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Thursday, July 4, 2019

Interview with Sarah O'Brien, editor of Boston Accent Lit

A review of Sarah O'Brien's debut chapbook was reviewed here.

When did you first start writing poetry? Did a teacher or family member inspire and encourage you?

I have been writing poetry since I was 8-years-old. Each year, I would write a poem to go inside our family Christmas card. I remember one starting, “Winter days are frigid, cold. / Warm cocoa in our hands we hold.” I won a state-wide poetry contest in second grade and attended an awards ceremony that motivated me.  
My grandfather encouraged my four sisters and me to tell stories. We would have “Story Time,” narrating made-up tales that would quickly become absurd. I loved reading Shel Silverstein’s poetry books. Often I would write songs and sing them poorly into a tape recorder. I wrote short fiction and ideas for novels. I wrote plays and performed them with my sisters. I kept journals. I was always writing something. 

Do you still find yourself interested in story or are you more interested in the lyric form (or both equally)? What do you see as their relative strengths?

I am interested in story, both in prose and in poetry. I find that the strength of prose writing is that it allows readers to become immersed in a character or characters, and although I create characters sometimes while writing poetry, I cannot explore these personas to the same extent that I can when writing fiction. Poetry is strong for its brevity. There are epic poems and such, but I like that a poem can offer emotional impact and a glimpse of truth in a small amount of space. Each word matters in a poem, and slight changes in punctuation or form can change the poem’s meaning entirely. With fiction, there are certain expectations the reader has from the story: a conflict, a setting, a resolution, a logical sequence of events… Fiction writers can play with these expectations, but poets can break the “rules” entirely and offer something completely unexpected. I like breaking lines and rules. 

In a few poems you point out your ethnic background. Does being Irish inform your work? 

My father is Irish and my mother is mostly Lebanese. However, we had an Irish-Catholic upbringing, which meant overcooked food, sarcasm over sentimentality, and mandatory Sunday church service. I enjoy Lebanese food, and wish I knew how to speak or write in Arabic.  
My Irish identity tends to overpower the rest of my background because my last name is unavoidably Irish and my skin is undeniably pale, especially compared to my Lebanese cousins’ skin tone in the summer. I think that my identity is heavily entwined with my poetry, such as with my sense of humor.

Where does (if it does) the Lebanese aspect come out in your poetry?

Perhaps in my romanticism of ordinary events. I’ll romanticize that time the librarian said “have a nice day” and the excellent sandwich I ate in Positano and I’ll definitely romanticize the way the moon was still visible this morning against the bright blue sky.

What poets inspire you? Who do you pull down when you're ready to write?

I love so many, including Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Louise Glück, Yusef Komunyakaa, Adrienne Rich, Mary Ruefle, Bianca Stone, and Ocean Vuong. Emily Dickinson is classic. Langston Hughes is honest. Sylvia Plath is smarter than me. Kristin Chang’s poetry is beautiful. Kaveh Akbar, Rae Armantrout, Dorothy Chan, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Safia Elhillo, and Ilya Kaminsky are brilliant. Chen Chen is hilarious. Many slam poets stun me, such as Cassandra Myers and Mia S. Willis. My writer friends inspire me the most because they consistently present an authentic voice and take poetic risks.

What do you mean by "poetic risks"? 

They are unafraid to try something new on the page. They are brave. For example, my friend Giselle Bonilla recently released a poem dedicated to survivors of abuse called “Breathe,” and it reads like a meditation on reclaiming one’s worth: “Name your pain. / It’s yours. / Have a conversation with it /... / Reconstruct that pain, / Make it into love. / Make it beautiful.” 

What draws you to love in a poem? Is it your muse, your backseat driver, or...?

Ha, my backseat driver. I’d say it’s more like love is driving me. I’m the one in the passenger seat, trying to work the GPS instead of just enjoying the view. For me, love is the purpose of life (not quite the “burden of life,” as Allen Ginsberg writes). Its power fascinates me: love can transform and conjure and create. 

The poems trace unrequited love, in particular. How does that make poetry so powerful? 

My favorite poet of “unrequited” love is Rumi. I use quotation marks because I don’t think it is unrequited love as much as it is love that had been one thing in the past and became a different sort of energy over time. 
Any ventures in love have ultimately led me to a greater understanding of myself. Self-love is a difficult journey and, although it isn’t well-publicized as such, it is the most important one we must undertake. 
Poetry is a way of grappling with such mysteries as love and a way to remind people of their own power. Poetry allows us to connect through our common emotional experiences.

How has your work as an editor informed and transformed your poetry?

I feel inspired to write whenever I read a strong piece of writing, so it’s exciting to be exposed to a plethora of wonderful work through running Boston Accent Lit. I am honored to have published the poetry of talented people—such as jayy dodd, Sneha Subramanian Kanta, Preeti Vangani, shy watson, and Alina Ştefănescu—poets who teach me new ways to use image or metaphor or tone and who hold me in a state of awe. 

What do you look for in a poem?

I like surprise and humor in poetry, but what I look for is emotional honesty. I love poets who show vulnerability on the page. 

What turns you off in poems?

I am turned off by erasure poetry; it evokes censorship too much for my taste.

Your poems often resist closure. Do you like closure in poetry or avoid it? Why?

I don’t think that poems should give closure; there is no needed solution to a presented problem like there is in fiction. Poems are instead intended to leave readers with a feeling, even if the feeling is frustration.
However, the final line of any poem needs to have a kick to it. I like to think of the last line as being similar to the punch line of a joke. It’s what we’re all waiting for, even if we don’t yet know it. It’s what makes you want to read the poem again or share it with someone else. Take James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” as an example: the poem builds to its final line (“I have wasted my life”).  
A poem can be altogether awful, but if that last line is good enough then it can save the entire piece and elevate it to a work of art.

You recently got an MFA. Was it beneficial? How so?

Shout-out to the University of Nebraska-Omaha. UNO was the only poetry program I applied to because I felt called to the heartland. I am so happy that I pursued my MFA because my poetry skills improved substantially through focused attention and mentorship. The program’s low-residency format gave me the right balance of freedom and structure. I needed to refine my writing voice and I needed to learn to take myself seriously as a poet. Eventually, I will teach poetry courses, but for now I still feel that I have a lot to learn. 

What were some important takeaways from your time at the MFA?

Trust your vision and your voice as a writer, but also listen to others’ good advice. Before my MFA, I was writing poetry exclusively in lowercase letters because I thought it was avant-garde, but I learned that it was actually putting my poems at a disadvantage and somewhat confusing readers. My mentors also encouraged me to be more honest in my work and to avoid distancing myself from my writing by using a second-person perspective or ghost personas.

How did this collection come together? How did you select and order the poems? Any personal anecdotes about the collection?

I have been working on a full-length collection called Life Span of a Poet in Love and this chapbook contains a lot of new material that had been part of that project and then morphed into its own entity. I think that there are other poems that dance with the poems in Dancing on a Dead-End Street, but I wanted to keep the book short and sweet.

The poems told me which order they wanted to be in, so I just listened, and then I also listened to my sister Alice O’Brien who told me to switch the order of “South Dakota” and “Traveling,” since she felt that “Traveling” made more sense as the collection’s first poem. “Book Mail” and “Traveling” were originally not included in the collection, but I decided to add them because they felt important to the book’s tone and themes.

I have many personal anecdotes, but I think I’ll keep them to myself for now. I’m toying with the idea of writing nonfiction. I mean, I have written a couple of pieces and I am deciding whether I feel daring enough to share them. As T.S. Eliot writes, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”

What's next for you?

I plan to obtain my PhD in English and then teach poetry at the college level. I am working on a full-length poetry collection. This summer, I'll be making art and reading poems in the New England area.

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