January Gill O’Neil is a Virginia native living north of Boston in the coastal town of Beverly, Massachusetts. CavanKerry Press has published her two books, titled Underlife and Misery Islands. Jan is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. Recently she was elected to the AWP Board of Directors. She’s the proud mom of two children, Alex and Ella, and in her spare time she fights crime. Her crab cakes are to die for.
Jan lists popcorn, entitlement on any level, fart jokes, and climate-change deniers as major turn-offs. Turn-ons include chocolate; Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; sans serif fonts; Tom Brady’s balls; the power trifecta of Kanye, Beyonce, and Jay Z; and Marvel movies, because, as she says, “Sometimes I like to see shit blow up.”
The Rumpus: Ladies and germs, toads and troubadours, we’ve got a hell of a show for you tonight. Anton, have you ever met tonight’s guest, the splendid Ms. January Gill O’Neil?
Anton: Did you say something?
Rumpus: Lordy, lordy. Do you always answer a question with a question?
Anton: Why should you care, Dave?
Rumpus: Whoa, you’re a little testy tonight. Folks, let’s get this show started before Li’l Bono over there has another meltdown.
Tonight’s guest has published two riveting books. Beyond that, she’s a mom, an English professor, an advocate for the art on the local and national levels, and, like me and Anton, a suffering Boston Red Sox fan. She’s here to talk about her latest book, Misery Islands. Stomp your feet and put your hands together for January Gill O’Neil! Stroll on out here, January!
January Gill O’Neil: Hi Dave! Thanks for having me on the show. Hi Anton!
Rumpus: Anton’s a bit surly tonight, I’m afraid. He needs a little more verse in his life.
O’Neil: Well then… I’ve got what he needs.
Rumpus: You do! Psychopaths like Anton aside, I bet most of us can relate to the domestic situations and everyday things that inspire your poems.
O’Neil: I don’t know how to do it any other way. And I believe in celebrating the everyday. The extraordinary in the ordinary.
Rumpus: I like that phrase. In the work of a lot of poets, you wouldn’t know that Scandal or Dora the Explorer or The Real Housewives of Atlanta exist, but popular culture appears in a lot of your work. This sort of material might’ve given Mr. William Butler Yeats a coronary.
Did you ever feel like you needed permission to write a poem that includes Home Depot or, bless his soul, Rowdy Roddy Piper?
O’Neil: Do I need permission? No, not for going to a wrestling match with my dad or traveling the concrete aisles on Home Depot. I wouldn’t even know who to ask. These are the images I grew up with. So much of who I am was shaped by movies, TV, and music of the 80s and 90s.
Rumpus: I offer this praise knowing full well that I neglect pop culture in my own poems, for some reason.
O’Neil: You write a lot about suburbia. I think of your writing much like my own, a moment in time—a Polaroid, if you will.
Rumpus: They say Polaroids are chic again.
O’Neil: I’ve been shaking it like a Polaroid for years.
Rumpus: Speaking of which, I think we might replace Anton with these crazy kids right here.
Seriously though, Jan. Tell us a little more about your phrase, “the extraordinary in the ordinary.”
O’Neil: Frost wrote about what he knew, the things of the everyday: roads, landscapes, winter, nature, emotion. I wonder if he or Bishop or Plath thought of what they were doing as indulging in pop culture. Maybe the culture of their day.
Rumpus: Does your poetry come directly out of personal experience? It certainly seems to. Some of your poems remind me of Sharon Olds’s work. Or Lucille Clifton’s.
O’Neil: Yes. God yes. Very autobiographical. My first book, Underlife, was a standard first book—poems from grad school on that detail my life. Misery Islands chronicles my divorce and single motherhood. The next manuscript is a continuation. Feels like too much me sometimes.
Rumpus: But it’s a smart and vulnerable and fully-fleshed you. Let’s introduce the audience to the figure you cut in those poems. Usually we look at one poem, but tonight we’ve flagged two that seem like an important tandem in Misery Islands. They speak to each other.
Can you tell us a little bit about the relationship between “Home Improvement, Part 1” and “Part 2”? The audience can link to them here. How did they come about?
O’Neil: Oh, Home Depot. How I love-hate your leaf blowers and plywood.
Rumpus: As a homeowner, I go there often, and I’ve never spied another poet there.
O’Neil: Standing on those cement floors longer than an hour hurts my back.
Let’s see, I had been working on that poem for a while, and it wasn’t gelling. So I decided to write the poem in reverse. “Home Improvement, Part 1” is a negative poem about having to do the things you thought you’d never have to do, like caulk a bathtub.
Rumpus: I’m terrible at caulk.
O’Neil: The second poem is the flip side, but it became fun for me trying to make it the antidote to the original. So some of those lines mirror each other.
Rumpus: I like the echo effect you create in those poems, and how they serve different ends. The first poem targets the ex-husband. The second is more liberating… and seems addressed to a broader audience.
O’Neil: Yeah, the first poem has an edge to it. But the second one, as you pointed out, is more playful. It was fun. And it’s true. Friday nights are the best nights to meet men at Home Depot. “Home of the handy!”
Rumpus: Donna Summers’s “I Will Survive” seems like it could be the theme song for that one.
O’Neil: That’s Gloria Gaynor who sang “I Will Survive.” Donna Summer sang “I Feel Love” and “Bad Girl.”
O’Neil: I know my disco, thank you very much!
Rumpus: I like that moment when the speaker really confirms to us that she’s on the prowl: “Give me the guy/with the ratty college T-shirt, slim build, and galvanized grip, / a real DIY-er with the ‘I-haven’t-shaved-in-two-days-grin.’” Kiss off, ex-husband!
O’Neil: Yep. Sorry—not sorry!
Rumpus: So, this begs the question then, since you’ve confessed to writing poems with a strong autobiographical sensibility. Do you really go to Home Depot in search of a date?
O’Neil: Not recently. That’s what Starbucks is for. And writing, of course. I have to go to Home Depot tomorrow for a shelving unit.
Rumpus: Mmm… Shelving Unit. Sounds like a chapbook title.
In the first “Home Improvement,” the speaker talks about being a “tourist in the kingdom of tools,” but she sounds alien to that experience, even timid. In the second, that same “tourist” is in control and confident. She’s got her groove back, so to speak. It’s a more voracious kind of tourism.
O’Neil: Yes. Voracious. That’s accurate. Of course, I’m likely to run into a parent from my kids’ school, so that’s awkward.
Rumpus: I see you’re not fully fessing up to this Home-Depot-on-a-Friday-night dating strategy. I’m supposing it’s more successful than OKCupid. Let’s move on then.
O’Neil: Moving on.
Rumpus: Here’s another thing I notice about the two poems. The first is written in short lines that yield a sense of pressure or tension. This suggests to me the speaker’s tentativeness. But the second “Home Improvement” has longer, easier lines—lines that sway to a different rhythm. Is this an accurate read on my part—that the form, too, is connected to the poem’s tone and mood?
O’Neil: Yes. You know, I never really plan for that. It just happened. But I love using short and long lines to show a shift in tone. And it fit with where the poems fall in the book. The mood changes from one section to the next, eventually getting lighter toward the end.
Rumpus: I’m glad to know those decisions aren’t deliberate but instinctive.
O’Neil: When I wrote those poems, I wrote whatever I felt like, whenever I felt it. Can’t plan to have an “angry” poem or a “hopeful” poem. I mean, I guess you could, but the reader can see through it. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t write a poem to fill a hole when I put these poems in the manuscript. But I usually don’t have to do that. There’s enough there to create a narrative. And even as I say “create a narrative,” I’m just putting the poems together to create a mood. The process is more organic than that.
Rumpus: I’m always interested in how poets organize a collection. What was your intention in arranging the book? There are four sections: “The Gospel of Low Art,” “In the Company of Women,” “Misery,” and “Tether.” They contain very different kinds of weather, if you will. Can you talk about those differences in meteorological terms?
O’Neil: The collection is chronological, starting with seeing the cracks in my relationship. I skipped denial altogether, moved into anger, and then found some kind of acceptance. In meteorological terms, or New England terms, a fall, two winters, and summer. Summer always gets short shrift.
Rumpus: The middle of the book is one long-ass winter. Like last winter.
O’Neil: I. Can’t. Even. We are all still traumatized by it. I’m not kidding.
Rumpus: I’m glad you give us some summer weather before we reach the end of the collection. “Tether” contains many tender poems about motherhood and child rearing. Part of the speaker’s recovery comes from her ferocious love for her children.
O’Neil: My kids are such an important part of my life; they are the silver linings from this relationship. Because of that, I don’t think of the marriage ending as a failure. How could I? It just ran its course. So the book ending on a more positive note is reflective of that.
Rumpus: You wear so many hats! You’re a professor at Salem State, you write books, and organize the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. It sounds like you’re more or less a single mother. Not much time for trawling the aisles of Home Depot for love.
O’Neil: Yep, I am a single mom. Again, I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this—all of it. And I’ve worked hard to shape a life with poetry as the center.
Rumpus: You must have an incredibly efficient writing process. Can you share a clip that illustrates it?
O’Neil: From The Matrix. This absolutely sums up my feelings on poetry. There is no poem—rather, don’t try to write the poem. You are the poem. It’s all in you. That idea really works for me in life whenever fear comes a-knockin’. Usually when I feel a resistance, there’s a breakthrough not far behind.
Rumpus: When Keanu sees that spoon bend, you can totally tell he has to resist saying, “Whoa.” Let’s run with this for a while. How about motherhood? I bet there are some great YouTube clips that evoke your feelings about being a mom.
O’Neil: Here’s what it’s like to be a single mom.
Rumpus: Heroic parenting!
O’Neil: Isn’t this what moms—and dads—do? We think quickly, act fast, and always have a Plan B. We absorb whatever terrible things are in the world to protect our kids. I’ve always loved The Incredibles and Elastigirl.
Rumpus: Me too. What about the workplace? What’s it like to be January Gill O’Neil, the professor and public advocate for poetry?
O’Neil: Professionally, some days I feel like Olivia Pope from Scandal.
O’Neil: “It’s handled.” Olivia Pope is my spirit animal.
Rumpus: Good choice. Mine is an oversexed little marsupial called the antechinus. Did you always know you were going to be a poet?
O’Neil: When I was starting out, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I felt a lot like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. Trying to explain to a non-poet that you write poetry, much less read it.
Rumpus: I hear you.
O’Neil: I might as well be explaining kickboxing to someone, which I have no clue about, but you get the idea. “Lloyd, Lloyd … null and void …”
Rumpus: Clearly you’ve done well for yourself in the art and profession, Jan. I’m in awe of your work ethic. I barely have enough energy to keep this crap-ass show afloat!
O’Neil: I enjoy all of it. But I won’t lie. It takes a lot of effort to stay of top of things. I’m always looking for ways to stay organized, eat better, get in exercise, grade more efficiently. Lots of things melt away.
Rumpus: What do your children think of you writing poems about them? Where do you draw the line between your family life and writing life? I ask because I’m starting to struggle with this myself, and my kids are only two and four.
O’Neil: I don’t publish anything that would embarrass them. That being said, I have a poem about my daughter in toilet training that she’s not a fan of.
Rumpus: I’ll bet.
O’Neil: But my kids think I’m famous—HA HA HA HA HA—which makes them famous by association.
Rumpus: I hadn’t considered how much weight that might carry at the dinner table.
O’Neil: That’s true about everything I publish. I don’t clear these poems with the subjects, but I don’t submit anything I won’t stand by. This is my perspective—it’s not the whole story, just a moment in time. A snapshot. When my kids are older, they can write their own stories. Knowing them, they probably will.
Rumpus: Do you ever have an experience at home when you think to yourself, “This would be great material for a poem” or “I’m going to write about this”?
O’Neil: All. The. Time.
Rumpus: Wow! That never happens to me.
O’Neil: And then I write those poems and they suck.
Rumpus: Yeah? But at least some of those poems work, right?
O’Neil: I write a lot of poems that don’t work. That’s my process. I tend to write in bulk and get rid of the weak ones.
Rumpus: You know, despite the efforts of Late Nite, the world still doesn’t seem to know that most poems are terrible! Fortunately 99% of them never get published. At least I hope that’s the case. Can I ask one more question?
O’Neil: Fire away!
Rumpus: The title, Misery Islands. Can you talk more about it? It sounds like the title of a horror flick, which I guess in a way it is.
O’Neil: When I was putting the collection together, I had most of the poems but the collection just wasn’t there. The poems seemed like a group without a unifying theme. Also, and I’m not sure how this fits in, I didn’t want it to seem as if the reader was peeking into an argument. The collection wasn’t about revenge or therapy. It was a snapshot about this time in my life.
So I live on the coast, and I was at a park in my town when my friend and poet Colleen Michaels of the Improbable Places Poetry Tour told me about Misery Islands, two islands off the coast of Beverly and Salem. Great Misery and Little Misery. They were named after a shipbuilder who was stranded on one of the islands for a few days and reportedly had a “miserable time.” When she told me the story, I knew this would be the title.
Rumpus: You know, I’m from Massachusetts, a Masshole born-and-raised, and I’ve never heard of these islands.
O’Neil: Exactly. It’s a physical island as well as a metaphorical one.
Rumpus: When you’re an artist, surprises like these are the best.
O’Neil: Yep, I try to stay open to all possibilities.
Rumpus: Actually, I have one more question for you, Jan. The most important question of all! Are you ready?
Rumpus: The Red Sox. I mean—this team has screwed the pooch ever since it won the World Series a couple of years ago.
Rumpus: You’re a faithful and knowledgeable Sox fan. And also an expert on misery. Are brighter days ahead for our hometown team?
O’Neil: They gutted the team since the last World Series. But, of course, that was the year of the marathon bombing and we needed them to be the Red Sox. I love them, though they will break my heart some years.
Did you know I have David Ortiz as my cell phone voice mail message? Long story.
Rumpus: No way.
O’Neil: Way! I also have Gwendolyn Brooks reading “We Real Cool” as my ringtone, because that’s how I roll.
Rumpus: I’m glad you think the team will turn it around. On that note, it’s time to test your own poetic athleticism. Are you ready for your Three Obstructions assignment? You know what you’re in for, right?
O’Neil: One more comment. You didn’t ask, but I’m just putting it out there. Tom Brady’s balls are perfect.
Rumpus: Of course they are!
O’Neil: I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
Rumpus: No I mean really super-ready. I mean champing at the bit. I mean salivating-for-a-big-old-hunk-of-meat-off-the-bone ready!
O’Neil: I am voraciously waiting for what comes next!
That was supposed to sound like a wolf-howl. I’m so lame.
Seriously though, here they are:
- Take a line from one of your “Home Improvement” poems and use it as your title.
- Begin the poem in the simple present tense and then, at some point, swerve to the simple future tense.
- One of the following celebrities must make an appearance: Tom Brady, Kanye West, David Ortiz.
Rumpus: Describe to the audience how you’re feeling right now.
O’Neil: I’m laughing. But love the challenge.
Rumpus: Okay then. That’s what our corporate sponsors like to hear.
O’Neil: How can I fit Kanye into a poem? Hmmmm…
Rumpus: You can head off to the green room and ruminate on that while we cut to a break.
O’Neil: Are there snacks in the green room? I like snacks.
Rumpus: We’ve got awesome snacks! Folks, don’t touch your remotes. We’ll be back after this message!
The Normal Store
Above the rows and rows of normal,
a sparrow glides just under the lights
at Home Depot. She flits into the garden
center, perches on the handle of an empty
shopping cart to get a better look at me
and my choices: which grass to reseed
the yard, Bermuda or Kentucky Blue?
I wonder if her bird body weighs enough
to trigger the automated doors, or is this the place
she feels more herself—exploring every corner,
a curated kind of wilderness. No predators,
not even the cashiers are fazed
by the constant dogging and diving.
No hunting and pecking for this chick.
She rips into a bag of bird seed,
burying all she can carry in a potted plant.
Why would she leave here? Every now and then
she misses the green breeze of spring, or the stretch
of a wing under a noonday sky. But she perks up
when she hears the pipped-in jazz, or something smooth
from Kanye West: You have the power to let power go.
Her chip-flint eyes sparkle under the florescent lights.
Rumpus: Bravissima! You survived. More than survived, I’d say.
O’Neil: You know, I’m looking at this poem and seeing the flaws now. Should I change “lights” in the second line to “rafters” because I use lights again at the end? But I can’t exactly remember if a Home Depot roof has rafters, so I need to go back to the store to see how accurate I am.
Rumpus: Well it’s good you have to buy that new shelving unit then!
This draft gets stronger as it develops. What was the toughest part of the assignment? I see it took you a while to get to Kanye.
O’Neil: The toughest part was getting one of the celebs in the poem, but I had no doubt it would be Kanye. That line, “You have the power to let power go,” started out an epigraph, but I couldn’t make it work. Then with some tinkering, it seemed to find a place at the end. The line itself is from Kanye’s song, Power, which became a mantra for me working through the divorce. I’m surprised that this line I packed away came out for your poetry prompt.
Rumpus: It’s as if the whole poem anticipates that strong, surprising move at the end. I can’t imagine a version without it.
O’Neil: It was touch and go for a while.
Rumpus: Jan, good luck with the book and thanks for being here. I won’t speak for Anton, but the rest of us had fun hanging out with you tonight.
O’Neil: Dave, thanks so much for having me. Anton, I know this is highly irregular and not a Home Depot, but what are you doing after the show?
Rumpus: Is this Late Nite’s first love connection? Banzai!
Stay tuned for Episode #13 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Rick Barot.
Feature author photo © Rachel Eliza Griffiths.