No 8 - Winter 1996
John Stammers interviews Michael Donaghy
|Michael Donaghy was born in the New York Bronx of Irish parents. He was for some time poetry editor of the Chicago Review before moving to England in 1985. He has had two collections published in the UK: Shibboleth (OUP 1988), the title poem of which took second prize in the National Poetry Competition 1987; and Errata (OUP 1993). He won the Whitbread poetry prize in 1989 and was selected as one of the New Generation poets in 1994. He also works as a musician in an Irish traditional band and runs poetry courses and workshops in London.|
Michael, you are an Irish American living in England. How do you think this comes out in your work?
For me, this is a question of displacement. I grew up in a Spanish-speaking area of the south Bronx and, as far as my parents were concerned, America was a foreign country and they communicated this to me. So, moving from the States to England, it is as if I’m doubly or even trebly displaced. The first person - I - in my work is not as prominent as in some poets, but it is there, and when I’m talking about alienation or displacement, I have first hand knowledge of that.
For instance, in my poem Shibboleth the idea behind it is that, in World War Two, German infiltrators were carefully trained in US accents, but what gave them away was trivial things such as not knowing the name of Tarzan’s ape. But the speaker in the poem, who is not an infiltrator, realises that he too has to live up to that image. He has become neurotic that he won’t appear sufficiently American at just the crucial moment when he’s asked a key question. The real impulse behind writing it was being American and coming to England.
You are also a folk musician. How do you think that influences or relates to your poetry?
The kind of music I play is music in an oral tradition. It’s been designed to persist in the memory. For every jig or reel, it’s as if it’s been tested in the wind tunnel of memory and so has that quality of being able to be held, as I like to say, in the mind’s hand all at once. And there’s a perfect analogy there with the oral tradition in poetry. I’m interested in the unconscious power of poetic form where it, so to speak, answers the echo of the form in your mind or ‘ear” in the same way as a reel or jig does. This is true of the sonnet, say: there’s a sonnet-shaped groove cut in the mind which a sonnet will resonate with or fit into, and this is true whether you recognise the poem to be a sonnet or not.
Can you think of any examples in your own work?
Well, recently, when I give readings, I’ve taken to reciting from memory rather than reading from the page. I find this much better because I engage with the poem all over again. It’s much more interesting for me as a reader. I seem to remember the formal necessity of why a particular line went where it did for that memorisability. Memorability and memorisability are two separate yet related qualities and I’m interested in the relationship between the two. I think that the act of remembering the poetry gives something to the performance. It connects in a more direct way with the presentation of the memorability of the work. In a sense this activity is connecting with those cultural grooves. I feel that, when I read from memory, both myself and the audience are actively travelling those grooves rather than me just pointing them out, so to speak.
At one point in your life, you nearly gave up poetry. I wonder why that was?
I was studying for a PhD at the time and, as more or less part of that, I was reading a lot of contemporary American poetry that didn’t inspire me. I also became very suspicious of the whole enterprise of the art because I felt that there was an awful lot of profoundly dull American poetry that was being elevated to canonical status for extra-poetic reasons.
If a poet or group of poets had published a manifesto or were easily identifiable as being part of a group, then they could be written about. They fit neatly into an essay on whatever movement it is: X’ism or Y’ism. Also, a lot of my contemporaries admired poets, I felt, only because they’d read certain essays in books which, in turn, had been written in response to other essays written in books and so on. Certain poets and certain groups of poets seemed to be black holes of literary criticism where they had collapsed under the weight of critical commentary and kept sucking more commentary into them.
The type of criticism practised at the time was more concerned with fitting groups or individual into some theoretical or cultural reference grid rather than responding to the poem on its own merits. But’ I felt that only because of the poets I was exposed to. When I went beyond them and looked for poets who were writing in a critical vacuum, I discovered many fine contemporary American, Irish and English poets.
So what brought you back to poetry at that time?
One poet who I felt particularly inspired by was Derek Mahon, who I felt continued a line from Louis Macneice. As opposed to, say, the work of some very hieratic and very elemental poets (although he could write about the elemental and also be urbane and witty), his lines sang. He had a wonderful ear: something that was completely missing in American poetry which sounded very flat and unrhythmical. All the theories I read about American rhythm struck me as never anything more than apologies really.
For example, if you threw a lot of cardboard boxes down the stairs, recorded it, then played it over enough times and familiarised yourself with it, you would be able to predict every random noise. That doesn’t mean it’s rhythmical, though. But you could simply hear Derek Mahon and the rhythm in the more traditional form that he played with and against. He could also frustrate your anticipation. American free verse couldn’t frustrate your anticipation because there was no anticipation there.
Leading on from that, as a cross-Atlantic poet you are in a good position to evaluate contemporary British poetry as against American poetry today. How do you think things stand?
It’s.funny that the year I left America in 1985 was the year that American New Formalism emerged. You could say that I left at exactly the wrong moment to benefit from that. On the other hand, because I am averse to movements of any kind, because such grouping is so terribly reductive, it was just the right time for me to leave. For example, I think that the new American formalists are very culturally specific to America and you can’t compare this to British formalism which never went away. Nor is it as politically charged as in America where, bizarrely, some critics have assigned politics to poetic form. I’m glad I escaped all that.
I’m interested in the unconsciousness of form, not in mastering the language. I’m interested in putting my work in the position where something suggests itself to me that would not have done if I hadn’t been writing in a form. The other thing is, speaking of movements in contemporary British poetry, I find this tribalism very comical. Perhaps I ought to refer to the New Generation poets thing, which was an attempt to actually manufacture a group of poets in the way that television tried to manufacture the Monkees as a pop group.
But you were one of those chosen as a New Generation poet.
Yes, but we didn’t get together and say ‘lets be New Generation poets and draw up a manifesto’. And the funny thing was that many of us were thirty- or fortysomethings and there we were being called the New Generation poets. We were selected by the likes of Vicki Feaver and Michael Longley, very venerable poets, and critics like John Osborne. But then, since there was no angle, the PR firm that handled it and the media created this youth-friendly angle: that somehow we were more accessible and not stuffy or academic. This is a very reductive approach.
Do you think there were any benefits to the New Generation promotion?
Well, I hate to sound ungrateful, but no, not at all. I think it and the media misrepresented us and our work: I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word ‘zappy’ used so frequently! There was certainly no money involved and, after being asked to set aside a month for readings, I got fewer than I would have if I’d organised them myself. I think the purpose of the promotion, as far as the publishers were concerned, was to let the public know that they do publish poetry, to raise its profile and so show that there is a lively contemporary poetry scene.
Do you think it worked?
I think you’d have to ask the publishers that.
We have already talked about some Influences. What would your others be?
What people usually mean by that is who are your immediate poetic parents. I’d like to expand it to include the positive and negative influences and not just poetry. They would start with my father doing comical recitations, etc. Then later reading poems randomly in anthologies that we had round the house when I was kid. I went through the phase of adolescent intoxication with Dylan Thomas - his intoxicating incomprehensibility. Late I had a strong interest in the Metaphysical poets. In the twentieth century I’d like to acknowledge a debt to the old formalists of America that included Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur. They continue to remind me of the rich possibilities of poetry. That’s what an influence is, isn’t it? - when someone lets you know that, yes, you were boxed in but here’s something else you can do.
And as far as negative influences go - Black Mountain poetry had a kind of homeopathic effect on me, having been force-fed it. I feel that a lot of what I do is a reaction against it. If I hadn’t been force-fed that stuff, my work would be a lot different now, so I have to acknowledge that. But I think, if we are honest, poets are as influenced by individual poems as by poets.
Can you say one or two that have been important to your development?
I’m sure Derek Mahon would hate me to mention A Disused Shed in County Wexford yet again, but that was a very important poem for me. Some others, by those old formalists, would include a poem by Richard Wilbur called The Mind Reader which is a very important poem for me, as is a poem by Anthony Hecht called A Birthday Poem. But it’s not only poets and poems. I feel I am just as influenced by the ideas of Joyce or the short stories of Borges.
You run poetry groups and courses. I wonder what your approach to those is, what you feel you offer and, in turn, what you yourself get from them?
Some poets get very snobby about poetry groups. They say that poetry can’t possibly be taught. This is an absurd thing to say. There are art schools, music schools; why can’t there be poetry workshops where we learn some of the basics of our craft? That’s what I do; I’m teaching craft, not imparting talent. If I could do that, I’d give a bit more to myself! I think they are very, very important:
I think they are important to do responsibly, though. Also, it’s important to concentrate on that craft aspect, so that it doesn’t become a form of group therapy; to keep in mind that the poem is going to be out there in the world and. not introduced with apologies to an understanding group.
At the same time the leader of the workshop has to be aware that every poem is unique, every poet’s approach is unique and to be sensitive to that. You can’t be blinkered and say all poems must do this or do that - I’m completely against that approach. You have to wait for the poem to act on you, see where it. wants to go and help the poet focus in that direction. A good poem is always going to surprise you. I find it’s only bad poetry which is the same. In fact, people who are just beginning to write poetry always make the same mistakes. For myself, I find I get satisfaction in helping people refine their craft. It’s very exciting to work on a poem with someone. It’s almost as good as writing your own poem because their approach is going to be so different from yours. It’s like helping to translate someone’s poem into the poem they meant to write.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been involved in a number of collaborations recently. I spent a week in Italy translating, with the help of interpreters, the work of an Italian poet into English. At the same time he was translating mine. I also recently worked on a short film which was shown as part of Poetry International. Working on this brought up the interesting issue of how a poet and a film-maker collaborate without it becoming a process of mutual illustration and/or commentary. Since Modernism, poetry has become packed with images and little or no rhetoric. Film, of course, is already made up of images. (I maintain, in fact, that Modernism was inspired by film.) If you are then collaborating with a film-maker, what is there left for poetry to do? Well, our work developed so that my role became to provide rhythm and sound - the film being the imagery of the poem.
Also I’m going to be working with a composer. We’re planning to go to Dublin to record some oral history, i.e. reminiscences. The composer in question uses exclusively sound samples in his work, usually music. Our plan is to use only the spoken voice and, by the use of contemporary digital sampling techniques, to turn it into a piece of spoken music. So, I guess the things I’m involved in at the moment are these collaborations, which is far from the sort of thing I usually do in my poems.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
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- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
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- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Purple Patch
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- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
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