Interview with Timothy Donnelly
Ann van Buren: I’m interested one of the quotes in your poems “objects are more like events with longevity”. Can you tell us more about that?
Timothy Donnelly: I believe that was paraphrased from Carlo Rovelli’s book, The Order of Time. He’s an Italian theoretical physicist…and philosopher, really. I read that while I was up in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I had a couple of week’s residency up at the T.S. Eliot house in Gloucester. While there I read that Carlo Rovelli book and a couple of other books and inevitably bits and pieces influenced and folded into what I was working on at the time. It was interesting. I grew up in Rhode Island, a very small state that’s quite densely populated, but I spent a lot of time, as I remember it, by myself in the woods. Usually I depend on a certain amount of solitude to feel at home with myself. And when I arrived at the Eliot house, which has something like eight bedrooms, they said, “Ok, so you’re going to be here for a couple of weeks, but what we haven’t told you is that you’re going to be here by yourself the entire time.” And I was like, “Not a problem!” It’s a huge place; you probably could fit my apartment in the hallway on the second floor. It’s a massive hallway. My wingspan—my armspan—was smaller than the width of the hallway, or that’s how I remember it. It was like a dream to live there. I was there in very early April, maybe late March through early April, and it was still very cold. There were snows happening up there maybe about 5 out of the 14 days. And I was able to sleep beside roaring fires and just be in my head, and be in this beautifully restored home, which was very special. So yes, some of that poem comes from that time and that Rovelli quote, which captured my attention, resonated with me in the trancelike, time-confused feeling of being alone in the Eliot house reading Four Quartets and Murder in the Cathedral by his boyhood fireplace. The line you quote comes from a poem called “All Through the War,” (The Problem of the Many, p.15) which is in Paisley Rekdal’s new edition of Best American Poetry (2020). I just got my copies a few days ago.
Ann van Buren: Congratulations!
Timothy Donnelly: I’m happy about that. So that poem recounts a lot of the events of the first half of the year 2018, which until 2020 I thought was the worst year I’d ever lived through. Hardest, you know. But this year, of course, has also been so…challenging.
Ann van Buren: A bit challenging, I think it’s safe to say. But I had another question about “All Through the War.” It reads like an X-ray of the structure of things. You connect endless American wars in foreign lands to chemo as an approach to cancer, and you capture the relentlessness of both, as well as the sense of futility. How do the complex structures of your poems reveal themselves to you? How do you pull together such diverse topics? I was really appreciative of that poem, all your poetry, because you connect, you permit us to connect, what’s happening in our personal lives to the political. As an order of business in America, you’re not supposed to do that. And you’re really doing it.
Timothy Donnelly: That’s great to hear, thank you for saying that. As a poet I do what my gut tells me to do but I’m never quite sure as to how it comes across, and sometimes I’m not even completely sure why my mind moves where it does or the way it does but I trust it. You just know that’s the way your mind works, and that’s what your sensibility is asking of you, or demanding of you. The way that that poem unfolds is very close to the way I think when I go on a walk and watch one thought pass the baton to another as I find correspondences or linkages between relatively or superficially disparate anecdotes, events, asides, all that day debris. I think there are poems in The Cloud Corporation that do that too. “All Through The War” and “The Rumored Existence of Other People” (The Cloud Corporation, p.66) have similar DNA, a similar cataloguing structure. But in “All Through the War”, I just felt I wanted to be able to process— through the writing— a lot of the stuff that had been happening, or if not process at least document. Beginning with the basic insight that while all of those things were happening in my personal life— the loss of people, my father’s health, struggles with my daughter, and other worries about my own health—at the same time the country was at war. And it’s so easy to forget that we have been at war for such a long time. It’s insane how that’s kept so far in the background in some lives, and crowded out by a lot of other legitimate concerns that we have as individuals, but also by a lot of nonsense that’s going on in our lives, and a lot of distractions that we have to struggle with given our current administration. And it’s no accident, I think, that that stuff is kept out of the news cycle. So I wanted to make a poem that kept remembering what was happening globally, even as those that I loved were struggling, or even dying, in the foreground of my life.
Ann van Buren: The connection you make between politics and the Western approach to healing really interested me. With chemo, the attitude is that you wipe everything out, you kill it. We’re going to go in and kill everything, the same way that the wars try to destroy every remnant of culture in these countries that have such ancient histories.
Timothy Donnelly: At some point, I remember reading about all the destruction of undiscovered artifacts, undiscovered masterpieces, from Assyrian and Babylonian and other Mesopotamian cultures. Of course the loss of life in first and foremost, but this destruction of so much of the past as well as the present with our bombings on Baghdad, and the deliberate vandalization of Assyrian art by ISIS, was just heartbreaking to me to see. I’ve always loved ancient history and mythology and the classics. To be honest I think all kids, really all humans are born with this almost inherent responsiveness in Egyptian art—pyramids, hieroglyphics, mummies, sarcophagi— there’s just something about it, one of humanity’s earliest cultures, that people are still so drawn to. Greco-Roman stuff has also been exciting to me too, but I’ve grown to really love Assyrian reliefs. The beautiful reliefs at the Brooklyn Museum, for example. Just outside the Egyptian Hall, there’s this long hall of these amazing reliefs with the jinn, you know, the genies, holding their pinecones and their little pails of pollen. They would go around pollinating the palms and fruit trees and that was their way of representing the magic of pollination. I think there must have been some understanding that bees and other insects did it, but they also had their magisterial genies. I love that. The love lines of that work, and the detail, and the sort of stylization, at least according to our, you know, modernity’s more naturalistic perspective. So the idea that there is all that destruction happening, destruction of something that lasted so long, I don’t know. It seemed vulgar to me, it seemed tragic to me. But it also seemed so typical of the way we live now. So mindless of the deep past. Maybe the distant future is just as inconceivable to us, so we don’t think about that either. At least we don’t act mindfully towards it. I guess it’s easy for us to say that we don’t act with a mindfulness towards what the planet might look like centuries from now. I can’t say that people used to act like that millennia ago, that they were thinking about what their descendants would live like. I know that’s part of certain Native American cultures, the idea of seven generations, and I think it’s sometimes specifically linked to the Iroquois, but I don’t know how much of that is accurate and how much of that is Seventh Generation’s marketing. We’re at a point where we treat everything around us like it’s just a resource and even our awareness of this like it’s a resource. The mindlessness of our production and consumption and destruction— you know what?— it’s agonizing. You can change your own life and you can try to become more responsible, but you know that for as many people there are who are agonized over this aspect of our reality, there are it seems at least 100 people who couldn’t care less.
Ann van Buren: Yet you end that poem by saying, “Some days I know the strongest feeling is grief, but I believe it must be love. It has to be, has to be, has to. Some days I feel each cell in my body has it’s fingers crossed”. I love that metaphor.
Timothy Donnelly: One particular rhetorical device—a subset of metaphor—that I’m particularly drawn to, is catachresis. Etymologically it means “wrong use” or “misuse.” Usually it’s a metaphor that is clamorous or obstreperous and it draws attention to its own figuration, one that they often point to is…let me see, “to take arms against a sea of troubles.” Or maybe, from Hamlet, something like “ I will speak daggers to her.” Both metaphors conjure absurdities; they have a kind of wrongness to them, which I guess Aristotle says is true of all metaphor, but even more so with catachresis. They seem like they aren’t quite metaphors, really, if you’re thinking in terms of utility—like shedding light on the unknown or the unfamiliar by way of the familiar—and to capture some aspect of a difficult-to-grasp reality by presenting it in terms of something more tangible or graspable. That’s what metaphor is if you’re thinking mainly in terms of utility. Of course, we can also use metaphor to complicate things or to shed a different light on ideas or truths that we want to present or incorporate into the work or even just for beauty’s sake. With catachresis, it’s a figure that goes too far, and obscures what it would pretend to illuminate. I became really interested in this. The poets that I really respond to like Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, incorporate lots of these figures in their work. The poem “The Cut” by Sylvia Plath, for example, is almost like one catachrestic moment after another, in which she’s describing just a cut on the finger and her treatment of it with Redcoats, turkey wattles, the hat of KKK member, all these intense metaphors that travel far away from the local cut and the bandage on it. I like that— the extravagance, the abandon of poetry, of catachresis, and how it can, despite its wrongness, capture something true about psychic extremity and pain (she’s bleeding, after all). So I mentioned catachresis in that poem, and at the end when I say that each cell in my body has it’s fingers crossed, I know that as a figure it’s nonsensical—each cell can’t also have its own fingers.
Ann van Buren: Although it’s reminiscent of DNA, too.
Timothy Donnelly: I do agree. But there’s something about that figure that’s a bit outlandish, even grotesque. I wanted to capture some of the impossibility or the absurdity of the hope by using a figure that had that kind of impossibility built into it. And I think I say in that poem what’s wrong with it is right, and the mistakes of catachresis, the mistakes of degree or intensity or even category, incorporate into the figure some of its inconceivability. And so the inconceivability of hope or things being better get to be incorporated into that state of mind that is serving its own sort of hopefulness, do you know what I mean? So you can both hope, but know that it’s irrational. That’s the word, irrational. There’s an irrationality to catachresis that I want to be able to embrace. It’s sort of like saying, “I know it’s foolish, but I still believe”.
Ann van Buren: Well, I saw that there is belief throughout. And I think it’s pretty important that you maintain that. Do you think that hope might be synonymous with imagination?
Timothy Donnelly: Yes, I do. That’s a great question and a great way to present it. When you say hope— and knowing that you’re in New England— it makes me remember that “Hope” is the state motto of Rhode Island. I grew up knowing that our emblem was the anchor and our motto was “Hope.” The anchor has always been an emblem of hope and finding harbor, and finding a place of security, fixity, in the chaos of the world and of experience. And I think hope and imagination do have a lot in common. Imagination, maybe, can operate on its own terms and dance around in a nonexistent forest, but I think when it becomes most alive is when it confronts reality. I think Shelley talks about that to a good measure, and Wallace Stevens, who is really the poet whose work I will always be affected by most completely, discusses the role of imagination in daily life in his own writing, and says that imagination has to remain wed to reality in order to really stay at its strongest, its most hale. When it detaches from reality it just becomes fantastical and attenuated. It actually weakens and becomes feckless or toothless and possibly toxic. Yeah, I think that the relationship of hope and imagination is quite powerful in my lived experience, because I think of imagination as being the way we orient ourselves towards reality, a way of holding onto it, knowing that our own perception, our own mechanisms of perception, including memory, are always at play in our experience of the world, always playing a role in shaping it, and so too our imagination, which is like memory’s BFF. When we engage with reality in a way that is life-affirming, or progress-oriented, our pleasure seeking in a non-pejorative or destructive way, it is a kind of hope. A belief that this is good. That life is good. That what we do is valuable and valid. So I do think that hope and imagination are very close.
Ann van Buren: I’ve been relying on imagination a lot these days.
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, you know I’m teaching a course that I taught before in a number of different ways. It’s sort of a foundational class in poetics, and I don’t dress it up any, I want to keep it very straightforward. But I’m teaching it very differently than I ever taught it. We meant to spend three weeks working in what I’m calling “the basement” of poetics, the hidden wherefore of it all, but it’s extended now into a sixth week, just looking at “Why write” and what people have done in the past in order to make themselves feel that this pursuit was valid, and also to think about different ways of going about it. We started with William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, which I was drawn to at this time, because he wrote that in times of crisis, or in the wake of crisis, after the avian flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920. We grew up hearing about that in just a sentence or a blip within a sentence “Oh yeah, there was a big flu pandemic after the first World War.” But when you look at it, an estimated 50 to 100 million people died globally. After the first World War, 50 to 100 million. I can’t even— that’s a huge— what do you call that, a window? There’s a huge variance there, but either way, an unfathomable number of people died everywhere. And it just must have been unbelievably dark, to think about how expendable human life was. Or how fragile. Or how precarious. And T.S. Eliot had it, he and his wife had the flu, and they lived through it; they recovered. He was writing The Waste Land around that time. And I wanted to think about what it meant to live through something like that, and to live through it as a poet who wanted to create, something with that global impact, because we hadn’t really seen that. I hadn’t seen that in my lifetime. Well a couple of times we did see things here in this country that seemed to really change our running idea of humanity as a whole or on a very wide scale. I remember as a kid, Mt. St. Helens seemed enormous, Chernobyl seemed enormous. Reagan’s attempted assassination, the Challenger explosion. Maybe when I was very young I remember the Two Mile Island situation, was it Three Mile Island?
Ann van Buren: Three Mile.
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, there’s something hugely impactful that’s not just about, you know, a grocery store caught fire, but there’s something that’s really impacting enormous numbers of people, maybe everybody on the planet and so being in touch with that sometimes gives you another angle on what it is we’re doing here. Maybe something might come from this pandemic experience that could change the way that we conduct our lives.
Ann van Buren: I don’t know where the statistics are now, because I think since people have been ordering so much from Amazon that there’s also been an increase in plastic, the packaging. We just have to stop, but people won’t stop on their own I don’t think.
Timothy Donnelly: No, people won’t stop on their own. Nor will people ever be able to see how their little individual life choices could possibly add up to something that would be disastrous. And I don’t even blame people individually. I blame us all for their lack of imagination, because it would be imagination that would get us to conceive of how one person’s mindlessness might grow exponentially greater when you think of entire populations as having that same kind of mindlessness, or selfishness, or whatever you want to call it. But you would hope that imagination would help people to come to the conclusion that, oh if I do this grubby little thing and I feel it’s my privilege and my right then everyone on the planet has the same right and privilege and they will do it too and then we’re screwed. Before you know it the entire thing will be covered in bits of plastic and large chunks of it, because everyone thought it was within their right to live their lives of great freedom of choice and there were people manufacturing whatever it takes to satisfy whatever needs people come up with if it means that they might gain a profit from it. It’s terrifying, but I don’t know that we’ve set it up any differently. I don’t know that we haven’t gotten rid of every other way of looking at the world that disables one’s sense that the individual is necessarily something that needs to be gratified and indulged rather than the needs of community, or the idea that the distant future needs to be protected. It’s something as far from our grasp as the whole of the planet, or invisible aspects of the planet, like the ozone layer, or gut flora—hyperobjects, to use Timothy Morton’s term. Humans have trouble managing their belief in things they can’t experience firsthand.
Ann van Buren: Speaking of people, I want to ask you about the one and the many. Your most recent book is called The Problem of the Many. But even in your first book, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, you write, “We are not alone, all the world is here”. That’s from “The Spleen’s Own Music” (p.52). Can you talk a little bit about the struggle between the individual and the alienation of being an individual, that fear of being subsumed by the whole, versus understanding the necessity of being part of the whole: this interplay of loneliness and defiance?
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, that’s exactly how I experience it; I don’t know if I can really say more about it than that. That was beautifully eloquent to me and I’m flattered that you could extract that from that old poem. It’s definitely present in that one, “Purgatory Chasm,” and it’s true that one is part of the suite of poems I call The Spleen’s Own Music, but really that was just a gallery-like organizational conceit I came up with and didn’t take too seriously. That was a bit inspired by my memory of a place in Middletown, Rhode Island. But I guess every state has its Purgatory Chasm. I think at one point when they were naming things, if ever there was an earthly chasm, people thought of Purgatory. But yeah, that observation is very apt, and that’s something I experience daily in my own being in the world. I wouldn’t say I’m reclusive, but I do have a habit of retreating into my own thoughts or feelings, or not retreating but starting there and staying there until midday. It’s not a choice really. I think I’m probably pretty deeply introverted. Retreating into my own imaginative space, reflecting on my own experiences, reading, thinking…solitariness is something that I require and that I am often most comfortable with. But I also know that being among others is crucial to human existence, and of course a source of great pleasure, ideally. Yes, you can feel at times swallowed by the crowd, and I feel that is certainly part of living in New York. I feel like I’m not quite answering the question because you really put your finger on it. I feel like it’s one of those facts of my life that, as much as eating or sleep, it’s just how I live. Trying to figure out the balance of retreating into my own solitude but also becoming part of different collectives from the family to the extended family, to—
Ann van Buren: The literary world, the university.
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah the literary world, the university. This city, about which I have grown so ambivalent. The idea of human. You know, the idea of the human becomes a little more abstracted when I think about becoming part of the collective. I think it has governed some of the choices I’ve made locally, regarding you know, not eating beef at all anymore. Or ordering from places very sparingly. Or trying to make ecologically minded decisions to the best of my ability. It seems to be what’s right, not just for humans. This is kind of where I’ve been at for a few years; I am tired of the idea of the human as what I would place value on above all other things at all times. I try to entertain the possibility of the human as just one aspect of the planet and at times the aspect that needs most to be put in its place. Although, sure, I like to think we were created to reflect consciously on the rest of the planet. Some poets have at times asserted that the point of the human is to become the conscious part of the planet— I think sometimes people go so far as to say the solar system or the universe— that the distinctively human trait is one that can be self-reflecting, or that can reflect upon the natural world and speak it forth in language. Almost like all the eyes of a scallop. We’re like that. We’re the part of reality that can reflect upon what it is that is in the world and maybe sometimes document it. Maybe like the scribes. Maybe that’s what’s distinct. Like Rilke in the Duino Elegies. It’s not like animals don’t see the world, or don’t live in it, and don’t experience it sensually. But we’re the part that both experiences it sensually and documents it. We document what it’s like. And anticipate our death. I like the idea of us being the amanuenses of the planet. But obviously I don’t know that that’s something we’re all the way in touch with. Looking at just the United States, I don’t think that the way of life that we’ve put together is at all in touch with the idea that there might be something sacred to our place here, in that respect. You know? No one’s going to make a profit from that.
Ann van Buren: From documentation?
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, if people thought their own lives held some sort of elevated role, that we had a sacred task on the planet, one to appreciate it and protect it and to document it and to just, not necessarily document it— I say that because I‘m a writer— but just to be in the world mindfully and custodially and to be that part of the world that reflects back on itself and sees itself and celebrates itself.
Ann van Buren: I think a lot of people are trying to live that way. I know that I’ve been trying to live that way for a long time. Permaculture, the ideas of permaculture, and that we’re living in closed systems where one thing affects another.
Timothy Donnelly: I think that there are people but I think it would be crazy to say that a lot of people are. I don’t know that these ideas have reached vast numbers of Americans, or really made impacts on them. And I don’t say this snobbishly whatsoever. I truly believe that there are many obstacles that prevent getting that idea across. Someone profits from keeping us from that wisdom, that happiness. And there are so many other counter-notions, counter belief systems. The ideas of certain kinds of liberty, personal liberty that this would seem to push back against or compromise. Freedom to eat a cow and spray my field with Roundup, I just don’t know how…well, you know what I’m saying.
Ann van Buren: I know what you’re saying and it’s going be very hard to go in a different direction because,when you are practicing these environmentally aware ways of life, it’s still just a drop in the bucket. Like when, at the beginning of the pandemic, we expanded our garden tremendously, using the permaculture model. We dragged logs from the forest and added seaweed and other detritus to fill the beds. We did get about 30 acorn squash, and lots of stuff. We didn’t have to shop for vegetables for months. But there’s winter coming, and then there’s protein. It’s really, really hard to survive just on your own. So I know that it’s just a fantasy that I’m doing anything.
Timothy Donnelly: Well that’s imagination then, and that’s hope. The idea that these kinds of local changes, obviously you know this, if everyone were to undertake them, it would make a significant difference. And it has to start with a few people at the outset, and then hopefully it will catch on. I don’t know that, but even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t completely right and beautiful. A beautiful principle according to which to conduct one’s life. I was raised Catholic, and I feel the role that religion played, or can play in a life— of course religion has justified or even provoked lots of terrible things in the past— at times gave people a sense of their own value and a sense of there being some way to conduct a life that was in consonance with rightness and with meaningfulness. I feel that the basic American lifestyle doesn’t really provide that. Or it provides a very distorted sense of what rightness looks like. Or what Americanness might be. Or life.
Ann van Buren: There seem to be two approaches to religion. Right now I’m studying something called the “Sacred Ground Curriculum.” It’s a way of coming to terms with how Christians mistreated Native Americans and it also addresses the enslavement of African American people. It’s trying to raise awareness among people who just can’t see that there’s institutional racism. It’s very intense. What I’ve noticed is that sometimes, when you’re listening to the scripture, the conqueror in the Judeo-Christian religion takes over. Then there’s this other notion that we must celebrate life, and God’s gifts and a more positive view. But there’s an awful lot of conflict and destruction.
Timothy Donnelly: Sure. And we tell ourselves—and we’re not wrong to do so— that there’s a difference between the belief system, and the set of capacities and values it can impart, and the way it’s played out in reality, if you know what I mean. There’s the church and then there’s the Church, and to be honest, I learned that in what we called catechism but was really CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine).
With the Church that is the institution there’s a kind of almost corporate mindset at a certain level, which seems to be at some point almost a human inevitability. Even with institutions that should really be the most sacred or the most pure, nonetheless, they end up corrupt. Which seems to be an intrinsic part of this human project that we’ve always been on, a lack of proportion that takes others down. But within the beliefs and within the tenets, and within the art, there’s always been— if not very explicitly, at least hidden in the corners— something that is very beautiful. Something that is life-embracing, life-affirming, pleasure-seeking and inclusive. Something that is certainly not interested in making the kinds of tedious taxonomies that put things into hierarchies and categories and seek above all monetary profit in order to gratify the individual. Difference is a big question. I don’t want to say that we shouldn’t be aware of differences and consider them; it’s that we shouldn’t see differences as speaking to intrinsic value or significance when it’s really just about quiddities, character, about particular whatness and not about inherent betterness or worseness.
Ann van Buren: Well there’s that question again; is it one or is it many? It’s the American dilemma. Are we the melting pot or are we the mixed salad?
Timothy Donnelly: Totally, I think about that completely. E Pluribus Unum. That’s something that was very much on my mind. When I first encountered Peter Unger’s phrase, “the problem of the many,” it stopped me in my tracks. Even though I know it must have a very specific philosophical significance, it immediately suggested a number of different things, some of which spoke to my own habitual sense of being separate from the rest of the world, sure. A separateness I at times embraced, but other times I knew to be something that I’m more aware of because of my own neurological situation, my own difference. About which, well, there was a time when I was suffering from something called Ménière’s Syndrome. It’s a condition where you lose a lot of your balance and a significant amount of your hearing and also you have tinnitus. I ended up having significant dizzy spells, and at one point I fell, at Penn Station. I was going to school in New Jersey at the time. And I came back and I just fell to the ground. So I knew I had to have it looked into, because it was very serious at that point; you can’t fall down at Penn Station. And they gave me a lot of tests and they concluded that Ménière’s Syndrome was a likely diagnosis. But it’s one of those things that they diagnose by ruling out other things, because it really is about the chemical composition of the cochlea, the fluids in the inner ear, an imbalance there, and they can’t just syphon off a little of that and test it. So to rule out other things, I had an afternoon of different kinds of tests with wires hooked up to my head. And in the end, I went back to see the results, and they said these two things are consistent with Ménière’s Syndrome, but you tested really irregularly in everything that we did, so we’re concerned that there’s really something significantly wrong. And I was later told that it could have been a lesion on my brain stem or a tumor so I had to get an MRI and a CAT Scan and other tests to make sure that there wasn’t anything going on there, and there wasn’t, knock wood. And when I went back to the ENT they said you just have a very idiosyncratic way of processing sense data, and what happens in your head when you experience things isn’t what happens in most human heads. You’re wired differently. Which I came later to understand was sort of a prolix description of what a sensory processing disorder looks like, and that’s a condition that, I guess in kids sometimes it becomes mistakable for something like a spectrum disorder. But it’s not quite that, because it’s not really an affective disorder. It’s a question of how your brain handles sensory input. And it turns out I’m very sensitive to things, even things I shouldn’t be, or I wish I weren’t sensitive to. The feeling of a tag on a shirt or something like that doesn’t go away, or the sound— like the hubbub on the subway— doesn’t fall into the background for me, it just stays right up in front. Things like that. I suppose some positives that come from it are a type of responsiveness to stuff, which can be at times great, if it’s a delicious meal or a sunset or even a turn of phrase or the scent of a flower that will make me excited enough to cry. But it’s just this sense of apartness in that, because I know that I’m not reacting the way that is normal, and even people who love me have taunted me for it. So you learn early on a kind of self-consciousness that sees yourself as being not really part of the regular. And that doesn’t really go away, it becomes routinely re-inscribed. To a smaller extent in time because you get to choose who you surround yourself with, to some extent—like Dickinson says, “The soul selects her own society.” So you can choose to be around people who are a little bit more in keeping with your own way of being in the world, or at least tolerant of yours. But it just becomes part of your own ongoing mechanism. I think that a need for solitude is probably consistent among poets, it probably prevails. It makes that level of reflection upon experience—often even as you’re having it— part of what makes a poet a poet, I think, Or what makes a poet choose to make something of their experiences, rather than just completely be in it and find that enough. Or, but not necessarily always, there’s a scrim between you and experience. It’s just this idea that you reflect upon it even as you’re having it. I think that’s maybe part of what makes a poet a poet, but that’s different from what I mean. What I mean is really that I’m over-excitable and need to rest.
Ann van Buren: I can relate! I spent most of my childhood in a tree!
Timothy Donnelly: I spent most of my childhood in a tree too, at least figuratively, and I have a poem called “In His Tree” in the The Cloud Corporation. I used to love climbing trees and I love feeling that I’m in the sky. I love the sky, you know. That’s one of the reasons why I love this particular apartment that we’re living in now. You know, 13 windows and I just never lived in a place where I spent so much time feeling in the air. I just love the air, and obviously clouds. I love the sky, and I love the air, and I love the wind, and I love clouds. Otherwise I don’t know.
Ann van Buren: Well, it’s beautiful. When I was in Brooklyn I lived right over the train. The whole building was shaking and slanted from the subway. We could hear them saying “The G/G will be delayed” and the “ding dong” of the doors closing. But you’re near the train too.
Timothy Donnelly: I mean there’s the train now, you can hear it. I think when I first moved here I was enchanted by the idea of being able to see the train. I think we all were in my family. It seemed so entrancing and like you were close to the circulatory system of the city—it’s elevated here. And I do love it when it takes that curve, I can see it right now taking that wide curve into Park Slope. And there’s something I love about that, and I love silver. And at night from bed we can see at our footboard the headlights and taillights on the BQE in the distance. And the way that sort of frames the space and extends it, gives definition to it because you can see how far the space expands. And I do like that, because it becomes kind of a horizon, it is the horizon, really. The BQE is our horizon, and it gives definition to how distant we can see, so I like that. But the noise, I don’t know, and we certainly do feel shaking; it’s gentle, but unmistakable. Especially if you’re lying in bed, you can feel a little shaking that happens.
Ann van Buren: When you’re talking about the curve I think you’re hearing the music of the sight.
Timothy Donnelly: I believe in that. There’s a philosopher whose work I like so much. An aesthetician, Susanne Langer, and she talks about stuff like that a good deal. I mean she’s passed away, she’s from last century. But those sort of correspondences between sight and sound and feeling, and how different shapes can create different kinds of feeling. And that movement from one kind or one tone to another is experienced as a kind of change that we feel bodily, somatically. She talks about how that can happen in poems, too. She talks a little bit about “April is the cruelest month,” and then that “breeding lilacs out of the dead land” and stuff about roots and how that becomes physical instantiations of the initial propositional statement. The movement from the discursive and propositional into the representational language or visually-oriented language, allows us to sort of glide from one kind of mental activity into another, and that movement— again from the propositional and into the representational— is experienced as a quasi-bodily movement with its own affective value, a kind of bodily change. Which is why key changes do something to us emotionally. Poetry can affect us that way too. A way that is similar to music. And this is following her notion that musicality of poetry can pertain to its interplay of propositional and representational language, akin to making a statement that then finds its medium of realization in sensuous imagery. She says that that’s the more interesting kind of notion of musicality and poetry— rather than the consonance, assonance, and rhyme—stuff like that. That’s got its place; but the deepest thing about what poetry’s music does to us is the way that it affects our feelings through change.
Ann van Buren: Well, we’ve been talking for a while, but I did want to circle back to a question about the poem “The Stars Down to Earth” (The Problem of the Many, p.7) where you wrote “The froth is white like wool. The froth is white like thought / that catches in the hedge or the barbed-wire fence…” I noticed hearing the words “fraught” and “caught” emerge from “catch” and “froth”, like an overtone in music. I loved the imagined sound that you worked into the poem. And I wondered if you think that nature can be fraught, or if that characteristic is reserved for the human mind. I wondered if you had read The Hidden Life of Trees where the author posits that trees have feelings, and what your thoughts are on this question.
Timothy Donnelly: I haven’t read The Hidden Life of Trees. I may very well have a copy, because it’s a book that I’m aware of, but I haven’t had a chance to read. A lot of people, a lot of my friends who I admire have mentioned this book to me. That particular poem, “The Stars Down to Earth”, is a poem that I wrote, again, while in Gloucester, Massachusetts and wrote while, in my mind, looking at the sea and also back in T.S. Eliot’s house while remembering the sea. But I also wrote it, or partly prepared to write it, while spending time in Ireland, which is where the wool comes from. I mean, there’s not a lot of sheep and wool in Gloucester that I saw. But that’s where that comes from, Ireland. I love Ireland, and love above all County Kerry. I’m half Irish; my father’s family comes from Ireland. And I love it there. Honestly, if I could be anywhere it would be there. I mean, I am somewhere. But if I could choose, I would be in Ireland. I mentioned the poem, “All Through The War”, and how my father was having surgery and I went to Ireland on my own. That was biographical, and I did spend a couple of weeks, maybe less than that, maybe 10 days, in Ireland by myself. Largely in the Southwest, County Kerry. And much of it in a town called Portmagee, which is right across from an island called Valentia Island. Maybe I divided my time equally between the two places. Regardless, I would walk by a lot of barbed wire, you know, for penning sheep in their pastures, and I would oftentimes see little snags of wool caught in the barbed wire. And somehow the way that that looked had a similarity to clouds, and it had a similarity to thoughts getting snagged, and sort of recurring, and not going away. It sort of corresponds in some way. But I think the only word of those you mention that actually occurs in the poem is “thought”; I write “catch” but not “caught,” so that’s close, and I agree the overall feeling is fraught, so I’m glad you came away with that word on your mind. But, whether or not I think that nature—it’s a great question—can itself be fraught the way that our thoughts can be fraught, or the way that our human interaction can be, is that the way to put it? Well, I think that nature can have the dynamic that we’d interpret as being held in a kind of tension, a violence even before it gets bloody— we’ve all seen lions stalk their prey and it’s a weirdly scary, menacing performance. I’m trying to think of other words that would maybe go with fraught. I think this particular kind of dynamic can be found in the natural world for sure, but I don’t think it’s about meaning or human anxiety; it’s more physical. It’s a clash of force, a tension followed by a clash that we as humans tend to impart a kind of emotional or other kinds of significance to. I don’t think it’s necessarily meaningful in the natural world, the fraughtness. I don’t think it indicates anything other than the way things are. It freaks me out to think that things in nature might be worried about their relationships, like the rocks of a dolmen or atoms bonded in a molecule. What if every atom became exasperated and gave up? But we as humans do tend to abstract from or impose a certain kind of concept onto what we encounter because that’s what we do. That’s the way we are.
Ann van Buren: But do you think it’s ok to do that, or is it what John Ruskin called “pathetic fallacy”?
Timothy Donnelly: I think that, invariably, humans are always imposing our own perspective onto the world around us. That, I believe, is an ineluctable aspect of perception. Maybe it doesn’t have to be written so large, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t sort of exaggerate it in art partly in order to draw attention to the mechanism of it, which is always ongoing. We necessarily interpret the world from our own perspective, and see consonances between interior states and exterior ones. If we are to believe that that’s necessarily a statement of truth, or that our own perspective is sort of all there is, that’s problematic and illogical. But an acknowledgement of the fact that we’re always playing and active imaginative role in our perception of the world around us is, I think, a healthy relationship to being in the world, and can get us to maybe realize the provisional component that’s always part of our world view, rather than being some sort of essential claim about the way things truly are. But as far as art goes, I think that to take some of those basic mechanisms or conditions that are part of being human on the planet, and to exaggerate them or to deploy them towards some other kind of expressive end, I think that that’s what we do. I don’t feel that that’s seriously problematic. We take this human condition and we willfully distort or shade it a little bit differently in order to look at it from another angle. “The Stars Down to Earth” is one of those poems that started— and a number of poems start this way for me— when I saw the title of an essay by Theodore Adorno by that name. And when I read that title I was like, “Amazing phrase!” And I couldn’t put an end to the way I was reacting to that phrase. So I thought I would write a poem called that, even before I’d read the essay. And that’s also what happened with “The Problem of the Many”. I read the essay, the Adorno essay, and it was pretty much an exposé of astrology, for starters. It looked at some of the horoscopes that were printed in the papers in Los Angeles at the time— in the 50’s I think—and—very interestingly— it exposed astrology, or approached astrology, as a sort of hokum even while saying that people’s reliance, or interest in popular astrology was their way of dealing with this nagging sense that there are forces at play in their lives, socially constructed and invisible forces, over which we cannot exert any control. That there are material conditions of existence that people have not chosen and can’t seem to govern, but in fact govern them. And so rather than looking at, you know, systems of power and distribution of wealth and resources, they imagine that it’s so out of their hands it’s in the stars. And so this kind of keeps people on this more or less complacent track, believing that that’s what is determining their life, that which they cannot see because it’s in boardrooms or whatever it might be, or just everywhere, encoded in our culture. They imagine that it’s in the stars when actually, no, it’s in capitalism. But people project it onto the stars and resign themselves to it. I don’t know that that’s really what I do in that poem, but increasingly as I get older— and maybe it mostly with The Cloud Corporation— it wasn’t so much a part of my first book— but I do like, or find useful, this notion that some of the obstacles or some of the facts of our existence which seem to be just what’s in front of us, just the way things are, are part of a broad system of decisions, and interests, and passions that precede us and will continue after us, that we don’t see immediately but are embedded in the history of every object around us. You know?
There was a time when I was trying to figure out what to write, or open to relearning how I might go about writing a poem. There was a time I just looked around the room I was in, and it occurred to me that everything around me had been made by someone else. Or made as a result of someone else’s decision to make it. Whether it be a book that was written by someone and produced by someone other than myself, or maybe even the shelving that was around me, or the pieces of furniture, the walls themselves, the floor. Suddenly I just thought there was a whole population of people, present here by proxy, by virtue of what they had made, by the force of their labor. And we obviously can’t be mindful of that at all given times, or for any length of time, but the crowd of hands that surrounds us invisibly, at least in a historical way, it’s baffling. And I thought, well of course you can’t really think about that as sentient entities trudging forward in time and through our lives, but we are, even in our most solitary moments, among others. In the many. By dint of their being, these material histories are part of everything that surrounds us. I guess these little histories don’t really matter all that much. But when you stop to think about them, I think they should kind of matter a little bit more than they do. I think if they did matter, if the invisible pasts of things that we have around us, or the facts of our lives were more present to us, maybe the idea of the future and what comes after us would be something that we’re able to entertain a little bit more. If we were a little more mindful of this, it might govern some of the decisions that we make.
Ann van Buren: I think it’s a beautiful way of looking at things. I’m not going to show you what’s on the other side of my room. But I love the history of objects.
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, me too, me too. And I think that poems can accommodate and model the appreciation of these objects and their histories, can bring them to life. And there’s a poem in The Problem of the Many that I wrote, about vanilla. I just love vanilla. So I wrote a poem called “Hymn to Edmond Albius” (p.101). I think as a kid maybe I didn’t really think of vanilla as a flavor; it felt like a default condition, you know what I mean? Like even, some of us would think that, being from Rhode Island, where we love coffee milk— we’d drink coffee milk, like, constantly— when we went to get the milk at school during lunch the coffee would immediately go. Some part of us thought that unflavored milk must be vanilla, because vanilla was this condition of plainness. We oftentimes still use it that way, like “plain vanilla.” But as I got older I came to really love the profound taste of good vanilla. Real vanilla. The flavor is so complicated; it’s so magical; it tastes like grace, or wisdom. You learn early on in life, I think, that vanilla comes from an orchid and— What?— you can’t believe that this is from a flower. I learned about the history of vanilla and came to find out that propagation of vanilla—to create this seed pod— was something that would happen in the wild in Mexico—where vanilla originally came from— because it was being pollinated by wasps. But then they tried to grow vanilla in different places, Madagascar of course, and they weren’t able to get it to seed, because the pollinators weren’t there.
Ann van Buren: They needed the Assyrians with the little brooms!
Timothy Donnelly: Oh my god, yeah it’s the same thing. You’re absolutely right. These invisible industries. I didn’t even think about that! That’s exactly what they ended up doing. And it was really an enslaved boy born in Réunion—which was a French colony, a little island off the coast of Madagascar—who figured out how to pollinate vanilla. But he was a slave, and his labor wasn’t his own, and so it became stolen from the inside. This happened in the 1820s or 30s, before France had outlawed slavery. So I wanted to write a poem that was about vanilla, but it was really about its history, which is always hidden in it but we can bring to life. All the vanilla that we have now is in some way owed to Edmond Albius. Maybe someone else would have figured it out, but historically, he’s the human, his was the intelligence, who figured out how to cultivate vanilla outside of its birthplace.
Ann van Buren: What an amazing story—that an enslaved black person pretty much invented vanilla as we know it today. Especially considering the metaphor of vanilla today.
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, and his name is Albius. Which is like white, albus, Alba, albino. And he was 12 years old.
Ann van Buren: That’s so cool!
Timothy Donnelly: I know.
Ann van Buren: Alright, I have one more question. I was wondering where you collect your images of water, and do you share the geographical influence of Joyce, Homer, Reznikoff, who else?
Timothy Donnelly: Well yeah, you’re right. You know Rhode Island is the Ocean State and growing up all of our day trips would be towards the Atlantic. Since the pandemic, the only reasons I’ve gotten on the subway in, what is, what has it been? 8 months?
Ann van Buren: Something like that, since the pandemic began.
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, the only reason I’m willing to put myself on a subway is water. So we went to the beach down on Coney Island. Then we went to Far Rockaway, and then one other time I went to Central Park. And at Central Park the thing that I wanted most to see was the reservoir and also the fountain. Seeing Bethesda Fountain at that time was very moving. But I don’t know, it’s just what I love. I love to see the sea, I love to go down to Valentino Pier.
Ann van Buren: In Red Hook, Brooklyn?
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah, it’s really great. I really love it and again, there’s unquestionably a human presence there, there’s no doubt that humans built the houses, or the warehouses, or the other things that are around you. But there’s not a preponderance of actual humans, so it’s easier for me to deal with. There’s this pier that extends right out into the harbor. I don’t know how many meters long it is. But when you’re there at the very end of it you do feel that you’re surrounded by the harbor and that you can almost touch the Statue of Liberty. But the smell of the sea, the swimming in the ocean vs. swimming in a pool is just something, on a very basic level, I feel strongly connected to. Personally— I think maybe ancestrally— I feel very connected to it. To the Atlantic specifically. I don’t quite have the same sense of rapturous connection to the Pacific. Although I admire the Pacific, I do feel like it’s the Atlantic that has some claim on me. Yeah, it’s not the other way around. I don’t feel I have a claim on it. I feel like I belong to the water, to the ocean. But I would say that the other thing about it is looking at waves and looking at light as it’s reflected on waves, is something that is extremely calming for me. I feel like it’s a little bit like the visual equivalent to white noise. But actually it does sometimes kind of feel like Baroque music, it feels kind of like Bach. A little bit the way that there’s this complicated interplay of all the facets of the surface of the sea and the light that’s bouncing off of them. You don’t worry about what it means, it just is what it is. But to see it is so delightful and sort of vaguely life-embracing and affirming that it’s just calming for me. There’s this condition that Coleridge talks about, not like a mental condition, but like a situation of art that he extols, or says that humans always respond to with pleasure or in a positive way. And it’s called “multeity in unity.” It’s the idea of seeing many-ness, harmonized, this idea of little individual components of something being part of a vaster whole, and operating to make their little contribution to the larger picture. To feel that and to feel in touch with that can be very gratifying. I believe that to be true. I like looking at bare branches interlaced as they move in the wind. That sort of that movement. You know the branches are part of the larger tree, but they still have their individuality through which they interplay, in a way that to me is both stable and dizzying, anchored but also very dynamic in that it’s always moving around, always in flux. That particular combination of things, not stasis, but security and stability with variation and—what would you call it?— vitality. You know, I like to bear witness to that. I think that on some level, I know that my poems can become overmuch. I know that there’s a lot of rhythm and a lot of words and a lot of textures happening. And maybe an excess. But I think on some level it is kind of, I can’t call my own work exuberant, but I do feel an exuberance even in my darkest moods or mindsets that is in some way trying to participate in that energy, or to correspond to that energy that excites me so much about being in the world. Do you know what I mean?
Ann van Buren: I do. And I think you succeed.
Timothy Donnelly: Thank you! Thank you. Snowfall, starry skies. These things where a lot of little things make up a big thing. Speckled stuff. Hopkins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, when he talks about pied beauty, I get that completely. He’s a huge poet, a huge influence on me, someone whose work I love, whose fierce vision and spirit I love. And he’s buried in Ireland, buried in Glasnevin Cemetery outside of Dublin. In a mass grave. A mass Jesuit grave. And I took a rock from it. A loose and not very beautiful little rock from the soil above his grave.
Ann van Buren: Wow. Talk about the history of things.
Timothy Donnelly will be reading his poetry, on Zoom, as part of the Katonah Poetry Series at 4PM on November 15th, 2020. Information on how to access the reading can be found here.