Selecting Moyra Donaldson

At what stage in a career is it prudent to publish a retrospective of your work? The poet from Newtownards let others decide

For an established poet, publishing an anthology of your work is like publishing an autobiography: it can’t come too early on in a career, but you can’t leave it too late either.

With four well-received collections already under her belt – from 1998's Snakeskin Stilettos to 2010's acclaimed Miracle Fruit – for award-winning poet Moyra Donaldson, 2012 was supposed to be a year to ruminate on new work and see where the muse would take her.

But when Liberties Press approached her with a view to produce a retrospective collection, Donaldson says, 'It seemed like a really good opportunity for me to get an idea of what my work consisted of to date, to get a picture of it in my head'.

Sitting in No Alibis bookstore before the Belfast launch – and hoping the protestors don't put too many of her fans off – Donaldson is excited to talk about the resulting anthology.

She explains that, after the freak show-themed Miracle Fruit, which 'interrogates the Enlightenment hunger for knowledge and the birth of science', she wondered what to do next.

Publishing an anthology of previous work was an opportunity not to be missed, and Selected Poems has, in a short space of time, already garnered a lot of ‘very good feedback’ for the Newtownards-based poet.

Although she wrote the poems contained in the volume, however, curiously Donaldson did not select them. She left that up to her editor, Liberties Press' Sean O’Keeffe.

‘I knew I couldn’t decide what was in and what was out,’ Donaldson admits, cheerily. ‘So I left that up to Sean. Other than a few little changes, I was really pleased with his final selection.'

Selected Poems provides a measured look at Donaldson's literary career thus far, with a well-weighted mix of the thoughtful and the thought-provoking. And for lovers of poetry, it is fascinating to trace Donaldson's maturation as a scribe through the passage of the years.

Though there is nothing in the volume that is anything less than polished, there is a surety in the latter work – see 2010's socially accusing, politically informed 'Mary Patterson', for instance – that is absent in Donaldson's more lyrical, earlier poems, such as the less 'in your face' 'Exile'. 

It was strange for Donaldson to look back over poems she wrote years ago. She describes the process as ‘seeing old bits of your life reflected through your writing’. Some of the poems are particularly emotive for her, in particular 'Daffodils', which recalls her mother’s death. Re-reading that poem 'took me back into the emotions of the situation’.

Not that she was entirely happy to do so. Her first instinct on re-reading her older writings was, Donaldson says, 'Can I rewrite that?’ She promises, though, that she resisted the temptation. ‘How it was when it was first published, that’s how it is now.’

In the meantime, Donaldson has been satisfying her creative urges by working on an entirely new collection of original poems, which she hopes to publish sometime in the New Year. She has enough material already that she can see the unifying themes emerging, though they aren’t nearly as dominant as with Miracle Fruit. There is no title as yet. ‘Titles are... I can never get titles,’ Donaldson sighs.

The plan is to have the rest of the poems written and ready for publication soon, although Donaldson regrets ruefully that this time of year isn’t the best for productivity. ‘These long dark nights,’ she shudders. ‘I mean to be more disciplined and write, but I just end up sitting on the sofa with a glass of wine watching celebrity chefs.’

Moyra Donaldson's Selected Poems is out now, published by Liberties Press.