Writer’s Block With Karen J. McDonnell

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to Irish poet KAREN J. McDONNELL about her debut collection …


For many years, Karen J. McDonnell enjoyed life in Dublin as an actress and in international banking, before trading it in for an idyllic home in the West of Ireland. It was during Karen’s time as a mature student in NUI Galway that writing became her area of focus; here she penned Notes from the Margins, a poetic song cycle about women on the edges of history, and literary non-fiction title Unsettled — a West Bank Journal. Karen’s writing has been published in many newspapers, journals and anthologies in Ireland and overseas. In 2014 Karen completed a Diploma in Radio Production. She has since contributed an abundance of original material to RTÉ radio and Wild Atlantic Waves Radio, recorded many podcasts and readings, and is a committee member and volunteer with Kinvara FM in Galway, where she presents The Western Skyline, an Arts-focused show.

Karen’s debut poetry collection, This Little World (2017), is filled with arresting descriptions that could wake the most dormant of souls. As one turns the pages, one gets lost in earthy images of nature and water, while contemplating themes of family, life, loss, tragedy and war. Martin Dyar has said, “This is a book infused with insight and mythic assurance; a book of intuitions made loud and voices marked by vision, the work of a poet who will be read for her adeptness in tracing the heartlines of human experience.”

Karen won the WOW Poetry Award in 2014 and was runner-up in both the Wild Atlantic Words and BAFFLE poetry competitions in 2015. She was short-listed for the Poems for Patience Award, and was a Hennessy New Irish Writing Poetry Winner with the Irish Times in 2017.

Karen J. McDonnell lives in the Burren, Co. Clare. Karen will read at Over the Edge in Charlie Byrne’s in Galway today, February 9, Seven Sisters at The Record Break in Ennis on Saturday February 17 and in Clare Voices at the Ennis Book Club Festival in March.

This Little World (€12) is published by Doire Press and available from most good bookshops.

On home

I moved to north Clare a while ago, after years living and working in Dublin city centre. Ballyvaughan is a small village, with a great mix of people; including students who come to the Burren College of Art. Early summer and mid-September are my favourite times; when the cafés and shops are still open but tourist traffic is reduced. It’s lovely to pop in to the Soda Parlour for a chat and coffee. I always bump into someone. Visitors love O’Lochlainn’s pub being just a stroll from my house. The view from my study window is across the harbour, towards Sliabh na gCapall. After rain, the mountain’s grey dampens, then silvers. When the sun sets, it changes colour – anything from pale rose quartz, to plum orange.

On roots

The first years of my life were spent in Limerick. The back of our house gave way to fields and the Shannon. One of my earliest memories is of watching the tugboat Garryowen coming up the river. There are sensual memories of my father’s old home in Nicholas Street. It burned down when I was a tot. It was called the Battleship, for some reason. It holds a mythical place in my heart: there’s an inherited grief for a space I can recall only in terms of light and shadow.

Once we moved to Ennis, I thought of myself as a Clare woman. It’s where exploration began; where talents, friendships, and love were first tried and tested. I like the mix in my family – Clare, Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Palatine, and probably French. There were some DNA kits handed out as Christmas presents – I’m looking forward to the results!

On creating

With poetry, one can write anywhere; even on a paper napkin. I write up those notes and the first few drafts in a poetry notebook. Then I move everything on to the PC at home, in my little study-cum-library.

The strangest books on my shelves are an original of Mao’s Little Red Book, picked up in Yunnan, and an English version of Gaddafi’s The Green Book, bought in Tripoli. Old prints of New York and Syria are on the wall, and an Edwardian photo of Giza. One shelf holds keepsakes from trips abroad: a carved wolf from a medieval Chinese window, an old brass keyring from Luxor’s Winter Palace Hotel, pebbles from a now-flooded bank of the Yangtze. A sand sculpture from the Omani desert was a present from Ahmed, a Dofari guide. It’s a dusty, pitted, sphere – but if I sliced it open it would reveal a crystalline interior. Perhaps cloudy white, perhaps amethyst. I’m content to leave the mystery intact.

On bookshops

There are some great bookshops an hour’s drive from home. In Galway I drop in to Kenny’s, and I head to the travel section in Charlie Byrne’s. Up the road in Ennistymon, Jessie Lendennie’s Salmon Bookshop & Literary Centre is great for a browse, and for poetry readings in the walled garden. In Ennis, Scéal Eile secondhand bookshop is in the Market, and the Ennis Bookshop is on Abbey Street. Independent bookshop owners are so welcoming to writers. I’ve noticed they’re often the ones who put in long hours manning book tables at literary festivals. It’s important to support them in return.

On her nightstand

My nightstand should carry a health and safety warning. One day, the pile will topple – taking a cup of coffee with it. I love dipping in and out of books at night time. On the menu at the moment are essays by Virginia Woolf, This Cruel Station by Martin Malone, Li Ch’ing-chao’s poems, and David Rigsbee’s collection, School of the Americas. Non-fiction includes Six Years at the Russian Court, Ahdaf Soueif’s Mezzaterra, and the letters of Gertrude Bell. Gertrude was fearless in the way she approached anything: languages, the desert, tribal differences, even the Ottoman Empire. I lie in bed, following her journeys in my head. As hailstones bash against my bedroom window, it’s fun to read a letter written exactly a hundred years ago from the Syrian desert.

On escapes

I don’t think it’s the first time that the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig has been mentioned on Writer’s Block, and I suspect it won’t be the last. It is a sanctuary, and the staff are kind and supportive. Clare County Council gave me a bursary two years ago and I surprised myself with the amount of work I got done in one week. When publication of This Little World was brought forward last year, I booked in again to work on redrafts and edits. The first thing that “happened” was a new poem. Right now, I’d love to feel the sun on my back. If I could escape, it would be to France. Or to the Nile. I like viewing land from the water. And I don’t get seasick on rivers!

On poetry

Chatting with students at NUI Galway a few months ago, I was asked what poetry does for me. My reply was that when it comes to other writing genres, I find it easier to edit, to critique, to judge my own work. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be reasonably objective about poetry. But a poem comes from somewhere else, and because of that I find it difficult to place it, to measure its worth. It’s a matter of confidence, I suppose, as much as anything else. Strangely, however, when I manage to produce something good, instinct tells me not to mess with it too much. Perhaps because poetry comes from that “other” place, it reaches across to readers through intuitive channels, as music does. Reading aloud is part of that process. For me, poetry is a way to raise ghosts, to create small monuments, a route to atonement. Of course, a poem can also be – just a poem.

On water

The ocean has been an artistic trope, and inspiration, for centuries – just look at Turner’s paintings. I never set out to write a sea poem. They just turn up – we’re back to those notes jotted on the napkins. I can’t imagine living far away from the sea. On childhood holidays, if I wasn’t in the sea, I was on the cliffs, wave-watching. Physically, the bravest thing I’ve ever done was to jump into the sea from the cliff at Newfie in Kilkee. It was exhilarating. But, the sea is a living thing – capable of fury and tremendous beauty. It can hold and caress us, or drag us away forever. And like music, or poetry, our response to the sea is instinctive. I wonder is there an ancient bit of DNA left in us: so, the fathomless sea reminds us of the Underworld – full of monsters, and the dead. The sea poems in This Little World respond to real tragedies and to what’s left behind, on the shore.

On the past

I’ve always loved history. The BBC series The World at War was a part of my childhood, pushing me towards books about WWII in Ennis library. My great-granduncle was in the Seaforth Highlanders during WW1. A few years ago, I digitized photos he had taken during the war. I was also delighted to highlight women poets from WWl on RTÉ’s Poetry Programme. It’s personal histories that inform the war poems in the collection: the sister at home, the soldier who always appears in film footage of the Battle of the Somme, a Nazi icon of femininity, and a woman who volunteered to accompany children to Auschwitz. In the poems about countries visited before the Arab Spring, I was trying to write something that said – This, this, is the place I saw. These are the people I met. It’s too easy to define places or people by what’s on our screens.

On the airwaves

As radio students, two of us recorded a vox-pop on the evening of the Marriage Referendum. We got many different opinions. A young woman came out of the polling station. The man with her gestured to us and said, “Go on.” It was the first time she had voted. She was gay. Her brother was gay. She told us what that vote meant to her. What moved me most was that her father was with her, that he took such quiet delight in watching his daughter speak to us. Recently, on my show, The Western Skyline, I interviewed poets Mary Madec and Marion Cox about Bosom Pals – the poetry anthology in aid of Breast Cancer Research, edited by Marie Cadden. All of the poets have experienced breast cancer. As we chatted, I decided to let the slot run on. I’m proud of that one.

On what’s next

I’ve an idea for a project – for the next poetry collection. It needs funding, though! I wrote a song-cycle a few years ago – about women on the edges, the margins, of history. It would be great to find a composer who would bring that to life. I’ve booked a week at Annaghmakerrig: a deadline to write towards later. And that trip to France. I’d like to visit Eleanor of Aquitaine’s tomb. Most of all, I hope that I’ll jump off a “writing cliff”, and surface exhilarated.


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