by Jillian Campbell
Assistant News/Features Editor
Poetry is a look into the mind of another. Observations, hopes, dreams, moments of failure and triumph – they are thoughts unfiltered, stanzas scrawled in a moment of inspiration too precious to keep bottled up any longer.
Typically, readers are left to interpret the meaning on their own, but on Wednesday evening in the Dodge room, those words came to life from the mouth of the poet herself.
January Gill O’Neil never thought she would write poetry for a living. As an undergraduate student at Old Dominion University, O’Neil was first looking to pursue a degree in business, but after attempting an economics course – specifically at the dreaded hour of 8 a.m. – she knew she was in the wrong major.
Shortly after, O’Neil connected with a creative writing and poetry professor.
“He really opened my eyes about poetry and the possibilities,” she recalled. “I remember reading the poem ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg and thinking ‘Wow, you can really say all that in a poem?’ and then feeling the words being lifted off the page.”
And that was where the great love story began.
O’Neil has now composed two books, Underlife and Misery Islands, the second being selected in 2015 for a Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. She also has a third book in the works.
But even still, the future is not her main priority. She instead chooses to focus on what is happening right now, or “snapshots”, as she refers to them.
“I talk about small moments – ‘the sun came up this morning’ and ‘I took another breath today’ or ‘I lost a job’ or ‘I had an argument with a friend’ or ‘I put my daughter to bed tonight’ – those are the moments,” she said.
O’Neil revealed that the way to capture these moments authentically is to always be prepared for inspiration to hit. This means sometimes veering away from the traditional pen-and-paper approach to writing, and instead embracing the beauty that is modern technology. For example, she swears by the Notes app on her iPhone.
This technique is also helpful when constantly running from place to place, something to which O’Neil has become accustomed as a working mother of two.
No matter how hectic life may get at times, she sees the value in making time to slow down, take a seat, and declutter the various thoughts bouncing around in her head. She tries to dedicate at least one or two times a week to do so.
And though she believes she’s her own best audience, O’Neil continues to document her thoughts and moments for reasons beyond her personal benefit.
“It’s a place for real conversation. We’re drawn to the poems that we’re drawn to just because we’re looking for something. I don’t think that what we’re hearing in the news, even in some literature – you can’t find it. It’s missing. And I think poetry is an antidote. I think poetry is common ground. I think poetry is about shared experiences, and that’s a place for us to start. I think the world would be a much better place if everyone could pick up a poem every now and then.”