What influences a poet to write? Stephen Dunn has cited many different inspirations over the years ranging from basketball to the time he spent living in small towns in New Jersey. Despite the varied sources, Dunn's inspiration all share a common theme: the psychological landscape of the human condition. Specifically, the intimate thoughts we only share with ourselves: the "unspoken."
In an interview he gave after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Dunn recanted his early family life wherein he witnessed silence being substituted for anger and the resulting emotional toll that disrupted the lives of his father, mother, and brother:
"Everything fell apart in our family when I was fifteen or sixteen. I was the only one who knew the family secrets, which probably contributed to the development of an inner life. We lived with my maternal grandparents in Queens. I still don't know why my parents never moved out, but my father got along very well with my maternal grandfather, who was the great man of the house. Jewish. A theatrical agent. And he had a mistress. Only my father knew about her. When his mistress got ill and she couldn't pay the bills anymore, he borrowed money from my father. He never paid my father back. Five thousand bucks, which was a lot of money in those days, [approximately $45,000 in 2013] My mother looked in the bank book and asked what happened to the money, and my father told her that he lost it at the track. He stayed with that story the rest of his life. One night when he was drunk he told me the story. In my mid-teens I was often sent on my bicycle to the Fleet Street Inn to fetch dinner. He was treated as a wastrel by my mother and grandmother, and didn't want to come home. He was very proud of me, would introduce me each time to his drinking buddies, buy me Cokes, and we'd both get home late. Anger in my family was silence. I remember silence all the time. And my brother, who was three years younger, hated my father because he didn't know him in the good times. I never told my brother the story of my grandfather's mistress until he came to Minnesota where I was teaching. He had come out to tell me how I had ruined his life because I was an achiever, (laughing) I swear, I told him, it was not my fault, (laughing) But that's when I told him the story, and it made him more furious. I wasn't keeping it from him all those years, I must have just thought it belonged to me. But he was rightfully angry with me. It complicated his life..."
In the interview with himself, "Brief Answers to Unspoken Questions: An Intraview," Dunn explains how the "unspoken" that he witnessed in his own family serves as inspiration for his poems.