Featured Poet in September 2010: Donal Mahoney
Donal Mahoney lives in St. Louis, Missouri. A native of Chicago, he spent the early Seventies actively submitting poems to print journals and enjoyed some success. He then took a 35-year hiatus from poetry to work as an editor of prose at such lofty establishments as the Chicago Sun-Times, Loyola University Press, and Washington University in St. Louis to support and educate five children. Upon retirement, Donal took to his recliner, and was perfectly happy sitting and listening to Gregorian chant all day. After three years, however, his wife interrupted with a Gregorian chant of her own. She bought Donal a computer and showed him where the boxes of still-unpublished poems had been stored in the basement for many years. Thus Donal began actively submitting again in June 2008. He has since had nearly three hundred poems published here and abroad, an achievement he credits largely to his wife.
I'm not any good with tools or math or science but words have always rolled around in my head. I suspect it was due to my Irish immigrant father, who came here and dug graves and boxed before becoming an electrician. Other fathers would say "yes" or "no" when asked a question. Mine would say "perhaps." That word, and many others that tumbled from his mouth, sent me to the dictionary many times. I ended up majoring in English, figuring it would be easy and I wouldn't have to study. I learned nothing new in English in high school, thanks to an eighth-grade nun who made me diagram 30 sentences a night to calm me down. Didn't work, but she taught me everything about grammar except the difference between a colon and a semi-colon. Of course, I discovered that English was not an easy major once I spent summer school translating Beowulf in Old English and Chaucer in Middle English. I took a master's degree and discovered too late that I was a terrible teacher. So I went on to edit one thing or another for a living because writing and editing are what I can do. No complaints. I can still spell ukulele.
How did you come to be a professional poet?
I never really thought of myself as a professional poet. I started writing when writers were on typewriters and used carbon paper. I'd spend the weekend writing and stuffing envelopes. On Monday morning, on the way to work, I'd sometimes mail 14 envelopes to print publications. It would take months to hear back from them. Maybe one out of 14 would get accepted. Then I'd revise until I could revise no more.
Do you have favorite poets or poems?
When I began writing in 1968, I appeared in a few print journals published in Ireland, as well as others published in the U.S. I thought my stuff looked okay next to the "competition." Then suddenly, out of nowhere, I started to see poems by someone named Seamus Heaney, also a literary stripling at that time. I knew immediately that he was the best among all of us in those publications. He kept writing and won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Five kids and tough jobs made me quit poetry for roughly 35 years, only to return in 2008 to enjoy a nice reception from editors here and abroad. But even if I had kept writing for all of those 35 years, I was no Seamus Heaney.
What's the most interesting "poetry pilgrimage" you've ever made?
Sadly, the longest poetic pilgrimage I have made was probably to the book store or library; I travel only in my mind. Relocating to solid St. Louis after a vibrant life in Chicago was jolting enough. Physically I am In St. Louis. But mentally, emotionally and psychologically, I will always be in Chicago. There is something about the brilliance of that city that can only be understood by seeing the sun on Lake Michigan at dawn.
In the great scheme of things, where does poetry fit in?
For me, poetry is what I do. I write for myself and not for others so, if someone else likes something I write, that is a bonus.
Describe your writing routine and/or process.
Seven days a week, barring some interruption, I put in shifts of roughly 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 pm to 4 p.m. I sometimes put in another hour at 6 p.m. on weekdays.
What's the most absurd thing you've ever written a poem about?
The most absurd thing I've ever written is a poem called "Let Any Agnostic Provide a Reply," a copy of which is posted at the end of this interview. Read it at your own peril. It was written years ago to rid my mind, temporarily at least, of words therein colliding and making too much noise. The title and subtitle came after the poem was written because I had to call it something. Although my life has been anything but predictable, I have always believed in God, something not too stylish, perhaps, these days. But I've always believed, possibly because I listened in class during 19 consecutive years in Roman Catholic schools. During these years of scholastic pursuit, I was never once tempted to be a priest, quite probably because I noticed the difference between males and females in 4th grade. That perception alone has caused considerable consternation in my life. But studying Thomas Aquinas in required philosophy classes probably did away with any doubts that I never had anyway about the existence of God. What I don't understand is why I believe and my best friend from grammar school is an agnostic. We exchange emails frequently, which is a nice departure from revising poems. I've learned from "reasoning" with him that if you don't believe, not all of the arguments of Aquinas will instill faith. I am walking proof that faith is a gift not earned and not withheld from ancient scamps.
When/where are you most inspired?
I don't know that I can claim to be "inspired." A phrase will come into my mind, or a word, and I will think that it might sound good in a poem. Sound is everything to me. Meaning be damned. Give me the sound, Lord, and later I'll revise till it means something. When I was a young man I had pockets full of restaurant napkins with words and phrases that I would later confine to a poem, if possible. When I start a poem I never know where it is going. I simply follow the vapor created by the phrase or word that got me there in the first place.
Which classic poet would you most like to meet, and why?
Sadly, there is probably no classic poet that I would like to meet. Taking a couple of degrees in English in a Jesuit university back when English was a tough and respected major had me reading all the classic poets. Then one day between classes I read a little poem by William Carlos Williams in the Nation Magazine, circa 1960. And I said to myself, Milton and Spencer may be great but I understand the urban music of William Carlos Williams (and Wallace Stevens). Then I read 8 books by Gwendolyn Brooks, the African American poet who would be all the rage were she writing today. My taste is contemporary but I have no doubt that the classic poets influenced me through college courses. But if I hadn't quit drinking more than 40 years ago, i'd be happy to be stuck on an elevator for hours with four quarts of cold Old Style beer and the collected poems of Dylan Thomas. Today I'd be happy with iced Earl Grey tea.
Is there some consistent trademark or characteristic that you've discovered in your poetry?
I'm not certain that I always show in my own work my preference for strong verbs and few adjectives and very few adverbs but I would admire a style like that--see Seamus Heaney and William Carlos Williams.
Anything else you'd like to share--advice, anecdotes, forthcoming adventure, etc?
I can't think of anything else to add except to say that decades ago when I started writing there was no such thing as the "prose poem." When I returned to writing in 2008, I found prose poems for the first time. I don't understand the form and am not attracted to it. I don't read prose poems so I don't know what I am talking about but many poets talk about things they know nothing about. However, I do think that much of what passes for regular poetry today is not much more than prose in broken lines. I want to hear in a poem the care the writer has put into revisions of the piece before it was cast before the public. I want to hear a "sound" I cannot hear in prose. Words colliding in the right way are music for me. Better than Beethoven--and I don't have to roll over.
One final thing is that I noticed when I returned to poetry in 2008 that sex had become subject matter in a way that it not been decades earlier. I am no prude, nor am I prissy. In fact, for me, writing about sex would be very easy. However, writing about sex with the grace poetry requires would be difficult indeed, at least for me. As I said earlier, "sound" is paramount for me in poetry. But the sound of sex, glorious in private with the right person, strikes me as vacuous when portrayed in print. Perhaps Emily Dickinson's oft-quoted line applies--"how public, like a frog."
Let Any Agnostic Provide a Reply
After reading too much Aquinas
Would an aphid reside in an onager’s ear
if the onager’s master spoke Twi?
Or a Gascony scop with a leper elope
if a civet leapt out of a tree?
You doubt it? Read Thomas and see.
Would an addax in Denmark gyrate
if an emu in Sweden bore freight?
Or an eland in Chile complain
if jerboas in Goa refrain?
You doubt it? Read Thomas and see.
For really I thought ‘twas the onager taught
the aphid the tenor of Twi, and that
Gascony scops with Norwegians eloped
when Danes had lepers to tea.
You doubt it? Read Thomas and see.
Many thanks to Donal for his time and reflection on these questions. You can read Donal's featured poems on Your Daily Poem here, here, here, and here.