Five Questions: An Interview with Donald Revell
Originally born in the Bronx in 1954, Donald Revell received his PhD at SUNY Buffalo, before going on to teach at the universities of Tennessee, Denver, Missouri, Iowa, Alabama, Utah, and (currently) Nevada-Las Vegas.
He has written multiple books, including Tantivy (2012), Essay: A Critical Memoir (2015), A Thief of Strings (2007), and The National Poetry Series winner From Abandoned Cities (1983). His list of awards is even more impressive: he’s earned two Pushcart Prizes, two Shestack Prizes, and the Gertrude Stein Award for Innovative American Poetry. Mr. Revell has also been awarded several NEA fellowships.
My co-interviewer and I first encountered his work in the 2013 volume of Best American Poetry, which features his “To Shakespeare,” an ode-like piece that blends the idea of time reversing upon itself with memories and love. With such an array of ideas, as well as a very interesting concept of life and the powers behind it, we found it ideal to interview him for this project.
A.J. Scolaro and Ted Woll: Good morning, Professor Revell. One of the most interesting aspects of you is that you have traveled around teaching at many different Universities. What made you want to settle in Nevada?
Donald Revell: You might say that I was “converted” to the West: I’d never been west of the Mississippi River until, in 1985, I interviewed for a job at the University of Denver. I arrived late at night and went straight to my hotel. In the morning, I stepped outside and Wham! There were the Rocky Mountains. I was astonished by a feeling of freedom, uplift, space: I thought to stay forever, until…I saw Utah, and then I taught in Salt Lake for 14 years: and then came the Mojave Desert, an entire planet of light and sky—a fundamentally visionary landscape. So here I am and here I might very well stay.
AS and TW: In regards to writing poetry and the process involved, how long does it take from start to finish to come up with an idea and seeing it through until it’s finished?
DR: I don’t usually begin with an idea: rather, one or two phrases seem to haunt my thoughts. And so I write them down and watch to see what other words are drawn towards them. Only then does an idea begin to take shape or, rather, an inclination and velocity. For a short poem, it all takes place within an hour. For a longer poem, it takes place over a course of several days, but always for an hour each day, most often 9:30-10:30AM. I never write in the afternoons or evening.
AS and TW: As a high school student, I’ve experienced Shakespeare writing in the past and he truly has an interesting way of writing. In regards to your poem “To Shakespeare,” do you feel, if he were alive, that he would approve of your ode?
DR: The real genius of Shakespeare is that he writes from inside of his humanity. Thus his poems and plays are infinitely inclusive and ultimately joyful. He rejoices in the very fact of Being. And so, yes, I’d hope to win his approval, whenever we might meet.
AS and TW: In regards to writing poetry in general, why do you do it? What force, if any, drives you to want to write poetry?
DR: Writing poems has, over the years, simply become my way of being in the world. Something gets into my head and, in order to understand it, I must write my way towards it. It really has nothing to do with performance. Rather, it’s like lifting my head above water in order to see, once again, the sky.
AS and TW: Mr. Revell, this has truly been a great experience, and I’m excited to share all these thoughts with the other members of my class. The final question I have regards future poets: if you could give them any advice on the creation of poetry, what would it be?
DR: Thank you so much for your kindness and for the generous intelligence of your questions!
Advice? I believe that the most important virtue a poet can have is Trust. To trust those things and persons and emotions that made you first want to write. Origins never change and never fail. I saw sunlight falling onto snow in Central Park one afternoon and in the distance were lovey young people moving around, happy to be alive. That’s all I know and all I write about and I trust it to the end of the world.
AS and TW: Thank you so much Mr. Revell. I wish you luck with your next works.