Interview with Donna Sørensen
Hello Donna and welcome to writing.ie. I’ve been reading and enjoying your collection, Dream Country, on the train to work. Thanks for agreeing to the interview. First how did you first get into poetry?
I’ve been reading and writing poetry since I was a young teenager, back when I thought I had the ‘black dog‘ that Winston Churchill suffered from! Ah, the drama of being a teenage girl. I wrote on and off for years after that but other things got in the way, like getting my pilot’s licence and travelling the world, so I never focused on it. My mum is a children’s author and I dabbled in writing children’s texts alongside teaching for a while but it was only really when I was working at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin and I started taking part in poetry workshops, that I fell headlong into the poetry world and haven’t really come up for air since. I knew straight away it was the medium I’d been looking for, as all I wanted to do whenever I had a spare moment was write poetry. So I’d say I’ve been really working on developing the craft and getting poetry ready for publication since 2009. Being in Dublin helped; there’s such a vibrant network for writers, you can experience and understand exactly how it all works – the editing, the sending out, the different journals being published, the importance of doing readings etc… I really miss it!
Would you recommend poetry workshops or writers groups for people who are just starting out writing? What about for people who have been writing for a while?
Defo for people just starting out. I found it most useful for me to start right at the start in workshops lead by experienced poets who could pass on something of the craft of poetry as well as their artistic insight and then writing groups as I got more confidence and material. Iain Broome and I were just talking about whether we think writing groups are useful now actually in our podcast, Write for Your Life . I think once you’re further down the line, it’s vital to keep in touch with other writers and to get constructive feedback, but you’ve got to be in the right group where you respect them as writers and value what they are saying.
You mention having had something of the craft of poetry passed on to you. Do you have any examples you could share?
Caitriona O’Reilly was a fabulous person to workshop with. She’s got such a wealth of knowledge about poetry and is a really quiet and assertive intellectual force. I felt she was great at passing on something of what she’d learned along the way. I did a course with her called The Shape of the Poem and we only wrote formal poetry, experimenting with different forms each week. I really liked where it took me, as I don’t use formal structures very often when let loose on my own. I wrote sestinas, triolets, villanelles and pantoums and liked being forced into patterns with my writing; liked creating something based on a big wild idea but reined into a constrained space.
And Paula Meehan really helped me with editing. Before I worked on poems with her, I accepted poems and lines and even words that I should have scrutinised more. She talked a lot about putting words under pressure and I’ve carried that through with me. Is this really the best word for this space? Have you mixed your metaphors? Have you laboured the point, spelled things out too much? Questions I try to ask myself now when I am finished with a first draft of a poem.
Those are some good questions to ask of a new poem. Are there any others spring to mind?
I am not sure whether all people writing poetry feel this, but I am constantly wondering what other shapes a poem could take. I feel sometimes it’s like one of those books I used to read as a kid where you had to make decisions and those decisions would determine which page you turned to next and therefore the next adventure in the story. So many different ways to take a poem or a line, sometimes seemingly endless possibilities, it can seem like a big responsibility to finish something at a certain place, to mould a poem into definite stanzas. I guess that’s part of the mystery of any creative pursuit! Some of my poems finished in the form they started and quickly too. Others seemed to take ages and much pulling them apart and putting them back together before I found how I wanted them to be on the page.
Are some of the poems in your collection started from the workshops?
Yes, the first poem in the collection, Mirrored Belly of the Sea, was written when I was under the tutelage of Paula Meehan. It’s the first poem I had accepted for publication too. I think that’s the only poem actually I’d written for a workshop that was in the collection. It was accepted by the Stinging Fly and didn’t come out until a year later (back when they were doing once a year submissions) and in the meantime I’d had a few more accepted and published. But this one still felt like the first one.
About 16 or so have been published from the collection I think. It’s actually exciting, starting to send out stuff for consideration by journals that’s not in the collection! Haven’t written masses by anyone’s standards, what with having a baby and day job again now, but I am getting round to it every so often. It’s a big thing, preparing submissions. I don’t think I realised it right at the start, but keeping track of what’s where and who’s said no to things before and what particular journals are looking for. You’ve got to keep trying though eh!
Are any of your formal poems in your collection?
I decided not to use my formal poems, mainly because their subject matter was quite separate from that of the collection; I felt there’d be a strong discord. I sometimes feel, too, that poems with more formal structure seem more certain and sure, I guess because of the repetition, the recitation; like mantras. I know this is not true of all of them, but it’s just something I associate with that style. My collection evokes more of a feeling of uncertainty, of transformation, of moving through unknown spaces.
How did the publication come about? Had you been sending it around?
I was really lucky, actually. The Stinging Fly had me as their Featured Poet in the Spring 2012 issue and New Island Books read my poems there, liked them and asked to see my manuscript. I’d written in my bio about getting a commendation from the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award for my ‘unpublished collection’, which turned out to be a good thing to put in there! I worked a lot on the manuscript in the time between submitting for the award in 2011 and publication, but the main skeleton of it is the same.
And actually, it’s something I’ve always wondered about poets – do they always know when a collection is finished? I have since written poems which I’ve thought “Oh! That would’ve worked really well in the collection!” but I guess that’s just part of creating something… You could get yourself into an endless cycle of tinkering on things if you didn’t have a deadline to work towards.
I read your interview with Billy Ramsell and really enjoyed it, especially the part about poetry rewarding reading in areas not traditionally associated with poetry:
‘The richer such a storehouse becomes, the less the poet has to draw from the accidents of his or her biography.’
I can totally relate to this and quite a few of my poems in Dream Country were sparked by really random stories and bits of information I picked up. ‘This is London’ for example, was inspired by an urban myth I heard that after the war, there were so many books streaming into antiquarian booksellers in London, from the victims across the continent, that they didn’t know what to do with them. So they used them to fill in the city’s bomb craters. I am not sure it’s true but that doesn’t matter so much. The image it created was so powerful to me.
Another random poem – ‘We Are Far From Home‘, relates to me and the confusion I have about having ended up in big cities, when I am happiest out in the middle of nothing – but it was sparked by a National Geographic piece I read about Nile Crocodiles they’d found living in tiny holes, burrow and caves deep under the Sahara Desert and thousands of miles away from proper water sources. Completely random I know!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
My advice for aspiring writers would be – take advantage of the writing and performing going on around you. Get out to readings, festivals, spoken words, read journals, enjoy being part of something bigger, because it fuels and inspires you and right now, I feel very, very far away from all that. Coming back to Denmark has been amazing for my life – I’ve got everything a person could need to flourish, but I don’t have the creative buzz around me that I felt in Dublin and in parts of the UK. I wish I could pop along to poetry readings after work, or drop in to open mic nights, but those are few and far between in Denmark and what with the collection out now, a 1-year-old, a weekly writing podcast and full-time job, I don’t feel I have the space to start a night up on my own yet. Maybe I will at some point. I’ve met some great writers here, but it’s just not the same!
These things have also meant that I am not writing as much as I want to. I am scribbling lines here and there and feeling annoyed with them. I’ve done more abandoning now than I ever have before. I wonder if it’s also the pressure of having had a collection published and feeling like I have to be more serious or more perfect. Whatever the excuse (and you can see I have many!) I am only writing the odd bit of poetry here and there. I am hoping to come over to Ireland to do a reading in the spring and would love to enjoy Dream Country a bit more – take some time to read from it and show it to people. I feel like it’s been cast out into a sea of books and people and I need to haul it in and wave it around from the deck to passing ships.
Is there any English language literary scene where you are?
I’m in Copenhagen and there is virtually no literary scene here in English. There’s a writers’ group I’ve tried out and a few writers scattered about, but no regular nights. There are a couple of literary festivals, but really, you do feel completely adrift here! I’m just spending any writing time I’ve got glued to the computer, Twitter in particular, to keep abreast of things and read good stuff. Anyway, can’t complain as it’s a great place to live! Just feel like I had to sacrifice something big creatively in order to move back here. I also use Danish all day every day at work and I feel very contained and not myself – operating in a second language is a really interesting exercise and you get to know a lot about yourself, but mostly I just sit there thinking that people around me are not getting the full me and feeling a little sad about that. When I write, I am reconnecting with my Englishness and my full person.
Thanks very much Donna and good luck with your writing.
Donna Sørensen is a young poet, originally from the UK. Her début collection, Dream Country, is published by New Island Books in Ireland where Sørensen lived and worked, in the literary sector, for three years. Sørensen’s poetry has been published extensively in Ireland, and in the UK, including literary journals such as The Stinging Fly, Poetry Ireland Review, THE SHOp, Southword, Crannóg, Orbis, Revival, Cyphers and Bare Hands. While in Ireland, she was a board member of the Irish Writers’ Centre, where she had previously worked as a volunteer coordinator.
Donna Sørensen was selected to read at the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series in 2011 and the Cork Spring Poetry Festival in 2012. An early version of this collection received a commendation in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award 2011. She now lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, and works as English-language Content Manager for VisitDenmark. She is also the co-host of the popular weekly podcast for writers, Write for Your Life (http://www.70decibels.com/writeforyourlife/).
Dream Country is available to buy in bookshops and on New Island Books (http://www.newisland.ie/books/bestsellers/dream-country/978-1-84840-250-8).
KATE DEMPSEY runs writing.ie's Poetic License blog and is our poetry guru. She is a writer and a blogger living in Maynooth. She writes fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry and is widely published in Ireland and abroad, in magazines, anthologies and on the radio. She fits this around her family and a full time job, writing on the sofa, on the train and in that little coffeeshop on the corner.
Poetry can be a solitary activity and she appreciates the support she received from the online community, particularly when starting out. She is excited about continuing the dialogue with her blog here.