What Makes Her Fierce: An Interview With Emily O’Neill

Emily O’Neill has a chapbook coming out from Jellyfish Highway  called You Can’t Pick Your Genre, and some of her work can be found in Maudlin House. We asked her some questions about her work and her book, and she was kind and fierce enough to answer.

1. “Superbitch,” one of your poems from You Can’t Pick Your Genre and published in Maudlin House, is written to Rose McGowan. What inspired you to write to her?

Rose has always been a hero of mine and also a mega-crush. During my extensive rewatch of the Scream movies for You Can’t Pick Your Genre, McGowan was very publicly calling out rampant Hollywood misogyny, so as I was watching her pal around with Sidney, I was also watching her saying so many things I identified with on my Twitter timeline. I wanted to write a kind of love letter to all the versions of powerful that I’ve seen her be. She’s had a lot of roles as an actress where she has a sharp edge to her, and on my best days, I hope to be that sharp. The poem started as a kind of reaching towards what makes her fierce, and became a little anthem for the kinds of women I advocate for and surround myself with–superbitches pushing back against the stupid trope that a good or successful woman has to do everything without agitating anyone in power.
2. Both “Neighborhood Watch” and “These Kids Today” are written to an unidentified “you.” Is it the same you or totally different you’s? Do you find yourself often writing to a generic you?

My relationship with poems addressed to a “you” is complicated. Those two poems could certainly be written in the direction of the same poem, but I feel like that’s not entirely accurate. “Neighborhood Watch” is a poem/play that comes from a frustration with suburban codes of silence. Plenty of violent, terrible things are happening all the time, even in the communities that want you to believe them bastions of moral uprightness. As a survivor of domestic violence, I do a fair amount of writing that speaks to that, and people who think they know me well often respond by saying “I’m so sorry, I had no idea,” but even more often than that, there’s gaslighting that happens, where my experiences or the experiences of others are denied entirely. I’m really sick of the stigma attached to testifying to your experiences, and even sicker of the refrain “how could this have happened here?” It happened here because these things happen everywhere. There is no such thing as a community deserving of violence. The running undercurrent in Scream and its sequels is that the violence is entirely unexpected in the suburbs, that these people lead “acceptable” lives that are interrupted by outrageous killing sprees. But think about how many people are dealing with death or its cousins on a regular basis, and also how invisibly that happens.

“These Kids Today” is speaking to a different kind of disgust I experience in communities insisting they have no problems, and that’s with the way violence is simultaneously denied and normalized. It’s not happening, but it’s all we see. It’s not our problem to repair until it touches our lives directly. Billy Loomis, (spoiler alert) the killer in the first film, is a sick kid who is sick because of his own entitlement. He feels entitled to a perfect life, and when his life loses that perfection, he brutally murders the woman he sees as responsible, then systematically ingratiates himself with her daughter so that he can terrorize her further. The movie is campy, which is good, because the plot is chilling.

In general, I write “you” poems the way a lot of people write essays. They’re a way of working out what my relationship is to things I’d like to be critical of. When I write a poem with a “you,” that you is separate from myself, but in the writing I’m able to identify what in myself is also present in the subject I’m picking apart. If you can recognize a societal failing, chances are there’s some small shred of it internal to you, and I wrote many of these poems trying to tease out what shape my privilege takes.
3. Is it important to you to include current events in your writing?

I wouldn’t say current events influence me directly, but I’m also not unaware of what’s happening in the world I’m writing in. I rarely write poems towards specific historical moments, but I know that current events will send me spiraling around collecting ideas and language around a theme, which is usually where a poem starts for me.
4. A number of your poems include references to religion, particularly Catholicism. Is that an important theme for you? Why?

I was raised Catholic and went to private Catholic school until I was 16, at which point, during a college prep meeting with a guidance counselor and my mother, I was told being an artist was a waste of my intelligence. I dropped out immediately upon hearing that, which was probably the most definitive choice I’d made in my life up to that point. So, thank you Academy of the Holy Angels for trying to force me into a high paying career track. I’m a waitress and a teacher now and generally a really happy person. That wouldn’t have happened for me if I didn’t break with the church. As a queer person, as a working class person, all the rhetoric of waiting for a reward from God for piety rang false to me. There are still things about the Catholic traditions that I really respond to on a visceral emotional level, but more of that is tied to the rituals of mass and prayer than anything else. I don’t feel close to a god, but I do feel close to the comfort of repetition. There’s a lot of power in having a routine. I suffer from a pretty intense chronic anxiety disorder and ritual and routine is a thing I took with me when I left being Catholic. I think a lot about God in the lives of the people I love, and how that God does work for them. My mother’s mother is one of the most faithful Catholics I’ll ever meet, and she is also one of the best humans I’ve ever known. Her religion is so important to who she is, but the kindness inherent to her is a product of her selfless choices, not some invisible creator. I know she’d be sad to hear me say something like that, and a lot of my writing is a dance where I’m trying to negotiate the sadness the faithful people in my life experience when I tell them I don’t believe the way I once did. God is a character in my story, but it’s a lot more complicated than I was raised to believe.
5. Can you think of a poem that was particularly difficult for you to write? Why was it a challenge?

There are so many hard ones, but one in particular stands out in my mind–it’s called “Everybody Knows That I’m a Mess” and is in the most recent issue of The Journal. It’s about an abusive relationship I was involved in during my first two years at college. The person I was with harmed me in so many ways and for a long time it was too painful to face what had been done to me, especially because subsequent partners, upon finding out about these horrible things, either left me or used the abuse as leverage to belittle me or make me feel dependent on them. Abuse begets abuse for so many of us, and in writing that poem I was ripping a wound back open so I could close it. It’s another “you” poem and is aimed directly at this man who assaulted me countless times and once I was through the first draft I was physically ill. The first time I ever read a draft of it in public, I ran from the venue crying afterwards. It’s still really raw to think back on the events contained in the poem, and the poem’s form reflects that. The language is fragmented, the memories are not fully intact. But I exorcised them by making them into an object separate from myself, and that is an act that gives back the power he tried to steal from me by doing what he did.
6. What is your loftiest poetic ambition?

Loftiest poetic ambition–I just want to keep writing until it stops feeding me. Any success is the product of the work, but the day the work stops feeling urgent to me is the day I’ll stop writing. What I want more than anything as a writer is for what I’m making to feel urgent and for that urgency to draw me closer to people who will teach me, with the words and works, what being better looks like. I want to get into grad school, I want to be paid for my writing, I want to have more time to make, but all of that would be incidental without the urgency. My goal, the big thing I keep pinned above me always, is urgency. If the poem isn’t urgent, I should be spending my effort elsewhere.
7. If you could pick one poem published online that would define your day so far, what would it be?

These three from That Which Comes After by Alexis Pope are little worlds I think of so frequently and today feels like one of them. Food and skin and little snapshots. Not wanting to get out of bed. Quiet, but not quite just that. I woke up too warm but didn’t want it to stop and these poems get at that well.
8. If you could redefine “maudlin” what would you make it mean?

Maudlin should be a kind of cheese, a smooth one that melts well for sandwich purposes. I would eat it at 6 AM next to a very old whiskey when falling asleep after work is absolutely out of the question.