Timothy Donnelly discusses the poetics of impossibility, the role of the contemporary poet, and the connective power of poetry across time and space with editorial assistant Natalia Sperry.

Timothy Donnelly’s most recent book, Chariot, was published in 2023 by Wave Books. His previous books include The Problem of the Many, winner of the inaugural Big Other Poetry Prize and The Cloud Corporation, winner of the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His poems have been widely translated and anthologized, and have appeared in such periodicals as American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry, and elsewhere, as well as in multiple Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Donnelly is a recipient of Columbia University’s Distinguished Faculty and Faculty Mentoring Awards, the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and The Paris Review’s Bernard F. Connors Prize, as well as fellowships and residencies from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, the New York State Writers Institute, and the T. S. Eliot Foundation. He lives in Brooklyn with his family.

Natalia Sperry: I really adore your poem “Digging for Apples,” featured in the Fall/Winter 2023 Issue of Colorado Review and in your recent collection, Chariot. It struck me as an ars poetica—one concerned as much with poetic tradition (digging for those golden apples of myth) as it is with being grounded in the present (rather than only getting caught up in Romantic, self-pleasing impulses.). This push and pull of the contemporary and the ancient or mythic feels central to the whole collection. With that in mind, how do you view your role as a contemporary poet?  

Timothy Donnelly: Well, thank you so much for that! As I note in the book, the title “Digging for Apples” comes from Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book I was revisiting in the summer of 2021 as I prepared for a class I would be teaching that fall. That was our first semester back on campus after the pandemic and I wanted to teach a course that would be pleasure-forward, that would allow for fun, and so I decided to teach a course on nonsense, which in the end turned out to be a more serious matter than I expected, of course. But as I read Carroll after not having read it in a long time, I noticed tons of phrases that immediately suggested titles for poems or turns of phrase or thought that I wanted to do something with. I wrote the poems in Chariot during the brunt of the pandemic, from March 2020 through August 2022, and as I wrote them I was committed to writing a book that would enjoy itself, that took pleasure in conveying thought and feeling through language. Even as it grappled with some of the complexities of the time—the suffering, the sorrow, frustration and fear—I also wanted to embody something of the perseverance and hope and gratitude of that period too, and even moments of unexpected connection and joy.  

Regarding this poem in particular, which came more or less near the midpoint of the composition of the book, yes—I did come to understand it as a kind of ars poetica. That’s exactly right. I came across the phrase “digging for apples,” and there was something about the oxymoron of it that appealed to me. You know, obviously apples don’t grow underground. But The Annotated Alice notes that the character who uses that phrase, Pat, who has a kind of modified dialect, is most likely intended to be Irish, and that “apples” was Irish slang for potatoes in the Victorian period. There are other poems in the book that nod to my Irish ancestry, so I felt motivated to keep that up, but mostly what I liked about the phrase was its sense of impossibility—“digging for apples” is either futile, like a fool’s errand, or a magic act, like catching a moonbeam in your hand. And that’s more or less how I think about writing poems. Half fool’s errand, half magic. And of course, there’s a whiff of the ole French in there too, via pommes de terre.   

NS: Right, “apple of the Earth?” 

TD: Exactly. And the word “pomme” in French sounds close enough to “poem,” so potatoes and poems have this underground relationship. Then with all of this sort of swimming in the back of my mind, I remembered that Sir Walter Raleigh is sometimes said to have brought the potato to Britain and Ireland from the Americas, and his poem “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage,” which is one of those poems that haunts my head, starts: 

Give me my scallop shell of quiet, 

My staff of faith to walk upon, 

My scrip of joy, immortal diet, 

My bottle of salvation, 

My gown of glory, hope’s true gage, 

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage. 

Here Raleigh calls for items with obvious symbolic value in preparation for his journey, and I thought maybe I could have the poem make use of a similar structural conceit, and I could invoke different tools for the undertaking of the poem, or for the next poem, or poems in general. 

The first stanza, I knew, had to be about sound—“Give me my shovel / of love for the sound.” Musicality is always first and foremost for me, so I wanted to declare at the onset a commitment to language’s sonic properties, but also for the kind of poetic labor that you might have to undergo to be brought into contact with the “golden ones.” The idea of digging brought boots to mind, and I thought of them as kind of weighing me to the earth, keeping me on task and grounded in the moment and in reality (not always a given for a Gemini). For whatever reason, “wanking off in fields of rareripes and dandelions” seemed like a fun way to posit the opposite condition—a kind of frivolous and self-indulgent waste of time. The third stanza ended up having to do with being placed against the “backdrop / of what can’t be controlled.” Here, probably because that field was mentioned in the previous stanza, I was thinking about the contrast an art object assumes within a space that’s natural or ungoverned by human handiwork or human ideas of organization, probably because Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar” was somehow on my mind, too: “I placed a jar in Tennessee….” When you put a human-made artifact in the context of a natural space, it can come to seem to become central, or focal, at least from a human perspective, and everything around it appears to be defined in relationship to it. 

In a related way, I find it interesting to think of a poem as being something that remains itself against the backdrop of things that are always changing. In prose, margins can change, but verse says “no” to that. So, that opened the door for me to what, in the poem, I ended up calling “narcissism,” because I became interested in the idea that a poem might exist always as itself and unto itself, resistant to change. It might seem to change when a person shades it with their voice, or interacts with it and has some strong take on it, or reads it in a way that foregrounds the musicality or the rhythm, or else they might want to kill that, or whatever we might do—while the poem, like an unmovable entity on the page, always stays itself. No matter how much noise we make, it doesn’t respond to us, or even notice us. We’re like its Echo. And while narcissism is typically framed as the love of oneself or of the object of oneself that leads ultimately to stagnancy and destructiveness, I was weirdly drawn to the idea of the poem as something so radically itself that it stays that way forever, cold and detached and unyielding, just itself, and just as it appears on the white space of the page. 

I don’t typically think of poems this way, and certainly not all poems, but in that moment, I was interested in the idea of a linguistic artifact that persists beyond change, like a  monument of its own being, detached from the contingencies of its origin, even from its author. There was something coldly appealing to that to me, even though it goes against much of what we’re taught now and pretty much know to be true. And I think it’s this sense of coldness, the impersonal coldness of a monument, that brought me the phrase “starlight on snowfall” at the end of the poem. I liked that expression when it came to me, and I didn’t really interrogate it. I just knew in my gut it was right. But then when I stayed with it a little while, I came to understand it as a figure of a kind of remote, lifeless beauty—the ground now frozen and covered up and barren of apples, but giving off a sparkle that seems to be in conversation with the stars.  

But then you asked me the important question of what the role of the poet is. I honestly think that the role of the poet is just to write poems, and to write the poems that they feel compelled to write. Whether it be limericks or epics, documentarian work or the poetry of witness, post-confessional elegies, lyric meanderings, flarf, or even concrete poems in the shape of birds—if that’s what you’re here to do, go do it. I’m not going to police anyone’s artistic choices. We’re policed practically everywhere else as it stands. But when I get a question like that—and it’s an appropriate question to ask, especially at times like these—I do of course acknowledge that poets have a special opportunity to be compelling truthtellers of their moment. But I also believe in a division of labor among the community of poets, and those who can most effectively and authentically become those truthtellers ought to go ahead and do that, but then if there are people who would only blunder if they attempted to, they can just head to another room where some other kind of work is happening. I also believe that poets’ writing practices exist separately from how poets exist as citizens. What they stand for and fight for and choose to support, and how they choose to support it—where they contribute their energy, how they vote, or where they donate their time and money—these won’t necessarily be reflected in their poetry, and they shouldn’t always have to be.  

NS: I really appreciate that sort of nuanced perspective. I mean, there’s no “one size fits all” way to be a contemporary poet. 

TD: Right! 

NS: With some of these ideas in mind, how do we engage in ancient traditions of poetry while still being true to our present world? 

TD: I cant help but be drawn to antiquity. I always have been, it’s just a native affinity. I grew up reading myths and was obsessed with Egypt and fantasized about being an archaeologist. I’ve always been entranced by the idea of this human experiment as having gone on for a long time, maybe even too long. And a sense of connection to the remote, or to the absent, or even to the invisible is something I’ve always been…I guess the way to put it is “afflicted with.” Of course, it’s good to situate oneself in a grounded, material, fertile place that we can write from, but theres also this habit of mind that wants to honor what isn’t so evidently present, or to preserve the memory of things, or to demonstrate the role that what isn’t visible plays in our realities. Ive often said that one of the things that compels me to write a poem is that I know I have lived at least half my life in my headthe thoughts and things that go through me when Im walking from the subway to my apartment, for example, or whenever Im left on my own. The everyday occupation of my mind seems utterly central to what it has meant to be a person or to have been alive, and yet I know the tragic nature of that is that it just dissolves. Well, not always tragic, it can come as a relief—consciousness can also be a hell. But it all goes away regardless, all this life inside our heads. Its forever evanescing. And I do think a poem can take some of that content, or some of the texture, or some of the feeling of being a living thinking human animal, and it can lift it to a place of lastingness. This is close to what I was thinking about in “Digging for Apples” on some level, toothe idea of transforming the flow of thought and experience through my own subjectivity into something that exists beyond me, something that has a kind of endurance to it and surpasses my own contingency. This comes to some of us as a bit of a reliefthat the ongoing activity of our consciousness can actually yield something that we can point to as proof of our having been here, of having lived. Something deeper than a photograph.  

NS: You’ve spoken a little about your process and the form of these poems—I wondered if you could speak a little more to your approach to titling poems? Many of the poems in Chariot draw titles from other works, ranging from paintings (as in the wonderful poem “The Yellow Boat,” also featured in the issue) to other literary texts (“Digging for Apples” coming from Alice in Wonderland) all the way to philosophy, film, and beyond. There’s often an element of ekphrasis or homage here, too. Do these titles often come organically out of the poems, or do you ever set out to write a poem with the title already in mind?  

TD: Each one is always more or less its own thing. My friend and colleague Lucie Brock-Broido used to like stockpiling titles and then write the poems to go with them when writing season came. I used to do that a lot more back in the day and have wanted to come back to it; I like the playful spirit of it. Sometimes you encounter a phrase in whatever context and it instantly provokes a mood or shade of thought. Maybe all poets do this to some degree? We’ll encounter a phrase in our reading, like I did with “digging for apples,” or else just find it passing through our minds when we go for those kinds of walks I was talking about a minute ago, and thenif it stops us in our tracks, I tell myself what that means is that its already in conversation with something living somewhere in your mind, that its pinging with what’s percolating inside you because it senses the potential. I dont know if you ever did this when you were a kid, but we did when I was growing upwe would take a magnet out into the yard and drag it through the sand to pick up all the magnetite and other ferric business going on. If a phrase comes to you in neon and says,Use me!” it wants you to drag it through the sand of your imagination, or of your memory, or whatever it is—and it will pull up a poem, or at least some charged dirt to work from. It’s like that magnet, you know what I mean? Drag it through your sand and see what it pulls up. 

NS: I love that—the idea that it’s all in there… 

TD: I think it is, yeah! Or maybe even just looking for it can create it. You know what I mean? 

NS: Yeah—it feels like it always comes back to connections! 

TD: Absolutely. I’ve been saying that to my workshops over and over for a few years now: everything is connected, and the idea that everything is connected is at once the most important message but also one that threatens to become shopworn and trite and dead to us. And one of the things we get to do as poets is to keep that truth alive and relevant. We get to be the custodians of its relevance, and to keep embodying it in urgent and unexpected ways. Because the idea that this should ever seem “cringe” to us, especially to poets, is a total disaster. So we keep renewing the idea that everything we do is connected to the past, the present, and the future, to people around us and to people who aren’t even born yet, and of course to the planet. Forgetting that or disregarding it has made it too easy for us to destroy too many things of value. When a poem can put us back in touch with that truth, it earns its wings. 

Natalia Sperry is a first-year MFA candidate in poetry at Colorado State University, as well as an editorial assistant for Colorado Review. Their writing has appeared in Five South’s The Weekly and is forthcoming in Interim. When she isn’t lost in the alternate universes opened up by poetry, she spends her free time with her partner and cats, Apollo and Artemis.