Heather Aimee O’Neill is the Assistant Director of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at Hunter College. Her work has been published in several literary journals, including Many Mountains Moving and The Truth About The Fact: An International Journal of Literary Non-Fiction. Her poetry collection, Memory Future, was selected by Carol Muske-Dukes as the winner of the University of Southern California Gold Line press award and was published this summer. A freelance writer for various publications, she writes the monthly book column Across The Page for MTV’s AfterEllen.com. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their son. This interview was conducted over e-mail.
AI: Tell me about the process of writing Memory Future. How did Jeanette Winterson’s work come into play here?
HAO: I began reading Jeanette Winterson when I was in high school. She changed me as a person and as a writer. It was one of the first times I read queer women characters. That alone was a transformative experience for me. It made me feel less alone in the world. I was also amazed by Winterson’s imagination and ability to keep her language so lyrical and tight. I still remember sitting in my room and thinking, “I want to write like this!” As it turns out, I don’t really write like Winterson, but I’m still inspired by her storytelling and use of language.
AI: What do you look for in a poem when you’re writing one? When you’re reading? What does language offer you that other mediums don’t?
HAO: As a writer, I challenge myself on clarity. If I see that my language is disguising meaning rather than illuminating meaning—or a reader tells me that!—then I stop and try to figure out why. This usually happens when I’m writing something painful or revealing or difficult. By the second draft I ask myself: What the hell are you trying to say? Why does the reader even care about this? What does this poem add to the overall discussion of the subject? Teaching writing has forced me to consider these questions even more, which is a good thing. As a reader, I want the poem to grab me by the collar and force me to listen. I want to be engaged.
AI: Tell me about the role writing plays in your life. What inspires you? Where do the boundaries between life, inspiration, and writing begin and end, if they do at all?
HAO: I struggled to learn how to read when I was a kid and I think that’s had a tremendous influence on my writing. I work hard. I take it seriously. I’m a naturally anxious person and writing is a way for me to process the world. It’s how I see the world. When I sit at a table with my family or ride the subway or cook dinner, I’m always observing and trying to figure out how I would translate that image or gesture onto the page. People who need to capture the world through art—whether it’s photography, painting, sculpture, dance, language or whatever— fascinate me. Why does one person look at a subway car and see the intricacy of the design, another spray paints the window and another tries to describe it? For me it’s always been about language. For better or worse, I can’t imagine looking at the world through any other lens.
AI: Let’s go back to Memory Future. What was the most challenging poem to write? To revise? The least challenging?
HAO: The least challenging poem was “Second Grade Teachers Don’t Have Names Without Mr., Mrs., or Ms. Attached.” I composed the poem as is and never really edited it after the first draft. The poem is about my sister but I dedicated it to my teacher and friend, Eric McHenry, because he taught me more about poetry than anyone else. The crown sonnet “Winter in Spain” was the most challenging. I began that poem while taking a class with Maria Ponsot. She was amazing. I had met her years earlier at a poetry reading and at that time told her that I’d stopped writing poetry because I couldn’t grasp meter or form. She said to me, “The only meter you need to understand is the beating of your heart.” It sounds simple, but she is such a beautiful and wise woman that it struck me. Years later when I ended up in her class, I again spoke about how I couldn’t master meter and form and therefore I just didn’t write it. This time she looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Dear, just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t know it.” I went home that night and began studying form and meter and writing that poem. I’m indebted to her for that honesty.
AI: Do you have any new projects in the works?
HAO: I’m working on a series of erasure poems with Jessica Piazza—an extremely talented poet. We’re using articles from the New York Times. It’s collaborative and interactive and a lot of fun. I also just finished a novel about a woman who is about to become a mother.
AI: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
HAO: Just thank you. I’m grateful to all of the people who devote so much of their lives to poetry—the poets, the readers, the editors, the publications, the teachers.