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Maureen N. McLane asks Boston Review Poetry Editor Timothy Donnelly about his latest book, the creative process, and his gothicism.
[Read Part Two.]
McLane: Your book features poems titled or cast in the mode of “explanation,” “dream,” “bulletin,” “inventory,” “hymn,” “agenda,” “program,” “fantasy,” and the book moves with incredible speed among and within these modes. These very categories suggest a kind of re-dreaming, re-inhabiting, or re-appropriating of the bureaucratic, the “corporate,” of prefab language, discourse, and thought. Could you say more about this, or about your thinking in such poems as “Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” which is an amazing mash-up of Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” and the 9/11 Report?
Donnelly: I wrote the first of the poems that repurposes “prefab language” as a response to an assignment given to me by my friend the poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien back in 2004. He sent me nineteen pages of the PATRIOT Act and challenged me to write a poem using only words found on those pages and, once per line, a word from another source text. I chose Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” in part because I love it, in part because I like how its working-class romanticism fought against the legalese. I worked on this poem, one that would become “The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports”—a title that riffs off Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Twenty-first and Last Book of the Ocean to Cynthia”—for several days and nights more or less without stopping. It felt like a kind of boot camp, really, and at the time, I needed it. It awakened me to whole realms of theretofore-unexplored lexical, tonal, and topical possibilities.
Not every poem I wrote after that one tapped into these possibilities quite that blatantly, I have to say, but all were informed by my having recently exercised them. Having begun that poem with the line “And such proceedings shall be considered criminal,” for example, provided me with a precedent for lines that might have a similarly bureaucratic tone and import, such as these, concerning corporate personhood, in the book’s title poem: “The clouds part revealing a congregation of bodies / united into one immaterial body.” As I wrote more poems, that note, that sonority, came to pervade the writing, so that poems that lacked any direct relationship to the corporate were still haunted by it, and that seemed to me just the way it should be—or not the way it should be, but the way it is. In fact, this haunting became one of the book’s persistent concerns, as I see it—namely, the pervasiveness of the corporate in everyday life.
“Dream of a Poetry of Defense” was written using the same method as “The Last Dream of Lights Released from Seaports,” but my experience writing that one was somewhat different. I had been rereading Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy” in preparation for my graduate seminar at Columbia, and then, a few weeks later, I started rereading Shelley’s own Defense for the same class, and somewhere along the line it occurred to me that the terms put in reverse order—i.e., a “Poetry of Defense”—made for a pretty remarkable phrase, at least to my mind. When I googled it, there were no hits! That surprised me, and committed me to making some sort of use of it—I wanted it to exist, to have a public life. So I gave thought to the phrase’s implications, and to the sheer absurdity of it, and set out to write a poem. I expected it to move mostly in a satirical direction, a sort of send-up of the vaguely mystical, swollen oratory one imagines delivered in a time of crisis, but as I wrote the poem, I found myself swept up by my own flow. I fell for my own rhythms and rhetoric. I started writing lines like “We can advance the fountain. We can define foundation”—and I pretty much meant them, or kind of half meant or mostly meant them. Or by turns meant them but also found them relatively empty of actual meaning. Or, even better, I was excited by the feeling they captured or even provoked in me—their verve-ridden hope—but I was also alarmed by how they, like so many political catchphrases, seemed to appeal to the passions without really signifying much of anything in particular. My relationship to that poem remains pretty complex. I’m happy with it, and I often read it, but I remain somewhat critical of it, the hot-air optimism of it. All of this at once.
M: The book frequently marks a kind of “before and after,” a kind of Lazarene resuscitation as well as a glance backward to “my former life” either from beyond the grave, from a future vantage, or from some other precipice. Could you say more about the “new” Timothy Donnelly, or “the new” for Timothy Donnelly, given “The New Intelligence,” “The New Hymns,” the recurring motif of the “chapter” poems taking up the Egyptian Book of the Dead?
D: One of the earliest poems in the book, by which I mean one of the first written, “The Night Ship,” I wrote when preoccupied with my having been unable to write new work. The poem begins “Roll back the stone from the sepulcher’s mouth! / I sense disturbance deep within,” and it was largely the resurrection of my imagination I had in mind, as pompous as that sounds. Overall I think of the poem as concerned primarily with the imagination’s capacity to console but also to delude in times of psychic need. Not that I wanted the opening of the poem to stand for the rebirth of the imagination only, as if what I mean by that line is merely “Open the door and step aside, my imagination’s back in action!” Rather, I mean for that passage to accommodate that particular meaning and any number of other meanings that follow the same basic conceptual pattern, i.e., “Get ready, what was thought dead is now showing signs of life.” The phrase “disturbance deep within” is meant to suggest both a sort of rustling in the crypt but also psychic distress.
This is probably all completely obvious. But I feel compelled to go on about it in order to get to this—when writing, I may start out with some particular impulse or thought or idea, but as soon as I start to articulate it I find myself aware of other shades of meaning that my phrasing might suggest, and certain of them I will cultivate, and others that seem to me of less value I will try to weed out. The same goes for sound. A certain music will begin to reveal itself, assert itself, and my phrasing will want to participate in it. Again, some of the emerging notes or rhythms I will cultivate; others that seem to me less fitting or interesting I will rework. So that (at least in most cases) the writing of a poem is initiated by the articulation of a relatively vague idea or impulse, and the implications that emanate from that articulation in tandem with its sonic properties will guide the next articulation. What writing a poem demands, for me, is a constant attentiveness to the potentiality of meaning and the particularity of sound.
I’m fascinated by the way language can create feelings, raise the hair on the back of your neck, make a physical change.
Anyway, the way I conceived of this book was pretty much the same. Ideas or conceits or motifs would occur to me during the writing, and I’d evaluate, sometimes only semi-consciously, whether or not they deserved repeating. I’d experiment in a certain direction and if it wasn’t working I’d move on. What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t have a single particular motivation for what recurs in the book—rather, it recurs because it served, or worked, on a number of levels. Take the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The first poem that borrowed a title from that text was “Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow,” an elegy, and one of the oldest poems in the book. I changed the “Swallow” that appeared in the original to a sparrow because I wanted something humbler, more workaday, and I didn’t like the suggestion of the verb “to swallow” in this instance. Also because the event with the sparrow trapped in the Laundromat related at the end of the poem actually happened, and I wanted (on this occasion) to be true to what really happened.
I went with that title not knowing I would end up drawing others from that source as well—I assumed at first that it would be one-off, but in the end, I took seven, like “Chapter for Breathing Air Among the Waters” and “Chapter for a Headrest.” I ended up spending a fair amount of time paging through the Book of the Dead, whose “chapters” are actually spells, prayers, petitions, etc., meant to guide the deceased through the afterlife, so the idea of speaking after the experience of death, speaking posthumously, wasn’t so strange to me. Of course I knew the deaths the speakers in my poems refer to might suggest, say, a psychic break—or more mildly, a sense of alienation from one’s own life, and that wasn’t too far from the truth (the alienation, not the break). The book’s last poem, “His Future as Attila the Hun,” roots that sort of alienation in consumerism and the economy, and that brings me back to “Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow” again. Because at one point early in the poem it occurred to me that the only way to bring a person back from the dead would be to pay for it—and this was the first time money showed up in my work that way:
—What are you now, a whisper? A vapor minnow
in the rue-blue seize that never loosens, not even
for a minute, not for a half-lived something
like a dream? I trust those eloquent have already
tried opening that grip with flattery and failed; possibly
the only currency to grease a palm that monstrous
has to be the same old prank of paper we have here—
or don’t have, cheerfully (not quite cheerfully).
See what can be bartered, what sacrifice’s smoke
appeases over others’: there is nothing beneath me.
Economy, death, resurrection, ancient civilization: they were all there from the beginning, and the poems that came after were naturally influenced by what came before. “The New Intelligence” is actually the oldest poem in the book, and I chose that phrase from the body of the poem for its title because of the way it brought to mind both the military and also marketing with that whole “blank is the new blank” construction. This seemed to me, for what is essentially a love poem and a poem about the sustaining powers of the imagination, not merely an interesting foil or twist, but an acknowledgment of the tenor of our complicated times. Also, I just liked the sound of it. It might be worth mentioning, too, that “the new intelligence” in the poem is delivered by another sparrow, but in reality the bird I had in mind was a pigeon. Every now and then a bird will land on your windowsill in the city and it seems like a visitation. Anyway, I won’t go on. The point here is that there’s no succinct explanation for any of the recurring stuff—it’s all trial and error until my brain says stop.
M: Regarding your romanticism or gothicism: there seems to be a sustained encounter with, and perhaps critique of, these modes—with “Poem Beginning with a Sentence from The Monk” (citing one of the crucial novels of the gothic craze, by M. G. “Monk” Lewis), as well as allusions to Keats and extended quoting from Shelley. Why them, or why this period?
D: The Monk is one of my favorite novels and has been for a couple of decades. The sentences are unstoppable. Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer is up there as well, and I went through a Radcliffe period, too—her descriptions of landscape, largely adapted from travelogues, are just amazing, all the larch woods overarching narrow mountain passages with banditti in the shadows. I’ve always been into the supernatural, and that’s part of it, admittedly, but mostly what interests me about the gothic is the state of excitement it wants to generate and, for me, does. I’m fascinated by the way language can provoke these states—that language can convey ideas, sure, that makes sense to me, but that it can also create feelings, raise the hair on the back of your neck, make a physical change . . . well, somehow this still fascinates me. Moreover, this state of apprehension I associate with the gothic is of particular interest. Reading the gothic, one identifies with a protagonist who’s vigilant to every little sound, every change in light—they’re waiting for some dreadful power at work to reveal itself, for the hidden intelligence to emerge, sometimes all at once, but often “by degrees”—a phrase the genre uses with almost comical frequency.
To my mind, this kind of vigilance is what it means to be especially conscious. It’s the state of mind in which Wordsworth perceives the natural world’s “invisible workmanship” on his walks in The Prelude, or the one whose workings Shelley represents in the movements of “Mont Blanc.” It’s in this state that one realizes, or perhaps only catches a glimpse of, the hidden powers at play in nature, at play in one’s life. By degrees or in a flash we intuit the determining forces that we’re ordinarily too distracted or too tired or too stupefied to detect. This brings us back to the awareness of the pervasion of the corporate in everyday life—the realization of “what’s really going on” is central not only to the gothic and to thrillers like Blue Velvet and The Shining, but it also recalls, at least in outline, the shedding of false consciousness. And let’s face it, those gothic novelists sure knew how to write a sentence.
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