Donald Revell’s family knows when he’s working on a new book of poetry.
They hear giggling through the study door at home.
“I’m always happy when I’m writing,” says the English professor and poet. “My children on more than one occasion have had to explain why their father is behind a closed door giggling. But that’s just how it comes to me.”
In his latest book of poetry, Tantivy, Revell says he is more direct than in past volumes. His more straightforward approach grew out of his own awareness of his advancing age, he says. The title, which is the sound of fast movement, like a horse galloping or a flock of birds taking flight, characterizes the need to move along, to get to the point.
“I think everyone has so much to say, and then they’re done,” he says. “And for me, personally, I feel the end is in sight, in terms of what I’ve been given to write, what I can do. I have a sense it’s time to hurry up, cut to the chase.
“I tried for this book to be simpler. The lines are almost sentences. I felt, ‘Say what you have to say; don’t worry about finding metaphors. Use the things that your life actually handed you.’” For instance, one poem – “Birds small enough…” – offers an accessible metaphor:
Birds small enough to nest in our young cypress
Are physicians to us
They burst from the tree exactly
Where the mind ends and the eye sees
Revell describes his writing process as something of a search.
“It’s a rummaging around inside of the language, looking for different ways to make sounds that make sense,” Revell says. “One of the fundamental things that draws folks to poetry is that the words not only make sense, they also make sounds. There’s a sort of physical relationship with the language in a poem that you may not have when you’re reading a page of prose, a page of fiction, or history. There’s immediately a sense of play.”
Despite his perception that this collection is a bit more direct than past ones, Revell notes that reviewers found the poems in Tantivy a bit inaccessible. That doesn’t trouble him.
“I don’t think that’s anything you can worry about,” he says. “My audience is the poem. It says, ‘OK, Don, whatcha gonna do now?’ I feel that I’m talking to the poem, and that once the poem is acceptable to me and the poem, we’re good.”
Revell says the public reaction to his poems can vary widely.
Other poets may find that in a volume of 30 or 35 poems, a few rise to the top as widely acclaimed. Not Revell.
“The poor little poems, my heart goes out to them,” he says. “Some people will love a poem, and there are other people who will detest that exact same poem. So really, I would go crazy if I paid any attention at all.”
Either way, he doesn’t take the comments personally. The poems are not an extension of him. They have their own life.
“I think of them like baby chicks at Easter. ‘Hello poems! How are you today? How do you want to arrange yourselves?’” he says.
His poems, like the books on his shelves, are “dear companions,” a relationship that extends into his classroom. When he teaches, he feels like he’s introducing old friends to a new crowd.
“Hey, you room full of young strangers. I’d like you to meet my friend, and I love this person, and I’m going to tell you why. And if you don’t love them, I’m sorry, but I do,” he says. “It’s more testimony than argument. I’m a character witness for the poems.”
He might never have made it to the front of a classroom if he had followed his mother’s wishes. She was devastated when she learned her teenage son wanted to be a poet. In fact, she chewed out Revell’s English teacher for ruining his life. She hoped he would to become a lawyer and then run for mayor of New York City, where he grew up.
So Revell made her a promise to become a full professor by the age of 40. He made it at 39.
“I barely made it under the wire, and my mother grudgingly accepted my life choice,” he says.
Revell was the first in his family to complete a college degree. His mother was a high school graduate, and his father, a brilliant mechanic, never learned to read. Both of them planned from his birth that Revell would go to college, to the point that they would not allow him to learn practical skills, such as ironing.
His experience as a first-generation college student gives him an affinity for his UNLV students.
“I feel like I’m talking to kin,” he says.
A good portion of that talking is about poetry, which has been his passion since the age of 14. Once he fell for poetry, there was no looking back, he says.
His wooing and wedding to his English department colleague professor Claudia Keelan was the same. They met 23 years ago when she invited him to speak at Murray State University in Kentucky. They went to dinner.
“This is the very, very first time we had met and seen each other, and by the time dinner was over, I had asked her to marry me,” he says. “And she said yes. So by the time we actually got to my poetry reading, we could announce our engagement.”
They were married two weeks later.
“And it’s worked out,” he says.
All of his life has been that way, he adds.
“In my case, it’s just one lucky circumstance after another,” he says. “And maybe that’s why writing that book was just trust. I’ve never found my trust to be misplaced, and that’s what I’m trying to say in the poems.”