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Timothy Donnelly’s Days of Yore
Timothy Donnelly–author of, most recently, The Cloud Corporation and reader at tomorrow’s Danny’s Reading Series in Chicago–speaks to Astri von Arbin Ahlander at a blog called The Days of Yore, which indulges our interview fantasies with talks of childhood dreams. Here, the two also chat about writing programs, cooking, gardening, systems of order, Donnelly’s daughter, New York as a grad student (he ate a lot of oatmeal), how Donnelly got his great jobs (he’s a poetry editor for Boston Review), why the decision to get a PhD in English, how he felt first seeing a poem of his in print, and other exciting things you don’t get to know till the bio comes out. In fact, the Boston Review job came about partly due to a psychic! Read on:
How did you end up at the Boston Review?
The Boston Review was always a great magazine, but it was much more local in its scope back in the 90’s, at least in terms of its poetry. All the editors lived in the Boston area. The Boston scene was really strongly represented in terms of the books that were reviewed and in terms of the reviewers. The Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Cohen, wanted to shake things up a little, get national with it. He contacted a number of his contributing editors and asked if they knew anyone who was really hungry and wanted to take this on. Lucie Brock-Broido suggested that he interview the poet Mary Jo Bang and myself. We were in the same year at Columbia. Josh met with us and he liked the idea of going with us as a team. We ended up working together for about eight years, before Mary Jo decided she had been doing enough.
The funny thing is that one night, maybe in my second year of classes, Mary Jo and the poet and currently an editor at BOMB, Mónica de la Torre, and I were down in the West village and we went to a psychic, on a goof. The psychic said to me, “You know someone else who was just here.” And I said, “Yes, I do.” She said, “You and the older one, you have a business venture that is going to be coming your way.” And this is even before we had talked to Lucie about this. She said, “It is going to be very lucrative for you both and you both have to work at this together. A lot of success will come from this. I see you traveling somewhere that begins, C-A…” And I said, “California?” And she said, “No, no. Not California. I see you looking at large pieces of paper. And you are talking about the paper…” Then maybe two weeks after that Lucie called and said she had recommended Mary Jo and me as a team for the Boston Review and that we had to come up to Cambridge and interview.
As for his parents:
How did your parents feel about your decision to pursue life as a poet?
Completely, completely supportive. I think that they have always thought, “Oh, well, he always figures it out.”
My father came from a relatively small Irish Catholic family and my mom came from a larger, French Canadian Catholic family— a lot of siblings and they didn’t have a lot of money. Her father worked multiple jobs, in a factory, in a foundry, at a catering company, things like that. I don’t know all that much about him—both of my mother’s parents were dead by the time she was 16—except that I look a lot like him and he worked all the time and cooked and listened to classical music and read library books and had a good sense of humor.
In any case, I have a strong work ethic from both of my parents, but from my mom I think I also inherited anxieties about death and poverty, the feeling that there is never going to be enough money, the feeling that we have to be very careful because everything is slipping through our fingers. I am getting a little more comfortable lately, but in the past, my inherited fear of poverty often manifested itself in a complete disregard for money, as I mentioned before. I just put the thought of it right out of my head. I did run up some bad credit card debt in my 20s because I just didn’t want to think about that. But I also felt this occasional panic—I’m not going to make it! I can’t afford to live!
Then there’s the relationship between cooking, gardening and writing!
You realized you wanted to create things. You loved to cook, people eat what you cook. You loved to garden, a garden is, in a way, consumed, at least experienced. With writing, did you have a sense of consumption, that there was an audience out there that would consume what you made?
Not when actually writing, no. It was just for me, or for the page, or for some vague imaginary other. I think it is a compulsive thing, largely—like a need to feel something like control, focus, order, and the power of bringing something into being. I do sometimes feel like there are certain things you can do to control and organize your thoughts to make you feel more whole, integrated, rather than diffused and chaotic— those are both states that I am very susceptible and prone to.
My writing, though less traditionally formal than it used to be, still tends to have pretty pronounced structural regularity to it. But even in that structural regularity, the lines go long and digress, wind around, leap forward and reverse. That’s how my mind’s frenetic tendency and the impulse I have to control or perfect things come together formally. I don’t think perfection is possible and if it were I’d probably take one look at it and yawn or run the other way. But the dream of it, the striving for it—that’s another story. Of course you’re doomed to fail but I’d rather fail at grandeur than settle for a modest success.
To continue reading the quite enjoyable interview, go here.