Dunes Review Interview Series: Jonathan Donabo

Jonathan Donabo studies English at California State University Fullerton and works at the writing center. Aside from writing, he spends his free time dancing, reading, and watching movies. The Nolan poem is his first poetry publication; it is also part of a larger collection titled Nolan's Tesserae. Find him on Twitter and Instagram: NolansBike.

Jonathan's poem “XIX. Nolan Washes His Face” appears in the 2017 summer/autumn edition of Dunes Review.


What first inspired you to write?

I would be lying if I gave you a definite answer. I have seen that a lot of people have fantastic tales about how they started writing, and I don’t think I do. My first introduction to poetry might have been in eighth grade English, but I didn’t really start writing it until I was a freshman in high school. I think I started to write poetry because I needed it; I struggled a lot with my mental health in high school, and I was not very aware of what was going on for me. Poetry was a way for me to try to find out.  Now, as an adult, I still write because I need it, but it pushes me to ask bigger questions—it probably helps that I am very conscious of my mental health and have gained somewhat of an upper-hand. That sounds somewhat definite. I might be lying.


What is your writing routine like?  Do you have a schedule, a favorite place to work, a favorite type of pen you always write with?

I used to solely work from home; my lights had to be off, and I had to have really loud music on. I wrote a lot during the past 4 months or so, and I found myself writing everywhere. Currently, I really like working at coffee shops. Something about being around people that I don’t know is fascinating--and they also peer-pressure me into not opening Netflix. I write a lot on my computer. I like seeing what the poem looks likes in (neat) text and it also allows me to play with the structure and visuals feasibly. Though my poetry is written on my laptop, I have multiple notebooks that I use to draft ideas, lines, write notes, answer questions, and free write. I have two favorite notebooks that I have been using a lot; one has constellations and astrology symbols, and the other is blue with a gold sun in the middle, there are tiny planets and stars revolving around it (the planets all look like little gold Saturns). Oh God, this answer is longer than I thought it would be. I’ll go on though, I like to use gel pens. I have a variety of colors, but black is a good default. When I post up at a coffee shop I usually organize my poetry books, pencil box, notebook and computer, in a way where they are easily accessible but also aesthetically pleasing. I’ll occasionally take breaks from writing and read a bit of poetry from the books I have at hand, or online. This answer is making me realize how habitual I am; my original answer was going to be “I don’t really have a writing routine.”


Do you listen to music or must you have silence while you write?

I need music. There are times when writing makes me very anxious, and I get a bit frenzied. Music helps me focus my anxiety and it allows it to be productive for myself and for my writing. I can write without music, I just prefer not to. It has to be loud too.


Do you let other people read your works in progress?  If so, whom? 

I do. I love feedback.  I think it is very important to share your writing. Especially when it’s in progress. Having a different perspective while writing can open up new pathways for the poem and make it something that you would have never expected it to be. Some of my best poems are the way they are because someone told me, “Try using different words here.” Also, the reader’s questions can also act as a guide in writing that specific piece. If you have a very specific intention for the piece, but the intention is obscured by the language, the reader’s question can help you realize that. Poetry like most things, should be a collaboration.

I mostly share my poetry with three people. My professor/mentor, Irena Praitis, who is an amazing poet and human being, has been a huge part of my writing process for the past half-year or so. My friend Trevor Allred and I have been meeting up regularly to write, revise, and discuss poetry; and I look forward to it every time. My best friend/housemate, Ariana, is forced to read my poetry as well. I love these people dearly. I cannot thank them enough.


How do you know when a piece is finished?

I don’t. There’s not a definite answer to this for me.


How do you feel about sharing your writing with readers?  What kind of feedback do you get from them?

I feel ecstatic. Before Dunes Review I had only shared my poetry with my friends and at open mic nights. The feedback from open-mic is always pleasant and supportive. I can’t say much for everyone else, I guess I’ll find out.


How did you first get into reading your poetry at open mic nights?  What is that experience like?

A spoken-word poet came to one of my classes when I was 15. After her performance I asked her if there were any places near me where I could share my poetry. She directed me to this place called Back to the Grind. It is a two story coffee shop with a basement. Every Monday they host open-mics for local artists. They change the lights in the basement to red lights and people perform for 2 hours. Anything goes; Dance, Poetry, Song, Rapping, Comedy. It is probably one of the most open and receptive environments I've ever experienced. The audience is usually very supportive of whatever art is presented and people are allowed to say whatever they want. There are only 3 rules at back to the grind: 1. Must be original artwork, 2. No full frontal nudity, 3. No simulated masturbation. There might be a fourth rule that I don't think they mention anymore: no raw meat. I grew up in a community of very stark and fearless artists (fearless in terms of not being afraid to try new things), I think that comes out in the way I write.


Whose writing inspires you?

John Berryman is a huge inspiration, and has probably had the biggest influence on my style and writing. I don’t remember where I read it, it was in some article, but someone described John Berryman’s Dream Songs as “laughing with a noose around your neck.” I don’t think I’m laughing with a noose around my neck, but some of the characters in my poems definitely might be. I am reluctantly, but also heavily inspired by a lot of the modernists. A general list of writers who inspire me: William Golding, William Blake, Wordsworth, well I guess the romantics in general, Robert Lowell, James Joyce, Hemingway, and a lot of different contemporary poets, whether it be from a journal or online.


Who are you currently reading?

I am currently reading Noah Warren’s The Destroyer in the Glass, The Ozone Journal by Peter Balakian, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, John Berryman’s Dream Songs, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.


If someone were to write a book about your life (either fiction or nonfiction), who would you want that author to be and why?

I’ve only read This is How You Lose Her, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, but I would probably choose him. He really understands the struggle of Latinos as minorities and people of color, and though I have not experienced too much struggle because I am Latino, I feel like it helps that we would connect on that level. Also, he is really funny, a good storyteller, and is excellent at utilizing free indirect discourse (which is one of my favorite writing techniques).


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