Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan ‘How did you come to write?’

It’s a question any writer is asked – how did you come to write in the first place?

Truthfully, in my case I don’t know the answer; if anything, I simply fell into it. Growing up, I never distinguished between my thoughts and taking the formal step of writing them down – writing was simply the process of giving shape and tangible form to what ran through my head, and I felt no rush to do so.

And yet I did. It helped growing up with parents who themselves wrote and believed in the power of the written word. My father, who had started work at fifteen, held up the value of literature, and poetry in particular, as a cherished thing in which he’d never had the opportunity to immerse himself; my mother was similarly passionate, and used to write and illustrate stories for me when I was a child, and published her first full novel, a thriller, when I was still in school. The activity of writing and storytelling was therefore modelled for me from the start, and it was particularly visible in the pre-computer age – with pens, paper and portable typewriter often spread out on the kitchen table. The process of writing was literally all around me. We learn through imitation, and I was no exception:

And my friends and I mimicked them
With our own childish fabrications
Hammered out on summer afternoons.

I wonder sometimes if I would have had the same love of reading and writing had I grown up in different circumstances. I like to think so, but can only speculate.

As my family lived in Italy, I was also brought up with a very conscious attitude towards the English language, and made aware early of how words are used and translated and, sometimes – fascinatingly – are untranslatable. If there was no word in English for something that existed in Italian, I used to wonder if the concept itself also didn’t exist in English-speaking countries. I learned quickly that language is always more than what it purports to be at a literal level; it is deeply symbolic, and a window into a culture and an era. The process of translation still entrances me – and it’s wonderful to see Clara’s new section on poetry in translation in The Blue Nib. It was growing up with two languages that made me feel that:

Words should be held like little gems
Precious-like, in the soft cup of a child’s hand
And picked out tenderly, one by one
So we can slip into the lining of situations
And see them from the inside.

Still, I didn’t really start writing until my early twenties, when I was living and working in the UK where I had a job which ground me down and no family in the country. I also found myself drawn to poetry, in particular its succinctness, and its unique ability to both sum up and suggest. It is the opposite of garrulous, and made me even more aware of the loaded nature of each word. I read many novels, but it was the poetry that stayed with me, in particular the twin influences of Dante Alighieri (obligatory at school, though I remember only studying Hell) and Seamus Heaney (at my father’s urging).

Yet I didn’t write as therapy either; I was dimly aware that if all were rosy, what would there be to write about? Conflict and tension both interested me and repulsed me: great literature had taught me that it is through challenge and choice that we define ourselves. This remained one of the inspirations behind writing when I moved to Australia – the endless invitation to use words to evoke an experience which is, in essence, often non-verbal, and see:

The shape of your sentences
Rise above their own meaning
Opening you up to the music
Behind what’s said…

Poetry as a genre is as rich as it is old, and I love every aspect of it – its thoughts and concepts, its structure and form, what it looks like on the page, what it sounds like, the craft of it, and the images – especially the images. For me, a whole poem can hinge on an image, which can also be the call to write. The moment when you realise that an image has awoken you to something new is incomparably exciting, and it can happen at the most unexpected times. A month in Boston, for instance, dividing time between the state-of-the-art Boston Children’s Hospital and walking across Boston Common to the ‘T’ where the homeless rugged themselves up every night brought up this image which made me realise the depth of my shock at this state of affairs in the world’s biggest economy – and with it a certain shame associated with being in the privileged position of observer:

These lumped, slumped figures
Alternative versions of our darker selves
Subdued at last, lie down
Blanketed, beanied and scarved
Arms crossed over, heads bowed
Wrapped in plastic like giant plasters
Suturing the city’s most intimate wounds.

Despite the obvious injustices of the world we live in, my poetry remains reflective rather than directive. That said, if we observe more closely, listen more deeply, we may not judge so quickly. If just one person pauses and sees a situation differently after reading a poem, that’s important. If enough people see situations differently – including homelessness – this helps challenge the status quo and feed a demand for change. The role of art has never been just to confirm or embellish a moral framework but also, when necessary, to question and disturb.

I never plan to write, and don’t have a regular, structured approach; instead, I fit it around work, and write when I feel moved to do so, usually late at night. There is a stillness and intensity to the midnight hour which I find irresistible. Some poems ‘arrive’ in near entirety, like little gifts, and others are born line by painstaking line, but either way I spend time paring them back and polishing them until each one feels and sounds right. It’s hard to let go of years of editing, and writing is a craft as well as an art. Yet the poetic process deflects any attempt to define it or put a neat label on it; it remains mysterious, and that pleases me too.


All of the quotations in this article are taken from Denise’s debut poetry collection, ‘The Beating Heart’.

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