By Arianne Bakelmun
Poetry Cultural Center – Saturday March 19, 2022
AB (Arianne Bakelmun): What compels you and what continues to compel you to write poetry?
JGO (January Gill O’Neil): I was an Econ major and I had an eight AM economics class and I was terrible at it. Hate eight o’clock classes, so I did not do well. I thought I was going to be a business major in college but I took creative writing. I was always good at that in high school. I studied with Toi Derricotte and Ruth Stone, and Toi was really the first person to say here’s the world of poetry. Actually, I remember she played a cassette tape of “Howl” and she had printed copies so we went through the whole Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and I was like, “Wow you can really say that?” Because it certainly didn’t sound like anything else I had heard and didn’t sound like prose.
Then she introduced our class to Sharon Olds and I’m like, “You can say that?” in a poem about the body and being a woman, in such detail and in rich language like that. Well I think I was hooked. I didn’t do much writing; I certainly read. But once I got to college I was hooked. And then what keeps me going is that at some point I made up my mind that poetry is my center. So between poetry and family, that makes all my other choices easy. I try to do things and take work that makes me happy. It’s usually related to poetry. I take teaching assignments that are related to poetry. It allows me to spend time with kids and not get stressed out. Once I knew that poetry was what was going to feed me and sustain me, that made all of my other decisions easy. And I love words, putting them together, I love mishearing words, I love all of it.
AB: So you mention that poetry is what feeds you and sustains you. I was wondering how you nourish yourself to set up that space so that you can create.
JGO: Hmm good question. That’s a question that should change over time. I’m still sort of thinking pandemic time; you know when we were all isolated so we were going fewer places. We didn’t have to drive anywhere, we didn’t have to go anywhere, and we were at home for hours. We were barely taking walks because there was a point where we were afraid to go out of the house. So, I set up a routine and I got up at a certain point in the morning and I was at my computer. I’d get up, stretch, walk the dog, and then I’d do something else and check in with the kids. And then do something else, so routine and practice is good for me but I don’t always keep that. I mean now that we’re busy and we’re sort of getting back to a little bit of normal, we have the option of working outside of the house. I’m teaching in the classroom now, my schedule seems to be changing, and it’ll change again in the spring. So just being flexible, but really trying to do something for my writing and my art. I don’t know if I can create real space.
I look at my schedule daily and maybe go two or three days ahead, and look and see when I have blocks of time and how I want to use that time. I may say on Monday I want to write, but come Sunday I’m feeling like maybe I can work on my website or read a book. And that still feels like it’s feeding my art. So it doesn’t always end up being writing. It could be revision or it could be workshopping with friends. But, I try to figure out times in the day when I could shut off the TV and shut of social media, which is really hard for me, and try to get something done as well as try to keep up with grading. Which you know, is just, oh my goodness [laughs]; sometimes it’s a killer.
AB: I like the idea of establishing routines and structure in which you can be free in your creation. I was also curious if, looking back, you see any other examples people you grew up around, your family or other people, who are also storytellers, love words, or have ways that they document experience.
JGO: You know I come from a family of shoppers [laughs]. On my mom’s side of the family, my grandmother used to work for Rich’s department store in Atlanta. Whenever we went down and visited that’s what we did, we shopped. So, my parents were certainly hardworking people. I don’t think of them as storytellers but I do think of their work ethic. I think about being black in a certain period and proving yourself and trying to make it when you’re not part of the dominating culture; I think about that a lot. I don’t know if they were storytellers but they certainly liked stories.
AB: Are you reading a certain poet right now or a certain book?
JGO: Well right now I am reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “World of Wonders,” partially because it’s actually a wonderful book, but also because I’m going to be interviewing on Wednesday at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). So, I’m doing some prep work. I’m going back and looking at her nonfiction, which is new, but also her poetry collections. Her last poetry collection was “Oceanic” so I’m reading her right now and I’m also reading “The 1619 Project.” Then I’m holding off, because I’m going to be a judge of a national books awards, so I’m kind of gearing up to read a lot over the summer.
AB: You mentioned interviewing. I was curious about the process of preparing for and then interviewing other writers. How does that lend itself to your own curiosity that goes into your own creative process?
JGO: So, I’ll be interviewing her at the AWP conference, which is a network of creative writing organizations and writers who are not affiliated with academic programs. It should be a fun, low-key interview that gets to show off Aimee’s best work and her thoughts and feelings on writing. And, it’s having an engaging conversation with someone I’ve been friends with for 15 years. I’m trying to figure out that balance. But again, going through somebody else’s work and looking at how they’ve changed from their first book to their most recent work is interesting. You can sort of see how they change in style and how they grow. First books are really precious and lovely, and then each book has their own motion to it. I don’t know how that influences my writing personally but I’m open to all of it. So, I might just learn and take care of the interview in this week. And then, who knows what I’ll write about the week after, when I get home and decompress, and it all goes into the mix.
AB: I was also curious if you ever did, or if you still, feel fear about the vulnerability in the way that you express yourself?
JGO: Well, no. Let me just say this: I don’t release any poems that are true that would embarrass anybody or open up too many questions. That, to me, is not poetry. That is something else. I feel like I could write about anything. But, what gets published, or what I share with friends in the workshop, that’s a different story. I think all the poems should be written but not all of them need to be published. I’d rather go down that path and figure out what works and what makes a good poem. The thing that I tend to do now, which is probably not great, is that I almost look at every situation like, “Oh that could be a poem.” You know, [laughs] I trip down the stairs, [laughs] my daughter’s grumpy today. Those could be poems. So, sometimes that’s not exactly fair and those don’t necessarily make good poetry either. But, it’s fun to think about everything as a potential poem and then try to see if that’s really true. So, I don’t have any fear about that stuff. I don’t think there’s a topic I’m afraid to write about, but I also have to feel like I want to write about that topic.
AB: You mentioned that maybe it’s not always a good thing to look at every moment as if it could be a poem. What is the danger in that, do you think?
JGO: So, for example, I really do like Instagram. I like to take pictures because I feel like it’s an extension of my creativity. Not necessarily because I’ll get bunch of likes and stuff. Just like poetry, I look at it as this is an extension of my art. But because of that, that means I’m always looking for an opportunity to take a picture and so I’m not really in the moment. So, sometimes with writing, you’re constantly looking for the poem and you might not be living [laughs].
AB: One final question then: looking back, how have you noticed your work evolve? Can you give certain characteristics to your early writing and talk about how it changed?
JGO: I may have said this earlier in the workshop, but my first book was a typical first book. It was all the experience I had up to that point in 2009. So, I was happily married, I had two young kids, and I was trying to work. You know, I was trying to balance a lot of things so my book kind of reflects that. I talk about my parents more in that book than I do in anything I’ve done later, but by the second book I had had more experience. So, I was probably writing about the same things, just different perspectives. I also had divorced too, so my take on love was different. I was still writing about love and losing love, and then my third book is more about coming back stronger in the broken places. That’s content wise.
When you physically look at my poems, in my first book I write a lot in columns. At some point I figured out that we kind of all write a little bit like our teachers because we’re told to take in all those experiences. Whatever that comes out to be, that ends up being your voice or your style. My teachers were Sharon Olds, Phil Levine, and Galway Kinnell, and for the most part they always wrote in columns. Maybe Galway didn’t, but Phil and Sharon did. Rarely would they break up things in stanzas. So that’s why my first book feels like that. By the second and third book, I’m writing in two line stanzas, three line stanzas, and staggering and tabbing out my lines. Maybe a prose poem here or there, or maybe I try a formal poem. I could see that physical evolution of how the poetry looks on the page from the first book to how I’m writing now.
AB: Thank you for answering. That’s really cool to think about you finding your rhythm even shown in the way that the poem is written. Thank you so much for your time and answering my questions
JGO: Well thank you for asking, and it’s always fun to think about how your style changes over time so I appreciate the questions.