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A Conversation With January O'Neil

January O’Neil is an assistant professor of English at Salem State University and the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. She is the recipient of the 2015 Mass Book Award for Poetry for her poetry collection Misery Islands.

We are fortunate to have you on the faculty here at Salem State. What does teaching bring to your creative work? What does your creative work bring to teaching?

Teaching keeps me engaged with young writers, which I enjoy very much. I learn as much from them as they learn from me. It is a real privilege working with students just discovering their interest in poetry. It keeps me engaged in an art form I consider my vocation.

When did you first become interested in poetry? How did you get started as a creative writer?

Let’s see … I wrote terrible song lyrics as a pre-teen, but it wasn’t until I took an undergraduate 8 a.m. Econ class at Old Dominion University that I realized I would never be a business major. I liked literature and writing, however. So I signed up for a creative writing class. I studied with Toi Derricotte and Ruth Stone, who, for me, were the right teachers at the right time. After that I was hooked.

What is your writing process like? Do you write at the same place and same time every day?

My writing process has changed over the years. When my children were toddlers, I fought for as much time as possible because I never had enough. Now I tend to write a poem a day during certain months of the year. But I’m always writing or reading throughout the day so I never feel as though too far away from my center.

What was the impetus behind Misery Islands? What is the significance of the title?

The book is about going through a divorce, but it is also about transitions and navigating new waters.

Misery Islands are a pair of Islands off the coast of Beverly, MA. When a friend told me about the islands, name Great Misery and Little Misery, something clicked. I had been collecting my poems for a manuscript, but it didn’t have enough of structure to hold it together. After hearing about the islands, I wrote a long poem that became the title poem of the collection. The cover photo is a picture I took of the ruins on the island.

I understand that Misery Islands is your second poetry collection. Was there a difference in approach between your first and second book? Was the second one easier to write?

Usually, the first poetry collection is just that: a collection of life experiences up to the present. A second book reflects a level of life experience and skill of writing that grows as the artist grows. For me, I wanted to show growth in style and subject matter, so I worked hard on what I wanted to say and how I wanted a book on this painful subject to represent my children and me in the world.

Where were you when you got the news that you won the Mass Book Award for Poetry?

I was at my computer at home in the afternoon. It was quite a surprise!

What advice would you give to aspiring writers who hope to publish their work?

Read as much as possible. Read modern writers as well as the classics. Experience poetry and fiction firsthand by attending readings, open mics, and literary events such as the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. Last but not least: write no matter what. You will never have enough time or money, so you should make your peace with it and get to work!

What book are you reading now?

I’m rereading Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which was nominated for a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a wonderful collection that I will share with my creative writing students ahead of our Salem State Writers Series reading on March 24.

Is there a book that has made a particular difference in your life that you would recommend others to read?

I always come back to The Color Purple by Alice Walker. As for poetry, I love reading the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine, Lucille Clifton, and Sharon Olds. They remind me how to capture the extraordinary in the ordinary.


Debra Longo
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