Vagabond City Interviews Emily O’Neill

EMILY O’NEILL is an artist, writer, and proud Jersey girl. She tells loud stories in her inside voice because she wants to keep you close.

Her work has appeared in The Best Indie Lit New England Anthology, Cutbank, The Journal, Sugar House Review, Washington Square and Whiskey Island, among many others. Her poem “de Los Muertos” was selected by Jericho Brown as the winner of Gigantic Sequins’ second annual poetry contest.

 

photo by Jonathan Weiskopf
photo by Jonathan Weiskopf

Her debut collection, Pelican (2015, available now), is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize for first and second collections by women and genderqueer authors. She is the author of two chapbooks: Celeris (Fog Machine, 2016) and You Can’t Pick Your Genre (Jellyfish Highway, 2016). Former editor and essayist for Side B Magazine, she currently edits poetry for Wyvern Lit. A bibliography of her published writing lives here.

She holds a degree in the synesthesia of storytelling from Hampshire College and teaches creative writing at the Boston Center For Adult Education. She lives and works in Boston, MA.

RACHEL: Why are you passionate about discussing the male gaze, and how the female body is harmed by it?

EMILY: The simplest answer is that I write about the male gaze because I am harmed by it. Because I know so many people who are harmed by it. I’ve not always been the most femme presenting person; my gender expression has gone through many phases and will certainly go through many more. When I was young, maybe 12, I was constantly bullied for dressing “like a boy.” It was wounding to dress how I felt most comfortable and be berated for it.

To the other extreme, for a few years I went to a high school with uniforms and would get catcalled walking home from the bus every day. There is no way a person in a pleated uniform skirt is not underage in that context, but in spite of that I was getting harassed by adult men who were completely unashamed of objectifying a child. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t experience street harassment. Part of that is living in a city, but most of it is just having the audacity to leave the house.

I write about it to push back against feeling possessed by strangers simply for entering their field of vision.

It makes no difference how I dress or carry myself. I’ve gotten the same number of “hey dyke”s as I have “hey sexy”s, regardless of the length of my hair or what kind of outfit I have on. It’s damaging to receive such aggressive unsolicited feedback from men who do not know me and do not care to. Being made to feel like an object simply because I have a life incidentally adjacent to all kinds of men is unacceptable. I know that harassment always has the potential to escalate into assault, because that has happened to me many times as well.

I write about it to push back against feeling possessed by strangers simply for entering their field of vision. I have no control over the actions of those who see me, but I do have control over what I make out of how I feel, so I make things about it in hopes that is some kind of comfort.

LESLEY: You have one of the best Pinned Tweets out there on your Twitter page: “it doesn’t matter if you like my writing just tell me you envy my outfit.” How do you maintain this badass attitude about your writing and how people receive it?

EMILY: I have control over what I wear every day, but I don’t necessarily have as much control over what shape my writing takes or if that aesthetic is one you want to sit with and dig into and fill in the blanks for. An outfit is usually pretty straightforward and can be taken in all at once. I expect that when I look good, it’s because I feel good, and then I want to put even more good out into the world around me.

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View the rest of Emily’s rad tweets.

With poems, the work a poem is doing goes in so many different directions and operates in so many different ways that I would rather someone not tell me they like or dislike any poem of mine at all. Making a snap judgement about a poem is a mistake. It shouldn’t be something you can interact with quickly. Or, my work doesn’t function that way. I’d rather you get something layered out of a poem, feel differently by the time you’re done reading it, than know if you like or dislike it flat out. Read something ten times and tell me it doesn’t mean something different every single time. Look at at an outfit ten times and it’s still the same set of clothes. The attitude in that tweet comes from this: an outfit should be easy to form an opinion about, but a poem should never be easy.

RACHEL: Can you speak a little on the state of diversity in the lit world, and what you wish editors would do to fix it?

EMILY: The state of diversity is that it’s lacking. There’s an overwhelming practice of veiled or blatant tokenism when it comes to writers of color, queer writers, trans writers, working class writers. As if there can only be one writer of each race who must speak on behalf of everyone else.

All of it is blatantly unacceptable–the tokenism, the exoticism, the insistence that writing is a meritocracy where only the “best” voices are elevated.

Friends of mine as well as writers I don’t know well but know enough to have talked to about this feel as though literature only has room for so many and would rather opt into perpetuating white supremacy than opening up audiences everywhere to perspectives more in line with how varied our world actually is. I’ve also observed this immense pressure put on writers of color especially that their work has to be activist writing somehow or tied to foreign cultural heritage, simply because they are “other” and must then write solely about being “other” which is blatantly unacceptable to me. All of it is blatantly unacceptable–the tokenism, the exoticism, the insistence that writing is a meritocracy where only the “best” voices are elevated.

Any editor who doesn’t realize a paywall for submissions is classist is being willfully ignorant. Any editor that doesn’t purposefully read work by writers who do not share their same race, class, gender, ability, education, etc is stuffing their head in the sand when it comes to true diversity.

There can be no such thing as diversity when editors publish hateful pieces of writing that contain racism, sexism, classism and then clutch their pearls when people react vocally to that. Look at the New Yorker and that trash about takeout menus. Look at Mark Doty. Look anywhere, because it’s everywhere, and it’s because white people are not calling it out as much as they could on a micro-aggression level so that it never gets to the point where these public arguments happen. There should be no argument at all. You did wrong; it’s time to do better.

Burn that broken thing down, or else just walk away.

I want editors to try harder to interrogate their biases about what makes a successful poem, a successful poet. I want more presses and magazines to have consistently diverse mastheads and solicitation lists and book reviews sections instead of relying on occasionally diverse rosters to absolve them of any true commitment to publishing vastly different writers from anywhere and everywhere. I want folks to pay attention to things like the VIDA count and change their practices accordingly. And when someone calls you out, I want white publishers (and all white writers, for that matter) to accept criticism instead of becoming defensive and resistant to being told when they’ve been wrong and how they might begin to fix that wrong.

Let’s not even make it about editors being gatekeepers, let’s just talk about white writers period. Just because you have an MFA does not make you a cultural authority. Just because you could pay more into a broken education system than somebody else does not give you a pass to be bigoted or misogynist or ableist. I am tired of white writers affiliated with fucked up organizations or magazines or presses or slams or even other writers who are like, “I can fix this from the inside and make it better for all of us.” You’re lying to yourself.

Burn that broken thing down, or else just walk away. You supporting a broken system so you can maybe fix it in the future is misguided and insulting. Stop submitting and subscribing to the New Yorker and help build something better, or don’t bother talking to me at all.

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Celeris, published by Fog Machine

LESLEY: Describe your ideal writing environment.

EMILY: My bed. Covers up to my stomach. Glass of wine. Notebook and laptop and pile of books to leaf through when I get stuck. That’s my go to writing place.

But lately I’ve not been at home much, so I’ve had to improvise. I’ve been writing a lot in loud environments–bars and restaurants mostly. There’s a new Greek place around the corner from my job with really nice lamb meatballs and I’ll go into work a few hours early and stop there to write and have a lemonade and frown at my laptop for a long time and pick poems apart and put them back together. In bars, it’s less ideal, but it still works most of the time. People use my notebook or computer as a reason to ask me what I’m doing, because (stupid male gaze again) how could I go out in public at all if I don’t want someone to notice my behaviors and then question them.

But if I’m in the right bar (usually the one where I work my bill-paying job, tucked in a back corner) the loud atmosphere gives me a built in layer of sensory details and conversational snippets to draw from as I move through a draft. I just finished writing my second manuscript, which is heavy with food and booze, and writing in bars absolutely influenced and enhanced that.

RACHEL: How do you know you can trust a press/publisher/editor to be a safe home for your work?

I’m a pretty skittish person about these kinds of things, so it helps to know that an editor is already interested in my work. With YesYes, I had worked with Stevie Edwards before and trusted her for a myriad of reasons. We attended a writing retreat together, had edited work together in the past. I knew from our social interactions that she was politically on a similar page.

To have those poems easy to carry anywhere, as a comfort to whoever came across them and was struggling with who knows what, that was exactly what I wanted.

That made it really comfortable to then talk to KMA Sullivan about Pelican, because if Stevie trusted her, I could hope to trust her too. And KMA has been so generous to me as an editor, giving incredibly thoughtful criticism while also providing really consistent support. She really pays attention to what the poems need to have their best life, then does her best to make sure all those needs are fulfilled within reason. I couldn’t have asked for a better first book experience than the one I’ve had.

With my chapbooks, things have been a little bit more touch and go. Celeris had been read at about half a dozen presses and rejected and it just felt like it wasn’t resonating with anyone in the way I needed it to. The poems are about abuse of power dynamics in a relationship and I needed to be sure the home they found was one where the editor understood how scary the book was to write but also how necessary it was for me to get these poems out into the world. When Zachary Cosby wanted the chap to be the first title for Fog Machine’s series of pocket-sized books, that felt right. To have those poems easy to carry anywhere, as a comfort to whoever came across them and was struggling with who knows what, that was exactly what I wanted.

You Can’t Pick Your Genre was the rockiest road of all. That chapbook was written for a specific publisher who had solicited it from me, but once the initial drafting process was done, the editor who wanted it kind of fell off the face of the planet as far as communicating with me. I waited around for awhile, trying to be patient, because books take a long time to be in the world. But the longer I waited the more I felt like the lack of communication was unacceptable. I had done what I was supposed to do, and to receive zero editorial feedback was not a way I was willing to proceed.

cover
Pelican, published by YesYes Books

I hadn’t yet signed a contract, so I pulled the book and took it to Justin at Jellyfish Highway because we had been talking about doing a book together and were really just waiting for the right manuscript. Justin and Matt at JHighway were so responsive and involved and did more for the book in a few short months than had been done for it by its original press in over a year.

In general, I want the editors and presses I work with to be the kind of people I’d invite to a dinner party. They have strong convictions about their way of doing things but are also easy to get along with and have refreshing ideas about how books are made and what literature can mean. I need to see that they’re out there fighting the good fight and publishing work by people they truly believe in and want longstanding relationships with. I’m not into presses with a turn and burn mentality; I’m more of a ride or die kind of girl. If we publish together, you’re my team for life.

LESLEY: With quite a few chapbook releases this year, including Celeris (Fog Machine), You Can’t Pick Your Genre (Jellyfish Highway) and Stag, a chapbook-length poem released as a zine, how do you manage your writing process between so many projects?

EMILY: The poems come to be in such violently different ways that it’s not particularly difficult for me to stay organized.

The poems for Celeris were the poems most urgent for me and so the writing wasn’t necessarily hard. I would sit down, a draft would fall out, I’d file it away to be edited later or decide it was done and slot it into the rotation of what I was sending to journals at the time. While that was happening, I was still working as a barista and had most afternoons and evenings free. I spent those afternoons and evenings drinking beer in bed and watching horror movies.

If something doesn’t feel project oriented I don’t panic. As long as I’m writing, I’m happy it’s happening.

You Can’t Pick Your Genre is full of these little essays in verse about horror and how I relate to it, so those poems were really confined to being written while I was actively watching movies and jotting things down. If I stopped watching movies, I would move on to something else. Stag is kind of a cloud poem, consisting of a sustained meditation on a prompt given to me by Sean Patrick Mulroy for a show where everyone was assigned a Tori Amos song to write after. The piece I wrote for that never felt finished, so I exploded it into many fragments and then fleshed those fragments out, then added more sections to the pile until I had enough material to consider arrangement and once they were arranged begin editing.

In general, I keep folders within my folders on my laptop. Each project has a folder where I file drafts. When a folder is getting pretty full, I give it a working title. One I have the working title I think about arrangement. There also a more general folder where orphan poems live, and typically I’ll find that those orphan poems share themes and then fill in the blanks, as I did with Celeris, or a more recent chapbook (still unpublished) called Make a Fist & Tongue the Knuckles. If something doesn’t feel project oriented I don’t panic. As long as I’m writing, I’m happy it’s happening.

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Photo via Emily’s Instagram

RACHEL: You call yourself a sensualist – can you expand on this?

EMILY: I seek out the richest sensory experiences I can get my hands on. I thrive on being overstimulated, so I constantly put myself in situations where I’m eating and drinking and smelling and seeing and touching as much as possible. It’s exhausting, but it makes my writing richer by giving me tons of strange imagery to draw on.

I mean, I used to drag my fingers through the butter dish as a kid and just eat straight butter because it felt decadent. I probably picked the wrong career being a writer, but I like to bring that butter dish behavior to everything. I want to be in it. I want to know as much as I possibly can about anything lived.

My boyfriend and I play something of a game where we pair something we’re drinking with a food and then try to get the weirdest resulting flavor that’s still a pleasant experience. We had one recently that was a sheep’s cheese eaten alongside some sherry we drink all the time and the resulting flavor was watermelon. Like big, bright, candy watermelon. It was the weirdest thing, to take two mostly savory things and get that much sweetness. We drink wine and do the same thing.

My favorite tasting note for anything I’ve ever tasted was a new espresso we had gotten at the shop I used to barista at. My boss and I were pulling tasting shots and talking about them and what we wanted to describe the flavor as on our menu and my first instinct was to say, “This tastes like rope.” My boss laughed and insisted most people would be put off by that or at least that most people haven’t tasted rope so they’d have no frame of reference for it, so we settled on “hemp” which is still a little out there, but that really is what it tasted like.

But, I mean, I used to drag my fingers through the butter dish as a kid and just eat straight butter because it felt decadent. I probably picked the wrong career being a writer, but I like to bring that butter dish behavior to everything. I want to be in it. I want to know as much as I possibly can about anything lived.

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You Can’t Pick Your Genre, published by Jellyfish Highway

LESLEY: The film Scream inspired your poems in You Can’t Pick Your Genre. What drew you into this film in particular, and writing about women in horror films?

EMILY: The Scream series has the distinction of being one of the only (if not the sole) horror franchise with the same writer and director for the entirety of the series. I was drawn to that consistency over more than ten years of movies and how the story evolved and escalated to include new anxieties with each installment.

As I picked apart the movie world, I was able to pick apart my own world and interrogate things I’d been wanting to dissect but had no entry point for.

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Williamson, who wrote the movies and also Dawson’s Creek, and wanted to be in conversation with him in some small way because I really like how he makes metatexts in a pop context. All his early work, at least, is both a satire of the form he choose and the exemplification of that form. You can intellectualize what he makes, or you can just experience it. There are levels. That makes what he makes endlessly rewatchable. So as I was watching Scream for the billionth time, I asked myself why I kept watching it. Beyond the metatext aspect, what made the movie feel worth engaging with so frequently. I really love Daphne Gottlieb’s writing on women in horror and how our audience expectations show us how we actually feel about different kinds of women and what behavior should be rewarded or punished, and I wanted to examine that in my own way.

I also know how frequently the narrative of a small town murder is described by the media as impossible, but the frequency with which encounter these kinds of stories make the claim of “impossible” itself impossible. I wanted to know why people think the suburbs are so safe. They aren’t safe, there’s just more distance between people, which makes things easier to hide. As I picked apart the movie world, I was able to pick apart my own world and interrogate things I’d been wanting to dissect but had no entry point for.

LESLEY: Music or no music while writing? Do you have a go-to playlist right now?

EMILY: Music, almost always. Cesaria Evora’s Miss Perfumando when I wake up early and don’t have a mood yet. Petal or Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville or anything Alison Mosshart if the day has already gained some definition.

My go-to playlist right now is called “numb tongue” and I’ve been adding to it for a few months. A sampling of songs:

  • Party Police – Alvvays
  • Breathing Underwater – Metric
  • Work From Home – Fifth Harmony
  • Pin – Grimes
  • Tommy – Petal
  • Fuck the People – The Kills
  • Dead – Phoebe Ryan
  • Only Wanna Give It To You – Elle Varner
  • FLESH – Miguel
  • Higher – Rihanna
  • DSYLM – Rubee Rayne
  • Hospital Beds – Cold War Kids

I try to listen to things that don’t necessarily make the most sense next to each other because it helps kick me out of ruts when I get stuck on a line or need to move forward even when I’m not thrilled with an outcome.

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Photo via Emily’s Instagram

RACHEL: What are your thoughts on genre?

EMILY: It’s bullshit. A thing is whatever you call it. I always tell my students to not bother with genre, to write things however they fall out and worry about the form after the fact.

LESLEY: What do you find most challenging about creating?

EMILY: Knowing when to stop touching something. Or how to start.

I just want to drink negronis and eat really rich dinners and talk for too many hours and those are my ideal days, the ones I like to call research. But too many research days and nothing written is wrong.

I have trouble with the boundaries around a constructed thing–how long it needs me to work on it, when I can walk away without completely disconnecting from it so that I can’t go back. Some projects make it easier to parse that line than others. I get frustrated with myself for not writing every day when I’m unable to, but then there are days where I write five poems and then I get frustrated that I can’t slow down and be more thoughtful. My pace is the biggest challenge for me. When I’m writing a lot it’s 2-7 drafts a day, but when I’m not writing as much I get one a week, tops. That’s still more than most people are able to generate in terms of sheer raw material, so it feels really rude to complain when I’m not producing as much, but I do feel disappointed in myself during those one poem weeks.

Carving out the time to create at all is the biggest challenge. I just want to drink negronis and eat really rich dinners and talk for too many hours and those are my ideal days, the ones I like to call research. But too many research days and nothing written is wrong. I need a coach or something to tell me to do what I tell my students to do, which is read for at least ten focused minutes a day and write for another ten, even if that’s the only creative work you do at all that day. I would do well to take my own advice.

LESLEY: Do you have a self-care routine, to keep yourself grounded when things are feeling stressful/chaotic? Can you share it with us?

EMILY: Potato chips always, going to bed early or sleeping late even when my inbox is begging to be attended to, long baths where I watch Law & Order and ignore my to-do list. I get my nails done once a week which sounds like a silly frivolity but actually is the only time when I physically cannot interact with my phone or notebook so it makes me shut my brain off from stimuli and relax a little.

I’m heading to the nail salon as soon as I finish this interview.

LESLEY: As a writing teacher, what advice would you give writers looking to submit and get published more?

EMILY: Read the acknowledgements pages at the back of your favorite collections to generate a reading list for yourself. Read the journals that have published writers you love. Get familiar enough with those journals that you can try to imagine your work living in them. Think about what kinds of work you have that might be at home in a journal you’re now familiar with, then put together a list of pieces you’re comfortable sending out into the world.

If you treat the whole thing like a science experiment, a rejection is just data to you so that you know to send that place work that’s a departure from your last submission.

Keep a spreadsheet of what you send out and to where, complete with dates you sent things and a column for when the response comes. If you get a rejection, log it in your spreadsheet and move on. If you get an acceptance, log it and withdraw that piece from wherever else you sent it. If you treat the whole thing like a science experiment, a rejection is just data to you so that you know to send that place work that’s a departure from your last submission. I try to have at least 25 active submissions out at any given time, but that’s unrealistic for most writers, so try to have at least five submissions out at a time.

If you get a rejection, send out three more submissions that day. That way your failures can return successes to you. If an editor offers feedback, thank them, but if they don’t, understand it’s not personal. None of this part of the process can be personal, or it’ll take all of the joy out of what you’ve made.

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Photo via Emily’s Instagram

LESLEY: What’s next for you?

EMILY: I just finished writing my second full length manuscript, so hopefully that’s next, although book timelines are long, so I might have another chapbook or two before that book meets the world.

If I let myself sit back too long and feel satisfied about what I’ve accomplished I’ll lose sight of what I need to be doing, which is always always always just more of the work. Anything that takes me away from reading, writing, teaching as my primary focuses is a thing I don’t want in my life.

As of right now, my latest chapbook manuscript is a finalist at a contest and I’m waiting to hear back about a win or loss, so fingers crossed. I want to give myself the time to write more essays and short stories, but I’m bad at carving out the time for prose. Poems come more quickly to me, so I’m definitely writing a lot of those.

In a way, what’s next is more of the same, which is to say, the work doesn’t stop whenever you reach a milestone. If I let myself sit back too long and feel satisfied about what I’ve accomplished I’ll lose sight of what I need to be doing, which is always always always just more of the work. Anything that takes me away from reading, writing, teaching as my primary focuses is a thing I don’t want in my life.

RACHEL: Who are you outside of your writing?

EMILY: I wait tables at a Japanese restaurant. I’m kind of an amateur food writer I guess, in that I eat out at a lot of restaurants and spend a lot of time writing about that, regardless of whether I show that writing to anyone but my boyfriend. We’re regulars at two or three places and I enjoy going places where someone knows what kinds of wine or coffee or snacks I prefer. I believe really strongly in hospitality, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make people feel welcome both at work and in my life.

I’m grouchy, probably because I recently quit smoking. I have memberships to a few museums in my city and spend a fair amount of time there, wishing I still painted. I was a painter for a long time but haven’t felt moved to be in awhile. I go to an open mic in Cambridge once a week and heckle my friends there. I slam occasionally, usually for special events. This February I had to write for a pick-up lines vs. valentines theme slam, and just this week was asked to write on the topic of disinheritance for a fundraiser for the Boston Poetry Slam and Haley House Slam, which was a really loving, wonderful night.

I care a lot about the writing community in Boston and don’t have the hugest reserves of time or energy to participate as much as I want to, so when I can I show up for things like that and yell encouraging things at total strangers because that’s how I’ve made friends for most of my adult life. People don’t understand that I’m shy because I’m loud and also because of what I do for work, but I really am very shy, especially in settings with lots of people. Writing has helped me connect with so many people I wouldn’t know how to approach otherwise and I’m really grateful for that.

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Photo via Emily’s Instagram

RACHEL: How do we get beyond the suffocating bullshit of the lit world to rebuild community?

EMILY: Don’t network; build friendships. Invest yourself in sustainable relationships with writers who matter to you as people. A community where people have transactional relationships isn’t a community at all. Organize the reading you want to hear. Publish the lit mag you want to read. The thing I always harp on in writing is urgency. If your writing isn’t urgent then it isn’t worth it. If your work in the literary world isn’t urgent, necessary, inclusive then you should sit down and make space for someone else. If you have a platform, use it to elevate marginalized voices. Make space safer for people of color by calling out racism. Make spaces safer for women by calling out sexism. Make spaces safer for queer folks, trans folks, non-binary folks by making sure your homophobia, gender essentialism, and binary thinking are in check.

If your writing isn’t urgent then it isn’t worth it. If your work in the literary world isn’t urgent, necessary, inclusive then you should sit down and make space for someone else.

When someone calls you out for bad behavior, accept that as a gift. The person you hurt is not required to tell you how you hurt them, and if they do you should listen and do better, not whine about how the world is suddenly obsessed with political correctness. And at the top of the pyramid for me–if you love someone’s work, tell them. Doesn’t matter if they’re famous as hell or a name you’ve never heard.

Reinforce the work you want to see more of, even it’s just by telling someone, “Thank you for writing that.”

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Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.

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