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 1.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: You graduated from Brown University with an honors degree in philosophy. Also, you earned an MFA in poetry from New York University. Obviously, a deep background in philosophical and poetic thought. Both, often, abstract or, if not, parsing the aspects of the world into distinct (and abstract) bits. Was there an early indication of gifts and talents in philosophy, poetry, or analytic and metaphor thought? Any anecdotes from within the family?
Danielle Blau: Well, I was a weird kid, for sure—that much I know. And my family likes to tell this story about how as a toddler (maybe two years old or something) I used to do this thing whenever they had the gall to address me by my given name: I’d fly into a rage and inform them, “I’m not Danielle, I’m this!” I was very insistent on this point, apparently. Which meant that for a little while there I was basically refusing to acknowledge anybody’s direct address; which, of course, made it even harder (I think it was already not easy) to get me to come out from where I was moonily standing under the kitchen table, and to put on my shoes and my other pant leg or whatever—to just comply in any way with the relevant unfolding business of daily life. I’m not sure how long the “I’m not Danielle, I’m this” era lasted exactly, but it was a definite stage in my early-childhood development.
Were these bizarre tantrums indicative of emerging gifts and talents in philosophy or abstract thought? Who knows. They seem indicative of emerging neurosis, to me, certainly. My family got a huge kick out of them, though, and my mother, in particular, puts a very generous spin (as mother’s will) on the nature of my perplexed little brain during this period. My mother is a philosophy professor, by the way, so this interpretation might say more about her than it does about me (or toddler-me): but as she saw it, here was the stage in my development when I ceased to view myself as the necessary, infinite, eternal Subject (which that all-meaningful name I’d been associated with since time immemorial—Danielle—had I guess come, in my mind, to represent); here was when it struck me that I was in fact just one more thing, one more object—one more this in a vast world of this’s. I’m not Danielle, I’m this.
Jacobsen: Was the family and educational environment supportive of these gifts and talents? Or was this something requiring a struggle to maintain and develop to the full?
Blau: I think they were a little nonplussed actually—most especially my father, who is a theoretical physicist/ abstract mathematician himself—when I didn’t go the way of abstract math, because through most of my childhood-through-adolescence that looked like the direction I’d almost certainly be heading. In my college years that shifted over (slightly), to analytic philosophy, which was also totally fine in their book—but when I announced at the end of college that I’d not be going on to get my PhD in philosophy, and would instead pursue this poetry thing, that was a bit of a shock to the family system (to my dad particularly), and to my professors, and also somewhat to myself.
The thing is, though, I’d always felt pulled in two opposite directions—between the world of abstract universals, which Bertrand Russell describes (in The Problems of Philosophy) as “unchangeable, rigid, exact, delightful to the mathematician, the logician, the builder of metaphysical systems, and all who love perfection more than life,” on the one hand, and the world of concrete particulars, which “is fleeting, vague, without sharp boundaries, without any clear plan or arrangement, but [which] contains all thoughts and feelings, all the data of sense, and all physical objects, everything that can do either good or harm, everything that makes any difference to the value of life,” on the other.
Both worlds have equal footing in reality, it seems to me (along with Russell), but there’s also something incompatible about them. It’s a little like those famous optical illusions: the duck is just as much a part of the picture as the rabbit, but you can’t hold the two visions in your mind at one and the same time; as soon as you see the duck, the rabbit vanishes (and vice versa). “According to our temperaments, we shall prefer the contemplation of the one or of the other,” Russell says. “The one we do not prefer will probably seem to us a pale shadow of the one we prefer, and hardly worthy to be regarded as in any sense real.”
But I’ve always loved contemplating—and living in—the one world just as much as the (somewhat incompatible and yet still equally real) other. And I think I can do that, in poetry. I can see the duck and the rabbit at once.
And then I’ve also found—though the two disciplines are of course extraordinarily different—that, for me, there’s a weird similarity between the process of writing poems and the process of doing philosophy: The one process often feels like hunting down the single right rhythm or image to get at a certain vague turning in my gut, while the other feels like excavating the single hard core of an argument in a certain bog of intellectual queasiness. And these two feelings of mine (which, despite my odd choice of analogies just now, are not at all gastrointestinal) do have a fair bit in common, it turns out.