Poet January Gill O’Neil, author of the fall 2018 release Rewilding, might not believe that poetry is ever necessarily on the side of power— but she does equate the two.
“Poetry is power,” O’Neil insists. “Making the choice to sit down and write or read a poem is power. It’s a choice. It’s self-care. It’s the start of a revolution. It’s change. Like a photo, a poem captures a moment. And that is powerful.”
The Cave Canem fellow has been published widely to much critical acclaim, including in The New York Times Magazine, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Ploughshares and Ecotone, among others. In 2018, she was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, and from 2012-2018, she served as executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.
She said that “the everyday and the ordinary” inspires her writing.
“In those moments, I seek out the universal,” she said. “I seek connection. Remember, poetry is the place we go when we can’t find the right words. Yes, we pull them out at weddings and funerals, births and deaths. But poems are [also] there for the in-between moments: I lost my keys. My best friend is sick. I have a crush. When will spring come?”
O’Neil’s first book, Underlife, details her life experiences up to its publication. Misery Islands, her second collection, was written in response to her divorce and explores her transition “into a new reality.” And her third and most recent book adds another dimension to that transition.
“Rewilding details what it’s like to come back stronger in the broken places,” O’Neil explained.
O’Neil said that even though she has written three full collections, writing has never gotten easier.
“The process stays the same, meaning I still have to sit down and write,” she said. “As I get older, I find it harder to clear the mind and get to a flow state. There are just too many distractions with kid drop-offs and pick-ups, social media, grading papers, et cetera.”
She said when she writes “changes based on schedule.”
“It doesn’t get any easier, but I like the reliability of that,” she said. “It’s work, but it’s good work.”
Her favorite part of writing a poem occurs midway in the process.
“I like that feeling midway through writing a poem when you know it will work out and if you get up to get water you will lose the impulse so you have to see it through,” she said. “My least favorite part of the process is revision, which usually happens a day or two later. I realize the masterpiece I worked through all afternoon is flawed and needs more work.”
Work she isn’t afraid to do—“I’m like a gardener on the page,” she said. “With a little care, I can make a poem bloom.”
O’Neil wasn’t always a poet.
“I don’t know that I ever decided to become a poet,” she said. “I studied creative writing as an undergraduate, took a few years off, then went to grad school at NYU for creative writing. I studied poets and writers because I enjoyed it, not for my career.”
In her late twenties, she decided poetry would comprise a “central part” of her life.
“Once I did, it made all my life choices easier,” she said. “Poetry is my starting point, and I guess someday it will be my end point.”
O’Neil is currently on sabbatical from teaching at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She was awarded the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence for 2019-2020 at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
“My two teenagers and I are moving from Massachusetts to Mississippi for the academic year,” she said. “I’m excited to see how this adventure— the location, the culture, the people and diversity— influences what comes next.”
Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.