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, which may include disobeying certain specific instructions one has been given. In my experience, that’s the phase during which one learns the most. (Or dies—as one teacher in particular said I would if I left him—but hopefully not.)

JB: Raymond Carver was once questioned by a critic for his choice to include the work of other poets alongside his own in his last book of poems, A New Path to the Waterfall. When asked, rather aggressively, why he thought he had the right to do such a thing, Carver said, “Because I love them.” Do you feel similarly about your choice to include translations from the Japanese alongside your own work?

PD: I was inspired to integrate some of our translations into my own sequences by a work of classical Japanese literature itself: the unknown anthologizer(s) of the early 10th c. Tales of Ise took existing poems by other poets, stripped off their original headnotes (in effect, titles, attached to untitled poems by earlier anthologizing), gave them new headnotes, and arranged them in a new sequence to suggest the trajectory of an unhappy love affair. This appropriation implies an excitingly different attitude toward authorship on the part of the Japanese at that time. Though they absolutely valued and honored individual achievement, poetry was overwhelmingly a social and communal project (as well as, eventually for some, a spiritual practice). Anthologizing itself was a form of creative writing that doesn’t really have an analogue today: the makers of the imperial anthologies (of which the emperors commanded twenty-one between the 10th and 15th centuries) were deeply interested in sequence-making, and weren’t at all shy about taking poems by a variety of other people (the representative best of their generation, they felt), providing the poems with prose headnotes or prefaces that (re)gave them context, and arranging them in sequences to suggest more complex narratives, such as stages of a spiritual pilgrimage or of a love affair. This was an aesthetic practice that made sense to them, and I have to say, also to me. (I can think of one modern musical analogue: Joni Mitchell did the same thing in her 2000 concept album Both Sides Now.)

I wasn’t quite as radical as the Heian-era anthologizers in how I treated the Japanese poems in Nocturnes. For instance, I left the poems with their headnotes/prefaces intact, because since appearing that way in the imperial anthologies, they’re considered aesthetically inseparable. Besides, many of the headnotes/prefaces are themselves superb, and intensely poetic, seeming to foreshadow some of James Wright’s wonderfully excessive titles, and definitely influencing my own titles in this book. (Providing titles for other authors’ untitled poems is another kind of creative writing that doesn’t get much traffic these days.) But it was when I realized that the Japanese poems’ speakers were worried and/or obsessed about the same things as my own speakers that it occurred to me I might integrate them among my own poems for an interesting effect. The structural result is that the book has a primary speaker (a somewhat fictionalized version of me), and his circle of characters, but floating among and between these, thousand-year-old Japanese people seem to be conducting a parallel conversation on similar topics.

Another factor that opened this door to me was that I had read books of poems, like some poets’ Selecteds or Collecteds, which included a section of translations. It seemed just a short further step, inspired by Ise and the imperial anthologies, to arrange the translations with my own poems in an expressive sequence. I knew it was daring and different, which seemed a reason in itself to go ahead and do it.

But there’s another way of looking at this, too. A student at a translation presentation asked me once how I kept our translations from “becoming my own poems.” I think I answered that Stephen and I negotiate constantly about the strategies of any particular translation, and he prevents me from straying too far from how the original poem would have been understood in its own context. All that’s true. But in another sense these translations are indeed my poems, inevitably, because they’ve been filtered through my sensibility and poetics, at a distance of a thousand years from the poems’ original composition.

Ivan Morris, in his preface to his translation of The Pillow Book, wrote: “There can be no literature in the world less suited to translation than classic Japanese poetry.” I’m glad I read that long after Stephen and I had already begun to find our way with our own translations, but I understand perfectly well what he meant: we’re moving thousand-year-old texts from handwritten vertical scripts (in their original form) to horizontal typed texts, from a language which gave every syllable the same stress into an accentual language, from a poetics with no “line” as we know it in English, into a poetics in which the line has been primary for half a millennium.

Then there was the vexing little question of which English the poems should be brought into: that it would make little sense to translate a 12th century Japanese poem into 12th century English probably seems obvious. But some scholars haven’t thought there was anything wrong with bringing these poems into Victorian-scented English (or may not have realized they were doing so), and in fact it’s not obvious which version, diction level, or tone of English spoken over the last 150 years is most appropriate for rendering these poems. Our thinking was, when the poems were written they weren’t antique, so we worked really hard to not make them sound antique in our translations. Our primary values (which we realized excluded some other values) were that we wanted the translations to work as strong poems in English, and we wanted to hear real people speaking—because we already did. So I was really happy recently when Laurel Rasplica Rodd, who has translated poems from roughly the same period, wrote about our translations that they convey “not only the semantic content (i.e., they are ‘accurate’) but also the compelling poetry of the poems.” Which seems to indicate that, for her, we were successful in meeting our two primary goals. But it’s still true, as I should have told that student a few years ago, that through the process of negotiating all those choices, these translations have in some weird sense become “my poems.” Feeling that way about them may have been another factor that emboldened me to mix them into my own sequences.

However—though I never say never—this isn’t necessarily something I’d do again, because I don’t want to become known as the “that guy who puts Japanese poems in all his books.” I’m alert to the potential for any poetics to harden into a “schtick”; I consciously changed many of the ways I worked in my second book from how I worked in the first, and will try to continue to do that. But I’m happy with the way this particular strategy for Nocturnes turned out this time.

JB: I think the strategy works beautifully, and the translations feel very much your poems while also speaking from a distant part of yourself. You said that Japanese poems did not use the line as we know it. I notice that almost all the translations in Nocturnes use a similar typography: a kind of lateral V, a “greater-than” sign, that resembles maybe a quickly brushed bird in a landscape painting. How did you decide on that visual form for these poems?

PD: When Stephen and I first began to work on the Japanese poems, I was looking for some unifying formal strategies I might employ, because the original poems are all 31 syllables long. (They’re waka, or tanka, the poetic form that was primary in Japan for over a millennium). The poems would originally have been written with a fine brush in one or two vertical columns, on paper chosen specifically to relate aesthetically to the poem, or to another message with which the poem would have been included. So I was looking for a shape, and as I experimented with indenting some lines, leaving others flush with the left margin, I happened on a chevron-shape, which could be pointed to the right or the left. What I liked about it was that it had a dynamic, directional feeling, and also let in a lot of light and air—white space—around the spare texts, which seemed right. Though the shape didn’t look specifically Japanese, it did look different from the flush-left-ragged-right silhouette a lot of American poems have at this moment.

Many of the poems seemed to fit comfortably into this shape, but I quickly discovered that others needed different line and stanza strategies. In my experience, it’s no good deciding ahead of time about a pattern that will always be imposed. (I’m planning to explore this issue in a discussion that I’ll lead at The Frost Place this summer called “Order and Disorder, Pattern and Variation, Centripetal and Centrifugal.”) Some translators, for instance, feel strongly that something’s wrong with a waka translation in English that doesn’t manifest in five lines. But I preferred to do with the lines what the poem in English seemed to need, because though the Japanese would absolutely have apprehended the five ku (sections) of a waka, as well as the “upper phrase” (5-7-5 syllables) and the “lower phrase” (7-7 syllables), they wouldn’t have experienced these as anything equivalent to English lines or stanzas.

So, I let go fairly early of the idea that all of the translations would all look alike, but I return to the chevron when it seems to work. You may notice there are some other unifying factors. I did want to reflect in English some of the constraints that the wakaform imposed on Japanese writers, and the pressure that put on composition, as with other received forms. So for instance, I avoided capitalization except in the case of proper names, and limited punctuation to question marks, long dashes (em dashes) and a few quotation marks, colons, parentheses, exclamation points and italicized passages for syntactical clarity or emphasis. That, in turn, meant working with line and stanza breaks as alternate forms of punctuation. I broke these self-imposed constraints in a few instances, but only for good cause; I hope it adds up to the poems being experienced as a little strange, not quite of-this-moment.

JB: A major theme in your work seems to be chance—and the embracing of chance, in particular the chance human encounter. I don’t just mean sex with strangers, but the erotic and perhaps spiritual “charge” (to quote from your first book’s title, The Charge) between two humans who otherwise do not know each other. But your work, especially the new book, seems to transcend these momentary charges for something across time—whether a web link that could have led a life elsewhere (“Link”) or “On Learning That the Phone in a House Where He Lived Thirty Years Ago Is Still in His Name” or the voices of Japanese emperors from a thousand years ago. How would you explain this temporal expanding of your work?

PD: In reference to the first part of your question, I suppose I see the operations of chance as a subset of the larger topic of impermanence, with which both books are very much concerned. In one of the poems you mentioned, “Link,” the speaker argues (with himself) for the view that though no one has control over how the wheel turns, there is some luminous essence at the center of things that protects the whole pattern of changes from ultimate tragedy, though not from terrific shocks along the way. That’s how it seems to me, that somehow the shocks don’t cancel out the luminosity.

As to the temporal expansion you mention, I didn’t do that deliberately or consciously—I suppose it’s one of the many ways that working on the Japanese poems with Stephen has brought interesting changes to my writing life.

JB: I think it has been easy for critics to place your work in the milieu of the 1980s AIDS epidemic among gay men, and that seems an obvious, maybe necessary, point. But do you feel that this point is sometimes overemphasized? I feel like it is difficult to read a review of your work, or, say, D.A. Powell’s, without critics belaboring the obvious cultural context. Do you have a sense of why this is—or perhaps you disagree?

PD: I don’t feel this context has been overemphasized in responses to my work, because it is, after all, one of the dominant narrative elements—explicit in the first book, implicit in the second. One of the gifts of literature is that it can act as a “report from the front,” taking readers to worlds of which they have no experience. I remember a little boy in a documentary about AIDS in Africa saying, about the experience of losing his parents to the disease, “If I didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know.” I recognize a similar impulse as the necessity that drove many of my poems to the page. I wrote, in an introduction to a selection of poems in an anthology, “The Charge [is] a time-capsule letter to the future, a lyric record of how it felt when some survived a dangerous time and some did not.”

I will say that I worked hard to help both books transcend that narrative, in part by not having the words HIV or AIDS appear anywhere in them. This wasn’t just being coy on my part; I wanted the speaker’s predicament to act as a metaphor for any event that threatens to annihilate a person’s sense of self—the way, for example, Tennyson’s In Memoriam acts upon me as a reader. Happily, I think that’s the way The Charge was received by readers and reviewers. Because I wasn’t interested in writing a book disabled by “special pleading,” I was particularly pleased, for instance, when Jacqueline Kolosov-Wenthe wrote: “Patrick Donnelly’s book is about sexuality, but it is not about sexual difference, not really, […] Donnelly succeeds in transforming autobiography into archetype[.]” I hope readers will feel something similar about Nocturnes, in which I’ve tried to investigate the ways unmaking a sense of self can be a good thing, though not a comfortable one.

JB: That’s an interesting answer, and a refreshing one: you feel both a social responsibility as a kind of spokesperson of an era and culture that is disappearing (though, happily, thanks to medications, has not disappeared as quickly as we had once feared) and also the hope for more universal notes to be struck by your poems. Your work certainly does both. Do you feel that social responsibility can ever be at odds with responsibility to artistic experimentation? Do you have to be loyal to one over the other? If you are too “experimental,” do you concede a larger audience (not that poets have a huge audience to begin with) for the sake of self-satisfaction?

PD: I’m sure that any artist whose life is divided equally between activism and making art does experience a conflict at least some of the time. My activism is just through my writing these days, so what the poems need takes precedence. Also, I’d never go so far as to call myself a spokesperson for the AIDS epidemic of the early days or now, because HIV, like every disease, affects each person differently. We need many voices to describe a global phenomenon so huge and various; I’m just one, and that narrative is just a small part of my project. That said, I do regard my poems as subtly activist in the sense that they sometimes treat dark or impolite topics some readers would rather not think about. The list of “acceptable topics” for poetry is always expanding and contracting with aesthetic, social, philosophical, and even economic developments, yes? But I don’t concern myself with that too much. Like most poets I know, I write what I seem to need to write, and hope by a variety of poetic strategies, pleasures, and persuasions, to coax readers into sticking with the poems if the subject matter is difficult. I’m not interested in preaching or creating earnest propaganda about the AIDS epidemic, or any subject—partly because I don’t have the answers to these problems. You’ll notice I said above I hoped to leave a “lyric record,” not a harangue or even an argument. I’m averse to preaching, even in aid of deserving causes. Usually such speechifying in poems turns into bloviating about the obvious—war is bad, racism and sexism and homophobia hurt people, etc.—often for the purpose of having the speaker appear as an admirable and sensitive person, brave enough to “speak truth to power.”

I’ll give you an example: according to some sources, an estimated 30% of the 1.1 million people living with HIV in the U.S. are uninsured. That statistic points to a really crappy situation, about which I feel anger and sadness. I strongly feel the problem needs to be described to more people, and I just communicated it here, in prose. But I don’t immediately see a way into a poem of mine that would advocate any particular response to that situation, that I would want to write or read. It seems to me that there are some topics about which journalism and nonfiction, and maybe political cartooning, can advocate more effectively. But I try to keep an open mind, myself, about “acceptable topics,” and I hope I’m ready for some brilliant poet to prove me wrong. In the meantime, Stephen and I have a running joke: I’ll come home from a poetry reading, and say to him, “Did you know that the [fill in the blank: Iraq War, Tuskegee Experiment, Japanese Internment, etc.] was bad, and ought never to have happened?” He’ll answer, “No, really?,” and I’ll say “Yes, I didn’t know, either, but now I do. I have learned a lot tonight.” Too many poetry readings end this way…

But singing is a very different matter. I’m happy to be sung to about the small-scale, personal, and emotional implications of large-scale, public and political matters, by a speaker who’s not interested in presenting as particularly admirable or wise. Who has character flaws, in other words, which that person may or may not be onto him- or herself about. Speakers with flaws, maybe on the verge of unlikable, are usually the ones that interest me as a reader, so those are the kind I try to create. Robert Lowell’s speaker in “Skunk Hour” comes to mind—creepy and almost repellent, but the music and vitality of the language keep me close, and then he earns my entire sympathy when he admits, “My mind’s not right.”

Or, if argument’s going to be part of a poetic project, fine—but let it be an argument in favor of a point of view or action that some reader or interlocutor might actually disagreewith the speaker about, or that so urgently needs to be made that it potentially costs the speaker something to make. (“The Stalin Epigram” cost Mandelstam literally everything, and I’m not necessarily advocating for that level of risk-taking, but the political rhetoric of most poets in the U.S. can’t compare; it earns admiration in some circles, if anything, and the worst that usually happens is they get disinvited from tea at the White House.) Remember how Andrew Marvell inflected his rhetoric toward the lyric in “To His Coy Mistress”? Rhetorical Argument plus Urgent Necessity plus Ironical Wit plus Ravishing Music, minus Preaching to the Choir, may, if one is lucky, equal delight, surprise, and even tears in the reader.

As to obstacles to artistic experimentation—though I do care very much about how readers experience any poem of mine, and plan carefully with that in mind, I don’t feel I’ve run up against any serious artistic obstacles so far that aren’t internal. As I tell any of my students who are shy about disclosing emotional or autobiographical intimacies in their poems, if poetry is a stage, at this moment in our literary life it’s an almost private or secret stage. (Though of course it doesn’t seem so to those of us who spend a great deal of time and effort making poems, reading them, and caring about them as a way of understanding human experience.) One’s definition of “experimental” is determined by taste, of course—what many poets and readers mean by that word now is a derangement of syntax such that clarity of narrative elements, if any, is very low on the list of priorities. That hasn’t been part of my project: I want to hear a voice speaking in my poems that’s recognizable as some potentially “real” person (whether meant to be understood as actual speech, or as overheard thoughts or feelings of such a person), though of course there are as many potentially “real” tones, vocabularies, and syntaxes as there are people.

JB: I also share your attraction to flawed speakers. I recently reread Carl Dennis’s essay “The Voice of Authority,” in which Dennis makes the claim that speakers must not only be flawed humans but also demonstrate “passion, discrimination, and inclusiveness.” I’m particularly interested in the third quality, which is evident not in an “expounder” but an “explorer,” “who knows he must create his audience rather than presume one to be ready and waiting.” I feel very much that your speakers are in this vulnerable state of exploration and uncertainty, and I’m curious how you might imagine this flawed but searching state helps to “create” your audience.

PD: That essay has been important to me, particularly in the sense that Dennis argues, if I read him right, that readers give trust most to a speaker who admits areas of uncertainty, rather than claiming objectivity or certainty.

I believe Dennis described there a particular kind of speaker—one who approaches wisdom, or at least considerable skill in navigating human experience. Speakers like this are useful to us because they seem to have struggled to achieve some deeper understanding of that experience, which we as readers may share.

But there’s another kind of speaker that interests me, and which I think can be useful in a different way. You might call this the “negative example,” a person who isn’t wise, is instead extremely subjective, but doesn’t know it, caught in some self-justifying worldview that is both passionately held and incorrect. Perhaps, in a sequence, the speaker of such a poem would represent an impression of one moment, a “slip” into the lower nature of a person who is otherwise trustworthy in the way Dennis describes. Or maybe it’s a lifelong character flaw against which the person doesn’t struggle enough. In either case, I find my heart open to such characters, because I identify with their flaws. I can admire how they muddle through with what little they’ve got, even as they cause themselves and other people suffering—because it could always be worse. I don’t trust them or look to them for instruction, because they’re not sane. But characters like this can break your heart in ways that inspire compassion for people who are like them, and for those aspects of ourselves.

Now that I think of it, it might be an interesting exercise for me to try to create a speaker, in at least one poem, who is quite certain. But if I were to do this, working against temperament, it would be an exercise in imagining, an étude, because I never feel certainty, possibly because I don’t trust it, seek it, or admire it.

This is the ground, of course, that Keats’s famous letter trod: “…Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…” Without doubt it’s been poems of exploration and uncertainty that have lit my own way through various noches oscuras. I’m not sure I myself understand the precise mechanism by which they do this. I think it may have to do with a sense of victory, on behalf of the whole human tribe, when some predicament (or delight, for that matter, which is also a predicament) has been captured in poetry. As in Akhmatova’s poem when she was asked in the line outside the prison “Can you describe this?,” and she answered, “I can.”

JB: You say that narrative clarity seems absent in much “experimental” poetry. As I have read and reread your two books of poems, your narrative impulses have become more apparent. I sense a life lived, and still being lived. Let’s end this conversation with your hopes for what comes after Nocturnes. What do you imagine your third book to be, as its own work of art and also as part of your story?

PD: Though I am working on new poems, the only generalization I can make about them at the moment is that they seem to explore afflictive and neurotic states—sometimes for comic effect, in the way that caricature exaggerates a person’s features.

I’m not sure if my third book will be poetry or prose. I’ve had an idea for some time about a memoir narrowly focused on the years I spent with the Sufis. I’ve begun that project several times, but because I’m afraid of it, both emotionally and technically, I’ve put it down as many times. Maybe it’s a good omen to be afraid—assuming I prevail—because it suggests there may be some protected knowledge on the other side of resistance. But I always remember and admit with Whitman:

Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me, and still
urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated.

From your lips to the ears of The Opener that there will, in fact, be a third book. And thank you for being the very model of an ideal reader.

Patrick Donnelly’s books are The Charge(Ausable Press, 2003) and Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin (Four Way Books, 2012). Donnelly is director of the Advanced Seminar at The Frost Place, teaches with the Lesley University MFA Program, and is an associate editor of Poetry International and a contributing editor of Trans-Portal (www.transtudies.org). With Stephen D. Miller, Donnelly is co-translator of the Japanese poems in The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period, a scholarly history and analysis forthcoming from Cornell East Asia Series in 2012. You can find him at http://web.me.com/patricksdonnelly