An Interview with Emily O’Neill

Hi Emily! Thanks for joining us today. So, for starters, a little background information for our readers—you’re a poet, and your first collection, Pelican (YesYes Books, 2015), has met with a great deal of critical and commercial success. Were you surprised by the book’s reception?

I don’t think anyone is quite prepared for what it feels like to read their first book review or even to hold their first book in their hands. I was lucky enough to be in Portland on my book tour when KMA Sullivan, my publisher, was going to the printer to pick up the first run of my book so I got to tag along. I’ll be completely honest—I asked the man who had loaded the boxes onto the dolly to cut the top one open so I could touch the cover and then I started crying. I made a list of things I wanted to accomplish when I was maybe sixteen, and on it was have a book published by the time I was twenty-five, which I somehow managed, and it still feels very surreal.

I don’t have an MFA or really very much formal training in writing poems beyond what I’ve learned from open mics and workshopping with people I admire. I read a lot, but more intuitively than I probably should—I’d probably know a lot more about what makes a successful poem if I read more of the books everyone lauds. So the critical response was especially surprising. Having a review on The Rumpus felt huge, and even more so because the review itself seemed baffled that I could be a fun person on the internet tweeting about Ally McBeal, and also in charge of this bird made of grief poems. We’re pretty much through our first print run of 1,000 copies, which feels like the biggest accomplishment of all. It makes me proud on a daily basis that I wrote a thing that could be important to people who’ve never met me or even heard me read the poems aloud. I did an interview with a woman from the UAE the other day who go in touch with me via Twitter and that felt so outlandish—that my poems were in the hands of someone on the other side of the world, and at home there.

So yes, I think it’s wild that my poems have made even the tiniest mark on anyone. But what doesn’t surprise me is that a book about grief would find a foothold with people. Grief rituals, especially in America, are silenced regularly. We have a funeral, and are then expected to forget, or at least not speak publicly about it. I think that people really crave conversations about what they’ve lost, and how they still feel the loss no matter how much time passes. I have conversations at readings with folks who tell me about what they’ve lost too, and how much they need to talk about it and also don’t feel like they have permission to. If my work can give anyone permission to sit longer with their grief and learn more about themselves from that grief, I feel prouder than I can possibly say.

The poems in Pelican have been praised for being at once personally intimate and technically intricate. How has your background, both educationally and culturally, informed your voice?

I came up through slam as a writer, so I’ve always been really concerned with how something sounds out loud. There’s plenty to play with when working on a poem only on page, but once it’s in the air you can manipulate so much more. Sound really is my favorite editor. It tells me when my sentences are going to mire someone or when I need to break a rhythm to draw attention to one detail or another. In teaching, I always tell my students to read their work (even prose) aloud before calling it finished, because your ear finds mistakes of meaning and arrangement better than eyes that have passed over the same row of words a dozen times.

Reading aloud in a public setting also teaches you how far your audience is willing to go to extract meaning from what happens in your work. If a poem is particularly obtuse or difficult to access on a first pass, the language has to be compelling enough to carry your listener through to the end. If your language is compelling, then the meaning can even take a secondary role. Knowing the story of a poem is not always necessary to enjoyment of that poem, but the two dynamics can and should reinforce one another.

Culturally, the biggest factor in shaping me as a writer is probably my father being a big liar. Or at least a liar in the sense that so many of his stories were unverifiable. Watching him speak was magical because he knew what would draw someone in and make them not care about the veracity of what he was saying. I learned so much from the way he told stories and that absolutely shaped the way I was able to tell stories about losing him. I also come from a huge family, with aunts and uncles and cousins in and out all day every day, and having so many different voices in my head helps to make poems too. My mother’s father was an excellent mimic, and I’m not too shabby at mimicry either (I don’t do impressions on command but can sing like most anyone and often lapse into other people’s speech patterns if around them for an hour or two). I think being a good mimic teaches you something about language and how to best arrange what you mean or manipulate a story to do a certain kind of work.

One of the things that sets you apart from your peers is your impressive publication history. Did you set out to be this prolific, or was that a routine you fell into?

In high school I kept an exhaustive journal and trained myself to expect a lot of output, even though I was primarily a visual artist at the time. I think that discipline carried over when I shifted my focus more heavily to writing. So to be constantly drafting, constantly working through multiple manuscripts in my head at once, that feels very natural and definitely informs my personal routine. I’m in the process of finishing my second full-length right now; I only started the project last October, but the poems have come quickly because of the urgency of the project and my constant collection of notes. I still keep a pretty intense notebook and handwrite notes for myself, while also compiling a running list of possible titles and lines that might become useful in a note in my phone. There are at least nine drafts open on my laptop at any given time. That’s just how my brain moves—in too many directions and sometimes too fast for my taste. I’m just trying to keep up. I think having chronic anxiety has something to do with that relentless forward motion, but I could also just easily give myself credit for putting a system in place for myself as far as writing goes that really works for me.

As far as publishing, that was more of an accident. I was in a pretty horrible long-term relationship with another writer who very much looked down on my participation in spoken word. He didn’t think of it as a legitimate outlet, and was constantly telling me that I was better than reading a poem at an open mic and never thinking about that piece again. I don't know if “better” is the right word, but it certainly planted a seed in my head about how permanent or impermanent I wanted my writing to be. He insisted that if I cared about my work that I would try to publish it. There are still poems I write specifically to be read aloud, but I think those poems are in the minority now. And while I don’t agree at all with the reasons he gave me for publishing, while we were together I started to follow his pattern of drafting, editing, and submitting my work and that just became a part of how I work.

Coming away from his somewhat brutal and essentialist introduction to publishing, my personal approach has always been based in just trying to get my poems out there. I have no idea who will like or want to publish what I’m doing, but it certainly doesn’t harm me (or the poems) to attempt it. I try to have at least twenty-five active submissions out at any given time, which is a high number according to most people, but I also have a backlog of anywhere between ten and thirty unpublished poems in my arsenal at a time. Writing so much gives me the freedom to publish at a pretty intense rate if those poems or stories or essays happen to get accepted. I know it’s not “normal” but I couldn’t slow the pace if I wanted to.

You’ve got two chapbooks coming out this spring, Celeris, released with Fog Machine this month, and You Can’t Pick Your Genre, available at AWP from Jellyfish Highway—an unusual feat for a poet so early in their career—what can you tell me about them? Do you think the books are in conversation with each other? How are they the same/different from one another?

Celeris was written almost by accident. After I moved out with the snob who made me publish, I had a really tumultuous relationship with another writer. It was probably too soon to get involved with someone new but this person was insistent and also extremely in need emotionally or so it seemed. The poems in Celeris were my way of coping with the really emotionally abusive power dynamics of that relationship. I felt like this person wouldn’t survive if I left, but it was killing me to stay. Writing was the only place protected from the relationship because at the bottom of everything, the only thing I had in common with my partner was poetry. I wrote myself many trap doors and told myself many bedtime stories of how it could be better or how I would survive and after about a year it did get better and I got out and finished the chapbook as I finished processing how deeply I had been taken advantage of.

You Can’t Pick Your Genre was a more purposeful project, but the themes ended up being similar. I wrote the poems almost as a dare; I was tweeting a lot about rewatching all of the Scream movies between getting back from my west coast tour for Pelican and picking up again to go to AWP in Minneapolis, and Rob Sturma, who runs FreezeRay Press, made a joke about me writing a Scream chapbook. When I was still a baby poet I’d seen Daphne Gottlieb read a bunch of work from her brilliant Final Girl and Kissing Dead Girls and thought it might be cool to dissect Scream specifically because it’s already constructed as a metatext—every show or movie Kevin Williamson writes strives to both critique what it emulates while also being a perfect example of that thing. So I started writing poems interrogating the movies, and each one of them is kind of a flash lyric essay about horror movie tropes and what frustrates me about them—the disposability of women, the problem of suburbia being perceived as pristine, male aggression as some kind of inevitability—all of it. In writing them I was also unpacking some of my own trauma around being assaulted and gas-lighted and empathized very seriously with Sidney’s character as a woman who is skeptical of the world for very real and terrifying reasons but who is also trying to live her life and be a person without having every action dictated by trauma. Striking that balance between processing trauma and disengaging from it enough that you can try to trust people again is something I struggle with constantly and writing the poems for this chap definitely intersected with Celeris for that reason. I couldn’t finish writing Celeris without doing the intellectual work of YCPYG. YCPYG also gave me the freedom to push back against a lot of constructs that facilitate abusive relationships in general—silencing, victim-blaming, gas-lighting, community’s role in the protection and even production of abusers, entitlement to the female body as both entertainment and sex object, etc. etc. etc. The best part of writing YCPYG was that it was healing for me while also being really fun. So many of the titles are direct quotes from the movies that I got to explode, and taking pop culture artifacts that are important to me and asking them direct questions is probably one of my favorite exercises as an artist.

There’s also a third chapbook in the mix, coming out as a limited edition of fifty in this year’s Ladybox project (handmade zines by female identified writers sold as a boxed set), that’s called Stag and is maybe the perfect intersection of Celeris and YCPYG. Stag is a single long poem inspired by a performance piece I wrote after Tori Amos’ “Cloud on My Tongue.” The original poem was about the metaphor story you tell about when someone has harmed you, versus the actual details of that harm. How much you can reveal without hurting yourself, how much you can reveal to that person without them harming you further. The more I sat with the original piece, the more I wrote into it, fleshing out all the stories I’d told myself to make me stay with someone who was behaving abusively, both verbally and emotionally. I ended up with this poem that’s more than twenty pages and floats in and out of a dream/nightmare space. I write very specifically about trauma and sure, that’s emotionally messy, but if I wanted clean, straightforward poems I would have to go back to the beginning and grow up differently and probably become a nun like I had planned in middle school.

Amongst all your achievements, both personal and professional, of which are you most proud?

I don’t want this to sound glib or melodramatic, but my biggest personal and professional achievement is not killing myself. I am most proud of living through what I’ve lived through and choosing every day not to die. The ways I have been harmed touch me and everyone I love on a daily basis. That is huge and heavy and some days feels unbearable, and the act of making art from trauma can be really exhausting, but it is the only line in the sand between me and not existing. Every poem I write is a stone in the wall I’m building between me and wishing I were dead. I am a happy person most days, in spite of everything, but the depths of what could visit me at any moment and roost in my chest for as long as it wants is terrifying. I write books to give that vulture somewhere else to be. If I put the grief in a house that’s next door to mine, the vulture will still come around but at least I won’t have to brew tea for it or share my dinner.

I write books to take my body back from those who have stolen it from me. I write books to imagine myself better and more whole that I feel even on my best days, to imagine some strength into my body when I’m too tired or upset or alone to get out of bed. I stay in bed. I write books in bed. I get hungry and if I want to keep writing I have to feed myself. In that way, writing forces me to be responsible to and for myself in the most basic ways. The act of writing also brings me a terrifying amount of joy, which might explain why I write so much about so many things. I want to filter even the most awful things I’ve survived through that lens of joy, to try to gain some power back. I’m proud that people want to read my work because their responding to what I’ve made to keep me alive makes me want to keep being alive; it makes it harder for me to untangle myself from this world.

What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?

This past year I got rejected from graduate school, but was oddly not terribly upset about it, beyond being annoyed at spending the money on the GREs and application fees. I’m honestly looking forward to continuing to write outside the academy. I’ve always been a working-class writer. I worked full time while attending college full time and still graduated early. I think if someone gave me money and told me to just write for a while, I would immediately lose my mind. I need constant stimuli to make at the rate I’m accustomed to, and being a journeyman writer gives me that constant cross-talk between all the things I love.

I’ve written a book of love letters to food and booze called a falling knife has no handle that I’m in the throes of final edits on right now, so hopefully that will make it into the world soon. A ton of poems from that collection have already found home and will be turning up all kinds of places in the coming months. I also have another chapbook I just finished polishing yesterday called Make a Fist & Tongue the Knuckles that I’m kicking around to a few contests. I’ve been doing research for a book of poems about Warhol’s entourage for years and have been writing poems very slowly for that, so I’m looking forward to when that will firm up as a collection.

I’m learning to bartend. The fancy shit. Memorizing ratios and pairings and what tools do the best work. I’m lucky that the Boston service industry has a really amazing community. I’m so proud to be a part of it, and at the same level that I have a family in writing, I have a family in restaurants here. I think stories are as important to food as they are to poetry, because both make endless suggestions towards what part of your own experience as an eater or reader you need to bring to the table to understand. I think about that a lot, especially when I'm drinking a wine I haven’t ever had. I take notes, just like I do for poems. The most recent entry in my journal is a list of flavor notes for a wine: marinated olives, citrus peel, tobacco, tar, white pepper, underripe tart cherry. How wild is it that a grape slept in a barrel and woke up as all of those things? I want my poems to perform that way. To be that magical.