“Swansdown: A Conversation with Donald Platt & a Portfolio of Poetry” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new book, Swansdown, just launched from Grid Books.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Donald Platt: First, I’d like any dearly beloved readers out there to know that Swansdown has some of the poems that I’m most pleased to have written over the last thirty and more years. For instance, the elegies for my brother, as a whole, and particularly “Sleep”—the book’s opening poem—and “Black Prince,” seem to me to be moments when image, sound, diction, technique, tone, formal sprezzatura, and emotional charge all come together and make the writing, I hope, memorable. As with any good poems, it’s not me writing them, but me being, as best I can, a very attentive vehicle through which the poems can come into being.

Second, the book ranges widely in both its formalities and its subject matter. As far as the latter goes, Swansdown—in addition to the aforementioned elegies—has poems that respond to the natural world, especially to the coming of spring, which has always been my favorite season. A member of the audience at the launch of Swansdown this past fall commented on how many images of crocuses run throughout the book! It also has love poems for my then wife and poems that express and explore homosexual desire. I identify as bisexual. A number of poems incorporate and address history. For instance, there’s a persona poem in the voice of Liu Sheng, a Chinese prince from the second century BCE. Two poems—one about the great poet Anna Akhmatova, the other about the epic movie Doctor Zhivago—use material from the Russian Revolution. Samuel Pepys’s account of the Great
Fire of London in 1666 is incorporated as counterpoint into a poem that deals with my wife’s rheumatoid arthritis. Another poem explores simultaneously familial and Native American history—the domestic violence of my grandfather who fought at the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre. In addition, some of Swansdown’s poems spring from travel to Key West, Dublin, Paris, and the south of France.

As far as the formal aspects of the poems, some readers may be aware that I’m known—for better or worse—for writing in tercets that alternate between stanzas that have one long line sandwiched between two shorter, indented lines and stanzas that have one short, indented line sandwiched between two longer lines. There are many poems that use this brand of tercets, but I’m pleased to say that Swansdown includes other formal vehicles as well. There are two long poems in lyric prose, a form I love to use, and several poems that employ short lines exclusively—something towards which I seem to be moving more and more in recent writing. Swansdown presages this transformation. Parodying the ending line of Rilke’s famous poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” I sometimes tell myself that “If you want to change your life, you must change your line.”

Thirdly, I’m exceedingly proud (no other word will do, I’m afraid) of having written at the end of  Swansdown a variation on the villanelle. The villanelle is my favorite of all the fixed forms in English. I admire it because I think that it’s probably the most difficult of the fixed forms to do well.  There are probably fewer than a dozen great villanelles in English, and I may be too generous in citing that number. But I like nothing better than to read villanelles and fancy myself something of an aficionado of the form. Though I’m often called a “free-verse poet,” I don’t really see myself as such. I’m always counting stresses in my tercets, whose short lines usually alternate between two to three beats and whose longer lines are between six to eight beats. Hence, I think of myself more as an accentual poet. I also like syllabics as a form—Swansdown includes one poem in syllabics, “Penelope’s Loom.” But it is very true that I have never written successfully in iambic pentameter. That is until “North,” the book’s penultimate poem. At least, some days I think it might be successful. It varies the traditional villanelle’s exacting rhyme scheme and uses slant rhyme. You, dear reader, will have to read the book and form your own opinions of “North.”

KMD:  Why did you choose Grid Books for this particular project?  And what did you enjoy most about working with them?

DP: Grid Books appeals to me partly because its list includes poets I admire, such as Elaine Terranova, Dennis Hinrichsen, JoAnne McFarland, Elaine Sexton, Keith Althaus, Sharon Hashimoto, and Jon Davis. What sold me on Grid Books, though, is the fact that they take pride in making books that are gorgeous objets d’art. I don’t think any press in this country produces books that are more beautifully designed. Michael Alpert takes each manuscript and creates a one-of-a kind design around the poems. The covers are all vibrant, but very different from each other. The colorful cover of Swansdown features a snapshot that I took of part of the ceramic mosaic that covers the whole façade of outsider artist Danielle Jacqui’s house in Roquevaire, France. Elizabeth Murphy, my editor with whom it has been a great pleasure to work, ensured that Swansdown has a wider-than-usual trim size to accommodate my long-lined tercets and has plenty of white space in the margins so that the poems do not feel cramped on the page. Grid Books even went so far as to honor my idiosyncratic request to have an actual thumbprint reproduced as the divider between Swansdown’s five unnumbered sections. Also, Elizabeth is very committed to producing high-quality audio versions of each book and marketing them simultaneously with the print book. I love reading poems aloud (and giving readings) so this aspect of Grid Books was particularly gratifying.

KMD:  How did your prior book projects prepare you for the artistic work of Swansdown?

DP: Swansdown is my eighth book. My organic practice as a poet, who values both the lyric and narrative sides of this taxing art, is to write poems that spring from moments in my life and the lives of those around me. My aim is to take these moments and transform them in the poem so that they transcend their points of origin and become larger, more resonant. My aesthetic is very old-fashioned. I’m a firm believer that one starts in Yeats’s “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” and that poems are “ladders,” rooted in the ‘basement’ of rags and bones, but that they can and should lead us to some higher place or vantage point. At least, that’s my experience and practice. Georgia O’Keefe has a painting in the Whitney Museum called Ladder to the Moon. It shows the silhouette of her beloved New Mexico mesas and, floating high above them, a silver half-moon. Suspended equidistant between ground and moon is a wooden ladder. I think O’Keefe, with Yeats, is suggesting that art is a wooden ladder that one nails together and climbs towards the moon. One doesn’t necessarily reach the moon, but art makes us take leave of the ground. Looking back retrospectively at all eight of my published books, I think that this aesthetic has been there from the beginning. So, in many ways, Swansdown is simply part of the larger arc of my writing, part of a continuity. Unlike many poets of my generation, I’ve never felt the urge to write a memoir because I feel that my poems contain my life completely or, at least, all that’s important in it.

That said, there are some significant differences that set Swansdown apart. In it, I certainly start to address old age and my mortality explicitly in a way that the earlier books do not. It’s interesting that my seventh book, One Illuminated Letter of Being, is a book-length sequence focusing on my mother’s dying and death. That material certainly got me acclimated to looking at the end of life with, I hope, wide-open, if sometimes bewildered, eyes.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a writer, you are also quite accomplished as an educator.  What has teaching opened up within your creative practice?

DP: The teaching of poetry writing, if such a thing can be taught, has given back threefold to me as a writer. First, it keeps the act of writing fresh. I like to invent writing exercises, and I always do these writing exercises with my students. Therefore, I don’t really feel like their instructor. I’m perennially one of my own students looking for what world the next word will lead to. Second, I rarely repeat reading lists for my classes, whether graduate or undergraduate. So, I’m always presenting new poets and new books to my students and discovering with them new approaches to our uncommon, common language. Third, reading and responding to hundreds of poems a semester has, I believe, made me a much more able reviser of my own work. I tend to overwrite and like nothing better than to take a sprawling rough draft and cut it by sixty percent.

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with us?

DP: Here’s my most recent prompt, inspired by the advent of chatbots, like ChatGPT, that purport to write poems.

Collaborative poems with ChatGPT:

  1. Go to https://openai.com/blog/chatgpt/
  2. Click on link “trychatgpt.”
  3. Ask chatbot to “Write a haiku using x, y, and z,” where x, y, and z are very different concrete nouns. Enter only three nouns.
  4. Copy and paste the result into a document of your own and then prompt ChatGPT to generate haikus five to ten more times so that you end up with many different haikus.
  5. Edit for word choice, image, and to get rid of cliché.
  6. Reject any haiku that doesn’t appeal to you.
  7. NOW, arrange three of the haikus in a particular sequence that you find resonant and evocative.
  8. Call it “Haywire Haiku” or a title of your own choice. Credit ChatGPT and yourself as joint authors.

KMD:   What’s next? What can readers look forward to?

DP: I’m starting to send around a manuscript entitled Tender Voyeur. It focuses on homoerotic images—oil paintings, watercolors, and charcoal sketches—by John Singer Sargent, a late 19th-century to early 20th-century painter, and narrates obliquely through Sargent’s images, as well as more directly, my own coming-out story as a bisexual man. In tandem with that story, I invent a gay life for Sargent, who employed the same “manservant” or valet—a model named Nicola d’Inverno—for twenty-five years. Speculation and argument over the nature of this relationship has been rampant among curators and art historians for many decades. In fact, a new biography of Sargent—The Grand Affair by Paul Fisher—appeared in November of 2022. In it, Fisher implies strongly that this relationship was intimate, though Sargent was discreet and always careful to leave no evidence documenting his private life. So Tender Voyeur is part of a larger and ongoing conversation about Sargent’s sexuality.

My book is inspired by the work of Trevor Fairbrother, the art historian and curator who “outed” Sargent in 1981. At that time, mainstream scholarship around Sargent was reluctant to consider Sargent’s sexuality. Trevor and I had emailed back and forth about some details in a painting by Sargent and recently became friends. I have decided to turn Tender Voyeur into a joint project with Trevor. The idea is to find a publisher willing to print my book-length poem, illustrated with high-quality reproductions of some of the Sargent works I describe, and then follow it with a joint interview (already written) in which I ask Trevor questions about his work on Sargent and he asks me questions about the writing of Tender Voyeur. The third part of the book will be a new essay on Sargent by Trevor, a brilliant thinker and writer about art. So Tender Voyeur has gone from being a “poetry book” to a hybrid affair that combines poetry with art history and art criticism. But who knows whether we’ll be able to find a publisher willing to stage such a venture . . .

However, I had a nice Christmas present that may, I hope, prove to be a good omen. Two important sections of Tender Voyeur were published in the most recent (Summer 2022) and delayed issue of The Iowa Review. They naturally sent me a copy on publication, which occurred a week before Christmas. I was delighted to find that not only did my two poems begin the issue, but that the review had managed—unbeknownst to me—to obtain rights to reproduce Sargent’s charcoal sketch Partial View of a Standing Male Nude and featured the drawing immediately preceding my poem of the same title. It was a lovely pairing, though Sargent’s sketch is undoubtedly the more fetching of the two.