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A Q&A with poet DS Maolalai

This week we continue publishing work from our first call for submissions, and our poetry editors are thrilled to feature three poems from writer DS Maolalai. The poems – 'Grief', 'Fail better.', and 'The Aillwee Caves' – can be read at the links or in our poetry category. Over the next few days, we'll be showcasing audio readings from the poet, to complement the written work.

Before that, our editor-in-chief Julian Kanagy had a chance to speak with DS Maolalai about his poetry and the great new work featured on our website. Here's the full transcription of their conversation:

Julian Kanagy: What would you like people to take away from your work? Is this different for each of the three poems featured here?

DS Maolalai: I try not to think about the audience when I’m writing; I feel like the second I start to think about what a reader will take from a poem I immediately become dishonest. The Message is something I don’t think you can look at directly when you’re writing – you find out what it was when you’re done. Each of these poems, more or less, are a document of a thing that happened; I think there is meaning in them as moments worth describing – otherwise I wouldn’t write about them – but I also think that the idea that every moment must have a moral is a dangerous one, leading people, and especially artists, to ignore half of their lives because they feel they can’t make art of them.  

JK: What inspired you to write "Fail better.," and is it part of a broader project that you're working on? Between the scene set in this poem and the character introduced in "Grief," the office setting certainly seems to inspire poetry. Is this a coincidence, or do you find inspiration often in these sort of interactions?

DSM: I think that the best poetry, or at least the best poetry I write, is about what could be called “the lower moments” in life. By that I don’t mean sad moments, as much as the everyday – the moments that don’t have an obvious emotion already in them. [William Carlos Williams] did this very well. I like to put my fingerprints into the normal; I’ve never much liked the idea of writing about the great dramatic moments of life – for one thing, I think you need to be a far better artist than I am to say anything about great love, joy or tragedy...that hasn’t already been said. Maybe better than anyone. I write about the everyday because that’s where I can get a handhold – rather than the story of a death in a family, this uncomfortable interaction with someone recently bereaved. It’s an equally real moment which happened, but it’s also an interaction that would be forgotten by everyone involved within an hour under normal circumstances. I believe inspiration is always where you are already – hate the idea of seeking out waterfalls or whatever to dig the inspiration from them like it’s a seed in a back tooth. Poetry, for me, is a kind of diary, and I think that’s the main reason why so much of my poetry revolves around work and the office – that being where I spend eight hours each day means that it’s also where the most inspiration is, unfortunately. I’m not trying to make any grander statement than that.

“Fail better” is probably Beckett’s most popular line, and I think he’d be amused by that. The poem isn’t part of any broader project – in fact, it’s a snippet I’ve had banging around in my head in various forms for about 10 years that stems from a part-time sales job I had while in college. The office was plastered with “motivational” posters, as if everything Napoleon had ever said had been mined by a middle manager. The worst thing was, they worked – or at least, the people who acted as if they did were far better at selling things than I was.

JK: Could you tell us a bit about what poetry means to you, or how you interact with others through poetry?

DSM: I think that poetry is unfortunately devalued in a lot of ways at the moment; certainly, I never bring up the fact that I write in mixed company – nobody I work with, for example, knows anything about this side of my life. It’s best that way – for one thing, I’ve insulted a few of them in print. Mostly, it’s a way to turn the day to day into something more, and an excuse to sit alone for a few hours once a week with a bottle of wine. I read a lot of second-hand books and a lot of small press work – I almost never buy a book new, except from small presses. In general though, I try not to think of myself as a poet, or to allow that perspective to become a filter for the world – that may seem like a contradiction with what I said further up about everything being inspiration for poetry. It is – but like meaning, it’s something I don’t look at directly and that way it doesn’t affect me.

JK: With "The Aillwee Caves," you join such company as Seamus Heaney in celebrating the natural beauty of Co. Clare. How has your work (or broader poetic style) been influenced by the poetic traditions you write within and from? 

DSM: For a long time my writing was consciously against the idea of “Irish Poetry”. I still don’t consider myself particularly Irish, except when marketing to Americans. The editor who published my last two books, Liz McSkeane, once referred to me in passing as “cosmopolitan” and I’ve never been more flattered by a description. The trouble with Irish poetry for someone who sees themself as I do is that Irish poetry, as it’s always been presented by the cultural institutions we have in this country, appears on its surface to be a fairly backward looking collective. I should say, again, that this is another thing that I know consciously to be untrue – Irish writing, including Heaney, Longley et al, has obviously always had an incredibly modern streak to it – but it’s difficult to get past the image you develop of something when you’re younger, and the poets writing about where my parents grew up were infinitely less exciting to me than the poets writing at the same time in other places. Irish culture in general is done an incredible disservice by the way those writers are presented to the world in general, and to Ireland in particular. Of course, every generation kicks against the previous – I’m not saying anything new – but I do wish that we could stop making use of those writers to stagnate our own views of poetry. Sometimes, when I don’t think too hard about it, I envy novelists.


Julian Kanagy

Julian Kanagy is a Chicago-based poet and editor. His poetry samples a Midwestern upbringing peppered with loss and abandonment, thrives both in the confines of formal structure and the simplicity of its absence, and expands into an ongoing search for the beauty in everyday life when it seems to be hiding. He started Heirlock Magazine to amplify underrepresented voices and The Wild Umbrella to celebrate writing for writing's sake; both as an editor and in his own work, Julian follows the advice of a mentor: “find the poems that nobody else could have written.”

Headshot of poet Elisabeth Murawski
DS Maolalai

DS Maolalai has been described by one editor as "a cosmopolitan poet" and another as "prolific, bordering on incontinent". His work has nominated twelve times for Best of the Net, ten for the Pushcart and once for the Forward Prize, and has been released in three collections: "Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden" (Encircle Press, 2016), "Sad Havoc Among the Birds" (Turas Press, 2019), and “Noble Rot” (Turas Press, 2022)


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