Jon Curley with Joseph Donahue

Joseph Donahue
Joseph Donahue

This interview series poses one question over and over again to a slew of poets of various aesthetic modes. My intention is two-fold: to encourage these poets to examine and imagine whatever notions and natures they discern in their work, and to trace their thoughts about conceptual alternatives to the patterns and trajectories they perceive there. In thinking otherwise, against usual models or presiding instincts, they are free to delve into various realms of possibilities, creating fresh commentary on their current practice and procedures, and theoretical visions which might guide them ideally, provisionally, even counterintuitively. The prompt in some cases generates follow-up questions which the subject can agree to answer or just ignore, and keep silent (silence, too, is a kind of answer). After all, the free-play prospects my line of questioning wishes to pursue must also consider the poets’ freedom to take it on their terms, not my own.

Jon Curley: Can you envision what kinds of poems, whether structurally or thematically, you might consider writing beyond the realm of your past practice? Are there elements of poems outside your usual patterns and activities you might try
to integrate into your work?

Joseph Donahue: For a while now I have been writing essentially two kinds of poetry, the lyrics that comprise the ongoing cycle called Terra Lucida, and then some other thing. That other thing I characterize to myself in various ways, as associative flights, digressive amble, spirit walkabout, oneric ode, phenomenological epic fail, breakfast with the dead. These can be found in the works that are not a part of the Terra Lucida cycle, gathered in books such as Before Creation, Monitions of the Approach, World Well Broken, Incidental Eclipse, and the forthcoming Red Flash on a Black Field. These two kinds of poetry exist in an antithetical relationship, with the contrasting poles variously understood as, say, song and speech, vertical and horizontal, static and moving, sacred and profane, uttered and overheard.

Structurally, the poems in Terra Lucida are all in couplets, a form which in one sense is about as minimal as it gets, but that in another way, continues to surprise me. The very essence of the couplet—two compositional elements joined together in a fleeting moment of attention—implicitly raises questions about the relation of the two elements, of what and in what way the two shreds of syllables are joined. This inadvertently mirrors the principal binary of the poems’ title, earth and light. The associative poems are equally interested in intersections, though of different orders of elements, and so what becomes of considerable compositional interest is direction and transition, how the poem might move us through different kinds of experience. These associative forays assume a certain equality of mental phenomenon. It’s the romance of thought, where dreams, myths, things one is told about, what one reads or sees or hears, the hazards of the day, take on the feel of revelation, a revelation I am biased towards believing is hopeful.

I don’t see myself writing from outside my past practice (with the notable exception of a yet to be realized desire to write, direct and star in a musical comedy) as much as from more deeply within it. I would like to think these poetries might stretch or intensify in some direction, whether up down or sideways I cannot say. I would like to think that my writing practices might come upon possibilities lurking in words and emanating from beyond words. In regard to both structure and theme I tend to think in terms of what Emily Dickinson might call adjoining zones, categories of experience or realms of being that summon us and tend to prioritize the kind of thinking and feeling that goes on in one of these zones. “I have an errand immanent/ to an adjoining zone,” she says. Each of those terms—errand, immanent, adjoining and zones—have for many, many years deeply engaged me as a ways of thinking about poetry. Not that I have any grand scheme worked out in regard to what poetry is and does and reveals, but the mixture of vocation, of meaning embedded in the material, of boundary, and of expanse, are a clarion call. Reading those lines over many years still fills me with an excitement about writing. Where are those zones? What awaits there? Who would one be were one to go there and come back?

JC: What poets and thinkers continue to inspire you in and out of the designs and directions of Terra Lucida? Can you discern their specific influences or traces in the completed work?

JD: Important for me way early was William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. James accepted a range of psychic phenomena on their own terms, but was also committed to analyzing their place in both a culture and a life. In James one sees the rudiments of a poetics that can search out where our most vulgar needs and most subtle thoughts coincide, where the minutia of daily life gives way to symbolic drama, though such a poetics might also be derived from an intense confusion of Naked Lunch and The Ascent of Mount Carmel at a too young age. The reading I now find most stimulating has come from related fields in the larger category of religious history. Anthropology of religion, ritual theory, critical studies of mystical thought and mystical literature itself provide both material to conjure with and confirmation of where poetry comes from, how it works, what it means and how it might transform both the perceiver and the perceived. As the son of a classically trained church choir director—the choir rehearsed every week in our living room—I can’t deny I grew up in a ritually shaped world, one with a highly aestheticized sense of spiritual life. Religious history and thought, which would include the emergence of the secular world, depict, it seems to me, the supreme fiction within which we live and die. This kind of material allows me to imagine a totality within which the poem works, binding together feeling, ideas, culture, what has happened and what might happen, in a single burst of words.

In the last few years I have been drawn to the literature of esoteric Islam, certainly for its extravagance of devotional expression and its exploration of visionary states of being, but also to help me fathom a simple and yet difficult ambition of lyric poetry, the ecstatic cry. Why is such a little mouthful of air so hard to get right? Perhaps this is so only to the ecstatically challenged, such as myself. But it seems to me the simple exclamation of joy or despair, both to utter and interpret, demands a thinking out the nature of the world: what forces large and small have brought these syllables to be?

As far as poets who help keep the poem going, among the mighty dead, Gustaf Sobin has long been of crucial importance. Among the living, Ed Roberson keeps showing how deep it all goes. His work powerfully combines an intuition of the deep structures of metaphor that govern our relation to the world with the in-your-face immediacy of daily life.

JC: Does the attachment to a particular structure—in the case of Terra Lucida, as noted, the couplet—ever feel constraining? Does it in fact undergird some of the semantic and visionary permutations, perhaps not even anticipated ones, in the shaping of the poem? How so?

JD: The couplet controls the scope of the individual pieces in Terra Lucida. It establishes an obvious minimum length, but also something of a maximum length, if only because I have always found long stretches in couplets tedious to read. Another thing the couplet modulates, and this is very important for Terra Lucida, is tone, if only because (through association with Lorca and HD and others) I associate the couplet with a certain kind of vocal purity. One permutation that has surprised me is that in certain instances some part of Terra Lucida begins to take on the tone of an essay, as in the suite in Dissolves devoted to the minimalist artist Dan Flavin, and, most recently, a suite that responds to the life and work of Emily Dickinson. The couplet allows this tone to enter, but also serves as a reminder that song is the goal of the entire poem. As for the constraint of the associative method, that’s a bit harder to articulate, since it directly brings before one the question of the limits of the freely associating sensibility, and how can these be known, when one is that sensibility. One of my associations for the associative method is philosophy’s contribution to literary style, phenomenology. But I fail as a phenomenologist. My brackets break apart. I keep thinking I am merely offering a description of the world, but then I find I describe the same things over and over, in slightly different iterations. Dreams, remembered conversations, bits of reading, something seen. As far as poetry goes, that may be just fine. After all, as Rilke says, perhaps we’re only here to say house, bridge, fountain, gate, jug. . .as if these were both experience and its sum. Or, in Beckett’s case, perhaps we’re here merely to say “quaquaquaqua.” The knack of my forthright meanders then becomes not necessarily to notice different things, as it is to intensify the quality of attention one brings to that which one finds habitually interesting. One’s attention might in fact be an ever new phenomenon, the light that keeps falling afresh on the ongoing world.

JC: You seem open to many possibilities in the development of your poetry, in terms of form, technique, and vision. Have you in the past moved towards one kind of particular poetic expression and procedure only to abandon it and head towards a different fulfillment of the poem/poems?

JD: Yes. It happened long, long ago, in 1978. It was my first trip home from grad school in New York, where I was in a writing program at Columbia, writing the kinds of poetry one wrote in that writing program. The train was packed. A guy with long black hair dropped down in the seat next to me and started up a conversation. He too was a poet. His name was John Yau, and he had just published a chapbook called The Reading of an Ever Changing Tale. This conversation that began then was my true poetic education. Everything put in my head about poetry by Columbia, John would simply empty out, like an ashtray. Then he’d put other stuff, much better stuff, in. “What, no one there talks about ‘A’? They’re teaching poetry and they don’t talk about Zukofsky?” (Then, most importantly, John would read his intervention aloud. In this case it was “A 11.”) “What? You think you want you be a poet and you haven’t read James Schuyler? Barbara Guest? Kenward Elmslie? Donahue, who let you into New York City? That person should be shot!” Above all, there was John’s own poetry, which astonished me from the first lines of his I read, on that train, and it continues to do so, book after book. So, thanks to Amtrak, my whole writing life switched tracks toward a different fulfillment. Curse you, John Yau, curse you!


Joseph Donahue is the author of Before CreationMonitions of the ApproachWorld Well BrokenIncidental EclipseRed Flash on a Black Field (forthcoming) and an ongoing long poem, Terra Lucida, of which two volumes have appeared, Terra Lucida, and Dissolves. A third volume, Dark Church, is forthcoming. With Ed Foster he co-edited The World in Time and Space, Towards a History of Innovative Poetry in Our Time. His reviews have appeared in Bookforum, the Notre Dame ReviewTalisman and Jacket 2. He is, ever so slowly, working on a collection of essays about ritual, writing, and apocalypse in American poetry of the 1980s and ’90s.

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