A couple of years back, I wrote a poem about the Trinity Site—where the first nuclear bomb was tested—but the piece never felt as if I’d adequately addressed either the history or issues linked to the place. Trinity is just a few hours drive from me, and, years after my failed poem, I subsequently visited during one of their Open House days. I came home rattled and stewing, and with a notebook teeming with details and questions I had jotted down. When I started putting the notes down on the page, I pretty quickly realized that a poem just wouldn’t serve me as a vessel, given everything that I now wanted to fit in. It was liberating and exhilarating to not worry so much about line breaks and compression in the same way, and instead make use of the place’s history and what I encountered during the visit. It was a much wider field of play, and writing that piece ended up whetting my appetite for how I might be able to make use of lyric prose within the essay form.
What kinds of things hadn’t made it into the poem?
Well, everything from the caravan of RVs waiting to enter the site, the souvenir stands selling mushroom cloud t-shirts, and a bunch of cub scouts trying to earn their Nuclear Science Merit Badges. There was the odd explanatory text hanging around the site that, in lieu of any discussion of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, explained how the soldiers liked to cook antelope stew and the idea that Oppenheimer named the Trinity Site after John Donne’s Holy Sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” There was also an unnerving intersection that occurred when a good friend happened to get married on that same day of my visit, and after racing back to Santa Fe in time for his reception, I found myself contemplating nuclear destruction while embarrassing myself on the dance floor to 80s pop. Oh, and I had crashed my wife’s car the day before as well. That’s also in there.
I wasn’t going to mention this, but it’s actually pronounced “noo-klee-er.”
I think that’s what I said. Nuclear. Nuclear.
So how did you come to be so obsessed with Pompeii?
I don’t think I’d say I’m “obsessed” with Pompeii. Weirdly, many of the essays I wrote following the Trinity piece were linked to meditations on Japanese haiku. That was going to be my project—a series of essays riffing on haikus that I planned to chase down during a fellowship year in Rome. I set off for Italy with an enormous box of books on Japanese poetry.
Wait, you set off for Rome, knowing you would be there for a year, with a half-baked idea to write prose responses to Japanese haikus?
Mistakes were made.
I happened to come across a book on Pompeii mosaics—which are just unbelievably beautiful and intricate—and suddenly realized that the place was only a short train ride away from where I was living. I started doing some research—it is such a fascinating place—and one of the first things I came across was a line from Goethe writing about that ancient city: “No catastrophe has ever given humanity more pleasure.” Seeing “catastrophe” and “pleasure” together in the same sentence started the cogs whirring. Even though just a week before I had stood up in front of an audience and declared my intention to use my fellowship year writing about the poems of Issa, I found myself tumbling down a different rabbit hole entirely.
So, in a sense you lied to everyone in that audience. Don’t you feel as if you owe those people an apology?
Um, I’m pretty sure that no one felt betrayed. Are you from the Midwest? I think only a Midwesterner would—
Let’s move on. How many of the essays are about Pompeii?
In the end, there are six pieces that focus on Pompeii, and in my mind they forge a kind sequence. But even though those essays delve into that city’s history, and into what we know about its destruction and excavation, they’re as much about our responses to violence and death as they are about the place itself. While there’s a great deal of interwoven research and personal narratives involving experience at the site, I was most interested in unexpected juxtapositions that the content afforded me. Whereas I might begin by exploring the frescos discovered at a home called The Villa of the Mysteries, I was equally invested in the generated associations: in that case, links are forged to Dante’s Paradiso, the starling flocks of Rome, the color vermillion, the Book of Job, some legends about King Midas, and a memory of a sloppy adolescent French kiss in the basement of my childhood church.
Would you say that’s a similar strategy to what you used in your piece about the Parthenon?
Actually, that one is about the Pantheon, the building in Rome.
Um, even though I come from the Midwest, I have to say that I don’t think that’s true. But, yes, the Pantheon was a building I couldn’t stop thinking about, and did become pretty obsessed with. During the time I lived in Rome, I found myself making long detours just to drop in and peer up to its oculus and see that light and the sky. And whereas Pompeii might serve as a stand-in for the apocalypse, I ended up thinking about the Pantheon as a building that more closely mirrors our contemporary world: it’s a place of frequent beauty, that we ultimately don’t understand, and—let’s face it—it’s still intact against all possible odds.
Hey, one last kind of random question, now that I’m thinking about it. Do you remember the time back in college when you tried to interview saxophonist David Murray at that club in Boston, and you sat at the bar, too young to even order a drink, swooning and clutching that rinky-dink cassette player, and just at the moment you were thinking “Wow, we’re really connecting. I bet we could talk about free jazz all night,” he stood up mid-question, asking, “Are we done here?” before patting you on the shoulder and walking away?
I don’t think he patted me on the shoulder…Are we done here?
MATT DONOVAN is the author of two collections of poetry—Vellum (Mariner, 2007) and the chapbook Ten Burnt Lakes (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2017)—as well as the collection of essays, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape: Meditations on Ruin and Redemption (Trinity University Press, 2016). His work has appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Threepenny Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review (More poems and essays can be read online).
He is the recipient of a Rome Prize in Literature, a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Lannan Writing Residency Fellowship, and the Larry Levis Reading Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is currently collaborating on the chamber opera “Inheritance” with artist Ligia Bouton, soprano Susan Narucki, and composer Lei Liang.