INTERVIEW WITH DONAL MAHONEY
BIO: Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as an editor for The Chicago Sun-Times, Loyola University Press and Washington University in St. Louis. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, Guwahatian Magazine (India), The Galway Review (Ireland), Public Republic (Bulgaria), The Osprey Review (Wales), The Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey) and other magazines. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.OSYzpgmQ.dpbs
(Photo: Carol Bales)
Welcome to Scarlet Leaf Review!
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I was born to Irish immigrant parents in Chicago many years ago. My mother had been raised with eight other siblings on an English landlord’s farm in a house with no heat, only a fireplace. Her family planted and harvested cabbage, rutabaga and potatoes for the Englishman. She left because of poverty and no future,
My father, reared on a dairy farm in Ireland, was expelled from the country by his English captors for running guns for the Irish Republican Army shortly after the Rebellion of 1916. He had been imprisoned for a couple of years. He was a teenager when caught and in his twenties when put on a boat for America.
My father came here as a grave-digger, boxer and singer in Irish nightclubs till he caught on with the Edison Company in Chicago and learned his trade, He did not live long enough to see his grandson, my son, win a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England. He would not have been happy having a grandson of his studying in detested England.
My mother may have had a fourth grade education and my father a sixth grade education but he was able to help me with algebra in high school. A sober Irishman, he saved enough money to send me to college when there were no loans. He was not happy to see me major in English, not go to law school, and then go on for a master’s in English.
In a house like that I grew up not too fond of the English. And now many decades later I cannot say that I am any fonder of them although I thank them for their contribution to literature in the English language.
Q: Do you think that your school years have had an impact in your writing career? If so, what were you like at school?
I was a nitwit in grammar school, always involved in mischief, not much good in math but I could spell and write. I had nuns, God bless them, who took the sons of immigrants and educated them in spite of themselves. They never penalized my academic grades because of the commotion I caused in the classroom.
I remember my father telling me once that I was lucky that he and my mother came to America speaking English, albeit with a thick brogue. The other kids in my classes often came from other European countries and spoke Polish, Lithuanian, German and other languages at home so for them English was almost a second language. For me, English was the only language I knew, fraught as it was with hyperbole and often still is
Q: Were you good at English or like Einstein you excel now in a field that was a nightmare for you as a student?
I was always good in English but had to study in math and science, neither of which did I care for. But if I studied, I did fairly well.
Q: What are your future ambitions for your writing career?
I can’t say that I have any future ambitions as a writer, only to write up until the day that I die. I quit writing for 35 years or so because of jobs as a print editor that took most of my energy. My five kids always got hungry. And I wanted them to go to school as I had gone to school. They did and now have families of their own.
In the Sixties, when the jobs were easy, I had about 100 poems or so published in what were called “little magazines” as well as university magazines and at least one commercial magazine. Then I got my first job as the editor of a small national magazine. I was the staff, no one else. So I quit writing my own stuff and got the magazine out every month.
I returned to writing in 2008 following retirement when my wife bought me a computer as a gift and showed me where cardboard boxes of poems and drafts of poems had been gathering dust in the basement. In addition to poems, I began writing fiction and nonfiction as well. At last count, I have had the good fortune to appear, counting reprints, more than 6,000 times in print and online with poems, stories and essays. But all I do now is write all day.
Q: Which poets have inspired you and how? What was their impact on your work or your literary perspective?
When I was young, T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens impressed me greatly. As an adult it was the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, who grabbed my attention because his diction mirrored the diction of the Irish immigrants with whom I was raised.
Q: So, would you mind telling us what you have written so far?
Although I have the quantity and some say the quality to have produced books of poems and maybe a book of short stories, I have not tried to put a book together because I like writing but not editing and compiling a book would remind me too much of work that I did for so many years. I also lack the patience to try to sell the book to a publisher and the idea of going to a vanity press does not appeal to me personally.
Q: What are you working on at the minute? What’s it about?
I write up to nine hours a day in perhaps three hour shifts on poems, stories and essays. I might have as many as four poems in work at once and send each out only when I give up on making them any better. If I’m working on a story or essay I try to stick with it because that seems to occupy some other part of my brain. I “hear” poems. Prose I have to write.
Q: When did you decide to become a poet? What was the decisive factor or you just took a pen and starting writing poems?
I never decided to become a poet. My father spoke a musical English and that affected me, I’m certain. Perhaps the first “verse” I ever wrote was in third grade simply because I liked the sound of it.
Q: What makes you write? What’s the force behind taking your pen (or your keyboard) and put verses down?
I have no idea what makes me write except that it is one of three obsessions I have had in life. The other two might have gotten me arrested, if caught, or made me sick had I not managed to quit both of them.
Q: Do you write full-time or part-time? Do you have a special time to write or do you write every day, 5 days a week or as and when?
Because I am retired I write 7 days a week usually in three three-hour shifts a day unless doctor appointments or something else tears me away from the computer.
Q: Where do your ideas come from? Or is it just the spur of the moment, a special feeling you experience or a specific conjuncture that offers you inspiration?
I have no idea where my ideas come from except to say that a phrase that sounds good will pop into my mind. For example, the other day I remembered how when I was small my father, when he was upset, would go around the house chanting “the bog above Bob Gordon’s bog,” which I always assumed was something from his childhood in Ireland. I never found out what it meant but I finally tried to get it out of my mind by using it in a poem that I had no idea at the start what it might be about. It turned out to be a ditty. I write ditties to get rid of phrases that won’t go away but sometimes good poems start the same way. I never know where a poem is going until it is written. This link will take you to the ditty that resulted:
Q: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I have no idea except that I always loved words, the sound of them bumping into each other, as the immigrant Irish spoke them in Chicago. They were the only discipline that I was attracted to because until graduate school I really did not have to work too hard and that was fine with me because I loved basketball and general mischief and commotion.
Q: In your opinion, what is the hardest thing about writing?
Not knowing when a poem is “done,” But even when a poem is done, it really isn’t because as some famous poet once said, “A poem is never done. It is simply abandoned.”
For me the main problem is running on. Not quitting when I should. Not editing myself the way I edited others to make a living. Although I quit drinking on 11-23-61, verbally I am always drunk.
Q: Now, what about the easiest thing about writing?
The computer that replaced the typewriter that I was weaned on. The delete key beats an eraser.
Q: Do you ever get writer’s Block and if so do you have any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block?
I have never had Writer’s Block. I suffer from dysentery of the mind.
Q: Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors? For your own reading, do you prefer eBooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
I read many books in grammar school, high school, college and graduate school. In grammar school, I would go to the library and bring home bags of books. I then read for pleasure. Majoring in English made me read because I had to. I now read periodicals in print and sites online. No books in a long time. But the book that changed my life in 1958 was J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” It probably cost me a law degree because I was headed to law school till I read that book.
Q: What book/s are you reading at present?
No books but a ton of magazines.
Q: Do you proofread/edit all your own books or do you get someone to do that for you?
I have dry macular degeneration, which is why I type in bold so as to catch as many typos as I can. My wife proofs everything for me now. Her comments on my poems are also helpful because she is a journalist and reporter by trade and approaches poetry from a different angle.
Q: Do you let the book stew – leave it for a month and then come back to it to edit?
If I can manage to do so, I leave a poem draft marinate overnight after revising it probably 10 or 12 times during the original writing. The older I get the less I like to let anything hang around. I like to say enough. And that is not a wise thing to do.
Prose is different because I write prose. I hear poems and type them out if that makes any sense.
Q: Who edited your last book and how did you select him/her?
The only “editor” I have is my wife who comments on poems, stories and essays while proofing them.
Q: Do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process?
Absolutely but often for the wrong reasons.
Q: What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing against being published or the other way around?
I would only self-publish if I wanted to leave hard copies of my stuff for my kids. But that would involve a lot of work that does not interest me.
Q: How do you market your books, if you do the marketing yourself?
I have never thought about my writing as a way to make money so many but not all of the following questions are not for me to answer although I understand their importance.
Q: Would you or do you use a PR agency?
If I were a commercial writer, I certainly would.
Q: Why do you think that other well written books just don’t sell?
I fear books, magazines, newspapers and most print material are in a terminal state and will reside only in libraries.
Q: How do you relax?
I seldom relax and when I do I’m likely asleep
Q: What is your favorite book and why?
Q: What is your favorite quote?
“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Q: Where can you see yourself in 5 years-time?
Still alive, I hope, and writing
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be so full of yourself.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
I think one of the most important aspects of my life that I have failed to discuss is attending Roman Catholic schools for 19 consecutive years without ever thinking about being a priest. I then did not practice Catholicism for 40 years, only to return to the Church eight years ago. One either has faith or does not. I have always believed even when I was not practicing my faith. Believing for me is like breathing and writing, They come naturally and I thank God for them.
Q: How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.
To bring joy to readers everywhere.