Wednesday, September 11, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Claire Donato

Claire Donato [photo credit: Louie Dean Valencia-García] is the author of Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and Someone Else's Body (Cannibal Books). Her fiction, poetry, and lyric essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Boston Review, Encyclopedia, Evening Will Come, LIT, Octopus, and 1913: a journal of forms.

1 - How did your first book change your life?
My first book, Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013), has expanded and deepened my sense of literary community. It's been a pleasure to get to know Christian Peet, my editor at Tarpaulin Sky, along with press mates such as David Wolach (, with whom I'll be collaborating on readings this fall. I have also connected (and reconnected) with several of the book's readers, and look forward to reading alongside writers I admire over the coming months: Amina Cain (, Matthew Klane (, and Gracie Leavitt (, among others.

Additionally, Burial provides my kith and kin a tangible object to better acquaint with my work, work that sometimes comes across as nebulous without context. Along these lines, reviews about the book have proven to be helpful, as they establish a lens through which others may perceive and read. This sort of readership dynamic is new to me, although I had previously published individual pieces.

1.5 - How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I am distanced—temporally, emotionally, psychically, and physically—from both Burial and my previously published individual pieces, as well as my first chapbook, Someone Else's Body. These works emerged from specific embodied spaces, and since completing them, my neural pathways have changed; my cells are no longer the same. Of course, all of my work has contributed to this transformation: My body is part text. And these books have, in turn, taken their own consciousnesses.

Much of my work aestheticizes unpleasant subjects: grief, depression, anxiety, assault, self-mutilation, skin disease. Despite dark themes, I hope my writing engages the pleasures of being alive, and activates a sense of pleasure within the reader, however uncanny and discomforting that pleasure may be.

My recent work feels immediate and in-progress, like a jigsaw puzzle I am trying to solve. This puzzle is difficult, and pleasurable. I am working on two books: a collection of poems and a novel, Noël. While my poetry feels always already at-hand, Noël feels near—taking place in the present—and far away, taking place in the past. The novel directly engages with themes of time, memory, identity, and nothingness.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
When I was younger, I read poetry voraciously. I also read many plays. To narrativize my writing experience: I came to poetry first, not counting the short story about a teacher-vampire I wrote in elementary school.

My father recently found and reread that story. I asked him to describe it to me via email. He wrote:

The teacher killed the kids. She did not die in the end. The students noticed her teeth and [the] blood on them! This is how the story ended... with the discovery that the missing students were [missing] because the teacher was a vampire and probably killed them. The final line is something like - 'and we saw her teeth and there was blood!!! the teacher was a vampire!!!' Lots of caps and exclamation marks. Of course the story was set [at] St. Paul's Cathedral Elementary School which made it all the more interesting!

(Note: St. Paul's Cathedral Elementary School was one of two ghastly Catholic schools I attended. It closed.)

Mythologizing my writing background feels peculiar, but for the sake of context: I began formally studying creative writing in high school, which is a lie. I actually attended the Western Pennsylvania Writer’s Project ( as a wee thing, where I wrote a poem about a hummingbird: “As small as a cherry / As fast a bullet / The hummingbird swoops into action.” My high school did not have creative writing classes, so I enrolled in a night class with Philip Terman ( at the local university, where my mother teaches.

I went on to study poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, which has an incredibly lively undergraduate creative writing program. Sharon McDermott (, Ross Gay (, and Anthony Petrosky, three of my mentors, modeled engaged pedagogy by treating students like writers. I needed to write, so I structured my class schedules in order to maximize my free time. Also, Pitt allows its undergrads to move fluidly between genres, so that movement betwixt and between felt commonplace.

I received my MFA in Literary Arts (poetry) at Brown University, where genre defiance and fluidity is permitted, even encouraged! Aside from poetry classes, I took courses in fiction, writing for programmable media, and cultural studies. Although I have always written prose, I had never before tackled a long-form prose project like Burial.

I endeavor to create language art, which in my mind means exploring language's material possibilities, as I did while writing Burial (e.g., by transcribing the book multiple times; by placing my language in conversation with various true and false definitions and etymologies). I am particularly excited by uncanny juxtapositions, breath and embodiment, streamlining my writing word by word by word, and the narrative that takes place within abstraction. In this regard, I carry the preoccupations associated with poets, but I am foremost a writer.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My writing practice has slowed down significantly over the past few years. I take more time per piece and am less focused on generating an abundance of work. I am maddeningly detail-oriented, and much of my practice involves obsessing over punctuation marks or the placement of an adverb that may or may not become a noun. To me, the logic of my writing only gets truly interesting when the original draft’s logic is subverted.

First drafts almost always end up looking different from their final shape. Although the first paragraph of Burial resembles the first paragraph of Burial's first draft, that's where the resemblance stops. As I write and revise, I experiment with form, letting my eyes and ears dictate the bulk of my revisions. If the language doesn't remain in and circulate around my mind after multiple readings, it usually doesn't stay on the page.

4 - Where does a poem or story usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Writing usually begins from scrap language I later keep or discard (either way, a trace remains). I write into this scrap language or build upon it with other scrap language. Sometimes, the scrap language comes from very specific places, e.g., page 64 of [Insert Book Title Here]. This scrap language ends up mutating radically: I am interested in working with and around what Erín Moure refers to as the poem’s seams. In the past, my poems have taken cues from various sources including judicial complaints, Cosmopolitan sex tips, and the translation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris.

Often, I carry a concept in mind, some theoretical framework or larger question. Writing Burial, a question I kept returning to was: “What happened?” If I am writing prose, I like  working with a conceptual nugget, as in Burial: A woman grieving the loss of her father checks into a hotel, which she conflates with the morgue where his body is being kept. This conceptual nugget may or may not occur to me before language. If I am writing something that resembles a poem, I let language carry the form like a wave.

My process is hands-on; all language is material. Simultaneously, I let my work reveal itself to me. This process is as enigmatic as it sounds!

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy doing readings, especially when a reading's line-up feels aesthetically cohesive, and/or the reading’s form is destabilized in some way. One of the most enjoyable readings I’ve ever done was with Blake Butler and Mike Young at Ada Books in Providence, RI. During our individual readings, we each performed the same eight or so constraints—for example, repeating the phrase "this actually happened" before reading a piece, flirting with an audience member, checking our cell phones in the middle of a piece, and so forth. After the reading, the audience had to guess our constraints, which added an interactive element to the performance. The multiple points of focus at work during that reading felt fun and productive.

I am especially interested in performance writing that explores the interactions between texts produced in conjunction with other media, including visual art, sound art, electronic literature, installation, video, and live performance. I currently collaborate on a large-scale project, SPECIAL AMERICA (, with Jeff T. Johnson. SPECIAL AMERICA is an exploration of American exceptionalism, ambiguous political speech, and what Canadian poet Rachel Zolf calls 'mad affect.' We present ourselves at college campuses and academic conferences as an analog hack or meme, a gesture toward embodied viral media. In performance, SPECIAL AMERICA combines elements of site-specific institutional critique, radical appropriation, crowdsourcing, song and dance.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am more concerned with writing what I don’t know than what I know. What is poetry? What is fiction? What is electronic literature? Does genre matter? How can I destabilize genre? To what extent is genre linked to stereotypes and conventions? (How) can language convey embodiment? What to read? What to write? How can we be more empathetic and considerate as writers and readers? How do we maintain a sense of critical rigor alongside empathy? Is empathy ethical? Is sympathy? Do we need books? Is writing a job? Is teaching?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
To be a writer, one must read. So the first role of the writer in larger culture is to be a reader, and read widely. What’s more, writers need to sense the world around them, which requires the cultivation of intuitive awareness, along with empathy (or sympathy; I am still negotiating my relationships to both concepts). Writers should think critically, and help others think critically. I am especially moved by writers such as Carolyn Zaikowski, Roxane Gay, and C.D. Wright, who engage with issues of social justice using language.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I enjoy working with outside editors and believe the process to be essential. I’ve also done a lot of editorial work and enjoy helping others edit their work.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"We are not our poems." —Ross Gay during a moderated post-reading conversation at The New School

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to poetry to the lyric essay)? What do you see as the appeal?
In terms of craft, my writing is consistently engaged with multiple genres. And this kind of cross-genre writing isn’t without precedent. Many canonical, historic texts cross genre—think of Moby Dick!

Moving between genres is linked to theoretical questions I am concerned with, particularly how genre may or may not relate to stereotypes and conventions.

In terms of publishing, moving between genres has been a bit more complicated. I am so fortunate that Burial found its home at Tarpaulin Sky, which publishes cross-genre, hybrid, and ‘lovely monstrous texts.’

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I inevitably end up writing every day, but there's currently no pattern to my making, which is fine, seeing as I’m the kind of Type A who needs to detach from routine. There is a pattern to my mornings, though, and that pattern includes breakfast, my favorite meal: coffee, a fruit bowl, and some surface for almond butter and jam. On Very Special Mornings, I eat an egg or read The New York Times, which I suppose is linked somehow to my writing practice (my partner Jeff talks about its radical juxtapositions as fodder). Is it important to my writing routine that I am writing these responses on an airplane bound from New York City to Long Beach? Other places I write or have written include receipts and scrap papers; the subway (an unoriginal but truthful NYC-dweller’s response); trains and buses; a Swedish café called Konditori; grocery store cafes; Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s desk; a vintage Singer table (AKA my desk); the Millay Colony for the Arts; the RISD Library in Providence, RI; Fordham University’s library in the Bronx; my friend Eli’s house in Burlington, VT; Airbnb rentals; the couch in my living room; my kitchen table.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn and return to the language that surrounds me. I also read.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Dive bar

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My (almost-daily, ideally daily) yoga practice sharpens my intuition and sense of clarity, and it has undoubtedly informed my work as much as any book.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Jeff T. Johnson, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, and my friends who write and create other forms of art here in NYC—it is good to share meals and see movies and listen to records in my living room with good-humored comrades. I am always ambiently grateful to Justin Katko, with whom I attended Brown, for feeding my brain bagfuls of books and never seeing or treating me like a young girl. My friend Adam Veal, a terrific poet, is also supportive along these lines. Many members of the Electronic Literature Organization are friends and role models who never cease to restore my faith in collaboration. Not to mention Christian Peet and all of the writers who’ve contributed to Tarpaulin Sky over the years. And this is only the beginning of the list. There are so many others.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Conceptualize and produce an oral history. Surf. Scream in a hardcore band, or sing in a noise rock band. Further advocate for queer students at the university where I teach. Live at the beach. Produce a stage play. Work as a part-time yoga instructor. Visit the Pacific Northwest. Read Ulysses. Read at Carnegie Hall.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would pursue an occupation related to the healing arts, like acupuncture, massage therapy, yoga instruction, or nutrition. I am also interested in owning a fish taco truck or being in a hardcore or noise rock band. I am currently an adjunct instructor, but making a living as a teacher—let alone a writer—seems less tenable all the time, so I may end up doing some or all of this work in the future.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I do lots else!  

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great film = The East by Brit Marling (I love all of her films) or Detropia, a harrowing documentary about Detroit. I did just see The Conjuring, but I’m not sure it was great!

The last great book I read was Tan Lin's Heath Course Pak. And I am currently enjoying reading this ongoing project called Forty Days of Dating:

20 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on a novel called Noël and a mixed-form performance project called SPECIAL AMERICA. I am also working on a collection of poems. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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