Wendy XuJanuary Gill O’Neil is the author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press, December 2009), and a forthcoming collection Misery Islands (CavanKerry Press, fall 2014). Underlife was a finalist for ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and the 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize. She was featured in Poets & Writers magazine’s January/February 2010 Inspiration issue as one of its 12 debut poets. She is on the advisory board/planning committee for the 2012 Massachusetts Poetry Festival and the planning committee for the 2013 AWP Boston Conference. A Cave Canem fellow, January is a senior writer/editor at Babson College, runs a popular blog called Poet Mom, and lives with her two children in Beverly, Massachusetts.

January G. O'Neil

The State of the State


I have spent my entire life not writing about race. In fact, this essay—which should have been a simple task for a daily blogger—has taken me months to complete. Race is everything and nothing to me. It is the subtext of my existence.

I have always been black, female, an only child, and very opinionated. When those qualities are at your core, it’s hard to pull them apart and explain them to someone else. And like being an only child, or a woman, I know of no other existence than who I am right now: a black woman poet with an opinion. Yet I am part of a generation of black poets achieving greater recognition and wider readership than at any other time in history.

My story begins the great blessing of studying under Toi Derricotte. She has been a role model, mentor, and friend to me over the years. Without her influence, I don’t think I would have found poetry as an undergraduate at Old Dominion University. And without her presence in my life—that connection—I’m not sure if I would have found Cave Canem, a writers’ group dedicated to the advancement of African American poetry.

I did not find my voice at the Cave Canem retreats (I attended in 1997 and 1999), but for the first time, I did experience what it meant to be in a room with poets of the same color, and not feel different. Or not have to explain my history. Or not have to explain references not readily known outside the black community. Armed with that knowledge, I went back into my suburbia and was less afraid to be myself. Safe to say I found my voice through trial and error.

Look around at the state of black poetry. I can’t think of a better time when more writers of color are publishing and being published. The Internet has been a great equalizer in creating opportunities for innovators who can blend poetry and commerce. If anything, I think it has shown that there is a global audience for poetry of all kinds.

My first book, Underlife, reads like a first collection of poetry. I’m very proud of the work but that’s what it is—a first collection that touches upon race as one of many topics. I feel less connected to that work now than ever before. My second manuscript expands to more social themes such as the economic downturn, but mainly deals with divorce and its aftermath.

With my next project, I want to explore Boston’s cultural past (I live north of Boston, but I’m originally from Virginia), particularly its relationship to civil rights and race relations in the ’50s and ’60s to the present. I’m also consumed with the idea that I am a first-generation, post-civil rights beneficiary, raising children who are second-generation beneficiaries. In other words, I am a recipient of all who have struggled and overcome before me, but my kids don’t have those experiences to draw from. My kids are biracial and have an ingrained sense of entitlement. How do I raise them with my sensibilities, yet let them be whoever they are meant to be? As I type this, I don’t fully understand it myself—which is part of why I need to do this project right now.

We are living in tenuous, extraordinary times. As celebrated as President Barack Obama was in the 2008 presidential election, he has been vilified nearly every day since for political and seemingly superfluous reasons (A birth certificate? Really?). Also, we saw the rise and fall of Republican presidential candidate in Herman Cain. Imagine—two black men running for the U.S. presidency. I don’t know what to make of this country. Are we more or less tolerant when it comes to race?

What does any of this have to do with black poetry? And what does this have to do with me?

As a black woman poet, all I can do is focus on what I do best, which is writing. I am part of a generation of black poets achieving greater recognition and enjoying a wider readership. I can’t think of a better time when more writers of color are publishing and being published. However, I want to see black women poets getting far more attention for their contributions to poetry. Wasn’t Elizabeth Alexander just splendid reading in front of the world at Barack Obama’s inauguration? I can’t remember the last time I saw a black woman published in The New Yorker, or had a substantial review published in The New York Times. Are we cresting in a wave lead by Nikky Finney winning the 2011National Book Award? When was the last time a black woman topped a best-sellers’ list for poetry? Maybe the bound version of Alexander inaugural poem Praise Song for the Day. I couldn’t really tell you the last time; what I’m waiting for is the next time.

I believe in black power. I believed in it when my parents lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and I believe in it now. And I believe we exercise our right to choose whatever path we want to choose. The biggest gift we have received from previous generations is this right to choose. As a poet, I believe in the power of the collective. I believe in Cave Canem, Kundiman, Acentos, and other affinity groups that celebrate the work of a particular community. A high tide raises all boats. I don’t believe that because I am black I have to agree entirely on a particular genre, style, or path. The quest for creativity begins as an individual one, and the journey, as we know, is a means to an end.

 

 

January Gill O’Neil is the author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press, December 2009), and a forthcoming collection Misery Islands(CavanKerry Press, fall 2014). Underlife was a finalist for ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award, and the 2010 Paterson Poetry Prize. She was featured in Poets & Writers magazine’s January/February 2010 Inspiration issue as one of its 12 debut poets. She is on the advisory board/planning committee for the 2012 Massachusetts Poetry Festival and the planning committee for the 2013 AWP Boston Conference. A Cave Canem fellow, January is a senior writer/editor at Babson College, runs a popular blog called Poet Mom, and lives with her two children in Beverly, Massachusetts.