Dobyns was born on February 19, 1941 in Orange, New Jersey to Lester L., an Episcopal minister, and Barbara Johnston Dobyns. Dobyns was raised in New Jersey, Michigan, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. He was educated at Shimer College, transferred to and graduated from Wayne State University in 1964, and received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1967. He has worked as a reporter for the Detroit News.
He has taught at various academic institutions, including Sarah Lawrence College, the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University.
In 1995, as a professor of English at Syracuse University, he was involved in a sexual discrimination scandal. Francine Prose defended him by portraying his accuser and the school as having reacted to outdated neo-Victorian victim-feminism policies.
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In much of his poetry and some works of non-genre fiction, Dobyns employs extended tropes, using the ridiculous and the absurd as vehicles to introduce more profound meditations on life, love, and art. He shies neither from the low nor from the sublime, and all in a straightforward narrative voice of reason. His journalistic training has strongly informed this voice.
For example, in the poem "Missed Chances" in Cemetery Nights, the nameless speaker wanders through a metaphorical city in which those who missed their big opportunities futilely rehearse for opportunity's next arrival.
Dobyns has written many detective stories about a private detective named Charlie Bradshaw who works out of Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Bradshaw is unusual as a private eye protagonist, an ordinary man who was once a police officer. All the books have the word "Saratoga" in the title.
In the comic novel The Wrestler's Cruel Study, the protagonist roams through a modern cityscape governed by fairy-tale rituals, searching for his missing fiancée. He is alternately aided or hindered by a Friedrich Nietzsche -quoting manager and his Hegelian nemesis, to find that his wrestling matches are choreographed by a shadowy organization that enacts their various Gnostic theological debates through the pageantry and panoply of the ring. He eventually learns to resolve his own dualistic nature and determine who he is despite the role he plays.
Cold Dog Soup has been made into two films, the American Cold Dog Soup and the French Doggy Bag. Two Deaths of Señora Puccini has been made into the film Two Deaths. The movie Wild Turkey is based on one of his short stories.
The Church of Dead Girls is a novel about a small town's hysterical response to the mysterious disappearance of three of its teenaged girls.
Boy in the Water is a novel about events in a secluded private school in the United States.
Jenny Hilborne, wrote in New York Journal of Books that The Burn Palace "is an intriguing fictional mystery set in the town of Brewster, Rhode Island, and includes elements of the supernatural, satanism, and other alternate religions, including neo-pagans, Wicca, and witchcraft...mysterious and engaging . . .”
- Concurring Beasts (1972)
- Griffon: Poems (1976)
- Heat Death (1980)
- The Balthus Poems (1982)
- Black Dog, Red Dog (1984) ISBN 0-03-071077-4
- Cemetery Nights (1987) ISBN 0-14-058584-2
- Body Traffic (1990)
- Velocities: New and Selected Poems, 1966-1992 (1994) ISBN 0-14-058651-2
- Common Carnage (1996)
- Pallbearers Envying the One Who Rides (1999) ISBN 0-14-058916-3
- The Porcupine's Kisses (2002)
- Mystery, So Long (2005)
- Winter's Journey (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
- A Man of Little Evils (1973) ISBN 0-689-10567-3
- Dancer With One Leg (1983)
- Cold Dog Soup (1985)
- A Boat Off the Coast (1987)
- The Two Deaths of Senora Puccini (1988) ISBN 0-14-023579-5
- The House on Alexandrine (1990) ISBN 0-8143-2183-6
- After Shocks/Near Escapes (1991)
- The Wrestler's Cruel Study (1993) ISBN 0-393-03511-5
- The Church of Dead Girls (1997) ISBN 0-8050-5103-1
- Boy in the Water (1999) ISBN 0-312-97522-8
- Eating Naked [SS] (2000) ISBN 0-312-27829-2
- The Burn Palace (2013) ISBN 0-399-16087-6
Charlie Bradshaw series
- Saratoga Longshot (1976) ISBN 0-14-025196-0
- Saratoga Swimmer (1981)
- Saratoga Headhunter (1985) ISBN 0-14-015606-2
- Saratoga Snapper (1986) ISBN 0-670-81059-2
- Saratoga Bestiary (1988) ISBN 0-670-82024-5
- Saratoga Hexameter (1990)
- Saratoga Haunting (1993)
- Saratoga Backtalk (1994) ISBN 0-393-03659-6
- Saratoga Fleshpot (1995) ISBN 0-393-03805-X
- Saratoga Strongbox (1998) ISBN 0-670-87692-5
- Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry (1996)
- Next Word, Better Words: The Craft of Writing Poetry (2011)
- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More - Stephen Dobyns
- West, Bill (November 13, 2007). "Once upon a time". The Daily Orange. Retrieved September 18, 2012.
- "a book review by Jenny Hilborne: The Burn Palace". Retrieved 26 October 2014.