We asked the poet about the significance of the book’s title, her influences and choices as a poet, and what’s next in her intriguing journey as a literary artist.
How did you come to select Rewilding as the title of your third collection? How does the notion of “rewilding” relate to the poems in the book?
Rewilding is a term I heard used by George Monbiot in a TED Talk on reintroducing wolves back into Yellowstone National Park. Those wolves changed the course of the land. In fact, those wolves literally changed the course of a river. While rewilding is an environmental term, I embrace the idea of an area of land returning to its natural state. Rewilding looks at the next stage of my life after divorce, so for me, the term represents coming back stronger in all the broken places.
You recently participated in an event at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival, “May We Carry Our Mothers Forth in Our Bellies: Motherhood in the Arts and in the Public Sphere.” How do poetry and parenthood relate for you?
My work and work habits have changed over time. But, in a way, life is easier now that the kids are older and less reliant on me. Of course, that means they are closer to leaving for college – not sure if I will handle that well. It was always hard finding time to write, but I made it a priority. When I didn’t write, I could feel little pieces of myself slip away. I realized early on that I had to find time for myself, even if it meant losing sleep, to carve out writing time. I had to do it for myself. And exercise. That was important, too. Still is.
My two children (Alex, 15 and Ella, 13) have been the subject of many poems. I cannot imagine a writing life without them entering my poems somehow. They are inspiring, challenging, and luminous at the same time. I’m listening constantly for quirky little musings and phrasings they may use. They have the vernacular of youth, which is raw and open and generous in spirit. It probably hasn’t been easy for them being the children of an artist, but I hope they one day will appreciate the effort.
Do you work on multiple poems simultaneously or do you prefer to focus on one at a time?
I work on one poem at a time, unless I’m stuck and need to change directions. Lately, I have been revising more recent poems as a warm up to starting a new draft. I try to get a complete draft out of a writing session, so when I come to the page next time I start fresh.
Who do you read that you’d encourage everyone else to read, too?
I read a good amount of contemporary poetry. Recent books I’ve enjoyed include those by Terrance Hayes, Ada Limón, Joseph O. Legaspi, Cindy Veach, Jennifer Martelli, and Adrian Matejka.
We posed this question to artists a few months ago, and it’s something I’m always curious about: If you could deliver one message to yourself as a younger artist, what would it be?
Slow and steady wins the race. Meaning, do something every day toward your art. So, for me, if I’m not writing, I’m revising, submitting poems for publication, or reading. I’m always looking community-based projects to work on in any way I can.
I was awarded the John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi Oxford for 2018-2019. The kids and I will be moving for nine months to Ole Miss! We are excited and terrified. This is really a known unknown for us. But I’m thrilled for the opportunity to spend time in the South. I’m from Virginia, but this is the Deep South – with a rich, diverse, and complicated heritage. I’m thrilled my little poems helped provide this opportunity for us.
January Gill O’Neil is the author of Misery Islands, Underlife, and Rewilding, published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, an assistant professor of English at Salem State University, and 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 Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, American Poetry Review, New England Review, and Ploughshares, among others. She lives with her two children in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Image: January O’Neil, photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths; cover art for REWILDING (CavanKerry Press, 2018).