Radical Brevity: A Conversation with Patrick Donnelly About Poetry & Translation — curated by Naoko Fujimoto

Patrick Donnelly is the author of five books of poetry, Willow Hammer (Four Way Books, spring 2025), Little-Known Operas (Four Way Books, 2019), Jesus Said (a chapbook from Orison Books, 2017), Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin (Four Way Books, 2012, a Lambda Literary Award finalist), and The Charge (Ausable Press, 2003, since 2009 part of Copper Canyon Press). Donnelly is director of the Poetry Seminar at The Frost Place, Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, NH, now a center for poetry and the arts. With his spouse Stephen D. Miller, Donnelly translates classical Japanese poetry and drama. The translations in The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period (Cornell East Asia Series, 2013) were awarded the 2015-2016 Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.

Naoko Fujimoto: I struck up an acquaintance with Donnelly after ​my good friend, Angela Narciso Torres, introduced him. Donnelly is director of The Frost Place Poetry Seminar, where Angela taught last summer. She shared one of his handouts by Jin’ichi Konishi, who was a Japanese scholar researching sequences of Japanese classical-era poetry anthologies.

Here is the article by Konishi:

Association and Progression: Principles of Integration in Anthologies and Sequences of Japanese Court Poetry, A.D. 900-1350 by Jin’ichi Konishi Translated and Adapted by Robert H. Brower  

The Japanese were passionate anthologizers, assembling hundreds of private and imperially-sponsored anthologies, some of which contained thousands of waka, the 31-syllable form that was primary in Japanese poetics for a millennium and half. Konishi showed that the thematically-organized “books” within classical-era Japanese poetry anthologies were carefully built to suggest the passage of time through the seasons and phases of day and night, as well as through progression of human affairs, including love affairs and spiritual journeys.

Donnelly led a discussion about “the poetic sequence,” defined as a deliberate and considered grouping and ordering of poems, with a history going back centuries. He demonstrated that most poetic sequences are built using strategies of association (how the heart/mind moves organically from one feeling/thought to another, and another, etc.) and progression (the potential for both individual poems and poem sequences to take a journey, to move beyond—in some cases very far beyond—whatever was the initial position, gesture, or prompt).

I was so excited when I found out about this discussion, because Donnelly used translated materials that may be foreign to the majority of American writers, especially young students, and introduced those materials to explore strategies that could be of immediate use in their own writing.

Could you tell us how you see your students progress, after you introduce ideas and examples of how poetic sequences may be made? I also believe that studying translation develops our writing skills. Could you share two things that you were glad to learn from translation?

Patrick Donnelly:

The Frost Place Poetry Seminar is an annual online conference held over 4+ days, so in the natural order of things I wouldn’t necessarily get to see how participants take up the writing tools we offer. Our participants vary widely in age, undergrads to seniors, and experience, from beginners to poets having published multiple books. However, as I work with many of our participants privately between conferences, I do see them progress in strength and skill, often going on to publish their work. My particular goal is to help poets write what they’re afraid to speak about.

Translating Japanese poetry and drama with Stephen D. Miller has been very important to me since we began in 2004. It’s a different but related activity I can turn to, if for whatever reason I’m out of sorts with my own poems. It refreshes me and sends me back to my own poems with strategies that wouldn’t have occurred to me. For instance, the radical brevity of most Japanese poetry has challenged me to see how short I can go. And the brilliant organization and ordering of sequences in the imperial anthologies has led me to apply those principles to my own sequences. 

Naoko Fujimoto: In Tupelo Quarterly June 2017, you and Stephen D. Miller published Japanese waka poems by Jakuzen (寂然: じゃくぜん / 藤原 頼業: ふじわら の よりなり).

Winter Poem 37 by Jakuzen, translated by Patrick Donnelly & Stephen D. Miller – Tupelo Quarterly

Your translation has two interesting choices: line breaks and a reverse-haibun style. These line breaks are not following the stereotype five-lines-as-one-paragraph translation, which I love. Then there’s a prose passage to expand upon the poem. Technically, haibun was not yet invented in when this poem was written, but the format you chose worked well to communicate with modern English readers. 

Could you tell me three decisions about this translation process? How do you execute them for the final version? 

Patrick Donnelly:

Jakuzen was a 12th-century Buddhist priest whose hundred-poem sequence One Hundred Poems of the Dharma Gate (Hōmon Hyakushu) focused on Buddhist teachings and parables, translating teachings that every reader would have been familiar with into artistic, spiritual, and emotional experiences.

Each of the sections of the Hōmon Hyakushu consist of a quote from scripture in Chinese, a waka, and a lyric prose afterword. The Japanese were always interested in combining poetry and prose in interesting ways and wouldn’t have understood any effort to keep them separate!

Because syllable-counting represents a minor cul-de-sac of English poetics, rather than the main road—and because we wanted our translations to work well as English poems—we chose not to imitate the 31-syllable form of the original poems. (There are poets who have the formalist chops to do all of this at the same time, but I’m not one of them.) We also chose to let the syntax in English take precedence over whatever the original arrangement might have been. Waka don’t have “lines” as such, though they do have mathematical divisions called “ku,” and might have been written vertically or horizontally.

We were aware that because of differences in the two languages, which had determined from antiquity the poetics of each, any translation of a waka into English could at best have a “family relationship” to the original. It was our limited goal to convey the emotional and spiritual arguments of these poems in idiomatic, musical, contemporary English.

Practically speaking, when we translate Stephen provides me with a “trot” explicating every aspect of the poem’s grammar and syntax, and I work to compose succeeding drafts. We go back and forth until we’re both satisfied that the translation is both faithful and a strong poem in English. Sometimes when he restrains me from going too far afield, I write my own poem based on some aspect of the original waka.

Naoko Fujimoto: Back to the first question, I think that your translation process might interact with your own writing, or vice versa. Your publication for Plume includes your own haibun, which is a composition with a haiku after short prose paragraphs. I would love to hear about your process of haibun writing. Also what can audiences look forward to from you?

Patrick Donnelly:

I recently became very interested in the haibun after rereading Bashō’s travel diary. The prose is supposed to be of a specific kind called zuihitsu (“following the brush”), characterized by digression and associative leaps—perhaps dangerous for me, because my early teachers strongly urged me toward lyric focus and compression. But I hope I’m old enough now to occasionally work with my digressive and everything-and-the-kitchen-sink temperament, rather than always against it. I love how the haiku that follows the prose can end a haibun with a small moment of sensual and emotional intensity.

My most recent book, WILLOW HAMMER, will appear in spring 2025. The middle section is a 41-poem sequence about a crime a family member committed 40 years ago. Continuing my exploration of both radical brevity and the potential of the sequence, some of the poems are just a few lines long, or even just one line, and the sequence is designed to be performed as a dramatic monologue.

In the meantime, I’m hard at work at other poems, other translation projects with Stephen, and other books, inshallah!

Naoko Fujimoto was born, raised in Nagoya, Japan, and studied at Nanzan Junior College. She was an exchange student and received a B.A. and M.A. from Indiana University. Her poetry collections are “We Face The Tremendous Meat On The Teppan”, winner of C&R Press Summer Tide Pool Chapbook Award by C&R Press (2022), “Where I Was Born”, winner of the editor’s choice by Willow Books (2019), “Glyph:Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory” by Tupelo Press (2021), and four chapbooks. She is a RHINO associate & translation editor and Tupelo Quarterly translation editor. She is a Bread Loaf Translation full scholarship recipient and the 2023 Visiting Teaching Artist at the Poetry Foundation. She is a first judge of Illinois Center for the Book: Illinois Emerging Writers Competition (2021 – current).