Whose Words These Are: January O’Neil’s Underlife

Click here to listen to Chris’ conversation with January Gill O’Neil

January Gill O’Neil personifies the very broad reach of the third Massachusetts Poetry Festival, coming to Hawthorne’s old witch-burning town of Salem, north of Boston, on May 13 and 14.

Family poems fill O’Neil’s first collection Underlife — about her mom’s career in a newborn intensive care unit: “She liked doing the kind things that love cannot do: adjusting another woman’s breast, lifting the pillow under her head…;” about her daughter Ella, at three, munching on her crayons. “This tells me you know how to eat words. You’ve tasted those intangible calories that fill my cavernous heart.” O’Neil is chatty in the kitchen, first obvious then arresting “In Praise of Okra: … you were brought from Africa as seeds, hidden in the ears and hair of slaves.” And then she’s bold in the bedroom: “Ass up, head down, no stroking, no kissing, just clumsy, fractional fucking that was over before it began.”

It was the Massachusetts Poetry Festival two years ago that prompted this “Whose Words These Are” series of Open Source conversations on where poetry comes from these days, and where it is going. At Salem, poetry would seem to be heading in the direction of hearty performance — led by inspirational school teachers like Anna West and Alex Charalambides as well as Sarah Kay and Jericho Brown; the Iraq War veteran Brian Turner of Here, Bullet; the crowd-pleasing Filipino-American Aimee Nezhukumatathil and the hall-of-fame slammer Patricia Smith. And oh, yes, the National Book Award winner Mark Doty, for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2008).

January O’Neil, Virginian by birth, is a writer/editor at Babson College outside Boston. She has studied with Sharon Olds, Philip Levine and Galway Kinnell. She credits Toi Derricotte with “opening the door,” and Cave Canem with keeping it open.

Q: Who are your brother and sister artists in other mediums?

A: I wish I could write a song as perfect as The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” which is a waltz. When I think about writing poems, I think about stringing them together like the Beatles do in some of their albums.

Q: What is the keynote of your personality as a poet?

A: I like to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, to capture a moment and elevate it.

Q: What’s the talent you most covet that you don’t have, yet?

A: Singing

Q: What quality do you look for in a poem?

A: I love being surprised. I love starting a poem someplace and not knowing where it’s going.

Q: Who is your favorite character in fiction?

A: Celie, from The Color Purple.

Q: Whom do you respect?

A: My parents.

Q: What’s your motto?

A: “I move to keep things whole,” which is a line from Mark Strand’s poem “Keeping Things Whole.”

Thanks to the Grolier Poetry Book Store in Harvard Square, Cambridge for studio space.

Related Content