OSWEGO — “Midwest Gothic,” a new award-winning book from SUNY Oswego English and creative writing faculty member Laura Donnelly, brings together a collection of poems on the themes of family, memory, history and a sense of place.
“It’s about how we look for and locate and even sometimes choose our histories,” Donnelly said. “Particularly it’s going back to look at family history through the lens of my mother and maternal grandmother and even great grandmothers in the rural Midwest and I’m pulling up family stories from memory.”
In writing the poems, mostly between around 2014 and 2018 about growing up in Michigan, Donnelly said the motif came together, albeit unintended. “I think I didn’t set out to do this, but I hope that it’s a book honoring those women in my past.”
She noticed in the middle of writing these poems that a theme had begun to develop, which she sharpened along the way, particularly in making a major revision to the work in 2018.
“I started to realize I have 40 poems that are all working with similar material and then I started to think about them together,” Donnelly said. “And then I started writing more that were further diving into that material.”
One poem that brings together the themes is “Inheritance.” It includes the names and qualities of several of the women in her family, “and it talks about what it is I’ve inherited from these women. What parts of them are in me,” Donnelly said. “I often put it into readings. I like getting to read that poem and say their names.”
While the book focuses on memories in Michigan, most of it came together once Donnelly began teaching at Oswego. “I wrote some of it during writing residencies in Virginia and Connecticut,” Donnelly said. “And I don’t know if it was easier to kind of think back to Michigan being away. I’m not sure, but I think space is always a useful thing.”
Since one of the best avenues to get a book of poems published is to submit to contests, Donnelly sought out opportunities that aligned with her material. It was a finalist in several contests before Ashland Poetry Press awarded her manuscript its 2019 Snyder Prize.
In addition to committing to publish her collection and a $1,000 prize, Donnelly was additionally excited because acclaimed poet and author Maggie Smith, whom she described as her “poetry hero,” judged the competition.
The prize is named for the late Richard Snyder, a Midwestern publisher in Ohio, and the contest tends to “look for collections, both with strong craft and with thematic integrity,” Donnelly said. “And I realized this book more than my first one was a book that was following a through line all the way through it.”
Donnelly’s first book, “Watershed,” won the 2013 Cider Press Review Editors’ Prize.
She thinks that another benefit of writing and publishing is that it helps her become a better teacher and mentor.
“Being really engaged in the process of writing keeps me understanding both the challenges and the excitement, and helps me stay empathetic with the students,” Donnelly said. “In mentoring them, I get equally excited for the discoveries they are making.”
Donnelly will give the book a local launch via a virtual reading with the River’s End Bookstore, a community cornerstone in Oswego, on Nov. 5. To reserve a spot in the virtual reading, visit www.riversendbookstore.com.
For that event, Donnelly will read from Midwest Gothic and share some old family photos that inspired the poems. Award-winning poet Katherine Bode-Lang, a longtime friend whom Donnelly met in an undergraduate poetry workshop, will moderate a question-and-answer session.
“I’m really excited about that. They are so amazing and so supportive of local writers,” Donnelly said of the local bookstore. “While it would be nice to gather in person, the virtual format of the launch means there are people who can come to the event, like family in Michigan, who wouldn’t be able to otherwise. So there are small gifts along the way.”