Katie Donovan: a flash interview

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1. Katie – you are taking part in our Writing from Life event – much of your poetry deals with the deeply personal – your journey through motherhood and the losses of those dearest to you. Do you find that poetry allows you to confront these topics in a deeper way than memoir and prose could?

I have been writing about my life since I was a teenager. I did keep a diary for a while but it was very dull and time-consuming. I was a journalist during the 1990s, writing features for The Irish Times, and that was a good way to explore my interest in people and the Arts while also earning a wage. I have flirted with fiction and memoir. But I always come back to poetry. Not that all of my poems are wonderful – they begin fairly raw and have to be crafted. Many never see the light of day.

My first book of poems, Watermelon Man, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 1993. It reflected a lot of what was going on for me in my twenties: searching for the right romantic relationship; travelling and trying to figure out where I belonged in the world; the mystery of my own body; and of course my feminist beliefs.

I think it is marvellous that more and more women are writing about their lived experience, and the memoir is a very popular genre right now, but poetry feels like a more natural outlet for me, and always has. It is a way to channel my surprise, fascination and frustration with everything from human relationships to the ecological crisis our planet now faces. Writing poetry is a mysterious process where I must partly surrender and see what bubbles up from my subconscious. As I write, the way becomes clearer.

Writing poetry helped me to channel my grief, horror and outrage when my husband was ill with a cancer – it was a brutal and trying five years, and I could not morph myself into a model unselfish wife. At the same time there were many tender and sweet times – life is so complex, it is never one thing – during that phase of my children growing up and my learning how best to deal with my husband’s condition.

In poetry flashes of humour, vivid imagery and layered meanings can suggest both delicately and profoundly what the flat explanatory quality of prose renders too humdrum. In one of my poems “What Can I Give Him?”, which is set in the hospice, the focus is not just on the horrific fact that my husband is close to death, but on the fact that our daughter could sing to him and lift his spirits. It is only seventeen lines. In a poem it is possible to render both a story and its emotional impact deftly and without the boring “in between” bits.

There is a lot of musical talent in my family, which mostly passed me by, but it has left me with an appreciation of the close relationship the poem has with song. I enjoy the rhythmic, incantatory quality of poetry, and how it can play with sound when read aloud. Recently three of my poems about the sea were set to music by the pianist and composer, Izumi Kimura, while she was Musician-in-Residence with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown. It was an amazing experience to sit in on a rehearsal.

That is not to intend any disrespect to the memoir writers, I loved Emilie Pine’s “Notes to Self”. I am only setting out my own particular stall!

2. You have also edited “Ireland’s Women: Writings past and Present” – which women in history do you find particularly inspirational?

That anthology came out in 1994, as a direct response to the three volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) which featured very few women. Eavan Boland said that she felt embarrassed to be included in such an exclusionary publication. The mostly male editors pleaded ignorance. Enough said.

So myself, the late A. Norman Jeffares, and Brendan Kennelly, worked on an inclusive anthology to feature the voices of writers of both genders, describing the lives of Irish women in poetry, prose, song or drama. It was an exciting collaboration between three very different people. We all learned from each other.

We dedicated it to Mary Robinson, then Ireland’s first woman president, and included part of her inaugural speech. Robinson, with her unshowy intelligence, her feminism and her ecological awareness, has long been inspirational to me. The legendary Queen Medb, from The Tain, is a figure who inspired one of my early poems “At Queen Medb’s Cairn”. Clearly based on an earth goddess, Medb was lusty, independent and powerful – it was a relief to learn about her, as when I was a girl, role models were limited to the likes of Mother Theresa and the Virgin Mary.

Other inspirational figures who are included in the anthology are the long-time feminist campaigner Ailbhe Smyth, the pirate queen Granuaile, the veteran travel writer Dervla Murphy, and the memoirist and columnist Nuala O’Faolain. I admire many of the women writers in the anthology – too many to mention all by name – some of whom, like the poet Eithne Strong, have fallen sadly into obscurity.

It was wonderful to see the eventual publication (in 2003) of the fourth and fifth volumes of the Field Day Anthology, which included the women who had been left out of the first three. But it seems we keep needing to remind ourselves of this legacy – new anthologies of Irish women’s writing keep being produced and hailed as ground-breaking – I wonder when Irish literature will really become fully integrated and representative?

3. Do you feel that Irish poetry is in a healthy state right now?

Yes, I think it is a thriving community of diverse voices and there is a lot of support available, particularly for younger poets and Spoken Word poets. Regular opportunities for poets to meet, mingle and showcase their work are offered by the likes of Staccato in Dublin and O Bheal in Cork. Poetry Ireland, the Munster Literature Festival and many other arts organisations programme poetry and encourage poets to take an active part in events all over the country.

The recent MEAS (Measuring Equality in the Arts) report presented worrying results with regard to the amount of women being published by Irish poetry publishers. However there are notable exceptions, such as Arlen, whose list is predominantly female. Many Irish women poets, like myself, are published in the UK (Bloodaxe, my publisher; and Carcanet, both publish the likes of Caitriona O’Reilly, Mary O’Malley and Ailbhe Darcy). There is also the FIRED! initiative, which I am involved with, which actively supports Irish women poets both past and present. Chris Murray deserves a shout out for her pioneering work with FIRED!, not to mention the Poethead website she curates, which is a wonderful showcase for women poets.

I think it is hard for younger poets across the board who, as they get a bit older, want to support a family, as a poet will always have to take on a day job, and it is the constraints of this, together with family obligations, which can reduce a poet’s energy and head space. This has, however, always been the case, ever since Patrick Kavanagh famously borrowed a shilling for the gas, which was really to buy his supper as he was almost destitute. Now that I have been writing poetry for over three decades, I say to younger poets to just keep going with whatever slim pickings they have in terms of time and energy. It is the continuity that matters.

Katie is taking part in our Writing from Life event along with writers Eilis ni Dhuibhne and Thomas Kilroy on Saturday 28th September: 13.00-14.00 in Bray Town Hall.

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