The Monthly talks to Moyra Donaldson about being awarded a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland – Part 3

Part two of this interview is here

You have produced 8 collections of poetry, and other works as well, do you have a process which guides your writing?

I’m not sure that I have a process. Often I write about something that I’ve become interested in, or a little obsessed by. Whether that is a case full of stuffed hummingbirds or a fox I saw in the rain or a man jumping off the Eiffel Tower with wings made of cloth. The book “Miracle Fruit” for example; I became absolutely fascinated by life in the 18th century, about the enlightenment, about science, about the changes that were taking place, and I read all around that and a book of poems came out of that research. The anatomist John Hunter was one of the characters I found, as well as a motley crew of freakshow exhibits, giants and circus performers.

The book ‘Blood Horses’ which was a collaboration with the artist Paddy Lennon from Wexford, came about when I read about the three Arab stallions who were the foundation of the thoroughbred horse. All thoroughbred horses today can be traced back genetically to those three stallions. That led me to start to write about that subject and then a friend introduced me to Paddy’s art, his beautiful portraits of horses and we began to work together to produce a book of my poems and his images.

I also work on instinct, random ideas and images come into my head, and I let me them sit there until other things come to join them and a poem emerges. Dreams often become poems. I’m also very influenced by nature and our relationship to the natural world and of course our relationship to each other as humans. That is a source of constant fascination. I was taken aback a little when I heard Damian Smith once describe my poetic voice as having a ‘true loneliness’, but when I thought about it, this human loneliness is at the heart of much of what I write.

Do you maintain a theme or a thread through your collections?

Some books would be consciously thematic, like the two mentioned above.

I think all of my books are like little personal mental time capsules. Each contains the imagery and the subject matter which I was obsessing about at the time, or thinking about, and these appear throughout the poems. Mostly it is when I finish a collection that the theme reveals itself to me.

The theme runs through, regardless of the subject matter of the poem and regardless of whether I knew it was there during the writing of the collection.

What about technique?

For me the best poetry combines technique with emotion, and I think that requires a lot of effort. The poem should feel effortless when it reaches the reader. It should feel seamless, almost as if it took no effort at all. I really don’t want to see the technique. I think it is good to know the rules in order to break them, but most importantly, you need to work on the words, the sounds of the words, and the rhythm of the words. You need to look at the music of the poem, and while I think imagination is important, the real pleasure, for me, comes when you have the first draft of the poem and then you set about making it the best poem it can be.

It is the artistry, the craft that you concentrate on?

Yes, I would say that. It is that drafting process, working on the words; changing one word here, replacing it, putting the word back again, seeing if it works; you need almost to have an obsessive nature for the art of the poem. Thinking about where a line should end, where a new stanza should begin, the shape and flow of the poem. How the poem should end. How it sings.

I remember Leonard Cohen saying that his first thought was the dullest, and I keep that in mind when I’m working on a poem.

Craft matters?

I think there has to be attention to craft. It’s only fair to give your writing every chance to be as good as you can make it.

How do you feel about the other side of the writing, the promotional side?

It is hard, difficult, building an audience, contacting festivals, sending off material to here and there, it does need to be done, even if it doesn’t sit easily with you, having to promote yourself. I find it strange and it is extremely time consuming.

There aren’t any poetry promoters and there certainly isn’t much money in it, but I do want my work to be read, every writer does, so you need to try to get your books and your name out there.

Reviews matter as well, I have just bought a couple of books on the strength of reviews, so of course you have to fight to get reviewed. Hopefully the award will help a little with that side of things.

Part one of this interview is here

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