Claire Donato follows grief logic into a space of defamiliarization, speaking of death, television, rooms, love, nouns and voices as if confronting them for the first time. The language loops, stepping back to move forward, always circling a mind aware of its movements. It’s a gorgeous fugue


Claire Donato, Burial, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013.

excerpt (pdf)

Set in the mind of a narrator who is grieving the loss of her father, who conflates her hotel room with the morgue, and who encounters characters that may not exist, Burial is a little novel about an immeasurable black hole. Like a 21st century Lispector, Donato grapples with ontology and trades plot for ambience; the result is an elegy in prose at once lyrical and intelligent, with no small amount of rot and vomit and ghosts.

Claire Donato’s patient, immersive meditation on death and mourning designed in precise urn-like prose, Burial, fledges itself with the poise of Woolf or Loy or Carson; a kind of humming, marbled elegy for the as-yet-extant-alive, and like finding a real river in a dictionary.—Blake Butler

In her captivating book, Donato follows grief logic into a space of defamiliarization, speaking of death, television, rooms, love, nouns and voices as if confronting them for the first time. The language loops, stepping back to move forward, always circling a mind aware of its movements. It’s a gorgeous fugue, an unforgettable progression, a telling I cannot shake.—Heather Christle

Burial is a full and vibrant illustration of the restless turns of a mind undergoing trauma. Language here serves both as escape and as a threat, at once suspect and yet the only consolation. In Burial, Donato makes and unmakes the world with words, and what is left shimmers with pain and delight.—Brian Evenson

Burial‘s narrator dislocates familiar language in order to present a view of the self from outside the self. Claire Donato’s assured and poetic debut augurs a promising career.—Benjamin Moser

Donato's debut is a dark, multivalent, genre bending book that follows a female protagonist as she tries to come to terms with her father's death while conflating her hotel with a morgue. Following in the lineage of such writers as Clarice Lispector, it is a meditation on the multiplicity of the meaning of words. The story is presented as a series of vignettes wherein the reader is presented with characters like the Groundskeeper—who knocks on the protagonist's door, calling: "Housekeeping. Have you stayed in this cooler before?"—and The Voice, which "dwells in the morgue and the mind and the brain, insisting a person is never alone." The novella is propelled by a reframing of words and a digging into their roots both etymologically and symbolically; all meditations turn groundward and the father who is "at rest, half-dead, though very much alive and not yet buried," is frozen again and again in the bottom of a lake. The protagonist's musings also often open into striking cinematic moments: "‘...I cannot stand its thickness,' she moans, and fog encloses the graveyard that encloses the deceased." Donato has composed with unrelenting, grotesque beauty an exhaustive recursive obsession about the unburiability of the dead, and the incomprehensibility of death. - Publishers Weekly

When a loved one dies, people rarely get time to grieve fully, or find words to express its strange reality. In Claire Donato’s harrowing, enlightened first novel, “Burial” (Tarpaulin Sky, 103 pages, $16), a young woman narrates from deep within her anguish. The dense, potent language captures that sense of the unreal that, for a time, pulls people in mourning to feel closer to the dead than the living.
The book begins as the unnamed woman arrives at a motel where she’ll stay for two days before her father’s funeral. With her perspective transformed by the chaos of grief, she calls the motel a morgue. “Check into the morgue with a bright yellow suitcase,” she says. “Check into the morgue stale from thinking.” Donato omits the word “I” from much of the book, which makes the narrator’s story feel universal, less about one person’s emotions than the will to use imagination to confront death.
Her depression, a natural stage of grief, leaves her bored at the motel, where “the sheets are repulsively clean.” Alone awaiting the funeral, she sees ghosts while TV sets drone in other rooms. “What is the lesson?” she asks. “Must a lesson be learned? Has anything happened at all?” After meeting the motel groundskeeper by chance, she considers “a little carnal disruption” to distract herself from grief, but it’s too insistent. “ ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ death says.”
Isolated, she observes how “the body remains disconnected from itself, invalidating the mind, which lacks logic.” Freed from logic, she invents new definitions for grief, calling it, “the hollow layer of the heart that delineates the distance between reasoning and space,” a force “which impairs, sobs, and shouts, and can scarcely explain the basis of its graceless origin.”
The language is fractured at times as her thoughts slide between terse poetry and lyricism. But an ingenious structure becomes visible below the narrator’s stream of consciousness. We learn that her recurring thoughts about fish, forests and freezing to death are related to her father, who fell through a frozen pond and drowned while deer hunting. It’s her urge to stay connected to him that has condensed months of grief into these days, justifying the book’s experimental style.
One of the more stunning images of despair comes when she thinks about the funeral. “A person dressed in black always blends into her absence, although her expression is soured by grief, shoved into the ground, hung upside-down from a tree until the gravedigger throws up.” Though gruesome, it’s a startlingly original and effective image to show her desire to purge the intense sadness, to imagine that her loss could pierce even the heart of a gravedigger. - Matthew Jakubowski 

In poet Claire Donato’s debut novel, Burial, the narrator, a woman whose father has died unexpectedly, dons a pair of nightmarish goggles and swims the murky waters of grief. While the theme of grief is familiar, the way in which Donato approaches it is decidedly expressionist. She evokes the intense personal meaning of grief by uprooting it from its “objective” context and projecting its subjective essence onto an outer landscape, destabilizing the effect produced by the artificial objectivity of an overall realist framework. Sorrow is a necklace choking the woman who wears it; a gumball is a human head rolling across the carpet of a hotel. Occasionally, Donato’s imagery gestures toward a faux realism, at times oscillating toward what many readers would interpret as psychological realism, and yet the expressionist context retains the uniquely personal experience of grief. For example, while the narrator’s dinner is described in quasi-realistic terms, the intensity of the expressionism is simply operating on a lower valence. We understand that even the narrator’s dinner is perceived through grief because she keeps seeing qualities of her father’s corpse in the food: the coffee is too “lightly colored” to drink, and the fish so dry its skin “won’t spring back” when touched (16).
The story unfolds around a collection of banal objects, each one a clue of her history with her father – possibly a violent one — but each “fact” written by memory and grief. As readers, we must construct a plot from the slivers that may or may not slice through the fog of emotion. Traumatized by the news of her father’s tragic death, she imagines the moment of his fatal accident, thus allowing the reader to witness his death as she perceives it. “Once in the lobby – the autopsy chamber, the room cooling his body – one presses the keys of a piano; one grazes the flesh on a wrist: one traces the past, fingers a deer, and remembers death, the dog, the bitch” (41).
There is a certain gratification that comes from piecing together facts like a detective, and yet the real satisfaction comes from Donato’s language and expressionist imagery. With exquisite insight, Donato conveys the narrator’s near-impossible attempt to keep her head straight enough to attend to her father’s burial. The opening paragraph of the book, which begins with a statement of fact and ends in the pangs of sorrow, demonstrates the struggle of the narrator to maintain a grip on reality despite the near-fugue state of her grief:
A morgue is an obtrusive building with a roof and walls, like a house, school, store, or factory. The feeling inside is one of deep intensity, a physical discomfort marked by doubt. Morgue, from the French, is used to describe rooms in early 19th century buildings in Paris where corpses were kept. A corpse is a dead human body; hence your tightening chest, your quickening breath. (3)
The narrator repeats and often conflates the names of the objects she encounters, their meaning deepening, both etymologically and symbolically, with each occurrence. Blurry with grief, the narrator finds herself checking into the “morgue” instead of the “hotel” and the father is buried in a “suitcase” rather than a “casket.” Everything, even the simplest of objects, becomes distorted. The narrator cannot avoid linking everything to death because, as Donato writes, “death is massive — explosive — and the eyes, mind, and brain perceive its weight, and the water below the ice atop the lake is cold and blank” (83).

Burial is a brave novel. It is a raw and honest evocation of the personal experience and overwhelming power of grief. - Rebekah Hall

The first thing you will notice about Donato’s debut Burial is that it is short. Excluding the preface, it is under 80 pages. But having recently read The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (to whom Donato is compared to on the back cover), I know length should never be used to dismiss the merit of a novel.
The setting surrealistically (con)fuses a morgue with a hotel room, direct from the first sentence: “Check into the morgue with a bright yellow suitcase, a bag of dry rice, and a digital camera. Check into the morgue wearing wild alpaca: drafts of air ring out in one faint call. Check into the morgue stale from thinking.” Within the ten brief chapters lies the stream-of-conscious form of grief of a daughter for her father, presented in the second-person.
“Must everything mean several things at once?” the monologue asks itself. Filled with questions and poetic nuance (the sheets in the hotel are “repulsively clean”), Donato explores the cavernous depths the mind repels into when confronted with the idea of its own inexistence. Throughout the book, we see Donato return to the concept of “two things,” often contrasting with each other, interacting with each other, blurring the lines between each of them. A hotel room and a morgue, the heart and the brain. “[I]t is remarkable how the connection between the brain, heart and mind causes the body confusion. In order to renounce itself, the body must retreat into itself and turn to formlessness: pain less, detach, and make do – dissolve into wind, loss of breath.” Donato’s poetic use of language is stamped all over this book, not so much playing with, but sculpting language and vocabulary into the morose and difficultly translated drama the human psyche creates.
The catharsis of the book (if there ever is in the grief-process) appears in the form of an imagined statement from the deceased Father. “What is death but a reprieve? Each day, the living life in vain, and although one’s mind may possess good intentions, one always cracks another’s heart, or one’s own.” In death, there is a justification for life.
But by the end of the book, I was still left wondering: who was this father? We learn little about who he was as a man, about why this person inspires such intense grief. It is slowly revealed how he passed away, ahead of his time, which may be the biggest reason. Relationships with parents can be complex, and we are given little insight as to what the relationship was like between the daughter and father before his death. On her website, Donato explains that “the book grapples with ontology and relies on ambience rather than linear plot,” thus the reason why character development is eschewed in favor of occasional ramblings and tangential  questions. The fact that the book raises certain questions of grief-expression is proof the experiment does work; the fact the book raises certain other questions is proof the experiment sometimes doesn’t. - Andrew Hertzberg

claire donato burial
Yes, we wear wrist sweatbands when we blog. We treat writing like a tennis match. And yes, the foliage is filling in .. we've been taking daily time-lapse photos .. by next post perhaps we'll be ready to show all of April in 30 seconds.
Right off the bat in BurialBurial, Claire Donato goes into the etymology of morgue.
«Repeat the expression: Life is the body of death. 'Morgue,' borrowed from the French, is a mortuary: a hard and insensitive building where dead bodies are kept, where mourners gather following death. But from what does a morgue borrow its form? To whom does it owe a debt? Say 'morgue.' The word is a trap. It wreaks havoc upon the brain, the mind and language.»
Burial is one of these monolithic book objects that is full of language .. that is not about anything in particular that can't be summed up in its one sentence description: «Set in the mind of a narrator who is grieving the loss of her father, who conflates her hotel room with the morgue, and who encounters characters that may not exist, Burial is a little novel about an immeasurable black hole.»
Burial is a flood of language that pours out of the narrator, echoing of Woolf, Cixous & Nathalie Sarraute (though perhaps because Sarraute is fresh in our mind). With passages such as:
«Shock, which dons the guise of laughter, pollutes the body, is cacophonous. Disassociation hugs the mind, and it is impossible to call attention to the morgue without describing its scenery. Its carpet is baroque. Beneath it rests a colony of dirigible ants that, regardless of the season, steers together. During the rainy season, the ants steer together, wander through corridors in search of sugar, syrup, honey. In summer, a tidal wave overturns the beach; one finds oneself lost in loops: designs that are brightly colored, however colorless: loop loop. One cannot get lost in carpet without being thrown for a loop, a vortex, a swirling eddy, and so many things to call to attention: the antique mantle, painted white; the countertop, marble, cool to the touch; hardwood banisters that loop and climb the staircase, then spiral down from the brain's never-ending collection of rocks.»
The entire books was refreshingly devoid of proper nouns .. references to real-world things. The only nameof person or place mentioned that we remember was California (where the narrator is from) but we don't really know where she is, geographically. There are a few characters, but they are not mentioned by name so much as function, such as the groundskeeper.
This monolith, in a perfect world, we should be able to chisel a chunk from it & from this chunk recreate the original monolith. The monolith is also a tombstone.
here lays one whose name was writ in water
Keats wish was to be buried in an unmarked grave (in our old stomping grounds) with only the inscription «Here lies one whose name was writ in water». His friend Joseph Severn sort of honored his wish, but unfortunately there's a bunch of stuff written above this that explains Keats wish .. which seems to defeat the whole point. Keats would roll over.
Why can't friends just honor wills & the death bed requests of writers? Like Kafka asking his friend Max Brod «My last request: Everything I leave behind me . . . in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.» And what did Brod do? I suppose we are just as guilty as Brod for reading these books. Just like looking at pictures of dead corpses encourages you, or the media, to post such images.
We've never seen a dead body in person. We'd have opportunity to, for example to identify them in morgues, but have opted out. We should say, we've never seen them up close, or in full view. The first day we moved to New York we saw a body with a sheet throw over it .. five or six stories above it was an open window, the kind that angled out so you'd have to jump head first. The closest we've come to seeing a dead body in the flesh was when we were a teenager in Mexico .. from about 10 meters away we saw a drowned woman being pulled out of the water up onto the beach. We don't remember much about it, for some reason what comes to mind first is that it was a beach nearby to Mazatlan, famous as a place where they canned baby sharks.
For the most part we try not to look, when presented with a corpse. Viewing a dead body kills the living memory of that person. Like that famous cat in quantum mechanics, we prefer to keep things in undetermined states.
This dead body motif in the late 80s was perhaps because people were living sheltered in lala land, in denialof the ugliness in the world. If we googled around we're sure we could find something written about this, explaining it .. but on the other hand .. like the dead bodies .. maybe it's better to just let them lay .. or lie. - Derek White

1. For reasons both Biblical and practical, we must “let go the dead.” But “persons never completely let go the dead.”
2. The main characters of Donato’s debut never leave the side of the dead. Father, dead, belongs here. The unnamed woman is describing as checking-in to the morgue. She’s there to stay, also, for a while.
3. Burial is concerned with the strangeness of death, something lost in its ubiquity, until we see it close. At another funeral near the start of the book, the congregation is described as “yawning, unable to recognize the weight of the ghost.” Mouths open, they might as well have been singing.
4. Donato’s heavy usage of commas, in the vein of Peter Markus (We Make Mud) and William Gass (“The Pedersen Kid”) before her, is almost a way of stalling all death.
5. Father is dead. His capitalized self stands like a tree amongst the brush of other words.
6. “Father was a man. He taught lessons in his language, and also raised his voice. ‘A lovely day to go fishing,’ he said. ‘The water is frozen,’ he said. Then he drowned in the lake.”
7. Burial is a grief-dream, an attempt to un-sew pain from experience and to reveal it in language.
8. “Mind’s a confused, tangled skein.” Particularly when it is pulled by pain.
9. “And the doe—the poor, female doe—collapsed at the scene. Two cracks rang out. He shot her. He shot her dead. ‘A lovely day to go fishing,’ he said, yet before he could indulge in his reward—field dress the damn deer and pay tribute to his success, his all-time best, grand aptitude for chase—he drowned in the lake.” Father’s final moments return, as grief does, often in different permutations. What’s the point of language if it can’t unmake and remake?
10. There is the woman, and Father, and Groundskeeper, who “kneels beside her bright yellow bucket,” and is the keeper and cleaner of these dead.
11. The woman does not belong here. And yet, she thinks “The morgue is a comfortable place.” She knows its linens and towels and desks and menus and phone books and Bibles and its “long” corridors.
12. The mourner is trapped in her grief, and this morgue is her new home. She is there with Father.
13. Talk shows reel across screens, and the woman imagines a world Kubrick would appreciate: “Three persons wearing pantsuits look the same, eating around a table piled with lox, smoked fish the morgue serves before dinner.” This is more Eyes Wide Shut than The Shining.
14. Though trapped, perhaps willingly so, the woman “floats through grief.” It is an appropriate verb. When a body passes, the bodies that remain lose their own form.
15. Groundskeeper offers the woman little solace, but some wisdom. She’s seen this before; she knows there are more deaths to come.
16. Despite the time at the morgue, the typical events of death still occur: wake, funeral. So there are two levels of this grief.
17. “How does one frame death?”
18. “What, you may ask, is the lesson of death?”
19. “‘I’m going to teach you a lesson,’ his dead mouth says.”
20. There must be a lesson. What a waste if there were none
21. We bury as part of the ritual of death, but also to put those no-longer-bodies out of sight. The horror of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is Addie’s body bounding in that wagon, falling into a river. She was dead before she died, hollow, wood.
22. At least the Bundrens had the open-air. Donato gives her characters no escape, no breath, which the reader feels. This novella asphyxiates.
23. Donato slows her prose to show the casket’s descent. The motion is necessarily mechanical.
24. In contrast to the lowering casket, “One funeral goer falls onto her knees, falls into blindsight and chokes up a necklace.” Death is strange. Remember that.
25. “What is the lesson?” -

Claire Donato Reads Burial (by David Jhave Johnston): on vimeo

Someone Else's Body

Claire Donato, Someone Else’s Body, Cannibal Books, 2009.

Read sample poems here:

“The night you leave, I write tourist across my stomach with regard to everything I’ve ever done,” begins the poem “There are apologies I am too.”  The speaker later concludes, “You have to pass the time.”  There are a number of ways to do this: you can try to sleep, you can remember the past, or you can write poems about passing the time.  Claire Donato’s Someone Else’s Body is a collection of ten poems varying in style and length, but all seemingly haunted by the past and centered on absence and loss.
Despite its use of direct language, there is a strangeness to the worlds Donato captures in her poems.  Something familiar turns into something unfamiliar, detaches itself from the usual relationships and associations.  In the opening poem, “The Night, What It Allows,” the speaker is in a house where “the walls are tearing / out of their paint” and “the window next / to the television is turning away.”  The house seems uncomfortable in its frame, just as the speaker lying on top of the television is uncomfortable and charting her fear.
Discomfort abounds and is perhaps most present in the title poem, which is about pregnancy and detachment (“Still, it continues to grow…”), and in “Dermatographism,” a longer poem about relationships, “cutting,” and self-mutilation,  There is a claustrophobic feeling to these poems.  Donato writes in “Dermatographism”:
When the mind furies, it may or may not be recollecting.
It may or may not be attempting to unweave
remembrance, which has become a rich part of life, but when
does remembrance become constriction?  We are always
inside of the walls: we want to know others—we want to
be lost outside of ourselves…
The voice here desires to break out of the house, to break out of itself, to know others. This desire to reach out and connect with others is revealed in the collection’s many addresses and pleas to an unidentified “you.”  In “I have some things to tell you,” the speaker claims: “I want to look at you & see myself: I want to look at you & see / you in a sheet.”  However, these attempts to connect often seem frustrated: despite the desire, no connection is made.  A kind of connection is achieved in the poem “bed” where two people turn to each other for warmth, but this connection quickly turns disturbing:
frozen he
turns over, warms his fingers on her—lids, she says: pulp, plum, fire-
wood & nestle             hot on the skin
jolts her tightly—tightly she un-
weaves thread from the lining,
the blanket of the bed—braiding it into a rope
she ties around like a noose
on his neck
This poem, minimalistic and effectively using the white space of the page, is the most stripped- down in the collection.  It ends with a mysterious list of details:
bruise, bruised, bruising                      —sheet of chrysanthemums in the basement
the pocket knife, folded—                                             the radiator, the empty corridor,
The final punctuation is a comma that hangs on the page, waits for the list to continue, to break the silence of that heavy pause.

Someone Else’s Body is a strong collection. In “Address to California,” Donato writes: “It is possible I am inventing a history in which words are interchangeable and based solely on your neck and lips and shoulders.”  Some of the mystery in these poems may come from this private history, shielded from the reader by the interchangeability of the words, but the ache of longing created by distance, whether geographical or historical, is palpable in these terse lyrics, lyrics that are exact and mysterious at once.
Gina Myers

i just read someone else's body, a chapbook from cannibal by claire donato. aside from being weird and smart and funny, claire donato is great at line breaks. each line is a beautiful unit. you can see this best in the first poem, "The Night, What It Allows":

The walls are tearing
  out of their paint.     My legs

  are crossed.     I am not

listening to the TV
in the other room.     I am not

  listening to the television.     The window next

to the television is
  turning away.     The window is

open.     There is a person

outside of it, screaming.  I am lying
  on a television, my eyes are closed,

someone is breaking into my

house: I have always been afraid
of the night, what it allows.     I have
never been afraid of the depth

of your fall: in, on, arms, quarrel,
voice...I am never afraid

to layer my breath over yours--

and when I ask you to plot your anger
on a line, I am referring to fear, how

it is linear: see how mine moves

upward in a diagonal line?
See how it moves up to choose?

Why are you lying in a heap on the floor?

i just typed the whole poem. i didn't plan to do that, i just didn't want to stop. am i in trouble? who cares, do you see what i mean about the line breaks? beautiful.

here is another poem from the chapbook that i love, it is so great:

Maria Damon and Jackie Clark tagged me for The Next Big Thing, a self-interview questionnaire. Below, I answer a few questions about my forthcoming book, Burial. I believe this meme has evolved to include previously published authors, so I’ll tag Heather Christle, whose new chapbook, Private Party, was just published, along with Gracie Leavitt, who first book Monkeys, Minor Planet, Average Star is forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2014, and David Wolach, whose Hospitology is forthcoming from Tarpaulin Sky at the same time as Burial.

What is the working title of the book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
From the atoms constituting my friend Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s desk.
What genre does your book fall under?
Fiction. I am both disinterested in and preoccupied with genre.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I would like to see a claymation adaptation of Burial by Nick Park. A Saturday Night Live digital short parody would be amazing too!
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
"Set in the mind of a narrator who is grieving the loss of her father, who conflates her hotel room with the morgue, and who encounters characters that may not exist, Burial is a little novel about an immeasurable black hole. " (Thanks to Christian Peet for this language.)
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The first draft took about a year to write and was very different from the final draft, the forthcoming book. It was short, and all of the first occurrences of each noun were italicized. Revisions took another year and a half.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My parents, who wrote and read all the time when I was growing up, inspired me to write. My dad, an applied linguist with an incredible dedication to his field of study, wrote his dissertation when I was a baby; my mom, a French professor, J.K. Huysmans scholar, and the most open-minded and voracious reader I’ve ever met (seriously), wrote hers during my ‘formative years.’ (BTW, both of my parents still write all the time; in fact, my dad just sent me his new article, and my mom is now a contributor to My French Life and will collaborate with me on a French translation of Burial.) While it would be creepy to dedicate this particular book to them—seeing as the book contains a dead, potentially unpleasant Father character (who is in no way anything like my father with a lowercase F)— they instilled in me a deep love of language and critical thought that informs my writing practice.
Other influences: Azie, whose work blew me away when I first heard and then read it, and whose discipline and generosity keeps me writing. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer made me feel empowered as a writer during the time I was working on this manuscript; without it, I would’ve been exasperated! Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Cole Swensen’s Goest have been consistent reference points for me since I took Lynn Emanuel’s Senior Seminar in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in Spring 2007. I also discovered Clarice Lispector as I was wrapping up this manuscript, and her work has greatly influenced my thinking around literary art. So has Nathalie Sarraute—I love reading interviews with her; she was very no-nonsense. Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace’s snowy landscape was another source of inspiration. For a full constellation of influences, check out the book’s acknowledgements page.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I started writing Burial when I was studying poetry at Brown. I had previously written some bad conventional fiction to the tune of the inverted checkmark as an undergraduate, but that was it. Burial’s process entailed moving through the dictionary, excavating language’s burial site, so to speak. I started writing the book when I was 22 and tragic and discovering meditation for the first time in the form of writing with my eyes closed and not hitting delete. Today I feel a lot more even keel—meditation and being out in the world has helped me so much.
I still regularly write with my eyes closed. You can hear me read the first paragraph of Burial by clicking here.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
My book is being published by Tarpaulin Sky Press, and I feel privileged to work with Christian Peet, who is the best. I am not represented by an agency. -

Amina Cain & Claire Donato
— evelyn @ 7:26 pm
Earlier this year, books by Claire Donato and Amina Cain appeared: Someone Else’s Body (Donato) and I Go To Some Hollow (Cain). More persuasive than my praise are their own words: prose by Amina Cain can be read here, here, and here. Poems by Claire Donato are here, here, and here. And, if you haven’t already, check out their books!
Wanting more words, I e-mailed questions to Amina and Claire. My questions and their responses follow.
1. Claire suggested that I look through both of your Goodreads lists because you two share some reading interests. I noticed that you’ve both read and like Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: A Novel. What’s your connection to Pittsburgh and to this novel?
Claire: My hometown is Pittsburgh, PA, and I attended the University of Pittsburgh, where Chabon’s novel takes place. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was one of the first books I read and loved in college, and it provided me with a kind of backdrop for my future college experience. Of course, college was nothing like the book. But I also hear the movie is nothing like the book…
I love Pittsburgh and miss it in the springtime. I just went back to visit for the first time since moving away, and it was good to revisit old haunts-my former workplace, Caliban Bookshop (, Brillobox, and Tazza D’Oro to name a few-and to explore new things and places: Pittsburgh style four-egg omelets and Park House on the North Side, a bar some friends introduced me to.
Amina: I first read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh when I was nineteen years old and it had a huge impact on me in many ways, but especially in terms of atmosphere– not how, as a writer, to create it, but in the possibilities of how atmosphere had and might materialize in my life, and in how I sometimes felt close to it.
For a while I read The Mysteries of Pittsburgh once a year, as soon as the weather started to get warm; the book takes place during the summer.  It’s been a while since I last read it, and my copy (along with most of the books I own) is currently packed away in a storage unit, but if I remember correctly, the novel begins in a somewhat emptied library at the very end of a spring semester.  I think the main character, Art, is attempting to finish a paper so he can graduate.  The atmosphere is spacious, the way an emptied campus is spacious when most of its students have gone away for a while.  When I was in college I always stayed through the break, not taking classes, but working at a museum on campus.  I loved the feeling of riding around on my bike with hardly anyone else around.  Summer allowed me to develop a quieter relationship to my school.  So the book begins in a somewhat emptied environment, which I love.  Then all of these interesting characters step into Art’s life, and he falls in love with all of them, together and separately, and he seems to love himself more when he is with them too.
Because I was so enamored with The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, I decided to take a trip to that city, which was a few hours away from where I lived in Ohio, to try to find some of the places that appear in the novel, like the Cloud Factory and the Lost Neighborhood.  I really like Pittsburgh.  One of my favorite art centers, The Mattress Factory, is located there.  And, one year, when I was living in Chicago, it seemed all of the people I was becoming close to were from Pittsburgh or from Chile.
2.  I also noticed that you’ve both read books by Marguerite Duras (in particular, The Malady of Death) and Anne Carson. Are these two writers important to you? How? Who are some other writers you consider favorites?
Claire: I just discovered Marguerite Duras via a fiction writer here at Brown, Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi. I was drawn to The Malady of Death because of its unusually large font size. I am currently reading Duras’ book The Lover.
Anne Carson was one of the first genre-bending writers I encountered as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh-I read The Beauty of the Husband for a poetry workshop. Carson’s translations of Sappho (If Not, Winter) have had a significant effect on the way I think about the topography of the page.
Current favorite writers of mine include Brenda Hillman, Jack Spicer, C.D. Wright, Juliana Spahr, Joan Retallack, and Caroline Bergvall. The first poem I memorized was by Frank O’Hara. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely opened my eyes to cross-genre writing.
Which poem by O’Hara?
Claire: “POEM”
Instant coffee with slightly sour cream
in it, and a phone call to the beyond
which doesn’t seem to be coming any nearer.
“Ah daddy, I wanna stay drunk many days”
on the poetry of a new friend
my life held precariously in the seeing
hands of others, their and my impossibilities.
Is this love, now that the first love
has finally died, where there were no impossibilities?
Amina: Marguerite Duras is my favorite writer, and the books I like best by her are The Ravishing of Lol Stein, The Vice Consul, Blue Eyes, Black Hair (which essentially tells the same “story” as The Malady of Death), and Destroy, She Said.  Maybe I love Duras as well because of the way her books empty out places, and at times characters, without emptying out what happens in or between them.
I’ve only been reading Anne Carson’s books for the last year or two, but they are quickly becoming influential to me, to my writing.  In any book by Carson, it seems there are sections I don’t connect to, but reading the rest of it is usually like taking a drug.  Her writing can be so charged, and so honest; so cutting.  And I like that so many different written forms– poems, operas, essays, screenplays, documentaries– can exist all at once in a book.
Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, and contemporary writers like Bhanu Kapil, Tisa Bryant, and Renee Gladman are also important to me.  I didn’t mean for all of my favorite writers to be female, but it has definitely happened.
With the exception of a couple, the writers you mentioned tend to work in short forms. And, from what I know of your writing, so do you. I’m curious to hear about your experiences with different forms. Do you think any one form has been particularly influential on your own writing?
I do always write short pieces, with the exception of a failed novel, though I love to read writing of all different forms and lengths.  The book Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is so different than anything I would (or could) ever write, but I love that novel very much.  I guess even in its packed, epic form there is some of that spaciousness I was speaking of earlier.  And though things like plot are not so important to me as a writer, as a reader I sometimes enjoy them.
Like many, I am increasingly suspicious of and bored by writing that insists so emphatically on itself as any one thing.  Right now I kind of dislike the word poetry because it feels like many of the poets I know have crowned it king of writing, see it as the only space for true possibility.  Not that I don’t like work that calls itself poetry, I often do, and very much, but part of why I like the above writers best is because first and foremost they are writers, and seem to be concerned with what can happen in a larger field than the field of any one genre.  The work of Nathalie Stephens (Nathanaël) is very important to me in this way.  In general, I’ve learned a lot from Nathanaël.
3.  I’ve been reading the essay “Decreation” by Anne Carson. In it she quotes Simone Weil: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there.”
This got me thinking of a few things to ask.
Amina, in a blog entry you posted to the Les Figues blog, you say, “I have thought a lot about no self, but not about what I might be blocking in my insistence on my self. What would it be to unblock? What would it feel like? And, then, what would I see?”
You also write, in “Two-Dimensional War,” “Sometimes I wondered why I had wanted to live on land that looked like a destroyed place would look, but there was something calming about it too, as if it wasn’t required to be anything, as if no one would bother it for a while” (I Go To Some Hollow 37).
Claire, in your chapbook Someone Else’s Body, the speaker in Dermatographism says, “I understand my feelings regarding the other sex: what is engulfing is, in its purest fundamental, warmly beckoning.”
Could you both talk about these ideas: losing one’s self, being engulfed?
(You can read “Decreation” online here.)
Amina: “Decreation” is so good.  It’s funny– I just wrote a sort of creative response to the ideas of class and gender and I begin by quoting the same line you did by Simone Weil.  The quote continues, “But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.”  The piece I wrote is entitled “The Beating of my Heart.”
I have always been drawn to “feeling lost” (though not being literally lost in the street).  A complete disorientation is sometimes necessary for me, if only to break my habitual patterns and make me not know anymore what’s all around.  Moments in which I think I have lost my “self” have always been shocking, and sometimes frightening.  And a little bit of freedom is there too.  In other moments I have been frustrated because I seem to not be able to lose my self.  I am too close to it.  Being engulfed seems like the ultimate way of being present, because the only thing you can see then is what is taking you over.  I do think of these things when I am writing, if sometimes subconsciously.  These are all forms of emptying out — a self, a landscape, a relationship.
Claire: I’ve spent the past semester reading all of Brenda Hillman’s work, which has led me to consider loss and sorrow in relation to ecology, both inside and outside of my own work. I am currently thinking and writing about grief ecology, or the interplay between mourning and ecological landscape.[1] I am interested in grief as a deep sorrow that we carry inside of us all of the time, both related to and unrelated to death. I am also preoccupied with the ways in which a person might lose herself to grief, and the tension between the diverse ways grief manifests in individuals, and how (and what) grief engulfs.
Hillman’s speaker often attempts to understand her own grief via exterior landscapes, as in the poem “Yellow Tractate,” where she writes: “So I studied the lines around the daffodils, / wanting to see how they could be / and not be at the same time [...]” (Death Tractates 17). By focusing on the impermanence of her environment, Hillman’s speaker is able to contemplate, chart, and wade through grief. And this contemplation often leads to a realization that life is happening! “In the shine off the back of a very large beetle / on the driest hill where so much is in bloom. / Even the serpentine pebbles in the cracks bloom, / even the cracks bloom” (Death Tractates 49). It’s as if Hillman’s speaker loses herself to grief, which causes her to see things in an elegiac light. Once that light is glowing, grief engulfs itself to produce life. A lovely cycle, I think.
[1] In terms of my own writing, I am working on a series of poems titled “Grief Ecology.” Each poem in the series is called “Elegiac Backdrop.” Thinking critically about Brenda Hillman’s work inspired the series. Joseph Massey’s work, which strikes me as very elegiac, influence the forms.
Recently I’ve been reading about riddles, and I’ve come across a (to me) interesting connection between riddles and the elegy. There’s a kind/genre of elegy called frauenlied, or woman’s song, in the Old English lineage. (Translated literally via Google Translate, frauenlied means “woman lied.”) Your answer to my previous question gave me a new way to think about what can be puzzling or riddling about grief, i.e., “wanting to see how [daffodils] could be / and not be at the same time [...]“
This is a lot of build-up for a question about a man you mention in your footnote. I’m curious-what about Massey’s work strikes you as elegiac?
Both the form(s) and content(s) of Massey’s poems strike me as elegiac. Like Hillman, Massey makes sense of his own carried grief by looking toward ecological landscape, and the unusual, vivid juxtapositions that exist (are alive, literally draw breath) alongside decay, e.g. “buds on a diseased / tree, at the / edge of blossoming” and “a pigeon feather / [flapping] from a / mound of pigeon shit” (Areas of Fog, 32, 23).
Formally, Joe compresses images of life in bloom against rot by slipping through line breaks and chiseling his poems down to precise, core morsels of language, causing the juxtapositions to be all the more startling. Massey’s words pressed into the sparseness of the page create a sort of ghostly impression: the words and images are there, thriving against what Joan Retallack might call space-time’s “continuous drone” (The Poethical Wager 5).
Joe [Massey] and I have recently been talking back and forth about elegy and grief. Our conversations have illuminated my understanding of ecology’s link to mourning. Recently, Joe said:
“I think it’s impossible to write about the world, the world we’re in today, without it being an elegy — unless you’re blind, living in a Hallmark card, imagining animals as Disney creations, personifying everything into just one more human blob of shit, as so many do when writing about ‘nature’ (whatever that means).”
Nature, is seems to me, is an empty means by which to explain how the physical world “should” or “should not” be. I am much more interested in the way all organisms relate.
Amina, what have you been working on lately?
My writing process is different these days than it usually is.  Normally I work on one piece of writing until it is finished and then move on to the next, and it works like that.  Right now I am working on a book-length project made up of pieces that in small ways look towards possibilities of performance.  Last fall I recorded a couple of these pieces with the help and voice and music of writer/artist/musician Amarnath Ravva, and in January, in Chicago, performed one of my stories as a play with the artist Rachel Tredon.  Right now I am working on a short screenplay tentatively entitled “The Day Like a Mouth and Me in It” (the very first part of which is posted on the Les Figues press blog) featuring the character Marya Timofeevna from Dostoevsky’s Demons. It contains very little dialogue, which is funny to me, because the story I performed with Rachel is almost all dialogue.  At first, I thought I would never want the screenplay to be filmed, that I wanted to just enjoy the writing of it for the sake of writing, but now I’m not so sure.  I keep “seeing” it.
4.  When you read something that you wrote a while ago, is there anything that makes you think, That was me then, but I don’t do that now. What is it?
Amina: Yes.  Some of my book I Go To Some Hollow feels that way to me.  If the self gets lost, or at least changes, I guess the writing does too; but, also, there might be a consciousness or a notion that gets threaded through all of the work one does.  I still want to feel close to atmosphere in the ways I did when I was nineteen; and my writing did, and does, want that too.  Maybe texts document the self and its journey straight into “decreation.”
Claire: This is a tough question! Someone Else’s Body, which was written a few years ago, feels simultaneously distant but close as ever to my current writing. I’m there, but is that me? Yes, but what’s changed, I think, is my writing practice. I’ve focused and energized my writing practice since then. Which is to say, I don’t write the same way I did then now. - Interview by Evelyn Hampton

Interview by Lexi Miller-Golub for Healthy Artists (forthcoming in January 2013)
Roundtable Interview by Ray DeJesús at The Best American Poetry (2011)

Q&A for Cousins Reading Series by William Walsh & Darcie Dennigan (2010)      

Selected Fiction
"The New Father" (short story), finalist for Black Warrior Review's Eighth Annual Fiction Contest (under consideration)
"Check-In" from Burial in The Organism for Poetic Research's PELT (New York University, 2013, in press)
"Friends" from Burial (printable PDF version; originally published in LIT)
50 words from Burial for Mud Luscious Press's Stamp Stories Project (printed on cardstock and shipped free from participating indie presses)
Selected Creative Non-Fiction: Lyric Essays, Hybrid Forms, & Peculiar Critical Writing
"Malbec," " Pedagogy," "Pink Tablet," and "Poststructural Feminism" forthcoming in Encyclopedia Vol. 3: L-Z (2014, in press)
"What I Learned from Discipline" in Evening Will Come
"Address to the Long Road" (printable PDF version; originally published in Coldfront)
"Whilst Straddling a Speaker Who Has 'Located Her Voice'" for Les Figues Press's Feminaissance Blog Project
"Claire Donato on Claire Donato" for We Who Are About To Die
Selected Magazine & Miscellaneous Writing
"Poet in Residence: Germantown High School" in the Millay Colony for the Arts's Barn Swallow
Various articles in ReadyMade Nos. 34 & 35

Selected Poetry
"Argumentum e Silencio" in 1913: a journal of forms (in press)
"The Second Body Is a Shield" in Aufgabe
"Order and Kinetics" in The Boston Review
"So: A Baroque" in The Sonnets (print only)
Hear me read "Catalogue Entry for Aging" at The Poetry Project
"Manifesto La Terre / Mori" in Denver Quarterly (PDF version, originally published in print)
Two Poems in Fou
"In the Wake of Freezing You to Death" in BOMBlog (featuring commentator backlash!)
Five poems in Dandelion (University of Calgary, Canada) (print & PDF, includes fiction in French by my mom)
"I have some things to tell you" in Caketrain (print & PDF, my first publication)
"Foreplay Heart" in Black Warrior Review (PDF version, originally published in print; "a fun Surrealist poem divided into three paragraphs," per this review)
"Scotch Taped Against the World" and "An Empty Barn" in Calaveras (PDF versions, originally published in print)
"Get Him Chromogenic" in The Raleigh Quarterly (PDF version)
Three Poems in Action Yes



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