Sometimes I'm good at giving advice, so let this be an example: keep your eyes on James Dunlap. If his body of work so far is any indication, he's poised to do incredible things throughout his poetry career. And I'm not just saying that because he's a gold-hearted dog owner, though that certainly doesn't hurt. When he talks about his dog Sadie, you can almost see the world getting a little brighter. It would be a shame to keep that all to myself, so check out James' thoughts on how dogs teach us to love with abandon, how art is an inevitable byproduct of dog companionship, and how caring for animals taught him about his father.
Before we get going, a little about James: he's a poet from Morrilton, Arkansas, and has studied English and creative writing at University of Arkansas and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His work has appeared in Nashville Review, storySouth, KYSO Flash, Dirty Napkin, Weave, and Heron Tree. He lives with his Jack Russell terrier Sadie.
Let's talk about your dog Sadie. How did she come into your life?
About eleven year ago, my older sister moved in with my parents and me for a little while. She brought with her little bottle rocket of a dog named Sadie. My sister eventually moved somewhere where she couldn’t have dogs and left us with Sadie and a rat terrier named Dixie.
I’ve always had trouble sleeping for as long as I can remember. Some nights when the air in the house grew thick and unbearable, I would take long walks or sit outside or lay down in the living room where we kept the big fan. Nights like that I would find Sadie on the couch and I would dip us a bowl of ice cream or we would share some chips. After a while, she started sleeping in my bed. Soon she began waiting up for me, sitting in my lap while I read, sometimes pawing at the page if she got too tired. She stayed with me any time I was laid up sick and always greets me when I come home. This is how she became my dog.
What makes Sadie different from the dogs you grew up with as a kid?
We grew up out in the country, and between dogs roaming around and people dropping them off, so many dogs came in and out of my life. I loved them all. But I always knew in the back of my mind that they were transient. I knew that they would be moving on one way or the other and that there would always be another dog to fill the void.
It’s not like that with Sadie. It’s going to hurt something awful when she dies. I won’t just tuck my hands in my pockets, look down and say, well, and move on. I’ve seen her grow from a pup into an ornery old lady that tip toes in rain puddles to not get too wet.
In our pre-interview banter, you said that Sadie taught you “how to attend the briefness of the world.” I love that – can you elaborate?
I think there is something moving about people loving things that will go away. The most you get with a dog is seventeen years, if you are lucky. If you raise a dog right, you’ll learn a thing or two. I think you learn a lot about humanity. There seems to be very few reasons to have a dog beyond love and companionship. I think it's easier to love a dog than it is a human. A dog never dredges up fear of rejection, never makes you feel ashamed or inferior. You can love a dog with abandon and you must because they don’t have time for anything less.
“You can love a dog with abandon and you must because they don’t have time for anything less.”
Shifting gears a little: you mentioned that you lived in the country when you were young, and your family raised rabbits to sell and to eat. You said you would get attached and see them as pets. As someone who has two pet rabbits, I can imagine how difficult this must have been for you. Has this informed how or why you write about animals in your poems?
That’s nice; I hear rabbits make good pets. I think so much of my writing concerns itself with the ephemeral nature of relationships. I think this is most true when I’m writing about my father. And our closeness is a strange one. I love him. He’s taught me many things. But there seems to have always been a disconnect. It’s almost like building a house on an uneven foundation. You keep re-squaring the frame, but cracks keep showing up.
My relationship to our rabbits was incredibly ephemeral. I would create these bonds, then break the bonds myself. So I think that I often connect my relationships with humans to those I have with animals and that bleeds into my writing. It would be fair to say I’m haunted by my family at times, and I can’t stop writing about it. So there’s this amalgam of animal, landscape, and family that rule my poems.
In your poem “Boy,” the narrator's father burns a rocking horse and seems disgusted when the (presumably young) narrator cries. Is it fair to say that the animals in your poems (both symbolic and real) help illuminate the dissonance in your relationships with your father and grandfather, especially where masculinity is concerned?
That’s a very nice insight. Thank you for reading my work so closely. I think you are definitely right. My childhood was spent around animals and around my dad. As I learned about caring for animals, even harvesting them for food, I was really learning about him and how he related to me or failed to relate to me.
There was a lot of emphasis put on masculinity. For the longest time I thought my father had penned the phrase, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” There was an aggregate of things that he thought make a man a man. A man works with his hands. A man doesn’t cotton much to crying. A man never backs down and takes what he wants. My father was some sort of hillbilly Nietzsche.
So animals, when they appear around me and my father or me and my grandpa, do shine a light on our brokenness. It would come through other ways, I suppose, but since I learned so much through animals, they will always contain the shards of our relationships.
“Animals, when they appear around me and my father or me and my grandpa, do shine a light on our brokenness.”
You mentioned that you're too close to Sadie to write about her yet, but has she influenced your poems or writing process in less overt ways?
She can be insistent when you ignore her (read as: work), so managing time becomes important. She is not beyond jumping on my book or pawing my face. She’s taught me to focus when I have a task and not much time. And I think it just helps having an animal around. She helps get my mind off poems for long enough to refocus. Poems take a long time and Sadie was always around to teach me patience. You can never overestimate a silent companion for writing.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I am working to complete a full-length collection. I think this book will end up being more of mixed-tape type collection, but with the same speaker (me).
What's your favorite poem about a dog, and why do you think poets are so fascinated and drawn to this animal?
I think today my favorite dog poem is “The Black Dog of Blue Ridge” by Elizabeth Hadaway. It has so many things I love about poetry. There is a ghost dog, family tension, it walks the line of lyric and narrative. It’s a great poem in her book Fire Baton (University of Arkansas Press).
Poets have been charged with the task of chronicling the human experience. We know that 15,000 years ago, dogs were wolves. What began as a utilitarian exercise in sanitation and hunting technology became a companionship and occasional obsession. You can’t oversee the development and evolution of a living thing without forming attachments, and ours is a life-giving attachment.
Flaubert said the poet’s life is a dog’s life. Granted, he meant to say it is a rough life, but I see a few parallels, mostly in curiosity and a tendency to come up with a few ticks.
“Flaubert said the poet’s life is a dog’s life. Granted, he meant to say it is a rough life, but I see a few parallels, mostly in curiosity and a tendency to come up with a few ticks.”
A simile for Sadie?
This is by far the hardest to answer. I said I never write about Sadie. I have tried before—a poem about squirrel hunting. Jack Russel terriers were originally bred as squirrel and rabbit hunters. Here is a simile that can never live up to her: See her lighting through the backwoods like a haint made of starlight and ash.