An Interview with Patrick Donnelly 

Interview conducted by Justin Bigos 

Justin Bigos: I wonder if we might begin by you describing the project of your latest book, Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin. I am particularly interested in the structure of the book as well as its voice(s).

Patrick Donnelly: Oh, it is hard for an author to describe his own book—I wish you would describe it for me! However, I will do my best. Narratively and thematically, the book explores, and I would say even celebrates, different kinds of ruin, of falling apart, of failure, of losing status and approval from others, and even of losing one’s sense of a self, especially if that sense is too narrow or limited. The title refers to the Sufi idea of the “tavern of ruin,” a seedy dive in the red-light district that can cause one to lose reputation just from being seen going in or out. Inside is an intimate, dimly-lit space (something like the atmospheric photograph of the Cyprian bathhouse on the cover of my book) where people stay up all night singing and reading poems and telling dreams to one another, and metaphorically, if not actually, getting drunk on the wine of spiritual things. (I’ve actually done all this while spending some time with the Sufis during the 90s.) It’s a place where you may lose the useless burden of your reputation, but in return learn what it’s like to give and receive love, and gain spiritual knowledge by making mistakes, even terrible mistakes.

So the poems explore loneliness, growing older, getting sick, infecting other people with sickness, losing material things, a sense that everything is constantly changing, the ground unstable—not to preach any particular point of view about these things, but to sing about them. It’s always been my thinking that there’s nothing better than a sad song in the right circumstances.

As you said, the book has voices, plural. Among other things, it includes translations of poems by various authors that I made with my spouse Stephen D. Miller from the thousand-year-old Japanese imperial anthologies of poetry. (Stephen teaches Japanese language and literature at UMass Amherst, and we’ve been translating classical Japanese Buddhist poetry and drama together since 2004.) One of many strategies that I borrowed from the imperial anthologies was the idea of poems by different authors responding directly to one another. The Japanese call these pairs of call-and-response poems zōtōka, and the book contains several examples, both of the Japanese originals, and of poems of my own that behave in the same way.

Structurally and narratively the book is kind of a sandwich. In the middle section the speaker’s brilliant and difficult mother dies. I will say in reference to the relationship between autobiography and creative writing that when my actual mother died in 2005, I thought of Stephen Dunn’s wonderful poem “The Routine Things Around the House,” which begins:

When Mother died
I thought: now I’ll have a death poem.
That was unforgivable […]

I myself thought, also unforgivably, that I would probably write four or five poems about my mom’s death, and then sprinkle them somehow around the manuscript that I was working on. Eighteen poems later my mom had crashed into the book, and demanded the entire middle section for herself. (Which, if you had known her, was absolutely in character.) But I didn’t give her the