30 November 2009

Poéfrika interview with January O'Neil

1. What’s your relation to poetry? How do you interact with it?

Poetry is my vocation. There’s nothing I enjoy more than finding the right words, or finding a series of “wrong” words and making them right.

2. Do you work on just one poem at a time, or do you work on several at the same time?

Usually, I work on one poem at a time. But I’ve been writing a long poem for a few months, so I’ve written other poems while continuing to work on it. And on a recent flight, I wrote and revised three new poems at once!

3. Poets labour a lot over their work (as do other artists). A lot of time and dedication goes into writing good poetry. Where’s the money?

HA! There is no real money in poetry, which is too bad because writing is one of the few fields of work where the content provider (the artist) oftentimes is not paid for his/her product. Poetry just doesn’t have the reach that fiction has with the book-buying public. That being said, I think there are more poets writing and publishing their poetry than ever before.

The Internet has made it easier for a poet to reach a wide audience. The money and opportunities comes from grants, fellowships, and reading and speaking engagements—but not from publishing a book.

4. Do you ever write ‘political poems’? Why, or why not?

Occasionally. I wrote a political poem as one of the three I worked on simultaneously. I also believe that all poetry is political. So whether I write a poem about cleaning the house or some injustice the world, there are politics at work between the words.

5. Is there a particular goal you seek when you write? Why do you write? Awaken us? Entertain us? Tell us the truth? What?

I want say something that hasn’t been said, or say something that has been said but say it well. I want to leave a poem thinking that I’ve contributed to the larger conversation in a meaningful way. My motivations are internal—I write for myself and hope that people enjoy what I say. I am the audience that I have to please.

6. How do you know a poem is 'finished'? Do you ever 'give up' on a poem?

When I have that “yes” or “aha” moment at the end of a draft, I know I’m onto something. I rarely give up on a poem. Not all of my poems see the light of day, but I try to make them work. Sometimes my failed attempts are reborn into new drafts. In general, by the end of a poem, if I end up in a different place than when I started, then this is a poem I will keep.

7. You are to encourage poetry students to write a poem. Please come up with a ‘writing prompt’, short and simple.

Write a 12-line poem using these six words: pillow, hammock, revel, twist, breeze, tight. (Could be any six random words.)


Write a 12-line poem about food, using the food in the title but nowhere else in the poem.

8. What two or three writers, living or not, have influenced you the most? Care to tell us why?

Sharon Olds: Through her poetry, she taught me it was okay to say the unsaid. And after studying with her at NYU, she was nothing short of kind and inspiring.

Phil Levine: He’s a tough customer. Phil was my thesis adviser At NYU and he encouraged me to always go deeper with my words and images. Never settle.

9. How and where do you write? Drink coffee, wine? Listen to music? Type, scribble? At a café, in the sitting room?

When I can get out of the house, I write at Starbucks. But I can write almost anywhere. I enjoy working late at night on my laptop or in my journal after the kids go to sleep. Hot tea and music are a must.

10. Here's an on-going poem. Please add to it:

They stood before me that night
With clenched fists and blown pupils,
Shadowed by leafless branches of a cotton tree,
The moon as bright as the moon and no metaphor

For which image can serve? What simile
Makes sense enough? The ghosts that guard
The tree nod yes, though I’ve not said a thing.
One shade uncurls and crooks a bony finger, calling me.

The voices rise up like beheaded trees
I stumble forward fear at my heels
How did this night arrive and where is wisdom’s heed
"Gone my child are your clothes -- face now this thing."

So strip off your nudity, and learn to be naked.
Release your fears as branches drop leaves
And let yourself see.
The man with an axe stands by
About to chop your ego,
Stand well away.

Oneself gone in the dark,
Everything else steps forward.
What black moonlight paints the scene;
The leaves whisper in the palms of the wind.

My name is the name of you
A name you have carried around like a stone

January Gill O’Neil’s poems and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, Ouroboros Review, Drunken Boat, Crab Orchard Review, Callaloo, Babel Fruit, Edible Phoenix, Literary Mama, Field, Seattle Review, Stuff Magazine, Can We Have Our Ball Back, Read Write Poem, and Cave Canem anthologies II and IV. A Cave Canem fellow, her first poetry collection, titled Underlife, will be published by CavanKerry Press in November 2009. She is a senior writer/editor at Babson College, runs a popular blog called Poet Mom, and lives with her two children in Beverly, MA.


Color Online said...

Very pleased to see this here. Thanks Rethabile and January.

Rethabile said...


January said...

Thanks for the interview, Rethabile. With any luck, the book will be available in another week.

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

Loved reading this! Good stuff!

Rethabile said...

Hi Pepek. I did, too. Let the book come out, now.

Dana said...

Very cool!

Dana said...

Very cool!

Kay McKenzie Cooke. said...

Thanks Ret. As always I learnt a little more about writing poetry to add to my store of helpful advice, plus my admiration of you and of Janz both has (naturally) been exponentially increased!!

Rethabile said...

Yay, Dana and Kay. Thanks much.

Jessie Carty said...

Great interview. I like how you see yourself as your audience. I've always been taken aback by teachers who say you must write for some other audience...

Rethabile said...

Hi Jessie,
Interesting point. I think it's impossible not to think about the audience when writing. The trick is for the writer to know that they're the final audience, and the one whom the written work must first please.

Thanks for stopping by.

evelyn.n.alfred said...

I enjoyed the interview.

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