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An 'unarmed dad' aims his poetry at cultural stalemate over guns

Matt Donovan is a professor of poetry at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Karen Brown
Matt Donovan is a professor of poetry at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Smith College poetry professor Matt Donovan has no personal connection to guns. He doesn’t own one, nor has he been the victim of a shooting.

“I just felt ongoing sense of frustration, grief and rage at our inability to make any changes in terms of gun legislation,” Donovan said.

So Donovan wanted to find a way to address the problem of gun violence in a way that didn’t exacerbate the divisiveness of the issue.

At first, he wanted to write a book of journalism. The idea was to take a road trip and interview gun owners, gun opponents, legislators and real people with nuanced views on gun control.

“I felt like we had reached a cultural stalemate,” he said recently in his office at the Northampton, Massachusetts, campus.. “And then it also seemed really important to at times get out of my own comfort zone.”

From his home in the liberal enclave of Amherst, he headed west to places such as Chicago, Las Vegas and Wyoming.

“I met so many gun owners who knocked me back on my own heels in terms of thinking about stereotypes of gun owners,” he said. “I met soccer moms in Cody who love to go grouse hunting but are also passionate about changing some of our gun laws. Hunters who reviled the policies of the NRA and were incredible stewards of the land.”

But when he got back to western Massachusetts, he couldn’t sell the book proposal. He said publishers couldn’t imagine an audience for it.

“The editors divided the country in their minds into two categories,” he said. “Either you were a gun owner who knew a lot about guns and didn't need to know anything from someone who didn't own guns and didn't need to be lectured about the Second Amendment. Or you were someone who didn’t own guns, hated guns and didn't want to spend 400 pages reading about guns.

Donovan called that a "false binary." Still, he had to give up on the journalistic project. But by then, he’d collected a number of stories about people and guns.

“I decided I would just write about them on my own terms and in my own way,” he said.

The result is a collection of 21 poems in a book called "The Dug-Up Gun Museum." It features a range of poetry styles and gun-related topics.

One narrative-style poem focuses on the gun that Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV in 1963. Donovan wanted to show how guns can be fetishized, divorced from the violence they cause.

... or how the gun became something of a celebrity, appearing on Larry King Live like some come-back actor hawking a new book ...

“Here's this instrument of death," Donovan said in the interview, "that is being talked about as an icon of Americana in the same breath as like Indiana Jones's Bullwhip or the Wicked Witch's hat from 'The Wizard of Oz.'"

Another poem is called "Solipsism," which means a belief that what you think is the only reality. Donovan wrote this poem after meeting a man in Cody, Wyoming, where the community was debating whether to arm teachers.

What struck Donovan was how neither he — nor the man — could imagine the choices the other one was making.

Don't take this the wrong way, but I've been telling folks I met some guy
who doesn't own a gun, an unarmed dad, & no one can believe it. 

One poem describes a paintball re-enactment of D-Day that Donovan attended in Pennsylvania.

“There was something just so inherently ludicrous about that experience,” Donovan said. “There was a lot of zaniness that seemed to encapsulate the ways in which guns are ingrained in our culture and the ways in which we might be indifferent to the experience of guns or just using them as a source of play.”

The title poem of the book, "The Dug-Up Gun Museum," describes an actual museum in Wyoming. It's a “haunting and fascinating place,” Donovan said, where guns are displayed after being literally dug up from the ground.

Unearthed from homesteads or Deadwood dirt,
shoveled up in Tombstone, Nebraska, Vermont, from the muck
of the Missouri's banks or burned-out cabins,
from a goat barn, ghost towns, gold country, battlefields ...

Donovan said he found the symbolism of taking guns directly from the ground “so indicative of the ways in which guns have saturated the American imagination and the American landscape. So I wanted to explore that as kind of a far-ranging metaphor.”

By the time Donovan finished the poetry collection, he had a new understanding of the diversity among gun owners and the nuances of gun culture. But he said he remains enraged about gun violence in America.

“I am someone who also wants to advocate for change and forward progress with our laws," he said. "And I feel like the only way that can happen is if we are able to have conversations together.”

He’s hoping the poems in “The Dug-Up Gun Museum” help make that happen.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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