A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Denise O’Hagan

Q1: When did you start writing and who influenced you the most? 

Denise: It was probably seeing my parents writing that got me started. When I was still at school, I remember my mother typing at the kitchen table, paper everywhere – she’d started writing seriously by then, also composing and illustrating stories for me. I felt that story-telling was a natural expression of life rather than something we consciously set out to try and do, and my friends and I would often get together and write our own stories. On a practical note, I grew up in a small apartment in a busy city so learned quickly to make a world from what was at hand!

Two writers had a particularly strong early influence on me: Dante, whose wildly expansive symbolic imagination is so beautifully compressed into terza rima in the Divina Commedia that it still takes my breath away; and Seamus Heaney, whose Selected Poems remains one of my all-time favourite collections. Now I read widely, and find myself returning to those whose writings chime with something within me: David Malouf, Antigone Kefala and Eavan Boland, for example. If I meet a poem that resonates with me by someone whose work I don’t know, I’ll search out more by that poet. In this way, I picked up a book by Tomas Tranströmer the other day, and now am deep in his work.

Q2: Was there any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer? 

Denise: To be honest, it never occurred to me to be a full-time writer: I was under no illusion how hard it was (and still is) to make a living from writing. I had the example under my nose of my mother whose thriller, A Roman Death (Macmillan 1988) sold well along with being translated – but she couldn’t have made a sufficient income to live from her novels. The closest I could imagine to being a writer was becoming an editor, which is what I trained to do. Later on, I squeezed a little writing in around my editorial jobs, but it was when my husband suggested I ‘do what I most enjoyed and see where it took me’ that was a pivotal moment in my making the decision to carve out time to write.

In some ways, I regret my ‘lost years’ in commercial publishing, though they provided a professional, if at times brutal, grounding in manuscript editing and book production. Yet I also believe that as we journey through our lives we build up a reservoir of experience that we can tap into at any stage. Nothing is ever wasted, even when it may feel that way.

Q3: Who has helped you most with writing and career? 

Denise: As mentioned, my biggest early encouragement was from my parents, whose belief in the value of the creative arts was unwavering. Paradoxically, as I grew up it was the difficulties I faced (moving countries, family spread over different continents, and later still my son’s serious cardiac condition) which prompted me to find a language to express these realities and possibly see a way through and beyond them. I feel that an experience, once expressed, is subtly changed, and further am intrigued by the idea held by ancient Japanese court culture that no significant experience can be felt to be entire until it finds expression in verse. I sometimes wonder if, had my life been simpler and devoid of challenge, would I have still wanted to write, or make the experience ‘complete’?

More recently, Dave Kavanagh, manager of the fabulous Dublin-based journal The Blue Nib, urged me to take on role of poetry editor for Australia/NZ (2019-2020), which had an immediate and lasting effect on me, plunging me into the many and evolving forms of poetry, as well as a lively awareness of how writers work. Every poet I’ve worked with, every interview I conducted and every editorial I’ve written in the Nib enriched my appreciation of the art of poetry.

The live poetry events near me – such as The Sydney Poetry Lounge | Facebook and Live Poets at Don Bank | Facebook – have also affected me profoundly, not least on account of the warm generosity of their convenors who effectively bring to life the poetry community and keep it thriving.

And finally, I’ve had the great good fortune to have met many gifted writers-turned-friends along the way. I’ve found our exchanges utterly invaluable and they continue to inspire my own process of writing.

Q4: Where did you grow up and how did that influence you? Have any travels influenced your work? 

Denise: I was born and grew up in Rome as my father (originally from New Zealand) was working there, until I left to go to study and later work in the UK. Rome influenced me deeply; how could it not? Its sheer beauty and warmth and its rich heritage finds its way into many of my poems, a recent example being ‘In among the ruins, love’, accessible here:

First Prize | My Site (wbyeatspoetryprize.com)

But there were also the rumblings of political turbulence as the Red Brigades gained a foothold in Rome the late ’70s and early ’80s. Bomb scares at school were not uncommon, and we automatically watched out for unattended bags in public areas. The kidnapping and chilling murder of Italian politician, Aldo Moro, in 1978 gave rise to my poem ‘Fifty-five days’, published in Backstory journal. You can read it here:

Fifty-five days – Backstory (backstoryjournal.com.au)

While I lacked the security of growing up in a country where I felt I belonged which spawned a sense of being a perennial outsider, my background also afforded me the opportunity to be immersed in another culture, and grow up surrounded by people of all nationalities. I learned how to watch and listen – a great starting point for creative writing and poetry in particular, which requires the ability pay close and deep attention to the world around us.

Q5: What do you consider your most meaningful work creatively to you? 

Denise: Ah, that’s a hard one! I will take ‘meaningful’ to mean the work with which I feel most satisfied. I resist the notion that a poem is a tool or utilitarian, written to ‘achieve’ something; for me, a poem is its own meaning, even though it may well prompt us towards a new perception of things, or even action of some sort.

In my case, the poems which hold the most resonance for me are not necessarily those which are attractive to publishers or elicit the warmest praise. That said, however, there is one poem which embodied all my hopes for it, and clearly pleased someone else too. ‘Love was almond shaped’ is published here: Winner of Dalkey Creates Poetry Competition: ‘Love was almond shaped’ by Denise O’Hagan – Books Ireland (booksirelandmagazine.com)

Q6: What are your favorite activities to relax?

Denise: Bushwalking, drinking good coffee, reading (yes, poetry mainly!), hanging out with our four rescue cats, and watching thrillers on SBS TV far too late into the night. Recently I’ve been immersed in Scandinavian noir – The Bridge, Trapped and so on – and the Italian movies L’amica geniale (My Brilliant Friend) and Il cacciatore (The Hunter). Covid has a lot to answer for!

But there’s also bliss in, for want of a better phrase, doing nothing. Our ultra-technological age encourages us to become addicted to the state of ‘being busy’; there’s pressure to fill every moment, do more and do it more efficiently. Becoming aware of, and inhabiting, the unchartered spaces between daily activities brings its own relaxation, too.

Q7: What is a favorite line/stanza/lyric from your writing?

Denise: Now there’s an interesting question! It’s hard to isolate a line or even a stanza from its context. But there’s one instance that springs to mind, because the words came to me one day and wouldn’t leave me alone, so I had to write a poem around or rather before them, as they were the final couplet in a terza rima – a case of the tail wagging the dog! They are:

What exquisite irony that we’ll not tire                             

Of being lashed by the winds of our own desire.

The poem ended up being called ‘The winds of our own desire’, in which I explore what the shade of Francesca da Rimini might have felt when she encounters Dante in the second circle of Hell (Inferno, Canto V). It ultimately found a home with the gorgeous Dublin-based journal, The Madrigal, earlier this year, and you can read it here:

The winds of our own desire (themadrigalpress.com)

Q8: What kind of music inspires you the most? What is a song or songs that always come back to you as an inspiration? 

Denise: I enjoy many kinds of music from rock to jazz to classical, and count Edith Piaf, Leonard Cohen and Adele among my favourite singers. But if I were stuck on a desert island, it would be Renaissance and Baroque music I would want to take with me, and if there were one composer’s music I could take, it would have to be Bach, whose sacred works are absolutely sublime.

Q9: Do you have any recent or upcoming books, music, events, projects that you would like to promote? 

Denise: Thank you, David, for the opportunity to mention my second poetry collection, Anamnesis, due to be published in October by the Canberra-based company, Recent Work Press:


Bonus Question: Any funny memory or strange occurrence you’d like to share during your creative journey? 

Denise: I do, and this is really rather spooky. The first complete piece I ever wrote as an adult was a short story called ‘The hanging’. It was inspired by my father mentioning once the horror he had felt when, in Turkey for work many years prior, he accidentally found himself caught up in a crowd which he realised had gathered to witness a public hanging. He never elaborated, but his words stayed with me, and my story wrote itself. When I showed it to him, he was shocked and said that that was exactly how it had been (except for the twist at the end). I was also surprised because there was no logical way I could have arrived at knowledge of specific details. Appropriately, the story was published online in Bewildering Stories:

The Hanging (bewilderingstories.com)

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Denise O’Hagan is an award-winning editor and poet, based in Sydney. She has a background in commercial book publishing in the UK and Australia, and in 2015 set up her own imprint, Black Quill Press, to help authors publish independently. Recipient of the Dalkey Poetry Prize and former poetry editor (Australia/NZ) for Irish literary journal The Blue Nib, her work is widely published both in Australia and overseas, including in The Copperfield Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Quadrant, Books Ireland, Eureka Street and Hecate. Her second poetry collection is Anamnesis (Recent Work Press, 2022).

Sunday Roast by Denise O’Hagan

Note: Broiler chickens, as the meat industry calls them, are those chickens raised for their meat, as distinct from laying hens. This poem relates to the practices of commercial chicken-farming adopted worldwide. The information in this poem is derived from the following sources:

Animal Ethics: https://www.animal-ethics.org/animal-exploitation-section/animals-used-food-introduction/chickens-hens/

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/factory-farming/chickens/chicken-industry/

First published in Literary Veganism: An Online Journal, 8 August 2021

Sunday Roast

You pull your cardigan tighter as you walk through the cold section,
pausing at the rows of shining plastic-covered poultry, on special

                                              fifty billion chickens and hens are killed
                                                      every year for human consumption 

Later, in your state-of-the-art kitchen, you unpack the bird and
wash it thoroughly because, as your sister says, you just never know

                                                    they spend their lives confined in crowded sheds,
                                                            permanently treading in their own excrement

You lay it down in your baking tray, drizzle it with extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle it
with coarsely ground pepper and Himalayan sea salt (you never could resist that pink)

                                                            unable to move properly or spread their wings,
                                                they become so distressed they start to attack one other

Prising it open, you spoon in the moistened aromatic breadcrumb-and-herb
stuffing – your speciality! – until its cavity is well and truly full 

                                                   some avoid eating altogether so as not to be attacked,
                                                           dying of starvation, dehydration or cardiac arrest

You circle it with potatoes, carrots and garlic cloves, stepping back to admire
the effect – it’s a good plump bird alright, enough to feed a family of seven

                                                           fattened up to twice their natural body weight,
                                           most struggle to stand, their legs weakened and deformed  

An hour and a half later, you set the table in the apricot glow of the
late summer sun (kids at the far end). Ah, the joys of alfresco dining!

                                                             the first daylight the chickens see is
                                                        by truck on their way to the slaughterhouse

At dinner, you raise a toast to celebrate long life and your husband’s father’s
seventieth birthday, drawing a shawl of pure contentment about you

                                                                   at six to eight weeks, they are killed;
                                            in their natural habitat, they live up to fifteen years

Author bio

Denise O’Hagan is an award-winning editor and poet, born in Rome and based in Sydney. With a background in commercial book publishing in London and Sydney, she set up her own imprint, Black Quill Press, in 2015 to assist independent authors. Recipient of the Dalkey Poetry Prize, her work appears in various journals including The Copperfield Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Quadrant, Books Ireland, Eureka Street and Hecate. Her second poetry collection, Anamnesis, is forthcoming (Recent Work Press, 2022).

3 Re-published Poems from Denise O’Hagan

Between beauty and decadence

Like a shred of satin
Crumpled and creamy
It caught my eye
Lying there, near a clothes peg
Against the brick red patio.

Luminous, exposed
Halfway between beauty and decadence
With the day’s bruise already on it:
The world’s aches
Perfectly expressed
In the throwaway gift
Of a fallen petal.

First published in The Blue Nib (Issue 39), 15 Sept. 2019


The silence
Between us
Thickens and grows
And flows around us
Like a third presence
Waiting, malevolently,
For one of us to break it.

How did we
Get to this point?
Is there a line running
From the quickened heartbeat
The clutched hand
Of youth
And easy collusion
Of middle age
To this?
Was the end
Implicit in the beginning?
Or did we
Take a wrong turn
Creating a fault line
Damaging ourselves
And dislocating the ‘us’?
My thoughts are heavy, clunky
And going nowhere.

Years of misalignment
Have made us wary 
Suspicion lies coiled
Between us, serpent-like,
So we take refuge in routine,
Imbibing the evening news
With our chamomile tea
And the other rituals
Of stale, safe domesticity.

But all the while
Nuggets of resentment
Weigh down any deeper disclosure 
And neither of us
Want to admit 
To boredom.

First published in The Blue Nib (Issue 37), 15 March 2019

A journey of sorts

You didn’t see me
But I turned back 
And then for years
Every time I passed that place
I’d see your crumpled form
Wheelchaired across the courtyard
Plastic bracelet pale against your wrist,
Resistance in the set of your shoulders.

Did a lifetime spent abroad
Sliced up between three continents
And all the years of travel
(good luck tiki in your inner pocket)
With their attendant rituals
Of collars pressed and briefcases clicking 
Inching forwards in countless check-in queues
Nodding acceptance of clunky hotel keys
Patient layers of rewritten drafts
Pencilled scribbles up and down the margin
Handshakes, boardrooms, coffee in plastic cups
Inhaling overblown officialdom
With cigarettes over too-long lunches
In that quiet way of yours – did all this
Stand you in good stead?
For this, too, was a journey of sorts. 

The white gash of your hospital gown
The glow of multicolored monitors
Recording your vital functions
While nurses replenished, adjusted and tweaked 
The spaghetti curls of drip lines and silver stands
With which my mother and I did hopeless battle
To ease your situation
Prompting a final, wry quip
And a chuckle from a nurse of stone:
Humour in extremis.

And on the last night 
They gave you the last rites
And then we settled down 
To wait.

First published in Eureka Street, Vol. 29, No. 18, 16 September 2019

Bio: Denise O’Hagan is an award-winning editor and poet, born in Rome and based in Sydney. With a background in commercial book publishing in London and Sydney, she set up her own imprint, Black Quill Press, in 2015 to assist independent authors. Recipient of the Dalkey Poetry Prize, her work appears in various journals including The Copperfield Review, The Ekphrastic Review, Quadrant, Books Ireland, Eureka Street and Hecate. Her second poetry collection, Anamnesis, is due to be published in October 2022 (Recent Work Press).
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