Nothing You Expect: Joseph O. Legaspi Interviews January Gill O’Neil 

headshots of o'neil and legaspi
JANUARY GILL O’NEIL and JOSEPH O. LEGASPI have been friends for almost three decades, since the mid-90s, when they met at orientation in the beat-up lounge of New York University’s creative writing program. The two simply hit it off, bonded over brie, and shared poetics, both starry-eyed on their first venture into New York City.

January is the author of the newly minted collection, Glitter Road, her fourth book published by CavanKerry Press. Her previous titles are Underlife, Misery Islands and Rewilding. She is associate professor at Salem State University and currently serves as board chair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). The interview was conducted over Zoom in December 2023. Full transparency: Joseph traveled to visit January outside of Boston for a weekend in September, braving a storm that drenched New York City, and arriving three hours late. But instead of “getting to work,” they hung out as good friends do and enjoyed each other’s company, relishing in nourishment, and sustenance.

 

Joseph O. Legaspi (JL): I love this book, Glitter Road. I believe it’s your strongest, most cohesive collection. For me, the book, among many things, is a reclamation not only of love and history but your Southern roots. There’s a tremendous sense of place. Love lost; love regained. Can you talk about how the book came about? What was the seed, the initial idea, or drive, or propulsion that brought the book forward?

January O’Neil (JO): Sure. So, back in 2018, I found out that I had won the John and Renée Grisham Fellowship at the University of Mississippi, Oxford. Knowing myself, I was probably on some level thinking, Oh, this book [Rewilding] is out. I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. Usually, when I have those thoughts, something occurs in the universe. But the Grisham Award is one of those mysterious things that just comes out of the blue, because I didn’t apply for it. I didn’t know it existed. Mississippi was not on my list of places to visit, but you know, when an opportunity happens like this, you just can’t ignore it. In the poetry community, I’ve really been about service: about helping other people figure out what they want to do, and providing spaces they can gather and meet. To think of myself as somebody who wins a prize, I had to look at myself in a different light. I felt like it was time for something new.

So, I bribed the children with a puppy and moved them in their high school years down to Mississippi. We stayed in John Grisham’s old house, which was amazing. It was the first time that I had ever been away from work and my day-to-day, momentarily leaving my life and learning about a whole new area of the country. I like to say I’m from Virginia, but that is the South. Mississippi is “the South’s South.”

Mississippi is nothing like you expect, and it’s exactly what you expect.”

At Ole Miss, I was surrounded by fabulous instructors—Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Dustin Parsons, Beth Ann Fennelly, Melissa Ginsburg—and I felt very nurtured.

I can’t say I was working on anything new before we went down. There were, however, a few moments that gave me pause. There was a picture of three Ole Miss students standing next to the Emmett Till Memorial with shotguns that went viral. The sign was the marker of the place where Emmett was pulled out of the river. It was shot up, riddled with bullet holes, and these young men were standing there just like they had done this great thing. It was nerve-wracking.

However, I wanted to stay very open to Mississippi. I was hoping it wouldn’t confirm what I thought about Mississippi, which is based on their legacy of slavery and racism. I thought I would just be confronted by my worst fears by being a Black woman in Mississippi. But you know I was pleasantly surprised. I often say that Mississippi is nothing like you expect, and it’s exactly what you expect.

I had a chance to travel to some key spots across the state, and everybody was welcoming and friendly. There are people there who are doing good work. That was a big lesson for me: that we must get out of our bubbles. New England has its own issues as well. It’s not like Massachusetts is perfect. It was a reminder that there are good people everywhere. We all want our kids to do well, and we all want to earn a decent living.

JL: Did the Grisham fellowship shift your creative process, the way you write? How did your time in Mississippi challenge your idea of your own Southernerness?

JO: I’m from Norfolk, Virginia, and it’s interesting because it’s on the coast. It’s next to Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads. It’s a tidewater area heavily influenced by the military and it’s a more cosmopolitan area, meaning there’s an influx of people coming in from everywhere all the time. Yet it feels traditionally Southern. But going down to Mississippi, it’s seriously like a lot of places that deal with racism and structural-cultural issues in a way that the rest of the country hides from. We get hit with microaggressions in the big cities, in the blue states, but I think in Mississippi it is a little more out in the open. People know where they stand, and there are people working in those spaces to try to bridge the gaps and have those uncomfortable questions answered. They’re trying to engage in those spaces now. Not everybody, but certainly the people whom I met. I was surrounded by those who were working towards something better. But most definitely, Mississippi is a one-party state.

Now when I went down there, I made a conscious effort not to write because at that point, I needed to figure out what to do. How to get the kids assimilated into the school system, right? I just thought I would absorb and figure it out and learn, take notes, and research, which is really part of writing. I took it upon myself to learn about the place that I live in. That’s so important when you write about places. I didn’t want to be a tourist moving through. I mean, I was going to be in Mississippi for nine months. So, I tried to get involved in the community as much as possible. I went to the events on campus. Off-campus, I visited the surrounding communities. I looked for events all over the state.

I learned about slavery in Mississippi, and how distinct it was from the other states. At one point, there were four million enslaved people in the South by 1860. There were more slaves than slaveholders. And there is something about that original trauma that I felt. Even when I think about it, I can still feel it. When I go back, there’s a part of me that feels it.

I don’t know what I was expecting with a fourth book. I didn’t want to write. I felt like I had done all I needed to do. The first book was a basic good first book that talks about my experiences up until that point. I’m not one to write a project book. The second book dealt with divorce head on and the third was coming out of that. Rewilding was more environmentally focused. And so, now, I feel this book, Glitter Road, pulls together all these loose strands. But it also examines issues that are truly larger than me. I’m barely scratching the surface. Now that I’ve done that, however, I can’t look away. Places like Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, the store’s in ruins. Again, that speaks to what we save and what we let go, and whose story is worth telling. There are many stories like that from the Blues, about the Mississippi River, which is so vast and powerful.

It was a life-changing experience going down there. I didn’t write for seven months. But I did research. I went to the rededication of Emmett Till’s Memorial. I spoke with people who had lived through these moments. I went on tours. Then Covid hit in March 2020, and we all went inside. The kids stayed home from school, and we were all virtual. That was when I started to write the book.

JL: Wow, I didn’t realize it was such a conscious effort for you not to write for seven months! But it stems from how each writer operates. Your personal craft, right? You tap into something necessary for new writing to emerge. I think you felt that there was, as you said, something larger than you are. Emmet Till’s story gripped you; he took such an emotional hold on you. You have many poems about Till in the book.

JO: I felt for the first time I was stepping into history. Often I’ve kept history at a distance. I like to say I’m second generation after the civil rights movement, my parents being in that first generation. I’m a benefactor of that. My kids are third generation. I don’t have the same issues that my parents had. Certainly, my kids don’t have that perspective. Because of the first generation’s hard work, I get to live in spaces where I haven’t hit something that I couldn’t handle. I realize that is a certain level of privilege. I’ve had moments of doubt—microaggressions happen quite a bit. Coming off George Floyd and many other Black men, Black people, who have been brutalized by the hands of police. All those stories for me go back to Emmett Till, and there are stories that predate him, of course. To go to the courtroom, where his trial was wrapped up in about an hour. Where the people who were charged were acquitted. To go to the place where he was pulled out of the water. To the place where he was beaten. To walk in those spaces where terrible things happened. On some level, we do that all the time. I mean, I work in Salem, Massachusetts. You walk around there and know women were murdered. And we’re going to say, yeah, this is ok? I mean, it’s crazy. Mamie Till’s decision to have an open casket probably produced one of the first “viral” moments of the Civil Rights Movement. The power of the act and attention on that! Rosa Parks decided not to sit at the back of the bus. To be in that space of history, I would have been a fool not to explore. Emmett’s story is still with me, because while we were in Mississippi my children were around his age: my son was sixteen, my daughter was fourteen. I have something to say about this, and this is my contribution to the idea of “the powerful play goes on.”

I did not want to write a book that did not include Black joy. The pain is just the other side of the coin. I wanted to make sure that I talked about pleasure and resilience; family and love; and all those things that help us celebrate.”

JL: I keep thinking of the body while reading and after reading Glitter Road. I mean you’ve always been a bodily poet. But I feel here in this book there is the violated body dragged out at night, out of the river. Eaten by a snake! The body on the cold table in a hospital morgue. There is the act of identifying the body. Of the beloved’s and the historical body. And the narrator witnessing, mindful of her own body, domestic and racialized and gendered. Can you take us along, if you will, from the first poem in the collection, “Autopsy,” the literal dissection of a body, to the historical/political, to the lover’s body consumed with joy? I’m seeing such a meshing of the clinical, the brutal, and the sensual.

JO: The poem “Autopsy” is about my ex-husband’s autopsy. He passed away unexpectedly in 2016.

The poet Susan Rich helped me early on with the formatting of the book after getting feedback from people who said it just wasn’t ready. She helped restructure it, and the biggest change that we made was to place the poem upfront. It puts me out there in a way that I didn’t expect to be out there, but it helps tell the story, too. It’s still chronological in a way. We start off with the body and an autopsy, then, we talk about loss, and then move towards the time in Mississippi and Emmett Till. I was learning about Emmett Till because he was a mere footnote in my history books in Virginia. When the opportunity to go to the rededication came about, I went, and the memorial was transformative. There had to be more than 100 people there that day, everybody standing firm on the idea that when the sign comes back down, it’s going to go up again. Recently, President Biden made that memorial a federal site. It is protected. That’s amazing! At the memorial, I had my daughter with me, and I ended up meeting the person that I fell in love with.

There’s a lot about the body in the book. I mean, the other part of the story is about being a woman of a certain age. I’m turning fifty-five in February. I had hit a point in my personal life where I didn’t think dating was in the cards for me. I had to go 1,300 miles away to fall in love.

Furthermore, because I talked a lot about sadness, I did not want to write a book that did not include Black joy. The pain is just the other side of the coin. I wanted to make sure that I talked about pleasure and resilience; family and love; and all those things that help us celebrate.

JL: In a way, the book is a confrontation of the body, of death, of history, which anchors yet moves the collection forward. It shows a kind bravery, I think, of the narrator to walk us through. What I find interesting about Glitter Road—I mean it’s in the title, right?—was that a good number of poems are about driving and seeing and being surprised by the journey. Was this a mechanism you envisioned in putting together the book?

JO: Witnessing was a big part of Glitter Road. In Mississippi, I got out of Oxford, this university idyll, and explored Clarksdale and other points in the Delta. I followed the Mississippi River.

I knew there were poems about Emmett Till that I wanted to write. I knew that there were environmental issues that I cared about. Also, the Mississippi landscapes, the magnolias, and kudzu, things that are not here along the East Coast. I wrote these poems, laid them out, and I put them in the order I thought they should be. I put them together in sections. but it was such a complicated story to talk about Mississippi and Massachusetts. Those Mississippi stories either got all bunched together or they got lost.

So, I decided to have these mini sections with a magnolia drawn by my daughter to highlight the Mississippi stories. I must credit my editor, Baron Wormser, for suggesting it. I was glad to work with CavanKerry Press again. I love this book for so many reasons.

JL: Oh, so the magnolia pages act more as pauses than section breaks, which you have in the book, as well?

JO: Yes, they’re more pauses, to highlight the fact that the Mississippi poems are a little more distinctive. I didn’t want the Emmett Till story to get lost. But I didn’t want the love poems to feel like an afterthought, either. It works well to separate them out and say, hey, wait, take a little more time with these poems. Yeah, I’m thrilled. Because honestly, that was the big stumbling block. When I sent the manuscript around, publishers would say there are good poems here, but couldn’t see the story they were telling. I didn’t know how to “sell it.” Nowadays every book seems to have to have a theme or an arc that you can justify.

JL: Speaking of arcs and journeys, at this stage in your life what have you learned about yourself as a poet?

JO: Well, I would always say that I look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. That’s been sort of my theme from the first book onward. When the pandemic hit, not being able to go anywhere or do anything, it was a test to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary—everyday. It was a constant cycle of trying to get to a state of joy.

It is work to try to see the world anew, especially because it will disappoint you at every turn. But it is worth it to walk outside on a cold day and see a bud on a tree that you didn’t expect to see that morning. I think poets are lucky because we get the opportunity to examine the minutiae of life and question it.

 

January Gill O’Neil is an associate professor at Salem State University and the author of Glitter Road (2024), Rewilding (2018), Misery Islands (2014), and Underlife (2009), all published by CavanKerry Press. From 2012-2018, she served as the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. The recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Cave Canem, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, O’Neil was the 2019-2020 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi, Oxford. She currently serves as the 2022-2024 board chair of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). She lives in Beverly, MA.

Joseph O. Legaspi works at Columbia University, teaches at Fordham University, and lives in Queens, NY.

Nothing You Expect: Joseph O. Legaspi Interviews January Gill O’Neil 

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