Jeffery Donaldson’s Fluke Print digs into the groundwork of poetry, examining and reimagining creativity, intellect, and the emotional landscape in poems that are subtle and precise, packed with quiet beauty and lines that land sure-footed and sharp. By calling into question our everyday assumptions, Donaldson mines simple scenes for complex emotion.
All of which made us very eager to talk to him about this fabulous new collection - little did we know that when we reached out to chat with Jeffery, we'd be getting a very different kind of discussion. Rather than connecting with the author, we found ourselves in contact with someone else altogether... but someone uniquely qualified to talk about Jeffery, his process, and his new collection.
So today we present a conversation not with the acclaimed author but with his self-proclaimed evil twin (we don't judge!). The twin tells us about his better half's very relatable aversion to self-promotion, why it sometimes takes the poem itself threatening violence to move the writing process along, and where the title of Fluke Print came from.
Tell us about the new book and how it came to be.
Jeffery Donaldson('s evil twin):
Jeffery Donaldson has not been himself lately, so he asked if I, his evil twin, would be kind enough to help him with these questions. I happily agreed, as it is high time the truth was known about this sad man, this pretender, who every so often finds that he has a sheaf of poems on his impossible desk and hasn’t the good discipline nor care for the reputation of Canadian poetry to keep them to himself. Having a pathological, he calls it ticklish, aversion to self-promotion, he is, as we speak, hiding in the cellar. The least suggestion that he has asked the world to look at, or read about, or listen to, his poems fills him with guilt and remorse. He would rather drink ink. But five minutes of probing and you’ll find that he has as vulnerable an ego as any Donald Trump, only without the social media platform. Donaldson likes to impersonate sane people. But a paid-in-full member of the Asperger and Tourette clubs, he is all smoke and mirrors. Hold on, I just heard him call up from the basement, “Why are you saying that? It’s none of their business!” “I thought you wanted my help!” No reply. But the wine shelf is down there and I think I heard a cork pop.
Where were we? His poems do not so much come to be as “call,” rather in the way nature does. You might speak of diarrhea, but it would be your word, not mine. I would only say that he takes in the world with appetite, but then finds on occasion that something is not quite right with the digestion. Too much leafage generally in those Romantic poets. He gets what you might call the runs. And then, well, we don’t need to go into detail.
In any case, his book is called Fluke Print. I guess he went whale watching recently and found his attention drawn to those little pads of smooth water that form on the surface of the ocean after a whale has sounded. He asked, and was told, what they were called. God help us, he got to thinking. One of his oh-so-meaningful riffs on life and spirit and language. Would that the whales had taken it down with them, but there you go … they have taste.
Is there a question that is central to Jeffery's book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
Well, Donaldson has his obsessions: time, spirit, imagination, and poetry itself I’m afraid. Let us hope he sorts them out soon and moves on to something else. Maybe a nice apple. God forbid he should write about something happening in the real world. “We can only write the poems we are given to write!” What’s that?” “WE CAN ONLY WRITE THE POEMS WE ARE GIVEN TO WRITE!” “I thought you weren’t listening!” Can he even spell control freak?
Well, it seems the whole middle section is made up of love poems. God help us. Donaldson in relationships: think the Tin Man meets Howdy Doody. He had this thing with a wonderful woman for eight years and now it’s done. He’s really chewed up about it. He still thinks of her as a hero for taking him on. So ya, the poems are a bit of a navel gaze … both navels if you will. I think he has issues with boundaries. Blurts out anything and then “GOES AND HIDES IN THE CELLAR!” Don’t worry, he heard me. It has this section of twenty-one sonnet-like contraptions, five tercets each! Tell you the truth, I thought they were downers.
Did this project change significantly from when he first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
Look, here’s the thing. Donaldson teaches. Most times it gives him energy somehow. But when he’s done, all he can think about is reading in bed. He’s like a dray horse once he can see the barn. He lies in bed for hours. Works on his French. Maybe a few games of Scrabble. The Leafs when they’re on. That’s about it! Plans for poems? Ya, plenty of ‘em! But he can never get his act together enough to work up a steady routine. The poem basically has to walk up and beat him with a drumstick before he’ll hear take up the rhythm. The neglect is so bad, his muse has gone into therapy. It’s guys like this that give distraction a bad name. Like I say, just look at his desk.
But I guess he’s been at this crop for about three or four years. The busted love-story set happened in a real hurry. I guess love will do that to you, poor sop. But could he not just have gone to ice cream and peanut brittle like everyone else?
What does Jeffery need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
His study window looks out over the escarpment near Grimsby, across to Toronto, the Big Smoke. Is that what you mean? Hell if I know why he stares out it so. Is he looking at the tree in the near field or across the lake at Oz? Seems to be the only time he’ll sit still. Social stuff doesn’t seem to help. He’s jittery and forgetful is all. How can a fellow who can do reams of Stevens or Bishop when he thinks no one is listening not remember whom he had lunch with yesterday? He always says he needs solitude, but as soon as he has it he’s as restless as a ferret in a dishwasher. “HYPOCRITE!” I’ve tried to tell him straight for years. “IN ONE EAR AND OUT THE OTHER!”
What does Jeffery do if he's feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you or he have a method of coping with the difficult points in a project?
I think poetry is his method of coping. Other people’s poems, thank heaven. It’s safer that way. When the poems aren’t happening, you’ve still got this world of words knocking around in your head. People who seem to know better than you do what needs to be said and said again. That’s fine, but then Donaldson goes and wants to add to the conversation himself. My kingdom for some duct tape.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
He seems to read in binges. Then nothing for months. Stevens and Bishop, most weeks. Then Willa Cather, again and again. James Salter, Marilynne Robinson. Slowest reader I ever met. Like he was setting type. But I think it’s the language textures that get to him. Anything that makes a sentence seem like stew and dumplings.
What are you working on now?
What am I working on now? I’m going to try to get him out of the cellar is what I’m working on now. I could just say out loud that “THIS MIGHT GET POSTED ON THE INTERNET!” That should bring him out.
Jeffery Donaldson is the author of five previous collections of poetry, most recently Slack Action (Porcupine’s Quill, 2011), which was shortlisted for the Hamilton Arts Council Literary Award for Poetry. Palilalia (McGill-Queen’s, 2008) was a finalist for the Canadian Author’s Association Award for Poetry. Donaldson has also written works of criticism on poetry and metaphor. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario, where he teaches poetry and American literature at McMaster University.