Timothy Donnelly interview part 1
Timothy Donnelly Interview Part 1
Timothy Donnelly is author of The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books 2010) and Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (Grove Press 2003). Coldfront editor John Deming interviewed him in Inwood, Manhattan in late August, just before the release of The Cloud Corporation. This is the first installment of the interview. It has been transcribed and edited.
You can read Stephen Burt’s review of The Cloud Corporation here.
You can watch our video of the release party here (filmed and edited by DJ Dolack).
JD: Some of your longer, numbered sequences like “The Cloud Corporation” and “Globus Hystericus” are reminiscent of longer Wallace Stevens poems that are also written in tercets. Are these in any way influenced by Stevens?
TD: Absolutely. He’s one of the five or six poets who have been hugely influential to me from the beginning. Whose work I just felt a necessary connection to. Also Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Plath…and Shakespeare, too, if you can say that without sounding obnoxious. With Stevens, even before understanding any of his poems, I just felt that my thoughts wanted desperately to sound like his poems, at least on special occasions—those cadences, that composure. Even just the example of the tercet alone, actually, was important to me when writing these two poems you mention, and many of the others in the new book, too. The fall of thoughts through tercets the way he does it has always seemed just so right to me. They’re dynamic enough to keep things feeling always like they’re moving forward and yet they convey something of a
solidity, a groundedness considerably greater than the couplet’s, yet not so very stable as the quatrain’s. And yet—not only did I not have Stevens’s “Sea Surface Full of Clouds” in mind when I wrote “The Cloud Corporation,” I hadn’t read it for years, which even I find hard to believe. A couple of people have seen some similarities in “Globus Hystericus” and “The Auroras of Autumn,” but I read that poem for the first time about half a year after I finished writing the book—and probably won’t be revisiting it any time soon, if you want to know the truth. I tend to read the same two dozen or so Stevens poems over and over. Maybe more like 18.
Your poetry frequently presents a “fall of thought,” or an associative quality—cognitive reason mixed with association—but there’s also an adherence to form. Is that tough to balance?
It’s not tough to balance. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way, because for me, what’s exciting about thinking in verse form, or imagining in verse form, is that particular interplay between a kind of openness and then a kind of constraint. I think a large part of the thrill of writing poetry is often to see what can be made to happen within this limited system, language. Recently I was interviewed by an editor at another magazine. He saw somehow in my language use something that he identified as a kind of cynicism toward language. He must’ve been picking up on a certain satirical vein in some of my poems, a kind of restlessness within language that might, I guess, seem like dissatisfaction to some. But I’ve always considered limitations and constraints to be challenges to my ingenuity—or even just my decision making. I don’t look at a menu of Mexican food and think, “Where’s the Chinese on this menu?” I think, okay, these are my choices, these are my limits, these are my options—and I’m going to look at this as an opportunity to see what can I do and how I can put things together. Actually, that’s not literally what I think when I look at a menu, God forbid, but you see what what’s going through my head.
So while I acknowledge language as a limited system, doomed to fail, etc., I look on that condition as a chance to put things together in a really exciting way. I’m not, like, frustrated by the failure of language or anything like that. Not when I’m writing, at any rate. In fact, when I start writing a poem, I like to increase the limitation a little bit…tighten it. I like the idea of writing within these stanzaic forms, and writing with a certain kind of regularity, because it provides me with a greater sense of this pressure from without that I’m pushing back at from within. I also need some of the organizational pressure that regularity imposes, and I like the sense of there being a certain amount of reliability to the structure of my poetry, a certain amount of regularity within which I can, you know, go bananas.
Like what Frost said about playing tennis without a net. There needs to be some kind of constraint.
Playing tennis without a net. Yes. But it isn’t just about gamesmanship, I don’t think. I mean, I’m interested in this regularity as sort of a cognitive counterpoint to the wandering, and to the associative leaping, and to the collaging of different modes or strains of language in poetry in general, not just mine.
Which is more or less how my mind works anyway—I’m very easily distracted and scattered, and when I write, I have to put myself in a kind of ridiculous trance. Anyway, we all love [John] Keats and this idea of negative capability. And of course there is the negative capability of one’s being in the world, open to new experiences without needing to understand everything soup-to-nuts, being comfortable with not knowing. You can be open to the strange and to the new and to the wonderful. But I also think of his idea of negative capability as being a principle at work in poetry, too. Keats points us to Shakespeare, someone whose mind could move through different states of thinking and states of being and experience without any of the anxiety that might be associated with a less imaginatively agile, more exclusively rational or in any case rigid kind of mind.
But it should always be remembered that [Keats] wouldn’t have conceived of there being a poem that didn’t have some measure of regularity as well. So even in his own work, when he wanders around and has all these great associative movements of thought, there is always this counterpoint, the form, the stanzaic form, the blank verse, the iambic pentameter or the ballad form…there’s this structural constant that’s doing this other thing for the mind—that does, of course, need a certain amount of security, a certain amount of stability from which to be able to appreciate the new, the unexpected. Otherwise it’s just chaos.
Thinking of one thing, and then thinking of another—it creates something that can be uniform, even if it seems like random association. Is an association in some ways a metaphor?
Absolutely, in a manner of speaking. And I sometimes think that structural parallels, even just in terms of phrasing, incline the mind to be more likely to see all things as potentially related, because they do have something in common structurally, they have this resemblance, this grounds for comparison, and metaphor is of course an implied comparison.
Are the need for control and the need for understanding central in this book?
I would say yes. I would say that they were central issues even for my thinking on the subway up here. It’s a primary lens through which I view a great deal of human behavior, in fact. I tend to think of people as needing to create a certain amount of control over their environment, to establish a certain amount of stability, security, understanding—so much of what people say and do, especially the stuff that doesn’t immediately make sense, seems to me to be compelled by needs like these. And I don’t necessarily mean this in some sort of vast and creepy cosmological way, I just mean that a sense of stability or security within one’s environment is like physical balance—we automatically seek it. Sometimes we take pleasure in liberating ourselves from these needs within controlled situations, like on roller coasters or at horror movies. But I’m also drawn to certain pathologies of control. Like OCD. I don’t have OCD, but I’m fascinated by it. I like that show, “The OCD Project.” I’m really interested in this need for control, all this scampering for control.
Do you think it’s true that every decision a person makes is on some level an attempt to gain control?
Pretty much. Until one feels safe, or in some cases, dominant.
Like Stockholm Syndrome—falling in love with the kidnapper in order to gain some control over your circumstances.
Like Stockholm Syndrome. I think that I’m drawn to some basic ideas about how minds work, and that seems to be one that I see playing out a lot. It’s mostly the case, it seems to me, especially in certain social contexts—the workplace, the dinner table, reality TV. I’m probably exaggerating to make a point, though. It’s not always. I just find that the interplay of order and chaos is so fundamental to being and is the wisdom of so much art and I find it pretty much another way of acknowledging the human need for a sense of control over the world in which it comes to know itself. Without a sort of conceptual gridwork with which to organizing experience, we would be catatonic.
This is something that poetry has been playing out implicitly in all of its formalisms from the very beginning. We often read that the use of dactylic hexameter in Homer was essentially mnemonic, and that might be so, but one of the things that it does too is it distinguishes poetic language from other kinds of language that don’t have this organizational principle as being one of its primary characteristics. As I understand it, the dialect the epics were written in was a special poetic dialect, and the metricality would further distinguish its language. Anyway, I think the poetry that I want to make and the poetry that I’m most interested in is a kind of language that features a strong sense of physical organization rather than radical openness, formally speaking—although I think wonderful work can be done in that mode, but it’s work that I sometimes think doesn’t have as part of its whatness this engagement with this human need for a vantage point of some stability from which to encounter the unfamiliar, the strange, the new.
What other forms of organization did you impose upon yourself in [The Cloud Corporation]?
I was once given an assignment by my friend the poet Geoffrey G O’Brien which led to one of the three poems I wrote in this book that make use of plundered lexicons—“The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports” was the first of them, then came “Dream of a Poetry of Defense” and “Dream of Arabian Hillbillies.” All three of these poems were written using words that were lifted from successive pages of preexisting documents, and once per line I was allowed a word chosen randomly from another text, anywhere in that text. I wrote the first of these poems using the 19 pages of the Patriot Act Geoffrey had sent me in combination with the Bruce Springsteen song “Born to Run.” For the first tercet, I could use any word on the first page of the 19-page excerpt of the Patriot Act and once per line a word chosen from anywhere in the Springsteen song.
I did the same with Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry,” and once per line I took a word from a chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report, a section of it that had to do with building up America’s defenses. There was always some logic behind the pairing of the texts—“Dream of Arabian Hillbillies” mashes up Osama bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa against the United States with the theme song to the Beverly Hillbillies—both texts having a great deal to do with destiny and oil.
These were really challenging, but peculiarly rewarding, too. To say, I’m going to limit my world in a whole new way now, I’m going to narrow it down to all the English on this page. With students, when I give them this assignment, I always encourage them to impose as much regularity on line length and stanza length as possible so as to make this need to organize and to control part of the meaning of the poem. If you just dither around without any kind of easily identified argument or thematic thread, part of the meaning of this poem would be the drive to control that which is constantly resisting coherence.
One thematic interest of yours lies in physical objects. In “The Rumored Existence of Other People,” you have objects—“trash bins at airports,” for example—and write, “Found it simple and good to forget that threat by letting / perception of such objects eclipse true knowledge of them.” Tell me about the difference between perception and knowledge.
I’m glad you asked that, because I meant something very particular at that point in that poem. In the first poem in the book [“The New Intelligence”], I’m interested in this idea of objectivism. I have a little bit of an argument with objectivism. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it for a few years. Clearly my own sensibilities are very different, and this idea of trying to render human experience in a language shorn of associations, this kind of exactitude of language that would match itself to the facts of the world per se…I’m very suspicious of that. I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible. We’re always going to have a particular perspective, so much idiosyncrasy, so much past experience, so many contextual things that—not necessarily with our knowledge—lead us to see things one way and not another, to make certain choices rather than others. In that particular line, I was interested in this idea, “See the world for what it is, don’t ruin it with interpretation, be responsive to the world as it is around you.” Well, sometimes when all we do is respond to the world as we encounter it, as it comes to us—
That’s the ‘perception’ half—
I think of that as being perception, yes, in the strictest sense, you know, sense perception prior to the imposition of concepts. But I was more interested in saying: while there are things we can perceive in all their physical detail, we might know something about them that’s not immediately apparent, something about their history, their nature apart from their appearance, or something hidden about them, like their toxicity.
So, for example, ‘where was this rug manufactured, who was working that day, how hot was it…’
You can perceive this rug and you can appreciate it, but under what conditions was it made? Who worked the loom or manned the machine, what were his or her thoughts? We can’t know. One obvious example of how the object at hand can hide its own terrible provenance would be blood diamonds—“Look at this beautiful diamond, I’m perceiving this diamond”—but when you find out the history of that diamond, and how it came to be, and who suffered in order to make it be there for you to perceive it and find it beautiful, that would be more like true knowledge of what this diamond is rather than being lost in the immediacy of the perception of it.
And so while perception is important and immediate, it’s important not to let self-deception factor in?
Absolutely. The way that that poem ends, I have the lines, “I hear the naked hands of strangers make // my dumplings but experience insists what makes them mine / is money.” And so there can be people who are making this rug. There are naked hands of strangers that are making this thing come into being. But as far as I’m concerned, in my own ugly smallness, in the blindness of my singularity, what makes them mine is the fact that I take my money out of my pocket and I give it to them, and now these things are mine. That’s where they come from, that’s how they become what they are, mine, whereas the fact they have this history, that they’re the result of someone else’s manufacture and labor, that’s quickly forgotten.
There was a point where it truly did occur to me, where I thought, I’m not going to pursue this line of thought—where I thought everything around us even right now was made by someone, made by maybe an individual person, or maybe it was made by someone who was sitting at a machine all day. Or maybe it was made by a series of people who were sitting at robots that manufacture our electronics. And even if it can’t be traced back to an individual person, there was the will of someone to create this object, and put it into our existence, and we find this thing and we select it, we buy it and we bring it home. And I thought, when does the will to have made something sever itself from the object it made? Maybe it never really does. So by some degree we are surrounded not only by these made objects, but also by the will of the people who manufacture those objects. I’m interested in ghosts, in spectral traces—there is a whole community of people around me at any given moment, a whole community of makers I can’t see and that I will never know, that all these objects refer back to.
This apartment has been here a long time, so there’s the thought of who might have died in here. And my books and music, every single person involved in all of them, and in the manufacturing process. The problem with that rabbit hole, of course, is that there’s no conclusion.
Right, there is no conclusion. It’s this moment of awareness that you almost have to retreat from, that truth you have to blind yourself from to a very large extent. I’m not interested in having this awareness in the forefront of my mind at all times—that would be exhausting, maybe even dangerous, I think. It sounds paranoid, even
What are the limits of reason? We need 1+1=2 if we are going to have any kind of government or society, but of course reason hasn’t been able to explain everything. That’s something I see in your poems, and in some of the other poets we’ve mentioned—reasoning your way to some real truth, getting close to it, and having no choice but to recede from it.
I don’t know how to say this without sounding smug. But some of my experiences growing up and onward, I have been a little uncomfortable with people’s certainty. And the blindness that people have to take on in order to be so certain. Fundamentalisms of all kind frighten me because it’s a deliberate narrowing down of what one perceives of as being reality in order to have perfect confidence in it. Leading almost always to a marginalization or derogation of all that it excludes. The idea of one’s reality as being a matter of perspective flies out the window and becomes “This is the simple truth.” What can be done to a mind, or with it, once it believes there is only one narrative, one lens, one way of looking at the world, is sometimes horrifying to me, or disgusting. At times it’s entertaining, or befuddling. I watch “Big Love,” and it fascinates me. Part of me feels sentimentally drawn to this very sharply drawn idea of an afterlife that they have, and that if people don’t do X, Y and Z, then they won’t participate in this great celestial whatever it is that they have waiting for them. I had a conversation with someone recently, a great guy who was raised Mormon, but who left that faith. I said, “Does your family think that there is an afterlife waiting for them, and you will not be part of that?” He said they most definitely do, and this is a hard fact for them. That there is going to be a chair up there with [his] name on it, but it will be empty.
I know. Exactly. And I had to ask, “Is that a literal belief, or just a way of putting it?” He says no, this is not a metaphor. This is what they believe to be true.
Wallace Stevens identified ideas of god as being derivatives of Imagination—“supreme fictions,” heightened Imagination that can’t be rigidly defined, but that can bring peace. Can someone call their notion of god the “real thing” while also allowing for someone else to have their own supreme fiction?
When I say God, I mean that space that we have in our head for something, for this deity. There’s a great interview with A.S. Byatt online that’s been getting some attention. She was getting an award, participating at a festival in Scotland, and an interviewer said “Do you believe in God,” and she said “No, I don’t believe in God…I believe in…Wallace Stevens.”
She goes on from there. I was raised Catholic, and I still have that whole belief system built into my mind. I don’t have any anxiety about it; I’m not like “Oh God, the Church is trying to control my mind.” That’s not how I ever related to it, or else maybe I did a little in Catholic high school, but I never felt that the rules of the Church were all too different from the rules of Monopoly. You follow them until they don’t apply, or until you start losing, and then you get away with what you can. What your conscience and what circumstances allow. I don’t think of Catholic dogma as being a matter of facticity, I think of it as this organizational system that can, for some people, give their lives great meaning. That can be very beautiful. I still pray to St. Anthony when I lose things, and to Mary when I travel, it clears my head. For me, though, religion is a way of putting it, a way of engaging with spirituality.
But does it start get dangerous when it is imposed on people, or when practitioners are not open to anything behind this rigidly defined reality?
Yes, and it can become sort of unsophisticated and crude, and becomes potentially violent, and the idea that if one doesn’t have a very literal belief in something then that person is only ever having this shadowy, sloppy kind of engagement, wishy-washy. I don’t think that way.
Thoreau wasn’t a man of “god” but had obvious spirituality. You can have it without the specifics. Maybe one can have—to use a Stevens expression again—the “palm at the end of the mind.”
I’m comfortable with that. That seems to me to be the greater truth. And that can also become very dogmatic, too—“The great truth is that there is no truth, and you better believe me.”
Several of your poems contain these kinds of issues, and issues of self-deception. Your villanelle “Clair de Lune” repeats the line “We become like those who seek to destroy us.” “Dream of the Overlook” concludes, “I feel I should die if I let myself / be drawn into the center no less than if I just let go.” Is anyone who has a supreme fiction deceiving themselves?
Not insofar as they acknowledge it as a fiction, right? To me that’s the whole point. We all need these sense-making mechanisms in our lives. They’re always shaping ourperceptions, at play in our minds. There’s a fantastic book by Henri Bergson called Matter and Memory. This is a book that, when I read it when I was in grad school in Princeton, put in words something that had been swimming around in my head for a long while. This idea that—and we all know this from the poets, too—that the imagination plays a defining role in our sense perceptions, that so much of what we perceive is being filtered by our imaginations, by our memories. When I put this coffee cup down in a place where it becomes occluded by this candle holder, I don’t think that that part of the coffee cup which is now imperceptible to me no longer exists. My memory knows that it’s a full, intact coffee cup, it’s merely that my view of it is obstructed. When a person walks behind a building, I don’t think that person has stopped being. I understand, having been in this situation numerous times before. We are without realizing it always adding imaginatively to our sense perceptions, always partly dreaming up the world.
They say the mind is only able to be aware of ten percent of what’s happening around it at any given time anyway, and that when you become aware of too much more than that, it is just too much to deal with. The machinery shuts down. Things have to become habituated. And the interplay of habituation and breaking free of habituation is something that’s very important to me, especially when it works itself out in poetry, because whenever I look at the evolution of poetry and what poetry is thought to have been able to do, or to be able to do, I keep encountering people saying that poetry serves to refresh our sense of being in the world, to remove the scales that habituation imposes upon our eyes. That poetry restores to the world its originary strangeness, and leaves us less robotized by our cognitive habits and patterns. What gets me is that these very patterns and habits that serve to provide the sense of order and stability necessary to be in the world and to experience it meaningfully end up deadening us to it, or at the very least limiting the degree to which we can ever be thought to be completely present in the world to begin with.