The latest episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast interviews Donald Platt. Donald is the author of eight volumes of poetry, his most recent is Swansdown (Grid Books, 2022). His poems have appeared in many journals, including The New Republic, American Poetry Review, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Yale Review, as well as in The Best American Poetry 2000, 2006, and 2015. He is a recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, three Pushcart Prizes, and the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize.
James Morehead: Swansdown explores the uncertainty of mortality, the anguish of losing family members, the deterioration of our bodies with the passage of time. But somehow you manage to balance the inherent heaviness of your subject matter with playfulness. In “Goodbye Dance” you write:
When my mother fell sick, grew short of breath, and took six months to die, I got out there on the front porch. I hip-hop around to music no one can hear but me. My neighbor asks what possesses me. I tell her I am dancing the sun up and the hard rain down.
Was this a conscious choice, finding a way to weave lightness into poems that were somber at their core?
Donald: “Let’s put it this way: dark matter. In the last decade of my life there’s been a lot of deaths. My father passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2006 and then eight years later my mom passed away. These were natural deaths, they lived very long lives. My dad lived to be 90 years old and my mother lived to the age of almost 97.
“Four years later my brother, who had Down syndrome and a shortened life expectancy, died at 58 years old. Everyone in their lives has dark matter, so I think then the poems are a way of acknowledging that dark matter, but at the same time finding a way of continuing to go on. I think that joy and lightness, for me, resides in our relationships with others. Friends, surviving family, but also in the natural world. Right now, I’m looking out my apartment window which overlooks the Wabash River and the trees lining the river. It’s been a a very dry summer but the trees are still doing their thing, partly because they’re alongside the river. They grab water from the river. This is slightly turning into a metaphor, I am interested in the river of continuance, that even if our own lives stop, that river keeps going.”
James: The book opens with a series of beautiful poems about your brother Michael, and the health challenges that come with Down Syndrome that ultimately took his life. In “For my Brother with Trisomy 21 as He Lies Dying”, you write:
She’ll say that at the wake they showed your body laid out on the bed to Marshall, your best friend. With the simplicity of the child he still is at fifty-five years old, he asked, “Where’s Michael?” Jennie replied, “Michael’s gone to heaven.” He pointed, “Well, then, who is this?”
How has writing about your brother in such detail in this book helped you understand him in a more intimate way, and helped with the grieving process?
Donald: “First of all, I just want to say that my brother Michael has been my muse for a long, long time. Michael has been a central presence in my life in all sorts of ways. Michael was born in 1958 and at that time, as one of the poems mentions, the usual course of things was to institutionalize someone with Down syndrome and my parents didn’t want to do that.
“They understood that he had Down syndrome. I don’t quite think that they understood all the implications of that or the larger sense of what their lives would be like, but they made the very courageous and very laudable decision not to have Michael institutionalized, but to have him live a full, complete and rich life with them, which he did.
“I think the thing that really came across is how deep the bond between us runs. We were a very close family, but I came to realize how much I love Michael through writing those poems and with the grieving process. I think writing poems helps with that, there’s no question. It’s a way of giving order to what is essentially a chaotic experience. It won’t change the fact of Michael’s death but it gives one a list sense of control. One can explore one’s own emotions around a crisis, and I think it goes beyond catharsis.”
James: Throughout your book most of your poems employ several patterns of indentation. For many years I experimented with lower case only and minimal punctuation, and employed lots of indentation and enjambment to capture my intended rhythm and visual expression. How have your forms of poetry evolved over the years and what is your thought process for indentation in particular?
Donald: “If you look at most of the poems of that book they’re written in tercets that alternate short and long lines, and the tercets have a reverse pattern. So if the first tercet starts out short, then I’ll go long and then short. And then the next tercet will reverse that pattern. This is actually a mode that I discovered very early on, when I was in my twenties. It was actually suggested by reading the poet James Schuyler. He has these beautiful long problems, one is called The Morning of the Poem, which is probably my favorite of all his poems, and then another long poem called A Few Days. He employed this kind of long-short line pattern, but he just did it in a block form. I loved the kind of energy that got started in the rhythms between having this long line versus the short line. It felt like a natural rhythm to me and captured the way my mind works.
“I found that I could write these long-short lines and then I thought it’s kind of blocky. So what if I could break them into stanzas, and then I found this dynamite thing that happens when you use tercets, you have a pattern that encodes motion, because it’s never quite the same yet it’s ongoing.
“There are other ways of approaching language that I employ all the time. One is syllabics, I like the form because it’s kind of an invisible form. I like form not to be too flashy, but to be there, kind of holding the poem together. For example a five-syllable line to a six-syllable line, that’s a recent development. There’s also lyric prose, and there’s quite a bit of lyric prose in Swansdown. In terms of indentation, you have one line that is flush left, and then all the other lines in that paragraph have an indentation. I like indentation, it destabilizes the poem in an interesting way.”
James: You employ ekphrasis as a device in several poems in this collection, and you’ll read a couple wonderful examples later. What is your approach to ekphrasis, so that the resulting poems are more than just poetically descriptive?
Donald: “For me it’s not just a description. The exterior visual image will evoke something deeply personal within me. I guess I’ve always been stimulated by visual things, I think because my mom was an amateur watercolor painter, she was always painting. There were a lot of images around the house and my parents took my brother and me to museums regularly.”
James: You have several long poems in this collection, one built around the ritual of kissing Oscar Wilde’s grave, and another, “Fire”, wonderfully blending a text from 1666 about The Great Fire of London into a personal account of you and your wife working through medical issues. What is your approach to revising and editing longer poems?
Donald: “With a longer poem, in general, I tend to overwrite, which is in a way a blessing because it’s easy to cut back. You find the pieces that slow down a poem and you cut them. In the process of cutting you sometimes find these wonderful juxtapositions, instead of going from A to B you jump from A to K. The distance of the jump increases, an associative jump, and that’s always good for poems.
“You bring up those two very specific examples and I’m thinking about how they were written, you know, and what I did with both of them. I took a long time. If you slow down the writing process then this wonderful thing happens. The poem deepens a great deal. If you slow down the writing process, I don’t know if it’s unconscious, layering happens over the course of time. I went to this wonderful cemetery in Paris called Père Lachaise and there’s a lot of very famous and very wonderful artists and writers buried there. I took a lot of photographs and then when I was home I took, I think, a month or two at least to write this poem, working from photographs. I tweaked little things, I showed it to two poets I trust and I got their comments but there was not a whole lot of revision.
“It was going to be published in a long poem anthology years ago but for various reasons a publisher couldn’t be found but then recently an editor really liked the poem but said could you cut off the very beginning and then cut off the very end of the poem, and they were right. I didn’t need either of those things. I’m very open to and love suggestions: if they’re good suggestions, I have no qualms about taking them. If someone can make a suggestion and it’s better I’m totally for that.
“The other poem, Fire, didn’t have a whole lot of revision. Sometimes you get really lucky and then things kind of fall into the right place.”
James: When reading “Caddy”, I get the sense of you seeing poetry while you are in the moment. You write,
I read the large sign, TODAY’S COURSE RULES, posted on two free-standing boards whose hinged tops lean together to form an upside-down V. I have to ask Erwin to explain the rules. The first is CARTS SCATTER. “Oh, that means we’re supposed to drive our golf carts in the most unpredictable patterns possible across the fairway so we don’t make ruts by all going the same way.
Were you writing this poem in your mind while playing the part of a caddy for a day? Or did you replay the experience later to create poetry? Or a bit of both?
Donald: “I think there’s another kind of poem where I feel like I walk into a poem. I just absorb the images, it’s a gift, you know? You feel like you’re in an echo chamber where things start to resonate. And that is magic when it happens. Your job as a poet is not to lose that moment and to write it down as best as you can.”