The Monthly talks to writer, poet and podcaster, Damien Donnelly – Part 1

“If the line doesn’t work I will re-edit as I am recording because I am continually surprised how words work or in some cases don’t work when read out loud – so I think performing at open mics and working on the Eat The Storms Podcast has intensified my approach to editing – I’ve always worked on the words but now I think I’m more sensitive to the sound of each word.”

What is your earliest memory of being drawn to using writing as a form of expression?

As far as I can remember I’ve always been drawn to writing, to all things creative. As a kid, I was extremely shy and bullied for most of my school years so creativity became a way to express all I couldn’t say out loud, whether it was writing, drawing or dancing, however, early on, I put them into a box named hobbies. They were side-line stuff. The ambition was to go to college and study fashion design, which I did and was a pattern maker for various fashion brands for almost 22 years while, in the background, the writing hobby slowly began to outgrow the box.

I remember, from as early as 9 or 10, sitting in my bedroom and writing poems in journals, already trying to understand what was happening around me from the bullying and my own developing identity along with my parents’ marriage that wasn’t very bright or shiny and eventually lead to them splitting up. As a child, my father wasn’t good at communication, which possibly added to my own interest in finding ways to communicate, even if it was just with myself and a journal that no one ever saw. At the same time, I was also coming to terms with my sexuality, being gay in Dublin, in the late 80’s, a time when it was easy to feel like the only gay in the village, if not the only gay on the entire island with little connection to others. School was full of bullies, I was too shy to have many friends and at times didn’t trust the truth of those who did want to befriend me. Being adopted adds a certain echo of rejection which in turn makes you question your own worth, even at such an early age.

At 15, I remember having to write an essay in secondary school on the theme of silence, where silence was a presence governing the night and handing it in early as I was so excited about it. The first real piece of writing I wanted to share and felt a pride in sharing. It came back with a D- and a scowl from the English teacher. A few months later, at a Parent/Teacher meeting, the teacher told my mother the story was brilliant but it wouldn’t pass an exam. This was a big knock and the echo of rejection grew louder but fortunately it didn’t stop me writing for myself as a way of dealing with everything going on around me, trying to make sense of the chaos.

Did that chaotic situation continue to be the source of your reason for writing?

There was a lot of tension in the background of the house growing up, and into that was added my own mix of adoption and sexuality and a sense of isolation as a very shy, only child. As a young kid, the excitement of my arrival overshadowed any problems in my parents’ marriage, as it had taken a number of years to be approved for adoption so there was a period where the tensions were alleviated, but as I grew up, into a teenager, facing my own problems, I became more aware of their difficulties and the distance between them both. There was often a prolonged silence in my house, which didn’t resemble the way other people’s homes were run, a silence that could last months and later, close to a year. There were no overwhelming signs of affection and, in time, my father also stopped communicating with me.

Do you keep writing?

The writing was always there, no matter what was happening I was always secretly proud of the work I produced but because I’d hadn’t studied creative writing like I had studied fashion design, there was a sense of it having a lesser value. And of course, later, when I started to work in the fashion industry, whether at Pepe Jeans, Calvin Klein or & Other Stories, the job took up a lot of time. The industry does not lend itself towards your typical 9 to 5 working hours. Regardless, I continued to squeeze writing into every spare moment I had.

If I had space on the way to and from work, I would scribble in notebooks or on my phone while on the tube in London or the Metro in Paris, the Amsterdam commute wasn’t as writer friendly as everything was by bike, therefore it was lunch breaks, cigarette breaks, late nights and weekends.

What allows you to shift to be more forthright with your work?

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until I was in my 30’s when my grandmother died and my mother asked me to write and read a eulogy at her funeral. It was a very strange moment because I was proud of being able to say goodbye on behalf of the family and yet so sad to have lost her, but the eulogy was very well received by the hundreds in the church and people came over to talk to me about it afterwards and others asked my Mum if they could have a copy of the eulogy so they might adapt it if they needed something for a funeral. For the first time I witnessed how my writing had a connection to other people, even though it was something as personal as eulogy, it still had a universal quality needed to connect.

You moved from conservative Ireland to cosmopolitan Europe, Paris, Amsterdam, and London. Did you continue to work on your writing?

I think every move inspired more writing as I contemplated the reasons for each move, whether it was to further my career or to run from things not yet dealt with and gradually, each move left me less shy and more willing to share my findings through my writing. I was 22 when I moved to Paris where I had no job, nowhere to live, knew no one and had never studied the language, was 24 when I arrived in London that definitely held no room for silence, was 30 when I headed off to Amsterdam and started sharing my writing for the first time on my blog and seeing a one-to-one interaction with readers and was on the doorstep of 40 when I moved back to Paris. Every city left its mark and I’m often more inspired by the place I just left than the place I’ve just settled into. Some things take time to sink in. I’m just finishing my first full poetry collection now, while living back home in Ireland which documents all stages of a love affair with Paris. And I plan to follow that up with a collection centred around being back at home in Ireland while triggered by other places I once called home.

Part two of this interview is here

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