Danielle Blau’s Rhyme and Reason: Poetry, Philosophy, and the Art of Living the Big Questions is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. Her collection mere eye was selected for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Award and published in 2013 with an introduction by poet D.A. Powell, and her poems won first place in the 2015 multi-genre Narrative 30 Below Contest. Poetry, short stories, articles, and interviews by Blau can be found in such publications as The Atlantic online, The Baffler, Black Clock, The Harvard Review, The Literary Review, Narrative Magazine, The New Yorker’s book blog, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Plume Poetry, The Saint Ann’s Review, The Wolf, the Argos Books poetry anthology Why I Am Not a Painter, and Plume Anthology of Poetry. A graduate of Brown University with an honors degree in philosophy, and of NYU with an MFA in poetry, she curates and hosts the monthly Gavagai Music + Reading Series, and teaches at Hunter College. Here are her views and story, part 2. Part 1 here.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: If you reflect on the process, how have you developed a method for writing poetry? Did you learn from someone else, develop your own and then refine it, some admixture of the two, or something else?
Blau: I’ve always written and loved to write, but for a while I didn’t actually know what it was I was writing. And at a certain point, I began to worry. Because even though, as a reader, I still wanted to lose myself in the sumptuous folds of a highly plotted novel, my tastes as a writer seemed to be growing increasingly eccentric. So I noticed I had ever less patience for getting down to the crucial business of plotting, say—but ever more patience for mulling over the benefits of ending a particular sentence on a trochee versus a spondee, say, or for deciding whether the made-up brand of HIV self-testing kit bought by a particular character should be named HemoGenuine Diagnostics or Ora•cular.
And this—my compulsion to be sidetracked, as it seemed then—was kind of worrisome, until I found myself reading more and more books of poetry, in my spare time, at some point during college. Which is how it suddenly dawned on me: Hey, they haven’t been hobbled and misshapen pieces of fiction, what I’ve been writing all my life; they’ve been poems!
Once I knew I was writing poetry, I didn’t have to beat myself up over what had seemed like my excessive preoccupation with detail; I was free to throw myself into the sideshow—because it wasn’t a sideshow, I now understood, but the heart of the matter. That’s one of the things I so love about poems: how shiftily and how deviously they can arrive at the heart of things.
Jacobsen: Often, poetry speaks to the heart, and to the heart of things. What have been some common themes in your poetry?
Blau: Aloneness is a big one for me, and the fear of being blotted out—the Lone Human Voice vs. the Vast Obliterating Void. And then (this has always been a theme, but it seems to have become ever more present in my writing these past odd eight or so months): how this particular fear of ours, this deep human fear of going cosmically unheard—of not mattering—seems to lie at the heart of what is most ungenerous and most evil in us, too. So much of our small-mindedness and xenophobia and racism seems rooted in this fear, and in the bizarrely misguided notion that mattering is a sort of zero-sum game.
Jacobsen: Is there a poet who makes you weep? Who?
Blau: Oh, so many poets make me weep— I guess I must be a weeper. But most recently I think it was John Clare: “And e’en the dearest—that I loved the best— / Are strange—nay, rather stranger than the rest.”
It doesn’t help matters that when he wrote these lines, Clare was in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, and that this is where he ended up living out the last twenty years of his already-tragic-enough existence, in total isolation from his family and friends—but, then again, it does help matters, in a way. Or rather, it makes matters (and the nature of my weeping) more complex.
Because there is also something astonishingly hopeful (maybe almost joy-inducing?) about the fact that this man who was born to illiterate farm laborers in turn-of-the-eighteenth-century England, who spent the good part of his life ploughing and threshing, and the rest of it in a mental hospital—that this man and I can be so close. Because that is definitely how it feels when I read him; when I read his poem “I Am!” it seems clear beyond reasonable doubt: not only do I have intimate knowledge of Clare, but Clare has intimate knowledge of me.
It’s one of those things that poems sometimes manage to do, somehow—to shatter our metaphysical solitude (or very nearly) in a way that precious else can. The poet Stevie Smith has this quote I love: “The human creature is alone in his carapace. Poetry is a strong way out. The passage out that she blasts is often in splinters, covered with blood; but she can come out softly.”
Jacobsen: What was the benefit of the philosophy undergraduate degree for your own personal philosophy, ethical stance, and worldview?
Blau: My undergrad training in and continued preoccupation with philosophy has definitely upped my generalized astonishment levels throughout these however many years; it has made me more generally astonished and more uncertain (that much is certain).
And I think maybe it has made me generally sadder, too, to be honest—but sadder in a good way, in a way that also makes me kinder and more generous, more loving, I think. Because it’s never far from my mind: how at odds the individual human perspective is with the (distant and indifferent) View from Nowhere: how little we all are: how all alone: how much we all just want to matter.
So it’s made my view of human life more ultimately tragic (or, in my lightest of moods, more ultimately absurd), I guess. But that has only made me feel more bone-deeply how much we are all of us in this thing together: Here we all are, a vast collection of tiny this’s, each of us wishing the world would make us feel as infinite and infinitely necessary as we feel to ourselves. So why not just allow each other that, if and when at all possible? It seems, given the circumstances, the least we can do.