Thursday, December 13, 2018

Best Holiday Present for Poets: Rewilding by January Gill O'Neil

January Gil O'Neil reading at the Old South Church, Boston
Two years ago, I wrote a post overflowing with admiration for a January Gil O'Neil poem and then added a prompt to go with it on this site.  What unmitigated joy to see this same poem in the brand new pages of Rewilding, just out from Cavaan Kerry Press.

If Sharon Olds and Robert Hayden had a love child, I think it would be January O'Neil. She employs the smooth, shiny surface of a Sharon Olds poem with the more emotionally nuanced and extended outlook of poet Robert Hayden (think "Water Lillies" and "Those Winter Sundays"). Here are two poems so you can decide for yourself.

Now on sale at Cavaan Kerry Press

On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year's Eve Party 2016

Deep in my biceps I know it’s a complement, just as
I know this is an all-black-people-look-alike moment.
So I use the minimal amount of muscles to crack a smile.
All night he catches sight of me, or someone like me, standing
next to deconstructed cannoli and empty bottles of Prosecco.
And in that moment, I understand how little right any of us have
to be whoever we are—the constant tension
of making our way in this world on hope and change.
You’re working your muscles to the point of failure,
Michelle Obama once said about her workout regimen,
but she knows we wear our history in our darkness, in our patience.
A compliment is a complement—this I know, just as the clock
will always strike midnight and history repeats. This is how
I can wake up the next morning and love the world again.


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 don’t 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.

Rewilding is on sale this week at Cavaan Kerry Press. It's the best present of the season.

January Gill O’Neil
is the author of Misery Islands and Underlife, published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, an assistant professor of English at Salem State University, and a board of trustees’ member with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and Montserrat College of Art. A Cave Canem fellow, January’s poems and articles have appeared in the Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day series, American Poetry Review, New England Review, and Ploughshares, among others. In 2018, January was awarded a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant, and is the John and RenĂ©e Grisham Writer in Residence for 2019-2020 at the University of Mississippi, Oxford. She lives with her two children in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Joy of a Do-It-Yourself Writing Retreat

Fresh tulips is a favorite way to treat myself 
A friend just texted me that she is on her way to her own do-it-herself writing retreat. She rented an air b & b by the water and was happily anticipating writing for the next week. So is a self-generated retreat as good as one those that some organization awards you?

Yes, maybe better.

I have been "awarded" several lovely writing retreats across the country and even internationally (Ireland, Spain) and I have "awarded" myself many self-generated retreats as well. In recent years I have chosen the do-it-yourself type. Here's why:

1. At my own writing retreat there's no social pressure to have dinner with the group at 6:00 pm. I am my own group. If I am really working than I can simply keep going. I am not tied to a schedule. At one writing retreat I attended we were expected to show-up at the same time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It didn't leave much time for deep contemplation.

2. At my retreat, I claim the best room! Place is important to me. I love a room with a view, most preferably, of water. I can choose the exact location of where I want to be. Usually, I choose a place that's an easy day's drive from my house. I can throw everything I might need into my car (favorite pillow, coffee cup, yoga mat...) and not have to worry about airports or luggage constraints.

3. My retreat allows for no awkward social interactions. I don't have to worry about the resident on the verge of a nervous break down or listen to the resident at dinner who never stops talking (or singing or crying). This might sound a little harsh but at a residency, my only job is to write and to read and to dream. When I am on retreat by myself I usually can spare myself a good deal of drama.

4. Here I am the only one responsible for my happiness. I'll be honest, some days the writing sucks and I really just want to go back to bed. Am I wasting my day trying to get words down on paper? For every three words that I write, I cross out at least two. But there are other days when something magical happens --- and most times --- I get one day of struggle to one day of magic. I have to show-up and be present for both. It's up to me to find my own rhythm. No distractions.

5. The false gods are gone! Too many times I've heard dear writer friends lament not getting into a residency that they've set their hearts on. And the not getting in becomes symbolic of something much larger in their minds.

Yikes---that's so many different kinds of wrong. I've been part of several editorial boards for residency programs, book awards, etc. And here is the truth: The "winning" writers are luckier --- that's all! Their work matches the tastes of the readers / evaluators. I once worked with another judge who discounted all applicants that were academics (why do they need more time off for a residency was her view). The writer could have been the next Sylvia Plath but if she was an academic, nothing else mattered.

Now in my 50's I've learned that life is so horribly short. I don't want to give anyone else the power to decide if I am going to take the time and space to do my writing. No one should have that much power. My advice to you is rent a cheap hotel room in Vegas (yes, writers do this!) or find a modest beach house --- but give yourself this time out of time. A writing retreat is not a privilege as much as it is a necessity for getting deep work done.

And with winter coming, the off-season rates are here. Take a look. Right now.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Simples: The Joy of Reading KateLynn Hibbard's New Book

Kate lyn Hibbard, Poet and Professor
I have been a huge fan of Kate lyn Hibbard's work since her first book, Sleeping Upside Down, was published in 2006. She followed this up with her luscious collection, Sweet Weight. And now, after way too many years, her third full length collection, Simples,  published by Howling Bird Press has just been released --- a haunting collection of historical poetry inspired by women’s experiences living on the Great Plains frontier. 

This is a book you do not want to miss. And while the music of the lines allows you to feel you are floating across the page, there is also true pathos in the work. Hibbard time travels through the Great Plains employing a variety of personas: healer, teacher, locust swarm and Jewish bride-to-be. In a lesser poet's hands these characters might seem contrived but not in Hibbard's.

Trees bowed over with the weight of them and they ate---
the tall grass the wheat the corn the sunflowers
the oats the barley the buckwheat the bark      
                                                                (from Swarm) 

The poems accrue and create a dreamscape of life where the work is unrelenting and the landscape both awe inspiring and cruel. Hibbard's background in Women's Studies (both as a poet and a scholar) is integral to this project. The End Notes allow the reader to understand a time period and landscape that some of us, myself included, may have little experience with and yet the poems transport us:

White cambric petticoat torn from a gown,
White lace refinement on tarpaper walls,
Fashioned from newspaper, cheesecloth, and sheets,
Cut out from calico, brightened with ribbon,
                                                               (from Curtains)

A variety of traditional and received forms create a collage effect that keeps the collection constantly surprising in the best way. Hibbard is a lyrical private detective conjuring the lives of women whose struggles and joys are largely unknown (at least to this reader).

And because many of the poems work in sequences and I dislike excerpting poems so, here is one poem in its entirety.

Orthography, 1895

Before we came to Kansas girls like me
had to fein being vain. I spend all day
on the claim, drive horses like a teamster.
Miss Sims says my prospects have been razed, but
this place is in my veins. I'm up before 
the sun's rays pass the weather vane, feign to beat
any man at my trade. When harvest
keeps me from Sabbath, the fields are my fane.

I love this poem, maybe more importantly, I believe this poem. 

Simples opens up and complicates the lives of these women with new narratives focused on the female body and delivered in voices that are strong, varied, and nuanced.

And because we notice these things but often they go unsaid, Simples also has a gorgeous cover. 
Treat the poet in your life, treat yourself.