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.”