January Gill O’Neil talks about her new book, Misery Islands

by Jacquelyn Malone

January Gill O’Neil, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, has a new book out, but she is quick to point out that it is more hopeful than Misery Islands implies. “The title,” she says, “refers to two islands off the coast of Beverly, Massachusetts, and, though the poems are about the details of my life as I went through the breakup of a marriage, it is also about joy and laughter and my kids.”

Major Jackson says of the book, “O’Neil candidly writes about family…of single-motherhood and of love, and in doing so penetrates the exquisitiveness of the everyday while highlighting the challenges of living as an artist and mother. Indeed, there is fine balance of imagery and story and song that makes this a fine collection to own, to read back one’s own solitariness, one’s own joy.”

The book launches on November 18 and may be purchased through the publisher, CavanKerry Press, or through Amazon.

January has been writing a long time. “I always wrote song lyrics – four line songs. But when I was a student at Old Dominion University, I took a course with Toi Derricotte. She introduced me to Sharon Olds and I wanted to do what she was doing. Toi also played Allen Ginsburg reading Howl,  and we followed along in the text. I came away thinking, Wow! You can do that in a poem!”

January published her first poem in the Seattle Review, but she doesn’t remember it as feeling like a breakthrough. “I was having kids and raising a family, and I knew making it as a poet was a long slog. I never felt like my first published poem really got me started.” But gradually as she finished her MFA at NY University, she began to see the broad world of contemporary poetry.

“I was amazed at how many people are writing poetry. Lately I’ve been amazed at how many are writing without publishers, and yet they have a good audience for their work. There’s Facebook and blogs and even YouTube videos of poets reading their work. Poetry is really taking off.”

January writes something every day though it may be simply a blog or journal entry. She often writes with her students at Salem State University.” I write when I can – whether anything comes of it or not. This month I’ve pledged to write a poem a day. But most of the time I just write when and wherever I can.”

The poems she enjoys are often narrative poems. “I love stories. And I like to see how a poet takes an ordinary story or theme and then does something extraordinary. Sometimes it’s the twists the poem goes through. Sometimes it’s a delight in the craft – the sounds and playfulness of the language.”

When asked which poets she particularly likes, she replies, “I read a crazy amount of contemporary poetry, and it hard for me to be specific, but some who come to mind are Sharon Olds, Phil Levine, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rita Dove and Lucille Clifton.”

Without January’s new book in front of me – since as I write this it hasn’t been launched –  I can only give you a taste of how her poetry as the press release from CavanKerry produces. The quotation begins with a explanation of the title:  “The two islands off the coast of Massachusetts—Great Misery and Little Misery—are a metaphor for the “unforgiving terrain” of the beleaguered heart: “Two islands,/one shadowing/the other,/both untouched.” Visits to these islands, real or in memory, trace the trajectory of a hopeful love affair and a marriage unraveled.

We were never of one body.

You said wind. I said water.

And whatever connected us has all but disappeared.


I was the reedy weeds clinging to the bottom edge of everything.

I was the red algae rotting on the shore in the summer heat.

I was the stinging salty air, the air around your tongue.


Out of your tongue you carved a boat.

Out of the boat you sailed to a new life.

Out of your lifeboat I was wrecked.


No man is an island but it lives inside of you,

adrift in you like a rupture, a fault,

magma rising from your ocean floor

as you become whoever you are becoming.  

You can hear January read from her book on November 18 in Somerville, the Center for the Arts at the Armory, 1919 Highland Avenue at 7:00. Reading with January will be Michael Ansara and me (Jacquelyn Malone). The program is followed by an open mic and will be hosted by Harris Gardner and Gloria Mindock.  (Admission: $4.00.) January’s book will be available at the reading. Be one of the first to claim your copy!