Mary O’Donnell – Asylum – Guest editorial

Donnell LE P&W 2 Nov-Dec 2023

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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Two Nov-Dec 2023.

Asylum, guest editorial by Mary O’Donnell.

Photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

Each year in early autumn, some people begin to re-plan the future. The map of the self is laid out and scrutinised. In night schools, at universities and at the arts centres which speckle the country I live in like small creative pulses, courses begin to fill up, hope and determination sharpen, and change seems possible.

In autumn 1979, I too wanted change, to start again, to fight back against what I saw as a disaster. I was in a state of inner desperation, an open wound of indignation. I’d just failed a major exam and my days were filled with what I saw as looming disgrace and a botched career. Now, I had a life to restore. I would be a writer and take further the scribblings and poems I’d been preoccupied with since leaving school.

Yeats’s poem ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ buoyed me along, capturing my sense of longing for the visionary. Cloths embroidered with ‘golden and silver light’, were ephemeral presences that accompanied me and in their way brought me to the Brazen Head pub in Dublin for my first ever writers’ workshop.

We were a group of ten strangers, given a room of our own behind the bar. Every week, we spent a few hours reading our work aloud to one another. There were no photocopies. You just listened. Everybody was in agreement that everything read aloud was good, or quite good, or had possibilities. Afterwards, we’d push back our chairs in the linoleumed, nicotine brown back room, and enter the bar for a drink. A fat brown dog slumbered on the cracked leather bench below the window, a few locals supped pints and smoked, and we writers chatted shyly. The place was warm and welcoming. I felt completely at home. Afterwards, I’d catch the late number 66 bus back home to Maynooth and as the bus charged through the wet darkness of Palmerstown, Lucan, Leixlip, I’d turn over what had happened and what I’d heard.

Looking back, everything seems sepia-tinged, even the quality of our discussions. There was no criticism so much as an unspoken gentlemens’ and ladies’ agreement that perhaps we weren’t quite ready for robust frankness. Perhaps we wouldn’t have known what to do with it had we received it, the tools of criticism being virtually unknown us outside of school and university, where criticism and analysis only applied to ‘real’, but dead, mostly male writers.

I often think of that first workshop. How useless it was in addressing anything of practical use to me an apprentice writer, and yet how it mattered, and the hope that sprang from simply being allowed to read my work aloud to a gathering of benign, optimistic strangers. There were none of the savaging that later developed in certain notorious workshops I heard about, when frankness melted into insult and the occasional physical throttling of a mentor. In The Brazen Head, we found a sprinkling of courage that made some of us continue to write.

It’s one of those anomalies that many who emerge from school and university versed in the textual analysis of Mahon, Boland, Rich, or Heaney, have little sense of how to lift the lid on their own creative well. Perhaps an instinct about the sacredness of the self is what prevents people criticising one another’s work in a useful way, rather than cowardice.

There’s a recognition that within the deepest crevices of each personality, in a little repository of vision, lies material so invested with powerful emotion, and especially with memory, that we fear to tread on that ground especially when it belongs to another.

Workshops have evolved from soft and cushiony beginnings to a complex form which, thanks to the influence of the major US university writing courses, at the very least turns participants into better readers, both of their own work, and that of others. In Ireland, the apprentice writers of my of my generation benefited in told and untold ways from the presence of particular workshop facilitators, among them Eugene McCabe, John McGahern, and Eavan Boland. As an active writer-mentor myself, I believe in the world of unconscious flow that drives writers into groups where they can test their secret dreams, ideas, and thoughts.

Every autumn, and in the deepening time into winter, come new writers like ripening fruits after the season of ripening is over, seeking workshops. They come with a new openness that didn’t exist when I was young. They are better versed in the language of criticism and more aware of the role of the visionary, and how to recognise the visionary within their ordinary, yet wonderfully, diverse, lives.

All the contributors to this wonderful on line journal are dedicated to the art and craft of poetry. They know what it is to rise day after day, in grey or sunny weather, to find something more than literal truth when they set down their words. Because their poetry isn’t self-expression. It isn’t therapeutic. It is an attempt that each of us makes to find transformation through our words and lines. We test the air but it’s not the ordinary air of family meals at Christmas and Easter, nor is it the air in the local gym, or the little coffee group air where so much is discussed by so many—and forgotten about afterwards. As poets, we test the air of the world, taking its temperature, checking its pulse, often finding it sickeningly distressing despite our best efforts to be cheerful. We write, because we know there is nothing else we can do but bear witness to that world.

Occasionally, my mind revisits the balmy temperatures of that first, critically inept, workshop on those autumn evenings of 1979, when my life had disappointed me and when The Brazen Head offered solace and welcome. I’m thinking of what asylum means, wherever one lives or whatever the circumstances that create a need for asylum. For me on a simple level, I needed asylum and I found it in words. For others today, asylum comes when they arrive safely in a new country and are welcomed and made safe. I’m reminded of how wonderful a thing it is to land in a safe place, to find asylum, to have woven those blue and dim and dark cloths of Yeatsian vision, to have spread a few dreams one way or another, side by side with our fellow citizens, our ‘new’ Irish, many of whom are now my fellow poets.

© Mary O’Donnell

outsiders alwaysMary O’Donnell has published seventeen books including novels and short story collections since 1990. She was appointed Poet Laureate of Naas, Co Kildare, during 2022. Her eighth poetry collection is ‘Massacre of the Birds’ (Salmon). An essay, ‘My Mother in Drumlin Country’, was listed in Notable Essays and Literary Nonfiction of 2017 in Best American Essays (Mariner). A selection of both her translated poems, and of her short stories appeared in Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish in South America, in autumn 2023. People say she is a kick-ass creative writing teacher. She intends to write until the energy runs out, which it hasn’t—so far. Member of Aosdána.

Available at: Published by Southword Editions, a wing of the Munster Literature Centre . It is stocked by Waterstones in Cork and (soon) Books Upstairs in Fublin, among others.

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