January Gill O’Neil presents personal poetry

By Leighah Beausoleil, Editorial Staff

To kick off the English Department’s Alan Feldman Week of Poetry, FSU welcomed poet January Gill O’Neil as the keynote speaker Oct. 20 on Zoom.

O’Neil has published three poetry collections, the first, “Underlife,” in 2009, then “Misery Islands” in 2014 which won a 2015 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence, and “Rewilding” in 2018 which was recognized by Massachusetts Center for the Book as a notable collection for that year.

O’Neil is currently an English professor at Salem State University and holds board positions at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs at Montserrat College of Art.

Encouraging everyone to vote, O’Neil began her reading with a poem titled “November 4th, 2008” from her book “Misery Island.” 

O’Neil described how “momentous” it was voting for the first Black president. 

The emotion O’Neil felt during this moment was expressed in the lines, “Their hands on mine darken the circle on the paper ballot / Our grip on the pencil tight enough to break / The weight of us overflowing.”

O’Neil said in New England people often tell her she looks similar to the former first lady, Michelle Obama. 

In her poem titled, “On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014,” O’Neil said she knows it’s a complement, but knows it is an “all-black-people-look-alike moment.”

The poem touched on the awkwardness of the interaction shown in the line, “So I use the minimal amount of muscles to crack a smile.” The poem illustrated not only the awkwardness felt, but the patience it takes to deal with these common microaggressions.

O’Neil said her poem titled “Hoodie” was written for her son – who was 13 years old at the time. 

She said she wrote the poem thinking about Tamir Rice, a 13-year-old boy who was fatally shot by police while playing with a toy gun in a park. 

But she added the poem is also reminiscent of Trayvon Martin, who was fatally shot by police walking home from a convenience store. 

The poem discussed the fears many Black parents share concerning their children’s safety when out in the world. O’Neil’s disbelief that an innocent child could be mistaken for anything else is demonstrated in the poem’s last line, “And wonder who could mistake him for anything but good.”

O’Neil’s poem, “Brave,” jumped back and forth in time. The beginning is set on Sept. 15, 2001. 

Only a few days following 9/11, her wedding was meant to take place in her hometown, Norfolk, Virginia. 

The poem describes the drive down with her family and fiancé then jumps to the lines, “I would never tell my daughter that some nights I lie awake / listening for the raccoon I know is in the attic / but pretend isn’t there,” but praying the raccoon does not have kids. 

From there, the poem delves into the loneliness she felt from her now ex-husband’s absence. Flashing back to the day in court when the judge “uncoupled” them, she said, “Hallmark doesn’t make a card for this.”

This line speaks for itself of the surging emotions felt as they ended their marriage. 

The poem then begins to rewind, demonstrated by the repetition of the phrase, “And before that,” tracing back to when she first asked if they should go through with the wedding.

The ending parallels her personal family dynamic with that of the raccoon shown in the line, “I would never tell my daughter male raccoons have no part in raising their young.” 

The Q&A portion of the event was facilitated by student moderators – Sara Hughes, Kurt Shaffer, and The Onyx Editor-in-Chief Olivia Banks. The audience wrote their questions in the Zoom chat.

Shaffer read Sam Stafinski’s question, “When you constructed [Brave] did the idea of relating the raccoon to codependency on men come to you, or was it something that you had to work on?”

O’Neil said, “It was my goal to try to put things together that didn’t seemingly work, and try to make them work.” 

She added she didn’t initially plan to use the comparison of the raccoon, and said when writing, “I think we are drawn to the subjects and the moments that we need to be drawn to.”

O’Neil said she found it interesting that she was able to take three seemingly different topics – 9/11 travels, divorce, and a raccoon – and loosely connect them all. 

Lisa Eck, chair of the English Department, asked O’Neil how she uses time in her poems.

O’Neil said her poem “Brave” was written around 2013-14 at a writing retreat. The writing prompt had been to write a poem that takes place in the past but also jumps around in time.

Banks said many of O’Neil’s poems are very personal and relate to her children, and then asked her if she ever struggles with feeling “vulnerable” dealing with such personal topics when reading to an audience.

O’Neil said, “In thinking about poems that I’ve written about my kids, I like to think I’m telling my perspective of the story. I feel like when they’re older they can tell their version of the story.”

On reading personal poems, she said, “I don’t think I know any other way to be – I’m fairly honest and straightforward in my real life.

“I kind of really believe in saying things simply and directly, and trying to continue the poetic language that happens,” O’Neil added. “So, it’s a delicate balance.”

She said when looking back on poetry she has published in her books, there is a “transfer” that happens where it becomes art and she is able to separate it from the original emotion. This ultimately allows her to read and talk about her work without feeling embarrassed. 

Hughes read Helen Bodell’s question, “Can you talk about the instinct to protect your children in this climate? It is stark and painful and brave the way you share the hard history and it’s perpetuation in the present day.”

O’Neil discussed how her son is now 16 years old and working and has to think to himself whether a customer is rude because they aren’t happy with their order or simply because a person of color is serving them.

She said she wants to write more on the subject, but doesn’t think poetry is the right medium to do so. She said she is thinking of possibly writing essays on the subject matter.

Approximately 70 students, faculty, and staff were in attendance including Alan Feldman, former FSU English Department chair and professor.

The Feldman Week of Poetry is held annually in honor of Feldman who was the founder of FSU’s Creative Writing Program as well as an award-winning poet, according to Eck.

Eck said every year, the English Department invites a poet to hold a workshop for selected students followed by a reading event of the poet’s work accompanied with a Q&A. 

Other Week of Poetry events included a poetry reading by English Department faculty Oct. 22 and a student open mic Oct. 23.