A Barrelhouse Interview with Clair Donato
Barrelhouse Presents is our semi-monthly reading series in Washington, DC. The idea behind Barrelhouse Presents is to showcase the work of other literary magazines and small presses we love. A little over a week ago, we hosted Claire Donato, Ian Hatcher, and Danniel Schoonebeek, all of whom have new books from Poor Claudia. Barrelhouse Poetry Editor Dan Brady caught up with Claire Donato to ask a few questions about her excellent new collection The Second Body.
DB: I loved reading The Second Body and really enjoyed your reading at Barrelhouse Presents. A lot of the language discussing the body feels scientific or maybe medical - the way a biologist might describe the body. Do you have a background in science or anatomy? Was the language of science an influence on your style here?
CD: I thought of linking to this clip from Slacker as my response to this question, but re-watching it, it feels too grave to be lightheartedly invoked. However, it does make me think about the notion that all women have a background in science and anatomy because our bodies are always under such clinical scrutiny, and are always medically politicized. So too are women frequently anatomically objectified, even by people who don’t have a background in physiology. I too lack the training, but I do have the body in question. So despite my lack of background in science and anatomy, my appropriation of this kind of language becomes a bodily extension.
These poems often engage the world in a physical way. We feel the emotional, political, and psychological implications of that engagement, but the primacy of the physical is at turns both strangely comforting and deeply unnerving. You’ve been able to render the physical world in such exact and cutting terms. I’m struggling to get to the question here, but I guess it’s “How?” How do you do that so well? Is it specificity? Do you cut material that doesn’t have a concrete feel? Do you have a process for making the poems feel this way? Or more simply, is it just the way you see the world and it gets translated to the page?
When I put words down on the page, I try to think against them—meaning alongside but also in opposition to them—versus attempting to chart a premeditated path. In other words, the first words I put down always constitute a preliminary sketch. I teach writing to architects and have lately been thinking about the writing process as a design process—that is, as a practice that involves planning, building, retrofitting and renovating with language, not to mention construction and deconstruction. I relish in design approaches to revision: making textual substitutions to invoke new logics; uncovering ontologies via syntactic rearrangement; rendering the physical world in uncanny-yet-exact terms via a process of carving (the keyboard as a sculptor’s tool). Referencing textual substitution may already invoke this, but highly seamed collage work is integral to my practice. Along these lines, the poems that result do reflect the way I see the world. Here, I think of Rosmarie Waldrop’s brilliant essay “Collage or Splice of Life”:
Our concerns and obsessions will surface no matter what we do. Tristan Tzara knew this. Here is his famous recipe for making a Dadaist poem:
To make a Dadaist poem:
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will be like you.
And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
Even with such a mechanical method, 'the poem will resemble you." How much more with methods that are not this determined by chance, but rather choice at a remove. If we don't have to worry about subject matter, we are free to concentrate on form. And I am convinced that is the only thing we actually can work on consciously. For the rest, all we can do is try to keep our minds alive, our curiosity and ability to see.
I always like it when longer poems suddenly break out in a book. Most of the poems in The Second Body are relatively short, but there are a few long poems in here - “Off to the Nervous Museum” is really great. What do you think longer poems (and to a certain extent longer lines as in the poems printed sideways) allow you to do as a poet that can’t be accomplished in shorter poems?
I’m an enthusiastic reader and writer of both long and short poems. As an undergraduate, I studied John Ashbery’s Flowchart and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely alongside Cid Corman’s Nothing Doing and Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho (If Not, Winter), to name a few examples. Short poems—my own and others’—are mantras that aid my concentration and focus; most days, they play on loop in my head. Long poems don’t have this function for me: they frustrate or interrupt this cycle, or this cycling. If I find myself looping part of a long poem that I wrote, then I suspect that it’s actually a short poem, a collection of short poems, or at least a long poem that is an assemblage of parts (like “Off to the Nervous Museum”).
Ultimately, I think it’s easy to claim that long poems require more concentration than short poems; but for me, long poems disperse concentration rather than being an extended feat of concentration. Line length, on the other hand, is a matter of breath.
You’re currently on tour with Danniel Schoonebeek and Ian Hatcher, both of whom also have new books from Poor Claudia. As you’ve heard them read each night, what’s something about their poetry that you’ve discovered that those less familiar with the material might not know?
I’m so excited to be touring with Danniel and Ian, both of whose work I’ve admired for years. Something that recently struck me about Ian’s work is that it engages hilarious registers of eroticism. He has this one poem in which someone has just come in the speaker’s eye, which he delivers in his quintessential text-to-speech-inflected voice. It’s really fucking weird and funny. And Danniel I’ve learned so much from over the years! Lately, I admire how he’s able to balance the intensity with which he delivers his poems with a warm and generous stage presence that somehow still manages to be punk.
What was it like working with the editors at Poor Claudia as the book came together?
I’ve admired Poor Claudia’s publications for many years and am delighted to have a book out with them. The bulk of the work I did at the press was with Travis Meyer, who designed the book. Stacey Tran and Zoe Tambling were great to work with on publicity and marketing. It was especially wonderful to be able to give input with regard to the book’s cover. When I first saw Sophie Jodoin’s “small dramas & little nothings,” which is featured on The Second Body’s cover, I knew it embodied the book.
Here at Barrelhouse, we end every interview with the same question, which is “What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?” So, what’s your’s?
There’s only one Patrick Swayze movie, and that movie is Donnie Darko.