Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Maura McDonnell


-Maura McDonnell

is an artist that explores multiple mediums and artforms.  Most of the time, she is tinkering away with these art forms, filling up notebooks, art pads and computers with her efforts. Drawing and painting was what she did first, moving onto music after she started to learn the tin whistle at school, progressing to studying music, piano, education, music & media technology at college and at various times in her life.  She started writing in her teens, privately and found she really loved to shape words and create something complete from her experiences.  From this tinkering, she has been drawn to make artworks more consciously in the mediums of digital film, visual art and writing.  She creates what she calls visual music artworks which are in effect, abstract films with abstract music.  She started to write poetry, two years ago at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown by responding to a prompt by the then Poet in Residence for Poetry Ireland, Catherine Ann Cullen and has not looked back.  There are many themes emerging in her writing of which she would like to now develop into artworks, be it visual music or poetry or both or maybe something else?

The Interview:

  1. When and why did you start writing poetry? I started writing poetry when I was a teenager working in a hospital as a domestic cleaner in Dublin for the summer in the 1980s. I was 16 and a group of us worked there and lived in the hospital in a special hostel residence.  It was a formative time, both personally and more generally in Ireland at the time, with cost-of-living issues, and a recession and few jobs.  I could also feel the pull of making my own decisions about the future.  I started to write to make sense of everything. However, I did not think it was poetry at the time, I did not know what it was I was doing but I needed to write.  I have read some of these back recently and they are draft poems.  I continued this ‘working it out type writing’ right up to until I intentionally decided to write a poem at the beginning of the pandemic. I by chance came upon an intriguing and inviting poetry prompt on social media shared by Ireland’s Poetry Ireland poet in residence at the time, Catherine Ann Cullen.  The prompt was #notebook.  I love notebooks and that was it really, I started writing poetry to prompts and I started to become conscious and aware that now I was writing poetry.  I consider myself a beginner poet and I just enjoy writing.  I think I need to work on developing the craft more but that is my next step.
  2. Who introduced you to poetry? I loved poetry at secondary school and adored all the poetry that was on the curriculum for the Leaving Certificate English course in the 1980s (equivalent to A-level).  I also loved Irish poetry in the Irish language that was studied for Leaving Certificate Irish.  I studied French too and loved French prose, particularly Guy de Maupassant.   The poem that really got me interested in poetry was ‘Death the Leveller’ by James Shirley.  It was so profound in its commentary on the human condition. I myself had observed so much weirdness in terms of how people treated each other in terms of their socio-economic status and this poem seemed to really get across that in the end humans are equal.  I liked poems that had insight and resonance for me.  I became fans of some of the Irish poets on the curriculum at the time and loved the poem Easter, 1916 by William Butler Yeats, especially the line, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” I had an elderly neighbour who had told me of all his experiences in the civil wars and the upheaval in Ireland in early twentieth.  His stories were terribly scary and so this poem was so resonant, and I loved its form too.  My most favourite poet at the time though was Patrick Kavanagh and particularly his poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil of Monaghan’. I could relate to the working on the tough terrain of a farm, as my family lived at the time on very tough to farmland in the northwest of Ireland.  I seemed to like how a poem resonated with my own experience and there were so many and I liked all his poems.
  3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary? I stopped reading poetry in my early adulthood, not necessarily that I chose not to, but I was doing so many other things. I forgot about poetry in a way. I was aware of Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland and other well-known Irish poets but it was a low-level type of awareness.  I did read poems by college friends and even did the cover for a poetry magazine at college.  I also became friends with a lesser-known poet, John McNamee in college and loved when he recited his poems to me and my friends and he delivered every time the most amazing punch lines with a wicked guffaw of a laugh, we would be laughing solid for a half hour after one of his readings.  Another friend John O’Rourke started to publish his poems and I loved his readings of them.  I was also drawn to spirituality and the poetic writings related to that kind of vibe.  I love John O’Donoghue’s philosophical Celtic spirituality writings and his poetry collection, Connemara Blues.  I was good friends with John and when I read his writings even still now, I can hear the lilt of his amazing Co. Clare accent, it was a shock when he died so young.  I am beginning to see a trend here; I love to read the poetry of people I know.  I also bought Catherine Ann Cullen’s beautiful poetry collection when I was in college in later years and love her writings and her readings.  It is to Catherine Ann I am indebted to for providing a space for writing poetry.  Through this community and following and engaging with people who are writing poetry, I have come to know the poetry of many poets (including you Paul) and I am totally amazed at just how many poets there are out there. It reminds me of just how many musicians there are or visual artists, such life, talent, and expression is a joy.  I am aware of the successful poets, or heavy weight poets as you put it, but just at the moment I am not drawn to their work, I would have to seek them out, make a big effort or maybe see it in a social media post or be pointed to it.  I am so busy reading poems from people I am coming to know or know through various forms of poetry writing sharing that I don’t have the time.   I do look forward though to finding some time to study the poetry of other more established poets soon.  I think poetry community writing is a living thing and I am finding it quite wonderful to be part of that living and writing poetry experience.  These poetryprompt poems are like how a visual artist might create a sketch, then come back to work on a painting from the various sketches.  However, even in the small groups I am part of, there are some great Irish poets such as Catherine Ann Cullen, Angela T. Carr, Maureen Boyle whose poetry I really admire.  Each of these ladies also encourage and support writing for everyone and are incredibly talented and generous.  The poetry prompt I am part of at the moment is #Promptcombo and each poet that shares there I have come to know through their writing and it’s just amazing.

  4. What is your daily writing routine? There are times when my daily writing routine is very organised and I know I am in a routine, there are other times when other responsibilities call and I have to ditch the routine.  My preferred routine is to have breakfast, then spend a half hour writing, at my desk.  Then at 11 with a nice coffee and biscuit, do another half hour of writing sitting outside in my balcony. The balcony overlooks a field and beautiful line of trees, the sound of the trees really seems to aid the writing experience. If a poem is getting a grip on me, I will come back to it several times in the day or days ahead.  During the course of the pandemic this was my routine.  When I am busy, I will mull over a poem a lot in my mind and when the story of it forms, I must get to a notebook straight away and this can happen any time, I will make a quick dash to my notebook and start crafting. 
    I carry a poetry notebook with me everywhere, it’s a cheap but nice notebook and its bendy and has blank paper.  I don’t like the lines in paper, I prefer a pure blank sheet.  I hand write the poem.  I then type it into my computer notebook.  This computer notebook is really organised.  I categorise all the poems I write according to poetry group, prompt or my own inspiration.  This way the poem is date stamped.  Microsoft OneNote is great for me, as it allows me to set up folders, section folders and individual pages within section folders, so I can easily find poems and store them.  Once I type in the poem, I set about editing it in the computer and I do several drafts. I love to edit in the computer, and shape it there.  I do not like having music on when I write but I love the sounds of nature, birds, wind, leaves and voices and planes in the distance.
  5. What subjects motivate you to write? I think I actually like to write on any subject and hence this is why there is an appeal for me, in writing to poetryprompts.  One word can inspire so many ideas.  I do notice I have themes in my writing.  Overcoming adversity or a social comment on life or a memory from my childhood. I like writing about people I knew or know and using nature as a metaphor for growth.  I am conscious that I want my poems to have a resolution in them, and I am aware that I also want to bring the reader on a journey towards a resolution and to include them.  I base all my poems on my own life experience and observations.  Perhaps I am trying to resolve my own issues when I write but sometimes it’s to celebrate life or to make a comment on it.  I like the weaving that takes place in poetry.  I have some themes I would like to develop and explore further and look forward to working on those in the future.
  6. What is your work ethic? I write every day and I put the time in to that.  At the moment I have not made a big effort to get poems published.  It’s a time thing for me, I don’t have the time at the moment and it is also partly a confidence thing.  I think I am still learning how to write poetry but as I enjoy it so much, I just keep writing.  I would like to learn more about writing poetry and make more of an effort to submit poems for consideration for journals. But I am taking each day as it comes and hope to do that in the future. 
  7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today? I think Patrick Kavanagh has had some influence on me right up to today because of his approach to his own life and to nature. I love that mix and he lived his poetry.  The other poets have an influence to the extent that it was through them I encountered the experience of loving a poem, its shape, form, meter, and meaning.  However, it is not a direct influence but more a formative one.  I am more interested in living poets I am encountering through groups.
  8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why? I really love Maureen Boyles long form poem, ‘Strabane’.  When I read this book, I could not put it down. Maureen brings us on this amazing journey of place, nature, memory, history.  It helped that I also know the town of Strabane very well.  I love Catherine Ann Cullen’s poetry collection, ‘The Other Now’ and also Angela T. Carr’s ‘How to lose your home and safe your life’.  I also love the elegant writing of Eileen Carney Hulme and Marie Studer and the energetic writing of Damien Donnelly and Robin McNamara and the writings of the #PromptCombo group such as Theresa Donnelly, Fidel Hogan Walsh, Liam Porter, Kathy Sholtys, Anne T Sheridan, Liam Flanagan, yourself Paul Brookes. There are loads more
  9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else? Writing feels like a need or necessity to me. When I am not writing I am on edge, and once I keep to a routine of writing even if it is just for a short time – 2 half hour sessions, I feel more complete.  However, I do see writing as being like any art.  It’s the crafting, the thinking, the tweaking, the making, the forming of it all that I really love.  I do other arts and sometimes it’s a juggling act which one to concentrate on.  Writing though feels intimate and can be done anywhere.  Some of the other arts I do (mainly abstract film and visual art and some music) have a totally different work ethic and method. Sometimes I like to explore the methods and insights from these arts in my writing and many of my poems have lots of music metaphors and references as well as references to the science of colour. 
  10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?” I would say go do it, just sit down with that notebook and let you come through or what is pressing  to you or what it is you want to say, then craft it, shape it and get the rhythm of the thing and then at some stage say, this is complete (first draft anyway).  However, for me what sparked me to write was to write to a poetry group prompt. Not only do you get an incentive to write, you also get to share and engage with other writers working on the exact same prompt.  It’s a great way to start.  I am really very shy but I am able to share my poems with the poetry prompt group and just feel safe writing this way despite that my poems are also public in my social media feed, I am amazed I can do that and it doesn’t bother me, I am not saying to myself ‘oh no, x or y might not like that poem’ or ‘I should not share these poems as I am not established etc’ or ‘someone might think I am showing off’.  There is a kind of building confidence and resilience in sharing and moving the poem from a dusty notebook to a live social platform, it shifts something in you as a poet to share like that.  It is like practicing using your own poetic voice.  It is good to also join a group or a class.  I think joining a class where you can get some formative feedback would be immensely beneficial, because the feedback from another poet’s eyes is so valuable.  But really, it’s just you and those words so give yourself permission to go shape them. 
  11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment. I am involved in a few projects.  I write a poem weekly for the #PromptCombo group, set up by Catherine Ann Cullen.  I am also one of its hosts.  There are about eight of us that share the hosting of the poetry prompt. I am going to attend Angela T. Carr’s next poetry group that is for a month late summer 2022. Its conducted online in a closed social media group and the poetry I have encountered there is just amazing.  I intend to do a poetry pamphlet too but that is in early days mode.  For that, I am in the process of crafting about six to eight poems around a theme.  Some of these poems I wrote in poetry prompt mode or when I attended one of Angela T. Carr’s private Facebook groups (wonderful experiences).  Some are new independent work.  I intend to also include a visual aspect to each poem and to weave an abstract visual with the meaningfulness of the poem.  It is only recently I realized there was a genre called poetry film or film poetry. I would LOVE to give that a try and, in a way, all my abstract films are a form of poetry.  One film I created in 1998 is based on a poem I specifically wrote for it but which I interpreted by visual, and music means.  I hope to create another one in the future but just don’t have the theme of it yet formed in my mind.  I hope it comes to me soon!

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