Art Maker: Matt Donovan, poet and essayist

  • Matt Donovan, by his office at Smith College’s Poetry Center — he is the center’s director — has written poetry, essays and motre recenlty a libretto. Staff photo/Jerrey Roberts

  • Matt Donovan, seen here at in The Poetry Center in Wright Hall at Smith College, has written poetry, essays and more recently a libretto. Staff photo/Jerrey Roberts

  • Matt Donovan’s debut collection of poetry, “Vellum,” won a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference prize.

  • Donovan’s 2016 essay collection, “A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape,” won praise for what one critic called the author’s “easy and immense erudition.”

Published: 2/28/2020 9:44:19 AM

Poet and essayist Matt Donovan, who’s won a number of awards for his work — a Rome Prize in Literature, a Whiting Award, and a Pushcart Prize, among others — is also the director of Smith College’s Poetry Center. In addition, he wrote the libretto for the 2018 chamber opera “Inheritance,” about Sarah Winchester, the eccentric widow and heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune. His wife, artist Ligia Bouton, created a multimedia design for the production.

One thing Donovan brings to all this work is attention to detail: getting the words just right. “When I’m developing a draft of a poem, I’m trying to somehow make less problematic what’s there on the page,” he says. “That could mean changing something as small as a single word, or trying to hone my use of tone or image. My inspirational mantra is ‘fail better.’ ”

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Matt Donovan: I’m currently writing a book of poems about guns in America. I’ve been traveling around the country, talking to folks about guns in places ranging from Cody to Chicago to Sandy Hook. This work initially started as a nonfiction book that was driven by equal parts concern about gun violence and a desire to ask questions and foster dialogue about a polarizing topic.

As the project developed, I was incredibly surprised that poetry began to feel more like the ideal genre. Perhaps especially because I didn’t want to write anything didactic and hoped to push past the all-too-familiar rhetoric on the issue, the language of poetry, as well as its images and metaphors, seemed to afford new possibilities for this complex content.

HL: What do you draw inspiration from? Do you ever have any “Eureka!” moments?

MD: More frequently I find myself mulling over subject matter that I’m considering writing about, but without fully knowing why or where the poem might lead me. I’ve come to trust that tug on my sleeve, when I keep churning through something I read, or heard, or glimpsed and can’t seem to relinquish it.

For me, the process of starting to write serves as a gradual means of understanding what the subject might offer in terms of its resonance and further themes.

HL: Have you ever had a “mistake” — a project that seemed to be going south — turn into a wonderful discovery instead?

MD: In my early drafts, everything I write is a mistake. And, for that matter, every piece I’ve ever written has a moment of unraveling, when it doesn’t seem to be working at all. I write slowly — with plenty of false steps, guesswork and all-out flailing — and don’t so much write as rewrite, which is the opposite of “first-thought-best-thought.”

HL: How do you know when your work is finished?

MD: It’s a very unscientific process. Early on, I cast a wide net, and I’ve come to trust I’m on the right track when I have, say, around 20 pages of messy scraps. From there, it’s a matter of steadily paring, shaping and making changes. Eventually, and incrementally, I have fewer changes to make, meaning I can’t push the piece forward any more. For better or worse, the poem becomes what it will be.

HL: What do you do when you’re stuck?

MD: This might sound disingenuous, but I just start writing. Fretting in the abstract about a poem’s workings never gets me anywhere. But when I’m wrangling with specific words, I can make incremental choices that may slowly resolve a piece. I can also put a poem aside and work on a different piece of writing; that can buy me some time and allow me to circle back and see the original piece with fresh eyes.

— Steve Pfarrer

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