An interview with poet Gregory Donovan about his new collection

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Gregory Donovan, an associate professor in the creative writing program in the Department of English, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, has published his second collection of poetry, “Torn from the Sun,” from Red Hen Press.

Donovan’s first collection, “Calling His Children Home,” won the Devins Award for Poetry. Donovan is a co-founder and senior editor of Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts, which is published by the Department of English and New Virginia Review Inc. Along with his wife, Michele Poulos, an award-winning poet, filmmaker and screenwriter, he also is the co-producer of a feature-length documentary film, "A Late Style of Fire," about the late poet Larry Levis, a former VCU professor. The film, which has a soundtrack from Iron and Wine, is expected to be completed this year.

David St. John said “Torn from the Sun” is “psychologically intricate, resolutely thrilling and an immaculately crafted volume of poems,” while Norman Dubie said, “These are our first ideas, our oldest ideas made memorable again. A brilliant book.”

Donovan will give a reading tonight with novelist Erin McGraw (“The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard,” “Better Foord for a Better World”) at 7 p.m. at the Scott House as part of the Visiting Writers Series. The reading is free and open to the public.

Donovan recently answered some questions about his collection.

What did you set out to do with this particular book? What do you see as the thread that connects these poems?

The central motif in “Torn from the Sun” is the labyrinth, an ancient symbol of entrapment, where the Minotaur—that creature who was half-animal and half-human—was abandoned by his wayward, dismayed parents to spend his life of rage and terror imprisoned in a maze of stone. I was adopted at birth, and did not discover that fact until I was a teenager, which suddenly and with a shock explained the odd treatment I had received from some relatives, who saw me perhaps as a sort of minotaur, an unknown and unpredictable creature of dubious origin. Some of the poems in the book explore that idea in a variety of ways, often mythic and not always biographical.

The book’s title also makes reference to Icarus, who was, in a manner of speaking, “torn from the sun” when he flew to close to its burning rays after getting free from the labyrinth through the crafty inventiveness of his father, Daedalus, the maker of the labyrinth, who gave Icarus fragile wings on which he could make his escape. Nowadays people are more likely to think of a labyrinth as a site for meditation and inner discovery, a way of achieving an escape from fear and pain, and I might hope that my book would function in that way as well.

One of the poems in the book, created in response to standing before a life-sized statue of Shiva, the “Lord of the Dance” which is the dance of life and death, mentions that “there is a way out.” The way to escape the labyrinth, the way out, is the way in—a path of discovery that a well-designed poetry collection may provide.

The book is broken into three parts. Can you explain the purpose behind the structure?

The three sections may be experienced as three movements in a symphonic musical structure, or as an updated version of the ancient Greek triadic structure used in their public presentations of choral lyric poems or odes—turn, counterturn, and stand. Each section begins with a poem that invokes the labyrinth and suggests some sort of difficult entanglement, and each section ends with a poem involving a spiritual ritual as well as a sacred figure, located in another culture and time, and in an exceptional landscape—the first, in Scotland (with references to India); the second, Peru; and the third, a mountaintop in Wyoming sacred to Native American culture.

Overall, the book enacts a journey out of several forms of entrapment towards a freedom from fear. The most significant traps we face, outside of literally being jailed or held hostage, may be those which are internal, and escaping them may be a more uncertain enterprise because it may be unending—it may never be fully or satisfactorily conclusive.

How do you think this work differs from your first book? How have you evolved as a poet?

I aspire never to cease evolving as a poet, and a teacher, as long as I draw a breath. Meanwhile, all poetry collections begin in some sort of chaos, with individual poems being written as they come rolling along, almost of their own accord, making their peculiar demands, unless the author has set out to create a strictly organized “project book” (such as an entire series of poems focused, say, on Darwin and evolution, or on telling a particular historical or personal story). Yet in most cases, eventually a shape begins to emerge, and that’s how my book evolved.

My intention was to challenge myself to engage with a new, more adventurous style and to learn from my exposure to much of the best and most inventive contemporary poetry available through all the reading I’ve done among the submissions to the Blackbird journal, which I have helped edit since the journal’s beginning—the first issue having been published in 2002. I also have the excitements and enticements generated by my enormously enjoyable work with the talented poets who are the students and graduates of the VCU creative writing program. That reading I do is sometimes quite time-consuming and it requires a lot of energy and concentration to do well, but there also is the distinct benefit of having your horizons expanded through that exposure to all manner of unpredictable forms of excellence.

I took a long time to make my first book, and I’m happy to say that it doesn’t seem to have “dated” terribly and so I don’t have to run away from it or repudiate it, as some poets feel that they must with their earlier work. I took a long time making this book, too, and I took a lot of care and pleasure in making it. However, I was surprised to realize after I had completed “Torn from the Sun”, that while it clearly does differ from my earlier collection, “Calling His Children Home”—a book whose title makes reference to the musical practices of Buddy Bolden, the legendary founder of jazz music and thus it’s a book with a focus on musicality and on early jazz and blues figures—the new book is not utterly a complete departure from my earlier writing style.

The next one may be more of a departure. I’ve been writing much more compact poems, and thus far they exhibit an interest in responding to the revelations and disturbances created by contemporary science, especially in astronomy and astrophysics. But we shall see. I’m a writer who feels himself to be in service to the powers and suggestions that invade me and in that way insist on being brought into the light.

Your use of humor helps add poignancy to certain poems, such as "Is There a Dead Mule in It." What role do you see for humor in your work?

In general it seems that it’s difficult to be funny in a poem, and we poets probably don’t leap off that precipice often enough, I suspect, though there are a few poets who do it with regularity and great success, such as Dean Young and Bob Hicok, or Philip Levine and Gerald Stern, though you can find subtle but distinctly sharp moments of humor even in such “serious” poets as Elizabeth Bishop or Sylvia Plath or even Emily Dickinson. On the other hand, humor that’s too broad or obvious, taking goofy pratfalls, or which is snidely sardonic, especially when it makes fun of other people without poking even more fun at the author, can soon seem to be a cheap trick, or just plain tawdry and wearisome.

In the poem you’ve named, I set out to have some fun with Southern clichés, both in phrasing and in content. I figured I’d earned that privilege, since I have spent most of my adult life living in the South, both in Virginia and earlier in North Carolina, where I had labored in the construction trades as the poem reveals. I should credit R.T. Smith of the Shenandoah journal with a somewhat ironic debt of gratitude because his rejection of an earlier draft of the poem forced me to continue to reconsider it and to discover a better ending for the poem, which I hope will make some readers laugh. I also had the opportunity in that poem to sneak in a description of an ancient and perfectly ridiculous International Harvester pickup I once owned, a terrible wreck of a thing of which I was inordinately fond. That is one of the poems which has a basis in autobiography, since I actually once did do some painting and carpentry work for the North Carolina branch of the Rockefeller family, and I hope I don’t get sued.

Characters in these poems endure their share of hardships—a house fire, a robbery, a hanging, the Great Fire of Smyrna, among other situations. What interests you about writing about people in these kinds of circumstances?

Perhaps all of us are most intriguing, amazing, or mysterious when we are driven into conditions of extremity, since that is when we are at our best, or our worst, or our most revealing, or most surprising. Although the danger for a writer dealing with such circumstances is the risk of slipping into some form of sentimentality, if the phrasing and metaphor-making is inventive and energetic enough, that bath of bathos may be sidestepped.

In addition, the imagery that appears before our eyes, and in our mind’s eye, when we are faced with such emergencies and disasters, can take on a shining intensity. Vivid imagery and striking action are essential elements in much of the writing that most interests me. Once I heard Toni Morrison give a significant answer to the question, “Who do you have in mind as your audience when you write?” Morrison answered, “I always seek to make the sort of book I would like to read.” Ever since I heard her say that when I was a student, I have been setting that same challenge for myself—a source of great pleasure as well as bouts of frustration too, of course. Yet isn’t it one of the writer’s first responsibilities not to be boring?

Yes, sentimentality and preachiness are boring. But catching a moment of great intensity and revelation in language that is memorable is not boring, and that’s a worthy goal.


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