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Photo Courtesy of Timothy Donnelly
This year, Timothy Donnelly, an associate professor in the Columbia University School of the Arts, won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for his book of poetry The Cloud Corporation. This prize is one of the most prestigious and lucrative prizes a poet can receive. An author of two books, Donnelly has also had his work published in various magazines and journals such as Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and The Paris Review. He has also worked as poetry editor of Boston Review for the last sixteen years. The Eye sat down with Donnelly to talk about his fear of meditation, the history of poetry, and letting go of his “ego problem.”
I wanted to ask you about the opening of “Birdsong from Inside the Egg.” What was the inspiration behind that? How did it come about?
That poem is a title of a poem by the Persian poet, Rumi, from the sixth or seventh century. A lot of people read him because of his mysticism, a touchy-feely, New-Age kind of general spiritual quality to his stuff. And I would sometimes pick him up for fun. I couldn’t really access the whole, overall worldview or the cosmology or gooey kind of spirituality of the poems, but I did like a lot of the titles. And that was one of them—“Birdsong from Inside The Egg.”
Did you have to research eggs to write this?
I did look into eggs because I was very drawn to the idea that even within this enclosure, there are the memories of your pre-life, awareness of being within this egg, but then little apparitions of what was on the outside world, with the pores, you catch a whiff of cow manure, a whiff of apple pie and then wondering, what’s out there, what’s out there in the world?
Interesting that you made it an American farm.
I did—I had to draw from my own imaginative terrain. I didn’t go to sixth-century Persian. I don’t know the language. So I made it local. I like the idea of it being very inclusive, whatever comes my way. There is this vital thing within the egg, ready to sing, although it has nothing to sing about quite yet except for a very circumscribed experience or the recollection of this little bird folded inside the egg. That’s the literal interpretation, but it’s about the human being isolated in his own mind. How you exist in a sort of meditative, eyes shut on the pillow—it’s a hint at the sort of meditative eternalness.
Do you meditate?
I fear meditation. I’ve tried to in the past, and I either doze off or get over myself and then go wash dishes. I’ve felt myself fall into a very weird trance state that I recoil from. I’m very Western. Part of me is frightened by and part of me is fascinated by the idea of losing my hard-earned ego! My hard-earned individualism! I say this with a grain of salt, a huge grain of salt, because I know that that’s a problem, and it does impede my feeling of ever really feeling connected to a group.
I’m a little bit defensive about my individualism. Who knows where it came from? Probably part of it is personal, and part of it is cultural, and part of it is experiences, and part of it is genetics, just the way my nerves are put together. I’m not in dialogue with it. I believe that’s part of my own maturation, or anyone’s maturation—to get over that adolescent “me, me, me” phase and sort of develop a looser hold on one’s ego and absorb the foreign, the other, into oneself. Not absorb. Even using the word ‘absorb’ like that is problematic—you know, ‘absorbing it into me,’ like I’m the Borg.
No, the Borg, like from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “We are Borg. Resistance is futile.” Very imperial—absorb everything into me.
Oh. I was thinking of that game you play in elementary school where you run around and add people to your blob chain and then they break off to form their own blobs when it gets too big.
Oh, yeah, exactly like that! That’s what I’m doing with that poem. You start with an idea, you get on your horse, and then the horse starts making up its own mind to a certain extent, and then it ends. It’s the voice of a consciousness that becomes forever becoming, not made. Always on the point of becoming, not a finished thing. That was so long ago. Do you want to know how long ago I wrote that poem? Maybe like 2001?
I wanted to ask you more about your process. You said you got the title for this poem from a Persian poet—there’s this idea of a poet spontaneously creating all this amazing work, and I’m sure that’s not true.
Not at all. I feel that my work is always in conversation with other works, sometimes my own, sometimes building off or being aware of other traditions that have come before me. T.S. Eliot advocates in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” for the development of a historical sense, and I have that, at least with regard to poetry. I certainly didn’t invent this language. I’ve borrowed from the progress of time. I don’t think of myself as existing in isolation, even if I do have this ego problem.
What I was saying before about meditation and what I’m saying now about poetry, in some ways, it might seem to be a little contradictory, but I have this idea of myself as being a composite of possible selves: a composite of genetic material, these traits from my mother’s side of the family and these traits from my father’s side of the family, with a collection of memories that I have shaped with my brother living in the house right there, sleeping in the bed beside mine.
I have an awareness about myself that I think many people these days have, about myself being a constructed amalgamated thing, and it’s because of that awareness that I sometimes feel disquieted by the idea of relinquishing whatever principle or set of principles that is holding it together.
Writing a poem is a way to engage with that multidimensionality and my own subjectivity in a way that makes me feel a considerable amount of authority or control over it. I often think of this being a place where I am building something of the representation of a mind that is becoming its own voice, by folding through a borrowed language and by folding my reading and experience, other people’s experiences, things that catch my eye on the television, things I hear on the radio, things I read in the paper and the magazine. There’s a radical kind of collage aspect to my poems, even if the variousness of the bits of data and the tiles assembled in my mosaic are always brought into some kind of harmony and sense of a unity, of a wholeness.
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