Welcome To My Bed

Birds of Praise

Taking compliments gracefully has never been a strength of mine. Typically, when someone says something specific and pleasant to me I blush and deflect and change the subject. I've improved slightly at just saying thank you before melting into a shock puddle at the prospect of anyone finding me even marginally remarkable, as all the praise heaped on my bird these past few months has taught me just to smile and say "I'm very proud." Because I am. The outpouring of support for this book has been overwhelming, and as far as I can tell it will just keep getting better. Pelican's being talked about in public again, and not just by me at the NYC Poetry Festival last week.

In what's probably the most thorough and attentive review I'll ever receive, Knar Gavin had this say about my bird:

The poet acknowledges her own grief if only to propose a triumphant emergence from that grief. Rather than rotting or desiccating away, O’Neill’s fallen tree undergoes a state change instead, thriving in its fallen state, covered in a verdant blanket of not one, but many small green lives. A single damaged life becomes host to a colony of beings. In a sense, the poet is just such a host; with each fall, her voice springs back to life, newly rich in timbre and strength.

You can read the whole shebang and blush along with me here at Heavy Feather Review. And as if Gavin's words didn't already have me all tied up in knots of gratitude and disbelief, Gina Vaynshteyn wrote a review for The Rumpus that not only compares me quite favorably to Plath but also gives space to how I try to find language for memory:

There is so much to love in Pelican. The expertly devastating language. The preciseness of form. The honesty of story. The way O’Neill juxtaposes tender familial moments with violence and aggression. 

In her closing paragraph, Vaynshteyn writes, "Pelican is gut-wrenching, and it doesn't fear flesh." I couldn't hope for higher praise than that. Read the entire glut of kindness here.

Finally, there's the relentless support my press has shown me. On my way back from Pittsburgh, the fabulous and tireless YesYes Books publicist, Heather Brown, tweeted at me so I could see her interviewer asking for me by name over at the Best American Poetry blog. My bird wouldn't be in anybody's hands at all without Heather, or KMA Sullivan, our fearless leader, or Stevie Edwards, the editor and friend who's believed in my work for longer than almost anyone. The entire YesYes staff and family of authors makes me so proud to be among them. I am so boundlessly thankful for the work YesYes has put into making sure I've been welcomed as wildly as any debut author could dream to be welcome by the literary community. You can read the entire Meet The Press feature, including an excerpt from Pelican, here.

Hey, Pittsburgh!

misandry toast

What are you doing a week from today?

Coming to Modern Formations to see Cassandra de Alba & Carrie Lorig & Shawn Maddey & Alexis Pope & little old me read some poems, yes?

You need convincing?

Cassandra would like to be buried in a can of Mountain Dew Kickstart. Without shrinking, Carrie wakes up this container of hearts and stomachs. Shawn found the hole where we thought monsters lived. Alexis rode her bike through you seven times.

No cover & the wine's free so you can spend your money on books.

You RSVP'd, didn't you?

First Impressions

photo by Mark Palos

photo by Mark Palos

Pelican's first reviews are coming & I'm so proud to say that they're excellent. Hello, Giggles named my poem-bird one of the 13 books you need to read this spring, calling it "a treasure for the world, nay, the universe." Over at American Microreviews & Interviews, Carleen Tibbetts wrote "Pelican's speaker is very much attuned to her fighting spirit, her strength, her passion, and her wildness," & I honestly can't think of a better affirmation of what I try to do in poems. Once upon a time, someone whose opinion mattered a lot to me said that my poems were too messy. That if I wanted to be successful, I'd have to pick one thing to feel at a time, or else nobody would publish me. I didn't follow that advice. The mess stayed, & the mess is where I feel most like a success. If it isn't wild, I don't know how to look closely at it. If I can't look closely, then a poem won't happen for me.

fruita pulp issue 9

Speaking of messes & feeling too much, I have a bunch of poems from my manuscript in progress floating around on the internet & wanted to make a list here in case you missed any of them.

+  I have a Drake remix poem in the music poetry anthology Again I Wait For This to Pull Apart, edited by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib for Freeze Ray Press. I am so proud to be included alongside work by so many folks I admire as writers & people. You can read the full list of contributors & pre-order your copy of the ultimate poetry mixtape here until 7/30.

+  Fruita Pulp published "please don't him them" & "affirmation for the damned" in their 9th issue, next to work by such wonders as Caroline Cabrera & Dalton Day's e-chapbook, TANDEM.

+  Maps for Teeth is the new nest for "SOMBER/DISTANT/GHOSTLY" & "PGH," two poems about my many heart-homes, the earlier being Feral Bitch Palace & the latter being Pittsburgh, my favorite city to run away to.

photo by Steven LaFond

photo by Steven LaFond

+  Quaint was kind enough to land their first-ever print issue on my poems "You Bring Out My Worst Side," a Selena Gomez remix poem, & "all the reasons why," an ode to friends who encourage you to be your incorrigible self. You can download a free PDF or order a copy here.

Finally, I wanted to offer a boatloads of thank yous to the folks who've had me come read for them this month. Thank you, New England College - Concord! Thank you, Eastern Point Lit House! Thank you, Belt Out!

 

Pelican Season

Pelican Emily O'Neill

I've returned (albeit reluctantly) to a semi-thawed New England from the Yes Yes West Coast tour, armed with loads of copies of my bird and more tour dates where you can hear poems & celebrate this huge milestone with me. The officially official release party is 3/28, & will feature performances by Cassandra de Alba, Jess Riz, & Sean Patrick Mulroy, as well as selections from Pelican & copious joyous tears on my part. If you can't make it to Cambridge, you can find me shouting wings onto things in a few other New England cities this month.

Monday, 3/16, 9 PM

The Dirty Gerund

Ralph's Diner, 148 Grove St

Worcester, MA 

 

Thursday, 3/19

Slam Free or Die

Milly's Tavern, 500 N Commercial St

Manchester, NH

 

Thursday, 3/26, 9 PM

Negative Burn, also featuring:

Wes Hazad, Nonye Brown, Sarah Blodgett,

plus Jake McKelvie & The Countertops! 

Ralph's Diner, 148 Grove St

Worcester, MA

 

Saturday, 3/28, 5 PM

Pelican Release Party

with special guest readers

Cassandra de Alba, Jess Riz, & Sean Patrick Mulroy

Voltage Coffee & Art, 295 Third St

Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA

 

 

Yes Yes, West Coast

Boston has about five feet of snow on her face, but I'm trying to focus on my flight Tuesday afternoon, when I will be delivered to two weeks of West Coast shows. Are you all in your feelings and looking to commiserate? I'll be performing work from Pelican in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California for the rest of the month alongside my powerhouse press-mates Meghan Privitello and Danez Smith. Let's hug, if you're into that.

Wednesday 2/11, 11 AM-1 PM

PCC Cascade Campus

705 North Killingsworth St, Portland

 

Thursday 2/12, 7-9 PM

Olympia People's Mic

Cafe Love

204 4th Ave E, Olympia

$3-7 entry, Facebook event page

 

Friday 2/13, 7 PM

Bad Blood

Ace Hotel Portland

1022 SW Stark St, Portland

Facebook event page 

 

Saturday 2/14, 7-9 PM

Sole Repair Shop w Sara Brickman

1001 East Pike St, Seattle

 

Sunday 2/15, 6:30 PM

Portland Poetry Slam

Velo Cult Bike Shop

1969 Northeast 42nd Ave, Portland

 

Wednesday 2/18, 12 PM

City College of San Francisco

Rosenberg Library 305

50 Phelan Ave, San Francisco

 

Wednesday 2/18, 7:30 PM

Berkley Slam

The Starry Plough

3101 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

(1 block uphill from Ashby BART)

$7-10 sliding scale, cash prizes

 

Thursday 2/19, 6-7:30 PM

University Book Store

2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley

 

Friday 2/20, 7-9 PM

The Art Bar & Cafe

1060 River St #112, Santa Cruz

 

And if you haven't pre-ordered your copy of Pelican yet, there's still time. The official release date is 2/15, so if you buy your book in the next week and send me a picture of your receipt, I'll send you a copy of the zine of witchcraft/pizza/pop poems I made called nobody dies from being wrong.

Pre-order Your Very Own Pelican

My first poetry collection, Pelican, is available for pre-order now for $2 off list price + free shipping. It is full of poems about medicine and memory and growing up in New Jersey. There are letters to my father that I've dropped into rivers. There are prayers I re-wrote as spells to drag myself back from grief towards something living and holy. There are all kinds of stories I could tell you in synopsis here, but if you want to hear even a few of them, I want you to have a copy of this monster. Click here to get your very own big-mouthed bird made of poems.

Below is the first poem in the collection, the first of many birds taking flight in me at all times.

kismet pelican emily o'neill


Wonderful Life

It's gotten frosty in Boston and I'm on the brink of hibernation. The short dull light and abundance of cold means I'm hiding in my room for days at a time, drafting new pieces and sending out endless submissions. Are you burrowed into your winter nest yet?

I have a slew of poems showing up soon at Drunk in a Midnight Choir, Dusie, GLITTERMOB, Luna Luna, Noble/Gas Quarterly, similar peaks, tagvverk, and Winter Tangerine Review, as well as another piece of ghost flash fiction forthcoming in Atticus Review, but what I really want to crow about today is a little piece of non-fiction about introversion, Hampshire College, and Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life called "Sowing Season is Non-Competitive" that lives over at Cartridge Lit.

Here's an excerpt:

The problem with cities is that people expect that you are waiting, dormant or asleep, whenever you’re not immediately interacting with them. It’s insulting. If you run into an acquaintance on the street, it often seems as if they’re in physical pain as they try to reconcile your presence in this place they never see you. It’s the reason I hate coffee shops. I don’t go out for coffee because it’s a near-guarantee I’ll be forced to small talk with someone. They will ask cursory questions about how I’ve been and try to make tentative plans when all I want to do is drown myself in iced tea. No one actually cares about the answers to these questions (What have you been up to lately? Will you bring me milk and a strawberry? Have you met the Harvest Goddess? Can you get my toolbox from the mayor?) but they ask them anyway to be polite. I have no use for politeness surrounding my caffeine intake.

There's a little over a month until my book release, and tour planning is in full swing. I'll be on the west coast in February, touring with my Yes Yes Books siblings Danez Smith and Meghan Privitello. If you're out that way, I can't wait to see you and share our poems.

Cover Story

I am deliriously proud to announce the official release date of my first poetry collection, Pelican. Mark your calendars! January 15th! Pre-ordering will be available soon, but until then, check out the stunning original illustration Daniel Obzejta made us for the cover.

Two months until this creature is in your hands. I'm giddy. How are you?

Ghost Life

Happy Halloween weirdos! I have a few ghost stories to share, just in case you're trying to get in the mood.

Mike Graciale gave me a rad evil spider tattoo last night / now my whole arm is venomous

Mike Graciale gave me a rad evil spider tattoo last night / now my whole arm is venomous

As those of you keeping score at home may have noticed by now, I don't publish as lot of fiction. This isn't because I don't write it, but because I'm terrified of my own prose. But 'tis the season to be terrified.  So here's a piece of my flash fiction, published in the "haunted" theme issue of Wyvern Lit, called "How to Feed Your Ghost." I recommend reading it to the tune of many fun-sized candy bars being savored.

Just in time for it to be seasonally appropriate again, Gigantic Sequins added my poem "de Los Muertos" to their online archives. I owe much of the thinking behind this poem to my excellent roommate and sister in ferality, Cassandra de Alba, especially "the sleep of apples," a phrase from her own personal translation of a Lorca poem.

Speaking of Cass, we both have work in the new issue of Souvenir Lit, live and on the internet today. They published my poem, "Conquest," an early draft of which, many years ago, made Brian Ellis gasp at the Cantab open mic. It was one of my favorite reactions to my work ever, and I let it haunt me on bad days when I think nobody wants to hear me talk. Besides basking in the creepy glow thrown by Cass's poems inspired by the Investigation Discovery show Disappeared (a Feral Bitch Palace favorite) and anthropomorphized gazelles, my work also gets to live alongside that of Alexis Pope, whose Soft Threat is my favorite train companion, and Jeremy Radin, whose heart is a laser light show I'd pay a pretty penny to see on repeat. All star cast! Check it out!

And finally, in case you're in the mood to spit on a grave at some point today, Flapperhouse posted another of my poems to their website. "them bones" is the result of a slow-boiling rage and came from one of the most vividly horrific dreams I've ever had. If that doesn't make it an appropriate poem for the holiday, I'm not sure what would.

* * *

Because we probably exist too far apart for me to give you a caramel apple and a high five today, here's another kind of treat: the Boston Center for Adult Education is having a flash sale on their classes until 3 PM today in honor of my favorite holiday. Just enter the code "HALLOWEEN" at checkout for 30% off your registration.

Have a delightfully creepy weekend, and be sure to stay strange! If you'll excuse me, I need to finish my unicorn costume.

 

Big Ups

In honor of finishing the edits on my first book, I'm taking a challenge posed to me by my dear friend Emily Carroll and rattling off, in no particular order, the ten writers Pelican couldn't exist without.

Emily Dickinson

We share a first name, and a history of secretive behavior, and our hearts' burial in Amherst. Dickinson is the first poet I loved as a child, specifically and especially for her "I'm nobody" poem. I went through a phase circa middle school when I was convinced I was from outer space, and feeling connected to another "nobody" is probably what inspired my impulse to record--I wanted to be like Emily: bent over her desk, claiming space through language.

Sylvia Plath

I read The Bell Jar for the first time much earlier than anybody would've let me had they known how I was spending my pocket money. I still have that copy, all my favorite passages underlined in pink, then black, then green, as I read and reread again and again. I became a huge admirer of Plath's poetry in college, but my connection with Plath will always be rooted in her prose and how simultaneously delicate and hysterical she was in her descriptions of a girl too deep into her own mind. I was that girl at 11; I'm that girl now. I go back to The Bell Jar time and again, and I always find some new moment where she shakes me by the shoulders saying you are only seen so far as you can see yourself.

Virginia Woolf

I was nineteen, forgive me

I was nineteen, forgive me

I have a now-illegible text tattoo of a quote from Woolf's Orlando on my ribs: "if we survive the teeth, we succumb to the waves." It's pulled from the passage when Orlando wakes in the night transformed from man to woman, where the narrator steps back from the narrative to muse on the difficulties of accurately telling a story. No matter how you write, your biases will always get the better of you. But Woolf goes beyond her biases by asking more questions that she can possibly answer before the end of an essay or novel or life. In my mind, her prose is unparalleled in excellence, but her heart is what matters most to me. Her characters are so frequently overtaken by the world around them, and I see myself in that surrender every time.

Ali Smith

If you haven't read Hotel World, begin there. My beloved fiction professor and thesis advisor Nell Arnold gave me this book as an assignment for one of her classes and I think about it constantly. Smith's play with tense and perspective is a joy for any admirer of experimental writing, but the true joy of her work is that she doesn't sacrifice earnest for technical backflips. If anything, her talent for manipulating mechanics only makes you feel more deeply for the scenes and stories she makes.

Rebecca Lindenberg

Love: An Index lives beside Hotel World as the only other book I urge all of my writing students to read. Both experiment with narrative in surprising and satisfying ways, but Lindenberg's poems are unique in that they are at once an archive of a personal story and a meditation on memory as the most personal of all storytelling acts. For us to remember anything, we must mark it somehow as ours, and Rebecca's poems are just the right marriage of the deeply personal and the curiously intellectual.

David Foster Wallace

Since we're talking indices and intellect, Foster Wallace seems a natural place to go. The summer my father died, I read Infinite Jest during interminable shifts manning the espresso machine and crepe griddle at a truly horrible cafe that very few customers ever patronized. All of our food was rotten, all our espresso pre-ground, and I had all the time in the world to flip back and forth from main text to endnotes to main text to earlier passage to next chapter to why the hell am I reading about puppets for this many pages and then suddenly I was crying into my coffee. People criticize Foster Wallace for being willfully inaccessible, but I really enjoyed the novel because it forces you to remember that a book is a narrative made physical--that you must interact with an object to access the story you're trying to understand, and that the object might end up being as difficult to deal with as the people it is cataloging.

Leo Tolstoy

It's getting awfully pretentious in here, but hear me out one second more: my first year of college I took a class called "The Bodies of Leo Tolstoy" taught by Polina Barskova, who also happened to be my advisor. The course was gorgeous--we talked about the physical descriptions of war, aging, family, and sex in his work--but the fact that my presence there gave me Polina as an advisor is the true reason Tolstoy makes this list. My father was having health problems again and I was thinking about dropping out of school. Polina frowned at me during one of our dozens of meetings that semester and said, "If you leave, you will never come back." It felt very Russian, but she was also very right. That small push for me to stay put kept me in the community I was beginning to build for myself as a writer, the one that made me a poet and pushed me to the point of telling a lot of really scary stories about myself in my work, many of which produced early drafts that ended up (after countless revisions) in Pelican.

Zadie Smith

Her narrators mytholigize like no other, and of that I'm so envious I could scream. But specifically, she ranks on this list because of The Autograph Man. The novel is about the rituals we take on in memory of what we've lost, and also the ways we sabotage ourselves instead of finding healthy ways to process grief.  It's a beautiful, hilarious, essential read for anyone who's lost a parent. I read most of it on the commuter rail back and forth from Providence to Boston and wept openly, glaring at any stranger who dared interrupt my very intimate relationship with the book.

one of my own fever dreams

one of my own fever dreams

Haruki Murakami

I would follow a cat down a well for this many an day. I don't care if you can make bingo cards from his personal vocabulary of tropes. I don't even care that I couldn't finish 1Q84.  I love him for dropping the surreal into the most normal of circumstances.  I love him for manipulating the same conditions and coming up with endless fever dreams. Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of The World is one of my favorite novels of all time for how deftly is rediscovers the human mind. Can our own memories lay dormant inside us? Certainly. Can we admit those dormant memories are ciphers for all we see and know about the world? That's much harder to face, but a concept important to me beyond words. I wish I could've given that book to my father. He would've adored every page.

Art Alexakis

Yes, I am blaming my debut collection on the frontman of Everclear. I said it in an interview for a forthcoming issue of Profane, and I'm going to say it again here: listening to Everclear as a grouchy adolescent made me realize that it's possible to be angry at your family while still loving them ruthlessly. You can expose the pain they've caused you and claim them and you won't tear yourself in two with the effort of either. Seeing the whole picture--the mess and the joy of being bonded by blood--is what makes family so important. I know that there are plenty of poems I've written that make my family unhappy or uncomfortable. I've already had countless conversations about many of those poems as they slowly see the light of day. But I also know that my family is proud of me for telling our truth, even the ugliest sides of it. Which isn't to say I'm not terrified of my book's birthday. I know there are more hard conversations to come. But I'm willing to have them, because telling the whole story is worth all the hard conversations in the world.

Gross in Love: The Tour

My book is coming out in three months! AGHHH!!!

And another thing: my partner John's book is also on its way! AGHHH!!!

Which can mean only one thing--we're going on a book tour together, and it is going to be GROSS. And by "gross," I mean a truly excellent adventure across America (and maybe beyond?) with lots of high-fiving and bike-riding and poems poems poems.

weirdolove

Places I have not been but want to go: Denver, Reno, Portland, Omaha, Iowa City, Chicago, and your house, and your friend's house, and your grandma's house (as long as she doesn't frown too harshly upon content "for mature audiences only").

If you need poems about grief and death and sex and friendship and animals and witchery and general feral bitchiness, I'm your gal.  If you need poems about recovery and outer space and houses and cats and robots and how to be in your brain and body at the same time, he's your gal. We want to meet you! We want to high five you and jump on your couches (with your consent, of course) and invade your poetry readings and art happenings and vomit our feelings into your life and never leave, not really, because afterwards you'll have our books and also little pieces of our hearts.  Got it?  Good.

You can invite us to your city or reading or living room using the handy contact form on this website, or by leaving a comment on this post.

We love you! Let's meet for real!

How Gigantic Could Joy Make Us?

I have never considered myself an activist.  Many years ago, I made the decision to stop engaging with mainstream news media because it was too stressful.  If I read the newspaper, I'd spend the rest of the day in a tailspin, knowing I couldn't effect enough change to help much of anybody experiencing the horrors I'd just sat with for less than a thousand words.  It hurt to think that I could simply walk away from an article if it was too troubling, whereas the people living it had no choice but to stay where they were and keep fighting for themselves.

This is the particular shade of my privilege: I get to walk away from the news.  I don't have family in war zones; I am not a direct victim of institutionalized racism.  The violence and fear I experience in everyday life is tied to my gender, and while I do suffer in many ways on that front, it could be so much worse.  I am lucky to be who I am, to have the resources and support network that I do.

rageprompt

And the question keeps coming up: how can I contribute anything meaningful to this conversation?  As someone who speaks as part of my living, and who facilitates others finding voice for their stories, I want to know what to say about of the things that horrify me about the world we live in.  But I am speechless.  All I can do is keep offering what little I have to give--in this case, a space to imagine different worlds.

Being a writing teacher is not the most influential position in the world, but it does give me the space to ask my students to think critically about the world they move through.  The more critical you are of your world, the more clear it will become what kind of world you want to live in.  Ask questions, and answer them, and suddenly a space takes shape where you can store your hopes and dreams for something better.  So much truth can come through the experimental space of fiction.  The more clearly we define the world we wish existed, the closer we are to having the tools to implement them.

* * *

I'm teaching my regular intro to creative writing class again this session at BCAE, and also will be test-driving a brand new course I designed for them on Poetry & Performance.  Each class meets once a week for six weeks, starting mid-September.

* * *

And finally, I have poems in a few new places: a suite of five poems at Nailed Magazine, and a snapshot of one of my oldest friendships at Banango Street.  September and October promise a tidal wave of my poems in good homes and Pelican will be out in November, another outrageous success I still can't quite wrap my head around.  

Send Yourself to Summer Camp

orange flowers

One of my students brought flowers for me to our last class!  I'm not much of a flowers kind of girl (people tend to only give them to me as an apology), but these made me feel so special.  There's nothing more lovely than feeling like someone truly appreciates your time.  I've been having a rough few weeks and the extra thought really made my day.

Teaching has been having that effect on me in general--turning the volume down on all of the stress I wrestle with and amplifying all of things about the world that make me excited to live in it.  Which Is why I want to make sure you know that I'll be teaching two writing courses at Boston Center for Adult Education this summer and would love to spend them talking about writing with you.  The first, on Wednesdays from 6 to 8 PM beginning on 7/15 and running for six weeks, is focused on short story writing.  We'll be digging in deep with your own writing in a workshop format and getting peer feedback on the stories you've been working on and want to get out into the world.  There will be some light reading, as well as weekly generative prompts to get the ball rolling on new drafts.  The class maxes out at 12 students, so expect a focused and intimate look at how to be the best prose writer you can be.  Click here to register.

The second class, on Thursdays from 6 to 8 PM, beginning on 7/16 and also running for six weeks, is a more open format creative writing workshop.  Think the same peer feedback environment as the above class but with more options--we'll be discussing successful poems, stories, and methods that can sharpen your approach to any piece of writing, no matter the genre.  Light reading, weekly prompts, and in depth workshop time for everyone, as well as some fun exercises in re-imagining your own writing process.  Click here to register.

Let's write together!

Pelican

Somewhere in the high school years of my vast library of diaries, there's a to do list entitled "WHEN I GROW UP I'LL BE STABLE," after a Garbage lyric.  The list is full of hopes, some of them wild, some of them only pretending to be.  Hair dye, piercings, and tattoos factored heavily, along with road trips and other "get out of this one traffic light town" angst.  I wanted to love more than advisable and live loudly, a tall order for the shy, solitary person I was then.  Among the mostly attainable items on this list, there was also a dream-the-impossible-dream moment: publish my first book by the time I'm 25.  And it's happening.

yes yes contract

My first book, Pelican, has been selected as the inaugural recipient of Yes Yes Books' Pamet River Book Prize, a new award given annually to a debut collection by a female-identified or gender queer poet.  Yes Yes makes absolutely gorgeous books and champions so many authors I admire, and it's still overwhelming to think they'll be the ones shepherding my words into the world in a book with a spine for the very first time.  Working with KMA Sullivan and Stevie Edwards on this project has been nothing short of joyful, which is really saying something, since the content of the book leans heavily towards exploring one of the most painful losses I'll ever experience.

In 2011, my father passed away after a long, complicated battle with diabetes.  I had recently finished college and was still struggling to find my footing.  During my final semesters of school, as my father's health had worsened, my writing had veered away from the performance pieces I'd written since admitting I wanted to be a poet.  The new work was shorter, more spare, and a lot of the poems I wrote at the time scared me beyond all reason because each of them tried to capture a different facet of what losing my father felt like.  How sad I was.  How angry I was.  How alienated I felt from my peers.  How impossible it was to imagine myself fatherless.  The chapbook I turned in as a part of my thesis project at Hampshire, Quiet is a Brand of Noise, was peppered with tiny worries of what would become of my family and our stories once my father succumbed to his chronically poor health.  My partner at the time was pressuring me to start submitting my writing to be published, and though I was excited to imagine people reading my work, I was equally terrified of exposing my grief to the scrutiny of strangers.  It felt shameful to be dwelling so heavily on my father's ever-approaching death, and even more shameful to do so in public.

our last family photo

our last family photo

Against my better judgment, I started sending out the work.  It was and is messy for me.  I go back and forth between being proud of myself for being able to lift the curtain on what is, for many people, a very private dance between the chill of loss and the glow of nostalgia, and terrified of what making this dance public says about me.  Now that we're wrapping up final edits on the book, I just feel tired.  When my father was in hospice, a family member asked my then-fourteen-year-old brother Owen how he was doing with everything.  He said, "How am I supposed to feel?  He's been dying my whole life."  Barely out of middle school, and already an existentialist.  In seriousness, when he said it, something clicked about how oddly we'd grown up.  My father's health problems started long before we were born; they were impossible to separate from our experience of him.  The earliest draft of the oldest poem in Pelican is from the fall of 2007, but the stories present in the book are as old as I am, and some of them much older.  I've only ever known my dad as someone never quite within my reach, and writing about losing him has been a powerful reminder of how much of his life I still get to share in.

My father's stories, especially the ones he used to tell after a few drinks (ask me sometime about Grace Jones and the Bicentennial), have always been my favorite ones to tell to strangers, so this book was bound to fall out of me in one form or another at some point.  Pelican is full of birds and booze and stories (both real and imagined) I've told myself and others about my dad in order to better understand him and me and how we helped and hurt each other.

This Sunday is the three year anniversary of his death, and it's hitting me much harder than it ever has.  I'm not sure if that's typical.  I'm not sure I could grieve typically if I wanted to.  It didn't occur to me until a friend brought it up yesterday, but the anniversary is probably much more present for me this year because of how much time I've been spending with these poems.  Another friend tried to console me by saying that at least no one can accuse me of running away from my feelings.  In the future, if I ever try to run away from my feelings, I suppose someone can just chuck a copy of this book at my head.

Though the project won't be published until December, poems from Pelican (and work from the new manuscript I've been working on) have been popping up all over the internet recently.  The Adirondack Review gave a home to "The Right Words;" "Wishes For The Full Moon" found its way into Cactus Heart; "I'll Admit It" is living over at Word Riot, along with a poem called "I Didn't Mean to Swear in Your Church" that I wrote after watching both versions of the movie Footloose consecutively; and The Bohemyth's most recent issue includes "Rosary For The Blood Moon," the last of my moon poems, as well as "I Remember Loving You Through The Internet" and "I AM HOLDING YOUR SCREAMING BODY WITH HARVARD SQUARE."  And at 7 PM on July 12th, I'll be joining a bunch of fabulous lady writers (including my beloved roommate and partner in crime, Cassandra de Alba) for Vector Press's third issue release party at the Moderformations Gallery in Pittsburgh.  I have three poems in the issue: "The Age of Instability," "knife play," and "& when the canary stops singing."  There will be free food, free drinks, and there's no cover.  Come talk about sea birds with me, please please please.

It Isn't Worthwhile If It Doesn't Terrify You

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Let me tell you a secret: I'm a painfully shy person masquerading as a performer.  I get loud because volume is a terrific mask.  If I tell you the brashest, most shocking story possible, chances are you'll think you know me, and you will know me, but only one version.  

Underneath the stage persona, there are something like dozens of layers of story.  Like any person, I have more stories than I know what to do with. When I teach, another place where I wear a mask, I am constantly urging my students to keep in mind why they want to tell stories.  What do they want to communicate?  Who do they want to communicate with?  What is at stake if their story goes un-told?  I ask them these questions because they are questions I ask myself constantly, and also the reason I have so many masks.  The mask that lets me be loud is the mask that helps me tell my stories even when they terrify me.

Another secret, this time as a poem: "Conditional," is the true story of a miscarriage I had before I was old enough to legally drink.  My dear friend and comrade in arms, Stevie Edwards, asked me if she could publish it in the company of her own words and those of our friend and champion of women and all the masks they must wear to survive, Rachel McKibbens.  I never thought this story would find its way out of my mouth.  I never intended to claim it so publicly.  But Stevie spurred me towards revising the piece from an open letter to myself in the second person to a poem solidly in my own voice.  Replace every "you" with an "I."  Tell the whole truth.  She asked me to take off the mask and be myself, and I trust her, so I did.

As a writer and performer, I have extreme control over how I'm perceived and what I choose to share with an audience, but again and again I find myself drawn towards telling stories so close to my bones that they seem nearly impossible to articulate without drawing blood.  In a space where I could become anyone, I routinely choose to be my ugliest and most broken self.  My readings are not the most comfortable places, and that sometimes makes me self-conscious.  I'm scared of being off-putting, but I continue to write on grief and trauma as a way of dismantling the masks I wear.  We tell our own stories to share our experience and we listen to stories hoping to see ourselves in the experience of others.  Sometimes it's hard to recognize how necessary this dialogue is to our humanity, but I think Stevie's introduction to my poem is a good reminder of how important it is to talk about the things we'd rather bury:

At the end of the 2013 Pink Door Women’s Writing Retreat and Good Idea Summit, Rachel McKibbens arranged a ceremony, where we all got to tell partners the following words, “You’re an important person and your writing is necessary.” You were my partner. Telling you these words was easy; they were true. But hearing them back from you forced me to stare the need for my own writing in the face, to accept worthiness. We held each other; I think that’s what our poems can do for one another. When I think of your poem “Conditional,” beyond being beautifully crafted with a mastery of language far beyond your years, it holds a space open for me to face the female body, complex feelings about motherhood, the grief of miscarriage—all without shame. I want to write you room after room where shame has no currency, rooms to be brave in, rooms to love yourself fiercely in, rooms to survive in, rooms Rachel has unlocked the doors to. This is how we can hold each other in poems: by being generously and generatively disruptive enough to make rooms for each other’s work, by knowing these rooms are holy and worth making noise for. Emily, you are an important person and your writing is so necessary.

If telling a difficult story gives even the most distant stranger comfort, it's worth it.  A life without masks is near impossible, but we can certainly make spaces to be more nakedly ourselves.  Tell even one person a terrifying secret and I can guarantee you'll feel more whole.  You are an important person, and your stories are necessary.

Trolling *ItisWatitis*

The next time someone texts you from a number you do not recognize and tries to engage in monosyllables, can I recommend leading them on a quest?

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When it became clear this person was under the impression they were speaking with somebody who actually wanted to talk to them, I decided to put on my dungeon master hat.

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Happy New Year, n00bz!  Check back soon for some actual news. <3