the inner workings of donal mahoney
Poems for me usually begin with a phrase that I "hear" somewhere in my mind. In the pre-computer age, used to go around with many scraps of paper in my pockets with phrases that I would intend later to "follow" out until a draft of poem was on paper. Then I would revise that draft so many times that I would have no idea of the count. Eventually I would reach the point where the poem would "sound" right to me. I honestly never cared what the poem objectively said. If I cared what I said, I would have been a critic or reporter instead--not that there is anything wrong with either of those two callings; they are simply above my pay-grade.
Next to "sound"--i.e., vowels bumping off each other and careening into consonants--only images were equally important to me in writing but I never "heard" or saw images. Images simply materialized in the process of following the poem until it is written. Often, images emerge in the revision process. Deep down somewhere--at a level that I am not consciously aware of--some faculty of mine seems to be aware of what I am saying and keeps me on track while I follow out the sound of the original phrase that put the whole process in motion. That same faculty, perhaps, enables me to balance my checkbook, one of the few practical skills that I have always had. Perhaps I can give you an example of how I "work." One time I gave a draft of a poem to my wife to read to obtain a normal person's reaction. She said later that reading that poem--like reading so many of my poems--was like "listening to a harpsichord while looking through a kaleidoscope." I stole her phrase, of course, and saved it and eventually, after many drafts, a poem resulted, called "Kaleidoscope and Harpsichord."
I think it was Dylan Thomas who said that a poem is never finished, simply abandoned. Before I read his statement, I knew that he was right because I have never finished a poem. I just give up on it temporarily because I cannot at that time make it any better--or, rather, make it "sound" any better than it does at that time. A couple of months or years later, I might be able to "improve" it because I can then hear the discordant notes. Fixing those notes, however, may take another couple of years. What I really don't understand is why I care less what message, if any, is in any poem I perpetrate. Perhaps a second poem of mine is illustrative of this in that it was "sound" only that dictated the poem that resulted--"Let Any Agnostic Provide a Reply," with an alternate title of "Jabberwocky Redux." I will, to your detriment, paste at the end of this email both of the poems referred to in this little explanation of my process. Maybe the poems will give you a better idea of the "torment" of writing according to "sound."
Another factor, perhaps, in my creative process is the result of being born to Irish immigrant parents. I was born in Chicago and spent most of my life in that wonderful city but I suspect if my IRA-veteran father had christened me "Donald" instead of "Donal," pronounced with a long "o," mind you, I would have earned my living as a lawyer instead of as an editor of one thing or another to support 5 children, one of whom turned out to be a Rhodes Scholar with the other four being normal. The missing "d" at the end of "Donal," along with reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in one night in graduate school, marked me in my own mind as someone who could possibly have made it through law school but would have made a terrible lawyer. I was called instead to go through life writing down odd phrases that come into my mind like a crow cawing before flying away and if I didn't write that phrase down fast that crow will never be heard from again. In the meantime, I found I could earn a living knowing the difference between a colon and a semi-colon and being able to spell words like "ukulele." Not many folk can spell ukulele but fewer and fewer folk use it in copy, thereby making one of my greatest skills less in demand. Then Spell-Check came along, but I won't get into that in this opus.
One last factor that had an influence in my creative process just popped into mind: I spent 19 consecutive years in Roman Catholic schools without ever once being tempted to become a priest. But when I attended those schools, their educational system was excellent and demanding. The philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, was revered and his teachings permeated everything. His proofs for the existence of God for me defied refutation. I spent most of my life as a very lousy Catholic, something that in my dotage I have been able to improve. But throughout my life, I have always believed in God, no matter how difficult events in my life might have been. I don't know why I have always believed, save for the Catholic explanation of the gift of faith instilled in Baptism, but I am thankful that I believe. I say this partly because my best friend from my youth is now an aging agnostic. I cannot for the life of me understand how he cannot believe, given that we are both products of the same educational system. He lives in a different state and I keep thinking that maybe if I flew out there and shook him to death he would believe again before he took his last breath. But as with so many things fraught with Irish hyperbole, that approach is obviously not the answer. So I pray for him now, even though I spent 40 years of my life believing in God but never praying (that I can remember). In an aside that may have nothing to do with my creative process, I must also say that what I find interesting as well is that I never blamed God for the problems in my life. At the same time I never gave Him credit for the good things, either. He was always just there watching, I figured, and I hoped He would give me a chance to shape up before I was hit by a train. He has always been in my mind a "good" God, which I know is big of me to allow. But I have to give credit where credit is due. Now, if He would do something about Spell-Check, I hope I would pray more frequently.