by Spencer Hess ‘19
On Nov. 7, Gordon hosted award-winning poet January O’Neil in the Barrington Cinema Room. Students and faculty came to hear O’Neill read her poetry and provide advice about writing.
O’Neill has lived in the North Shore for nearly twenty years, although, she is originally from Norfolk, VA. In addition to her poetry career, O’Neill serves as an assistant professor of literature at Salem State University.
O’Neil is not a full-time poet, but she is, nonetheless, an accomplished one. Her anthology Misery Islands won the 2014 Patterson Poetry Prize. In this anthology, her poem “Old South Meetinghouse” represented Massachusetts in the Academy of American Poets’ celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. Recently, O’Neil had the opportunity to visit the White House after Michelle Obama heard about her 2015 poem, “On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014.”
While a business major at Old Dominion University, O’Neill discovered her knack for creative writing and poetry. She has kept this passion alive for over twenty years.A common exercise of hers, for example, is to write a poem a day for several months at a time.
Another practice of hers is to diversify her subject matter. The thematic range presented in her Gordon debut exemplified this, from the sorrowful “Hawk and the Hare” to the mouthwatering “Chocolate” to the heartwarming “Poem to My Infant Son” and the melancholy “Grey Hoodie.” She writes about everything from politics and social issues to relationships to spending time with her kids.
O’Neill also varies her poetic style. In some, such as “How to Love,” she uses an allegorical style, whereas in others like “Chocolate Chip Pancakes 7 PM,” are more direct. In almost all her poems, however, she employs vivid imagery, especially the use of detailed metaphors. She attributes this to a writing exercise taught to her at a workshop a few years ago. It involves writing whatever you see in the finest detail—no metaphor, no pretensions, just describe a certain object or scene in the most minute terms. “Once you build a solid foundation,” says O’Neill, “then you can build on it with simile and metaphor.”
Like any writer, she is not without her literary influences. O’Neill cites modern poets such as Lucille Clifton, Anne Sexton and Elizabeth Bishop as well as contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Rita Dove. She also mentions the all-American treasure Walt Whitman. O’Neill seeks to incorporate elements of their work into the memoirs and personal messages that dominate her poetry.
The poet recommends to those that want to pursue poetry and writing to start by simply writing something every day. O’Neill firmly believes in poetry’s ability to “illustrate reality in a way that other things can’t.”