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Gemini Ink is thrilled to host Santa Fe writer Matt Donovan as a featured visiting author this October. As a part of the fall calendar of events, Donovan will teach a writing workshop titled “Painting the Page: Writing about the Visual Arts with Matt Donovan” on Saturday, Oct. 8, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Participants will gather strategies for how the visual arts can inspire present and future writing projects.
Joining the rich history of writers who’ve dipped into the world of painting, photography, sculpture, and more to feed their writing processes, participants will learn various methods for using the visual arts as a springboard for poetry and creative non-fiction.
A recipient of numerous awards, among them a Rome Prize in Literature, a Whiting Award, and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Donovan has had his work acclaimed in The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times Sunday Book Review. He is the author of two collections of poetry– Vellum and the chapbook Ten Burnt Lakes (forthcoming in 2017) – as well as the collection of essays, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape: Meditations on Ruin and Redemption.
He currently teaches in the creative writing and literature department at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Donovan’s breadth as a writer is impressive and his curiosity omnivorous. He can write essays on the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and the Pantheon in Rome as well as poems that roam restlessly across the page, summoning an array of topics along the way. In the space of a few stanzas, the reader can find herself encountering Isadora Duncan, Polyclitus, and a winter heron stepping through ice, to name just a few possibilities.
Described as a poet who “paints and plays jazz with the American language,” Donovan’s language never stumbles under the wide range of his subject matters, but rather it revels in the power of language and moves in unexpected, jagged, and stunning ways, whether he is writing poetry or prose.
In order to offer a more intimate glimpse into the author’s imaginative world, Gemini Ink asked Donovan a few questions on his writing process and obsessions, and, literally, on his writing desk. This is what we found out.
GEMINI INK: Do you have any secret rituals you perform before you get started writing – tics, habits, special ceremonies? How important is it to you to have a sense of sameness about your writing routine?
Matt Donovan: I wish that I had some secret, failsafe ritual that could bring me to a place of inspiration, but no such luck, unfortunately. Especially since I became a parent – now 10 (years) back – I try to pounce on whatever time for my writing that’s afforded me, and some days things come together and other times the work is a thorough wash. I will say that I’ve found it’s really essential to have a longer block of time in the early stages of a piece as a means of understanding what the work is trying to do.
My draft process is incredibly messy, and I need real time to weigh options and try to figure out ways to haul it forward. Far later in the game, I’m much less precious about my silence, and can make edits and revisions while trying to get soup on the table for dinner, and while cartoons are blaring in the background. During one especially busy spring, I didn’t have any time at all to write, and so found myself literally making edits at the stoplights during my drive to work. So much for the muse.
GI: What is your favorite piece of writing advice?
MD: Everyone’s writing process is so different, and I think those differences absolutely need to be honored. There’s no one prescription for the success of the work, and I’ve always been deeply distrustful of blanket advice intended for all writers. In graduate school, I once took a class from a poet who went around the room asking us each one by one if we wrote our poems out first by hand, or if we typed our work directly into the computer. If we answered “the pen,” we were given a curt nod. If we admitted that we began with the keyboard, he literally shook his finger at us and bellowed “No!” before moving on to the next cowering poet. The imposition of “what works” upon writers can reach levels of absurdity.
That said, I feel pretty comfortable embracing the mantras “read as much as possible” and “revise and revise.”
GI: Do you have any special charms, talismans, or souvenirs in your workspace? What and why?
MD: The items on my desk seem to be constantly evolving. Anything along the lines of a talisman that I have within reach without fail would typically take the form of a book. I tend to have some constants – poetry collections by Larry Levis, for instance – but the books lined up at the back of my desk often are just related to whatever I’m currently working on. Just now, there happen to be some books by Robert Hass, (Rainer Maria) Rilke, and Lia Purpura that I’ve recently dipped into, but there’s also a collection of interviews and writing about John Coltrane’s music leftover from an essay I wrote last spring.
I do always have images pinned about my desk that are linked to a current project – during my frequent lulls, when I’m stumped about how to move forward, or absolutely sure that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, I’d much rather look at art and photographs connected to some subject I’m trying to tackle rather than the pulsing, taunting curser on my computer screen. And from that answer, you can see that I received an admonishing “No!” from that former teacher – So be it.
GI: Can you name a source you return to for ongoing or periodic creative inspiration?
MD: That’s an interesting question, and my answer might depend on what you mean by source. I find myself inevitably exhilarated and rebooted by certain texts – To the Lighthouse, for instance, or Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – but I also find myself craving inspiration from other sources too. It’s as if I get to a point when the noise of daily life and the workweek finally crescendos, and I simply need a hike and a bout of silence.
The last time I was at a writer’s conference – an event loaded with panel discussions about how to generate and craft work – I found an excuse to head off on a pilgrimage in order to find some (Mark) Rothko paintings. Having a bit of time to sit in silence in front of some of his work turned out to be by far the most inspiring event of the conference.
GI: Does good writing result from best practices, magic, or both?
MD: I honestly don’t know what magic means in a context outside of best practice. I love reading stories of master magicians palming their cards over and over, practicing their slight-of-hand again and again, essentially running their scales as a means of conjuring the flawless “magic” that we end up witnessing as audience members. I do have essays and poems that, in the end, it would be difficult to explain how they came together, but for me any whiff of the inexplicable always comes down the path of hard-earned effort.
GI: What is your next project?
MD: I have a number of individual essays that I’ve been working on, but, pretty unexpectedly, I’ve found myself working collaboratively on a chamber opera project. The piece is centered on Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune who built a labyrinthine house as a means of escaping the spirits of those killed by her family’s guns. There’s something inherently fascinating about the story itself, but more than anything else I was drawn to the subject because of the metaphoric resonance.
In Winchester, I saw a window into America’s relationship with guns. Here’s someone who is authentically disturbed by the prevalence of gun violence, but her response to her empathy and complicity is to build a maze-like home from which there is no escape. That sounds a lot like contemporary America to me. In the libretto that I wrote for the work, I’m also not shying away from the fact that her home has now become a tourist trap destination, complete with Friday the 13th flashlight tours. As a country, we have a knack, I think, for turning elegy into kitsch. I’m tremendously excited about the project, and it’s both a thrill and a creative challenge to be working in a new medium.
Top image: Author Matt Donovan’s desk, photographed for Gemini Ink’s “The Writer’s Desk.” Photo courtesy of Matt Donovan.