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Donna Stonecipher Interview

Donna Stonecipher Interviewed by Kelvin Corcoran

KC  Donna, you open The Reservoir, 2002, with an arch as a framing device and ask, ‘Why keep hoping things will speak for themselves, without your aid?’ and go on to say, ‘What was dumb will speak.’ What’s the nature of the aid, the participation, required from the writer? We can jump forward 6 years here to The Cosmopolitan and you say, ‘It was spring, that time of the year when the trees outside our windows, briefly, speak and yet again this year we were unable to understand them.’ Here, as elsewhere, in Model City, for instance, the world is presented as already artificial, already arranged as an outcome of human actions and decisions, accomplished but oddly incomplete without the participation you perhaps suggest. Is your work about tuning into that conditional arrangement?
DS   I was thinking about aesthetics, description, art as a mode of communication, about my own status as a being in nature (often quite taciturn) who needs a pen, who needs writing, to “speak.” And, in addition, needs form (a frame). Speech for me is a problem. Listening and understanding are chronic acts of imperfect translation. Our attention (or lack thereof) to the world around us is a problem both personal and political. I’ve always felt that a blossoming springtime cherry tree, for example, is fantastically loquacious. But I perceive the blossoms as I would some dazzlingly beautiful foreign language being spoken into an abyss. I don’t understand the “words,” nor do I know if I am the addressee. I might be, and then how sad that I cannot understand the message. This sense of a false muteness all around haunts me, for I know that my own muteness masks a teeming world of undelivered communication. 
KC   Would it be accurate to say you seem to take delight, that your writing revels in book-length forms in which you set the procedures and then, with equal delight, jump the tracks or resist the framing device and its contents, the confinement of the arranged or given scene? How does that play out in your different books?
DS    Very accurate. Like many writers, I have always needed form to write—I never really understood free verse, for example—and for me the challenge has been to invent forms for myself that are constrictive enough to excite my form-seeking nature, but also offer enough opportunities for transgression. As with most artists, I guess, the excitement lies in the dialectical relationship between form and freedom. In The Cosmopolitan, I got childish delight out of including “inlays” within the stanzas themselves, not just in the inlay slots. And in Model City, I took pleasure in seeing how far I could stray from the set parameters without obliterating them.
KC  What also strikes me, given a typical strictness of form, is the variety of tone, emotion and atmosphere which arises; there’s modern familiar, surreal, comical weird, unnerving weird, modern displacement and other modes. Also, almost a signature colour, alongside these features, is a concern with the beautiful, the beauty of architecture, of formal painting and of human bodies, this last is particularly true of Souvenir de Constantinople. (This item of course might cause a stir in the offices of The Advanced Poetry Business, so we’ll proceed with caution.)  So, the beautiful is there, not just in the spirit of ‘Who wouldn’t be sentimental, given half the chance.’ from The Reservoir. It’s deeply there, in what you write and how you write isn’t it?
DS   Right. I enjoy forcing those sometimes antithetical tones to share paragraphs together. And you are absolutely right—I would put aesthetics at the top of any list of my concerns. To be more precise, the ethics of aesthetics. Having grown up in Seattle, a place of great natural beauty but not, let’s say, that much cultural beauty, I grew up lusting after self-consciously beautiful (ornamental, decorative) objects, buildings, artworks. (I’m sure my few formative years in Iran and traveling around Europe from ages 6 to 9 exacerbated this.) It was only after I moved to Europe as a young adult that I began to consider the imperialism, exploitation, cruelty, and unfairness that form the underlying structure of, say, the Victoria and Albert Museum (which I love). Or, one feels it in a city like Paris: the imperial grandeur made possible by colonization. So I began to have a complicated relationship with my “love” of “beauty.” It is still fraught for me, and probably always will be. 
KC   You write typically in prose paragraphs, sometimes titled and usually in sequences, as with The Cosmopolitan and Model City and as we’ve said, a form persists encompassing a range of different modes, and in a precise language that reaches beyond the apparent incidents and scenes.  Is there always something unexplained or unresolved, ‘haunted’, as Cole Swensen says? Are you working something out in the course of the book, a quest or some initially unfathomable thing?  If so, what’s being worked out in Model City?
DS   Yes, perhaps in the same way you are “haunted” by Greece? A lot is being worked on, if not out, in Model City. I’m fascinated by the tension between formal planning (as in a model city) and organic laissez-faire growth. But specifically in MC I was thinking about utopic projections onto the space of cities, and where and why those projections go wrong. Then later I realized I had just turned 40 when I started to write the book, and was wondering, How did I get here? Should I have planned my life better? Would it have made any difference? But a fixation on the arrangement of public space goes way back for me. Recently I remembered a long-forgotten childhood memory. I was 7 or 8, and we were taking a bus from Tehran to the Caspian Sea. We passed through many little towns, and I remember wishing I were the mayor or duchess of my own town, and could arrange it just exactly as I liked, with red geraniums lining all the streets. It was an early model-city fantasy, and it amazed me when I remembered it, this will to control and perfect my environment even back then. 
KC   At the beginning of Model City the question is asked, ‘What was it like?’ The book is a series of answers to that question; the answers accumulate and have something of the characteristics of epigrammatic fables. The writing is elliptical and eloquent, as Jonathan Raban noted of Souvenir de Constantinople, and it’s also mesmerising, the rhythms and variations carry the reader forward as does its inventiveness and wit. The book has a very particular and determined form which supports the flow of its thinking, switches in tone and a range of themes. At what point did you settle on the procedure and form of the work, did it emerge as you wrote or was it predetermined? And if I asked you, is there a Stonecipher land, a Stonecipher polis, would the answer be Model City?    
DS  Thank you! I take notes for poems in a notebook I carry with me, and in looking through the notes one day in late 2009 I noticed many of the lines began with “It was like.” So I started writing dialogues, in which an “A” and a “B” each try to convey what it was “like” for them. (Description is also a problem—a big problem.) The A and B structure quickly fell away, though in drafts of the poems I still used it—and soon the poems had a unified voice which nevertheless switches perspective from stanza to stanza. At first the stanzas were irregular, but that didn’t feel right. Once I settled upon the strict form of four stanzas of three lines each, I could relax into the stricture. (And I only remembered later the universal importance of twelve as a number, reminded by a book I bought on Islamic design.)
      I think the Stonecipher polis might actually be a library, on whose shelves are all the books I have loved, and those I haven’t read but would have loved if I had, plus the ideal books in my head that may never get written.    
      Then again, Virginia Woolf said somewhere that heaven must be uninterrupted reading, so maybe I’m imagining a city in the sky.
17 March 2015