January Gill O'Neil, "Staying Open"
In 2009, my marriage fell apart. I can’t even write “began to fall apart,” because I don’t know when it happened exactly. But by April, my husband had moved out and I was now entering a new phase of my life as a single parent. My kids, then 6 and 4 years old, didn’t really have an idea of what was happening, other than mommy was alone and sad a lot. About the same time, I was gearing up for the publication of my first poetry collection, Underlife. It was the most uplifting and depressing time in my life.
What helped me get through that dark period, besides an amazing community of family and friends, was poetry. What a gift it is to examine life at every turn. Every experience becomes fodder for the next title, the next tercet, the next crown of sonnets. It puts me in a vulnerable place, and by putting myself out there I’m opening myself up to a deeper level of connection with the people and places around me. I have to say, without the divorce, I would have never discovered my true vocation.
My forthcoming book, Misery Islands, which addresses coming through a divorce and getting to the other side, is really a book about transformation. The transformative power of poetry pushes us to those things that are difficult to name. The struggle is also the joy—finding the right words. The divorce forced me to make decisions about how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Nothing happens without a price. Accepting one path meant letting go of another. The pain of letting go is a raw nerve I’m not sure I will ever write away, but poetry is a salve—not just writing the words, but finding solace in the poems of others.
Nowadays, the question I’m asked most frequently is “How do you get so much done?” The short answer: I don’t sleep much. In fact, I’ve taking to creating a Time Map to monitor my time. In the same way a budget works to see where money is spent, I use a weekly grid to see how I can use my time more wisely. Today, I’ve been up since 5:30 a.m. plotting the creative part of my day: blog post, manuscript revisions for books three and four, free write, etc. But the truth is my quality of life would suffer without poetry holding it all together. So beyond work and family life, this is where I put my energies. And lately, I have been sleeping better because I’m more present.
So for anyone struggling to make space for writing, or wishing to go a little deeper, I offer these humble suggestions.
Define your goals. What do you want? You’d be surprised how hard that question is to answer. I’m equally as surprised at how many people—women in particular—are afraid to ask for what they want. I’m very selfish with my time. I say “no” more now to readings and work obligations than at any other time in my life. But if I don’t, I feel overwhelmed, which is not good for my family. Knowing what you want will give you focus, which is half the battle.
Show up. Don't let yourself off the hook. The dishes in the sink and unpaid bills will still be there after you write, so don’t get derailed. Honor this space you’ve made for yourself. Routine does wonders for your work. Use your time wisely. It’s OK to write dreck because at some point the water from the old, leaky faucet runs clear.
Surround yourself with like-minded people. This is where community comes in. I believe in the power of words more than anything else, and I’ve been graced with a network of friends who feel as I do. These are the writers in your life who will tell you the truth, even when you don’t want to hear it.
What this practice has taught me is to stay open, to not put so much pressure on myself. When I experience poetry—meaning when I read it, write it, share it or speak it—I connect myself to the world. It’s Whitman’s barbaric yawp from rooftops and hearing someone answer back. Poetry yawps back, says, “I get it. I understand you.”
Because we recognize something in ourselves—a longing, some unanswered question (possibly, “Who am I?”), poetry is the tie that binds us. It gives voice to a variety of emotions and circumstances. And, as I like to say, it gives us the opportunity to examine the extraordinary in the ordinary, even divorce. In my darkest time, I went to poetry when I couldn’t find the right words. Poetry has never, ever let me down.
How to Love
After stepping into the world again,
there is that question of how to love,
how to bundle yourself against the frosted morning—
the crunch of icy grass underfoot, the scrape
of cold wipers along the windshield—
and convert time into distance.
What song to sing down an empty road
as you begin your morning commute?
And is there enough in you to see, really see,
the three wild turkeys crossing the street
with their featherless heads and stilt-like legs
in search of a morning meal? Nothing to do
but hunker down, wait for them to safely cross.
As they amble away, you wonder if they want
to be startled back into this world. Maybe you do, too,
waiting for all this to give way to love itself,
to look into the eyes of another and feel something—
the pleasure of a new lover in the unbroken night,
your wings folded around him, on the other side
of this ragged January, as if a long sleep has ended.
(from Misery Islands, originally published by the Academy of American Poets in their Poem a Day series)
January Gill O’Neil is the author of Misery Islands (fall 2014) and Underlife (2009), both published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (masspoetry.org) and an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. She blogs at Poet Mom (poetmom.blogspot.com).