Timothy Donnelly is a busy man. Now that his second book, The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010) has made news in just about every quarter from the London Times, where John Ashbery lauded it, to the New Yorker, where Dan Chiasson named it the #1 poetry book of the year, Donnelly has been occupied by a slew of interviews and readings in support of this dense and thematic work, which redefines poetry in the decidedly post-9/11 era. Before his arrival in Louisville, Kentucky, where he read as part of the Sarabande Books Reading Series at the 21c Hotel, I asked Donnelly a few questions about historicism, Romanticism, and formalism in his poems.
— Sean Patrick Hill
Guernica: This book took some six years. What was it that initiated this book, and how did you manage to sustain the idea?
Timothy Donnelly: After my first book came out in early 2003, I took some time off. I wasn’t sure what to do next, writing-wise, so I just waited for some big idea or impulse to pick me up by the scruff of the neck. It took a long time for something to come—about a year, actually. It doesn’t work for me to force it. Whenever I tried to induce a poem, I just couldn’t manage to get anywhere with it that satisfied me, or really, that didn’t repel me. The poem that broke the dry spell ended up being the first poem in the book, “The New Intelligence,” which I wrote after a brief health scare. The more I worked on the poem, the more I realized how much it had to do with other things, like trying to figure out how to move forward not just with an awakened sense of mortality in a ruined world—specifically, a post-9/11, wartime world. I think of 9/11 as being central to the book and a few people have fathomed that on their own, but to call it a theme, an undercurrent, a provocation, etc., seems callous and ridiculous. It’s central to the book because it was never not on my mind. Anyway, I finished that poem in early 2004. Other poems were finished about once every two months or so—teaching at Columbia and working at Boston Review kept me too busy to write more quickly than that, and I wrote slowly anyway. The rate accelerated the more I wrote; I picked up momentum. I was more or less done with the manuscript in August 2009, but I took a couple of poems out of the manuscript per the suggestion of my editor, Matthew Zapruder, and I added a few after it was accepted, too — the last one as late as April 2010, I think. What initiated the book was nothing other than my own head, what haunts and troubles and disturbs and infuriates it, so it wasn’t difficult for me to sustain that at all, actually—I might even say unfortunately. It’s just hard for me to get the time to write.
Guernica: In the current economy and political situation, what do you think, if anything, the role of the poet is, and how do you answer to that role? Do you feel you have a certain responsibility as a citizen poet?
TD: I think it’s the same now as it always is, really. A poet should engage as fully as possible in the reality of his or her own moment, individual and collective, and then write the poems that come from that engagement—bearing in mind that our moment contains the traces of every moment that came before it. Maybe that sounds pompous and abstract but maybe also obvious. And not “should” as in “must” but “ought to.” Reading poems of the past you get a sense of the way an era’s psyche worked, what weighed on it and how it pushed back. That’s probably true of all art, but I think it can happen with special urgency and force in poems, which so often seem like dispatches from a mind at work. Why would a poet not want that? Sure, it’s inevitable to some degree that a poet’s work will reflect something of his or her era no matter what. But to write with a sense of that as an opportunity rather than as an inevitability can really make all the difference in what we might call, in the general sense, a poem’s “relevance.” Definitely all poets should feel at liberty to write however they want to and to realize whatever is of importance to them—or even just to play around if that’s what they want. I have nothing against that at all, and to my mind there’s a lot of humor and playfulness in my own work. But I never think of it as an end in itself, and there should be no mistaking the difference in the value of poems that read as if cranked out for relatively thoughtless consumption and those that reflect a deeper or more thoroughgoing and therefore more rewarding engagement with the medium.
Mostly I feel it’s our responsibility to acknowledge that so much of our lives are, in a manner of speaking, imaginary, and we trick ourselves—as others trick us—into thinking otherwise.
Guernica: Many of the poets you mention as influences, or who are outright mentioned in the book itself, are Romantics: Keats, Shelley, even Stevens. Do you see a Romantic influence playing out in your work at all? Are you a Romantic?
Timothy Donnelly: I think in some pretty fundamental ways my sensibility is romantic, I’ll admit it—probably primarily in my understanding of the imagination as the supreme mental faculty. I don’t think that this is necessarily a good thing, either, not always—I think there’s a lot of imagining taking place that pretends to be cold hard reasoning, and the effects can be disastrous. The very beginning of my long poem “Globus Hystericus” means to address this:
A pity the selfsame vehicle that spirits me away from
factories of tedium should likewise serve to drag
me backwards into panic, or that panic should erect
massive factories of its own, their virulent pollutants
havocking loved waterways, frothing all the reed-
fringed margins acid pink and gathering in the shell
and soft tissues of the snails unknowingly in danger
as they inch up stems.
The “vehicle” here is the imagination, and the idea I have in mind is that while it can, on the one hand, relieve us from the deadening force of habituation and maybe even from certain kinds of privation, it can also operate in toxic, dangerous, destructive ways. While I most often experience the imagination in my day-to-day life as a source of pleasure and even liberation, I know that it can also provoke endless misconstruction, folly, paranoia, delusion, mischief, etc. Mostly I feel it’s our responsibility to acknowledge that so much of our lives are, in a manner of speaking, imaginary, and we trick ourselves—as others trick us—into thinking otherwise.
A poet should engage as fully as possible in the reality of his or her own moment, individual and collective, and then write the poems that come from that engagement…
I also have some pretty romantic feelings about nature, I guess. I feel at home in it (I grew up near a lot of “undeveloped” land) and tended to do Wordsworthian things in my head in the forest. I even have a kind of romantic sense of individualism. But it’s not like I’m drunk on the myth of my own uniqueness. For me it’s not about a transcendental ego or anything like that. I’m fully aware of the fact that historical, cultural, and social forces have shaped and continue to shape my identity. I think of people, myself included, as unrepeatable amalgams of matter and memory, genetics and experience, etc. — we have this singularity in common. As one companions oneself through difficulties and hardships, if a certain exaggerated or overperformed sense of one’s specialness helps them along, I think that’s fine, we should see it for what it is. This specialness becomes a problem, though, when it converts into a certainty in the essential rightness or superiority of one’s way of being in the world.
Quite possibly the word for me would be “post-romantic.” I’m not quite sure how people use that term, though. But for me it would capture the fact that my understanding of the way things work (my beliefs, I guess?) is largely drawn from romanticism, to be sure, but my engagement with its terms is critical, even a little ironic. I suppose this is where Stevens is coming from, too. And while he’s a very important poet for me, especially formally, I feel that our temperaments are so different that I’m almost more aware of the differences between us than the things we have in common.
Guernica: The poems in The Cloud Corporation are certainly formal. What is the interplay you find between this constraint and the very modern chaos the poems contain, or attempt to contain?
Timothy Donnelly: The interplay is just as you describe it, at least in part. In practice the formal regularity aids in the composition by giving me a handle on sometimes intractable or entropic material—well, that’s not quite right. It might be better to say that it provides me with a framework according to which to organize the material as it emerges. It provides me with structural ballast, a self-generating banister for the race up an infinite stairway. In the finished work it suggests, I hope, a measure of my speakers’ struggle to make sense of their own thinking and experiences in the new mad world. It’s the same struggle, really, mine and theirs, but there are different ways of looking at it, which is to say both as a compositional principle and as a formal aspect of the finished work. Additionally, this regularity, being as it is an unmistakably artificial construct, nods to, I hope, both the inescapable need for such principles in our ongoing processing of experience—our making of sense of what we sense—as well as to the artificiality of those same sustaining principles. Some of these we knowingly adopt and some of them are culturally produced. Ultimately, though, the interplay of these two principles—chaos and order—is fundamental to all creation, as far as I can tell, and its avatars (multiplicity/unity, motion/stasis, mutability/constancy, accident/design, etc.) are endless.
Guernica: Your poems obviously engage with the past as well as the present, a kind of Classical view. Eliot wrote of “the historical sense,” of the “sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together,” meaning, in short, of the presence of the past in the present moment, the great continuum that is the human experience. At what place in this tradition do you see your work? How does it answer to the past and the present simultaneously?
Timothy Donnelly: This is really well observed. Rereading “Tradition and the Individual Talent” recently, I found that those passages about developing “the historical sense” resonated somewhat differently than they had when I was younger. I certainly can’t claim to have internalized all of Western literature and history—far from it—but at some point the distant past began to seem as present to me in my imagination as the recent past, personal memories, or even the current day. It happened organically, really, or intuitively, and bit by bit, not in accordance with some particularly well-articulated scheme. Eliot wrote that essay in the aftermath of WWI, as I understand it, and I wonder if maybe being at war sharpens one’s sense of participating in history somewhat, churns up that feeling that we’re not really moving forward.
Copyright 2011 Sean Patrick Hill
Timothy Donnelly is the author of The Cloud Corporation and Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (Grove Press Poetry). He is a poetry editor at the Boston Review. His poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Harper’s, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and many others.
Sean Patrick Hill is the author of The Imagined Field (Paper Kite Press) and Interstitial (forthcoming, BlazeVOX). He was recently a fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, where he received the Zoland Poetry Fellowship. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.