Peter J Donnelly lives in York where he works as a hospital secretary. He has a MA in Creative Writing and a degree in English Literature from the University of Wales Lampeter. Thanks are due to the Dreich magazine, Writer’s Egg, Southlight and South Bank, where some of these poems have previously appeared. His poetry has also been published in other magazines and anthologies including One Hand Clapping, Black Nore Review, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Obsessed with Pipework, High Window and The Beach Hut. The 22 won second prize in the Ripon Poetry Festival competition in 2021 and The Second of August was a joint runner up in the Buzzwords open poetry competition in 2020.
Q: 1. How did you decide on the order of the poems in the book?
I felt that the poem that gives the collection its title should be near the beginning but not the first poem in the book. I’ve got to be honest and say that it and the one that is the first were both successful in competitions, one winning second prize and the other a joint runner up. I tried to make them flow, keeping something of a trail between the subjects of the poems, though some have nothing to do with the one that came before. There is a small group of poems about the Bronte sisters and their characters quite close together, and couplets of poems about butterflies, moths and birds. I tried to even them out as well, rather than for example have all the ones about butterflies together.
Q;2. How important is a sense of place in your poetry?
Very important. I have been greatly influenced by my native North Yorkshire which is a very scenic area, as well as other parts of Great Britain that I have visited, most notably Wales and the South West of England. My home city of York gets a mention in a few of the poems and is the subject of one of them. Place is also an important factor in the poems I write about people, animals, literature and music amongst other things.
Q:3: How important is form in your poetry?
Not greatly important, though there has to be something that makes a poem more than just chopped up prose. Some of the poems in the chapbook are rhymed, which is not a form I use very often now. I experimented with it quite a bit when I got back into writing a few years ago after quite a long period of not writing, but I have moved away from it. Where I do use rhyme I usually don’t use iambic pentameter, so the rhyming may not be immediately obvious. I maintain that verse is not necessarily poetry. Most of my first drafts are not split into verses. Once I think I have a complete poem I experiment with splitting it up. Sometimes I end up with couplets, sometimes three line verses, sometimes four or more, and often it remains free verse. Very occasionally I have verses of unequal length but not very often. I usually begin a verse with the beginning of a sentence, but not always.
Q;4. What role does music play in your poetry?
It has influenced many of my poems, not least the one that gives this collection its name. Though I tried to learn instruments as a child I can no longer read music nor do I know a lot about it, many of its technical terms mean nothing to me. I very rarely have it playing in the background whilst I am writing poetry, though I do regularly have Radio 3 playing whilst I am doing other things. It is a station I would struggle to live without, and gets a few mentions, directly and indirectly, in my writing. I certainly have an appreciation of many forms of music, and concerts in cathedrals and churches, as well as opera, ballet and performances of symphonies I have attended been the influence behind quite a lot of my poetry. It is often the place where I heard the music performed, or the people I attended with, that have made the piece significant to me and inspired me to write a poem about it.
Q;5. Nature seems important in your poetry, thinking especially of Peppered Moth and Painted Lady?
It is. Butterflies and moths in particular are of great interest to me, as are plants, especially orchids. I have largely been influenced in this by my late great aunt who was also very fond of these things. She too has influenced much of my writing. I have also written poems about birds and other aspects of nature. I love walking in the countryside and visiting gardens. Other poets have of course written about these things, and have inspired me. The Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, whom I met at university played a great part in my development as a poet, as did my former teacher, the poet Carole Bromley.
Q:5.2. What is it about butterflies, months and orchids that fascinates you?
Their physical beauty, the colours and shapes of their wings and petals. I like dull coloured moths just as much as multicoloured butterflies. I am intrigued by the ability of something so small and delicate to disguise itself in order to survive, the theme of ‘Peppered Moth’. With orchids I am intrigued by their ability to surprise, often flowering more than I imagine they will, developing stems off stems and occasionally baby orchids as well.
Q;5.3. Moving on to the other influences. How did Gillian Clarke and Carole Bromley influence your work?
Carole Bromley taught me English at secondary school and again at A level. I knew I wanted to write but I thought I wanted to write stories. She encouraged my love of reading. By the time she taught me in the sixth form she was beginning to write poetry herself, and getting us to write it too. I was reluctant as I didn’t think I could do it, and she told me I needed to read more of it. She was right of course. I met Gillian Clarke at university, she didn’t teach me but ran a workshop in the evenings. I was quite glad when she announced to the group that she was a poet. What I was writing at the time, certainly in terms of attempts at poems, I think now was rather rubbish, but by the end of my first year at university we workshopped one of my pieces and she told the group that ‘Peter has really come to poetry school’ meaning as a compliment that my writing had improved. I met other established and developing poets there, including Stevie Krayer, Kathy Miles and Anne Grimes. I am always reading a poetry book as well as a novel, and these five poets I re-read once a year. I have had to be careful that my own work doesn’t too closely resemble theirs, but I think I can confidently now say that I have developed my own style, and found my own voice.
Q;6. How important is narrative, telling a story in your poetry?
I would say most of my poems do tell a story, usually a true one. Those written from the point of view of a plant or animal perhaps less so. Most of my poetry is not fictional but occasionally I will assume the voice of a character in a novel I have read, often a minor character, giving their point of view, often not heard in the novel. This is the case with ‘Mrs Fairfax’, written in the voice of a character in ‘Jane Eyre’. Many of my poems take the form of letters, often to people who are no longer with us, and they do contain narrative.
Q:8. Why does the month of f August figure so prominently in the poems?
I hadn’t realised how many times it was mentioned, except in the title piece, and then only in the title itself of that poem. It is one of my favourite times of year, often associated with holidays and hot weather, which is perhaps why it is mentioned in so many of my poems.
Q:9. It is very rare to find a poem in this collection that doesn’t have numbers in it? Is this deliberate?
This was not deliberate. I am not numerate at all. I have attempted a GCSE maths exam three times and each time failed, never managing to get a higher grade than a D. But I suppose maths is a bit like music, I can’t do it but I have an appreciation of it, and understand its importance. More unconsciously than music, it creeps its way into my writing.
Q:10. Your final poem Wensleydale Faith imagines a creator. How important is faith in your writing?
I once had a very strong faith, now I am not so sure, but I cannot completely abandon what I once believed. Maybe it will come back to me one day. It is quite rare for me to mention it in my writing, at least nowadays.
Q:11. Once they have read “Second of August, what do you hope the reader will leave with?
Without wanting to sound too self-praising, I hope they will be left looking forward to reading my next collection, of which I can promise there will be one, and hopefully many more after that. Not everyone who reads it will feel that way of course, but I hope that even those who didn’t think my debut chapbook was that good will be interested to read more of my work, before deciding they don’t like my poems at all.
Peter’s book can be purchased here:
and here is a video of him reading from it: