OSWEGO — Laura Donnelly of SUNY Oswego’s English and creative writing faculty recently released “Watershed,” an award-winning poetry collection whose genesis is a story of observation, practice and perseverance.
“Watershed” earned the 2013 Cider Press Review Editors Prize and was published by the company. In this collection, Donnelly finds inspiration in the often-overlooked work and experiences within women’s lives — ranging from her mother studying Darwin’s finches to ongoing challenges facing women artists.
“Many of the poems try to listen closely to the quiet moments of our experiences, whether from a small gesture or a piece of music, and use that to explore larger questions of culture and identity, especially for women,” she said.
These observational poems draw on such varied inspirations as the lives of famous figures, everyday women or even women depicted in paintings.
“The Principle of Flickering,” which at one point was the collection’s working title, serves as “a kind of anchor to the book,” Donnelly said, and “talks about change and being in motion and the process of transformation.”
The theme fits her life well.
Originally trained as a classical pianist — groundbreaking women pianists and composers Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn are among those explored in her poetry — Donnelly also majored in English literature, where she really enjoyed her first poetry class.
The rhythms of poetry appealed to her, and the disciplines had other parallels.
“The musical training complements poetry because of the importance of practice,” Donnelly said. “I was used to spending a lot of time in practice rooms, so I was very comfortable with the idea that you have to practice a phrase over and over to get it right.”
Many poems people read that seem immediate and spontaneous are really the result of a lot of writing and revising, Donnelly noted, an important part of creativity she passes along to students.
The title poem of “Watershed” views the watershed region of the Hudson Valley through an environmental lens, but the collection came together with a lot of images of water, natural for somebody who grew up around the shores of Lake Michigan.
The water connection followed her. Donnelly recalls marveling at Lake Ontario when she visited to interview for her position at SUNY Oswego.
The campus includes more than a mile of the lake’s shoreline and most buildings have lake views.
“Do you realize how amazing this is?” Donnelly kept saying of the Great Lake during her visit.
Tale of perseverance
Her experience in writing, revising and getting a collection of poems spanning from 2005 to early 2013 finally published helps her communicate the importance of perseverance to her students.
“The writers who are getting published are sending their manuscripts to more than 100 publishers,” she explained. “My message is that if you’re trying to get published and getting rejected, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.”
Her poems have appeared in journals that include Cimarron Review, CutBank, Flyway and Poetry East.
A former editor in chief of the national literary journal Third Coast, Donnelly has been a finalist for the Brittingham and Pollak Prizes in Poetry, the Orlando Prize and the St. Lawrence Book Award.
The experience publishing “Watershed” and an earlier chapbook with Finishing Line Press — “Nocturne: Schumann’s Letters” on musicians Robert and Clara Schumann — helped inform a senior capstone class project she developed at Oswego asking students to put together 15-to-20-page chapbooks.
“Working on these has helped me think about ways to encourage them to put their poems into a cohesive whole,” Donnelly said. “Students can do a themed collection or individual poems, but they should still figure out how their poems are talking to each other and to develop an arc for the whole collection.”