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Portrait of an Artist: Joshua O’Donnell

September 15, 2023

Joshua O’Donnell is always seeking. He’s wandered for a lot of his life and has been writing poetry the whole way through.

“I’ve been in Zen monasteries, I’ve been in deserts and I’ve been all over the place, and I think for poetry, it’s the one thing where the prayer is enough. It is enough just to have made the prayer,” he said. “The experience very much is ‘Oh my goodness, I really love life.’”

O’Donnell works in The Café in Smith Union. From 1 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, he works the counter and connects with students who come by—even if just for a minute or two. He says these interactions with students frequently inspire him.

“Being around so many brilliant young people makes me feel like this person who can be teary-eyed and moved and hopeful,” he said. “It’s really an honor being around you guys and experiencing the community.”

O’Donnell has been writing since he was a young person. Even before he could speak, he was captivated by poetry.

“My earliest memories of poetry are walking around my dad’s bookshelf. I’d grab books from his shelf, and see these neat little lines. Seeing these containable things just seemed like magic to me,” O’Donnell said. “I learned how to read by reading poetry. I had no idea what I was reading, really, but it sounded musical. And it felt magical.”

To O’Donnell, poetry feels all-encompassing. He speaks in abstractions about creating space or hope, feeling like an outsider, the balancing act of writing and accumulating appreciation.

O’Donnell has been workshopping his poetry for a while, and recently decided to submit some poems to various magazines. SCHLAG Magazine published his poems “Mouse Forty-Five” and “Cracks Along the Water Mains” on its website for their sixth issue. The poems are different in form and style, but complement each other with his unique voice, a voice that took him a while to develop.

“Looking back, I don’t regret anything I’ve ever written. But I didn’t [always] really have a voice,” O’Donnell said. “You can create from the unknown and then see something that is absolutely undeniably true, but that you could never fathom until it was staring back at you.”

O’Donnell’s passions do not stop with writing. He also harbors a passion for mime and has been practicing it for three years.

“The stylized use of the body, to me, has become more and more important,” he said.

The physical experience of miming lends itself back to poetry for O’Donnell. He has taken an introductory mime class multiple times to ensure his understanding of the fundamentals.

“I need to learn every nook and cranny, like one of those very articulate action figures,” he said. “Every part of the body articulates this certain thing and works on certain planes.”

As for advice for young poets, O’Donnell thinks workshopping is integral to a writer’s success.

“I think it’s important to find people that want to write, and are interested in writing, and it’s great when you share something with people that feels unfinished, that’s fresh,” he said. “It’s important to find people you feel comfortable with, and who are willing to be responsive to your work.”

O’Donnell hopes to publish again, but he’s in no rush to do so. It’s about more than that for him.

“I’ve always just kept reading, and it’s taken a lot of different shapes in terms of the relationships I’ve established,” he said. “Outside of neighborhoods, towns, bookshops—it seems like poetry always ends up being somewhere in the midst of it.”


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