I love the title of this book, Misery Islands, in part because the poems about misery are really mixed in with those about joys of life. It has a very balanced feel—something hard to accomplish in a poetry book. How did you come up with the title?
JANUARY GILL O’NEIL
Thanks, Nin. I remember being at a local park with my friend, poet Colleen Michaels, who told me the story of Misery Islands. This park sits off the coast of Beverly, MA, and as she told me the story of the two islands, Great Misery and Little Misery and the captain who was stuck on the island for three days (the captain was miserable; hence, the name), something clicked. I was writing poems about the breakup of my marriage and wanted something more to pull the poems together. Somehow it worked. I also had never written a long poem, but the islands gave me the opportunity to tell many stories at once.
I think one of my favorite poems is “What the Body Knows.” It really captures the feeling I have at the doctor’s office, and the last line is perfect—“If it listens carefully, it can hear its own voice making the wrong sound.” How did this poem come about?
WHAT THE BODY KNOWS
The body knows it is part of a whole, its parts believed to be in good working order. It knows it’s getting older, years ticking off like pages on a desk calendar, your doctor’s appointment circled in red. Try not to picture the body sitting alone in the waiting room. The body creaks up and down like a hardwood floor, you tell your doctor this; he says your breast is a snow globe. He says, Inside there’s a snowstorm—my job is to decipher a bear from a moose in the snow. He flattens the breast with a low radiation sandwich press. The body wonders if its parts will turn into Brie cheese, if its fingers will fuse and become asparagus stalks. He says it’s possible, but don’t give it a second thought. He says insulate your body with spinach. He says true understanding of the body will enable it to live long and live well. But the body knows when its leg is being pulled. The body is a container of incidental materials. If it listens carefully, it can hear its own voice making the wrong sound.
Honestly, I was in the doctor’s office waiting for my annual mammogram. I started the poem in the office; in fact, the line about spinach came from a TV show playing in the background. Then the technician told me that his job was like differencing a bear from a moose in a snowstorm. I mean, doesn’t the feeling of the scanner pressing down on your breast feel like a Panini machine or a George Foreman grill—or at least what I imagine those things to feel like?
I finished the poem at home that day, just making minor tweaks along the way.
I also love the poem, “What My Kids Will Write about Me in Their Future Tell-All Book.” I thought I was the only one that wondered what my kids would write about me years later—about what they would remember of my parenting. Could you say a few words about the poem?
What My Kids Will Write about Me in Their Future Tell-All Book
They will say that no was my favorite word,
more than stop, or eat, or love.
That some mornings, I’d rather stay in bed,
laptop on lap, instead of making breakfast,
that I’d rather write than speak.
They will say they have seen me naked.
Front side, back side—none of which
were my good side.
They will say I breastfed too long.
In the tell-all book my kids will write
they’ll tell how I let them wrinkle like raisins
in the bathtub so I could watch Big Papi at the plate.
They’ll talk about how I threw out their artwork,
the watercolors and turkey hands,
when I thought they weren’t looking
and when I knew they were.
They’ll say that my voice was a slow torture,
that my singing caused them permanent hearing loss.
In the tell-all book my kids will write
as surely as I am writing this, they will say
I cut them off mid-sentence just because I could.
They’ll tell you how I got down on my knees,
growling my low, guttural disapproval,
how I grabbed their ears, pinched the backs of their arms,
yet they never quite knew who was sadder for it.
They’ll quote me saying, I cry in the shower—
it’s the only safe place I can go.
They will say she was “our sweetest disaster.”
They will say I loved them so much it hurt.
My constant worry about raising kids is what little thing will I do that will send my kids into therapy. I can see it now, “Mom wouldn’t let me play a video game so now I’m on the couch.” All parents wonder this, I’m sure, but when you’re a single parent and the primary caregiver, it’s much harder to be kind sometimes when you’d just rather hide under the sheets. I’m the one my kids turn to for everything, and I mean everything! It’s a blessing but hard to find balance sometimes.
The divorce and post-divorce poems are really powerful. I think my favorite one is “Cunt.” Did you write these poems at the time, or long after, when you were looking back at your marriage?
It rolls off the tongue like a bullet train,
and once it leaves the station
that train is never late. You take it out
when your college-educated self
needs to tell it like it is. There’s not
another word in the English language
to describe the moment your daughter,
your love child, comes back after a weekend
with your ex-husband and his new girlfriend,
the one he left you for when he said
he wanted to lead a more “authentic life.”
You’ve spent your days not reacting
in front of the kids, for the sake of the kids—
but not this time. After 52 weeks of pickups
and drop offs, your turnstile of a mouth
swings open like a car door unhinged,
the moment your daughter tells you of her weekend,
you ask, Why does your hair look so different?
And she says, Daddy’s girlfriend combed it.
She looks at you with those inquisitive brown eyes
half-knowing she’s tripped the wire
between the said and unsaid.
You pull her into a hug, then send her into the kitchen,
dragging a deep breath out of the cave of yourself.
Regret is not in your vocabulary
because under your breath, barely audible,
you’ve just hurled the last word in the arsenal
you can draw back and launch like a punch in the face.
I can’t remember when I wrote it, probably just after the divorce when it was apparent this is how things are now. The life I worked for my whole life had changed so dramatically.
This poem is not about the word so much as the feeling when there’s no other word for this moment. We all have those words we’d never say unless pushed—this one is mine. I actually didn’t learn about the word until I was in my mid-20s, so I don’t have the strong gender-based feelings that others have. I really like the sound of the word cunt: short, curt, it pounds like a hammer. It’s the one word that stops people in their tracks, and yet I like it.
Could you talk a little bit about the evolution of Misery Islands?
I had been writing quite a bit before Underlife was published. Then my then-husband and I were having problems and poetry became my umbrella. And it poured. So I wrote. What I didn’t want Misery to be was therapy. And I didn’t want the reader’s experience to seem as if he or her were peeking in on a nasty fight. The book is so much more than that. It’s important to me that the craft comes through.
Yes, the book is about divorce. But it’s also about transition, and kids, and beauty, and making it through to the other side.
How about your evolution as a poet? When did you first think you were a poet? How did you become a CavanKerry poet?
As an undergrad at Old Dominion University many moons ago, I did poorly in my 8 a.m. economics class. So I think I have bad grades to thank for my turn to creative writing! But once I started taking classes with Toi Derricotte and Ruth Stone, I knew poetry would be my vocation.
When I went to grad school at NYC, I met poet Joseph O. Legaspi on my first day. We’ve been BFFs ever since. I would not be a CavanKerry poet if Joseph hadn’t encouraged me to send my manuscript in during CavanKerry’s open submission period. I was lucky in that my manuscript was chosen relatively quickly. I had also sent my manuscript to two contests and second publisher that gave my manuscript a seriously look-see, but ultimately passed. I’m glad CavanKerry saw potential in my poems.
Who are your primary literary influences?
Toi and Ruth, of course. Also, Sharon Olds, Phil Levine, Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, and William Carlos Williams. I also read a lot of contemporary poetry and attend as many poetry workshops, readings, and gatherings as I can.
When and how do you find time to write?
HA! I don’t find time, I have to make it.
I’ve learned to write anywhere I can: at my daughter’s Tae Kwondo class or my son’s baseball games (he hates that!). Last semester, I made a point to write when my students wrote, which worked out well. Nikki Finney suggests writing in the early morning, like 4 a.m. early, before the first cup of tea and first morning chore. That’s when I’m still in a half-sleep, half-wake state.
You also run the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, right?
Yes, I do. The next festival is May 1-3, 2015 in Salem, Massachusetts. It will be our sixth year and out tiny team is starting the prep work for it now. It’s hard work putting on a festival with 100 readings, workshops, and discussions, music, etc. with little-to-no money, but it is a labor of love. Community is the cornerstone of our weekend. We put the “grass” in grassroots.
What’s your next big project?
Well, I’m close to finishing manuscript #3, which means I’d like to start manuscript #4. My hope is to write poems about the slaves who lived in my current hometown of Beverly, Massachusetts. I have research and documentation on one family, and the matriarch who sued for her freedom and won. I just need to find the time to write the poems. I need more than a few hours here and there to put it together.