Daily Life, Divorce, Race In New Collection By Massachusetts Poet

Jul 12, 2019

The poet January Gill O'Neil writes a lot about life after her divorce. That includes what she calls the ordinary, boring stuff. But her poems about a trip to the hardware store or a night roller-skating with her kids feel universal. 

Gill O'Neil is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and teaches at Salem State University. Her new collection of poems, "Rewilding," is part of the NEPR Summer Fiction Series. 

January Gill O’Neil: For me, "rewilding" means coming back stronger in the broken places. I think about spaces that we've abandoned and that we've set aside.

But you know — you'll find flowers coming in through the cracks of the walls, or some squirrel or something scurrying through. Or it's finding its way through the rubble and debris and making its way. And I think that for me, it was a metaphor for how I was feeling. And still feel.

Jill Kaufman, NEPR: And have your children read your pieces?

They have. You know, I take them to some of my poetry readings. Not all. They probably go to a few a year.

What about the poem "Tinder"? Have they come across that one yet?

No. You know, I had a poem in the first book that was "Sex and Pizza," and they were much younger, so I've decidedly kept that one away.

Who you are as a mother is key to what you've been doing and writing. But on your own web page it's "poet mom." Is it poet, then mom?

It is. It is, and poet comes first.

It is a striking thing to write about family as part of your poetry, to be so honest and revealing. As an African-American woman, you have a child who is an African-American child, and you wrote this piece called "Hoodie." Another piece in this collection is called "Being told I look like FLOTUS."

My children are biracial. That influences how I think about them and how I write about them.

It's a little easier for me to write about an experience that has happened to them or to me. To write something general about race is difficult and tough. And not to say that I can't do that. I just don't think I can find the story. I'm a very narrative poet.

In the poem "Hoodie," which is a poem about my son walking the streets of our neighborhood — which is a relatively safe place — I don't know who's going to drive down the street and think he doesn't belong. And this was a few years ago when I wrote it. He's now 15.

Hoodie

A gray hoodie will not protect my son
from rain, from the New England cold.

I see the partial eclipse of his face
as his head sinks into the half-dark

and shades his eyes. Even in our
quiet suburb with its unlocked doors,

I fear for his safety — the darkest child
on our street in the empire of blocks.

Sometimes I do not know who he is anymore
traveling the back roads between boy and man.

He strides a deep stride, pounds a basketball
into wet pavement. Will he take his shot

or is he waiting for the open-mouthed
orange rim to take a chance on him? I sing

his name to the night, ask for safe passage
from this borrowed body into the next

and wonder who could mistake him
for anything but good.

“Hoodie” was in The New York Times Magazine in February 2019. Rita Dove, the poetry editor for the magazine, picked the poem. It had amazing readership, more than just if your book had come out from a small press. What does that mean to get out there in The New York Times?

It means that I get to do my work. And I can sell a few more books, and I might get another opportunity.

But I am very community-based. So, you know, if having my name in the newspaper shines a light on the larger project, then that’s a win-win.

How do you think people read poetry? Do we pop poems like M&Ms? How do you suggest, as a poet and a teacher?

I think you should use poetry like bread crumbs. I think you should find a poem, and then go wherever it leads you, and maybe it's another poem. Or maybe it's a writer who's doing similar work.

Or go out and find poetry — and hear it. It's everywhere. It is not hard to find, even if you're looking on YouTube. 

I think people should not be afraid of it. I think that's the biggest myth in poetry, that poetry is not accessible.

Keep up here with the NEPR Summer Fiction Series.