Mary O’Donnell is a poet and novelist, a journalist, broadcaster and teacher.
She has taught writing and literature at many institutions, including Carlow University Pittsburgh, Maynooth University, Galway University and the University of São Paolo, Brazil.
Q: Eavan Boland once wrote that there “is no meaning to an art form with its grand designs unless it allows the humane to shape the invented, the way gravity is said to bend starlight.” Does this chime (or rhyme) with your own approach to art and literature? Was Eavan Boland an important figure for you when you began publishing in the 1980s – and have there been others since?
A: Thank you so much, Ciarán O’Rourke, for inviting me to respond to these interesting questions! To respond initially to the second part of your first question, Eavan Boland was an important figure for me when I began to publish poetry in the 1980s and I returned to her early collection, In Her Own Image, again and again. However, her voice was different to my early voice, insofar as I had a voice, and I could see that she was doing something quite focused, already highly experienced, and different (for an Irish poet), but also influenced by her own mentor-figures in the US. I remember an Irish poet once describing an early poem of mine as ‘earthy’ and then comparing me to Boland, who he also considered to share this quality. Of course, the more I read Boland’s work, the more I came to realise that this was not an accurate word with which to describe her work, but it may have been the male poet’s way of registering a female poet (Boland) making her presence felt and in a new way! Because words such as ‘earthy’, ‘sensuous’, ‘sensual’ and so on were and perhaps still are acceptable terminologies which the older commentator can attach to a female. On the other hand, Boland’s work was aesthetically and ethically elevated (notwithstanding the fact that she preferred an ethical poetry rather than an aesthetic one), despite its often simple forms and phrasing (in the early work), and that was what pleased me. My attention was less drawn to her suburban settings, than to her precise use of language and the placing of her specific journey. Furthermore her interrogation of a sense of her country came from very different perspectives than what had previously been written. I found that liberating. Other figures who were important for me as a younger poet would have to include James Liddy and his Corca Bascinn, Eithne Strong, John F. Deane, Derek Mahon (because he encouraged me), Conleth Ellis (who critiqued my work), Anne le Marquand Hartigan (because of her distinctive voice), and Lar Cassidy, Arts Officer of the Arts Council (because he facilitated so many possibilities that made a difference to young writers). I found Paula Meehan to be a companion-on-the-road, and her passionate self-belief seemed to be part of her journey. Self-belief came later to me.
Regarding Boland’s comment that there “is no meaning to an art form with its grand designs unless it allows the humane to shape the invented . . .”, although I suspect my work has always leaked the humane, if by that we mean a sense of what it is to be a feeling ‘human’, I’m not sure about the comment’s validity. Sometimes, one has to do quite a lot of sifting for what we term the humane to reveal itself. My work was undoubtedly influenced by the themes of my time as a younger writer: feminism, (although I do not allow myself to be described as a feminist poet), a sense of justice and a desire to frame inequality in some of the writings, a lot of desire too and a genuine love of the ‘otherness’ of men, which also seemed an essential part of the equation of what is humane. I was never going to bend my art form to suit the agendas of the day if I felt they were ‘fashionable’. I still won’t do that – at least I hope I don’t. I have more to say about that in Q 3 below by the way, and the #MeToo poem I wrote which the movement prompted and seemed necessary. But I still have questions. The important questions in the 1980s and 1990s for poets like me had to do with equality. But for some of us they also lingered on and explored landscape, nature, inspiration, death, lust, war. Today, the questions that are important often hinge on an exploration of diversity, which is really another wing of equality, and in poetry is presented by reclamation: of language, gender identity, race, and society’s perception of things that were once considered ‘disability’. But I still return in my skew-way to a centering on the natural world, the muse-inspired, the patterning of life as we move along, or as it moves along through us and wears us out like a leaf until we drop. I think that’s my truth.
Q: In ‘Baltic Amber’, you write: “I am in need of something that has survived / more than winter, hardening to translucent gold, / enclosing – perhaps – one small seed / to honour the month and the Easter I was conceived.” In your resonantly titled poem, ‘Against the Vanishing’, the speaker stands “On the lakeshore / of conscience [...] Certain that in Argentina, / a woman also stands, / nature-struck.” What I love in both pieces – and I think (if I may say so) this is something of a motif in your work – is how human introspection and desire occasion not just a turn to poetry, but a reaching out to the world: a world where nature and other people have their own complex existences, and where, implicitly, other ways of living might be made or discovered. Is this the case? Do you find yourself returning in your writing to such themes and impulses?
A: You have quoted from ‘Baltic Amber” and ‘The Vanishing’. Both do reflect my personal need as a writer to reach out to the world in all its diversities. Yet, diverse though we may be, there are commonalities. The imagined woman in Argentina in the latter poem also stands ‘nature-struck’, she is my ‘unknown companion’, and just as the northern-hemisphere speaker in the poem laments the vanishing of the corncrake and other shy creatures, so too does the woman in the southern hemisphere lament the chinchilla, armadillo and giant otter. I am always seeking equivalences, because my feeling of shared human qualities, passions and desires stems from my personality make-up (I’m guessing). I’m definitely not a socio- or psychopath, I feel pain and am empathetic. I can be wildly impatient, but above all I’m interested in equivalences, not for the sake of comfortable, boring, moderating ‘sameness’, but because these are a starting point in the improvement of the human condition.
Q: Your poem, ‘It Wasn’t a Woman’, begins with the lines: “who used a stick to abort a baby in an / 11-year-old girl / who gang-raped a 14-year-old / who opened a woman to a room of / shamrock green rugby shirts, / later texting about spit roasts and sluts…”. I read this as a powerful accusation of contemporary Irish society, where misogyny and violence are regularised, as well as an expression of deep personal anguish. How do you feel about this poem? Was it painful or difficult to write (emotionally, or in any other way)?
A: The poem ‘It Wasn’t a Woman’ came together remarkably fluidly. Emotion, even in a poem like this, is often kept at a distance during the writing. I had to be dispassionate even as I wrote this. Each statement seems to me to be true in the context of the empirical world. My university background is in philosophy and German, and both of these have influenced how I think. These things happen, have happened, will continue to happen. At a personal level I am concerned about male violence and the journey from perhaps childish delinquency in boys and teenagers to something much more profoundly disabling for our society. I ask, who influenced these boys to become such men? Who stayed silent during their development? The poem is a j’accuse not only of Irish society but of any society which doesn’t address male violence towards women.
Q: Following from the last question, I wonder: are you a political poet? Is this category (‘the political’) useful for discussing and understanding literature, or not? To me it seems only natural and healthy that poetry, in its many explorations, should attempt to denounce and critique as well as console and celebrate (or self-celebrate), but this idea doesn’t always get a lot of traction. I’m also conscious that for a long time ‘political poetry’ was presumed in some quarters to belong to the voluble, male curmudgeon: only certain kinds of power could be asserted or deconstructed, only certain areas of experience were deemed socially and poetically legitimate. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts here.
A: I may be a sometime political poet. My approach to some of the issues which appear in my poetry can be rhetorical at times, and I have to remind myself constantly to move away and allow the image to do the work. Climate damage and violence have often caught my attention and have leaked into all my collections of poetry, I think. However, the category of ‘political’ isn’t necessarily helpful, any more than the category of ‘nature’, or ‘environmental’ or ‘feminist’. Labels are rough guides and nothing more; they don’t always offer a trustworthy path through the liminal aspects of poetry, or through its unconsciously-achieved phrasings and effects. Many years ago a male poet announced to me that there were three kinds of poem which a poet should aspire to: a love poem, a sonnet, and a political poem. It goes without saying that this is and was very limiting. The work needs to emerge as spontaneously as one’s breath does, and occasionally may find itself in any of these three areas, but seriously? Life’s too short to peel a poem back to such categories, methinks! What is legitimate for me has always stemmed from an old-fashioned kind of free thinking. I believe now that as a writer I can only construct or deconstruct as inspiration takes me. I admire poets such as Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, the late Helen Dunmore, Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachman, Tadeusz Różewicz, and what I call the ‘wilder’ Irish poets who refuse agendas: Mark Roper, Thomas McCarthy, English-born Grace Wells, the young poet Róisín Kelly (now there’s someone who can handle a love poem and mean it). I have no patience or appetite for programmatic, knowing, writing. The writing needs to be sensitive to the writer’s soul needs, not her/his social needs.
Q: My questions have focused on your poetry, but you’re also a prolific author in other genres. You’ve written five novels to date, and your most recent, critically acclaimed book of short stories, Empire, was published by Arlen House in 2018. Are there different challenges and rewards in writing a novel, short fiction, and poetry, respectively? Do you find yourself entering a new routine, or drawing on different stores of emotion and experience, when working on one as opposed to the others?
A: Writing across three genres had sometimes been very challenging. For example, I run a monthly poetry workshop from my house, called the Rook Hollow Workshop. The pressure to produce a new poem each month can interfere with my fiction writing. At present I’m working on a new novel, working title of which is Mother, My Vampire, and I’m revising it in a fifth draft. The rewards of fiction are different. Although I may be a poet first and foremost, I’ve always been drawn to write fiction, even as a teenager starting out. The desire to tell a story, to construct a beautiful sentence that’s just right remains a lure and a challenge. I probably apply a poet’s sense of precision to the language of my novels, and have to remind myself that actually, in fiction, a different kind of precision applies than that of poetry, and to simply loosen up, style-wise and pace-wise. At this stage I probably prefer to write novels than short stories, although I continue to read short fiction.