A Ten Question Interview With The Artist…Emily O’Neill

Why do you write?

The simplest answer to this is that I write to explain things to myself. I have pretty extreme anxiety and am easily overwhelmed and having a notebook in my lap at all times to doodle in and vent to was an early coping mechanism that I’ve carried with me for most of my life. More often than not, when I sit down to write a poem, I’m not quite sure how the subject of the poem or story or essay is working on or in me and I need to make myself a map. The map doesn’t even have to be readable to anyone else, but as long as it at least offers some impression of the shape of a given emotional experience, I consider it a success.

What books do you read?

I’m tempted to give the Sarah Palin answer and just say “all the ones that have come across my desk all these years” but I don’t own a desk and I don’t want to lie to you. I am on a train right now and the three books I have in my purse are Tell Me by Kim Addonizio, Salt is for Curing by Sonya Vatomsky, and Above All Men by Eric Shonkweiler. I just finished reading Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places yesterday, which I bought in the Des Moines airport on my way home from a wedding a few days ago and liked a lot more than Gone Girl. On the flight out to Des Moines I reread Didion’s Blue Nights. Poetry collections I’ve recently spooned/cried over/loved to pieces/forced my friends to borrow: Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night by Morgan Parker, The Pulp vs The Throne by Carrie Lorig, Soft Threat by Alexis Pope, Blood Work by Matthew Siegel, The Jitters by Anne Cecelia Holmes. Poetry I can’t wait to read: The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Love The Stranger by Jay Deshpande, Naturalism by Wendy Xu.

I probably read more poetry than prose because it’s easier to carry several volumes around at once and float from book to book easily, but when I do read prose I lean more towards nonfiction than anything. I’ve read Anne Helen Peterson’s Scandals of Classic Hollywood three times this year. My favorite book I read this year is a memoir by the former editor in chief of Interview magazine, Bob Colacello, called Holy Terror, which I picked up in Pittsburgh while doing research for this manuscript about Andy Warhol’s Factory that I’ve been kicking around for a few years.

What inspires you?

I would make you a list, but it would probably just include too many things because what drives me to write really just depends on the day. The new thing I’m making lately that I’m really excited about is a series of poems that are kind of like collages of food and wine and cocktails while also being a cycle of love letters. I work in a pretty loud, weird, awesome izakaya and find that really stimulating in terms of content. There’s always some new sake to taste and try to make flavor notes for, or some kind of fish with a wildly beautiful name that tastes like sitting next to a bonfire. I eat out a lot, talk to people about what they like to eat and drink, and it’s all filtering down into my work in one way or another. I took a Bar Smarts course for work recently and that plus a shift in a relationship is what pushed me into writing the first poem of the series, a piece called “Preparing My Own Death,” which just got picked up by Heavy Feather Review. The history of distillates and names of all the things a competent bartender uses to make drinks (or as they say in the course “soften spirits”–see, isn’t the language of it amazing?) is really fascinating and so I’m swallowing all of it and repurposing it into these letter-poems.

I don’t really believe in inspiration in the traditional sense–there is no such thing as a lightning bolt moment for me when I simply must write something down or I lose it forever. I sit down to write every day. I sit down and do the work and sometimes make things I’m really proud of and sometimes throw every single draft away and move on. There are poems I hold in my mind for years before sitting down to work on them and that feels healthy. I also have poems I make in one sitting and barely touch afterward, and there’s something healthy about that to. The ability to walk away from something and know when me touching it can’t improve it anymore. So, by that token, everything is inspiring. Being alive is hard and weird but usually good even if only in small ways, and I try to collect as many of those as I can.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?

I’ve always made things and was luckily encouraged to do so by my family, I think because they were afraid of what might happen to me if I wasn’t making things. When I was little, one of my uncles used to tease me and called me The Renaissance Woman because if I wanted to figure out how someone did something I would just teach myself from a book and start doing it myself all the time. I did this with drawing and sewing and all kinds of needlework and writing was always a thing I did as an emotional outlet in the background of all of my other projects. I kept a really exhuatsive diary from a young age and would write poems and stories all the time but it was just part of a larger conversation I was having with the world as a highly emotional person in need of as many outlets as possible.

When I arrived at college I realized that the visual art department, which I had attended for, was deeply disorganized and lacking the resources to challenge me in a way I felt would be productive, and honestly, I was devastated. I had gotten into a great studio art conservatory as a junior but my parents hadn’t allowed me to go because they wanted me to finish high school, and it felt like my reward for going along with that was ending up in a place where painting would be impossible for me. I was a painfully shy teenager, younger than most people in my year in school and deeply socially anxious, and in an attempt to break myself of that I had been going to poetry open mics on campus pretty much since orientation. I was terrible. Shaky knees and voice, really ill-formed pieces, but I kept going back because it fed me. As studio classes felt less and less like safe, productive places for me, I spent more and more time writing, and writing in seriousness. I was surrounded by a lot of people who were also trying to figure their relationship to their writing out but were equally serious about the role of art in their lives, and we grew up together as artists in this pressure cooker kind of situation. That all started when I was seventeen.

How do you deal with rejection?

I send out five or more submissions. I try to have at least 25 submissions out being read at any given time so that if I get a rejection letter it doesn’t gut me in the slightest. I was in a long, live-in relationship when I started submitting and my ex was very fastidious about submissions, which definitely rubbed off on me at the time. I’m a very different writer now than I was then, and my list of places I send my work to has grown exponentially from the list my ex worked from, mostly because I discarded his idea that publishing online is somehow unworthy of one’s times. Sure, there are print magazines I’ve had my heart set on for a long time, but it’s more about finding the right home for the work than it is about having a resume studded with gigantic recognizable names on it. I never want to place a poem that isn’t ready and also never want to place a poem somewhere it doesn’t live well.

Who are some writers you admire?

SO MANY, & in no particular order

Woolf, Plath, Didion (my holy trinity) / Daphne Gottlieb, Beth Bachmann, Lynn Melnick, Angel Nafis, Meghan Privitello, Sam Sax, D.A. Powell, Sara Brickman, N.S. Koenings, KMA Sullivan, Emily Kendal Frey, Aricka Foreman, Jacob Rakovan, Ocean Vuong, Rachel McKibbens, Casey Rocheteau, Sarah Xerta, Jeremy Radin, Chelsea Hodson, Rachel Hyman, Caroline Crew, Cassandra de Alba, Jess Rizkallah, Sophia Holtz, Sean Patrick Mulroy, Simone Beaubien (who doesn’t publish but is a force of nature), & I am forgetting so many but this is a good working list of people I often gasp at when I encounter their work

Is writing the only artistic medium you do?

I used to draw and paint almost every day, and I miss that, but with my schedule it’s not realistic. I definitely make at least one or two paintings a year as a rule, just to give myself access to the stillness I get from that that I can’t get anywhere else. I make collages a lot, which seems to take up less brain space in the doing than working on a painting does. I make little sculptures. I really like assembling things with my hands. As a nervous person, having something to do that requires fine focus is really important to keeping me sane.

What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?

Be as patient with your own failings as you are with other people’s. Walk away the first time your gut tells you to, not the fifth. But if you do wait until the fifth time, you are not wrong to have stayed. You are not the things that have been done to you. You are not the things that have been done to you. Be gentle with yourself. Make time for quiet. Make time to recharge even when you think you don’t need it. You have permission to be in pain when you are in pain; do not wait for anyone to confirm this, just tend to what hurts how you need to. Don’t apologize for crying when you are overwhelmed. Survival isn’t something to feel guilty for. Growth isn’t something to feel guilty for. Leave when you need to. Come back when you need to. Set boundaries and let in only the people who respect those boundaries. Make whatever you need to out of everything that happens. Worry about what it means only when someone asks you, and if you can’t find an answer don’t be ashamed.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

If we’re truly a community, we have to act like it, and being aware of who is rewarded and who is passed over when it comes to opportunities is really important if we want to promote equity and move towards a less racist, less misogynist world. Everything we do is political. The people we publish, the books we buy, the readings we attend, the programs we give our money to. Vote with your feet. Vote with your wallet. Use your privilege to help those who have less of a platform or less safety moving through the community than you. Seek out books that make you uncomfortable not because they’re trying to be shocking but because they ask you to interrogate how you benefit from moments when others are marginalized. Write as yourself, warts and all. Be willing to learn in public, in real time, when someone calls you out. Be willing to be quiet. Be quiet for longer than you think you can stand and see who gets space to speak because of that.

What is your writing process?

I take a lot of longhand notes on receipts or other scraps of paper that I then stuff into my pockets over the course of the day, either taping them into my notebook eventually or transcribing them. My notebook is the brainstorming place where I make lists and free write and sometimes hammer out two or three drafts of a new pieces before ever touching a computer. With other drafts, on days when I wake up and start writing as soon as I’m up, I pull a word or phrase from my notebook or phone notes and type it at the top of a document to use as an organizing principle and then free write directly into the document. When editing, I read a piece out loud four or five times and listen for moments that don’t feel quite right in terms of sound or pacing and then start moving things around. I’m notorious among all of the groups I workshop with for writing my first lines at the bottom of a first draft, meaning my first instinct is to land a poem where I should probably be starting the poem. So I also play a lot of sentence Tetris and take whole chunks of what I’m working on and try to see how they feel somewhere entirely different within the poem. There’s a lot of movement and cutting and then more movement and then writing into the places that feel too thin until I have a draft that feels mostly complete. Then I start submitting, usually before my stomach has really settled into feeling fully okay about someone else reading the poem. I live for that weird shaky feeling of “does this communicate what I want? what will someone see in here? is it what I intended? is the result better or more interesting than the place it came from?” On my best days I write a thing that feels unrecognizable once it’s done.

Emily O'Neill Author Photo 2

Emily O’Neill is a writer, artist, and proud Jersey girl. Her recent poems and stories can be found in The Journal, Horse Less Review, and Washington Square, among others. Her debut collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize and she edits poetry for Wyvern Lit.


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