Denise O’Hagan

Fevers of the Mind speaks with Denise O’Hagan

A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Denise O’Hagan

Q1: When did you start writing and who influenced you the most? 

Denise: It was probably seeing my parents writing that got me started. When I was still at school, I remember my mother typing at the kitchen table, paper everywhere – she’d started writing seriously by then, also composing and illustrating stories for me. I felt that story-telling was a natural expression of life rather than something we consciously set out to try and do, and my friends and I would often get together and write our own stories. On a practical note, I grew up in a small apartment in a busy city so learned quickly to make a world from what was at hand!

Two writers had a particularly strong early influence on me: Dante, whose wildly expansive symbolic imagination is so beautifully compressed into terza rima in the Divina Commedia that it still takes my breath away; and Seamus Heaney, whose Selected Poems remains one of my all-time favourite collections. Now I read widely, and find myself returning to those whose writings chime with something within me: David Malouf, Antigone Kefala and Eavan Boland, for example. If I meet a poem that resonates with me by someone whose work I don’t know, I’ll search out more by that poet. In this way, I picked up a book by Tomas Tranströmer the other day, and now am deep in his work.

Q2: Was there any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer? 

Denise: To be honest, it never occurred to me to be a full-time writer: I was under no illusion how hard it was (and still is) to make a living from writing. I had the example under my nose of my mother whose thriller, A Roman Death (Macmillan 1988) sold well along with being translated – but she couldn’t have made a sufficient income to live from her novels. The closest I could imagine to being a writer was becoming an editor, which is what I trained to do. Later on, I squeezed a little writing in around my editorial jobs, but it was when my husband suggested I ‘do what I most enjoyed and see where it took me’ that was a pivotal moment in my making the decision to carve out time to write.

In some ways, I regret my ‘lost years’ in commercial publishing, though they provided a professional, if at times brutal, grounding in manuscript editing and book production. Yet I also believe that as we journey through our lives we build up a reservoir of experience that we can tap into at any stage. Nothing is ever wasted, even when it may feel that way.

Q3: Who has helped you most with writing and career? 

Denise: As mentioned, my biggest early encouragement was from my parents, whose belief in the value of the creative arts was unwavering. Paradoxically, as I grew up it was the difficulties I faced (moving countries, family spread over different continents, and later still my son’s serious cardiac condition) which prompted me to find a language to express these realities and possibly see a way through and beyond them. I feel that an experience, once expressed, is subtly changed, and further am intrigued by the idea held by ancient Japanese court culture that no significant experience can be felt to be entire until it finds expression in verse. I sometimes wonder if, had my life been simpler and devoid of challenge, would I have still wanted to write, or make the experience ‘complete’?

More recently, Dave Kavanagh, manager of the fabulous Dublin-based journal The Blue Nib, urged me to take on role of poetry editor for Australia/NZ (2019-2020), which had an immediate and lasting effect on me, plunging me into the many and evolving forms of poetry, as well as a lively awareness of how writers work. Every poet I’ve worked with, every interview I conducted and every editorial I’ve written in the Nib enriched my appreciation of the art of poetry.

The live poetry events near me – such as The Sydney Poetry Lounge | Facebook and Live Poets at Don Bank | Facebook – have also affected me profoundly, not least on account of the warm generosity of their convenors who effectively bring to life the poetry community and keep it thriving.

And finally, I’ve had the great good fortune to have met many gifted writers-turned-friends along the way. I’ve found our exchanges utterly invaluable and they continue to inspire my own process of writing.

Q4: Where did you grow up and how did that influence you? Have any travels influenced your work? 

Denise: I was born and grew up in Rome as my father (originally from New Zealand) was working there, until I left to go to study and later work in the UK. Rome influenced me deeply; how could it not? Its sheer beauty and warmth and its rich heritage finds its way into many of my poems, a recent example being ‘In among the ruins, love’, accessible here:

First Prize | My Site (wbyeatspoetryprize.com)

But there were also the rumblings of political turbulence as the Red Brigades gained a foothold in Rome the late ’70s and early ’80s. Bomb scares at school were not uncommon, and we automatically watched out for unattended bags in public areas. The kidnapping and chilling murder of Italian politician, Aldo Moro, in 1978 gave rise to my poem ‘Fifty-five days’, published in Backstory journal. You can read it here:

Fifty-five days – Backstory (backstoryjournal.com.au)

While I lacked the security of growing up in a country where I felt I belonged which spawned a sense of being a perennial outsider, my background also afforded me the opportunity to be immersed in another culture, and grow up surrounded by people of all nationalities. I learned how to watch and listen – a great starting point for creative writing and poetry in particular, which requires the ability pay close and deep attention to the world around us.

Q5: What do you consider your most meaningful work creatively to you? 

Denise: Ah, that’s a hard one! I will take ‘meaningful’ to mean the work with which I feel most satisfied. I resist the notion that a poem is a tool or utilitarian, written to ‘achieve’ something; for me, a poem is its own meaning, even though it may well prompt us towards a new perception of things, or even action of some sort.

In my case, the poems which hold the most resonance for me are not necessarily those which are attractive to publishers or elicit the warmest praise. That said, however, there is one poem which embodied all my hopes for it, and clearly pleased someone else too. ‘Love was almond shaped’ is published here: Winner of Dalkey Creates Poetry Competition: ‘Love was almond shaped’ by Denise O’Hagan – Books Ireland (booksirelandmagazine.com)

Q6: What are your favorite activities to relax?

Denise: Bushwalking, drinking good coffee, reading (yes, poetry mainly!), hanging out with our four rescue cats, and watching thrillers on SBS TV far too late into the night. Recently I’ve been immersed in Scandinavian noir – The BridgeTrapped and so on – and the Italian movies L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) and Il cacciatore (The Hunter). Covid has a lot to answer for!

But there’s also bliss in, for want of a better phrase, doing nothing. Our ultra-technological age encourages us to become addicted to the state of ‘being busy’; there’s pressure to fill every moment, do more and do it more efficiently. Becoming aware of, and inhabiting, the unchartered spaces between daily activities brings its own relaxation, too.

Q7: What is a favorite line/stanza/lyric from your writing?

Denise: Now there’s an interesting question! It’s hard to isolate a line or even a stanza from its context. But there’s one instance that springs to mind, because the words came to me one day and wouldn’t leave me alone, so I had to write a poem around or rather before them, as they were the final couplet in a terza rima – a case of the tail wagging the dog! They are:

What exquisite irony that we’ll not tire                             

Of being lashed by the winds of our own desire.

The poem ended up being called ‘The winds of our own desire’, in which I explore what the shade of Francesca da Rimini might have felt when she encounters Dante in the second circle of Hell (Inferno, Canto V). It ultimately found a home with the gorgeous Dublin-based journal, The Madrigal, earlier this year, and you can read it here:

The winds of our own desire (themadrigalpress.com)

Q8: What kind of music inspires you the most? What is a song or songs that always come back to you as an inspiration? 

Denise: I enjoy many kinds of music from rock to jazz to classical, and count Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen and Adele among my favourite singers. But if I were stuck on a desert island, it would be Renaissance and Baroque music I would want to take with me, and if there were one composer’s music I could take, it would have to be Bach, whose sacred works are absolutely sublime.

Q9: Do you have any recent or upcoming books, music, events, projects that you would like to promote? 

Denise: Thank you, David, for the opportunity to mention my second poetry collection, Anamnesis, due to be published in October by the Canberra-based company, Recent Work Press:

Anamnesis – RECENT WORK PRESS

Bonus Question: Any funny memory or strange occurrence you’d like to share during your creative journey? 

Denise: I do, and this is really rather spooky. The first complete piece I ever wrote as an adult was a short story called ‘The hanging’. It was inspired by my father mentioning once the horror he had felt when, in Turkey for work many years prior, he accidentally found himself caught up in a crowd which he realised had gathered to witness a public hanging. He never elaborated, but his words stayed with me, and my story wrote itself. When I showed it to him, he was shocked and said that that was exactly how it had been (except for the twist at the end). I was also surprised because there was no logical way I could have arrived at knowledge of specific details. Appropriately, the story was published online in Bewildering Stories.

 

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