Conor Mc Donnell (he / him) is a Toronto-based physician and poet. He has published two chapbooks, The Book of Retaliations (Anstruther Press), and Safe Spaces (Frog Hollow Press). He received Honourable Mention for The Fiddlehead’s 2018 Ralph Gustafson Poetry Prize, was shortlisted for the RawArtReview 2019 Charles Bukowski Prize, and was runner-up in the Vallum 2019 Contemporary poetry prize. His work has featured in The Fiddlehead, Vallum, Grain, Carousel, longconmag, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), GUEST and many others. He is a reader with / for longconmag and is giddy with excitement to read as much new poetry as he can get his hands on. His first full poetry collection, Recovery Community, is imminent with Mansfield Press, and he can be found @conorpunchbook on both Instagram and Twitter
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first chapbook, The Book of Retaliations (Anstruther Press), changed parts of my life completely. As a mid-career physician it was a way of feeling that first acceptance by a community that I very much admired and wished to contribute to. It also presented the opportunity to work closely with Jim Johnstone who is a totem and giant for poetry in Canada. I was incredibly lucky to work with Jim on my first book and the fact that we have developed a close and important friendship has also changed me as a writer and human. His ear for talent, his desire to include new voices and offer platforms to the previous unheard has rubbed off on me and how I see the world at large around me. This is something that also drew me to you when I began to notice your own work and the breadth of your output, Rob.
My most recent and ongoing work now feels…less desperate to be acknowledged. While my voice and work have (hopefully) evolved in both quality and scope I think the biggest change was getting that first publication under my belt; it allowed the message to sink in that the work will somehow find a home if I do it properly. I think that’s something every unpublished and emerging writer should hear in order to soothe that primal fear, not so much of obscurity but of the very real possibility of never ‘getting started’. Once that first long-form acceptance hit for me I began to relax and allow myself to do the work the way it has to be done, carefully and in complete ignorance of what appears to be successful or working for others. I think this is vital in order to have a realistic shot at longevity and some measure of impact and can only come from saying things that resonate with others which in turn must emanate from core honesty genuine empathy and non-aggressive fearlessness!
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
There is a terrible 75,000-word novel/MS in a drawer in my basement that will never see the light of day. Suffice to say the main character was a werewolf, I can’t believe I admitted that!!
I found my previous pursuits in music and film which always relied on other people for completion (obv) and I really needed to maximize the precious amount of free time I get. Therefore, I arrived at the gradual sense that in order to execute a finished project by myself I would need to concentrate on writing, which of course really focuses you when you realize you are solely responsible for an end-product as opposed to coming up with an idea or thumbnail sketch that others can help flesh out and finish. Also, my 75,000-word exercise taught me I wasn’t a very good novelist, however, encouraging words from Michel Basilieres, Susan Glickman, Ibi Kaslik, Catherine Graham and Paul Vermeersch during my time at University of Toronto’s Creative Writing Certificate course gently nudged me toward poetry which (surprise to me) I really fell in love with. I hated poetry in high-school because it was all Shakespeare and enforced curriculum but as an adult I discovered the power and beauty of a few well-chosen words and was hooked good and proper. There must also have been an arrogance whereby I secretly thought, ‘hey, I can do that’…
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Because I have very little free time I am in some ways always writing. Like David Ly said in these interviews, everything seems to begin with my iphone. I write down mixes of what I hear, what I read, what I see, just lines lines lines sometimes words words words. When I sit down to write at home I take out those e-notes and put a little order on them, write them into notebooks longhand see what goes with what. Are there areas of overlap rhythmically or thematically? Shove lines together and see if they fit or fight, fighting is often better. If a thread emerges or something interests me I go with it and see what happens. I never approach my laptop early in this process, by the time I finally start to transcribe a piece ‘on screen’ I’m acknowledging the language is mostly done and I now want to see what it might ‘look like’ because the visual, the shape of a poem is of great importance to me.
With respect to the commencement / accumulation of a project I have found with my upcoming book, Recovery Community, and subsequent work throughout this year, that I gradually come to an awareness that something is starting to take shape, that is to say I become aware that I am starting to write around a commonality of sorts. Often, it’s an attitude or a basic emotion so, for example in Recovery Community I realized I was constantly being drawn to David Lynch films and certain music (Swans, Tool, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance), and I was hyper-focussed on anxiety, the physical experience of rising anxiety, moving through a physical space with dread, and how those moments might relate to old and/or imprinted traumas, but also how it may be a necessary journey on the way, well, to Recovery. After a while I bowed to the returning influences and just submerged myself in their consumption – as many books films songs etc as I could find – see what falls together. Sometimes it’s nothing, sometimes it’s one good short poem, sometimes it’s a chapbook, sometimes more. The interesting thing for me is that I know more definitively when a project is done than when it’s begun as I will notice I have ‘moved on’ to write in a different way altogether and at that point I know I can bring the curtain down on that particular project. While I may add an occasional piece here and there the fever of highest activity is done with; it has burned its way through my system. A specific example of this would be the poem The Scalded Sea (from Recovery Community). I had read Oliver Sacks’ heart-breaking 5-6 page account of one man’s battle with mental illness, I then went deeper and read that man’s published diaries and a biography. I made notes all the way through, maybe 4 weeks’ worth of reading (some 500-600 pages) resulted in 10-12 pages of notes and became a 5-page poem. When I finished The Scalded Sea I knew what Recovery Community was or needed to be and knew I was very close to being done because something felt realized through the writing of that particular poem. It felt like in writing that poem I had answered all my unasked questions of this project. Is it the best poem in the book? No. Am I proud of it? Yes. And once it was written I knew for better or worse I had come to a place of acceptance relative to personal lifelong questions around trauma, suicide, anxiety addiction and alcoholism that told me I was done with the particular energy I had been channeling for this book. The work then remained was to revisit my other poems, remove what was no longer relevant (and we removed a lot of stuff from this MS including some personal faves), put them together in a certain careful order to see if they told a story I could follow, then stand back and accept/hope it was done for better or worse.
The very next day I began writing other poems and probably because of the pandemic and again because of new influences arriving (this time Cronenberg, Ballard, Psychic TV, Mandy, Johansson) I found myself very quickly engaged by a new energy ie project which I subsequently wrapped up a week or two ago. So, for now I’m just enjoying reading without feeling like some sort of receiver where I have to drop the book or pause the film every five minutes to write something down.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I think that’s all contained within the answer above.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I haven’t got to do many readings so I can’t claim they are part of my creative process. I wish I got to do more of them. I think not doing readings is like recording music but never playing live. If I have a pet peeve it’s that Reading Series organizers are often poor (and sometimes nonexistent) when it comes to answering emails and requests to participate. Certainly, in Toronto the choices to read are few and far between and at times it looks like a merry go round of ‘who has a book out this week?’ with the same people doing the same rounds of the same venues. I think the retreat to a virtual presence has actually been a release of sorts but within that the writer/reader does not get to experience the same audience reaction which to me is like playing football in an empty stadium. As I have said from the start, to me it’s all about community…
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Yes, my major concern is ‘Am I shite at this?’ I don’t think I’m trying to answer anything with my work, I’m more of an asker, ‘do you see this? Does this seem normal to you? Does this speak to you? Do you see yourself anywhere in this? Yes? What does that mean, does that make an us or just a you and me?’ I take the ordinary and scratch it until the weird comes out then I run around waving it above my head, but at the same time I would like to take the opportunity to say it’s never obtuse or wilfully obscure. This shit has happened and if not to me then to someone I know or someone I had to treat or someone I passed on the street, and if I don’t hear anyone else talking about it/them in this way I’ll go ahead and say it myself the best way I know how.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The writer is the canary in the coal mine, or at least they should be, but they shouldn’t have to die to get the big message across. For example, I felt it necessary to write about opioids, prescribing practices & addiction issues. Some of it was poetry, other times it was scientific research published in peer-review journals and presenting at international conferences etc. Two years ago, I presented at Harvard and opened with a poem I had published in JAMA called Et Mu, that was a deliberate ploy to shake a bland post-lunch scientific audience into being more receptive listeners to the message I felt compelled to deliver. And I think that is vital, not only is the writer a tuned-barometer they also need to be a finely regulated pressure valve, know which button to touch and when so the message is maximized … have as much respect for your message as you do for your audience, and vice versa.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s all I’ve known to date and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve had research manuscripts reviewed critiqued and edited since 1996 and I view independent review as a vital part of any process whereby a piece of work winds its own way toward professional credibility. I never fight over words or punctuation but I will fight to the death over my right to sit down with a reviewer / editor and talk about the work, give it the time and consideration it deserves. Within poetry, Jim Johnstone is my touchstone editorial experience, he rules me with a soft hand and a strong arm.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I had the same high-school math teacher for 5 years, a Marist Brother named Brother Philip. He told me, ‘if there are two parts to a question and the first is to prove a known theorem and the second is to solve a general problem, for God’s sake use the theorem you first prove to solve the second problem; one is a practical application of the other and that’s why they asked you to prove the theorem in the first place.’ That may seem very specific, but to me it also says, ‘don’t make things more complicated than they already are’, and, ‘if the universe is offering you a tried and tested solution don’t go out of your way to avoid using it’.
He also said, ‘remember to read BOTH sides of the exam paper’ but that was to someone else, I did NOT have to be told that, lol
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to reviews)? What do you see as the appeal?
I have not done many poetry reviews and haven’t particularly enjoyed the experience. I perform multiple scientific peer-reviews each year and am always very sensitive to ‘agendas’ and prepared to remove my name from something that is rapidly veering away from my own thoughts and opinions toward some form of editorial template or professional bias. I have enjoyed working on some articles for Carousel with Mark Laliberte but on the whole, switching between academic scientific writing/peer review and creating my own poetry is enough of a genre swap for me.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
For me a typical day begins with insomnia, coffee, letting the dog out, eating very little, reading BBC News & BBC Sport online, leaving the house at 6:45, setting up an OR by 7:15 while listening to music and muttering ‘please don’t let today be the day I kill someone’s baby’, seeing my first patient and family at 7:30, covering my face in moisturizer and duoderm to prepare for being garrotted with PPE for the rest of the day, concentrating like blazes for 8-12 hours and trying to ignore the shortness of breath which may either be anxiety or retained CO2 from the mask and face-shield super-glued to my head. Somewhere in there I eat once for 5-10 minutes and don’t drink anything so I don’t have to pee at an inopportune time. I eventually leave the hospital (rarely before 5pm, often after 7) and if I’m lucky my patients all did well which means they are safe and comfortable and their parents are happy. I arrive home where I am assaulted at the door by my dog, kiss my wife, pour some wine and quickly fall asleep on the couch in front of a horror movie. There is no time to write in a typical day, maybe that’s my secret weapon…the writing only happens on atypical days
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It doesn’t stall. It’s either shite or not-shite but it’s always flowing
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The salinity of sea-air. I lived within touching distance of ocean or sea for many years and any time it hits my nose now a part of me relaxes. TBH I’m very unsettled by Lake Ontario; where I live in Toronto’s east-end the lake sounds like the sea and looks like the sea but doesn’t smell like the sea (I get it it’s a lake), this bothers me greatly.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
As with many answers above, everything. Everything except Nature to be honest, but I’m hoping that will change one day and I will be less urban street-plan, more … organic?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
CK Williams, particularly Lies; Frank Bidart; Oliver Sacks; Simon Armitage; Christopher Hitchens; George Pelecanos; increasingly Kevin Barry. I realize this is a list of white men but it’s a short list, I’ve done my allyship training and I’m comfortable why my influences have tended toward aligning in such a fashion. I am currently exploring the work of NK Jemisin, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Akwaeke Emezi but we are not putting labels on what it means. I would add Steve McQueen, Jonathan Glazier, the Safdie Brothers (film, yes, but they are all their own writers). I’ve long been in love with Diane Arbus, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Kristin Hersh, Naomi Klein, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kate Bush. I have a huuuuuge soft-spot for Nelson Ball, and obvious love for David Lynch but my three biggest touch-stones are Nina Simone, Nick Cave and James Baldwin; I find Baldwin very difficult to read, he is (will always be) a genius and an intellectual and I often struggle to keep up with people like himself; I simply admire and try to learn from his life rather than turning my back cos I’m too dumb to keep up. Finally, I think I am in the process of changing my long-held stance that Love Will Tear Us Apart is the greatest song ever recorded and replacing it with The Hounds of Love. Oh, and Francis Bacon (the painter), he holds some weird key that turns my nightmares into words.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Serve a simple question with a simple answer
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think I might have made a good doctor, something with kids maybe?
In non-facetious news-flash I fantasize about tenured professorship in an English department with an office looking onto a quadrangle, something akin to the closing scenes of Wonder Boys but without the dead dog in the trunk, I wuv my woof-woofs
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Mostly answered in various places above but I always had a creative urge. It wasn’t hugely encouraged early on, no-one’s fault, I think it just flew under the radar. At college I picked up a guitar and started writing music and performing almost straight away (weirdly enough for a singer I avoided writing lyrics if at all possible). I gathered experiences and stored them at a cellular level for 20-25 years and when my medical and academic career appeared to be established I almost immediately felt a life or death urge to begin producing things from a place of personal creativity. I understood implicitly I would have most control over time and end-product by being a writer of books (as opposed to music or screenplays) and while casting about for inspiration in evening classes at U of T, the poetry bug bit me good. I also have that internal arrogance that all writers must have, that assuredness that people will be interested in what I have to say if only I can say it just so
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve read 68 books this year, I know because I logged them all!
So, I wanna say Beatlebone by Kevin Barry as a (relatively) recent release.
I reread Perfume by Patrick Suskind and it is now the book I have read most often
But the book that floored me quite unexpectedly this year was Crash by JG Ballard, don’t knock it till you’ve read it.
Special mention for Brandon Taylor’s Real Life which did wonderfully complicated things to my simple straight white-boy noggin.
Film? Hold on to your hat, as of today I’ve watched 270 films this year, lol. I know cos I logged them all!! No one can go anywhere this year so my free time has either been writing reading or watching films.
I have plunged headlong into horror but the first film I saw this year was immediately great: Uncut Gems.
Since then I would highly rate the following as ‘see before you die’:
Climax by Gaspar Noe, A Quiet Place (slowly attaining classic status), Border (OMG, BORDER, you just have to), One Cut of the Dead (same statement), Heaven Knows What (easily my favorite Safdie Brothers film, just devastating), Naked (Mike Leigh, always in my Top 5), Mandy (YUM), Only Lovers Left Alive (Yum Lick), Do the Right Thing (always in my Top 3), Prometheus, Ghost Story, The Changeling, Bronson, and because I went through this list chronologically the most recent great film I saw was…The Birds (squawk, still totally works despite Hitchcock’s abhorrent treatment of Tippi Hedren)
20 - What are you currently working on?
A truly lovely beard that tucks into my N95 work-mask but tumbles out at quittin’ time like something foxy from a shampoo advert
Learning to Lego with my wife (soon to begin)
Trying to keep the poems I am currently writing from turning into another ‘new project’