Six Questions — January 24, 2013, 1:04 pm

Three Poets: “The Halls of Aspartame”

Timothy Donnelly on writing challenging verse, the cultural faith bred by 30 Rock, and the poet’s need to reach for the eternities

Timothy Donnelly. Photograph by Lynn Melnick

Harper’s Magazine last featured Timothy Donnelly’s work in April 2009, when his masterly poem “The Cloud Corporation” ran in the Readings section. Donnelly, the poetry editor for the Boston Review and the author of two collections, Twenty-seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit (2003) and The Cloud Corporation (2010), recently released collaborative book, Three Poets (Minus A. Press), with John Ashbery and Geoffrey G. O’Brien. Donnelly’s poetry combines formal virtuosity and imaginative discursiveness with a casual pitch and conversational ease. His contribution to Three Poets, “The Halls of Aspartame,” takes its inspiration from Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and includes digressions on Reagan, Leibniz, and artificial sweeteners. I met him to discuss his work over Guinness and empanadas near Columbia University, where he teaches in the creative-writing department.

1. A critic once said that your work “must be withstood before it’s enjoyed.” Do you think the comment reflects a desire for instant gratification on the part of poetry readers? How would you suggest that a reader approach your work?

The reviewer might have been suggesting that my poems tend to move fast and leap around and draw from a wide frame of reference. I suppose that’s a fairly accurate description, at least for some, or maybe even many of my poems. Some readers might find writing of that description to be immodest, overbearing, flashy, or otherwise off-putting, and I have to accept that. On the other hand, other readers might find poetry like that to be an apter analogy to the way they move through the world, the way they experience their experiences or think their thoughts. Also, some people favor, or at least appreciate, work with a certain level of exuberance — the baroque, the gothic, the bright palette of Indian art or the busyness of Cy Twombly’s scribbles or the many-layered sound of Timbaland’s record production.

I tend to like art that does more than what’s necessary, goes further, exceeds; but that keeps its contours sharp, holds its shape. I think of the way huge flocks of pigeons reverse and catch the light in a synchrony that doesn’t eradicate the oneness of each particular bird. This isn’t to say that I can’t turn it down for a slow jam when I feel it, or that I can’t build a poem around a single gesture rather than a whole array of them. I can and have. But I’m a relatively excitable person by nature, and when I try to write calm, tranquil poems, I usually feel more or less like an impostor, like I’m assuming someone else’s sensibility, or worse, like I’m trying to modify my work to make it behave more sensibly, or generically — to make it appeal to as many palettes as possible.

That said, I hope my poems do provide at least some measure of instant gratification. Admittedly, I like the idea that a poem of mine might provide that kind of exhilarating, sublime experience — but I would hope that some aspect of my work might provide a little pleasure right off without having to be eased into, whether it’s their rhythm or their sonic character overall, or a phrase or two that captures something of importance to the reader. 

Truth is, though, there might be a lot of poetry written today that doesn’t present you with an experience distinct or rich or exciting enough to make you want to relive it. It starts to fade into vagueness the minute you finish reading it. But I have faith in a culture that can produce an album like Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel and sitcoms like 30 Rock — work that appeals immediately with its hooks or aspects of slapstick even as it demonstrates tremendous intricacy, inventiveness, and intelligence.

2. Do you see your writing as appealing to the establishment or as more experimental?

I’m disinclined to let myself think that my poems might appeal to an “establishment,” because that word suggests to me a league of misguided writers struggling to maintain the status quo. Deep down they’re anxious about how boring their work is, or if they’re plainspoken confessional poets, they probably aren’t really poets at all, but just heartfelt expressers in verse, and they will insist that that’s what poetry is, goddammit — and trying to loosen them up and get them to think otherwise can be about as useless as encouraging a bullfrog to fly. You might get them to leap a little, but that’s about it.

You might then expect the “experimental” team to be a breath of fresh air or a band of emancipatory rebels, like one bright bold Prometheus after another, but in fact they can be just as tediously narrow-minded and border-patrolling as the “establishment.” They can dismiss all conventionally expressive work as passé or else deride it for one cooked-up reason or another, up to and including convoluted ethical imperatives. At some point you grow immune to all the factionalism, or maybe just numb to it. Happily, a lot of the poets who went to college in the late Eighties and Nineties, which is to say my generation, seem to be more able to appreciate work from either side of the divide, and many have been influenced by both, and wouldn’t feel comfortable identifying with either one or the other exclusively.

I’m one of these poets, the synthesizers, although I think my work probably tends to be more traditional in its forms and in the pitch of its rhetoric than most of my immediate peers. Because of this, at least in part, there have been some “establishment” — or let’s just say mainstream — poets who have responded kindly to it. At the same time, my poems tend to draw attention to their constructedness, to make use of citation and collage, to include discursive or overtly philosophical language, and to do their best never to devolve into reportage, or worse, into the glimmery complacent idiom used for poignant reminiscences one might associate with much mainstream poetry. For these reasons, some critics and poets associated with the avant garde have been receptive to my work. I’ve been lucky. In the end I think most of my readers have been synthesizers like myself, whether they come from my generation or from the generation before or after mine.

3. How do you write your poems?

When I started writing I was really interested in going at it with a tweezer, plotting everything, until I realized that it would make for a mechanical and lifeless kind of writer. I wanted to get a sense of the materiality of language and how I could shape it and what I could really do with it technically. I think the reason I like a certain kind of formal contract in the writing is that I like seeing the way the architectural plans are realized. If the poem is going to be written in tercets, I like seeing how that next long sentence drapes itself down through the tercets — I love that feeling of mental architecture.

The title is usually like the lens or germ of a poem for me. “Globus Hystericus,” published in The Paris Review’s Fall 2009 issue, refers to the psychogenetic lump in the throat caused by anxiety — and so every section of the poem ends with some reference to not being able to swallow, or to being speechless. The way we can psychosomatically do damage to ourselves — the way we can invent our own physical injuries — is analogous to the way that through our own imaginative capacity we do damage to the world outside us. I wanted to think about how unguided or unprincipled imagination can be a sort of disastrous quality. We’re always creating reality, whether or not we admit it to ourselves.

4. What are the Halls of Aspartame, and who is the poem’s speaker?

The conversation about a collaborative project had begun about a year before, but I didn’t have any new work on hand. Then the poet Corey Zeller approached me. He was asking poets whose work he liked to suggest the worst title for a contemporary American poem, out of which he planned to write a whole book of poems with terrible titles. The first thing that came to mind was “The Song Maps of Aspartame.” I decided to use it. Aspartame sounds to me like Shangri-La, Kubla Khan, or some other lordly, majestic place. But it’s this artificial sweetener — I was very excited by the idea that it was at the same time this potentially toxic substance. I decided to let the title be like a basket that would start collecting things, adding whatever material seemed right at the time. The voice changed at one point and I’m still not sure that I’m completely done with it — it doesn’t have a very distinct profile in my brain. I think that when it’s collected in my next book, I’ll probably throw in a few more stanzas. There’s one section, in particular, sixteen, that feels too jarring and could be let into a little more gracefully. I feel like I need to do something to adumbrate the language so that it will hark back to what’s come before, rather than seeming like it’s springing out of a jack-in-the-box. I have a problematic relationship to the sublime — but what are you going to do, stop reaching for the eternities?

I deliberately concealed it, but the speaker I’m referring to in “The Halls of Aspertame” is actually Childe Roland, from the Browning poem. I don’t really care for Browning all that much; the dramatic monologue can just be a little embarrassing to me — all the voice stuff! But I thought, let me move through the Browning poem and respond to it, quarrel with it.

5. How do debt and financial burden, which you take up in The Cloud Corporation, in particular, figure in your writing?

Debt wasn’t just a literary motif in The Cloud Corporation. All that talk about finance and debt and struggle, that was all very real. I was writing about the things that haunted and plagued me. People really responded to the thematics of the book. My first and biggest review, Dan Chiasson’s New Yorker piece, set the tone of reception by focusing heavily on the subject matter; a lot of people subsequently approached the book as charting the financial collapse. That was certainly a large part of it, but it’s not all that the poems are about. I’m worried that at some point, maybe even during the writing of The Cloud Corporation, I started to feel that my writing had to have an ethical component to it.

From “Chapter for Being Transformed into a Sparrow,” in The Cloud Corporation:

The world tries hard to bore me to death, but
     not hard enough.
Today it made me sit immobile in the bath—
water upwards of an hour, but the fact is,
     World—

I was totally into it. There’s a canker anchored
at the root of everything. Even I know that. Now
     what I want
is to know it better, want to know deep down

I can return to the world whatever filth I receive
without compunction.

Now I worry that when I sit down I’m thinking whether what I’m writing is going to tap into the zeitgeist. I’m fearful that I’ll start censoring myself if something doesn’t participate in that kind of a conversation. I don’t want to sit down and write poems that have a secular piety to them, trying to solve the next big crisis — it seems very artificial to me. So I’m trying to disable that. I want the next poems I write to be ridiculous, over the top, appalling — poems that don’t overannounce their moral sensitivity. When you see poetry contenting itself with small things, that can be frustrating too. A lot of poetry today seems to me to be just dicking around with voice — being charming or superficially Ashberyesque. I teach, and I see that a lot of young poets, maybe all of them, need role models — poets who can show them the range of voices and modes that they might be able to work in. For a long while now, Charles Simic, John Ashbery, and James Tate have assumed that role for a lot of male poets, I think. They’re all wonderful poets, don’t get me wrong, and each of them has been important to me and continues to be, but it seems like a lot of young male poets writing today are almost exclusively in dialogue with these figures, and there’s a whole range of other things they could be doing.

6. Stevens’s tercets and Eliot’s cadences echo through your poetry. Have any other writers been particularly influential for you?

Three Poets

I think the people I read now are the same people I read when I was younger, I just perhaps read them a little differently. Stevens and Eliot are still very important to me. When I first read Stevens in high school I remember it felt very uncanny to me. I thought, This is just how I want my thoughts to sound, even before I had any clue what the arguments of the poems were. But I knew my thoughts would never be like that; nor for that matter do I believe his were ever exactly like that. I feel that my poems have something in common with his, but there are more fingerprints on them; they’re a little messier, more hysterical, more histrionic.  I don’t try to steer my poems in his direction per se. I just think there’s a certain degree of artful detachment in his voice that I always thought of as being a space that would open up a complexity of possible affective responses, to show that something could be simultaneously sad and funny.

I’ve always been drawn to art that would allow for a little moving around, for difference. With David Foster Wallace it wasn’t like with Stevens — This is how I wish my thoughts sounded. I felt, This is exactly how my thoughts sound! But I’d probably point to David Lynch as having influenced me as much as any other artist, and not in any obvious way. Watching Mulholland Drive gave me a huge amount of confidence as a writer to draw from a place of immediate responses. When you’re feeling very present in the act of making art, something in you is going to swing it the right way. The degree of uncertainty and actual aboutness of that movie is something I responded to, and it allowed it me to some degree to bask in the beauty of the shots, the composition of the scenes, the performances, without letting my understanding of the plot be the handrail that guided me. 

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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