A native of Baysville, in Ontario’s Muskoka region, John Donlan is a poetry editor with Brick Books. He spends half the year as a reference librarian at the Vancouver Public Library, and the other half writing poetry near Godfrey, Ontario. His collections of poetry are Domestic Economy (Brick Books, 1990, reprinted 1997),Baysville (House of Anansi Press, 1993) and Green Man (Ronsdale Press, 1999). His fourth collection, Spirit Engine, was published by Brick Books in March 2008. He is also the author of A Guide to Research @ Your Library (Ontario Library Association/Vancouver Public Library, 2002).
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I first became interested in poetry as a young boy, when my mother was reading to me from a Victorian children’s novel by George MacDonald, “At the Back of the North Wind.” The hero, a boy named Diamond, makes up a little verse and recites it to himself as he falls asleep. The look of those short lines (a two-beats-per-line verse) on the page fascinated me: it was probably the first poetry I ever saw.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Today I find inspiration for my work outdoors in the woods. I work half the year as a reference librarian at Vancouver Public Library, and the other half, from May through October, I live on 200 acres of forest, ponds and lakeshore on the Canadian Shield, in the rocky country north of Kingston, Ontario.
What is your writing process?
My writing process is to walk to a favourite beaver pond, and sit on the shoreline with my manuscript. If I am beginning a new poem, I wait until I have become as fully aware as possible: of the natural world around me, the thoughts and feelings and memories that are most prominent in my mind, my bodily sensations, what my senses are telling me. This can take an hour or more. Then, if I’m lucky, images and phrases will occur to me, sometimes even a sort of idea, half-formed. I start to write the first line of the poem.
What is your revision/editing process?
I revise and edit constantly as I write. The first line, like all the succeeding lines, must have something special in it, something to make it interesting, original, unusual, but pleasing. I pay special attention to the rhythm, usually using four or five beats per line, the traditional form of poetry in English. The rhythm is so important to my work that often I will know, from the first line’s rhythm, what the rhythm of the second line has to be, even before I know what words I will use. I progress from line to line, revising and completing one line before I go on to the next. If I am not sure what word to use, I will write down several alternatives so I can see how they look, then choose one.
As the page fills up, it eventually becomes so difficult to read around the scratched-out words, phrases, or lines, that I copy it out again on a new page and continue. Most of my poems take eight or ten pages of this revision before I’m satisfied with them, and the poem is finished. A really good poet like Mary Oliver can make twenty pages of revisions for one short poem.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
In high school I was more interested in prose, and I wrote short stories. It wasn’t until I finished high school that I started writing poetry.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
You will find Mary Oliver’s book “A Poetry Handbook” a very useful, practical guide to reading and understanding poetry. I also recommend Kenneth Koch’s “Making Your Own Days.” I’m a lyric poet (the sound of the poem is at least as important as the sense) so I read and reread Palgrave’s “Golden Treasury.” “The Rattle Bag,” edited by the poets Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, and “The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry” and its more recent edition, “The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry” are excellent selections of modern poems.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
Don’t be afraid to revise. When you start, you’re so pleased and proud to have written a poem, you can’t bear to change a word. But keep at it: your work will get better as you practice.
Find poets you admire, and try to imitate their work.
As you write, read your work aloud or in your head. The sound is very important.
Share your work. Poetry is an art, and art is for the enjoyment of everyone.