Getting to Know Frances Donovan

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
I was drawn to repetition in sounds and language from an early age – my earliest memories are of the Madeline books (“She even said ‘poo-poo’ to the lion in the zoo”) and the parallel sentence structure from the Catholic Lord’s prayer (“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”) In elementary school, we had to bring in objects that represented our ethnic heritage, so I brought in a book called 100 Years of Irish Poetry. I suppose that was when I first made the connection between myself and poetry as part of my

I wrote my first poem while hanging upside-down in a tire swing at the age of eight, and I think there’s a reason why. When you write poetry, you need to let go of the linear thought process and move into a different headspace. “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson said. Early exposure to contemporary poets such as Nikki Giovanni inspired me. And when I read “The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock” in my early teens, it blew my mind – the perfect poem for an angst-ridden teen.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I’ve had various routines over the years. I used to do morning pages religiously, but I found it didn’t really generate poetry. I belong to two groups that meet online, and in both we end with a free-write. I take those and put them away for a while, then come back to them later and see what can be kept and polished. I’m also an occasional attendee of a Monday-morning freewrite group.

Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
They usually come from free-writes. I’m especially fond of taking a line from another poem and running with it – the final poem almost never contains the line, but it serves as a jumping-off point. Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions is an excellent source for inspiration. I’m a strong believer in letting one’s mind and pen flow without interference during free-writing – it’s always surprising and delightful what comes up. At other times in my life, I’ve read books of poetry, taken a nap, and then written as soon as I was half-awake afterward. Again, it’s about getting to that place where the conscious mind isn’t driving the pen.

Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
Adrienne Rich was my literary hero for years and years. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on her work and life and tried to emulate her (badly) with my early work. But so many other poets too: T.S. Eliot was a great favorite of mine in my earlier years (not so much now). Anne Sexton was another favorite from my early years. In grad school I was finally mature enough to appreciate her contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop. I really enjoy Bishop’s cool objectivity and attention to detail.

Living poets I really admire include Kevin Prufer (he was one of my mentors at the Lesley MFA Program), Adrienne Matejka, Sharon Bryan, Erin Belieu, Natalie Diaz, and Morgan Parker. There are so many more, it’s hard to name them all. Boston also has a really vibrant poetry scene, and so many poets have influenced and inspired me here. I’m afraid to name my contemporaries, and I’m sure I will leave someone off the list who should be on there! Eileen Cleary, a fellow Lesley alumn and Editor-in-Chief of Lily Poetry Review Books, gave my first full-length book a home, and for that I’ll always be grateful. Also to Christine Jones, who edited the manuscript. Finally, Martha Collins has been a steady support to me. It was her and Kevin who first spoke to me as though I were already a working poet, and she continues to give me great advice about how to live and work as one.

What excites you most about your new collection? (Significance of the title? Overarching themes? Process/experience of assembling it?)
It’s my debut full-length collection, so that’s exciting in and of itself. Martha Collins interviewed me at the online launch, and it was such a thrill hearing her point out things about the manuscript – some of which were intentional and some of which weren’t. The manuscript braids together different personae who represent the fractured self that results from a difficult childhood. I retell some fairy tales with a modern twist, and I also explore the archetype of the princess, pushing the envelope on its definition. There’s a dirt princess and a Fox News
princess in the book, along with many other unexpected facets of a character who’s been undergoing a transformation since my own girlhood. Just compare the Snow White of the early Disney movie with the self-assured princesses like Moana of contemporary movies.
As the book progresses, and “I” finally emerges from the third-person personae, one that reflects a more integrated speaker who is able to tell and retell the stories of the past, reclaiming her narratives and moving toward healing and wholeness.

The book went through many iterations, and it’s been a real joy seeing it come together. I have so many poets to thank for their feedback on the book’s structure as a whole, especially Kevin Prufer and Jenn Martelli.

Lovers Rapunzel Finds in the Wilderness
after Marie Howe
One with skinny hips and rock-hard calves,
licks her till the middle of her bed is soup.
One she finds stomp-dancing in the club,
hooded eyes and lies.
One glitters on the stage,
whispers filthy worship in the back room.
One with a butt so large it’s a shelf,

her lovely breasts against her narrow waist.
One dark, and secret, and jealous as an ocean shell.
One large as the devil and twice as wicked.
One a sailboat captain, adjusts the compass
when she would have steered them into the shoals.
One with breasts fine as linen,
milk-blue veins beneath her skin.
One with a smashing wig, wooly curls underneath,
holds her hand and kisses her in public.
One whose boyfriend crashes in the bedroom door,
Rapunzel in nothing but a sheet.
One from Goa, who places
a hotel pillow beneath her to catch the flood.
One whose name she’s forgotten.
One whose face she’s forgotten. And another.
And another. And another.

Frances Donovan is the author of Arboretum in a Jar (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2023). Her chapbook Mad Quick Hand of the Seashore was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Donovan’s poems have appeared in Lily Poetry Review, Solstice, Heavy Feather Review, SWWIM, and elsewhere. Her interviews of other poets can be found at The Rumpus and on her website, Donovan holds an MFA in poetry from Lesley University and is a certified Poet Educator with Mass Poetry. In 2019, Boston Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola selected one of her poems to be displayed at Boston City Hall. Donovan’s work deals with themes of home, family, intergenerational trauma, and sexual and gender identity. She remembers fondly the summer of 1998, when she drove a bulldozer in a Pride parade while wearing a bustier.