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January Gill O'Neil
January Gill O'Neil is the author of Misery Islands and Underlife, both published by CavanKerry Press.
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If you’ve been a passenger of Boston’s T (our subway system) during the past six months, then you’ve probably seen a poem poster in the spots where advertising should be. Mass Poetry (the organization I work for) has provided Boston commuters with poems by local poets to replace the glut of ads on the T. And they are lovely. Why put poetry on the T? The trains are a point of connection. Riders are there for a short time, but they are continuously transitioning from one environment to the next. Rarely do we speak to one another. What better place is there to introduce something lovely for a few moments? What better way to introduce an element of surprise and wonder in an otherwise ordinary commute? Since the first posters were created this past April for National Poetry Month, the response has been overwhelmingly, amazingly positive. A poem on subways is nothing new. New York City, Chicago, and London are just a few cities that have been the beneficiaries of verse on public transportation. Inn Boston, there have been prior efforts to put poetry on the T system and commuter rails. But there seems to be groundswell of local efforts to put art in creative public spaces in the Commonwealth in recent years. My hope is that the government and the private sector come together to come up with resources to support more efforts such as like this nationwide. The poster design is simple yet eye-catching, with more emphasis placed on the words. Some of the feedback we’ve heard has come from folks who discover a poem that spoke to them at the right moment. Those poems provide a lift or a simple moment of connection, giving the reader something they didn’t know they needed until that moment. The poem posters remind us all about the power of words and the value of community. It also creates visibility for poetry at a time when people are hungry for it. That’s what it felt like when we featured Nick Flynn’s poem “Marathon” this past April, one year after the Boston Marathon bombings. We wanted to show our support for the city and its people, and that poem seems to be a touchstone for many in the greater Boston area. After our Indiegogo campaign launched in May, we raised the needed funds to keep the program going through the summer. UMass Boston picked up the costs for September to support their faculty poets, Joyce Peseroff, Jill McDonough, and Lloyd Schwartz. And while we are still trying to raise funds, poems are running on the Red line through Boston, Cambridge, and Dorchester. Like many organizations, we rely on individual donations for the program, but the hope is to find corporate sponsors to keep the program going. We know that efforts like this broaden the audience of poetry readers, bring poetry to readers of all ages, and have the ability to transform people’s lives. Sometimes all we need is that moment of connection to... Continue reading
Posted Oct 10, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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When I try to explain to my 9-year old daughter what it means to be a poet, I stumble over my words every time. It’s hard explaining what staying open means. I spend my days mishearing phrases that other people say, watching how a particular leaf falls to the ground. I try to explain what it means to be supported by words, sometimes buoyed, sometimes enveloped. So I conjure a picture for her and my 11-year-old son that is all-encompassing and nearly impossible. I love being a mom but sometimes I love writing more, which makes me vulnerable and self-conscious. I feel selfish. But this is my truth, and standing in it feels as if I’m standing in pure light. How do you explain this to a 9-year-old? **** A typical day for me includes getting the kids off to school, either teaching classes or planning the next Massachusetts Poetry Festival—sometimes both, rushing back to school to get my son to band practice while and my daughter to her Tae Kwondo class, which ends at the same time as band practice. Then dinner, emails, grading, etc. It’s no wonder the writing is the first thing to go. Then I think about Lucille Clifton, how she published her first book with six young children at home. Six! **** One of my next projects is to explore slavery in my current hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts. In 1751, the area had relatively few slaves, about 24 in a population of 1,800. But Beverly’s Historical Society houses detailed records on a few, one of whom is Juno Larcom. In 1756, the Larcom family bought Juno (Juno was given the family name). Incidentally, the Larcom's daughter, Lucy Larcom, was a poet and activist. Juno gave birth to 11 children (10 survived), eventually suing her owner for her freedom. The owner died while the court case was pending. Nevertheless the family freed her, yet she continued to work for the family until she died. Every time I start writing, I don't know how to being. And I know I’m standing in my own way. This project is bigger than me. It is one of those risky, life affirming challenges that terrifies me. That’s a good thing. **** In an attempt to quiet my fears, I went to a local coffee shop to write. I used to call it balance I was seeking. Now I think I’m just trying to integrate the desperate parts of my life and making them play nice. I told my fears to have a seat, sit in the chair across from me and let me work. It helped a bit, and I wrote a Juno poem. It’s really hard to explain all of this to a 9-year old. **** Listen, I tell myself, to the world that keeps me creative, nourished, and inspired. Stay open to possibility. Look for “the details in the details,” as James Dickey would say. And, most important, cut yourself some slack. The papers will get graded, the... Continue reading
Posted Oct 9, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Since our grad school days at NYU, no one has inspired or supported me more than Joseph O. Legaspi. He’s the author of Imago (CavanKerry Press) and two chapbooks: Aviary, Bestiary (Organic Weapon Arts), winner of the David Blair Memorial Prize, and Subways (Thrush Press). These days, he inspires me as a co-founder of Kundiman, a non-profit organization serving Asian American literature. This month, Kundiman will celebrate 10 years as an organization. Kundiman is the classic form of Filipino love song—or so it seemed to colonialist forces in the Philippines. In fact, in Kundiman, the singer who expresses undying love for his beloved is actually singing for love of country. For an organization dedicated to providing a nurturing space for Asian American writers, the name is an inspiration to create and support artistic expression. JGO: Congratulations on celebrating 10 years of poetry with Kundiman. How are you commemorating this milestone? JOL: Thank you. Where has the time gone? It has flown by, yet so much has happened, often leaving myself and Sarah Gambito (Kundiman's co-founder) dizzy with amazement. I'm tremendously proud of Kundiman, how we endured for this long through sheer passion, hard work, volunteerism, partnerships, and determination. To commemorate we are throwing a party: our 10th Anniversary Kundiman Gala on Oct. 15 in New York City. It'll be an elegant, fun evening with open bar, chocolates, and dessert tasting. Moreover, we are honoring Vijay Seshadri, the first Asian American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Come join us and support Asian American literature. Tickets are available at http://kundiman.org/gala. JGO: What has been your biggest joy with Kundiman? JOL: Hands down, the Kundiman fellows. They are the most talented, generous, kind-hearted, intelligent and courageous souls I've ever encountered. They have taught me so much. JGO: What's the value of an organization such as yours in today's current poetry climate? JOL: I view Kundiman's initial value in assisting and supporting its primary constituents: Asian American writers. We serve and build this community, which, in turn, branches out to other communities and into the general sphere. By empowering writers, they give voice to our Asian American stories, cataloging our cultural significance, signifying and validating our presence, chronicling our histories. By providing mentorship, workshops and other resources, Kundiman fellows are better at navigating the literary landscape. They are publishing books (35 by the end of 2014, with more slated for publication in the next two years), chapbooks (33 and counting), and in journals; winning awards; doing activist and grassroots work; pursuing graduate degrees; and holding academic posts. JGO: What's Kundiman's biggest challenge? JOL: As with most nonprofits, literary and otherwise, Kundiman's biggest challenge is funding, and with that, sustainability. It angers and frustrates me when celebrities pay thousands of dollars for a pair of shoes, while that amount of money can fund a Kundiman summer retreat and nurture twenty-four emerging writers. So, yes, funding and tied in with that is manpower/personnel, and organizational bandwidth and resources. We know our programs work, our... Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I have known Afaa Michael Weaver since the late ’90s, from the early days of the Cave Canem Writer’s retreat. But it wasn’t until I moved north of Boston before we became friends. Afaa is the author of 14 collections, including the Plum Flower trilogy (The Plum Flower Dance, The Government of Nature, and City of Eternal Spring), and a chapbook, A Hard Summation. At Simmons College, he is the Alumnae Professor of English and director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center. Also, he teaches in the MFA program at Drew University. And, in case you hadn’t heard, Afaa is the 2014 recipient of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, among many other honors and accolades. A true renaissance man, he’s an award-winning playwright, fluent in Chinese, a devout practitioner of Tai Chi, and one of the kindest people I know. We meet every few months for lunch at Legal Seafood in Boston (the only place that makes crab cakes almost as good as me). Afaa graciously agreed to answer a few questions. JGO: I am asked about my name, January, quite frequently. Why did you take Afaa as your name? AMW: It was to mark the end of a long period of mourning for my first child, whom my wife and I lost in my first marriage. He was Michael Schan Weaver, Jr. We called him Schan, so I released his spirit by releasing that part of my name and made Michael the middle of my name. The “Afaa” means oracle or priest, and family members said it is fitting. However, my father never recognized the new name, and my mother had passed away fifteen years earlier. I took the name in 1997, when it was given to me by Tess Onwueme. The name is Ibo, and my gesture in taking it is one that I was inspired to do after the novel Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, where the spirit who takes children, the abiku, has to be appeased. The name is Ibo, but genetic research I’ve had done shows that my African heritage is Yoruba. I am mostly West African ancestrally, and that part of me is Yoruba, as the research indicates at this point. It’s all good. JGO: Why do you write poetry? AMW: I believe we are all given gifts at birth. My central gift is poetry. I can cook, but as a cook I won’t win any chef contests. JGO: Your latest poetry collection, City of Eternal Spring, is part of the Plum Flower Trilogy, which consists of The Government of Nature and The Plum Flower Dance. When did you conceive of these poems as sequence of three books? AMW: As I was working on The Government of Nature, I realized it was a trilogy. At the Brattleboro Literary Festival this weekend I read from all three books in the way of a trilogy, to show the links, and I was told it worked nicely. It felt good as I read. Each time... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Anyone who knows me knows I am all about community. We spend so much time alone working on projects that most of us crave the opportunity for connection. So last night, when the kids finally fell asleep, I popped onto Twitter to see what happening in my stream. Lo and behold, it was time for the Poet Party! Every month, the Poet Party takes place on Sundays at 9 p.m. (ET). For one hour, poets have the opportunity to connect with fellow poets—in real time—about any topic. Collin Kelley moderates (hashtag #poetparty) and keep the conversation moving. The most active topic last night was which contests and lit mags were open for submissions. It was the first time I had been to the party in months (possibly a year?). But it was great fun connecting with my poet friends across the country and hearing about their latest projects. For some reason I thought the Poet Party had been around for just a year. Turns out, the party has been going on for four years! Long ago, when blogs were the place to be—so we’re going back to about 2010—much of my community was virtual. My first book, Underlife, had just been published. But I was going through a divorce, starting to raise two young children as a single parent, and feeling burnt out at my job with a daily two-hour, roundtrip commute. By then I was a member of my local writers group, but there was no guarantee I would continue to go now that child care would be an issue. All this to say the virtual world allowed me to connect to poets and writers at a time when I needed it the most. Also at this time, I started playing around Twitter. It took me about two months to get the hang of it. Honestly, I thought Twitter was pointless. However, I stuck with it long enough to have an Aha moment, and then it all made sense. I could connect with the people, news, organizations, and events that truly interested me. Founded in 2010 by Deborah Ager, the Poet Party began to take off. By the October party, the online event was an overwhelming success. That first Poet Party included D.A. Powell, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Susan Rich, Oliver de la Paz, Kelli Russell Agodon, Deborah Ager, and me, among others. The tweets came fast and furious. You can read Collin’s post about it here. In the early days the party was weekly, and there were a few times, I believe, #poetparty trended on Twitter and Yahoo. I mean, when does poetry ever trend ANYWHERE? Fast forward to last night. I entered the Poet Party on the whim, and found out that roughly four years ago the first Poet Party took place. (Where has the time gone?) Like me, Kelli Russell Agodon had dropped in unexpectedly. But I was reminded how cool it is to hang out with like-minded people—the people with whom I started my (virtual) writing career.... Continue reading
Posted Oct 6, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 14, 2010