The Department of American Studies, in collaboration with the Department of English and the Michener Center for Writers, will host “The Art of Constraint and the Poetics of Surveillance,” an interdisciplinary conversation about the interaction between literature and the contemporary police state, on Friday, April 25 at 6 PM in the AVAYA Auditorium (POB 2.302). As part of this event, we are incredibly excited to feature award-winning poet Timothy Donnelly, author of The Cloud Corporation (2010), who will be reading new work. Last week, we had the chance to speak to Donnelly about his work, his teaching, and the role and responsibility of literature in the post-9/11 world.
Your book The Cloud Corporation borrows language from the Patriot Act and the 9/11 Commission Report. How did this idea come to you?
Thanks for asking! There are a few poems in The Cloud Corporation that were constructed exclusively from language taken from sources such as those you mention. To write the first of the poems this way, “The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports,” was proposed to me by my friend the poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien. He suggested I should let 19 pages of the Patriot Act provide me with my vocabulary, since it had in mind to take things away from me, partly. The first page would supply the words I had to choose from in the making of a poem’s first tercet, the second page would give me the words I had to choose from for the second, and so on. Also, once per line I was allowed a word from a second source text, and I had to use the same second source throughout the poem. I chose Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” I liked the idea of doing a mash-up of language from a document designed to compromise civil liberties with that of a big fat freedom anthem—plus, I love the song and listened to it over and over while writing the poem, which took several long days to write. That was way back in 2004.
Then I wrote “Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” which used language from Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” and the 9/11 Commission Report, in 2005. In this one I reversed my allegiances—it was the prime text, the Shelley, I sympathized with, while the second source text I held in suspicion. First and foremost these poems are formal experiments, attempts to see what can be done with a limited and unlikely lexicon. But they can also be approached as attempts to reclaim the language of power and domination and convert it into a language of freedom and play. They are both at once, I suppose. But I wouldn’t want to overemphasize the political import of all this industry, although I can’t pretend not to have chosen my source texts for their political character, for their rhetorical designs—I just don’t like the idea of making inflated claims for my poetry. And the truth is, I think some purer-minded readers might even consider them misguided and irresponsible, too mongrel and ambiguous, messed-up in their message delivery system. A few people have cited one of them, “The Dream of Arabian Hillbillies,” which uses language from Osama bin Laden’s fatwa against the United States and Israel and from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, as the book’s most tacky moment. And I’m okay with that. I want my work to have all the messiness of life, wrestled into art. I don’t want my poems to be platforms for performing the awesome rightness of my political sensitivity. I don’t like piety in any of its forms.
Do you see your work as engaging politically with—for lack of a better term—the post-9/11 world? How so?
Ah. Well, I feel like it would be self-aggrandizing and even a little untrue to say yes, so I’ll say…sort of. I feel insincere confusing my work with full-blown, position-taking political engagement, which is of course something I endorse per se and undertake in my fashion. But that’s not what I do in my poetry. What I do is more concerned with the psychological or, say, the personal experience of political and social realities, the sorrows, the guilts and grotesqueries of our culture. Like emanations of what it feels like to be alive now. A now that, yes, after 9/11, has seemed different from what it was before. Not only because of the shifts in consciousness in the aftermath of the attacks but also because war, economic collapse, environmental crisis, etc., had or have become more pressing realities than they appeared to be before.
But again, I think of the poems as dealing with these realities not directly but as they impinge upon an individual consciousness—but maybe you wouldn’t exclude that from what you mean by “political engagement.” It is a way, I guess, of implying a value. For example, if I refer to capitalism as “the circuitry that suffers me to crave // what I know I’ll never need, or what I need but have / in abundance already,” perhaps that’s critique enough to say that the poem is political. But if I suggest I used to think about falling in front of a train so my family could live off the insurance money because I just wasn’t earning enough of it the traditional way to keep us afloat—is that political? I’m not so sure. By “political” I assume we mean, to quote the OED, “involved, employed, or interested in politics; that takes a side, promotes, or follows a particular party line in political debate.” I don’t think I’m doing that, or maybe everyone is, to some degree? Oh, I think underneath it all there might be something I’m trying to get to, or at, that I haven’t quite formulated.
Let me try to put it this way. At its root, my impulse to write is more or less physical, a drive to create and give shape and organization to material. That material “happens to be,” for lack of a better verb, language, but it might have been something else. I love to cook and often feel that cooking is, for me, another manifestation of the same impulse. There’s also evidence that I might have been a carpenter in another life. But it’s language that’s the medium I work in. And that medium is, as we know, double-natured—physical, or a thing per se, but also significatory. To fully realize the medium, to use it to its fullest, you can’t leave the signification half out of it. Nonsemantic word paintings might catch one’s eye, but in the end, they would be of limited interest. Not that anything is of unlimited interest. Except, of course, the sea. But I know that my impulse is that of a builder first and foremost, and then that of an expresser.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t care about “content.” Because the content of my poems is taken from, or chosen by, my brain, so I feel pretty close to it. It’s just that my impulse to make it into a poem isn’t political. It’s physical, mechanical. Like a bird that makes another nest, just for the sake of it. If it makes it out of shredded tax forms, is that political? Is this making any sense? Like others, I make my poems out of words. The words are like the clay. The clay is quickened into bricks by thought, memory, imagination, feeling—the work of my brain, which sometimes has to do with politics or things of a political character. Which is probably always informed by political realities, and probably reality itself is political. But the poem is the ziggurat I am given to build.
But all that said, the truth is, the most moving responses to the book, to me, have come from people, including those who tell me they don’t ordinarily read poetry, who say it has helped them to articulate how they have been feeling, that it has made them feel accompanied and spoken for. This has been very gratifying. And also a little surprising. Because I would never have dared let myself hope for that. But I also remember that, when The Cloud Corporation came out, there was a review in a Harvard undergraduate literary review that faulted the book for not offering solutions to the problems it confronted. I suppose it’s my sense that if my poems were products of political engagement in the truest sense, then they would have done that. But I really don’t think poetry or any art has to do that. Then again, I’m not a Harvard undergraduate in 2010. Certainly I think it’s enough to have articulated the confusion, even the futility—to give form to how it feels, how it felt, what it was like, to be a human through the times. But in the end the comment that has meant most to me came from my father, who said after reading my poem “Globus Hystericus” in The Paris Review, “I don’t know what it means, but reading it felt like listening to classical music.”
What scholars inform your work? What writers/artists inform your work?
Almost anything can influence me. What I read, what I listen to, what I watch on television, things my friends say, you name it, whatever produces the excitement. I’m sure you must know the excitement. I write from that. I’m as likely to be influenced by a movie I take my daughters to see (yes I do mean Frozen) as I am by the work of a poet I admire. I’m sure many if not most poets of my generation and younger would probably say the same. Whatever produces the excitement—and it can be provoked by thought content as well as by sheer force of rhetoric or mere sound. So scholars who inform my work don’t necessarily represent those I agree with intellectually. Because I can be a sensationalist. Which is why I am much more at home with myself as a poet than I am when pretending to be a scholar. For example, Camille Paglia. And even Zizek. I find them exciting to read but also, often, crude. I guess I haven’t really followed Paglia but her Sexual Personae with its boldness and love of decadence was a lot of fun to me as a kid.
And come to think of it loudmouthed piggery is probably an important part of the whole Zizek mission. Otherwise, Stanley Fish’s work on Milton has been important to me. Also the work of Agamben, especially his book Stanzas. Deleuze and Guattari, but to be honest I read them too superficially. I dip into their books for the feel of their thinking rather than to read them responsibly cover to cover. Barbara Herrnstein Smith is someone I greatly admire and read properly. I teach a course on the poetics of the elegy at Columbia and I love Peter Sacks’s book on the history of the elegy in English. Marjorie Perloff’s Poetics of Indeterminacy. Is Nietzsche a “scholar”? That’s not what I’d call him. Not Schopenhauer, either. A friend just sent me Sontag’s essay on science fiction and I liked it a lot. Oh, and I think about Elaine Scarry, a lot but not the book on pain. Instead, for me, it’s the one called Dreaming by the Book. I’ll stop there or it will just get more and more boring.
As far as writers go, this time let’s go with Shakespeare, Milton, Ann Radcliffe, Wordsworth, Keats, Matthew Lewis, Poe, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Hopkins, Rimbaud, Woolf, Faulkner, Stevens, Plath, Ashbery, and David Foster Wallace, though I probably haven’t read any one of his books in its entirety except for his first novel which I read twice the summer it came out. That was back when there was time to read. From film, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and David Lynch. Recently I’ve been rewatching bits of Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle on YouTube and listening to the Flume remix of Disclosure’s “You & Me.” Pretty much over and over. I’m also gradually rereading Montaigne in the Florio edition in the reprint recently put out by NYRB Classics with its nice intro from Greenblatt. Also Greenblatt. There’s really no telling what. Oh I also just cracked open Carol Rovane’s The Metaphysics and Ethics of Relativism but I don’t think I’ll have any time to dedicate to it anytime soon. Possibly not till mid May.
Do you believe that art and literature have a responsibility to critique or draw attention to broader cultural shifts and structural changes?
As someone who teaches poetry, what do you encourage developing poets to see as their role in the world?
Important question! Each student is her own person with her own sensibility so I tend not to use the same approach with all of them. First and foremost I try to get a sense of that sensibility and then try to help the poet herself come to know it a bit more fully. To develop it, critique it, complicate it…make it multidimensional. But as a matter of course, there are values and sensitivities that I do try to model generally, not so much in order to instill, which seems too invasive, as to stimulate or revive in all of them. I say “revive” because I believe they’re probably already present, only (often) underutilized. And, before they get to thinking about their role in the world qua poets, I think they should get a feel for the medium, experiment with certain formal techniques, come to appreciate and develop their own builder’s instincts and, as readers, trust in their appreciation for the sound of things, the rhythms, even the look of a poem.
Above all else, they need to come to value how reading or listening to a poem makes them feel, what it does to the limbs and the brainstem when you read it, even a little more than what it “means.” Whenever the bulk of a workshop’s commentary concerns a poem’s meaning and how to make it clearer, I know that something has gone terribly wrong somewhere. At the same time, I do acknowledge “aboutness” as an important component of the poem—it occupies a lot of my time in seminars especially, how meaning is made, what the role of the how in the what is, etc.—I just don’t think of it as the final cause. Which is to admit that I’ve been emphasizing construction in my responses all along in part to balance the scales. To let the record show. Because if one’s objectives are political per se, writing poetry might not be the most efficient or efficacious way to realize them. In the same vein, to get back to your question, turning to poetry to find a role in the world is like checking into a hospital because you think you might want Jello.
But if they’re already dedicated to the art itself, I definitely do try to encourage my students to see how they stand to make significant and legitimate cultural contributions through their writing. How they stand to change the way we see things in this world and how we conceive of our pasts, presents, and futures. And they will do this through the force of what they have built from what they have thought, remembered, imagined, felt. But not from their having merely expressed it.
What are you currently working on? Do you imagine your future work as similarly political or do you see your poetry moving in another direction?
More of the same, it seems. Thank you for asking!
Interview by Susan Quesal.