Robert L., Dean Jr.

Hopper & Dean
Interview & Poem

It’s fitting that we begin our Fall Issue with a special feature from poet Robert L. Dean. Dean was a pivotal participant in the Wichita Broadside Project, forming a number of collaborative partnerships with local artists, several products of which were chosen for distribution around the city.  While often solitary creatures, poets are not isolated in the cultural discourse.  Dean graciously agreed to answer some questions about his writing process, especially as he interacts with art and music.  The following interview was conducted by email:

chair-car-1965 2

What can you tell readers about your process?

That’s a tough one, since I’m not sure what my process is. I’m not one of those who sit down and work at set times each day. I work when the words come to me, when I feel something flowing into me that wants to flow out onto a piece of paper. When I lived in Dallas I was very close friends with the slipstream novelist Patricia Anthony, and we used to talk about this, how neither of us worked from outline (at that time I was writing fiction) and how we were both character-driven as opposed to plot driven. Someone would start saying or doing something in our heads and we’d just sit back and listen and watch and write it down, like we were the conduit for something which already existed and picked us to write about it. Patricia called it “organic writing” and I’ve always liked that term, that’s still how I think of it, even though I’ve switched mostly to poetry now. So, something catches hold of me, and I have to write about it without thinking it to death—get myself out of the way. I’ve just written half a dozen prose poems which were generated by experiential moments, people I saw while driving on the highway, some aspect of a person I encounter which seems to have deeper layers to it. I’m always looking for layers.

For you as musician, is there a connection between your music and poetry?

As to the relationship between poetry and art and music, they all deal with layers, they all spring from the same place in the soul but express an emotion/moment in different mediums, three different types of artistic ectoplasm, if you will. In a former life I was a jazz musician, and right now, as I’m writing this, I’m listening to Keith Jarrett’s 1975 CD “The Köln Concert,” at which Jarrett just sat down at the piano and started improvising cold, with no precomposed music, all spontaneous and very much in the moment, very “organic.” When I feel there may be some poetry working towards the surface in me, I put on a CD such as this one and listen for a while, often with the lights out, to get to an emotional place—let the brain sine waves find the emotional level needed for the words to come. Then I pull out the notebook and write a first draft. Days or weeks later I’ll put that draft on the computer and begin revision, which often goes through ten to twenty drafts before the final product, all the time trying to fine tune that frequency that attracted me in the first place. This is probably where my writing process differs from the jazz process, though I can relate it to my days as a Music Composition major at Wichita State University, as classical composition goes through a similar revision process. Dr. Walter Mays, my comp professor, gave me some advice I still follow: Let the work find its own form, it will shape itself if you let it—very similar to Patricia’s “organic” process. So, it’s kind of like the story of the sculptor approaching a block of marble; he/she knows the art is in there, it’s a matter of cutting away the excess stone to free it.

How does Edward Hopper’s work speak to you?

I’m a relative newcomer to ekphrasis. Roy Beckemeyer turned me on to it, and I’m so glad he did. As writers I think we are all stimulated by both the aural and visual happening around us. I’ve always been a Van Gogh fan, not just for his use of color, but his use of light. Hopper is a master of light. Not just the way light illuminates things, such as the passenger car in “Chair Car,” but the way it doesn’t illuminate things. In “Chair Car” there is almost a tsunami of light flowing in through the train car windows, yet the vaulted ceiling seems distant and shadowy, and the passengers are all solitary and closed to us and to each other. The light reveals nothing about the people, and this is so common in Hopper’s paintings. In “Chair Car” we are left to draw our own conclusions about the four human subjects, three of which we only see bits and pieces of; the back of a head, some hair sticking out from under a hat. And then there is the occasional oddity thrown in, such as the absence of a mechanism for opening the car door, which, with the unexpectedly high vault above, gives us perhaps a sort of claustrophobic feeling, despite the light pouring in. We feel uncomfortable, though well lit. Warm yet cold at the same time. “Nighthawks” is perhaps Hopper’s best-known work in this vein. In 1951’s “Rooms by the Sea,” to which I hope to write an ekphrastic poem, Hopper goes even farther; the door to a room stands wide open, letting in an almost overwhelming amount of light, yet the room, at least as much as we can see of it, is empty, with a very blue ocean just beyond the threshold. Here the light illuminates literally nothing, except for a glimpse of furniture in the next room, around the corner of a shared wall. Someone lives here, we imagine, but Hopper has chosen not to include them in this glorious display of sunlight, leaving us with a virtually haunted but well-lit interior, though perhaps he has subtly made the viewer—us—the mysterious inhabitant. In a way, I think, this is like placing the reader as the mysterious inhabitant of a poem, and so I relate to this. Like Debussy painting an aural portrait of the sea in “La mer” but leaving us to bring our own boat, or beach umbrella.

Which brings me back to Jarrett’s “Köln Concert,” which is still playing in the next room. All great works of art are, I think, audience enablers—and you can define audience any way you like—and Jarrett, simply by sitting down at a Bösendorfer in 1975 Cologne and letting the moment flow out through his fingers, allows us to accompany him to a place of self-discovery that is both his and ours. This is the best kind of art; not just an audience participation, but a total audience submersion into whatever this moment happens to be. Swimming between the layers.

Chair Car
Robert L. Dean, Jr.
From the painting by Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 1965, private collection

Not important is where they are going
is where they are coming from
here is where they are now is
this train moving is
this a train is

not as important as the light
how it

infuses everything
with the clarity of cataracts
illuminates nothing outside the windows

is the sky the vaulted interior of this car of seats half empty is
the interior the sky half full of light on a gray day refracted
into the interiors into wherever whoever they are now
these four passengers

destinations departures any sense of journey

or could this be it

manicured rows of hedged chairs
blunt tongued fescue door mats stuck out
light like meat cleavers down the center aisle
light like square-booted one-legged giant
tracks some limb-lopped ticket puncher
coming or going left
some monk of the crippled always here to always there always
neither here nor there passing shroud wrapped in light
through this cloister of passing
unnoticed unimportance
punching no tickets punch left in
the next or before car anyway
if there is one anyway
they don’t have tickets anyway don’t need
a pass for this any way you can tell from
their faces what you can see of them
anyway whatever
these scattershot passengers are or are not
passing to or from

and this is important

the door
the door at the far end
what the door at the far end of this car
doesn’t have
a handle

is what we can’t quite get
on this picture
out of this scenario
is what we can’t quite get

how the light bathes
so completely the blonde woman so
shall we say it
radiantly yet
unenlighteningly her

right ankle hosiery the same opaque sheen as the scenery
behind her not passing by her face down-drawn
drawing us to it the light like a prayer
in her hands unopened a book
given or received in passing an offering to
or from the light-footed usher who has just
passed has yet to pass is always passing
just out of frame behind the door maybe hiding invisible impossible
to open but ajar slightly

and this is important

not open is her face
like light through a window seen
from a street but not the lamp
purse slipping forgotten pocket of days
this day that day always the same dark verdurous day
slipping from between her slightly blushed knee and the proximate arm of the chair
is this what the

black-haired bound-haired woman one seat up and across
seat odd-angled watches
the light
not illuminating past her tight-lipped mouth
her sharp nose
angling her closed book gaze at the
closed book or
verdant time slipping away
or is she
that one darkened key-hole eye she allows us to see anyway
the illuminato
the hidden clue
the sharp point of a midnight pump emerging
like a jab at the causeway of
day after day after day
pointing zig zag
to the next woman up
a bit of face flash of neck seep of brown hair
blue-hatted or green-hatted maybe
a shadow of doubt maybe over her ultramarine
shoulder maybe just barely light-touched a bit of
hand tiny bit we can’t tell maybe
knitting maybe folded with some
unseen other

and this is important oh surely this is important

where she’s looking
the blue woman

across the aisle again
zig zag

stare at a head
just the back of a head
above an antimacassar gray day blue
like the light like the wall the cloister
door at the center of it
the end of it all the focus of this
slightly off-center perspective this
study in expansive claustrophobia
at which he stares like one does
on a blue gray day in the front hedge chair
the only man in this car of hedged bet chairs
somewhat abstractedly pondering

zig zag zig zag zig

the spot where there has never been
never will be
anything to grab onto
perhaps like us

if this is important if
this is still life

Return of the Carver

I ghost this
graveyard of a day
ciphering names
worn to the bone
names yet to be chiseled
stone wombs pregnant with names

absence of shadow
shadows me
absence of footsteps
flutter after me
folded hands reach out
without mouths
lacerate flesh
in absentia

down this path
a whisper of lilac
lichened cherubs
wings clipped
fountains from which
no salvation flows

and here in the
still center
the eye
weeping I reach out touch
gnarled oak
scarred deaths
though the heart arrow-pierced
beats still
my ear drums shatter
names again
to be uttered
only when the sky speaks


Fingers pointing, look there, honey! an older couple,
moored to the pavement, shopping bags jettisoned like ballast,
eyes raised towards a hot air balloon, yellow green suspended
in an otherwise flawless ultramarine
that could be

the headscarf of Vermeer’s pearl earringed girl, except
it’s purer than that, as pure as the dewy radiance of
the girl herself as she dares to stare right back at us,
lips parted, their ruby red pubescence
as enigmatic as

our mysterious celestial navigator’s Lilliputian gondola,
itself an earring depending from a bigger earring depending
from a canvas only God could paint,
or Jules Verne,
but this is

no five weeks’ wonder, no flight of fancy
into deepest darkest Africa, this is an Our Town kind of town
in the middle of Mr. and Mrs. America and All the Ships at Sea,
which is what this sky maybe looks like, after all,
the sea,

the Mother, the amniotic primeval, life birthed on a flood tide of light,
gill-vestiged, shaky limbed, crawling, climbing, striding forth upright,
thumbs, fingers prying, chert-pointed, bronze-tipped, steel-bladed,
at the oyster in its palm, daring, scarcely do the lips part,
to ask

why, what, who, when, how
did I get here, and you and your wife and I, the only ones in the jam-
packed Walmart parking lot who bother to look, fingers pointing, up
—the only ones with pearls in our eyes—
say look there, honey! the sky, the sky

This Last Deep Blue Day

In the borderland
between highway and woods

you spy a doe’s white belly,
legs stretched straight in rigor,

a fleet dream run down.
You consider stopping,

standing her up,
watching her bound off

into the fire and gold
of this last deep blue day

before December swaggers in,
red jacketed, guns blazing, knives drawn.

Leaves shudder.

You heed the warning
and pass on by. Ahead of you,

the convergence of sky and road
keeps its distance.

Robert L. Dean Jr.Robert L. Dean, Jr.’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flint Hills Re view, Illya’s Honey, Red River Review, I-70 Review, and Heartland! He was a finalist in the 2014 Dallas Poets Community chapbook contest. His haiku placed second in the 2016 Kansas Authors Club competition and his short fiction third in the 2016 Astra Arts Festival. He has been a professional musician, and worked at The Dallas Morning News. He lives in Augusta, Kansas.