by Jessie Carty
January Gill O’Neil is the author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press, December 2009). Her poems and articles have appeared in The MOM Egg, Crab Creek Review, Ouroboros Review, Drunken Boat, Crab Orchard Review, Callaloo, Babel Fruit, Edible Phoenix, Literary Mama, Field, and Cave Canem anthologies II and IV. In 2009, January was awarded a Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund grant. She is featured in the Poets & Writers January/February 2010 Inspiration issue as one of their 12 debut poets. A Cave Canem fellow, she is a senior writer/editor at Babson College, runs the popular Poet Mom blog, and lives with her two children in Beverly, MA.
Jessie Carty: I first wanted to congratulate you on the publication of your debut collection of poetry Underlife, which I read and reviewed on my blog earlier this year. With writers having to do so much of their own marketing, have you prepared the “elevator” version of how to describe your book?
January Gill O’Neil: Thanks Jessie!
Underlife is about the unsaid. It’s about those things that remain on the tips of our tongues but is never said out loud. It deals with issues of race and culture, as well as being a woman, wife, mother, and careerist—and how these aspects intersect.
When did you know you were ready to put together a collection of poetry?
When I needed a large binder clip to hold my poems together, I knew it was time to start thinking giving these random poems some order.
The word that kept coming to me when I read your book was fearless. For me, this means you really got into the grit of life and didn’t seem to avoid any topics. Are there any topics you find particularly hard to write? Especially when you know they are going to be published? Any examples from the book?
Poems about my father were particularly tough. My dad and I have a great relationship, but writing about drinking (“Drinking” and “Poem for My Father.”) is tough subject matter. He’s not that person anymore. Yet, the subject mater was worthy of exploration. It’s one thing to write a few poems on one subject over the course of a few years. It’s another to put them together and realize you have a theme—something I never really saw until I put together the collection.
That being said, I don’t feel there are any topics that are off limits.
A coworker says,We’re thinking about doing a happy hour.
Wanna join us?
And you recall the night you found her father
slumped over in the kitchen chair . . .
But you go anyway because
It’s Friday and your job sucks,
And drinking invites camaraderie.
Besides the “tough” topics, you also hold a mirror up to the minutia of daily life. You give new words to the seemingly unimportant. My favorite example of this is the poem “Always There’s Something”. Do you think you write from specific small images/moments or do you compose with a theme/subject already in mind?
The story is in the details. Life happens in the day-to-day moments we spend in between the big events.
Usually, I start from scratch, meaning I don’t have much more than details in mind. I carry around a notebook so I can jot down ideas whenever they occur. There’s nothing worse than being on the train thinking you have the world’s greatest poem in your head and no paper to write it down. But I like to use snippets of conversation, misheard phrases, and words not used in regular speech. For example, I use the phrase “Nice gams!” in the poem, “What Mommy Wants.” When was the last time you heard anyone use the word gams?
Is there any particular bit of advice you like to give to other poets? I always feel like I say my favorite tip too much – READ!
Reading is great advice. Also, I recommend connecting with other poets often, either in person or virtually. I like participating in workshops because I like having my work critiqued by people I trust.
Whenever possible, read your poems out loud, and have someone else read them back to you. It helps you find the weak spots in your work that may not be readily seen.
How did you go about setting up readings and talks. Did you have to do this or did your publisher assist you?
Most of the readings I’ve set up myself, but it’s certainly been easier since Underlife was published. I send queries, or someone contacts me through word of mouth. I’m very grateful that people are interested in my work.
Besides the actual act of writing, how do you stay involved with other writers?
Can’t say enough about writing communities—in person and virtual. Back in 2006, when I was working full time raising a toddler and an infant, I started the Poet Mom blog as a way of reaching out to other writers. But it was the feedback on my poems that kept me going. I started posting my work, reading poems by contemporary, global poets. It’s interesting to see how writers in this digital age are influenced by technology and immediacy and intimacy it brings.
I also work with a local writers’ group in Salem, MA. My work is stronger when I can get constructive feedback from people I trust. My poetry is better because I am connected to communities of writers who believe in and draw strength from working with words.
I know you are also connected with Cave Canem. Can you tell us a little bit about Cave Canem and your experience there?
Cave Canem is a writers’ group for African American poets. I participated in two retreats and found the experience to be extremely rewarding. More than 270 poets have gone through the program. The most valuable part of the experience has been the friendships and connections that have lasted through the years.
As a full-time worker, mom, blogger and poet are there any tricks you can give other writers on how to balance it all?
I don’t believe in balance, but I try to do only those things that bring me joy. Meaning, I don’t do things that are time sucks.
When I find time to write, I try to focus just on the writing and not submissions or blogging. Those are distractions and can be done when the kids are around. But when I have a few moments, I write in short spurts whenever the mood strikes me. I may not get a poem every time, but at least I keep the creative juices flowing.
Always keep pen and paper handy.