Moyra Donaldson is the author of six collections of poetry. Her collection Snakeskin Stilettos was shortlisted for a Foreword Book of the Year Award. Her poems have been published internationally and she has read in many corners of the globe. Her poetry has won numerous awards and she has even worked in collaboration with photographers. I chatted to Moyra about her most recent collection The Goose Tree published by Liberties Press.
Can you talk a bit about the person behind the poetry? Who are you? Why do you write?
Writing is something that I seem to be compelled to do. As a child I loved reading. There was a walk-in cupboard which was filled with books in the hallway of my parents’ first little bungalow and I can remember standing in there and looking up at the top shelves, which seemed to reach impossibly high, almost to vanishing point, and being thrilled that so many books existed. I was aware of the power of story – my mother read bedtime stories to me and I can remember hardly being able to wait for the next chapter of Black Beauty or whatever the current book might be. I understood the pleasure of getting lost in a story, so from a very early age it seemed a logical progression to write stories and poems myself. I wanted to tell stories as well as read them. When I went to university to study English Language and Literature, I wanted to be a writer, but for a variety of reasons (not least the fact that there were so few female voices in NI in the 1970s) by the time I had finished my degree, I had stopped writing and went on to do a postgraduate qualification in social work and took up a career in that sector.
For a while I put all my energies into that, and then, after not getting a promotion that I was sure was mine, I started to re-assess what I was doing and made a decision to return to writing. I joined a writers’ group and my ‘career’ as a poet started at that point, in the early 1990s. Since then I have persisted with poetry alongside full time work, bringing up a family and all the usual challenges and vicissitudes of everyday life
The line that struck me most – and there were many that struck me – and seemed to really sum up the feel of The Goose Tree, was “Magic, running its course, ordinary through the marrow of life.” Can you tell me about this? Do you feel it encompasses any big idea for you?
[pullquote] To mark that I’ve taken note of them, that I’ve not ignored them and their ordinary magic. [/pullquote] Life is such a precious, wonderful and mysterious thing. It is fragile and precarious. It contains such heights of joy, beauty and bliss and at the same time, such depths of sorrow, grief and pain. The older I get, the more amazed I am by life and I find myself increasingly wanting to celebrate the highs as well as writing about the lows. I’ve also got better at noticing things outside of myself; a particular light; shades of green; a landscape; a dawn – the list is endless – the wonder of the natural world. I am so glad to be able to experience all these things that I want to celebrate their existence, to mark that I’ve taken note of them, that I’ve not ignored them and their ordinary magic.
Unfortunately in my Calvinist, fundamentalist family there was very little magic, but there was retention of folk lore, a memory of older ways and superstitions, the keeping of the wish bone, the saluting of magpies. I’m married to a scientist and very interested in scientific explanations for the world we live in and the universe we inhabit; but I think that although science can explain in empirical terms, there is still something ‘magical’ about how it all works, this matrix of interdependent life, the interconnectedness of everything from the smallest of things to the whole of the universe. I love the fact that as humans we hunger to understand, yet at the same time retain a sense of wonder. Magic and knowledge can co-exist, one does not preclude the other.
Sometimes when we group our poems together – I find they tell us things we didn’t even know were sitting in the poems. Did this collection surprise you with any truths when you looked at it all together?
I think when I saw the poems together in The Goose Tree, it struck me that in this collection, I was writing from a different place than in earlier books. The poems reflect a time when I was feeling that I had had enough – of responsibilities, of storms, of all kinds of excess. I was hoping that I was moving into a quieter time and recognising that this could be a positive; creating a smaller yet paradoxically larger place to stand. However my life has always been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, so it was foolish of me to expect that was going to stop – and of course it hasn’t. Life comes swooshing down the tracks taking its unexpected twists and turns and just when you think you know where you are, it all changes again. Looking at the collection now, it feels like a stepping stone between then and now, between one thing and the next, solid in itself but not somewhere to rest, rather somewhere to place a foot in order to move forwards.
There are small moments of humour dotted through the collection. Do you find humour in poetry difficult? I think it’s something that a lot of poets can struggle with.
I love to laugh, it’s one of the best things in life and with my husband and two daughters, I share quite a dark sense of humour. We laugh at the absurdities of life and even in the saddest of situations there is quite often something so surreal that you just can’t help but find it amusing. In my poetry I try to just point at some of these moments, rather than consciously try to write ‘something funny’.
Are you a Gardner? I love the use of flowers and growth throughout the collection and felt they bloomed through the collection.
I asked my elder daughter if I could call myself a gardener and her reply was – well you have a garden and you allow things to grow in it. I think that about sums it up. I plant things and watch them grow. I’m not so good at the weeding or lawn mowing or the seasonal tasks of tending to a garden. Hence my garden could be called ‘suitable for wildlife’, and it is full of birds and butterflies. It’s all a bit random and disorganised with horse radish in the flower beds, mullein self-seeding itself among the stones and random trees that birds have planted alongside the ones I planted myself. I love flowers and decorative plants and I particularly love bulbs that once you’ve buried them are guaranteed to give a good show, year after year. Whilst I like the idea of having a productive garden full of things to eat, I’m simply not disciplined enough for that.
Who would you mark as your influences and what would you bring from your reading of them into your work?
I find this a difficult question to answer, different things have influenced me at different times of my life. I was listening to BBC Radio 4 on National Poetry day and there was a series of programmes on the history of the UK through poetry. Listening to them it struck me how much I was influenced as a teenager by Donne, Marvell, Herbert, Keats, Shelley. We had the Albatross Book of Verse as a text book in school and it gave me a taster of so many great poets. It was at this stage of my life that I developed a taste for the lusciousness of language.
Later I remember coming across the Liverpool poets and it dawning on me that poems could be about contemporary life, about the everyday. Since then I’ve tried to read as widely as possible, and I have eclectic tastes. I tend to ‘live’ with one or two poets for a period of time and I’m currently absorbed in Penelope Shuttle and a Dutch poet, Rutger Kopland, who is also a professor of psychiatry and a wonderful writer whose work is utterly devoid of rhetoric. I never really analyse too much what I bring from other poets into my own work, I’m not an academic and I tend to respond with my heart rather than my head, though the best poems of all are those that engage both these organs.
How important do you think it is for the poet to read other’s work and be active in the poetry community? Do you actively self-promote and what is the importance of this to getting your work seen?
It’s very important to keep reading other work and I’ve always had a commitment to facilitating and encouraging others, I was a co-founder of the Creative Writers Network in the 1990s and I have worked as a facilitator for twenty plus years in all kinds of settings.
Regarding self-promotion, it is something I struggle with. I used to fondly imagine that somehow poems could move into the world through a kind of osmosis that didn’t involve the poet at all, however as I want my work to be read, to reach others, I have had to just get on with it. I feel as if persistence is the best tactic of all. I’ve just kept producing the work and sending it out and trying to make the best of any opportunities that have come my way.
In 2011 I received a career enhancement award from the Arts Council NI and as part of that I was encouraged to have a ‘social media presence’, so I joined Facebook and set up a blog. I enjoy that Facebook keeps me informed about events and what others are doing, but sometimes I feel as if it can set up an almost competitive atmosphere. That makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, especially if I’m going through a bit of a fallow time myself. It can make me feel inadequate and unproductive in comparison.
Is there a clear journey that your poetry as travelled over the course of the collections? Do you like to read over the old poems or do you hide them away?
There has been no clear journey. I have just kept moving, following my desire to write and allowed the themes and ideas to develop and change with the years. I enjoy reading my old poems as they take me back to the time and the state of mind of when they were written, the place I was in, both mentally and physically. I can see how far I’ve travelled as a person and as a poet. Although I can see mistakes in them, or things that I would do differently now, I have no desire to change them as they are children of their own moment. I’m sometimes amazed that I have written them. I’m proud to have written them.