“A way of working that leads to discovery”: A Conversation with Karen Donovan — curated by Catherine Imbriglio

Karen Donovan’s newest collection of poems, Monad+Monadnock (Wet Cement Press), was published in 2022. Her book Planet Parable (Etruscan Press) appears in the innovative multi-author volume Trio along with complete books by the poets Diane Raptosh and Daneen Wardrop. Her other books of poems are Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients (Persea Books), which won the Lexi Rudnitsky / Editor’s Choice Award, and Fugitive Red (University of Massachusetts Press), which won the Juniper Prize. She is also the author of Aard-vark to Axolotl (Etruscan Press), a collection of tiny stories and essays inspired by the illustrations in a vintage Webster’s dictionary. She has new work in the 2022 anthology Dreaming Awake: New Contemporary Prose Poetry from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. From 1985 to 2005 she co-edited ¶: A Magazine of Paragraphs, a print journal of very short prose. She lives in Rhode Island, way too close to the water.

Catherine Imbriglio: With its very title, your book, Monad + Monadnock, signals an interest in unpredictability, playfulness, and associative thinking. I keep wanting to place an (imaginary) equal sign after the title and ask you how the book’s poems might work to fill out an (imaginary) equation. Could you tell us what the two words stand for, why you chose them, and how they relate to the two epigraphs that begin the book’s two sections?

Karen Donovan: Sure, thanks for asking! I’m so glad you get the vibe of this book. The title is very much meant to suggest an equation, or at least the idea of two quantities added together. It’s all you need, these two quantities, and you have everything. Monad: the concept goes way back to the Pythagoreans, who used it to name the original unity and totality of all things. Gottfried Leibniz made the monad famous in Western philosophy. For Leibniz, monads are the simplest basic substances that make up the world. They are so simple, they can’t be divided into parts, so they have no spatial extension. They are immaterial. Leibniz says the world is full of monads. Monads all the way down, at every scale, unique and indestructible and perfectly synchronized in pre-established harmony. Hold that in your head for a sec. Now, Monadnock: my geological dictionary defines it as “a hill or mountain rising conspicuously above the general level of a peneplain in a temperate climate, representing an isolated remnant in a region that has been largely beveled to its base level.” The monadnock is absolutely material. It’s sticking right up there in front of you, pretty undeniably made of matter. As a poet, I always feel like I am standing between the monad and the monadnock. I buy the unity-of-all-things worldview down to the soles of my feet. At the same time, I am totally and shamelessly in lust with the plurality of the particular and the meaningfulness of that. So which is it? Unity or plurality? Sorry, not choosing. Thus the equation.

The play on words for the title was a sweet opportunity not to be missed. I had the epigraph from Leibniz in my reading notebook for a long time and wanted to use it somewhere, so it fit perfectly. It didn’t take me very long to decide that Emerson’s ode to Mount Monadnock would be the source of the other one. When you add transcendentalism to this mix, you have pretty much my whole predicament.

CI:  When did you first realize that the poems you were writing belonged in a collection?  What kind of decisions went into placing poems into their respective sections?

KD: This book has an interesting history. I wrote many of the poems in the first section years ago, and for a long time I had them stored with some other stuff in a manuscript called “Holophrastics” while I was working on other projects. I thought of them as my short poems and didn’t know what to do about them. A fair number of them got taken by journals, so I sent the manuscript out a bit, but nothing ever came of it. In hindsight, of course, I understand this is because the book wasn’t done. So I turned to other things. I studied plankton. I wrote another batch of poems that also ended up kind of homeless and didn’t know what to do with those either. I wrote and published Aard-vark to Axolotl, my book of illustrated short prose. I pulled together a collection of poems called Planet Parable that was taken by Etruscan Press for a three-book collaboration with two other poets. Then over Labor Day weekend in 2020, I took advantage of four days off work and printed out all my vagrant poems and went at it like a puzzle. After all that time, the manuscript came together in two hours. It was really clear which section each poem belonged in.

I worked with two sections because originally I thought of this as a reversible book. I wanted to split the book in half and have two covers. So one cover would say “Monad” and you would read half the book, and then you would turn the book over and it would say “Monadnock” on the other cover and you would read the second half from that side. When Wet Cement got interested in publishing this book, we had a good conversation about that format. Thoreau Lovell convinced me it was not the best solution for the book, and he was right. I can see now that I was just really into the whole idea of the either/or-ness of my poetic conundrum.

CI:  Many of the poems have references to science or mathematics. Do you have a background in these subjects? If you do, how does it inform your work? What are some advantages and disadvantages of employing scientific or mathematical terms or concepts in a poem?

KD: I love math but am completely untaught. I want to come back next time as a mathematician. They have so much in common with poets. We are all of us about building consistent worlds. Imaginary gardens with real toads in them, as Moore famously said. All poets should watch a mathematician demonstrate proofs and conjectures. The purer the math, the better. They are asking, where can we go? How do we get there from here? The patterning and pathmaking process will thrill your marrows and seem very familiar.

As for science, I am an amateur in the old-fashioned sense, when it used to be called natural philosophy. I was a wild child with my feet in ponds and my hands in dirt. I went to college to study botany and art. But then I discovered philosophy and switched majors. Luckily, my first job was at a textbook publisher in New York that put out excellent science books, and over the next ten years I worked as a freelance editor in that industry. I got free college courses from editing books in biochemistry, chemistry, statistical methods, and so on.

I do use science and math references directly in my work. I don’t see any disadvantages. These are big interests of mine, just like minnows and sparrows, so they get in. A good example in this book is the poem “Aleph Naught,” which is about Georg Cantor and set theory and infinity. In “Hypothesis 6,” there’s a reference to the Chicago pile, the first nuclear chain reaction run secretly by the Manhattan Project in 1942 under the stands at the University of Chicago’s football field (yeah, holy crap). But what I really like to do is use scientific concepts to structure my poems. In my book Your Enzymes Are Calling the Ancients, the form of the first poem, called “Parts List Counted in Ogham,” is modeled on protein synthesis. I was reading about ribosomes at the time and decided to try and make a poem the same way a ribosome makes a protein. It’s not at all visible in the poem and not necessary for a reader to know this. But I find this kind of formal method an exciting and experimental way of working that leads to discovery.

CI: Given your interests in science, mathematics, and philosophy, one might expect your poems to take up serious subjects in a cerebral manner. But this is not the case. Quite the opposite. These poems are characterized by humor and incongruity, by their quirky way of connecting the ordinary and the extraordinary, making them both seem funny as well as unfamiliar. Could you talk about your use of the comedic in your book, beginning with your choice of titles, and moving on to unexpected shifts, reversals, contradictions, and/or ironic substitutions in the body of the poems. What are some of the effects you are hoping for?

KD:  I’m not sure how to answer this except to say that I try to be myself, to sound like myself, in my poems. I can be a serious person, but I don’t think I am very cerebral. I would not describe myself as intellectual, but I do have nerdish tendencies when I get obsessed with things (so plankton, ribosomes, most recently petrology). Maybe I just have a weird sense of humor. And I like to play with tone. I get a little jumpy if it’s been too long before a tone shift. That is a good doorway for comedy and the unexpected.

Let me try to answer you with an example – “Underground Economists in Accord.” This poem has enough tone shifts to wrench anyone’s neck. It starts out quite enthusiastic and chipper and then quickly darkens, narrated by the cheerful and clueless voices of “economists.” Life as a black-market tag sale. A growing sense of nostalgia for what was and is no more. Important items are out of stock but are promised, such as the moon. Insects are a vague memory, but a used thermos is available. The poem ends with a rhymed couplet that knifes the pretense. I wanted that couplet to be the coup de grace. It took me a long time to figure it out. I had the last line first, and when I realized it would be much worse to “cry your eyes blue” instead of red, I got the rhyme. It’s a horrible idea. People laugh in the middle of this poem but not at the end. I get a catch in my throat when I read it out loud. I guess that is the underside of comedy. It sets you up and then yanks away the rug.

Jeez, has this book started to seem like a canister filled with electrons and positrons banging around inside and blowing each other up? Hello there, here’s a box of wasps.

CI:   Could you talk about your process of writing these poems? How did the poem “Now That the World Is No Longer Strange,” with its exquisite blending of the lyric, the comic, and the surreal, evolve? What work do you see this poem doing in relation to other poems in the book?

KD: Thank you for liking this poem. I’m glad you asked about it because I do feel it is core to the book, which is why it’s right at the end of the first section. I love how it operates, but I confess it is a bit of a mystery to me. First of all, this line just came to me – “Now that the world is no longer strange.” So I had to ask myself, then what? What would happen if that were true? Some kind of fundamental shift in reality that requires a whole new geometry? How would you function in such a world? In a way, the speaker becomes strange and the world becomes the measure, which is the opposite of the way we usually think about this. In this world, “I find I need my face no longer” is the right conclusion.

The poem just very simply undercuts the privilege of the speaker to define anything. And the speaker acknowledges this. Once you acknowledge this, what do you say then? That’s why the next poem, which opens section 2, references that Escher drawing “Day and Night.” The world is fine the way it is, thank you. The speaker has to submit. We do, we have to submit. The poem after that, “Bracket the Speaker,” carries this fact forward.

Originally “Now that the world is no longer strange” was the first line of the poem and the title was “Now That.” During editing, I realized it would be best to use the first line as the title. The hands, the birds, the ribbon, the seraph, the rainbows, the flowers, the vipers – these all fell out of the first line in pretty much that order. Like I said, a mystery.

CI:  Are there arguments inside any of these poems?  If so, with, for, or against what?

KD: Oh, yes. You noticed that. Probably nearly every poem is trying to make a case that All Things Are Not As They Should Be. I’ll point to just a few: “Trust Flees a Judge,” “For This Dish It Is Necessary That the Lobsters Be Alive,” “Planetary Gearset,” “Wild Type,” “Not a Conspiracy, Not an Accident,” “Please Get Me My Godling Nebulizer.” I could go on. In fact, I did go on.

CI:  Do you see any of the poems in the collection as taking risks? Do you see your comedic impulses arising from skepticism, awe, or something else? 

KD: From the point of view of me the poet, every poem is risky until it is done. The risk comes in not being able to finish it, to make it correctly so it can get to its feet and walk away intact. We all have a collection of half-made creatures in us that can’t quite get born. You don’t want too many of those. You have to pull them out and blow air into them or you are toast as an artist. I think my comedic impulses, as you put it, come from a general feeling of unease. Yes, the world knocks my socks off. But likewise: All Things Are Not As They Should Be. You can see this problem stated plainly in the last poem in the book, the title poem. I am playing it for laughs with this split persona, but I mean the jokes to hit home.

CI:  How would you characterize the narrators in the poems? What relation do they have to you, the writer?

KD: All my narrators are me and not-me. The ones that are the most ticked-off are mainly me. Also the ones that are the most spellbound.

CI:  Unlike many poets, you don’t have a job in academia. Instead, you’ve been employed for many years in the nonprofit community. How do you balance your writing life with your employment life? 

KD: You know, I was pretty convinced I did not have a vocation as an academic, so that route did not make sense to me. As for balance, I typically fling myself straight into the deep end of whatever I do, so that would have been true however I got my paycheck. As mentioned, I worked as an editor and writer for a long time and have gathered many oddments that are handy for writing poems. All my jobs have been useful. For five years, I wrote reports for an expert in automotive forensics, fire science, and locksmithing (see the pin tumbler in “Look, That’s a Xebec on the Horizon”). For ten years, I wrote case studies in engineering design (note all the manufacturing language in “Story of an Origin”). Hell, sometimes all you have to do is go to the laundromat (“For One Crazy-Ass Minute Anyway”). I guess what I’m saying is that, for the art anyhow, it doesn’t matter what your job is. It matters what you do with what is shown to you.

CI: I know you are working on a new project, which involves rocks.  Could you talk about how you envision your project so far?  What kinds of research are involved? How far along is the manuscript?

KD: My rock book! I am very excited about this. During the pandemic I collected a ton of rocks during my daily walk to a nearby beach. As the piles mounted in my basement, I decided to justify the insanity by collaborating with my rocks on a book. It’s called “Letters to Boulders.” It’s somewhat of a pseudo-memoir and manifesto. It includes 45 prose-ish pieces, each of which features a photo of an individual rock and an accompanying definition from the American Geological Institute’s Dictionary of Geological Terms 3e. The research has involved much delicious reading, listening to geology podcasts, walking amid the magnificent glacial boulders in a local state park, and feeling the planet. I am essentially teaching myself Geology 101. My rock book has turned out to have a cast of thousands because I am also collaborating with two professors of geology at the University of Rhode Island, who have asked their students to identify each rock in the collection and write up lab notes for each specimen. So their classwork will be included in “Letters to Boulders” as an appendix. I’ll give you a quick taste: the first piece in the book is called “splendent luster.” The essential equation lives.

Now That the World Is No Longer Strange

I hang up by their laces my punch-drunk hands.
I hang them up and leave them swinging

against the wall like shadows,
like hands pretending to be birds.

Now that the world is no longer strange
I scroll my limbs into two dimensions

and become the ribbon and a traveler
who takes the ribbon.

I set my foot on the ribbon.
The world rises before me,

a stone seraph weeping and sniggering.
The tears are real, everything is real.

I give the stone my face to dissolve
the way gasoline contorts and colors and streams

rainbows in gutters.
I find I need my face no longer.

The flowers are real, the vipers are real.
Creation is singing.