Gardens that breathe: an interview with laura donnelly
Written by Jillian Smith
In Midwest Gothic, her second collection of poetry, Laura Donnelly channels a speaker alternatively fascinated and fearful, youthful and wise, steadfast and skeptical. Through a rough yet rich expanse of memory and history, she seeks to both recover and reframe her past, a process as ominous as it is life-affirming. In doing so, Donnelly honors the resilience, creativity and legacy of her female ancestors, especially their ability to nourish a place into being, to maintain a home that not only withstands what is wild but welcomes it. As a revision to the ubiquitous patriarchal narratives the young speaker was exposed to, Donnelly posits women not just as the keepers and growers of an eternal garden, but also, subverting many Gothic tales, as the heroines of their own stories.Throughout the collection, we feel a complexity of emotions that is as unsettling as it is alluring, each poem a musical note that resounds into the vastness of history, building on previous notes, and both haunting and uplifting what’s to come.
Jillian Smith: Laura, one of the first things I admire about this collection–probably due to the title and the opening poem–is the Gothic lens, how it frames the collection both stylistically and tonally. This is especially true with your emphasis on mystery, exploration, and sensually powerful settings, as well as the focus on the houses of the speaker’s youth. In many Gothic works of literature, women are valued for their adherence to strict social and gender roles, and for their ability to develop the plight or success of a male protagonist. How did you work around, or play against, this unfairly narrow sense of the female in writing your collection?
Laura Donnelly: I’m struck by how your description of Gothic literature reads like a description of the church my family attended when I was a young child. Women there were indeed “valued for their adherence to strict social and gender roles, and for their ability to develop the plight or success of a male protagonist.” In Midwest Gothic, I’m trying to expose some of the effects of such a value system, which is one of the “houses of the speaker’s youth.”
But other houses here are more literal ones lived in by my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmothers, eerie in their own right as they exist in the shadowiness of memory and (in some cases) at the distance created by time and death. Yet those houses provide a very different memory of women’s lives and worth, exposing rifts and disruptions in the received narrative. The quilting, the baking, the gardening they did were all acts of creativity and making, and their various jobs, their loves, even their losses or acts of despair showed them every bit the protagonists of their lives. So, I wanted to write my way back to those stories. I’m particularly grateful to have a copy of an unpublished memoir my great-grandmother wrote, and to have gotten to visit with a great-aunt at her farmhouse near the end of my work on the book.
JS: Continuing with the idea of the Gothic, its sense of unearthing what’s buried, one of the elements I most love about this collection is how I felt like I was uncovering elements of the speaker’s past alongside her as the collection unfolded. Did you choose to structure this collection to emphasize (or capitalize on) mystery, and if so, what was your hope that the reader might “unearth” or discover, by the end? Or that you, the writer, might discover?
LD: I mostly view the book’s structure as chronological, with the first section focused on ancestors, but I wanted to at least gesture to why all this mattered to the speaker early on, hence starting with the title poem and then “Charlotte Sometimes” before looping back to a deeper past. I wanted there to be at least a sense of the speaker who is going back to look for these stories.
In terms of mystery, I think articulating childhood trauma (maybe any trauma) is difficult not just emotionally but because the edges of it can be hazy – an intimation, an awareness caught from the corner of the eye. I wanted to make space for that. I sometimes worried the book would suffer from me not providing a clearer “x marks the spot” for that trauma up front (which reminds me how victims of trauma often struggle with the burden to provide proof and explanation), but part of what I’m hoping the reader unearths, or feels less alone with, is how we piece together stories in fits and starts, and how that remembering can alternately devastate and strengthen.
Several of the most narrative poems about my grandmothers were written toward the end of the project, though they appear near the beginning of the book. The strength I found in them was perhaps my biggest discovery.
JS: “After Blake” is one of my favorite poems. I especially like how the theme of Genesis ties in with other poems in this section, such as “Of Knowledge,” and “Exodus.” Religion seems to haunt this section in particular, though there are mentions and subtle shades of it in other poems, for sure. Could you speak more about how the Bible, or Christianity, influenced both the poems and the speaker’s sense of herself and her history?
LD: I’m glad you mentioned Genesis in particular, because it’s those Genesis stories that most find their way into Sunday school classes for young children (at least, that was the case in my early childhood), perhaps because Genesis is so story-centered, not unlike children’s fairytales in that way. The section you mention charts my parents’ divorce when I was eight, and religion wound through that in numerous ways. Prior to the divorce, my family attended a very conservative evangelical church, and my brother and I attended a rural Christian school. So, it’s those Genesis stories through which the young speaker reads the rift and change in family, and it’s the origin myth of Genesis that the older speaker renegotiates, both to re-see the members of the family and to speak back to the misogyny entwined with the story Eve.
After the divorce, my brother and I stopped attending that church and school, so in some ways my religious “education” (problematic as it was) stopped with those stories, which is another reason I needed to contend with them. In Alicia Ostriker’s marvelous book For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book, she speaks about how, in the tradition of Jewish midrash, there is “always another version of the story.” I don’t mean to lay claim to a religious tradition not my own, but her discussion of this practice was helpful and healing for me. In Midwest Gothic, I’m asking if there might be another version of both the biblical story and my family story.
JS: Gardening is such a central theme of this collection. Its tactile pleasures, and labor, lend themselves so well to the sensual worlds you evoke. The garden becomes associated with so much history and life, as when you state, in “Garden Vernacular,” “It was not unusual/ to see that garden breathe.” And then there are the individual flowers you name, which spread out to become their own meditative poems. As someone who does not garden, can you shed a little light on the fecundity, so to speak, of this place as it features in your poetry?
LD: Gardening runs deep in my family, with my maternal grandparents both raised on farms, and I have many early childhood memories associated with working in vegetable gardens. Scent is such a powerful sensory memory, and the scent of dirt and tomato vines and strawberries is imprinted in my childhood memory. So, I suppose, it was one way to access early memory when working on these poems.
In recent years, my husband and I bought our first house where I’ve started to garden more seriously, though “serious” suggests I’m better at it than I am! I kill a lot of plants, but every success feels miraculous, and even outside the successes the process is mostly a joy. I’m currently starting seeds inside, which is a way to feel spring is near despite the long winters where I live. I check them every morning and night to see if anything new has sprouted (so far, alyssum, kale, and basil are up), and to check if they need water, and then to try not to overwater them in my zealousness. It’s a process and a tending, and a version of slow time that follows both the seasons and other processes of growth and learning.
For my mother and grandmothers, I think it was also a way to meld practicality and art, or maybe even to subvert the former in favor of the latter. In later life, these women all grew flower gardens but not vegetables, which would have once seemed like a waste. I’m grateful they taught me the opposite.
JS: While there are steady moments of discovery, of resilience and beauty, it is clear pretty early on that some very deep pain undercuts the collection, and its protagonists. One of my favorite lines–that an adult’s heart is “the size of two fists”–is a striking way to phrase this combination of love and the potential for pain, or violence. Can you talk more about the relationship between those two elements–what nourishes, and what breaks us down–as it features in certain poems, or as a theme in the collection?
LD: One of my favorite poems is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Making a Fist,” which ends with her saying:
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.
This might be why I was so struck when I read that a child’s heart is the size of a child’s fist, but an adult’s heart is roughly the size of two adult fists. Perhaps that’s part of the difference between childhood and adulthood? As children, it can seem like we must choose one option or the other: the open or closed fist, there’s only space for one. As adults, the framework is bigger, more complex. Portraying both pain and resilience (and even joy) was not a choice made beforehand, though. I followed the poems, which feels like a wishy-washy thing to say, but it’s true. I do bring more intentionality to the table, though, when it comes to the arrangement of the poems. I knew fairly early on in my ordering of the book that I wanted to start with “Midwest Gothic,” the haziness of that, and end with the bright light of the solstice in “Summer.”
JS: You seem, in several poems, to speak directly to history—”Everything I say is to gather / you back.” At least, I took certain lines to be speaking to history. Did your conception of what constitutes or defines history evolve at all during or after writing this collection?
LD: I’ve been interested in the slightly off-stage stories of history for a long time, both because these resonate with my own experience, and because I’m more drawn to the intimate voice than I am to the louder, public one. I’m trying to listen here as much as anything. And in the process I’m finding that landscapes and even objects (like the apron found in my great-grandmother’s china with a note in my grandmother’s hand pinned to it, about her work as a housemaid) might be places where we can (re)locate histories that felt lost to us.
At the same time, the “you” in the line you quote is also (in my mind) something of the divine. And I’m very much interested in who gets to, and how we get to, define or perceive that.
JS: I enjoyed moving through the various forms you embrace in this collection. For instance, “The Secret Garden Erasures” is radically fragmented; other poems vary between longer lines, couplets, and stanzas of varied lengths; while in poems like “Exodus,” you use a sort of “divided” couplet. How does the shape of a poem come to you? And did you find yourself taking risks, formally, in this collection, as compared to your previous collection?
LD: While the book was written over many years, I drafted much of the second and third sections while at an artist residency (shout-out to VCCA!). I kept going back to couplets at that time, and I love your term “divided couplet” for these, as a fairly structured way to hold difficult material. It was also a way to more quickly pick up where I’d left off on a previous poem. I wasn’t deciding anew with each poem what form to take, but rather re-entering a familiar space. I later went back and took some of those poems out of couplets, but I think of those couplets still providing a sort of spine for the second section (though some of the poems written at that time ended up elsewhere in the book, like “Eden Through Milk Eyes” and “Summer,” which bring the couplets to the end of the book).
During that same residency, I was also working on the erasures that fracture the received form of the children’s book. I’m thinking, now, how in both instances (couplets and erasures) I was looking for some productive tension between form and content. I’m not sure if Midwest Gothic takes more formal risks, as a whole, than Watershed, but the erasures did feel that way.
Several of the poems written in looser stanza structures (like the garden ekphrasis and some of the poems about my grandmothers) were written later on when I’d arrived at a point where I wanted more transparency with the work. By that point, the material felt easier to handle. Or perhaps I just wanted less artifice? I thought of those grandmothers reading the poems and wanted less of a veil between us, more of a conversation.
Thank you, Laura, for your wisdom and deep attention to craft, and for sharing your insights and the powerful stories behind this work.