Interview: Laura Donnelly
Midwestern Gothic staffer Lauren Crawford talked with author Laura Donnelly about the transformation of Midwestern literature, images of home, leaving writing unresolved, and more.
Lauren Crawford: First things first, tell us about your Midwestern roots.
Laura Donnelly: I grew up in Michigan, living first in a tiny town called Lake City, and later in a city on the Lake Michigan shore. So, lots of lakes. If we were sitting here in person, this is where I would hold up my hand, like some Michigander salute, and point here and here. I’ve also lived briefly in Indiana and Illinois (graduate school and a short stint as a visiting professor). I’m in Central New York now, but my roots are thoroughly Midwestern.
LC: In what ways has this region inspired your works and your style of writing?
LD: I know that living most of my life in the Midwest has influenced my writing, but the how and why of that is tricky to pin down. Because the Midwest is never one thing, much too big for that, I worry that I fall upon stereotypes when I talk about it. (And that itself feels paradoxically Midwestern, that hesitation to make large assertions.) I see its influence in my tendency towards quiet. Towards listening. A desire not to assume too much, which I sometimes have to work against. I think it’s there, too, in my interest in what happens behind the quiet of the small town’s façade. Both the beauties and horrors we find there. And then the landscape floods its way through, not so much the flat cornfields of the Midwest, but the lakes and dunes and snow of Michigan.
LC: Your first full-length collection of poems, Watershed, won the Cider Press Review Editors Prize and has continued to receive critical acclaim. When did you begin writing the pieces that would become Watershed, and what did you want to communicate with the collection?
LD: The final poem in the collection, “The Piano,” is probably the earliest. It was written during my first semester of graduate school, so…ten years ago? At some point, I recognized that the book was really about women’s lives, and coming of age, and the structures through which and against which women define themselves. This wasn’t something I set out to communicate, and I’m not sure others read the book this way (there’s a lot of art and music and ekphrasis in the book, too), but it’s there. Seeing this informed my final revision of Watershed. I had to make some hard cuts at that point, including cutting a fifteen page poem from the center of the manuscript to let these other themes emerge.
LC: You were trained as a pianist before receiving your MFA, and many of the poems in Watershed incorporate a sense of musicality—one can hear the strings being plucked beneath the words on the page. How has being a musician helped you explore the cadence of language and poetry?
LD: First of all, thank you! I used to think there wasn’t a rhythmic connection that I brought from music to poetry—though I recognized how studying music taught me the necessity of time in the practice room. But I’ve come to see a sort of subterranean influence. For instance, how the line is very much like the musical measure for me. Though I don’t ask that these measures be equal (no syllabics, not much scanning), I listen hard for the way a phrase, like a melody, breaks across a series of lines. And I’m fascinated by the relative emphases on syllables—not the accented vs. unaccented but the myriad variations between them. I’m less interested in hearing iambs vs. dactyls, and more apt to hear the tension between eighth notes and triplets at work in a line of poetry (and they’re there!). At the same time, poetry gives me a freedom I never found in music. I get to disrupt those time signatures, get to riff off a phrase. A better musician experiments like that at the piano, too, but I never felt that ease. I think I have less fear of failure in poetry, which means more room to play.
LC: Images and scenes of water feature prominently throughout the collection, carving out histories and meandering throughout memory. Snow, streams, river, rain—you write them as if they are friends, lovers, and confidants. Why did you choose to tie the collection together with these threads?
LD: Friends, lovers, confidants—yes. The ties initially came about on their own, as images of home. If anything, I had to revise them out of some of the poems (“not another lake metaphor!”). In addition to the literal landscapes of my youth, I’m also drawn to the way water “meanders,” as you put it. There’s an unassuming, yet insistent, freedom there. There’s change, and renewal too.
LC: Glimmers of the Midwest appear throughout Watershed, tangled within childhood recollections, made magic by the passing of time. How has writing about them given these memories new life?
LD: I lived the first eight years of my life on several acres in rural Michigan. We had enormous gardens (at least, they’re enormous in memory) and canned our own beans and froze our own strawberries and entered our pumpkins in the county fair. Really, my grandfather took care of much of this, but he let me play in the mud plenty. When I was eight, my parents divorced, my grandfather died, and I moved with my mother and brother to a house on a city block.
I just read an excellent essay on Larry Levis, by fellow Cider Press Review author Joseph Fasano. He begins by saying “Banishment is everyone’s story.” And, later, “each life must participate in its being cast out of its garden in order to achieve some distant, cryptic knowledge, if not purpose.” The Midwest, a very particular Midwest, is my garden. I don’t for a minute mean that the Midwest is some kind of Eden (our garden had plenty of issues), but that it’s the landscape of deep memory and childhood for me. To come back to your question, I think the “new life” is partially in the way the poems will always fail to get it quite right, but in the attempt, some new thing is found there.
LC: Watershed is a visceral, sensory journey. It places the reader before the cubo-futurist works of Kazimir Malevich and the color-rich strokes of Bonnard; makes them pulse with the haunting cello concertos of Pablo Casals. The artistic world becomes much more than inspiration—it becomes the poetry. What was it about these various works that spoke to you, and why were you compelled to write about them?
LD: The first time I worked with ekphrasis was in a long, sequence poem I wrote about the composers Robert and Clara Schumann (the long poem I ultimately cut from Watershed, which became instead its own chapbook). While I love their music, I began that poem as a way to talk about things in my own life: mental illness, love, relationships between artists, the obsessiveness of all these things. So, on one hand the ekphrasis is evasiveness, but it also gets me out of the myopia of my own experience, or maybe it pairs a broader dialogue with the myopic one? Casals, Bonnard, Malevich, Fanny Mendelssohn, the Cullercoats women—ekphrasis lets me enter other lives and shows me something in my own that I hadn’t had words for before, and the poetry comes from the urgency of, and gratitude for, that.
LC: There are pieces throughout Watershed that pierce, that question, that remain unresolved—”Driving Home to Sirens” comes to mind. They leave readers to assemble meaning on their own. How has poetry helped you grapple with your own questions, and what do you learn when you translate your experiences into writing?
LD: I appreciate your comment about the unresolved. I spent a long time working on subverting my desire to tie everything up with a neat bow at the end of a poem (and that desire ran strong). I think “Toccata or Fugue” was the start of that exercise. And the more I’ve done that, the more I’ve felt able to live within the questions.
LC: The titular poem reveals a very charged, very poignant recollection and history of the PCB contamination of the Hudson River. Appearing in the very last section, it seems to loom over the previous poems, as both conclusion and counterpoint. What compelled you to write about this event, and why did the collection take its name from this piece?
LD: The collection went through several titles as I sent it out to publishers—it was The Principle of Flickering for a while, and in some ways that poem fits the collection better as a title poem, but it also felt too abstract. I liked that Watershed was simple but could be read multiple ways. Its primary emphasis is on place, on a way of defining a region by the movement of its waterways to a central destination. And then, of course, the word also points to some major shift, a “watershed” moment, which speaks to the collection’s exploration of thresholds, and the ways we step over them, jolt into changed versions of ourselves.
As for the title poem, my husband grew up in Hyde Park, along the Hudson River, and that’s become another sort of home space for me. Many of the old mansions along the river—the Vanderbilt’s estate, Mill’s mansion—are now large parks for the public. The grounds of these homes are expansive and seductive. Imagine owning that view! I think. But that’s a rather horrifying desire. And there’s a horrifying side to these houses, when you think of that accumulated wealth, what we do with such power. That’s not exactly how I got to the PCBs, but it’s part of it—power and commodification and the injury we do to one another, and the earth, in the midst of these.
LC: How do you define “Midwestern” literature? Are there any obstacles, perceived or otherwise, that Midwestern writers have to overcome?
LD: Wrestling with the stereotypes is one of the biggest obstacles, both for writers living in the Midwest, who can feel the suffocation of those stereotypes (at times valid, at times grafted onto the region by others), and for our broader conversations about Midwestern literature.
Perhaps because of these stereotypes, I’m less interested in definition and more interested in looking at the fractal parts that make up the broader landscape of writing in the Midwest—the rust belt writers, the prairie writers, the amazing community of writers in Chicago (or Kalamazoo, for that matter!) … And perhaps this is naïve, but I don’t think approaching it this way negates the value of conversations about writing and the Midwest. Instead, the fractal pieces both complicate and point towards a larger picture, disrupting some sort of nostalgia about the Midwest or condescension towards the region and replacing it with something more interesting and strange.
In general, I’m more comfortable talking about how the Midwest has influenced my own writing, rather than making claims for the region, and I appreciate listening to others do the same (there was a great panel on Midwestern writing and prose poetry at the 2015 AWP, which I blog about for Assay). I suspect it’s only in listening to individual writers share their experiences that we come up with a broader appreciation for the writing going on here.
LC: How have you seen this genre transform over the past few years, and what more do you want to bring to it?
LD: I’m hopeful that more writers of color from the Midwest are gaining the attention they deserve, though I think we still have a long (long) way to go in this regard. I’m grateful when writers like Roxane Gay and Bich Minh Nguyen write about the Midwest (in both creative writing and commentary) and get some traction. Nguyen grew up near my hometown, and reading her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner felt both intensely familiar (I know that Jennifer zone all too well) and absolutely new. It helped me articulate some of the strangeness I’d felt in this place, and also let me see it newly through the contemporary immigrant experience. Nguyen and Gay remind us that the Midwest is home to millions of people (as Gay states in a recent blog post), and that we need narratives to reflect this. So, I want us all to listen better. To foster discussions of literature from the Midwest reflective of its diversity.
LC: You’re currently working on a project that explores the fables of garden spaces, intermingling your own childhood experiences into the narrative. What have you found most striking about these small areas that impact and influence so many of our early thoughts and memories?
LD: A couple of things come to mind: the first is the way people respond to the topic. Some automatically hear the garden as nurturing, and others feel the claustrophobia of it. So, there’s the garden as Rorschach test. And then people will say, “you should really look into _______”—a book about urban foraging in Syracuse, a story of the French notion of le jardin secret, all these personal garden connections people have, the scope of that. Even depictions of fairy tales vary widely in their garden-ness. When Briar Rose pricks her finger, an enormous garden grows up around the castle. It’s a stifling image in some versions of the story, but it’s also an incredibly wild thing, and it’s on her side, a sort of armor she wears until those five hundred years are up. I started the project with a desire to disrupt the garden, doing erasures in copies of The Secret Garden, but I’m coming to see less of a division between garden and wilderness.
LC: What can we expect from you in the future?
LD: I’m not very good at figuring out where my writing is going until it gets there (that meandering thing, again), but I’ve mostly learned to trust this. As one of my teachers used to say, “you just put out your begging bowl and see what comes.” I’m leaving my begging bowl out.
Laura Donnelly’s first collection, Watershed, won the 2013 Cider Press Review Editors’ Prize. She is also the author of a chapbook, Nocturne — Schumann’s Letters. Originally from Michigan, she now lives in Central New York and teaches at SUNY Oswego.