Poetry as a Form of Healing: Interview with Emily O’Neill
Let me start with the question that’s on everyone’s mind, are you the type of person who pours the milk before or after the cereal? Also, what’s your favorite kind?
I pour my milk after the cereal, to make sure there isn’t too much, but I haven’t eaten cereal in awhile. I’m not much of a breakfast person. I really like Raisin Bran, which is kind of like old person cereal, but it’s what I demanded growing up. Or Honey Nut Cheerios. Those are probably my favorite.
Now that we have cereal covered, could you tell me a bit about yourself?
I’m 26 and work in a Japanese restaurant and teach writing one night a week. I really like cartoons and horror movies and food documentaries and sharks and sloths and live music and reading in the sun on my porch and long baths and lavender incense and cats that sit still and let you pet them for a long time. Going to the movies alone is important to me. Naps are also important to me. I write in bed and stay up very late and also like waking up early so I don’t sleep very much. All my anxiety lives in my stomach, which makes me feel crowded sometimes.
Is there anything you’d like more people to know about you? or something you wish they didn’t know so much of?
I was a ballerina for 14 years. It’s where a lot of my food issues come from, but I really do feel proud of my body as an instrument lately. I feel strong, which is better I think than feeling thin. Most people don’t know how much I like soap operas either. I grew up watching General Hospital with my grandma every day after school. That show is still on, and I watch it at the nail salon sometimes.
Do you have any difficulties writing about a certain topic, more so than you do the others?
It’s hard to write about my family in a way that’s as nuanced as how I feel about them. there’s a lot of love there, but also a lot of complications. I write about them a lot, but those are also the poems I hold back the longest just to make sure I’ve said what I need to without being unnecessarily hurtful or expository. I’m also really protective of good experiences and take a very long time to write poems about memories that are dear to me because they say that every time you revisit a memory you dilute it a little and I never want to lose any of the good that I’ve lived.
If yes, would say that writing is a way of exorcising your demons?
Oh, definitely. That thing about diluting memories — I think it’s why I spend so much time writing about trauma. It’s an act of ownership, of claiming the worst things and finding ways to incorporate harm into how I think of my strength. I like to tell my students that when you write trauma the most productive was to do so, at least for the person who’s been traumatized, is to write the bad experience from a place of power. If you make a poem that asks the world to forgive you for being damaged, you’re telling yourself that damage is unacceptable, when the truth is that everyone’s been damaged at one time or another. And wounds are not unacceptable. They’re what shapes us. So when I write about some hurt I’ve experienced, I’m growing up out of that wound, becoming taller and stronger than what hurt me in the first place. Writing is an act of healing for me and that makes it very powerful magic.
Does a direction of a poem takes ever surprise you? or do you go in with an idea of how you’d like it to be?
If a poem I write doesn’t surprise me in it’s creation I usually won’t even call it a poem or ever show it to anyone. It’s exceedingly easy to find words and put them in rows. To build a surprise out of language is much more difficult than simply putting words together on a page or simply telling a story, and in my most successful poems, I think I’ve built a kind of a surprise that even I, the surprise’s architect, get to come back to and enjoy. It’s what I imagine it’s like for people who build rollercoasters. They know all the mechanics of what they’re manipulating, but if they do their job right there’s still that feelings in the bottom of their stomach when the car falls over the first drop.
With a chapbook released and two more on the way, do you have a favorite? or one you’re most proud of?
They all came about so differently, so there’s things to be proud of in all of them, I think. Celeris was an accident — I was just writing poems to tell myself a story of how I would survive a brutally damaging relationship I hadn’t yet escaped. The poems came as the relationship deteriorated more and more and when I finally walked away I had to write more of them to understand how I could move on from such a horrible experience. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I could believe I was worthy of being cared for unconditionally again. I was writing You Can’t Pick Your Genre simultaneously and it’s more of a cerebral version of similar thoughts. The poems act together as a kind of essay about how growing up in the suburbs, your expectations of what kinds of harm you’ll come in contact with are set at a certain level, which is really difficult, because invariably you’ll get hurt in ways you aren’t prepared for and not have the tools to deal with that. I started writing those poems as a response to the Scream movies but they became more about consent in relationships and how people gaslight each other when they don’t have the tools for productive conversations around healing. And then Stag, which is a long poem, is comprised of all the different excuses I made to stay in the longest relationship I’ve ever been in, one where I was cheated on repeatedly and emotionally abused and told the art that I made wasn’t good enough or worthy of anyone’s attention so why didn’t I just give up and find some other way to spend my time. My then-partner told me I could never be a writer because I had nothing to say, and it’s funny, because the number of times he said something to that effect certainly put plenty of words in my mouth. All three chapbooks are ways I’ve found to reclaim my personhood or conversations I’ve had to have with myself to feel whole and important and like I’ve survived.
How would you describe your poetry to those who haven’t read it before?
I write poems to teach myself what I know. They’re instructions for how to come back to my body when I’ve had to escape it. They’re stories of what is possible, what health looks like, what can be corrected about how and when I choose to be vulnerable. I want to make little contained surprises. To surprise myself with what I’ve found out.