20 Questions with... Peter J. Donnelly
Peter J Donnelly lives in York and has a degree in English Literature plus a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Wales Lampeter. He has been published in various magazines and anthologies including Dreich, Lothlorien, Fragmented Voices, Black Nore Review, Obsessed with Pipework, High Window, One Hand Clapping, Southlight and Ink Sweat and Tears. He was a joint runner up in the Buzzwords open poetry competition in 2020. He is the author of a chapbook 'The Second of August' and a full length collection 'Solving the Puzzle' both published by AlienBuddha Press in 2023.
1. Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?
My name is Peter J Donnelly. I use my middle initial to distinguish myself from my fellow poet and namesake. I was born in Middlesbrough and lived there for a few years before moving to Newcastle and then after another few years to North Yorkshire where I have lived most of my life. I now live in York. Life was not always easy growing up, but then again it wasn’t always difficult either.
2. Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?
I started writing stories at a very young age, and I think I wanted to be a writer by my early teenage years. I didn’t start to seriously write poetry until I was a bit older, though I had written it as a child at school. I work as a hospital sectary and have done for several years, and have worked in other administrative roles in the NHS and other organisations including York St John University and Mencap Cymru in Wales.
3. Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.
Solving the Puzzle is my first full length collection of poetry which features poems about other authors of prose and poetry who have influenced me, as well as former teachers, family members, friends, literary characters and plants, animals and insects which have inspired my writing.
4. What are you working on right now?
I wrote a poem about a week ago which I have put to one side for a few days, having written several drafts. In a few days I will look at it again and when I am satisfied it is complete, I will enter it in a competition.
5. Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?
Not really. I don’t have a regular time each day for writing, nor do I write every day. Weeks can go by without my having written anything, though at some point during most days I will think about what I will write next.
6. Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?
Usually I write in the evenings either at my dining room table which also serves as a desk, or sitting in my armchair or on the sofa. I have never learned to drive, do not have a bicycle and would never try to write whilst walking, though I may be thinking about writing then. Whilst travelling by train or bus I prefer to spend time admiring the scenery, though, once again, I may be seeking inspiration from this.
7. What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?
To write poetry you need to read it. The same applies to anybody wishing to write fiction or drama, they must read that. Read poetry, fiction or drama rather than textbooks telling you how to write it. Don’t expect immediate success, it will take time. Try not to be put off by rejection. If a piece is rejected by one magazine, send it somewhere else until it is accepted. A qualification in creative writing is not a passport to success, though it is not a hindrance either. I am best placed to advise on poetry as it is what I have the most experience of writing. When the time comes to put a collection together, it will look better if you can mention publications in magazines and success in competitions. Don’t just put the poems together in any order, or the order in which they won a competition or were in a magazine. There should be a flow from one poem to another, they should be linked by theme. All of this has been said to me by other poets and I have found it to be true from experience.
8. Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?
I would say somewhere in between, too be honest I haven’t had that much experience of doing them yet. Though the thought of it can make me nervous, I always manage to read out my work and give an introduction which is usually unprepared beforehand, and achieve positive feedback. I don’t necessarily look forward to giving readings, though I usually enjoy the experience when it happens.
9. Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?
I have written a lot of poems about butterflies, moths, orchids and other plants which are an interest of mine. I was encouraged in this by my late great aunt who also admired these things, and who has also influenced much of my work, as have other family members, those still living and those no longer with us. I have also written a lot about other poets and authors, those living and dead, their work, teachers who have inspired me and places I have visited, and the people and memories associated with those places. Music and art have also played an important part in my work so far. Jigsaws play a large role in my latest book, hence the title. The poem that gives the book its name is about completing jigsaw puzzles generally, and the one that precedes it is about the puzzle I have been working on for several months.
10. Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?
I think so yes. If it is true that we live in an age where fewer people are reading, this shouldn’t deter aspiring authors from writing, it is all the more reason why they should. Much has been written already which can and should be re-read, but new writing still needs to emerge to keep people reading.
11. Do you write between genres or not?
Not any more. There was a time when I experimented with writing poetry, prose and drama, when I wasn’t yet sure whether I was a poet, a novelist or a playwright. Now I am sure and only write poetry. I find it unlikely that I will ever try to write fiction or plays for stage or screen again, but you never know.
12. Which living writers do you most admire?
The living poets I most admire are Gillian Clarke, Stevie Krayer, Kathy Miles, Sue Moules, Anne Grimes (I believe still alive) and Carole Bromley. I met the first five whilst at university at a writer’s workshop which played a very significant part in my development as a writer. The last mentioned was my English teacher at school. She was starting to write poetry herself at the time and is now the author of several books. Though I no longer write fiction I couldn’t be without reading it, and the living novelist I most admire is Margaret Drabble. I read her criticism as well as her fiction, look forward to her articles in the Times Literary supplement and her forthcoming memoir. I also enjoy reading Alan Bennett, particularly his monologues and diaries, though I am not so familiar with his stage plays.
13. Which dead writers do you most admire?
The Bronte sisters (their poetry as well as their novels), Jane Austen, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as those who have died more recently including Iris Murdoch and Angus Wilson. Wilson I would most likely never have read had it not been for his biographer Margaret Drabble. Her admiration for Wordsworth has also prompted me to re-read him. Other dead poets I admire include Yeats and Heaney. And of course Shakespeare.
14. What’s the book you wish you’d written?
I don’t think there is one. Occasionally when I read a poem I find myself thinking, that’s how poetry should be, I wish I could write like that, but I never wish that I had written the whole collection. However much I like a book I’ve read, I don’t wish I’d written it, for then it would seem like I’d have to wish I’d written all the other books by the same author. A lot of poetry is very personal so that only the person who wrote it could have done so.
15. What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?
All three of those have influenced me and continue to do so. I love walking in the countryside and observing birds, plants, insects etc. as well as buildings, inside and out. I mentioned music before – often it is not the piece itself but the associations it has that inspire a poem. I can find myself writing about a concert I attended, who I was with, and the place where it was performed.
16. Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?
I did go through a very long period of it before I recommenced writing regularly. The only way to overcome it is to keep reading and try writing, accepting that your first attempts to write may not be very good, like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument. The first few poems I wrote when I took it up again were ‘after’ other poets, e.g. the form and some of the words were borrowed but adapted accordingly.
17. What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?
The reactions of my family, friends and colleagues have been very encouraging, as well as those of fellow poets. One of the poems in my first full collection is about my former science teacher who tragically died after falling from his bike several years ago. It previously appeared in a magazine and when one of my other teachers read it she contacted me to say that it had made her cry. I was naturally sorry to have caused that emotion but also glad, as it must have been a powerful piece of writing to do so.
18. How do your family and friends feel about your writing?
For the most part they seem to feel very proud of me for doing it. Poetry is not for everyone of course, but even those who perhaps would not normally read it have been very praising. My ninety-two year old grandmother writes poetry herself, and for her rhyme and metre are an essential quality. Much of what I write I think she finds interesting but does not necessarily understand it, but as she says, she is of another generation. I don’t use a lot of traditional form nowadays, but there is some to be found in Solving The Puzzle. I think she liked the poem of that name, and has at least read the others.
19. Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I do like Waterstones, and second hand book shops generally. As far as independent ones go I would have to say the one in Ripon, North Yorkshire, simply called ‘The Little Ripon Bookshop’. I pop in on many of my visits to the town, where I often go as most of my family now live there. I go to browse their shelves or look at notices in their window about upcoming events, to chat to the friendly staff or to hand in entries to the annual competition run by Ripon Poetry Festival, in which I came second in 2021 and each year since have had poems included in their anthology. I am grateful to them for stocking my chapbook The Second of August which was published earlier this year, despite it’s being sold on Amazon.
20. How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?
I don’t think we will become completely dependent on Amazon, I suppose we may become more so. A few people I have told about my publications have not bought them from there because they don’t do so on principle as they don’t like what it has done to bookshops and second-hand bookshops. Thankfully I have been able to sell the book to some of them myself. I don’t think we could manage completely without it now, though of course habits change. Were it not for Amazon my two collections would not have been published by their publisher who then sells the book that way, and I fear I would have been searching for a publisher for quite a long time, and hoping for success in a competition for chapbooks or full collections. One thing is for sure, many people are still writing, hence the demand for publishers, and I am thankful to say I cannot see that changing.