Getting to Know Daniel Tobin and His New Book From Nothing
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
There were few books in my parents’ apartment when I was growing up in Brooklyn, New York, but among them was a dog-eared copy of Immortal Poems of the English Language. I have no idea how it managed to be in the house at all, since my father and mother read no poetry whatsoever. Something of poetry must have made its way into me somehow, for one morning I woke during my sophomore year in high school and decided I wanted to be a poet. I started keeping a notebook, though I had virtually no awareness of contemporary poetry or what being a poet would mean in any professional sense. Fortunately I did have an excellent teacher who encouraged me early on, and as I progressed through college the idea settled in a bit more roundly, as did the breadth of my reading. I love Donne and Yeats in my college years, but it was my reading of Seamus Heaney’s work that had the biggest imprint
during my senior year, and really set me on the path, again with the encouragement of another
teacher, Michael Palma, the poet and translator.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I have always worked very busy teaching jobs and devote a lot of time to my student’s work, and I am not much of a morning person. So I have never had a focused writing routine except during those periods when I have had a sabbatical or a leave of some kind, like when I was fortunate enough to win an NEA and then the Guggenheim fellowship. This most recent book, my seventh, emerged directly from the sponsorship of the Guggenheim Foundation. The fellowship enabled me to travel to Belgium to research the life and work of Georges Lemaître, priest and physicist, and so called “father of the Big Bang.” More generally, I write whenever and wherever I have time, wedging it into my days, carving out time where I can. So I tend to work fairly consistently, but not typically in a structured way, and usually quite intensively.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Many of my poems begin in an idea—like this book-length poem From Nothing, which first prompted itself from my watching a PBS special in which Lemaître’s crucial role as a physicist had been mentioned—really in passing—along with his life as a Jesuit. From there, as it often can be, the poem begins to take shape intuitively and receptively—images, bits of language, scenes. I often very early on have an architectural insight, a formal insight, into how the poem wants to be, though the poem only really starts to take vital shape when I begin to hear the cadence of the lines and how they want to move.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
The first poets that impressed themselves on me were Poe, which I am a little ashamed of, since he must have appealed to my early love of horror films, though I have since discovered that Auden liked him as well, and Baudelaire; then Donne, Yeats, Keats, Eliot, Dickinson, Whitman, Heaney, Stevens, Bishop, Frost, James Wright, and eventually Robert Hayden. My collected Hayden is falling lovingly apart, which is the case which many of these poets. Into my generation and after there are so many whose work has been sustaining it would be unfair of me to mention only a few now.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
The title From Nothing refers to the theological term creation ex nihilo, “creation from nothing,” and that reference is intended to cut two ways at once: toward the theological implications and away from them toward the scientific understanding that we have of the universe having begun with an explosive singularity—a big bang. Lemaître was the first to fully conceptualize this idea of a dynamic universe, rather than an eternal one. Einstein believed, initially, in the latter, for all of his world transforming and paradigm shifting ideas about relativity and Space-Time. Fred Hoyle, a physicist who came to prominence in the 1940s and 50s, believed the universe was a “steady state” and coined the term “the big bang” derisively—he pronounced Lemaître “the big bang man.” But Lemaitre was right all along—the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating in its expansion. He predicted that as well, by placing the cosmological constant, lambda, on the opposite side of the equation from Einstein. Extraordinarily, Lemaître believed most emphatically that science and religion constituted separate paths to truth. He denounced Pope Pius XII’s declaration of “the original fiat lux” based upon his scientific ideas, and Lemaitre would likewise today have nothing but derision for “intelligent design.” “There are two paths to truth,” he said, “and I have followed both.” But separately. He was a great devotee of the Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck, a dedicated Jesuit priest. He fought heroically in the First World War and resisted the Nazi occupation of Belgium during the Second World War. So his life—his world-line as the physicists say—amazingly intersects with the most phenomenal insights of science over the course of the twentieth century and the most horrific incidents of human depravity. And he lived, and thought deeply spiritually intellectually scientifically and feelingly about the core human questions: why are we here and how do we live? It took some five years to write and revise the book, which is not entirely narrative though it does move in an historical arc, at times with different voices and characters over the course of its three sections and thirty-three individual parts. So I suppose, that is indeed a project.
Hear a sample poem from From Nothing here: