within them, you can do all kinds of things to create a tension or a suspension of some kind, between the look and feel and what the words actually say and whether they run into each other or whether they stay separate. There’s a lot of things that you can do with couplets, I like having more than one thing going on at a time. It feels as if within poems there’s all the room you can hope for—tradition, convention, room for invention, tribute, restraint, engagement, speculation, drilling into, excavating, questioning, reaping, casting, flocking, gathering, assembling, saying, feeling, thinking, abruptly stopping, being stopped in your tracks, noticing as never before, and so on.

One of the things that happened with the book we’re talking about is that after one of the editors at Wave said to me, “Can you write a poem that really addresses the title?” I said, “Sure of course,” which is me trying to be unconditionally cooperative.

I think, “All right, I’m going to do this.” I could not do it.

I had the worst month or two of my entire writing life trying to write a poem that speaks directly to the book’s title.

Finally, it dawned on me and I had to admit I could not write that poem, would not be writing it, it was not possible for me to write it. 

The end of the book is “Notes and Evidence”—I hope it addresses the title and, I call the book’s last poem “Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina;” it includes a line that says, someone throwing themselves under the wheels of a train. I did what I could.

I’ve been writing two essays. The essay called “Why Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina,” has been a complicated thing to write in prose. I’ve like uncovering some of the reasons why when I said that phrase out loud to somebody, I immediately grasped it as the title for this book. But I wasn’t looking for it. I recognized it when I heard it and it solved a big problem because I’d been living with a sadly boring title on the book for a while and I knew I wasn’t going to see a book out in public with a sadly boring book title. In the book’s eventual title I can hear an echo of he killed it, as a compliment of a double-edged kind.

TT: What is so interesting about the title is how it raises questions or expectations of me as a reader that are inverted in some ways because you are so yourself and so the poems are not about the novel per se as much as thinking through the way in which creation happens.

DBD: Thank you for that. I love that Mary Shelley quotation from Frankenstein. “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to by thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” That addresses Anna Karenina directly. I’ve always loved Frankenstein and that sentence because it resonates so much with so many creation stories.

I’ve heard writers say I don’t make characters do anything, characters take on lives of their own and do whatever they have to do. That’s beautiful, it romanticizes what writers do. It might mean that when one is writing the way one wishes to be writing it seems as if everything is a given, everything seems inevitable. But in fact, that’s rarely true, we have free will and our characters do not.

I like it when it’s a writer’s responsibility to recognize and take responsibility for the choices they make. It provides another layer for a reading to be further complicated because the writer’s role is often as a shadow character as involved in the book as any character named in the book.

TT: It’s amazing how often your poems and poem ideas come from conversation.

DBD: Listening to how we talk and how we interact has always fascinated me, just as it seems to captivate us all. I grew up mostly by myself with my grandparents on a little bitty farm on the river way south of New Orleans, I didn’t have any brothers and sisters at the time, as I do now. Later in life, when I was about twelve, my parents started having another family, and I know them, and I love them.

But for a long time, I was an only-child, me and the river, the animals and my grandparents’ generation. I listened in to, and heard, often from under a kitchen table, an endlessly on-going day to day conversation. I’m intrigued by the dynamics that make up our public lives and our private lives.

TT: Your poem “Credits” pays homage to many literary influences. How do you bring the literary influences together across place and time?

DBD: Well, I don’t do it, my brain does it. We put things in our brains and our brains do amazing things with them. I spent a lot of time sitting by the river waiting to see what might come by. I’m still doing this, waiting to see what comes by.

It’s not unusual to hear a writer say I took such and such from, etc.—I knew when I wrote the poem I’d be frustrated I couldn’t include everyone and everything I would want to include in the alternate universe that allows everything to happen all at once. There are, unhappily, many, many people, places, things I left out. I guess I could write the poem over and over again with different people invoked every time.

TT: What would you say to that question about the people you read and people you are interested in most of all? How do you put them together?

DBD: If it was possible, I’d want to have all the time in the world to be interested in all there is. Happenstance doesn’t give me that. So some things come randomly, some because someone you love or trust gives them to you, some because one thing leads to another, some because there is something you sense you need to go searching for which will always lead you not so often in the direction you thought you needed to go but to some surprising other place you are lucky to have found. I believe one of the things poems let me have is a place to bring things together.

TT: In my poems, I tend to associate different traditions and characters and they appear as characters and voices.

DBD: That makes sense, that’s definitely a way. Thinking about how much writers become characters to readers. I like that. That is part of the essay I’m working on about what power authors have over characters. But then—readers can and sometimes do turn the tables and turn writers into characters. That’s something that happens. Or it can.

TT: It becomes like a performance. In some ways writers always almost have some kind of projections and persona that they want to show the reader even if it’s an “I”.

DBD: A friend of mine was talking to me yesterday about the novel she’s writing. She said at some point, God, I love, not saying “I.” I love writing “he,” and “she,” and “they.”

I don’t think of an “I” in my poems as me. I think of “I” as a pronoun. It says, I am speaking directly to you. I am not speaking about you as he, or they, or she. This is a me speaking. And now I’m sounding dangerously like those authors who try to get themselves off the hook by saying things about how characters take over …

TT: You’re sounding just like Tolstoy.

DBD: Ha, yes, maybe. That’s funny.

People are afraid of “I” sometimes. I read something, the other day about people dropping the “I” all the time in certain kinds of writing and I was thinking oh God, I do that all the time. I’ll say, “Am reading.” Or I’ll say, “Went to make groceries.” I’ve become self-conscious of doing this. I’m wondering why and what that’s all about. Then I say, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it, there are thousands of other things to wonder about.

Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.

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