Stephen Dunn: The Fanmail
Some of the fanmail that appears in the Stephen Dunn collection actually contain correspondences that discuss Dunn’s professional career and discusses any opportunities to make appearances, present at conferences, and teach poetry workshops. One of the earliest letters in the collection, dated back to 1976, actually discusses production and publishing costs to Dunn’s book of poetry Full of Lust and Good Usage. This letter gives good insight into how contract dealing, costs, and royalty payments were made during this time period, especially before the technology boom of the ending part of the 20th century. Other letters discuss asking Dunn to make appearances at different venues, giving readings, as well as teaching poetry classes. These letters reveal how respected Dunn is within the academic community and the close ties he has to other academics. Dunn’s professional relationships with academics and the growing opportunities to give talks and make appearances allow his poetry to reach a wider audience in America and open up more opportunities to write more poetry and get those poems published.
The Stephen Dunn collection offer numerous letters that span a thirty year period, in a variety of mediums that show the progression of technology and of symbolism behind letter writing. There are a bunch of handwritten letters that appear on different formats such as blank paper, stationary, even postcards. The way handwritten letters are sent in different formats, can reveal how people take the time and care to send a letter. By sending a postcard for example, the letter may be succinct, but it not only shows where the sender has been traveling, but by choosing a certain postcard with a certain photo on the back shows the effort that the sender chose in picking out a card. The type of stationary that is chosen for a handwritten letter reveals a certain intimacy from the sender to the addressee. Other formats that appear in the progression of time are type written letters from either a typewriter, a word processor, and by the onset of the new millennium, email. These formats show the progression of technology and the speed with which a letter can be sent, allowing for quicker communication between sender and recipient.
Finally, the Dunn fanmail reveals a very personal correspondence on the part of the sender. Some letters talk about personal relationships, hardships, and other happenings going on with the sender of the fanmail. While a third party reader may find this jarring, by being a voyeur into the personal life of the sender sharing a correspondence with Dunn it reveals something very intimate between Dunn and the people who send him fanmail. The fact that a sender is able to open up and share their personal lives so freely, shows the amount of trust and respect that a person has for Dunn and that there is an understood safety with sending him letters. The letters also show the deep impact Dunn’s poetry has on his audience. People send Dunn fanmail about certain poems of his, like “Loves” quoting lines and explicating how the poems provide such relevance to the personal lives of the sender. Dunn’s poetry provide solace and understanding to his readers which is why such a large amount of fanmail can be found in the Dunn collection. There is a respect for Dunn’s poetry, for his opinions, and for his understanding, showing a deep trust in Dunn on the part of the sender.
Many of these correspondents appeared to have either attended one of Dunn’s readings or have been in touch with him for a certain period of time. As I read them in depth, I realized that these are not mere fan-mails. Their content is deep enough, and specific enough to call them correspondences between friends or critiquing partners. One such interesting letter discussed the effect of Dunn’s “Loves” on children that the correspondent teaches. She says, “It jumpstarts them immediately into their own lists, which often are poems themselves or provide a great set of topics to spin off from” (1994). The writer also thanks Dunn for the exchange of sound advice that influenced her work.
Another important thing to notice is how much people admire Dunn for his teaching skills. In fact, comments on his teaching skills is the single most prevalent theme in such letters. For example, in one of the letters, the writer commended Dunn’s reading and how Dunn “teaches me [him] to think, not in some narrow fashion, and not just with my mind, but also with my heart” (Peck, 1994). In another such letter, the writer thanks Dunn for “bruising his pride” by critical comments so that his work can improve (Ward 1994). One such letter that I resonate with, is a letter by a prose writer. He says, “As I re-read “Loves” for the umpteenth time, it strikes me, a prose writer, what terror and joy must come with your territory - - being a poet, whose hope it surely must be that a reader would look at your work again and again and again. How good you have to be, to support that kind of scrutiny” (Johnson 1995). He goes to discuss various techniques of poetry, and line structure etc. As a prose writer myself, I completely agree with it, and found this letter to be very relatable. As mentioned above, all these letters are not simply fan-mails, they are correspondences between two friends who admire each other’s work.