January 1, 2015 | Salute to Scholars, The University
Profile: Poet, Novelist Donna Masini
As a child, Donna Masini read and wrote poetry but never thought becoming a writer was in the cards. But now she has published two books of poems: That Kind of Danger, which won the Barnard Women Poet’s Prize, and Turning to Fiction. She has also written two novels, About Yvonne and The Good Enough Mother. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies, including The American Poetry Review, Open City, TriQuarterly, the Paris Review, KGB BAR Book of Poems and Parnassus: Poetry in Review. She is also a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the New York Foundation for the Arts Grant and a Pushcart Prize. Masini, an associate professor of English at Hunter, is also an alumna. She currently teaches poetry as a part of the college’s MFA Program in Creative Writing.
How did you get your start as a writer?
I was an English major at Hunter and I had great teachers. I always read poetry and wrote poems, but I never would have thought of being a writer. I left Hunter without completing my degree and went back eight years later because of [the late writer Audre Lorde]. I had been reading her essays. I got so excited when I met her and she said to come study with her. It was like everything fell into place.
What kind of topics do you write about?
Generally, I don’t focus on a particular subject. My poems used to be very urban — with a lot about New York City. The city is like a character in my writing.
Where do you find inspiration for your pieces?
I’m not one of those people who walk down the street and something hits me and I think, “Oh my god!” and I stop to write down a poem. I usually have to fight for them down the page and then, “Wow, there it is — I’ve got something.”
What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome as a writer?
At times, I get that voice of doubt saying, “You’re not smart enough, you’re not good enough.” The idea of being “enough” is really big for me. The name of my new novel is even called The Good Enough Mother. That’s why Audre was so good for me. She would say, “I need you to remember this: Everything I’ve done in my life, was done, not without fear, but in spite of it.”
It seems like Audre’s mentorship had a strong impact on your outlook on life and your career. What kind of lessons do you want to leave with your students?
I love my life — I get to talk about poetry and fiction to people. I get to see students excited by poetry. So I want them to have a sense of possibility — you can do anything. I tell them that. Some kids grow up in a family in which everything is possible, and others don’t. Growing up, if I told my family I want to be a writer, they would have said, “No, it’s too scary.” And in a way, by teaching writing workshops, I can be a sort of a coach. Students need someone to tell them that they can find insight within themselves and that they are important.
You mentioned your latest novel, The Good Enough Mother earlier. What’s it about?
The book in a lot of ways is about class. My character immigrates from one social class to another. She grew up working class and now she’s a psychoanalyst. She’s a woman who is divorced and has no children of her own. She becomes obsessed with a young girl she meets at a nearby public school. She doesn’t realize that it’s not so much a child she wants, but rather a childhood.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and poets?
Writing poems is an art. And great poets have written bad poems. So you have to learn to fight for your work. You don’t settle. I always say this to my students. It takes a while to be great. Also, you just have to show up to the page and write. Don’t listen when people say, “Nobody wants to publish poetry. Nobody wants to publish fiction. The market is terrible now!” You can’t think about that. The one thing is that you show up, you do the work.