This is an edited transcript of the poetry book club discussion with Timothy Donnelly. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This interview was edited by Rumpus volunteer editor and Poetry Book Club member Jesse Nathan.
Stephen Elliott: How long were you working on this book Timothy?
Timothy Donnelly: About six years.
Thelma: I’m interested in the lag (or lack thereof) between your receiving data and your ability to make it show up on the page.
Timothy Donnelly: The first poem was written, as I recall, about a year after the first book was published.
Michael Hollandr: How do you start thinking about a poem? From an idea, or a phrase, or maybe a “place”?
Timothy Donnelly: I usually start with a phrase—from within or without—that grabs my attention. It usually turns out to have grabbed my attention for a reason.
Stephen Elliott: Was there a moment when they shifted from disconnected poems to something you knew would work as a book?
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I’m interested in that, too. What was the experience of the poems accumulating, Timothy?
Timothy Donnelly: The poems were slow in coming but once things took off, they came somewhat more quickly. They never exactly sped out of me, though.
Camille Dungy: And were all the poems you wrote in this period in this vein or are there some that bear no resemblance?
Timothy Donnelly: Interestingly, the oldest poem in the book is the first, the newest is the last.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Did you begin to feel a common music forming?
Timothy Donnelly: I’m choking on the music.
Jesse Nathan: Did you decide ahead of time how many beats lines of a given poem would have?
Timothy Donnelly: I don’t decide how many beats, actually. It’s all more or less instinctual at this point. I mean, rhythm is immensely important to me, but at this point, it’s kind of internalized.
Stephen Elliott: Rhythm is so overlooked in so many discussions on writing.
Timothy Donnelly: You’re right. I think people don’t know how to discuss it other than to say it’s there. The one poem where I was somewhat self-consciously counting was “Tiberius at the Villa Jovis.” And truth is, when people try to connect certain rhythms to certain states of mind, well, this can get a little fishy. But I do think that strong rhythmicality can serve to give a kind of heft and body to language, and can help delineate it, help distinguish it from everyday speech, which tends to dissolve.
Stephen Elliott: Rhythm can crescendo and lead the reader to what’s important.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: This book works so well as a kind of symphony. And the poems also live on their own. I have been reading “Dream of A Poetry Defense” to distraction over the last few days.
Michael Hollandr: I remember reading the last section and thinking at the end of chapter that the book was over and then turning the page and seeing “Atilla.” “Atilla” feels so open.
Timothy Donnelly: When I first turned in the manuscript to Wave, the last poem was actually what’s now the second to last, “Chapter for Not Dying Again.” And I was never happy with that. I was happy with the poem, but not with concluding with “Even if it kills me,” which I think is funny, but not exactly the right way to end the book. But I had no idea what to do. I felt like there wasn’t anything left in me.
Stephen Elliott: Why the switch?
Timothy Donnelly: There was no switch. “Attila” didn’t exist yet.
Thelma: I can see that. “Chapter” feels like a final poem. Until we get to “Attila.”
Timothy Donnelly: My editor had recommended at one point that I pull two poems, and I did. And promptly replaced them, because I wanted four sections of twelve poems.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Did you replace them with new poems?
Timothy Donnelly: The two poems that went in after he asked me to take two others out (he was right) were “Antepenultimate Conflict with Self” and “Explanation of an Oriole.” The former was written new—I was really, really unhappy late last year. The latter was a revision of something that I had been trying to get into shape but had given up on. I decided to resurrect it. I felt that the book needed an affirmative note.
Mark Folse: “Atilla” to me seems to tie up themes from the rest of the book, and end on that positive note.
Thelma: Yes. “A sword to lay waste to empire.”
Brandon: In some ways the arc of the book does end with “Not Dying Again” and “Attila” is a coda
Mark Folse: To lay waste to the Cloud Corporation and all it’s relations.
Timothy Donnelly: I decided at one point that maybe it wasn’t that “Chapter” was a bad way to end, maybe I just needed to prepare for it differently. So I told myself, just write a poem that will better lead into “Chapter.” And I had been thinking about a passage in History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that bit about the sword. I had no money. I really wasn’t making enough money to live on. I truly felt terrible about myself and the world. Even though I have plenty to be happy about.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Would you say that helped your art?
Timothy Donnelly: I mean, I have two kids, and I work myself into a puddle all the time, and I just thought, “Geesh, if someone pushes me onto the tracks, my family will get all the insurance money.” I mean, I knew it would never happen, I totally stand behind the columns when the train comes in, but I was just so down.
Stephen Elliott: So much beautiful writing comes from that place, almost like you need to walk that tightrope to create.
Timothy Donnelly: I think that’s true. Something has to be very wrong to get us to push back with all our resources.
Stephen Elliott: Deeply wrong… to scream so loudly into a paper bag…
Brian Miles: I think that is one thing that struck me, Timothy, is how much I related to so many of these poems based on feelings I have had when I am in my darker moods.
Timothy Donnelly: That means a lot to me. Because you know, when you look down at what you’ve done and it seems so grim, you sometimes feel—I have felt—like you must be toxic, or a jerk of some kind. Ungrateful, or just messed up. Anyway, one day up on campus, after my thinking all this terrible subway stuff, late March early April, it started snowing. And I saw the back of the cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” on campus covered in snow and it had a peaceful sorrow to it. And I wished I could write poems that were peaceful and lovely. I started thinking that the snow that never makes it to the ground is somehow sadder snow, for never reaching what must be its destination, and somehow the ides of snow falling on a public statue insisted on precipitating the poem from my mental solution. Once I got the first 3.5 lines down, I knew the length of the line for the poem, I knew the rhythm of it, etc. Once I get about an inch into a poem, it gets easier, I have a little piece of its DNA and I can build from that. I wanted the food court and the mall in the poem. At one point I referenced cinnamon buns specifically, but that turned out to be too tacky.
Stephen Elliott: Your poems are so lyrical and intuitive but also crafted and careful. It’s such a balance.
Timothy Donnelly: Thank you for saying that. It is definitely a pas de deux of intuition and calculation.
Stephen Elliott: Do you reread endlessly?
Timothy Donnelly: I sure do. I probably have the entire book memorized. Honestly. It’s compulsive.
Stephen Elliott: That’s what poetry is, maybe. I was thinking the other day how some prose writers are poets, while others are more concerned with telling a story. Even a memoirist, or a novelist, if they’re obsessively concerned with the music of their lines…
Camille Dungy: I just told a class today that one of the ways I know a poem is ready to be released is when I have reworked it so much that it’s internalized/memorized and the lines feel right in my head and on the page, in that duet. Is it the same for you?
Timothy Donnelly: I don’t think there’s a point when I refuse to touch it. But there comes a point when I no longer feel compelled to.
Jesse Nathan: On a totally different note, I’m curious… how does being an editor interact with your work as a writer?
Timothy Donnelly: I think that being an editor mostly just tricks me into thinking that what I’m doing is central to the lives of many.
Jesse Nathan: Do you write your poems for specific people?
Timothy Donnelly: A few poems have particular auditors in mind. The first poem has in mind my wife. “Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow,” my dead grandmother. All the rest are for Brian. Just kidding. They’re for my vague hope that someone will maybe feel represented by them.
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: I feel represented. I feel like there’s a voice in those poems that I have never heard before but it sounds like mine. The way I think about all kinds of things. Particularly history. And culpability.
Stephen Elliott: I have a weird question. Does having all this family get in the way of the writing? I find it difficult having a plant.
Timothy Donnelly: It does get in the way. But it’s worth it.
Thelma: An intimate Q: I saw the twin deities in “Theogony” as a woman’s breasts, especially when they became tambourines.
Timothy Donnelly: Thelma!
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: That’s our Book Club!
Stephen Elliott: Bring it Thelma!
Gabrielle Calvocoressi: Keeping it real.
Timothy Donnelly: I can totally see it that way, but hadn’t consciously intended it.
Stephen Elliott: Do you dabble outside of poetry at all?
Timothy Donnelly: I really want to try dabbling outside poetry. I read last night with some fiction writers and the reading was amazing. Plot kind of embarrasses me though. About half a year ago I imagined I might write a short story about a paranormal semiformal, but that’s as far as it got. I do feel compelled to write. I have excess mental activity—a waste of it, really. I’m not saying I’m smart, I’m just mentally twitchy, restless—and writing total focuses, harnesses it.
Jesse Nathan: Do your poems get longer as your revise, or are there longer versions of some of these somewhere?
Timothy Donnelly: They get longer. Usually what I’m after in a poem is the movement of a mind through thought and I tend not to want to trim but lengthen, divert, digress, go where there was no predicting I’d end up, but in retrospect, couldn’t possibly have avoided.
Stephen Elliott: I always wrote poetry. I still do, though I don’t really show it to anyone. It’s nowhere near as good as yours. My stories and journals are just extended poems, I think. With prose, you just write forward, with less thought about lines.
Timothy Donnelly: Yeah I hear you. But I need those lines somehow. I think I rely on lineation somewhat more than my peers.
Jesse Nathan: What do you mean?
Timothy Donnelly: Well, talking it over with some of my students lately, they tell me that they aren’t wild about Whitman. And it turns out they feel he washes over them. And of course there’s something oceanic about his writing. But what I gather is that his long lines can’t really be held the same way that shorter lines can be. The shorter lines can be grasped. Held onto in your head.