I first met January O'Neil last year on a sunny April day in Boulder, Colorado. No, I met her late at night, the previous winter while up way too late on my computer. January is well known for her Poet-Mom blog and while I am not a mom, I still think it's a blog well worth checking out for information on poems, poets, Spike Lee, and the creative life.
Meeting January for lunch at AWP was one of the weekend high points for me. I am much happier meeting one new person over onion rings than I am in a hotel ballroom. In fact, the lunch was such a success that we traded books and casually said it would be fun to read together one day. One day is almost here! January and I will be reading together 7:00 pm, Wednesday, November 17th at Porter Square Books, Cambridge. I am looking forward to hearing her poems in the air - as I have come to love many of them on the page in Underlife.
Q. Many writers seem to collect quotes on writing. What is one of your favorite quotes on poetry or on the poet? Can you say a little about why these words speak to you?
Toi Derricotte, my professor as an undergrad at Old Dominion University, used to quote Robert Creeley who said, in terms of poetry, “Sometimes you have to make an ass of yourself.” It reminds me to take a risk and worry about the outcome later. Also, I like the Sam Beckett quote on my blog, “Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Harder. Fail Harder. Fail Better.”
Q. I’m always intrigued how other poets balance making money with making poetry. How have you been able to lead an artist’s life and still pay the bills? Do you see ways in which the two sides of what you do are complimentary?
In my case, the two sides are complementary. I work in the marketing department a college as a writer/editor. I feel lucky to have full-time work that allows me to make money and be creative. And with poetry, I’ve able to use my marketing skills in the promotion of Underlife, which has been a huge help in reaching an audience. Although, as we all know, there’s very little money in poetry.
Q. The poet Stanley Kunitz wrote, “The first task of the poet is to create the person who will write the poems.” I love that quote because it declares that the poet must work on herself at the same time she works on the page. Over the years you’ve been writing, do you think that there’s been any discernable relationship between your development as a person and the development of your work?
That’s a great quote! I certainly have more life experience then when I was a grad student New York University. Getting married, working full time, having kids, getting divorced—all of those things have shaped my writing over the years. But I’m thankful for those experiences. There’s a certain depth and edge to my work that wasn’t there before. I take more risks in my poems now more than ever.
Q. Your new book, Underlife is absolutely lovely. Can you talk about the process of putting this book together? What is the backstory to the book?
Back in 2006, I had a toddler and an infant who needed my full attention. I wasn’t able to attend poetry readings or writing workshops with any regularity, so I started to blog. Reaching out to the virtual community was a big push for me to write and share poems. Before I knew it, I had a full manuscript. I sent it to two contests and two publishers. CavanKerry Press took it right away, to my complete surprise. To this day, I still can’t believe they took Underlife. It’s so hard to get published these days—I feel very, very lucky.
Q. Would you choose one poem which is a favorite of yours from the book and talk about what makes it a favorite?
Honestly, my favorite is Sex and Pizza, because it’s not just about sex and pizza. It’s about putting a new spin on an old topic. Yes, there’s sex. Yes, there’s pizza. But it’s about craft, and that’s what I see when I read that poem.
Q. The question you would have liked me to ask you goes here. ???
Don’t have one. Any opportunity to talk about “Sex and Pizza” is a good one.
Thanks, January! For more information on Underlife, January O'Neil or Poet Mom -- click here.