Matt Donovan does not channel his poems, nor does he receive them in a dream, through a lightning bolt or at the bottom of a cup of tea.
“It feels like sailing in the dark every single time I put pen to paper, for better or worse,” he says. “There is this myth about the way words find their way to the page. More often than not, there's a lot of frustration and the idea of failing better next time. There are periods of confusion and exhaustion.”
Eventually, he says, after about a hundred drafts, he pares down 12 pages of notes and doodles into a poem, the kind we see in his first book, “Vellum,” which just won Virginia Commonwealth University's 2008 Larry Levis Poetry Prize.
Exploring a knife as a source of both beauty and violence in “Saint Catherine in an O: A Song About Knives” helped Donovan intuitively understand the focus of his collection. “I was really engaged in the relationship between violence and beauty and trying to explore what it might mean,” he says. “There is something sacred in the secular, something holy in the everyday, but there are also moments of atrocity and barbarity in these instances as well.”
In the poem “The Scabbard of Limbs Means Flesh,” two men in San Antonio in 1906 are likened to Apollo, as they skin a woman alive: “They began / at her feet with a pocketknife / but either grew bored or perhaps / understood they weren't quite the same as the gods.”
Donovan says that the initial seed for his poems is most often a response to something beautiful or horrific: “The seed is overwhelmingly emotional, but if that survives the poem and all of the drafts and if it remains at the forefront, that's up to the reader to decide. I hope it's not too driven by intellectual concerns.”
Donovan, a graduate of Vassar and New York University, and an assistant professor of creative writing at the College of Santa Fe, is humble, almost self-deprecating about his poems, which also won the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference Bakeless Prize. The manuscript for “Vellum” was completed while his wife was pregnant with their first child, but since then, he says, his relationship to the muse by necessity has changed.
“There's no more dawdling or staring at the wall for inspiration,” he says. “Now it's, ƒ?~I have 20 minutes — start writing!'” He's not yet trying to form a collection of new works. “I'm just trying to write lines that are somewhat tolerable.” S
Matt Donovan will accept the Levis Reading Prize and read from “Vellum” in VCU's student commons Thursday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m. The event is free. 828-1331.