Timothy Donnelly is a wordsmith whom The New Yorker has called “the barreller-in-chief of the younger generation of American poets.” He has published two collections of poetry, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (2003) and The Cloud Corporation (2010). His work has also appeared in publications like Harper’s, Iowa Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares.
He earned a BA from Johns Hopkins University, an MFA in poetry from Columbia University, and a PhD in English from Princeton University. He has been the poetry editor of the Boston Review since 1995 and currently teaches writing at Columbia University.
Donnelly is the kind of writer— and person— who never ceases to keep you on your toes and who, while you are balancing there on a precarious intellectual tightrope, winks conspiratorially as if to say, “We’re in this together, aren’t we?”
I read this thing that you wrote about how you were as a child, which I just loved. Can you tell me a little bit about what you were like as a child?
I’m revisiting what I was like as a kid lately because I have a five and a half year old daughter and both my wife and I recognize certain traits in her as being, so to speak, my fault. [Laughs.] For example, my wife for the longest time thought I was being ridiculous whenever she would try waking me up in the morning—I hate waking up—and I would say “Just give me five more minutes, I just need to finish my dream.” She thought I was feeding her a line! But then, completely independently of my example, my daughter started saying the same thing. My wife would try to wake her up and she would say, “No, just five more minutes, I need to finish my dream.” She never saw or heard me say this, my daughter, I swear. The way her brain works in general—her wild imagination, the way she relentlessly analyzes things, her spazziness—this is all me. We often say what the other is thinking. The first time this happened she ran to her mother saying “Mom, Dad spoke the words right out of my brain.”
We both concentrate very deeply on things—in my case, partly to counter a natural tendency to grow distracted. I often think of my writing as a way for me to bring it all together, to focus myself. It has a semi-meditative quality for me, writing does—weaving everything into a single thread. That’s at least one of the reasons I take pleasure in doing it and why it seems to serve a kind of psychic function quite separate from mere expression.
Do you catch dreams? Do they resurface in your writing?
I almost always remember my dreams, yes. I don’t usually use them in my writing but I let the logic of them carry over. There’s one poem in The Cloud Corporation called “The Rumored Existence of Other People.” In that poem I referred to a dream that I had when I was a grad student living in New Jersey. Well, the aftermath of the dream. In the dream itself I saw someone standing outside the library and she had her face hidden in her hands and she was surrounded by a bunch of other people and she kept saying, “I saw a ghost, I saw a ghost, someone help me, I saw a ghost.” And I said, “Let me through! Let me through!” to the crowd, “I can help her, I’ve seen a ghost too, I know all about it.” Then I cut through the crowd and she takes her hands away from her face and she looks me right in the eye and says, horrified, “It was you! You’re the ghost!”
Yeah! I know! It was really frightening. When I woke from that dream, I was lying in bed in my little dorm-like apartment in New Jersey and beside me on the twin mattress I saw an indentation as though someone were sitting there on the bed beside me. But there was no one there.
Oh, stop it!
It’s true! I was perfectly awake at this point. I looked at the indentation, the room felt a little darker than it should, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then I saw the indentation gradually flatten up as though the weight of what sat there had been lifted from the bed, and I felt something leave the room. Felt this change in energy. I know that’s how they talk about it and it sounds like crap—but it was like that. It was like an inaudible hum had stopped and into my head popped this sentence: “They can’t hurt you, but they can change the way you feel.” It just came to me.
In that poem, “The Rumored Existence of Other People,” I refer to that particular dream: “I dreamed a body’s indentation beside me on the mattress // vanishing as the presence found the door through a film / adaptation of silence.” And by the way, I’ve felt the presence of ghosts and I’ve seen their handiwork ever since I was a kid. I’ve only actually seen a ghost once, though.
When you were a kid, did you play with words and tame them the way that you do now?
Yeah, I think I did do that. But I never really thought of that as being poetry. I would set certain sentences to made-up melodies as I played in my room or did yard work or whatever. And here is something that I seldom talk about, but I did very strongly have this sense as a child that everyone had a sentence, one forbidden sentence that if they were ever to utter, they would die. I’ve since heard other people recount this feeling—I think there was something to that effect in a movie I saw not too long ago, maybe it was The Informant? I think it might be like an archetypal, transcultural, or at least trans-personal thought that occurs to people. I’ve come to think that it is a kind of back-formation from the knowledge that each of us will one day say our last sentence. Even though the link between saying our last sentence and dying isn’t causal, we do all have a last sentence somewhere out there waiting to be said. And then we die.
Was there a lot of literature in your house growing up?
There were a few books here and there, and cookbooks, and the newspaper and magazines, but not a lot of what you probably mean by literature. And then there were the encyclopedias and dictionaries that I loved and couldn’t put down. I would drag them into bed with me. But there wasn’t any poetry in my house growing up. There was always music on the radio and certainly Mass was a big deal. I remember going to Mass and hearing this group of people all saying the same thing, this rhythmic chanting. I remember thinking: “What is this thing we do with words on Sundays?” Something completely removed from the ordinary working day kind of language. It had something to do with magic, it was incantatory.
That was my first systematic introduction to a kind of language that had a value other than the instrumental. There were stories and stuff, but that was different. This wasn’t about plot. This was about repetition, doing things rhythmically, creating a feeling…
In that way, religious language and poetry are similar.
Yes. In his essay, “Poetry and Abstract Thought” Paul Valéry says something to the effect that we know it’s poetry when we feel compelled, after hearing a certain set of words and wanting to reengage with them, to articulate those very words that same exact way again and not to paraphrase their content. The only way that we can experience that linguistic event again is to repeat it. Whereas with instrumental language—say if you ask someone to light your cigarette—the words leave no particular impression beyond their meaning. We know exactly what they mean and we abstract that knowledge and we act on it or we don’t. We can rephrase the meaning without doing any damage—there’s no appreciable difference between “Please pass the salt” and “Can you hand me the saltshaker, please.” They’re functionally exchangeable, but in a poem, there would be an appreciable difference between the one and the other. Because there’s this other kind of language whose sense impression haunts you, whose meaning can’t be abstracted without compromising the experience of it, and—you have to repeat it in order to experience it again. And that’s poetry. I think I’ve garbled it but the point’s in there somewhere.
When did you begin to think about language in a more writing-related way?
Well, at some point in elementary school I started wanting a typewriter for Christmas every Christmas. And every year, even though I had a typewriter, I would get a new one. I loved to type. I loved the sound of the keys and the bell and the sound of pulling a piece of paper through the platen. I loved the sound and look of words and I loved to see words that I could generate by pressing keys. Words that had a certain impersonal finish to them. I liked those labelers too.
Late in high school I started writing poems. I took a creative writing elective senior year and I really did enjoy it. I remember writing stories earlier but it was only in my senior year that I started writing poems. When I went to college, I ended up taking poetry workshops pretty much every semester. It happened kind of without my thinking about it. I never walked around thinking, “I know, I’ll be a poet” the way other people dream of being doctors or lawyers.
After I graduated college, I took a year off. A friend of mine who had gone to Johns Hopkins with me went straight to the MFA program at Columbia for fiction. She told me she thought I would love it there and I had always loved New York from my very first visit as a child. So, I ended up applying. I came to Columbia in the fall of ‘93 as a poet. That’s when I started taking poetry, or rather the idea of being a poet, more seriously.
What did you do in that year off?
I lived at home and worked at Dunkin’ Donuts. And I volunteer-taught ESL for a while at the public library in downtown Providence. And I did a lot of gardening—mostly herbs used in magic spells. Wormwood, rue, foxglove, monkshood, stuff like that.
It’s a pretty big step from writing poems in college but not necessarily seeing yourself as a poet to going to graduate school for poetry in this crazy city, at this costly program, investing all of yourself. What was your thought process?
Well, this was over 15 years ago and MFA programs had a less intensely goal-oriented vibe to them. And only recently have I figured out how to be responsible with, or perhaps I should say appropriately concerned about, money. I was in my early 20s back then and I guess I figured you had to pay for an education and somehow it would all work out. Mostly I just wanted to be in New York.
And I knew I wanted to make stuff. I have always loved doing things that involved creation. I love to cook, I loved gardening, I loved drawing, I loved legos… I just loved making stuff. And increasingly I felt that this impulse, this urge to create stuff, really found its most satisfying outlet in writing, and in writing poetry specifically. For the most part I was writing very formal, rhyming and metrical poems at the time. It wasn’t so much linear plot or narrative or even character that I was interested in, but mood, tone, atmosphere, and then, with that, I started becoming increasingly interested in psychologically charged mood, tone and atmosphere, and then I found myself drawn to creating poems that would act somewhat as monologues or trains of thought that might have a certain kind of moodiness, almost like a dream-like quality to them. A little bit what I experienced at Mass, a little bit what I experienced in dreams, and a lot like the best possible version of the thoughts that go through my head when I put my head on the pillow at night or walk long distances or ride on the train.
I remember thinking very vividly when I was six or so that at the end of the day, when you are alone and only in your own head, maybe thinking about what happened during the day or maybe imagining things, or maybe trying to figure out the nature of consciousness or whatever, I remember thinking: “That is what real life is— these moments, this being in the head alone at night. The rest, that stuff we do through the day, is kind of like the raw material for this.”
You realized you wanted to create things. You loved to cook, people eat what you cook. You loved to garden, a garden is, in a way, consumed, at least experienced. With writing, did you have a sense of consumption, that there was an audience out there that would consume what you made?
Not when actually writing, no. It was just for me, or for the page, or for some vague imaginary other. I think it is a compulsive thing, largely—like a need to feel something like control, focus, order, and the power of bringing something into being. I do sometimes feel like there are certain things you can do to control and organize your thoughts to make you feel more whole, integrated, rather than diffused and chaotic— those are both states that I am very susceptible and prone to.
My writing, though less traditionally formal than it used to be, still tends to have pretty pronounced structural regularity to it. But even in that structural regularity, the lines go long and digress, wind around, leap forward and reverse. That’s how my mind’s frenetic tendency and the impulse I have to control or perfect things come together formally. I don’t think perfection is possible and if it were I’d probably take one look at it and yawn or run the other way. But the dream of it, the striving for it—that’s another story. Of course you’re doomed to fail but I’d rather fail at grandeur than settle for a modest success.
I’m drawn to strange systems that try to organize the world and make sense of it, like numerology and astrology. I don’t believe them, but I entertain them, and appreciate with a grain of salt their zany intricacies and odd self-confidence.
That connects to your fascination with Mass too, right? The idea of a system of order that people believe in that doesn’t entirely make sense or that cannot be wholly satisfactorily explained.
That’s right. God occupies the place of the perfection we strive for but can never hope to attain. And the belief in an unseen intelligence at work in the world helps make sense of that occasional feeling we get that there’s something more than meets the eye going on, there’s something else directing us. As with all the little surprises that suddenly seem to have a kind of pattern to them. Like when you see one person with a red shirt on the sidewalk, and then you start seeing people with red shirts everywhere. I think the mind tends to think that patterns suggest that there is deliberation there, and that deliberation suggests agency or significance to those patterns. I don’t think there’s significance to the pattern of red shirts on the street, but sometimes I come right up to the border of it, I guess, or indulge in it self-consciously. I don’t wander into paranoia. I just stay in that moment of being made tingly by the perception of accidental significance.
That is wonderful coming from a poet who makes all kinds of structured significance in terms of syllables, words in relation to one another.
It’s amazing that you connect it to poetry like that, because I see it that way too. I do. Because I think one of the things a poem can do is create a field of potential significance, an artifact whose very materiality seems shot through with tingly feeling. Like— “Oh, this all means something, I am experiencing the dream of material meaningfulness!” I love being re-acquainted with that feeling. Not just what the poem was ostensibly saying or expressing, but even the arrangement of the words themselves reflecting a certain kind of significance or, at the very least, a pervading intelligence.
When you got to New York and enrolled in the poetry program at Columbia, what was life like in the city as a graduate student?
I didn’t like my apartment that much. It was dark and small and loveless. I lived on 121st Street, university housing. I ended up staying in that apartment for five years, because it ended up taking five years to do my thesis. My rent was around 800 dollars, it was a one bedroom, it was kind of a deal but also very dreary. And that’s where I saw my one and only full apparition.
I hung out with a lot of people from the program. Parties, going out to eat, living on credit cards too much— things like that. It was fun. It seemed like the right thing to do in your 20s in the 90s in New York. I would write at night into the morning and all day on the weekends. I met my now wife in ’95 and we went on all kinds of little adventures and we would spend days writing in the same room, or trying to. She was also in the program as a poet but she started the year after me.
I don’t think I explored New York all that much, to be honest. The different neighborhoods, I mean. Except for Coney Island we never thought to visit Brooklyn until friends of ours moved there. Now I’d be happy to live there the rest of my life. But back then I stayed mostly in the neighborhood around Columbia, which is hardly the most interesting.
Well, there’s just too much. Too much to take in and make a living and be a writer. Or maybe I should say there isn’t enough—not enough time. And no sacks of ancestral cash. But I never really liked to travel, even short distances. I don’t like being away. I still, to this day, deep down in my gut feel like where I belong is in my bed at home in my childhood bedroom. I also belong in my bed in Brooklyn, I have to admit it, I really do at this point. And maybe the bedroom itself and not just the bed is the next circle of my belongingness. Then the apartment. Then the neighborhood— not all of Brooklyn, but Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill—and then the whole of New York City. But when I go beyond that, I think: “How am I going to get back? What am I going to do? What if I need to sleep, where will I do that? What if I run out of money, how will I get money?” All this stuff is just ridiculous, I know. But the further I get from my home, the less anchored in the world I feel, the less secure, the more vulnerable to the unforeseen. It’s pathetic, I know.
What was on your grocery list when you were a grad student?
I wasn’t really cooking much at that time except for when I went home to Rhode Island. I didn’t like to cook in that kitchen, because it wasn’t really a kitchen. There was no counter space, no window, and a foolish little oven.
What was I eating back then? Oatmeal. A lot of oatmeal. Tons of coffee, like two pots a day on weekends or days off. I was doing a lot of take-out, I think. Pizza, Indian, Thai, Chinese. It’s strange how little I remember eating during that period. I kept so busy with work.
While at Columbia I was an assistant in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, I worked full time at the Poetry Society of America, served as a research assistant for the writer Susan Hertzog, and I started working as the poetry editor of the Boston Review. So, I was doing a lot of other things and it took me a while to finish my thesis. I also wanted the health insurance, and I hate change so I wanted to stay where I was.
How did you get those great jobs?
Well, the library gig was work-study, I don’t remember how I landed the Hertzog job, and the Poetry Society thing started as an internship. Also work-study. I had to interview for that position three times. The first two times I didn’t get it. The third time, the person who got it backed out, so they called me up and offered it to me. And I don’t know why they didn’t want me…maybe in part because I had very little experience— things like Dunkin Donuts made up my work experience!
Anyway, I ended up working at the PSA for five years. I started as an intern and I was the Managing Director by the time I left. First they wouldn’t let me in and then they wouldn’t let me go. I ended up loving the language games of grant writing and of formal business letters. They can be so ridiculously grotesque. But none of these were really great jobs except the PSA. I look back at that job nostalgically and with gratitude and truth is I learned a lot there, though it sucked the youth right out of me.
But the other jobs weren’t half so great as they might sound. At the library, I was kind of suspected by the staff of a two-million-dollar illuminated manuscript heist and the FBI took my prints—and not just the fingerprints, the whole handprints. That kind of disqualified whatever kind of greatness it might have had going for it.
How did you end up at the Boston Review?
The Boston Review was always a great magazine, but it was much more local in its scope back in the 90’s, at least in terms of its poetry. All the editors lived in the Boston area. The Boston scene was really strongly represented in terms of the books that were reviewed and in terms of the reviewers. The Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Cohen, wanted to shake things up a little, get national with it. He contacted a number of his contributing editors and asked if they knew anyone who was really hungry and wanted to take this on. Lucie Brock-Broido suggested that he interview the poet Mary Jo Bang and myself. We were in the same year at Columbia. Josh met with us and he liked the idea of going with us as a team. We ended up working together for about eight years, before Mary Jo decided she had been doing enough.
The funny thing is that one night, maybe in my second year of classes, Mary Jo and the poet and currently an editor at BOMB, Mónica de la Torre, and I were down in the West village and we went to a psychic, on a goof. The psychic said to me, “You know someone else who was just here.” And I said, “Yes, I do.” She said, “You and the older one, you have a business venture that is going to be coming your way.” And this is even before we had talked to Lucie about this. She said, “It is going to be very lucrative for you both and you both have to work at this together. A lot of success will come from this. I see you traveling somewhere that begins, C-A…” And I said, “California?” And she said, “No, no. Not California. I see you looking at large pieces of paper. And you are talking about the paper…” Then maybe two weeks after that Lucie called and said she had recommended Mary Jo and me as a team for the Boston Review and that we had to come up to Cambridge and interview.
Ah! That is such a great story.
Yeah I know. I kind of believe in that stuff somehow.
How did your parents feel about your decision to pursue life as a poet?
Completely, completely supportive. I think that they have always thought, “Oh, well, he always figures it out.”
My father came from a relatively small Irish Catholic family and my mom came from a larger, French Canadian Catholic family— a lot of siblings and they didn’t have a lot of money. Her father worked multiple jobs, in a factory, in a foundry, at a catering company, things like that. I don’t know all that much about him—both of my mother’s parents were dead by the time she was 16—except that I look a lot like him and he worked all the time and cooked and listened to classical music and read library books and had a good sense of humor.
In any case, I have a strong work ethic from both of my parents, but from my mom I think I also inherited anxieties about death and poverty, the feeling that there is never going to be enough money, the feeling that we have to be very careful because everything is slipping through our fingers. I am getting a little more comfortable lately, but in the past, my inherited fear of poverty often manifested itself in a complete disregard for money, as I mentioned before. I just put the thought of it right out of my head. I did run up some bad credit card debt in my 20s because I just didn’t want to think about that. But I also felt this occasional panic—I’m not going to make it! I can’t afford to live!
Tell me about Princeton. Why did you go?
I went to study. English. To get a PhD. Mostly I felt like I didn’t know enough and I had to take care of that. I had done really well on the English GRE subject test but that had more to do with my ability to recall information completely independent of any understanding or deep experience of it. Like I could identify Dickens’s characters and plots and style without really having read anything by him. But I knew that I wanted to teach and I knew that I wanted to teach creative writing and I knew I could never do that confidently or well without a full-blown literary education. A real thoroughgoing academic education.
I think the way things are taught here at Columbia now is much different from how it was taught when I was here. Back then, it was much more laid back, a low-impact kind of curriculum, whereas now there’s a lot of seriousness of purpose and rigor to the instruction—more so than any other MFA program I know of, actually. I’ve visited a lot of writing programs over the last few years and I’ve spoken to a lot of the students at those programs and graduates from those programs, too, and I really think what we’re doing here, the spirit and intensity of it, is unlike anything else in the country. I know a lot of people can’t afford to pay for it outright and don’t want to take out loans and so it’s not an option for them, I get that. I respect that. I certainly couldn’t afford it either but I did take out loans and I know it made all the difference. I’m still paying back those loans, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. No other school would have brought me to where I am now, writing- and career-wise. Not to get all promo on you.
Before Columbia, as an undergrad, I just didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have a plan. I just kept writing my poems and having my thoughts and taking classes more or less randomly. Writing, philosophy, political science, film, French, Latin, but not a lot of literature. I think I was daunted by the idea of reading novels and the poetry that was taught then wasn’t all that interesting to me—Lowell, RAndall Jarrell, Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilbur. Not the kind of stuff that would excite most 20-year-olds. Although there was one poem by Wilbur that I loved—a long monologue called “The Mind-Reader.” I still love it. When I met him years later at a Poetry Society reception I worked up the courage to tell him how much I loved that poem and how I had written a paper on it, practically memorized the whole thing, and how it had taught me so much. I gushed. And he sort of stepped back and squinted at me and said “Hmm.” And that was it. “Hmm.” It was the end of the night and people were packing up around us around so I said thanks for that and took off. Totally mortifying. Princeton was where I got my literary education.
I really wanted to know the canon. I wanted to know what the poets whose work I loved knew. I really wanted to be able to say a few things about, say, the evolution of blank verse in English poetry. I wanted to know the history of poetry in English. It’s learnable and I learned it. Or a lot of it. Or enough of it to build on, let’s say. And it’s been a huge confidence builder. A hugely important resource to me no less so as a writer than as a teacher.
Were you always certain that you were on the right path?
I knew I was doing what I was supposed to do. I knew I had discovered the way that all the things that my mind needed to do, all those impulses to create, to create a sense of order, that intangible stuff that always seems to sort of dissolve because it doesn’t feel real enough because it’s not rational, it doesn’t have its place in the everyday, in the kind of life that we can easily talk about— I knew I wanted to make something of that. I wanted to find an outward and more permanent-seeming manifestation of the kind of inwardness that I would experience with such intensity as a child. I wanted a certain kind of beauty to be part of it, I wanted a certain kind of power and intensity to be part of it, over time I started wanting a certain kind of engagement with the world and the mess of it, and the beauty of it, to become part of it too.
I trust what I’m doing. I feel that I’m on a path too necessary to me to be a mistake. And all along I just trusted that it was going to work out.
I was slow to send my work out to places. In part because I didn’t think the work was quite where I thought I was capable of bringing it. Once I got to that point I started sending it out. If and when I was rejected, which was often, I told myself “They’ll see.” I did! I did. I just didn’t let myself doubt it.
That’s healthy. And unusual.
I guess it is. I don’t want to sound like a jerk, or arrogant, but I just never doubted myself as a writer or as someone whose—what?—whose aesthetic or point of view had a place in the world. It was almost as though I was walking on the floor and I didn’t doubt that the floor was there. I knew it had to be or else I would never have let myself do it.
And let me tell you, there was a while in college where it wasn’t like my poems were getting lots of slaps on the back from other people—except from certain of my professors. Maybe that helps explain it a little, actually. Maybe I was encouraged by the people I most admired and discouraged by the other people so that the idea of being told you aren’t doing it right or well enough was already familiar to me and I had built up a tolerance to it and it always happened in the company of someone I trusted better telling me otherwise and I just internalized that. As far as early champions go, there were a few—Michael Collier, Tom Disch, and Elizabeth Spires, but I’m above all grateful to Peter Sacks. Time and time again in workshops he would come to my defense. Explain my poems, explicate them, articulate their relationship to a tradition that I wasn’t even all that familiar with. It was pretty edifying.
I think towards the end of my time as an undergrad some of my classmates saw that maybe I was onto something after all. But they also started writing poems about me and about my poems and what a problem they were. How artificial and non-personal. One student wrote a poem about a juggler of beautiful glass balls, and apparently that was supposed to be me. The point was, what will happen when I drop one of these delicate ornaments and it shatters on the ground, what will I be left with? Nice metaphor, right? One for the ages.
John D’Agata described a similar story from his workshops. Someone nonchalantly ate a burger during his workshop and said the work wasn’t even worth commenting on, that he wasn’t a real writer.
Jeez. Funny thing is, I see what she was trying to say. But when you’re barely 20 I don’t think you need to be opening your heart to the world or fooling yourself into thinking you have some great insight to share. You need to be playing around with the medium, figuring out what you can do with it. And truth is, some of the poems I wrote in those classes actually ended up, with very little modification, in my first book.
When was the first time you saw a poem of yours in print?
It was a poem called “Ease” and it was in the Denver Quarterly in the fall of ’99. I was very happy, but I also thought: “Don’t make too much of this, this is just the beginning, a very small step.” I feel the same with this new book: “This is just the beginning. Don’t get lazy already.”
Is that a protective thing, too? Josh Bell said that right after his first book was published, he found it impossible to write because he felt he had to reinvent himself, top himself, not repeat himself. And that now there were expectations of him while before there were none.
I’ll tell you what, that has been causing me some anxiety. People tell me, “Don’t listen to your own internal impulses to have to come up with this novel thing.” I think that impulse is due, in a way, to the fact that we have internalized a commercial way of thinking about our writing—and I think that critics who say, “Oh, he’s doing that thing again,” have internalized that too. Maybe the evolution that takes place within a particular individual’s artistic path is supposed to happen more incrementally. I mean, you do tire of seeing someone stay in their safety zone, but I think I am going to let whatever changes change incrementally.
Once you publish, reception is a factor.
Yes. You can feel pretty vulnerable, worried that you’ll disappoint the people who have respected what you’ve done, or worse—that you’ll start cranking what you think they want from you.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
First of all, I say write slowly and carefully. Even if you want your stuff to seem a moment’s thought. Our culture is one of rapid overproduction. Write in opposition to that. Write against that current or you’ll be swept up and away in it. Your voice will be lost in a sea of indistinguishable voices, and that’s not liberty, that’s death. There are too many poets these days who send out a new project-driven book every year. Much of this kind of work seems to me to be totally disposable—designed to be read once, if that, and then discarded. It’s undertaken like homework, or at least it reads that way. I would encourage people to aim for something nobler and more ambitious than that.
Also, what I usually say to my students is that, looking back on how things happened for me, I got lucky, sure, but part of this luck had to do with becoming part of the poetry machine. Not simply by some careerist design, and certainly not without keeping some critical distance. I mean, partly I wanted to work at the Poetry Society of America because it seemed so great in a goofball romantic way, and partly, I wanted to work there hat for the money— but I also wanted to learn some stuff. But then of course my experience there led in part to me being a strong candidate for the editorship at the Boston Review. And I wrote some reviews for the Boston Review, too, at the start…I was doing all of this kind of work, building up a bio that I could send along with my poems. Not just retreating into my awesome interior spaces or into my ivory tower and writing the lasting poems of the universe—but being a little bit practical, however hard it was at first, about what it meant to be part of a writing community.
There’s a world out there that you have to find your way into. I wish we could afford to be perfect and beautiful idealists with about our writing. And maybe some people can afford to be idealists, I guess. But I never felt I could be an idealist in bringing my poems into the world. I could be an almost idealist in the making of my poems, sure—and I was very mindful of the distinction. I think I knew that I had to be practical-minded. Looking back, a lot of things that seemed like they were falling into my path felt like they were part of a design.
We are coming full circle. There are the patterns again, the design.
There it is! The seeming accidents that are purposeful. I have this line here [reads from a poem in his book The Cloud Corporation]: “The capacity to draw meaning out of such seeming / accidence / landed one here to begin with, didn’t it?”
I encourage my students to do that. I tell my students they have to start writing reviews. Write a little review, I’ll help improve it, polish it up, if it’s good enough, I’ll publish it at the Boston Review, it’ll be your first byline. And then, contact Publisher’s Weekly, contact other online venues, see if they need copy. And then, once you’ve started making a name for yourself with these reviews and people take notice of you as a thinker about poetry, then they see a few poems of yours in a magazine and they think: “Oh, here’s a figure who is writing reviews, who’s writing poems, who’s out there in the field….”
Some of my students have, by their own savvy, started presses, made chap books, started reading series. People are getting the sense that it’s not just about having talent and writing poems, but actually participating in the culture in other ways as well. So I would encourage everyone to do that insofar as they are able to. But again, keep a critical distance. Don’t let that work supplant your own writing. It has to supplement it.
So get yourself out there, write reviews, try writing essays, try involving yourself in the production of books or websites, get some editorial experience—that all has a demystifying effect, it familiarizes you with the lay of the land, and I think that that can be hugely important. You will learn stuff that will really benefit you, but you will also learn that so much of what happens in the publishing world is semi-arbitrary, or worse—it has to do with who you know, just as we suspected.
Also, sometimes editors or judges are looking for specific things or looking to avoid others. You might have a great manuscript but maybe you write predominantly in rhyming couplets, and they just published several people who only write in rhyming couplets—they’re already saturated with what you have to offer. So many of these random things go into whether or not your poem or book is chosen or not chosen for publication. When you see firsthand how things really happen it helps you understand that a rejection is something much more and less than it would at first seem to be.
And I would also encourage people who want to become teachers to immerse themselves in the tradition. Know as much as you can, not just what happened ten years ago, or even 100, but what Chaucer was up to and what he was drawing from and responding to. I think it builds character and confidence as a writer. I don’t like it when it feels like the sense of tradition in a poet’s work is paper thin. I think poetry, maybe more so than other art forms, is a long, ancient continuum and we are all harking back to the origins—back to something primitive, something primal in the mind.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Lynn Melnick
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