GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Pulitzer Prize-winning poems don't just come tumbling out of Stephen Dunn's brain in a fever, in a fit of pure, perfect inspiration.
They take work - extensive, obsessive rethinking and rewriting. It has taken him years, decades even, to get some poems just the way he wanted to see them, and wanted readers to see them.
But Dunn, a professor emeritus and folk hero at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, did earn that 2001 Pulitzer for poetry - a phrase that has a nice, poetic ring to it for people around the college's Galloway Township campus.
And an exhibit opening Monday at the Stockton Art Gallery attempts to show the process Dunn has used over a span of more than 50 years to turn his varied inspirations into publishable poems - some of which he's scheduled to read Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Stockton's Alton Auditorium, following a 4 p.m. opening reception for the exhibit.
The show is called "Stephen Dunn: Poems, A Retrospective," and it celebrates many phases of his life in poetry, and at Stockton. But much of what will be on display from Monday to March 30 at the gallery shows up in its subtitle - "Manuscript Exhibit On The Poet's Revision Process."
This show aims to highlight what's usually hidden in poetry, or in any writing. It takes Dunn's mistakes, false starts and discards from over the decades and traces how he reworked and reshaped them into poems worthy of being collected in his 15 books so far - including "Different Hours," which earned him that 2001 Pulitzer, one of a stack of literary awards Dunn has won.
To show the poet's process, Stockton's Lisa Honaker, the curator of the exhibit, combed through 48 boxes of papers Dunn accumulated from his lifetime, from second grade copybooks on, collected now at his undergraduate alma mater, Hofstra University. Working with several students - and Dunn himself - Honaker started with early versions of poems and followed his handwritten editing of them up to their published forms.
Some of those revisions are to be blown up and reprinted on panels 6 feet wide - designed by Michael McGarvey, a Stockton art professor. Honaker explains that treatment is designed to make the material visually interesting enough to display in an art gallery, and Dunn, for his part, says he doesn't mind publicly exposing the dirty laundry of the poet's craft.
"I'm kind of honored by it, that they suggested it," says Dunn, now 70 years old and living (mostly) in the mountains of western Maryland. "But I hope a retrospective would not mean to me or anybody else that I'm finished. I have more to do after this retrospective, I hope."
One thing he has to do is co-teach a poetry seminar with his old Stockton student and friend, Peter Murphy, a Ventnor resident now retired from teaching at Atlantic City High School. That's the only actual teaching Dunn does now at Stockton, where he joined the faculty in 1974, and he does much of his work by e-mail. He says he visits the campus in person just a few times during each spring-semester course he teaches.
Another thing Dunn is doing is putting together his next book. It's to be called "Here and Now," at least for now, and his publisher has accepted it and scheduled it for release in May of 2011 - and for this writer, that means much more revising ahead.
Dunn understands editing is hardly the most celebrated part of the creative process, but he says it's crucial to the process of creating quality.
"I've always taught that way, that good writing is rewriting, and very few people get it right, right away," he says. "The course we teach now is essentially a revision workshop."
Murphy and several other former Dunn students who are now published poets also have a part in Wednesday's opening reception for the exhibit. About 4:45 p.m., before Dunn reads, they are all scheduled to do readings of some of Dunn's poems that they especially admire - and to read a bit of their own work.
And Murphy swears he doesn't expect to feel any special pressure reading a poem he wrote, not even at a party for a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, an event dedicated to the hard work of rewriting poetry until it's as perfect as possible. For one thing, he's a devoted disciple of Dunn's poetry process.
"He was exactly what I needed, because he was tough," Murphy says. "Even today, when I share poems with him, he doesn't let me get away with the cheap stuff."
So he too rewrites constantly, far more than before he met Dunn, when Murphy would be proud of himself for reworking a poem five or six times.
"After he was my teacher, I'd revise 50 or 75 times - maybe a hundred," Murphy says. "That's where Stephen is so insightful as a reader and a teacher. ... He's honest, that's what I mean by tough. And it's hard to be that honest all the time."
Dunn says he always has made it a point to be honest with his poetry students - the same way he has to be honest with the poet named Stephen Dunn.
"Some people think I've been a taskmaster, which I hope I have been," he says. "But I hope I haven't done it cruelly. I tell the students at the beginning that a good poem is a tough thing to write. ... I always try to tell the truth from my vantage point and my experience - tell the truth and keep the students alive at the same time."
Dunn also has the ability and the patience to keep poems alive for years, through many phases, incarnations and approaches. One piece that will be highlighted in the revision exhibit is a poem that Dunn started in the mid-1960s - and that he expects to finally publish next year.
Another poem that Dunn released relatively recently gives a hint about the importance he attaches to editing. In "What Men Want," published in 2009, he closes with the thought that to a serious writer - or to anyone serious about life - both ends of a pencil can have equal importance.
"After the power to choose," Dunn ended that one, "a man wants the power to erase."
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
Poems, A Retrospective'
Opening reception 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Stockton Art Gallery, room H-113. Includes
4:45 p.m. readings by several
of Stephen Dunn's former students
Reading by Dunn at 6 p.m.
in the Alton Auditorium,
in Stockton's A-Wing.
The Stockton Art Gallery is open 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, with late hours until 8 p.m. Tuesdays; noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays.
The exhibit runs Monday to
March 30. The gallery will be
closed March 13 to 21.
For more information,