“Built a Fire, Did a Little Magic”: A Micro-(inter)-view with Timothy Donnelly – curated by Lisa Olstein

Timothy Donnelly is the author of The Problem of the Many (Wave Books, 2019), The Cloud Corporation (Wave Books, 2010), which won the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (Grove, 2003). His chapbook Hymn to Life was recently published by Factory Hollow Press and with John Ashbery and Geoffrey G. O’Brien he is the co-author of Three Poets published by Minus A Press in 2012. He is a recipient of The Paris Review’s Bernard F. Conners Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award as well as fellowships from the New York State Writers Institute and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He is Director of Poetry in the Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and lives in Brooklyn with his family.

Lisa Olstein:  What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Timothy Donnelly:  I can’t really narrow it down because the oldest poem in the book, “Lycopodium Obscurum,” was written way back in October 2011, while the most recent, “The Human,” was written just a few months ago, and a lot changed over the course of those seven and a half years. That said, and I hadn’t realized this until now, those two poems do have something in common—both are concerned with the question of how to live, or how to keep living, despite everything that’s wrong with the anthroposphere, which is a lot. In the end, I think that might be a meaningful way to articulate the most essential question or obsession behind the whole book, which is a question I’ve asked myself, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember.

LO:   “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

TD:  For me, once I’ve figured out the poem’s basic structure, primarily the standard length of the line and the stanzaic shape, thought’s off to the races. The focus can then shift to propelling the language forward with maximal complexity and interest once those basic regulations are determined. This is what dactyclic hexameter did for Homer, or blank verse did for Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth and so forth. As any Catholic knows, regulation heats up the devilment, and compels you to invent. That said, The Problem of the Many doesn’t depart too much what I’ve done before in terms of form, although I think it pushes it further, and moreover, as I wrote the poems in it I become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the way pattern can establish as a field of relation, imbuing a sense of significant interconnectedness between otherwise random or unrelated elements. Weaving disparate elements into a unity felt somewhat more urgent than before, at times even quasi-mystical. This encouraged me to drag seemingly peripheral or forgotten historical detail into the foreground in many of the poems, an interest that may have started towards the end of my previous book, The Cloud Corporation, but it really took off with my poem “Hymn to Life,” whose catalog of extinctions toggled with other simultaneous phenomena, called for months of research.

LO:  What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

TD:  The overlap between myself and the “I” of the book changes from poem to poem, sometimes even within a poem, from almost exactly me to not quite me, from someone else entirely to no one in particular. In some poems there’s no “I” at all, while elsewhere the voice is that of a collective. While I don’t want to wholly avoid or deny my self, it is the work of liberation from that self, or from the historical unit who is just now answering this question, that might be the shadow motivation of many of the poems—the imagining of a way not only through, but kind of out of, or beyond—if not by way of absorption into the many, then through annihilation, or ecstasy. Tandem to the question of how to live is that of how to prepare not to.

LO:  Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

TD:  I think there are only a handful of poems or parts of poems that are directed towards specific auditors, which include the first living cell on earth, Diet Mountain Dew, Monsanto as a team of corporate demons, lichen I tore from a megalith in Ireland, and the spirit of Lucie Brock-Broido, who died about a year before I finished the book and to whom the book is dedicated. Otherwise, the poems are pretty much just addressed to the air.

LO:  What felt riskiest to you about this work?

TD:  This is an interesting question, and I have been giving it a lot of thought. I have considered that there might be four basic categories of risk in poetry, each having to do with either content or with form as it relates either to the writing of the poem or to its reception, but mapping it out scholastically came to feel a little  fussy, and also frivolous when I know too well that there are poets who are verbally attacked for the bold content of their poems. That’s what risk looks like to me—putting yourself, for some good reason, in a position of possible harm. When people are shamed on social media or in person for what they believe in and write about, I couldn’t possibly say that I, too, am a risk-taker because, in our era of dwindling attention spans, I dare to write in long sentences.

LO:  How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

TD:  This is an enormous question, and I worry that there’s no succinct way for me to answer it that wouldn’t leave me feeling inauthentic or pretentious. I will say, though, that if writing the book loosened my previously held belief that aesthetics and ethics should be considered discontinuous, I remain a little leery of the thought of an ethics informed by aesthetics, which is to say ideas of the good shaped by those of the beautiful. This has a potentially hedonistic or, worse, fascistic vibe to it. That said, turning it around, it feels like I have come to value aesthetically the sort of suprasensory beauty in what I consider ethical practices—mindfulness, care, generosity and so forth, not only in poems but in life. I could feel this development, or this attunement, which actually might just be a function of becoming a parent and growing older, stirring mostly as I wrote, again, “Hymn to Life,” which functioned as a prolonged mediation on continuity and interconnectedness, as did many of the poems I wrote in the wake of it. To give thought to an idea is one thing, but to mediate on something for months can truly change the way the brain works.

LO:  What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

TD:  The music varies fairly widely throughout the collection, but on the whole, nothing matters more.

LO:  As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

TD:  I knew from the start that I wanted the book to have a broad, elastic sense of time, wanted it to reach from the origins of life on earth to its eventual end and back again, and more or less nonchalantly, or with ease, but meaningfully. Developing a sense of belonging to the past, the deep past, a very remote kind of humanity, can feel like looking up into a clear night sky to see the stars—that sense of smallness in the “immense scheme of things,” a feeling that used to terrify me as a kid, can now come as a relief, and has made me feel a grounded sense of participation in the welfare of all life.

LO:  How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture?

TD:  A few weeks after Lucie’s death last year, I spent ten days largely in solitude in the beautiful massive T. S. Eliot House in Gloucester, Mass., and late one night, I built a fire, did a little magic, and on the long oak dining table I laid out all the poems I had at that point written toward the book, and I arranged them in a sequence that felt right to me, and I developed a clearer and clearer sense of what remained to be done, which was a lot actually, and I spent the next year doing it.

LO:  What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm?

TD:  In addition to my family and friends, meaningful company was provided by the music of Beach House, mostly their last three albums, which I listened to more or less constantly as I wrote much of the book. The song “Sky Ghosts” by The Depreciation Guild became important to me toward the end, too, and I will never stop listening to “Just Be Good to Me” by the S.O.S. Band. I’ve been obsessed with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis my whole life, and the long intro to “Just Be Good to Me,” the way the elements interknit and soar, is sheer sublimity. Also Cupid & Psyche 85 by Scritti Politti all over again, then PJ Harvey, the Cocteau Twins, a lot of St. Vincent, shoegaze, certain Kanye West. All of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, much of Timothy Morton, the enormity of vision and overall gravitas of Jorie Graham and Claudia Rankine. The poem “My Name” by Mark Strand, which is a perfect poem. Countless horror movies and documentaries. On television, Twin Peaks: The Return, especially Episode 8, all of Mr. Robot, much of Game of Thrones. Guiltily: The Dead Files and Ancient Aliens. The antiquities wings of all the museums I ever visit and the amazing Chaos and Awe exhibit at the Frist Museum in Nashville. Each in its time: Diet Mountain Dew, NyQuil, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. California cabernet. Donnie Darko and Prometheus and Interstellar. The Oculus designed by Santiago Calatrava. Pinecones, acorns, lapis lazuli. Flocks of birds and fields of flowers, grasses, grain. Always all of Ireland, specifically County Kerry, specifically Valentia Island. Bridges, lighthouses. Snowfall, rain. And always the sea and the sky—sunny, starry, cloudy, and everything in between.

LO:  How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

TD:  I wrote one last poem in May and tinkered with the book through the end of that month. I have a very hard time relinquishing or feeling done with things and I even tried to make a few last edits that the press couldn’t accommodate because it was already off to the printer. In short, I haven’t really shifted out of the creative space of the book and probably won’t until I hold a finished copy of it in my hands, which fortunately should come to pass any day now. And then I’ll let it go and start something new.