Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Jeffery Donaldson

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Jeffery Donaldson

Jeffery Donaldson talks to Open Book about his writing process, poetry, impossible conversations and the role of metaphor in the shaping of our country. Donaldson will be reading from his newly released poetry collection, Guesswork (Goose Lane Editions), on Tuesday, March 22nd at the Art Bar in Toronto and at Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton on Wednesday, April 20th. Visit the Open Book: Toronto and Open Book: Ontario Events pages for more details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book of poetry, Guesswork.

Jeffery Donaldson:

I have friends who do enough writing that they have the luxury of assembling manuscripts around a unifying principle. I tend to be the sort who, when the pile of sheets gets close to a centimetre thick, I start thinking of contacting publishers. You do certainly shuffle pieces about and you end up leaving out a good bunch that don’t seem to belong in whatever intelligible narrative starts to take form. My editor, Anne Compton, was a wonderful help in this way, finding a thread that weaves through the whole, varying the pace and so on. To be honest, I didn’t have much of a sense of what an editor could do for a book until I worked with Anne. She is like a kind of gentle surgeon who operates on you while you’re awake. “Now, I see that you have a clot here that I don’t really like the looks of. I think it may cause some trouble down the road, but we can certainly leave it there if you prefer.” “No, doctor, you do what you think’s best.”


Many of the poems in Guesswork deal with a personal history and the journey from birth to death. These are interspersed with poems that trace the past and future of the book. The resonance between these separate threads really builds the strength of the book. How do you see the two themes playing off each other?


An interesting observation. It’s always a treat when readers find patterns you didn’t know were there. It helps to strengthen your confidence that the poems know better than you do what they need to be about. But I am conscious of an abiding interest in questions of time, the fact of it, the unreality of it, time lost and regained (seem always to have Proust in my head…), the kind of winking presence of pasts and futures that accompanies us as we go.

I’m of two minds about poems of personal history. I always think of the debate that Elizabeth Bishop had with Robert Lowell about the difference between personal poems and confessional poems. She felt that Lowell went too far in showing all the plumbing of his daily life, like that trend in 1970s architecture of running all a building’s pipes outside the walls. Lowell emphasizes the historical immediacy of a personal life, in all its conflict and discomfort; he strove for a different kind of honesty. Bishop’s poems are highly personal too — there is a similar sense of a psychic agon working itself out — but they have more of the exemplary about them, that the poems fulfill themselves not in historical accuracy, but in some idea of the self that the poem can share.

I suppose my poems do have more of the confessional about them now, along the lines of Lowell’s work — I mean I seem to have found some comfort in my poems in being able to say things that have been true and troubling. It was freeing to start thinking about the possibility of writing poems about Tourettes, its rewards and torments. At the same time, I still don’t think of those confessions as having any interest for anyone in themselves. There has to be that element of the exemplary, that this is really about more than just you. The Tourettes poems, whatever else is in them, are about states of mind that I think anyone could identify with, the dance of body and spirit that in me tends to look more like unchoreographed wrestling.


In "A Note to My Poem," you write, "Listen. You and I have come a long way / since that first time we set out together / among the river clouds in the evening". Could you describe that trajectory? How has your poetry, your writing process or your understanding of yourself as a poet changed in the years since you first started publishing your work?


I’ve been quite attracted to this idea of impossible conversations, most obviously in the two ghostly encounter poems I’ve written, but also in the kinds of conversations you have with other writers in your poem, your conversing with voices that are not entirely your own. But in this piece I was daydreaming about how every poem you write is a kind of conversation with the poem itself about what sort of poem it might be. You’re telling it something about itself and it’s telling you something about you. And maybe you’re not entirely in agreement with each other. You’re trying to make it into something it isn’t and it’s watching you trying to bend it this way and that and it has this kind of smirky look on its face. But things get said and there is a kind of honesty there. You work it out.

In this piece I was partly thinking about how our poems are odd creatures that, if we’re lucky, outlive us in some way. They don’t age the way we do, or at least not in the same way. So at some point you have a kind of deathbed conversation, where things get real for a moment, and there is this desire to summarize your relationship, what you have meant to each other and so on, and you try to send them off with a good word. You feel grateful to them, and you want them to remember what they meant to you, which is another way of saying that you want to be remembered in them. I do like that idea in the last line that maybe your poems, if you’ve been honest with them, will find something to say about you long after you’re gone that you didn’t think to say for yourself.


The poems in Guesswork have forms that seem to have been carefully considered. What guides the style of a particular poem for you? (i.e., how does the choice to use couplets, quatrains, etc. establish itself?)


I try to hold the familiar line that a poem’s form ought to be organic, that is, that it should determine itself in some sense, certain subject matters with certain shapes, paces, and rhythms and so on. As you begin to write, you find a certain base line in your head, as it were, and it seems to suggest a certain length of line, a breakdown of your argument or narrative into different thought-packages, stanzas. Dante showed us how natural the tercet can be for narrative poems, where a stanza is thick enough to have body, but lithe enough at the same time to let your momentums flow through it. I love James Merrill’s account of Dante’s rhyming terza rima (aba bcb cdc ded …) as being like the two whirling circles that oars leave behind them as they propel the vessel between them forward.

But I’m not as inventive as I’d like to be, and in practice tend to be more habitual. Every poem has to have a formal intelligence of some kind, an assurance that every line is properly itself. But I sometimes wonder if, in my choice of tercet or quatrain, the shapes in which I feel most comfortable and at home, I’m not as lazy as any poet who writes a kind of sloppy free verse. I friend of mine once looked at one of my poems in tercets and said, “oh look, they’re in Donaldsons.” I thought it was probably time to make a change. At the same time, there must be for each of us, no? some idea of home that you come back to after your excursions. Views from the familiar windows … it tends to be where you do your best thinking.


Towards the end of your book you encounter the ghost of Sir John A. McDonald, who muses on metaphor and the commonwealth, among other things. What was the inspiration for this poem, and how did it come about?


I’ve been playing with the idea of the ghostly encounter for a few years now. There is a long tradition of this type of encounter in the literature. Dante meets Virgil in the Divine Comedy; Blake meets Milton; Shelley, Rousseau. T.S. Eliot speaks to the “compound ghost” (comprising several poets’ voices) in “Little Gidding,” and Seamus Heaney runs into the ghost of James Joyce in a parking lot at the end of “Station Island.” They tend to talk about matters of writing, naturally; it is usually something that the poet is in crisis about and needs to “talk through” in relation to some part of himself that he actually owes to other people, otherwordly voices that can tell him things that he wouldn’t have thought to say “by himself.” So I run into the ghost of Northrop Frye in my poem “Museum” in the last book Waterglass. I wanted to try another one for Guesswork.

So a number of things came together to land me at the feet of Sir John A. in “Province House.” My critical work the past decade or more has been almost exclusively about metaphor, as a poetic device, as a way of thinking, as an essential condition of consciousness. I love the paradoxes of metaphor, to say blatantly that one thing is another thing. It’s an impertinence, an affront to conventional logic, that something both is and is not itself. Also, I have always been deeply moved by that bronze plaque outside the Confederation Room in Province House, Charlottetown, PEI, where preliminary talks for a new confederation of the provinces were first held in 1864 (almost accidentally, as it happened). The plaque outside the room reads: “Providence being their guide, they builded better than they knew.” There is a kind of heroism in that, I feel, that is uniquely Canadian. That we muddle our way into the kinds of ambitious and heroic compromises that make us what we are. It’s an idea of nationhood where workaday shmoozing becomes national vision.

So Sir John A.’s ghost has lots to say about that, but not surprisingly for my sake, he works it all out in terms of problems of what metaphor itself is. That a country like this has to have a lot of people who are able and willing, whether consciously or not, to think metaphorically, as it were. So far as sabre-rattling national identities are concerned, Canada is the country that is always only cobbled together at the last minute. We are the is the and is not among nations and I suppose that our experiment as a country is to find out where this kind of thinking can lead, if anywhere.

Oh yes, and that line from the bronze plaque got me thinking about one of the last line’s in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “… providence their guide.” Two people, or two peoples, if you want to think of Canada’s ethnic origins, head out from a ruined place in the direction of a place that they have envisioned but which they have still to make, a place which, as the angel reminds them, really isn’t a place at all, but something inside them. I’d like to think of the plaque writer as having intentionally echoed the Milton line with this idea in mind. It would certainly give it a kind of prophetic authority for our idea of Canadian identity. But no matter, as Robert Frost says, a poem has a right to everything we find in it.


Will you describe your writing process for us? How does a poem move from idea into finished draft for you?


Fits and starts, like most. I used to have very romantic ideas about how poems come to be, and always had in mind Keats’s “poems must come naturally as leaves to a tree or not come at all.” I spent a great deal of time staring at my bare branches waiting for some sign of green, but I wasn’t Keats of course, and the branches, what with me staring at them all the time, had a wintry feel about them.

I always thought that I had to be in a certain frame of mind to write, that the poem in a way needed to be finished and polished before I could start to set it down. Much too anal and controlling. So I started writing less and less, of course, through the nineties. Then I had a conversation with a favorite poet of mine, Eric Ormsby, who told me that he had gone through a long dry spell and that the way he got writing again was to allow himself to write what he called “baby talk,” you know, the sort of drivel that you’re embarrassed to see come out of you. I couldn’t imagine anything like baby talk coming out of Ormsby, but the thought was all the more reassuring. And so the idea is, you let yourself write lots of it! And it’s okay because you just throw it out. But in the mean time, you’re limbering up. And of course in any case something usually comes of it, the drivel starts to fold into some line of thought, a nuance, the scent of something, and away you go.

I think I always feared that if I wrote that way — you know, the get-up-at-nine-and-start-writing method — that it would all be so deliberate. But it has been strange to find that it is the early work, the so-called natural stuff, that strikes me now as too forced and controlled. The more you treat it like a job, the more honest and relaxed you can be about what you make. Who knew! I like the idea of writing as a kind of problem-solving exercise. It’s as though you were tinkering with a math problem and then suddenly found yourself staring into the face of God. Or, well, you know, the guy says he’s God. Probably just some joker with a thing on for long robes.


You teach poetry at McMaster University. How does your academic work inform your work as a poet, and vice versa?


It’s a false dichotomy, or at least ought to be. When you’re standing in class in front of two hundred people trying to work something out, it’s like you’re trying to write a poem, only with more people staring at you. And when you write a poem, you’re trying to think carefully, except with no one staring at you. The tool boxes are a little different and the product changes according to the function of the language you’re using (descriptive and conceptual language in criticism, metaphoric language in poetry), but it’s all in the service of finding, as Frye once said wonderfully, “the right verbal formulas.”

I think if you want to teach poetry, you have to have a lot of other people’s poems rattling around in your head, and if you want to write poems, you have to do a lot of honest thinking about all the poetry that has been written … and there’s nothing like having a sea of expectant faces staring at you to help you focus your thoughts.


What are you working on now?


No poems just now. I’ve been working on my pet project on metaphor and evolution for eight years now. I have a draft down on paper, 550 pages of unwieldy prose, and I’m revising daily. Trying to turn it into some kind of poem I suppose. It has all my thoughts.

Jeffery Donaldson teaches poetry and American literature at McMaster University. He is the author of three previous books of poetry: Once Out of Nature, Waterglass and Palilalia, which was a finalist for the Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. In addition to writing numerous articles in the field of poetry, Donaldson has also co-edited a book of essays, Frye and the Word: Religious Contexts in the Writings of Northrop Frye. He lives with his family on the Niagara Escarpment near Grimsby.

For more information about Guesswork please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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