Q&A with Matt Donovan
At 6 p.m., Thursday Feb. 23, Santa Fe University of Art and Design Creative Writing and Literature faculty member Matt Donovan will read from his new chapbook Rapture & the Big Bam at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehouse, published by Tupelo press and the winners of its Snowbound Chapbook Award. Donovan’s 2016 essay collection, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape: Meditation on Ruin and Redemption, received praise for his masterful “ability to conjoin personal history with public history.” His 2007 collection of poems, Vellum, was awarded the 2006 Bakeless Literary Prize in Poetry and the 2008 Larry Levis Reading Prize.
For the release of Rapture & the Big Bam, Donovan chose to have his reading serve as a benefit event for Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a non-profit organization focused on assisting immigrants with legal services. Days before his reading, Donovan sat down with Jackalope Magazine to talk about the reading, his chapbook and his hopes for the writing community.
Jackalope Magazine: The title of your chapbook conjures an image of ending and starting over. Can you talk about the contents and whether you feel as though the ideas have changed since you’ve written them?
Matt Donovan: One of the things I should probably make clear from the outset is these poems were written quite a while ago. I haven’t written a new poem since this body of work, so it’s been about five to six years, at least, that I’ve been focusing almost solely on nonfiction. I’m still invested in them and I’m thrilled and honored that they have found a home with Tupelo Press, and I did want to have them housed somewhere, but my work has shifted. And especially as the political climate has shifted, I’m finding myself personally more driven and more inspired by addressing issues that mean a lot to me in a more direct way.
You said it [the title] sounds elegiac, and the book is elegiac. There are a number of personal poems in there that have to do with elegy and loss at the same time that there’s this sense of abundance, and a sense of the wonder and splendor of life that is colliding against that idea of the elegiac. So, in that sense, that feeling of disconnect and disorientation between contentment and sorrow and loss and disorientation, that hasn’t changed. If anything, the seeds and the occasion for some of those poems maybe are just all the more magnified right now. At the same time, they don’t necessarily address social issues head on in a way that I might be writing about now. So they would be more circuitous or involve other kinds of research but, for me, the context of all those poems is still pretty clear to me.
Can you explain why you wanted to work with Santa Fe Dreamers Project?
I was really inspired by the Writers Resist [soon to be Write Our Democracy] event that took place a few weeks ago. When it happened the weekend before Trump’s inauguration, I thought it was incredibly important for everyone to come together and have a kind of emotional catharsis and just have a moment of the community connecting, and that seemed really indispensable. At the same time, what I was more excited about with that was that they had reached out to the Esperanza Shelter for Battered Families and had the event directly tied to a local organization. And so it wasn’t just about emotional catharsis, it was ‘let’s donate in the most pragmatic, practical way to the this local group.’ And so I just started thinking about my upcoming reading, this has been scheduled since October. Especially after the election, I was feeling completely uninspired, to be honest, about doing my own poetry reading. And then, once the Writers Resist event happened, I realized that was the route that I wanted to take. And whereas poetry and the arts right now are absolutely instrumental, I want to continue to see art and language serve as a kind of retaliatory force to the ways in which language is being debased and devalued on a regular basis. I don’t want to undermine that in any way. At the same time, I want to see if there could be a way to offer up an occasion for people to come together and—with the organization right there—if there could just be a way to have outreach and direct donations that would directly benefit a local organization that needs the money.
It’s so different experiencing poetry out loud versus on the page. What aspects of reading poetry out loud are important to you?
Well, when I think about the most memorable poetry readings that I’ve been to, I feel like there’s an opportunity to connect in a more personal way with the author, with the poet. Whereas I think poets can err on the side of yabbering on too long in terms of their introductions before they just start reading their poems, I feel like some of the backstory, the ideas behind the poem, can be brought forward in that context as a way of introducing it and giving some additional information that might be indispensable to understanding the poem. And then it is an oral tradition, so I feel like just the inflections of voice and the intonation and hearing the rhythms of the language read out at the best poetry readings can forever transform the way one experiences that poem. That’s a pretty high bar, and I don’t mean to say that I think that’s what my poetry readings can do. But I hope that’s what poetry readings in general can do.
How has your background in poetry reflected in your nonfiction work?
The reason I started writing nonfiction had to do with a trip that I took to the Trinity Site down south in New Mexico. I had been trying to write a poem about it and the moment I got to the Trinity Site and started experiencing that site for what it is, I realized that a poem didn’t feel adequate to contain all of the research and material and travel log and questions that I wanted to ask. So, that said though, I felt like I still had a mind to wanting to highlight images that seemed resonate to me and find metaphors within the facts of the information that I was encountering there. Even though I’m writing in prose, I’m still deeply interested in syntax and diction and the rhythms of my sentences. So all of that, all the tools of poetry, I still bring to my nonfiction, which is something that I’m constantly talking to my nonfiction students about. Especially those who I want to convert to nonfiction, which is all of them. I still get incredibly excited about my line breaks in poetry and having such an interesting time talking to my intermediate poetry students about these contemporary poetry books that we’re reading. But I feel like there are some topics that seem to lend themselves to nonfiction, and I would hate for students to preclude themselves from trying to tackle an issue through the genre of nonfiction because they have their own bad stereotypes about what constitutes that genre.
Do you have a favorite piece of nonfiction right now?
Well, what I’m about to go off and teach is Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams with “The Devil’s Bait” essay, which I think is such an incredible meditation on compassion and trying to understand the complexities of experience. And I’m about to go off and teach David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” which is such a beautiful meditation on what it means to be a compassionate citizen in the world. Those two authors and those two pieces are really trying to articulate and interrogate the vicissitudes of experience, which is what I wish we had more of right now. I was talking to a friend who just said, “I would love to see a tweet from our president that just began, ‘it’s complicated’.” I feel like that’s what art and writing can do; it can just parse through and put forward some of the complexities of experience, among other things.
Do you have any advice for students who have been feeling uninspired during the last few months in regards to using their work as a way to communicate or cope?
Sure, I would say a couple of things. This is something that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit, and the day after the election it was something that I realized I felt really strongly about. So, first of all, I do think that as writers we have tools to address this. And I don’t think any of us should shy away from trying to employ and hone those tools as a way of, not just even speaking truth to power, but finding a way to connect, communicate, find ways of reminding the community of just basic facts, which feel are really nebulous right now. So I do think that if we are concerned and invested in our world, and I hope all of us as writers are, I think absolutely we need to make use of the skills that we have.
At the same time, I know I don’t want to spend the next four years—and I hope it’s not any more than that—only reading work that somehow responds to this administration’s shortcomings. So I also would really encourage that, at the same time they’re finding time for activism in their lives and finding a space for activism in their work, that they’re also just finding time and space in their creative lives to follow their own weird—whatever that might be. And I think poetry at its best, poetry or fiction or nonfiction, whatever art form it might be, by virtue of its complexities, I hope will be an act of realization in itself. And so I know, for me, I’m trying to find ways to navigate both of those worlds. I’ve had issues that I’ve written editorials about to newspapers and I wouldn’t necessarily—it would never even occur to me to write a poem about that issue. Sometimes it is important not to use metaphor. Sometimes I think using metaphor can have its own set of ethical complications. Sometimes you need to take a stand and be as direct and clear as possible.
And then, at the same time, I still hope that people are just writing the work that they want to write and then maybe sometimes there’s ways in which those two worlds can coalesce, and I’d be excited to read that work as well. And this is, for me, really the occasion for the Santa Fe Dreamers event as well, because I’m not reading work that is necessarily speaking to immigrant issues in America and in our community. I’m going to read the work that was written for this collection several years ago. I think I’m going to read one new piece, but otherwise it’ll be from that book. And then what I have, I hope, carved out time and space for is an opportunity for the community to come together and be reminded of the importance of the Santa Fe Dreamers project. And I hope that people who come to the event are willing and able to donate whatever it is that they can afford to donate to help out this really fantastic group.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.