SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to poet KATIE DONOVAN about FINDING TIME TO WRITE, MEETING THE PRESIDENT and completing her MA at BERKELEY …
Irish poet Katie Donovan holds in her possession one of the most striking voices of her generation. She has crafted five collections of poetry to date, which have received praise from the most prominent in her field, including the illustrious Eavan Boland who once said, “In the best of these poems, adventures of place meet and mingle with adventures of the body. This is by no means a reliable or frequent encounter in contemporary poetry.”
Katie’s first offering, Watermelon Man was published in 1993, followed by Entering the Mare (1997), Day of the Dead (2002), and Rootling: New and Selected Poems (2010). Her most recent title, Off Duty (2016) was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Poetry Now Prize and she received the O’Shaughnessy Award for Irish Poetry, both in 2017. This arresting collection, dotted with dark humour, details the grim decline of her late husband – meanwhile, everyday life carries on. The death rattle intermingles with the innocent song of her children, as the domestic and the tragic are intertwined, leaving an indelible mark on one’s memory.
Katie’s work has appeared in many periodicals and anthologies in Ireland, the UK and the US and she has given readings in many venues in Ireland, England, Belgium, Denmark, Portugal, the US and Canada, as well as for RTÉ Radio One and the BBC.
Katie studied at Trinity College Dublin and at the University of California at Berkeley, before teaching English in Hungary for a year. She later spent thirteen years as a features writer with The Irish Times. Her teaching posts include Media and Contemporary Irish Literature and Creative Writing in IADT Dun Laoghaire (2006-13), as well as lecturing in Creative Writing in NUI Maynooth 2015-17. Katie has been an Amatsu practitioner since 2002 and recently completed a three year course in Somatic Experiencing.
Katie Donovan lives in Dalkey, Co Dublin with her two children, Phoebe and Felix.
Off Duty (€13.95) is published by Bloodaxe Books and available from bookshops nationwide.
I live near Dalkey village, in an old mews. It was originally owned by my great-aunt, Phoebe Donovan. I have spent many hours and most of my earnings, trying to make it habitable. It was an absolute wreck when I moved in, riddled with both dry and wet rot.
I love it here. A highlight is the fact that I can walk to Whiterock beach. I swim there in the summer.
Dalkey village has a great range of shops, cafés and restaurants, and possesses a charming, casual vibe. Select Stores is a lovely health food shop and Roberts fish shop sells amazing salmon from Clare Island. I like to meet friends for coffee in either Mugs or Country Bake. Starbucks opened a branch in Dalkey some years ago but was forced to close because nobody went there. They stayed loyal to the local places. For a cosy family dinner and excellent food, I take the children to Benito’s.
One of the best aspects of the Dalkey Book Festival is that many of the events take place in local venues. I’ve enjoyed giving readings in The Grapevine, an excellent wine bar, and in Finnegan’s, my favourite Dalkey pub.
I combine writing with part-time work and my children’s routine. Work is either teaching creative writing or seeing clients. I am an Amatsu practitioner and trauma therapist. Amatsu is a physical therapy involving gentle manipulation of ligaments and joints. Somatic Experiencing is a form of trauma therapy I’ve just qualified in. I’m experimenting with blending the two treatments.
My children are teenagers but still need a lot of care, and as I’m their sole surviving parent, I put a lot of energy into that role.
Writing has to happen every day, and somehow I manage it.
I lived on a farm when I was a child, in County Wexford. Gorey was the nearest big town. I think my love of animals comes from those formative years, when I would feed orphan lambs and try to make friends with contrary donkeys. I loved picking apples and blackberries in the autumn. I used to scramble into a subterranean hide-away my father called Brigand’s Cave, where among the overhanging rocks and ferns I would imagine thieves coming to hide and fight over their stolen gold. I had plenty of time to read and daydream during my childhood, which is important for a young writer.
I write in my great aunt Phoebe’s old studio, at the top of my house. It is quiet and has lovely sea views. When she worked there it was full of painting paraphernalia. Now it is piled with books. Some I have read, others I mean to read, and there are spare copies of my own books. My cats love that room and are usually to be found lazing on the windowsill.
I have two writing desks, owned by my two grandfathers, each offering a different view. This gives me an excuse to move if I feel restless.
However I don’t have a writing routine per se. I have learned to write any time and anywhere I get the chance.
Because poetry earns very little, materially speaking, I’ve had a series of money-earning jobs. When I was a features writer with The Irish Times, I often had to travel, and conduct interviews with a variety of people, from judges to prison inmates; shamrock farmers to ballet dancers. Some of these experiences helped me to dream up poems, which I wrote on the hoof.
Ideas for poems tend to arrive when my mind is busy doing other things. I have to capture the inspiration before it vanishes like a will o’ the wisp. Then I have redrafting sessions, where I lick the poem into shape, without spoiling its spontaneity.
I like The Gutter in Dalkey as it is cosy and local, and has a good selection, including a poetry section. Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street in central Dublin is the poet’s Mecca, offering a lovely space to give readings and providing a wonderful range of books. Kenny’s in Galway offers a great online service and has always been a support to writers.
On her “To Be Read” pile
I am looking forward to reading Leontia Flynn’s collection The Radio, which recently won the 2018 Irish Times/Poetry Now prize. I’m also due to collect my contributor’s copy of Reading the Future: New Writing From Ireland – a special anthology edited by Alan Hayes of Arlen house, in honour of Hodges Figgis’s 250th birthday. I’m going to enjoy reading the 249 other contributions from contemporary Irish writers.
At Annaghmakerrig Artists and Writers retreat the food is wonderful and I adore the lake. Recently I discovered Ballycastle in Co Antrim. The beaches are beautiful and the view out to Rathlin Island is spectacular. I was completing modules for my trauma therapy training there, in a lovely peace and reconciliation centre called Corrymeela.
Writing poetry is an act of distillation, you whittle what you need to say down to the raw bones, there’s no space for waffle. It is also an act of surrender, which is so necessary yet so challenging in today’s world where we expect to control everything. Good poetry addresses the human condition without being tricksy or self-conscious, and can be savoured read aloud. It is playful, brave and feels unforced.
On Off Duty
Writing poetry helps to voice feelings that threaten to overwhelm me with their contradictions. Crafting such material into art takes a long time, but can be highly satisfying. I wrote the poems in Off Duty as a way of witnessing what my husband’s dying meant to me. I found the act of making them public very frightening, but I have been reassured by the many readers who have made contact with me to thank me for writing from the carer’s often overlooked point of view.
On memorable meetings
Over the course of the last thirty-five years, I have been lucky enough to meet many superb writers. Some are now dear friends; others have been generous supporters. I’ve been a teacher and mentor myself, to up-and-coming writers, and it is very satisfying to see them doing well.
I’ve attended countless literary festivals and events. The experience of mingling with other writers, and sharing a platform with them, is always intoxicating.
I won’t start name-dropping as it would go on forever and I’d be sure to leave somebody out!
Recently it was an honour to meet President Michael D. Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin, with a group from the Irish Writers Centre. He welcomed us very warmly. It has been wonderfully affirming to have a poet as our President, and his capacity to speak with such charisma and erudition always makes me proud.
I won a scholarship to complete an MA in English Literature at UC Berkeley 1984-6. It was an eye-opener for a sheltered Irish girl. First of all, the degree was more competitive and demanding than I had anticipated. I realised that, in spite of the stimulating intellectual environment, my own writing was more important to me than becoming an academic. I loved the town of Berkeley with its funky bookshops and cafés, and the live-and-let-live eccentricity of its citizens. In the fabulous Bay Area restaurants, I sampled many culinary delights which would not reach Ireland for another decade, including sushi, guacamole and sourdough. I saw pelicans on Muir beach and walked among the majestic redwoods in Yosemite. I travelled to Mexico on an alternative bus tour. I experienced the wild colour and fun of Hallowe’en in the Castro district of San Francisco, before its community was ravaged by Aids.
Ireland seemed very insular and prudish on my return.
On what’s next
I’ve been working on a fantasy novel for 9 – 12 year olds, on and off, for years. I am now determined to finish it. I am building up a body of new poems which will hopefully develop into my sixth collection – when the time is right. In June I will bring my children to Athens and Naxos. I’ve always loved travelling, how it shocks you out of the everyday routine and offers you the chance to see things with a fresh eye.
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