blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1


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A Conversation with Matt Donovan
Recorded September 19, 2008

David Wojahn: Matt, who are the people you go back to as models, inspirations?

Matt Donovan: You mean both contemporary and writers of the past? I am constantly going back to particular writers, I feel, for particular things that I am still learning from, and that I draw pleasure from, in terms of writing. A contemporary writer would be Linda Bierds—I return to her poems in terms of seeking to understand how she’s working with these biographies and how she’s employing history. She works with a kind of compression that I really envy and that I feel like I could really learn from. Even if I am not always able to emulate that, it’s something I am very conscious of and wanting to tap into. Someone like Albert Goldbarth becomes a model for me in terms of how he is employing that juggling act and how something that can seem so trivial, or incidental, or kitschy, can suddenly, in his hands, become amazingly profound. But I would be turning to him for particular reasons. I feel that there are a number of writers that I turn to—rather than their entire work, that there are certain books that I am turning to over and over again in terms of contemporary writers.

So for me, a book like Hass’s Praise is incredibly important, Susan Mitchell’s Rapture, Jorie Graham’s Erosion are books I go back to over and over again. There are a number of books by Mark Doty where it’s the same thing, rather than, again, the entire work. And there are particular poems where I will be in the course of writing a poem and I’ll think, I need to go back and look at this gesture in the Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare and how is it that he’s dealing with that moment where Hermione is coming back to life and what is it that I might be able to do with that and how is the form and lyricism rendered there? I think Keats is a writer that I would turn to again and again. I am teaching a Shakespeare class now—there is nothing I would rather teach than Shakespeare—and it’s even in some of the least loved plays that I still get really worked up and excited about what I am finding there. Wordsworth’s The Prelude is incredibly important to me and I return to that over and over again.

Gregory Donovan: There are a number of people in this room who are working on taking individual poems and turning them into books. And last night, after the reading, you were talking a little bit about the process that you went through in creating this book. Did you have in mind something thematic overall from the beginning or did you take individual poems and discover in them thematic connections?

MD: Definitely both. I think there was a point in which I started to understand what the project and thesis might be for Vellum and I started to find ways the poems were speaking to each other—began to cohere—in which there started to become a dialogue between the pieces. And then, at the same time, a great bulk of the book was generated by perusing whatever topic was at hand and trying to render the poem, and that led to finding a place for that piece in the book. Projects often can be paralyzing for me and I can easily choke when I lock into something that I feel will be a more expansive sequence, whatever it might be.

So it is something that I am wary of, that the poems can be redundant in books if the project becomes too cohesive and too locked into stone. A lot of it grew out of what my passions and interests might be. For me, one of the real pleasures of developing this book was learning about myself and my own ideas about whatever subject matter had caught my interest as I developed the poems. So a lot of them were biographies, historical events, that somehow seized my imagination, and yet the imagination was working far ahead of me and it was only through the course of revision, and even through the course of finding its placement in the book, that I started to understand what these works were about for me.

GD: Well, that same kind of organization and discovery must go on especially in your longer poems, when even within an individual poem you’re dealing with a complex and unfolding development of subjects—so that in “Towards the Sound of a Heron Stepping on Ice,” you’ve created a poem that draws on Isadora Duncan, and Jackson Pollock, and Edward Muybridge and a whole series of artists and photographers. What I am interested in, regarding that poem, is a similar kind of question. Did you make a thematic discovery as you went along, or is that just the sequence of things you were stumbling upon as you created it, or did you go back and forth? How did you come up with that sequence?

MD: That poem is really important to me in the book, as you probably knew just given its placement in the book. That poem is one of the pieces where suddenly it was this cathartic rush that seemed to come out of nowhere—where suddenly all of these different narratives were beginning to pull together. Some of them had been culled from failed poems, some of them were suddenly occurring to me and I was racing off to the library to do research on them as they occurred to me. But that poem, even though it was one of the pieces I worked hardest on in the book and was the most time-consuming, also was very steady in how it began to cohere and how these pieces began to come together. It was late in the game in terms of the development of Vellum, and so I feel like that cathartic rush was perhaps earned, and that was a period of time where—I’ve never had this before or since—but I was suddenly working on that seven, eight hours a day. I don’t think I had ever been able to sustain that kind of writing before.

I actually broke my wrist writing that poem. I had been working for several hours, I suddenly, I think I was in the shower, I suddenly understood something I needed to do with that poem. I came racing back in; I sat on the back of a chair and fell over as I was writing it and literally broke my wrist writing that poem, which I was pretty incredulous at, and it was embarrassing. The other reason why that poem is placed where it is in the book is, given the nature of some of the narratives I am exploring there, given the some of the discussions of art and human nature that come up in the course of the book, when I ended on that gesture of that woman in the Muybridge photograph kneeling to the chair . . .

GD: Where she claps her hands in prayer. Is it mock prayer to you? How did you feel about that? Because I am interested in what you were thinking as you were including that.

MD: I wanted to end on some kind of restorative, redemptive gesture. I would not have said that in the early stages of the book—I would not have said that was what I was going for—but when I started to engage with that last image, that for me became very important. It’s not even intended as prayer by her. She is doing what she has been told to do by Muybridge, this is her instruction, and she actually thinks it’s rather ridiculous, is my understanding of that image. And yet there is something of singular grace and beauty in that moment that I found incredibly moving—that I was drawn to. Given some of the ways in which I am probing the uses and the efficacies of art, it was important to me to end with something that did gesture toward the restorative, the redemptive, and a kind of accidental prayer.

GD: I think all of us, as we are writing poems and books of poems, are making discoveries all along the way—and you talked last night about the generation of the title itself—but that poem that ends the book is about a person who studies bodies in motion, and then, ultimately, Vellum is about the arresting of a body in motion, the turning of an animal’s skin into paper. So, inevitably all of that is about the act of making art and about being an artist, as well as the kind of sacrifices that others make, that even animals must make, and the sacrifices that the artist must make. Was that all occurring to you as you were planning it or were they discoveries that you were making as you were going along?

MD: I think some of those were links I was making as I was going along. The idea of Vellum came to me during the course of taking a class in grad school that was about medieval manuscripts. It was called “Picturing Poetry,” and I was studying the medieval illustrations of Dante’s poems. What seized me before anything else in that class was this idea of the painstaking process with which this slaughter takes place and with which these pages, that are the vessels for these images of beauty and violence, takes place. You have these animals that are bred for this particular purpose, you have these tools that are used for this particular purpose. You have the painstaking scraping, the methodical scraping of the animals’ skins. They are soaked in lime water. And you move from that gesture of violence to a page of absolute beauty, and often what is rendered on that page, in terms of the medieval manuscripts, is the martyrdom of a saint, and you are returned to another image of violence. So, it is that movement between violence and beauty that I gradually came to in terms of the central signifier and theme and thesis of the book. But that also was something that was, again, gradually understood on my part.

GD: You mentioned that originally the title of the book, at least for a little while, was St. Catherine in an O?

MD: When I submitted the book—it was five years of submitting the book through various competitions, receiving the rejections, feeling like it was a kind of spin of the roulette wheel, that there would be times that I would be a finalist for a prize and the next year be nowhere in the running—the book went though, poem by poem, line by line revisions, sequential revisions, poems were taken out and then put back in. By definition, the nature of the book, and thus the title of the book, was changing. When I submitted it to Mark Doty it was called Instrumental Gods and he wrote back a note of congratulations saying that I had won the prize and in his next line, saying that he found that title serviceable at best. Thus ended that title. That was, for me, one of the incredible struggles of finalizing this collection, trying to come up with that encapsulating idea, and that became paralyzing to me as well.

The book in its very first version was called The Keeper of Hands. It was called Instrumental Gods. It was called St. Catherine in an O, and I was told that would be complicated simply in trying to describe what it was that title even referred to. Vellum in some ways serves the same purpose without that complication of just articulating “in an O” as a title. Those practical considerations of titling were not things I’d ever had to consider before, so I felt like there were variables that had never been brought forward to me that I suddenly was having to contend with.

GD: I really identify with the fact that you’ve said you are still struggling with the idea that you have titled your book Vellum. Do you ever have moments, even now, when you look at a poem and say, “Gee, I wish I had changed that one thing, or I’m still wondering if I couldn’t go back to that earlier version?” And how do you know when you are finished?

MD: There’s a great story by a teacher that I had as an undergrad, where he met Elizabeth Bishop late in her life and was so excited to meet her, and he handed her a copy of her collected works and asked her to sign it—and she turned it to page 72 and changed a word, excised a word, and then signed it and said, “There.” So I don’t know if you know when a poem is fully done. There certainly are moments when I am reading a poem that has already appeared in print, or is in the book, or I might read at a reading, where you realize how it could still be developed. You realize how a gesture might be rarefied. At some point you have to let it go as well. At some point the poem needs to be done. But we continue to develop and change as writers all the time. If you think about some of Auden’s revisions where he is going back and revisiting some of those poems . . . but it’s not always for the best. 

GD: I think the only person I ever witnessed who, I think, continuously, and fairly, handled his earlier work, and revised it accurately in the spirit of the earlier work, was Yeats. When he went back to his early work he did not try to remake it into what he was now doing, but a better version of what he had been trying to do back then. But that is rare.

DW: A good example is Donald Justice, who, in every edition of that very small number of poems he published, he’d make little changes and they were always changes for the best. It’s really interesting to look at his selecteds, his collecteds, his original poems. The poems are very different in every one of them in little and subtle ways. That’s the good thing, rather than Wordsworth rewriting the poems so they reflect Tory values.

MD: There’s the other great example, his radically changing his philosophy in those late revisions of The Prelude.

DW: I have another question that pertains to a lot of the people who are working on their thesis projects right now: How did the book—could you say a little about the process of how it morphed from a thesis to a book?

MD: I know I was sending my thesis out prematurely to the book competitions. I think those rejections are important to receive as a writer, because the bulk of at least what I receive back in the mail, are rejections. I think rejection is part of being a writer, and I think it is important to contend with that, but I know I was sending it out too early. What was important about receiving those rejections, too, is it forced me to go back and revisit what I thought was solid as a collection. It forced me to reconsider particular poems and it forced me to do line-by-line evaluations of what I thought had begun to solidify. I think those last revisions can be so vital, even for things like learning that you have certain tics as a writer. Learning that I use the word “latch” over and over again, and that that word needs to be banished altogether from my lexicon. As I began to pursue new subject matter, certain poems that I thought belonged fell by the wayside and new poems were brought in. I had three poems that were brought into the collection even after the book had been accepted by Mark Doty as well. When I was in grad school, I took one semester of a workshop with Phillip Levine. His advice to us was . . . he said, “if I could just boil down my advice to young writers into one word,” and you think “uh oh,” but his advice was: “patience.”

And I think he is right to say that. I think it is also not an easy thing to say as well. It is difficult, and expensive, and time-consuming to be assembling these manuscripts and sending them out to the competitions. For better or worse, it is the venue for us first-book poets, more or less. But I think he is right to say that good work will eventually get through. And what is implicit in that one word for me, too, is this idea of being able to take a step back, being able to have real self-evaluation, and being able to assess the poems at hand. And then, what maybe is not implicit in that one word, too, is the need for tenacity, the need for self-drive and discipline, and keeping at it despite whatever feedback or arbitrary proximities you are getting to getting the book published as well.

DW: You know that famous thing Auden said—that more poets fail from lack of character than lack of talent. And I think that is very true.

Audience: What is the relationship for you between teaching and writing? How do they work against each other, how do they spur each other on?

MD: It is a complicated question. One thing I am afforded in teaching both creative writing and literature is time to spend with work that I love. As maddening and time-consuming as teaching can be, when, in fact, I get to go home and prep work towards teaching King Lear the next day, that is an exhilarating experience. That is an easy thing to say now, right here. But when I am able to take a step back from it, I feel so privileged. That is what will inevitably feed into my work and serve me as a writer—to go back and study those texts.

In terms of creative writing classes, I am so inspired by the students that I encounter, at their best, at the undergraduate level where I teach. There are students who are wildly talented, I feel—way beyond where I was as an undergraduate—and so that, for me, is incredibly inspirational to encounter. Not only raw talent but a sense of tenacity, a drive to work, and a real sense of discipline and commitment, and that is really important for me to see, too. And then, of course, it is that dialogue, it’s that dynamic, and that community in the workshop classroom, when it is working at its best, where I am learning about my own process, my own work as a writer, as we are discussing whatever it is that’s before us on the page. And that fluid exchange of ideas about craft, about strategies for a poem, all of that is constantly fuelling me, at its best, as a writer, too. I won’t mention things like committee work and other distractions that do at times derail the creative process, but, at its best, I feel as if that’s how it’s serving me.

Audience: I have a question about your relationship to Larry Levis. Was there a time when his work, when he, first began to be an influence in your work and your life?

MD: Immediately, immediately upon reading him—and I do not think there is any other writer I have felt that way about. Someone said to me years ago—and it was before I went to grad school, I think it was during the course of applying to grad school—you need to read Larry Levis. And I went to the bookstore and I found Larry Levis’s work and I immediately felt an engagement, an affinity, with his process, with his lines, with his emotional risk. I immediately felt that in terms of contemporary poetry that Levis could, and does, set the bar for what great writing might be.

I felt an intimacy of tone there—I don’t mean that to sound in any way sentimental—but I did feel this intimacy of tone, of speaking, that immediately seized me. I can vividly remember standing there in the bookstore and just cracking open that spine and arbitrarily reading whatever first poem it was and feeling that engagement, feeling as if someone was directly whispering into my ear, and being rattled by that and thrilled by that. As I said last night, he is a writer I am constantly still learning from, and returning to, and coming to terms with, especially in those late elegies, all the time. And I find him always fascinating, always rewarding, for me.

DW: I think something that Larry’s work shares with your work—and it’s also, I think, a tough thing to do, if you are writing poems which are based on art work, historical incidents, biography—is that it’s possible for a writer to sound like a museum docent when you’re working with those materials, but there is never any sense of pretension, or— to use that Republican word— elitism when he writes those poems up.

I remember years ago, he came to a creative writing class that I was teaching at Arkansas and we had been reading Frank O’Hara and some people asked him what he thought of the poem, “The Day Lady Died,” which I think is one of the great American elegies, but Larry hated it. And he said, “You know, I don’t care about somebody going to get Gauloises, I don’t care about somebody going to get a bottle of Strega. You didn’t get those things in Parlier, California.” And it was just a real sense that Levis deeply appreciated the fact that there shouldn’t be any division between high art and low art, even among poets who say they practice a campy art that is very close to popular culture. But I don’t think he saw it that way.

MD: That’s interesting. When I read that poem I don’t care about that figure who is going to buy the Gauloises, but I do care about what that says about human evasions of grief, where it is all about the distraction, and the reluctance to get to that last line and that moment of contending with death. But that is a really interesting take on that poem by Levis. And in terms of the ecphrastic tradition of his, too—in terms of him not having pretensions—there isn’t this sense of “let us worship this great art for the fact that it is great art,” of course. It is always coming back to those paintings, say, a Caravaggio painting, in terms of what it might say about human creation and human intention. How it might reveal something about the self. In finding, for instance, his friend’s face in that painting of Goliath.

And then you get to this sense of Levis and the ecphrastic, of his willingness to springboard off the work and to transcend the inevitable silence of that piece. To engage with a narrative that is entirely of his making, and then—it always is deeply satisfying for me to takes those journeys with him—and then he still will come back to the ways in which the silence of the piece is inevitable and can only reveal the human up to a point. At the end of his great poem about the Koudelka photographs, it ends with “he turned into paper,” and we are left with the moment of Keats trying to approach the urn and that idea of silence. We have these different strategies that we can find our way into these things, and then we have the inevitable ways in which we are shut out of them, and every time it is a kind of singular journey through that engagement or lack thereof.

GD: One of the poems in your book perhaps has that kind of Frank O’Hara-esque “reality show” connection  [“Licking the El Greco”], so I’m going to ask you a kind reality show question—did you actually have a friend who licked an El Greco?

MD: I did, yes. In Toledo, Ohio—security was lax at that museum. The moment I started thinking back to that narrative—I was at the Met, at an El Greco show there, and to see that painting, transferred from the museum in Ohio to the New York Met, and to know that painting had been licked by my friend back in Ohio—that’s when I started to think again about the proximity between the human and art. But that tale is true. I do often make up a lot of the personal in my poems—I feel like I can take liberties with what is actual—but you can go too far with that, too. However, in that particular case it’s a true story, for better or worse.

GD: One of the things that happens in your book is that when you offer certain kinds of ecphrastic poems, and you combine them together with elements from your own life (or that seem to be from your life, as you just mentioned), they are enlarged, and they become, to a certain extent, poems about being an artist and about the making of art.

MD: The entire book for me is, in many ways, about this meditation on art. While it wasn’t simply a conscious way of contending with some of the ideas of the Romantics, with the idea of the artist as prophet, and as priest, as a kind of god, at the end of the day that is a lot of what I am—not reworking, not even quibbling with—but I am certainly exploring, at times, a darker side to that idea as well. There is a wonderful moment in Wordsworth’s Prelude, where in Book One, the solitary figure (solitary, as always), skates out on this pond and his blades slide across the image of a star. It only takes place in about four lines, but it is this incredibly beautiful moment, and by implication, then, we have this idea of the human as the divine.

In the course of The Prelude that particular individual is going to grow up, of course, to be the artist, the poet, the prophet. But I think one of the things that I am concerned with in my book, is this idea that here you have a human figure, gliding among the stars, playing in the constellations, with the self-conscious awareness that there are divine powers, that this human being is a god, and he has a blade. And what are the other possibilities of what he is going to do with that blade? Hence the mediation on the knife in the St. Catherine poem—that blade can be used for the slide guitar and that blade can be used for chopping off a hand. And it’s all about what we choose to do with our tools and our hands, and how the artist might be implicated in all of that in our acts of creation.

GD: My own teacher John Gardner wrote a book, On Moral Fiction—which was widely and willfully misunderstood—which raised some of these issues. What you’re bringing up is that in your contemplation of the act of making art, you are accommodating not only the ideas of how such creation can be an affirmation, but also its dangers, its risks, its responsibilities.

MD: Yes, and the potential, or inevitable, complicity of the artist in all of these things, too. If the last poem of the book ends with a meditation that suggests a kind of redemption through the artist, in proximity to that, in terms of the various narratives that are being juggled there, there is also the artist, the performance artist, who is mentioned there anecdotally, who begins by just walking out naked in the field as a form of art and then turns to genocide. And that is something that all of us need to bear in mind, too. It is not as simple as believing that through the acts of the imagination we achieve the level of the divine, through these great acts of creation. It is potentially that, it’s potentially creative, but it is not always as simple as that, as history bears out.  

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