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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 whole book: in the first and third sections the speaker finds somebody to love, after the years of being alone that The Charge described—somebody coincidentally named Stephen—but that doesn’t mean that he behaves all that wisely or admirably after that, and pretty much everything else around him continues to be threatened and temporary, including his own body. The book ends quietly, as also did The Charge.

There is something that appeals to me, after a sequence in which a great deal of struggle is implied, about not ending fortissimo. It’s never my goal to resolve tensions that arise in a poem or a sequence, but I have no problem with leaving the story in a hopeful moment between conflicts.

JB: See, you did a great job describing your own work. I also noticed that the mother got the entire middle section, and anchors the book not only in mortality—which is in all your poems, in both books—but in themes of origin. And this origin, as maternal, seems also a kind of poetic origin. While the poem “Received Wisdom” pays debt to both father and mother for “that cursive fountain in me,” the poem “Mudra,” beginning, “Who / gives you authority to speak?,” dismisses father, teacher, and literary judge for a mother who is both “adversary” of the poet and “germ” of his literary authority. And this confession of origin is earned, through “long practice / noticing what I was told not to notice [. . .] practice extending sympathetic embassies toward everything / low and dangerous in myself.” This is a pretty fascinating way to get to literary authority! How is this connection between the vulgar and the maternal a literary agency? Are you subverting the conventional image of the female muse, or are you making a very personal claim?

PD: Anne Carson, in Autobiography of Red, wrote: “Up against another human being one’s own procedures take on definition.” It’s in the sense that I needed to discover and then separate my own procedures from those of my powerful mother, and later from my other teachers (emotional, spiritual, literary), that I see those people as the muses of my poems, and I suppose also of my life as I understand it today. In order to live as a child and to be a student of any art or spiritual path, one has to give over power for an indefinite period of time, and become vulnerable to the strategies, sensibility, and opinions of another, or many others. Then, at a certain (uncomfortable, dangerous) point, one has to take back power, and to put some light and distance between, whi