On March 14, January Gill O’Neil held a poetry reading in the Hillel House sanctuary. The award-winning poet read various poems from her 2018 book “Rewilding.”
O’Neil’s poetry illuminates racial and cultural issues. She connects these themes to her personal life and expresses emotions towards her marriage, divorce and motherhood.
The first poem from “Rewilding” that O’Neil explained was “Brave.” The poem touches on emotions from O’Neil’s marriage and divorce. It remembers 9/11 as the narrator’s marriage occurred shortly after the attacks. A racoon motif represents her new life as a divorced mother.
O’Neil read “Hoodie” immediately after. The poem focuses on the narrator’s son becoming a man amid a flawed culture.
During the reading, O’Neil joked that she enjoys putting her name in poems.
“It’s like my ‘Where’s Waldo?’ in my work,” O’Neil said. “Every cold month… January!”
She continued this lighthearted demeanor when reading her poem “Tom Brady’s Balls.” The poem begins with an epigraph from Tom Brady. O’Neil, originally from Norfolk, Virginia, now lives in Beverly, Massachusetts. She said her support for the New England Patriots football team motivated the poem.
With “The Night I Wore the Purple Dress,” O’Neil returned to a more serious tone. O’Neil said the poem was an untraditional type of sonnet. Sonnets are usually composed of 14 lines with a set rhyme scheme, but her “American sonnet” features two sets of 14 lines that do not rhyme.
Next, she presented “On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014,” in which the narrator recalls being told she looks like Michelle Obama. Both poems comment on race.
O’Neil was the 2019-2020 John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi and as such spent time in Oxford, Mississippi. She told the audience she felt connected to that land in a way that she did not expect.
Towards the end of the reading, O’Neil realized she had time for more poems and read “Rebel Rebel” from her phone. In a series of couplets, the poem considers the history of Oxford.
O’Neil followed with another poem written in Mississippi. A canoe ride inspired “The River Remembers,” wherein the narrator recalls the suffering of those once enslaved on the land surrounding her.
O’Neil concluded the reading with “Begin Again,” originally published in Washington and Lee’s Shenandoah Magazine. In this piece, the narrator’s family prepares a meal and eats together. The poem encapsulates family life amid racism.
Lauren Reese, ’23, enrolled in nonfiction creative writing, a class with Professor Laura Brodie, which she said encouraged her to attend her first poetry reading. O’Neil changed her tone depending on the poem, but Reese said she found the reading comforting overall.
“January Gill O’Neil was direct and simple, but at the same time, very impactful. It made me want to go to another poetry reading,” Reese said.
O’Neil received a Bachelor of the Arts from Old Dominion University and an MFA from New York University. She now works as an English professor at Salem State University and writes daily.
She has written two books in addition to “Rewilding.” Her book “Misery Islands” won a 2015 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence.
“I try to stay open,” O’Neil said. “I pay attention to the world as it is now and see what I remember.”