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10 Questions for Patrick Donnelly


“If it’s true, Chloris, that you love me,
and I’ve heard you do love me well—”
was a fresh way for you to begin.
After that you lost the thread a bit,
scorning ambrosia and the prospect
of trading places with kings if my love
were sure. (No kings were offering.)
from "Anti-Pastorals," Volume 65, Issue 1 (Spring 2024)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My mom read poetry and gave me the idea that poets do estimable work. I knew which poets were her favorites—Chaucer, Yeats, Pound, and, weirdly, Swinburne. So as a kid I tried to write poetry and would come to her with my efforts; it was one currency of a relationship that was otherwise quite fraught. I remember that when the husband of one of Mom’s friends died, I produced a little lyric called “The Widow,” which Mom, holy crap, shared with the actual widow. Thus began my regrettable history of appropriation, centering myself in other people’s predicaments, and expecting praise for it.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I walk this lonesome valley behind many pillars of fire, not all of whom are poets: Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Smart, John Keats, and Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats (dead at 25), William Meredith’s “The Illiterate,” Tennyson’s inconsolable In Memoriam, Maria Callas (dead at 53), Judy Garland (dead at 47), Frank Sinatra singing “One For My Baby,” Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing “As With Rosy Steps,” then dying at age 52, Mozart’s song “Abendemfindung” (our friends’ tears already flow over our grave; he died at 35), Bach’s cantata Ich Habe Genug, Nina Simone, drunk, abandoned and delusional in “Lilac Wine,” Leonard Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving” and Constantine Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Anthony,” Beethoven’s “To the Far-Away Beloved” sung by Fritz Wunderlich (dead from falling down the stairs, likely drunk, at 36), Rufus Wainwright, Ray LaMontagne singing “Trouble,” Iris DeMent singing “No Time To Cry,” The Tale of the Heike, The Tale of Genji, and The Pillow Book, John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears” and Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, ALL of Diane Seuss’s poems, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and Bad Education, Fellini’s La Strada, 8 ½, and La Dolce Vita, the howling, ecstatic qawwali songs of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Hebrew psalms, the Black church baptizing in white robes in a river in Melbourne, Florida which I saw when I was six, the thousand-and-one golden bodhisattvas of mercy at Sanjūsangen-dō temple in Kyoto, the statue of the monk Kūya at Rokuharamitsu-ji with six tiny Buddhas coming out of his mouth, the incomparably delicate fingers of Miroku Bosatsu, from the year 700, in the treasure house of Kōryū-ji, and Lucille Clifton’s “everyday something has tried to kill me/and has failed.”

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve been an actor/singer, office worker, janitor, busboy, waiter, short-order cook, caterer, private chef, food writer, teacher, editor, translator, and arts administrator. I helped to coordinate a meal and nutrition-education program for people with life-challenging illness. Our boss there was Marianne Williamson, the single most self-absorbed person I have ever encountered on this earth; do not vote for her. For a few years I was a general dogsbody for a famous cartoonist. He had a pyromaniac son who used to throw fireworks out the window of their Central Park West apartment at incoming guests. Once I fielded a weekend call from him, asking what I thought he should do after he set fire to a field near their country house. I didn’t answer “Pray for rain.”

What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was about ten an adult asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I answered, “a prince.” My name would be Alexander, and I would eat artichokes. The person told me that I’d need to be a prince, I guess thinking that a food with so little nutrition per dollar predicted life as a voluptuary. Later I tried to be a priest, an opera singer, and finally a poet. The common thread is a deep inability to be realistic.

What inspired you to write this piece?
I had a certain French art song on repeat for months, “A Chloris,” by Reynaldo Hahn

Like most pastorals, it ascribes to the quaint, erroneous belief that shepherds lead pure and uncomplicated lives. (Aristocrats loved posing as peasants to retreat from the stress of court life: Marie Antoinette had a little village built at Versailles where she could cosplay with sheep.) Anyway, in the song a shepherd-bro says to Chloris “If it’s true that you love me, and I’ve heard that you do”—and I was struck by the probably-undeserved entitlement, given how badly women usually end up in pastoral lit (Ovid, Milton, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, etc.). So I gave Chloris a chance to talk back—a gesture that actually has a history in pastorals (see Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”). For a superb satire of doomy pastoral novels and their inbred characters, look for Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
There’s not one place, because I don’t trust circumstance to not snatch places away. I try to remember that nowhere is separate from the ground luminosity, which is neither a physical place nor imagined. That idea holds open the possibility of contentment, or at least a chance to live and work among all the impermanence. But if the authorities were to station my husband Stephen and me back in Kyoto, where we could drink three times a week at Bar Ueto, maybe I wouldn’t have to work so hard to be happy. (I wrote about Ueto here.)

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I wrote a sequence of poems about the great opera singer Maria Callas, and I’m not sure that even sex has matched some of my musical experiences in peak intensity or euphoric recall. (Like this one.) But I don’t listen to music while I write.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Yes. I write best when I’m not supposed to be writing. There’s nothing like a non-writing-related deadline (a syllabus, a move, an appointment I’m already late for) to get me to open a draft and start working.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My husband, because he’ll absolutely tell me if he doesn’t get it. If he gets it, it’s there to be got.

What are you working on currently?
Stephen and I translate classical Japanese Buddhist poetry together, and we’re working to complete two different projects. Pretty much from the beginning of our marriage, we’ve worked together to bring these radically brief, very surprising thousand-year-old poems into English, and it’s a wonderful part of our relationship.


PATRICK DONNELLY is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Little-Known Operas (Four Way Books, 2019) and the forthcoming Willow Hammer (Four Way Books, spring 2025). With his spouse Stephen D. Miller, he translates classical Japanese poetry and drama. He is director of the Poetry Seminar at The Frost Place, Robert Frost’s old homestead in Franconia, NH, now a center for poetry and the arts.

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