The first of March brings another installment of our 5 (or so) Questions with... series. This time 9L staffer Dana Burchfield talked to a contributor from our current issue, Poet Matt Donovan, about the problems with political poetry, the writing process, and the whimsy of children's books. Enjoy!
9L: In both "Randy Mandy's Lame-Ass Allegory of History: A Corrective" and "How to Paint the Sea," there seems to be a negating of recorded history in favor of a more personal relationship with the past. The poems are also moving within the constellation of that restless, mid-teen period--either directly as is the case with "Randy Mandy," or obliquely with Homer having been first encountered by many of us in high school. I wonder what in particular is shaping your aesthetic at the moment, for poems or projects you are currently working on?
MATT DONOVAN: In many ways, the Randy Mandy piece is emblematic of some of the presiding concerns of my most recent poems, but it was a piece that both developed and revealed its broader themes quite slowly. It started out as a more directed meditation on the Operation Crossroads Pacific Islands nuclear tests, yet the more I worked on it, the more wary I became of its singular focus and voice. Gradually, I realized I was growing suspicious of the more oracular political poem, one that is fueled by finger pointing and a more distant voice that seems to stand outside the rendered events. Such a stance elides individual complicity, and struck me, at least at the time, as rather disingenuous—that is not, after all, how we inherit and experience history.
Those suspicions gave direct rise to the middle school context and premise of the piece, and I became increasingly interested in deliberately couching the poem in a kind of cultural void where atrocity was witnessed and then disengaged from. The tragedies in that piece, at best, serve merely as a backdrop for the more pressing personal concerns. That said, I also see connections between the pleasure-seeking classroom adolescents of that poem and the soldiers on Bikini Island, and I’ve been haunted for a long time by that grotesque employment of Rita Hayworth’s image as a means of eroticizing the bomb.
Back to your question, I’ve found myself, in quite a few of my recent poems, fairly consistently hovering over questions about the vexed relationship between the personal realm and history’s wider scope, as well as what, in our American culture, seems to thwart a more complex, empathetic engagement with atrocity and violence brought upon others. That’s the broader scope, of course, and to put it in other terms, I’ve been wrangling with
Americana, fatherhood, and some of this country’s recent turbulent history.
9L: For myself it often feels impossible to write anywhere close to the "recent" or "just happened." I'm sure I'm botching the question here, but is there a different approach you find yourself taking with "this country's recent turbulent history" as opposed to history that may be more “safely” situated in the past past (i.e., WWII or Homer)? Or in other words maybe, is there something new or different at stake when poems engage with our current political contexts, our cultural now?
MD: You're right—it's a huge issue, and something I find myself thinking about quite a bit. It may be worth preempting all of this by saying I don’t think there is any chance of generating worthwhile blanket statements, prescriptions, or tidy resolutions to many of the vicissitudes embedded in taking on some of the more charged political issues of contemporary American life. Nor would I advocate for any poet to avoid tackling political issues he or she is committed to and passionate about—I will always want to read relevant, risk-taking poetry which engages with issues through the lens of an active and critical intelligence.
That said, I think one can find a lack of an active intelligence in many of the American poems responding to, say, the build up of our current war in Iraq. I might agree whole heartedly with the sentiments and emotions which fuel a poem’s engagement, but I don’t turn to poetry to have my own convictions given back to me, and whereas lines from many of the pieces might serve as rallying cries at demonstrations, they don’t necessarily transcend the level of sloganeering. Poets tackling some of the more loaded, enormous, and quite recent political events certainly risk being unable to emotionally distance themselves from their own impassioned convictions, and, to be honest, I think many of those pieces flirt with the same level of complacency and dismissive reductivism that I saw being employed by the right wing in the build up to the war.
I’m obviously aware that silence can amount to complicity, and that there are dangers in anyone suggesting subjective aesthetic standards which might dismiss, out of hand, impassioned voices and groups of political poems. But then, I also want poetry, like any art form, to be complex in its workings and evade any simple paraphrase. I also think it’s worth asking if poetry is the most efficacious tool for enacting changes and ensuring that voices are heard: sometimes, rather than mucking with enjambments, the rally, the slogan, the outraged editorial, is a far better route to take.
9L: Both of these poems as well as your work in Vellum are packed full. I can't help but wonder what the space where you write is like? Do you keep meticulous notebooks of images and vocabulary, or is it all just incubating up in the tunnels of your mind? I suppose the question here has something to do with process...
I don’t think my workspace is mimetic of my process, really—in fact, it’s fairly non-descript. I’m not superstitious or precious about my writing space—I just need a relatively quiet place to sit and type. But in terms of my process, I do keep notebooks of ideas and random jottings. I also have running lists of topics I simply want to explore and research more, which is even more important for me towards generating the work. I often proceed rather blindly—almost always, in fact—unsure of where the next poem or subject is taking me. I do hit quite a few dead ends (I have several folders of dead end topics I’ve been trying, and failing, to write about for years), but I also have grown to trust the intuitive groping-after that my process inevitably entails. I’ll start to notice a tug at the sleeve, and, for instance, without knowing at all where it’s all going, find myself reading accounts of Rudolf Valentino’s funeral. I’ll cull, wade through, and imagine details, and, as I start to hone and pare, or even experiment with juxtaposing other outside narratives, hope to gradually latch on to a line or gesture that simply seems compelling or resonate. Issues of, say, form come much later in my draft process, and, for better or worse, that flailing “hope” really is a central part of how I work.
9L: (Big jump…) If you were to wake up one morning as an animal (of the non-human variety), what animal would you be and why?
MD: Given my son’s own uncontainable imagination, I’m in a constant state of metamorphosis these days, and I definitely couldn’t lay claim to simply one non-human form. He’s in an impassioned superhero phase, and before I’m even half awake, he could demand that I become Bear Guy, Water Boy, Eagle Man—you name it. Even before the milk hits the cereal in our household, bodies are in constant flux.
9L: On the lighter side, then, yes—the immense capacity of a kid's imagination! Are there any particular or favorite children's books in heavy rotation at the moment?
MD: I love reading to my son, and, in the end, I'll happily take on whatever book he's insistent upon. But I do have a distate for anything didactic with kid's books: if the message can be reduced to a moral—be polite, don't be pushy, eat that okra—I'm far less interested. (Oddly, I feel as if I'm echoing myself here, given my above concern for poems that can be reduced to paraphrases.) In the books I read to my son, Cyrus, I love imaginative flights of fancy for their own sake—Sendak's In the Night Kitchen is a great example of this, although there's no doubt a nostalgia component here for me too. Curious George is naughty, and chaos—for a while—ensues; Max throws himself into his wild rumpus with the Wild Things before sailing home; in a terrific book called Tuesday, frogs fly around on lily pads for no reason whatsoever. In these kinds of books, I love the play and pleasure seeking for its own sake. Maybe it's a simple equation, and similar to other arts: ambiguity coupled with beauty, in this case from the drawings themselves. I love David Small's work and Chris van Allsburg's haunting black and white illustrations. And then there's just the pleasure of subversive, unbridled zaniness: Jon Scieszka's Cowboy and Octopus is one the funniest and oddest kid's books around.
The current issue of Ninth Letter (vol. 6, no. 2), featuring "Randy Mandy's Lame-Ass Allegory of History: A Corrective" and "How to Paint the Sea" is available now in our webstore.