FAILURE AND SUCCESS: MY INTERVIEW WITH MINNEAPOLIS POET RICHARD DONNELLY
by Sharon Haley Nelson
copyright 2011 by Sharon Haley Nelson
This is an interview by Sharon Haley Nelson with Richard Donnelly, author of The Melancholy MBA, a book of poems recently released by Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Georgia. The poems in the book comprise a sharply-drawn series of vignettes on corporate culture and office life.
The interview took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota at Muddy Waters Cafe on Thursday, July 7th, 2011. Sharon Haley Nelson is a visual artist and writer who is very active in the Twin Cities' art scene. She is the author of the mixed-media play, Tiny Kings: George Bush in Iraq.
Sharon: Welcome to Muddy Waters. Thank you for scheduling this interview.
RD: Thank you for asking.
Sharon: Is this a comfortable place for you? Do you like it here?
RD: I love it. It's full of artists.
Sharon: How do you know?
RD: They look like artists.
Sharon: Let's discuss your book. How did you come to write it? Does it have an over-riding theme?
RD: The theme is me. Would that be correct? Maybe not. The poems are about office life, life in offices. I felt compelled to write about it. I mean, I've been writing about office life, life in cubicles, right from the start. That's my subject. I'm not sure what my theme is. Failure? Just kidding.
Sharon: Is this book about failure?
RD: I don't know. Maybe. Let me think about it. We just started and already you asked me something I can't answer.
Sharon: But you brought it up.
RD: That's right. As a joke.
Sharon: But the book is about office life, the poems focus on, what, professional office life? Tell me Richard, what did you hope to say in this book?
RD: You can call me Dick. Can I call you Shari? Let's see, the poems are exactly this-- portraits, stories, vignettes of office life. I hope they amuse the reader, entertain him or her. Especially her. (laughs) Just kidding. They were, the poems were written to be entertaining. My goal is always for the reader to say, Gee, I never thought of it like that before, but that's true. He's right. That's the finest compliment.
Sharon: Do you hear that a lot?
Sharon: Okay Dick. Since this is a book about life in offices, is it your life we're talking about, in the office world?
Sharon: I see. And reading these poems, there are so many characters, so many people we meet. There's some crazy things in here. And the stories. Wonderful stories, are these all factual?
RD: No. Poetry is always fiction.
Sharon: It is?
Sharon: A lot of people might argue that.
RD: But we don't judge, you know fiction or poetry as to whether it really happened. That's not how you judge. I mean, it might have happened. But that's not the point.
Sharon: So these poems, these stories in your book are made up?
RD: Actually they're pretty much true.
Sharon: I'm a little confused.
RD: So am I. (laughs) Listen, this is what I'm saying-- I think The Melancholy MBA is emotionally true. I hope it is. Most people can spot B.S. a mile away. And poetry must be emotionally true. If it's not, it rings hollow. How many times has somebody told you a story and you just knew it was true. You knew it had to be true, the way they told it. That's emotional reality. Poetry, I mean good poetry, that's truth, the only truth we have, in that sense. That's why really good poetry is so powerful.
Sharon: So you're saying facts aren't important?
RD: No. But they're always changing.
Sharon: In what way?
RD: Your reality is yours. Mine is mine. That's what's wrong with politics. It's crap. That's why they go after the artists in these wacko countries. They're the truth tellers.
Sharon: Interesting. Let's talk about your life. That's factual stuff, right? Do you mind?
RD: Not at all.
Sharon: Are you an MBA? (interviewer's note: MBA stands for Master of Business Administration)
Sharon: But you know people with MBA's?
RD: Of course, I'm in business, and anyone in business knows about MBA's. People with that degree, with an MBA degree, you find them in all the companies, in any industry. The MBA is sort of the gold standard of business degrees. That's the selling point. You could never be unhappy with an MBA.
Sharon: You believe that?
RD: Well, yes and no. I wrote a book called The Melancholy MBA. But that's just the name of one poem. In other poems, everyone else is happy. It's a happy book. This is America. Only freaks are unhappy.
Sharon: Is that really in the book?
RD: I don't know. It might be. See, you caught me again.
Sharon: I didn't mean to.
RD: It's all right. Now I've got something to go home and think about.
Sharon: You mentioned your work. What is it you do?
RD: I'm in business. I'm sort of a generic businessman.
Sharon: What kind of business?
RD: I've been a manager, a salesman, mostly. I've worked in real estate, with land, with buildings. I've been in manufacturing. Currently I'm in Human Resources. Kind of.
Sharon: Here in Minneapolis.
Sharon: And the poems are about Minneapolis.
RD: Very much so. I am the poet of Minneapolis.
Sharon: You know, I'm sure you're aware that nationwide, our city, Minneapolis has an excellent reputation, for literary output. Literary achievement. Do you credit the city as an inspiration? How has living here helped your writing?
RD: Well I want to be careful. Of course we all love it here. I love you Sharon. I love this bar. I guess we call it a cafe.
Sharon: But hasn't this community nurtured you? I think Minneapolis is number one in book sales. We have several nationally-known, I mean really top-ranked literary presses.
RD: Yes. Of course.
Sharon: Is there anything about Minneapolis, the Midwest, you can say affects your work? It seems the poems are very local in their settings.
RD: My poems happen in real places, in Minneapolis. I'd like to think the reader can get some sense of this place. It's not without it's romantic aspects. I've caught some of that, I think. Maybe I should have called it The Romantic MBA. I mean, if you have to wrap yourself around another person or die, this can seem, Minneapolis can seem very compelling, very artistic and romantic and bohemian to someone from Texas. Or Arizona. If you live here it's something else.
Sharon: Do you perform your poetry often? Are you part of the arts community?
RD: I'll read or attend events as often as possible. I try to get around. It all helps, I'm sure. But people should know, I mean artists, if writers are moving here for the opportunities keep in mind that my publisher is in Georgia. Maybe if I lived in Georgia I could publish here. Maybe I'll move to Georgia, at least for the winter, and send all my stuff here.
Sharon: That's a good one. How did you come to work with this publisher?
RD: I sent them a manuscript. I was publishing quite a bit in magazines, and I wanted to publish a book. I was very happy to get accepted, because there just aren't very many no-fee publishers. They all want a reading fee, and I just won't do that.
Sharon: Why not?
RD: It's a rip-off. It's a mean game they play with the poor poetry-writing waitress freezing in some little apartment. Don't do it. Use your twenty bucks on a bottle of wine. And call me. Just kidding, I'm married.
Sharon: We won't talk about contests.
RD: Doesn't bother me. I'm starting a contest for the best editor award. If they win they get to publish me, so I'm waiting, you know, they should apply now. It will only cost them twenty bucks.
Sharon: (laughs) Can we talk about your personal life? You mentioned you're married. Any children?
RD: Yes and yes.
Sharon: I notice you mention your home life in some of the poems, but nothing very specific. How much of your writing is based on this?
RD: Not much. Most domestic stuff weakens poetry. There has to be some distance. There's a minefield thing going on.
Sharon: How long have you been married?
RD: Quite a while.
Sharon: Does your wife support your writing?
RD: Of course.
Sharon: How long have you been writing?
RD: Since I was eight.
RD: I'm not kidding.
Sharon: But this is your first book.
RD: That I wrote? I don't know. I've always written. I tried to hide it. I thought I was hiding it. I ran into my sixth grade teacher not too long ago and the first thing she asked me was if I'm still writing. I almost fell over.
Sharon: She knew.
Sharon: I heard you own your own company.
RD: You heard that?
Sharon: It's not true?
RD: Maybe the company owns me.
Sharon: (laughs) I like that, that sounds like a poem.
RD: You're right. I should write it down. I'm sure it's been said before. It must have. I remember when a college dean up somewhere here in North Dakota got busted for plagiarism, or something, I don't know what it was. Something he wrote. And he said, Well, come on people, is anything really original anymore? He's at Harvard now. Just kidding.
Sharon: So if you own your own company. Are you successful? Have things changed? Because I must say, there is a lot of, turbulence, shall I say, in The Melancholy MBA.
RD: Well, none of it was easy. It's still not that easy. Nothing's easy. Easy is bad. Easy is a killer, for poets.
Sharon: Do you really believe that?
RD: Absolutely. You can't be a success and be a poet.
Sharon: You're not successful?
RD: You can't have a successful life. It doesn't work.
Sharon: I think a lot of poets might argue with you.
RD: Maybe. But what are they writing about? How can their stories be interesting or funny? You've got to suffer to write poetry. I swear to God you do. That's the dirty little secret. Or the not so dirty little secret.
Sharon: That's what I'd call a cliché.
RD: But it's true. It's a true cliché. Or one they won't admit, that the top people, they won't admit. You've got to live in the real world. You've got to get beaten down. You have to have something to write about, something personal, that is unique and is emotionally valid. That's why political poetry is always false. Poetry under a banner. It's just no good.
Sharon: Again, I think a lot of people would argue with you.
RD: You're trying to get me to talk about Michelle Bachman. I can tell.
Sharon: I wasn't.
RD: Good. Because how can I emotionally respond to President Obama? Or Iraq? Or Bachman? I can't.
Sharon: A lot of artists do.
RD: Not me.
Sharon: You're saying politics isn't your thing.
RD: The only thing I put into poems is me. The only thing in MBA is my life. My life as a businessman-poet. I am the businessman-poet. But we also need dentist-poets too, and heavy machine operator-poets, and nurse poets. Or the doctor-poets. That's what we need. Think of the things they must see. I used to think being a truck driver would be perfect. The highways, I mean through all the towns, the constant moving. The isolation. That's what I want to get into, is what I used to think. But probably anything would work. Something that leaves a scar. I've got all kinds of scars. They're in my book. I lift up a few shirts and show you the scars. Yours and mine. And a few skirts (laughs). I'm the poetry businessman. The failed poet. Or the failed businessman poet. The life serves the writing. Not the other way around.
Richard Donnelly's book The Melancholy MBA is available from Brick Road Poetry Press of Columbus, Georgia. (Brick Road Poetry Press.com and Amazon.com)