The Monthly talks to writer, poet and podcaster, Damien Donnelly – Part 2

Part one of this interview is here

How did you develop your voice and style?

I have always enjoyed the challenge of poetry, of finding a structure to allow the ideas to flow but most of all; its limitations. You have be precise as to what thoughts you want to express. Early on, I could have written a novel about my life growing up in Dublin, being gay in conservative Ireland, being adopted and the breakdown of the family. All that would have made for a great big story but poetry allowed me to condense all those giant themes into manageable forms, things I could hold in the palm of my hand as opposed to carrying around on my back and eventually breaking me.

Over time, my development was driven by constant editing, by constant rewriting, searching for the right words to convey ideas. I’ve written well over 1500 poems, but only a handful of them are good, which means I have enough to keep me reworking and editing for some time.

How did you find the time?

By taking every available minute outside of work, from waiting for buses, on tubes, metros, in parks on Sundays, on long countless flights to China for work, last thing in the evening, halfway through the night, first thing in the morning. I don’t have a great memory so when something comes into my mind I need to jot it down otherwise I might lose a decent starting point or a good bridge to jump from into an idea. I don’t think writing is really a choice for me, like fashion design was. Writing is just a part of me and needs to be let out regularly, like any pet dog, otherwise it gets messy.

One thing I try to do now is not get waylaid into using other people’s styles. I’d often read a collection and, especially if I liked the style of the poet or the writer, I’d unconsciously incorporate that style into my own work. When I’m working on a collection now I tend not to read other poets during that period. I’m still in the process of finding my own voice.

Do you have a particular process?

I usually write the bulk of the poem very quickly, perhaps because writing was always squashed into small buckets of time. But now the editing process is much more important, taking time to read the poem out loud, record it, listen back to it, edit it again based on the sound of the words. That process continues until I’m happy with the poem. Although I now look back at previously printed poems and still see ways to improve, change, adapt to better suit me today.

Why did it take so long to produce your first collection?

It took me a long time to slip out of the skin of the shy, bullied ‘faggot’ boy I had been and even when I did, I didn’t realise it straight away until someone at a party mentioned my confidence and knocked me for 6. Realising that I had grown up, moved on and found my voice then gave me the confidence to look for opportunities to publish my work. I had a short story published in an anthology Second Chances in Ireland in 2015 and then a poem in Nous Sommes Paris, in 2016, published by Eyewear as a commemoration of the Paris attacks 2015. After that, I started sending off to wherever I could; poetry to Barren Magazine, Black Bough Poetry and even gothic horror stories which ended up in the Body Horror Anthology and Coffin Bell.

In 2018, I entered the White Label First Pamphlet Poetry Competition at The Hedgehog Poetry Press, open annually to anyone who has not yet published a collection and in 2019, just as I was thinking about leaving Paris and trying to focus on writing, I got the email from Mark Davidson at Hedgehog saying I’d won the competition. That was really the turning point. I was going to have my name on a book of my own poems! I finally accepted that I wasn’t wasting my time writing teenage dribble.

And that allows you to go ahead and produce your debut pamphlet?

Yes, Storms was listed on the Poetry Book Society Winter List 2020/21 which was a huge boost, not only in sales but also in confidence and so now I’m working on a full collection, the Paris Collection, which I am whittling down at the moment. The “Eat the Storms” pamphlet had 22 poems. I started with 120 poems which I reduced down to 92 and then again to 85. I am working with a mentor to help with editing and to reduce the number of poems even further. Blending the 22 poems from Eat the Storms into a pamphlet was relatively easy in terms of its arc of colour and its quest to find the light in dark spaces, although even there I had the wonderful guidance of fellow Irish poet Jessica Traynor, but the Paris collection, also because it documents a love affair that started when I was 22 and was, let’s say, ‘suspended’ at 44, needs a few more eyes and ears before I let it go out into the world alone.

Where to now?

One of the poems from Storms, “Tattered Brown Trousers” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize last year, a poem which looks back at my father, as a man eating the flowers in his garden because he can’t accept the happiness blooming in the house behind him. Had I written that a few years ago it would have been much different, darker, one sided. Now, with distance and age, it became a poem that considers the reasons behind relationships and why people develop certain coping mechanisms, the mechanisms of protection that they need in order to survive. So going forward, many of the same themes will be still there on the page, but my view, my overall perception of them is evolving and that is something which encourages me to keep going.

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