Interview with Last years Dermot Healy Award Winner ‘Donna O’Shaughnesy’


Tell us a bit about yourself Donna.  I am a retired nurse but not a retired person. My years in hospice care influenced me deeply but in order to write about it fully, honestly, I had to leave it. Now I live on a small homestead with my husband in Central Illinois where a large part of my day is  sweaty, dirty, and mundanely peaceful.

You speak of your poems ‘feeling jealous’ if you write in other genres. How personal is your work to you, where does the creativity come from and how do you know when it is fullyDonna OShaughnessy winning poet 2016 formed? At age 58, with four children and four grandchildren, life is one huge  hodge-podge of experiences. It’s all “personal”, so much so that I have to reign myself in at times as my skin grows thicker and my filter on life gets thinner. I tend to write exactly what I am thinking at that moment, which can be rudely entertaining but not always useful as a poem.  I feel most creative when left alone, I thrive on solitude, but creating in a vacuum can be dangerous, limiting, and in my case leads to only half-formed ideas. Thus, I need my family, and friends to keep me solid, to make my work real and less self-centered.  It’s the irony of my life.

You describe reading poetry while milking cows, can you explain how your environment effects your work. There is a specific language of a farm, a rhythm of animal husbandry that is unknown by those who don’t live the life. The feeding, the watering, the birthing. But if you don’t slow down, if you don’t shut up, you can’t experience it.

Since graduating from the University of Illinois two years ago you have now become a full time poet. Can you explain how this course and its tutors helped your writing. I first attended the U of I at age 17, and flunked out. Too many parties! When I returned four decades later I was ready to learn the craft I had not yet given myself permission to explore. My professors were so ready to teach me. They offered me valuable extra office time and I took it. They suggested additional books to read and I consumed them. They challenged me and pushed me and I had the time of my life. In the summer of 2015 I participated in a study abroad experience at NUIG Galway and those instructors opened my eyes to even more great writers and  poets. I am forever grateful.

Do you write every day? Do you see it as a task? How do you approach your practice? Yes. Every day. Sometimes I only get one word in my notebook, but I try to make it a good one. It’s never a task, in fact it’s all I want to do but I have to earn it, the pleasure of it, so I’ll think stupid things like,  as soon as I finish feeding the pigs, I’m going to start that poem about Aunt Bernie.

What was the poem/line/verse that made you realise you were a poet too, who wrote it, when did you first encounter it and what did that feel like? Brigit Pegeen Kelly, sadly now deceased, was one of my professors at the U of I. During class one day she said, “There should not be anything not in poetry.” That was a defining moment for me. To know that anything, any experience, any relationship, could and should be part of a poem. Her poem “Song” has the most beautiful imagery, and I find it impossible not to weep each time I read it.

How important are awards/competitions to the poet? We say, they are not important, that Trophy Dermot Healythe work must speak for itself, but still, who isn’t thrilled to be recognized for their work? I know I am, but I also know that the 123 rejections one receives AFTER winning a contest or award, are just as valuable. They humble us, center us, pull our heads out of the clouds and make us recognize the value of solid earth again.

Can you recommend five literary journals you have submitted or would like to be published in. I am a big fan of MOTH as well as CRANNOG.  On this side of the murky pond I love to read The Spoon River Review, The Chattahoochee Review and  Bellevue Literary Review.

What modern poets do you admire and can you recommend a volume they have published. I’ve already mentioned Brigit Pegeen Kelly but I also deeply appreciated The Juno Charm by Nuala Ni Chonchu’ir  (O’Connor), Selected Poems of Sean O Riordain edited by Frank Sewell, The Mad Farmer Poems by Wendell Berry, and The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield.

Do you have a trusted critic/critics that you test your work on before publication? No. I do not. It is a gaping hole in my writing life. I am still building relationships with other poets, mostly through social media, and over time I’m certain that network will evolve. I plan on attending a few writing conferences this year and in 2018 I will return to school for my MA in writing.  It took me over 25 years to build a strong network of support in my nursing career, I expect it will take the same due diligence and hard work to create those relationships in this new career of mine as well.

Read the 2016 Dermot Healy Poetry Award winning poem below


While the Coroner Waits

I thread my fingers through your thick hair

still jealous that it never thinned, I settle

my index finger within the soft indentation

behind your too small, too low ear.


Regretfully, I move vertically along your flat,

silent, jugular until my finger catches

on your clavicle, once broken when you fell off

the hay wagon onto February’s resistant surface.


Pulling my hand up and over your shoulder

sharp as a metal plane jutting into the sky,

I recall the arm that held off an erect bull gunning

across the pasture for our youngest son.


Where was I?


Yes, your shoulder, just above a rib cage often

held against me, frame against the thunders

that besieged us, my digits wave in and out,

in and out, in and out of those narrow bones.


I spread my hand wide, snaking it downwards,

my life lines criss cross as I nestle my palm in

that concave hollow sheltered between

your belly and the top of your thigh.


I’m back to your hip and over its crest

to find the leg and the knee and the ankle

which together carried weak calves out of

flooded fields and into shelter.


The same limbs which transported boxy bee

hives with supers, smokers, and new frames

to buckwheat pastures, a trail of disgruntled

workers, humming at your heels.


An interferring head pokes its agenda

into our room. Mother? Are you ready?

No. Not yet.

I begin again, in the soft indentation

behind your too small, too low ear.




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