A Conversation with Heather Aimee O’Neill
Interview by Melanie Crow
MELANIE CROW: I would like to ask first about the first poem from your collection Memory Future. It is written in such a different style than the rest, and perhaps that is why it begins the book, on its own, but it does serve as an opening to the other poems. That last line is particularly grabbing: “Am I still that unworthy”? Can you talk a bit about the idea of the first poem, as a leaping-off point?
Heather Aimee O’Neill: Sure. The first poem, “Certainty,” is actually a reflection on uncertainty. The questions in the poem will never be answered—at least not in this lifetime, at least not honestly. And it’s about being okay with that, that doubt, with accepting it. The final question—“Am I that unworthy?”—is my or the narrator’s question—and, again, one that will never be answered. It’s an honest question and I think, I hope, one that sets up what I’m trying to explore in the rest of the collection.
MC: There is a kind of refuge in memory that happens in the collection. The comfort of memory is complicated, however, by the problems of memory. How does memory function in your collection, and are there authors that inspired this theme?
HAO: I am comforted by memory. I never thought about that, but it’s a great point. I’m intrigued by the specificity in memory—what we recall and why, what we don’t recall and why. It’s about narrative and so many things contribute to the construction of that narrative—nature and nurture, of course, but also trauma, luck, mistakes, the choices that we make or that people make for us. In terms of inspiration, I admire the way Elizabeth Bishop uses memory. “In the Waiting Room” is one of my favorite poems and it’s a brilliant use of a retrospective narrator. The language in that poem is simple and clear, but she is talking about, to me anyway, a complex shift in perspective: that moment in childhood when you realize that you are both an individual and a part of the world.
MC: Mortality, time passing—there is a consciousness of temporality that holds the poems together. Can you say something about your idea of time in the collection, or your (personal, philosophical) reasons for this theme?
HAO: Ever since I became a parent, I’ve thought more about my own past and how it’s brought me to this point in my life. I’ve thought about it, obviously, because for the first time I was shaping someone else’s future. The birth of my son has had a significant impact on the way I look back on my own childhood, on my relationship with my partner, my family, and even myself. Time no longer feels linear and I wanted to reflect that in the order of the collection.
MC: In the second section of the collection, the poems turn back in on themselves (repeating the last line or parts of the last line of one poem in the first line of the next). How did you come to this pattern? What does it mean for these poems, that seem so ruminative and centered on the “other” and the other’s culture? They remind me a bit of Robert Lowell’s ghost sonnets—trying to make sense of personal relationships in the midst of “time passing.”
HAO: The middle section of the collection is a sonnet corona or a crown of sonnets about living in Spain with my partner. I thought that the crown as a form was relevant to the narrative because it demands that kind of intense focus—on the “other,” in this case—and because the repetition of the final and first lines mirrors the intimacy and distance I was trying to capture in the different relationships: between the lovers, between the “other” and her cultural heritage, and between the speaker’s past and future.
MC: The poems in the second section also center around a trip with the other—and discoveries that happen on this trip. Leaving and experiencing this other place generates new kinds of realizations and awareness for the speaker. Would you say this is accurate? Another way to ask this might be: how important is this journey, or any journey, in terms of opening us up? What does travel do for us—as lovers, thinkers, writers?
HAO: My partner’s background is Spanish and she really fell in love with the people, culture and food in Spain. She fit in aesthetically and felt at home in a way that surprised and inspired her. I learned a lot about her on that trip and she learned a lot about herself. I wanted that section and that poem to be structured around the narrator as the witness to her lover’s transformation through culture and identity. I think travel is just a natural part of that experience. My friend Jessica Piazza, an amazing poet, was extremely helpful with this poem. She is a brilliant editor. She helped me see the journey of the poem more clearly.
MC: A poet friend of mine once said that she arrived at the order of her book through a dream. That always struck me as unusual, but it also made sense, since dreams are connected so inherently to our interior lives. It does seem as if the speaker is coming up out of a dream, or waking up to new “layers” of consciousness in each section. There does seem to be a kind of logic to it, but, like many good collections, a kind of dream-logic. How did the structure come to you for the collection?
HAO: I love your description of “waking up to new layers of consciousness.” I don’t know if that happened to me, but it sounds fantastic. The first part of the collection, “salted up in the memory of you,” is about finding the lover, the “other.” All of the poems there look back on relationships and moments in my life when I was really hungry—for love, trust, guidance, all that good stuff. The second section, “the spin of earth that allows us to observe time,” is about settling into a relationship that finally worked and where I could begin to focus on another person. The third section, “we think of our lives as linear,” is about my family and my childhood. I wanted that section to come last to play on that idea of memory and its impact on the future.
MC: Can you talk about your experience as a writer? More specifically: Do you remember a specific moment that shaped your life as a writer?
HAO: I remember standing on the beach as a kid and thinking that the rope used to tie the boat to the dock looked like a girl’s un-kept braid. It’s not a very original metaphor or anything, but it was a moment of realization for me. It changed the way I looked at the world and the way I searched for meaning in image. I used to take notes in my biology and chemistry classes in high school and try to find interesting metaphors or images to use in poems. All of that information was useful and interesting to me, but not in the way that I could apply it to science. I wanted to apply it to metaphor.
MC: What writers have inspired you most?
HAO: So, so many. George Orwell. Elizabeth Bishop. Jeanette Winterson. Virginia Woolf. Walt Whitman. Marilyn Hacker. Olena Kalytiak Davis. My friends. My students. I feel like teaching taught me how to write.
MC: I noticed in one interview that you are working on a novel. How different was the writing of the novel vs. writing poetry? Can you say something, too, about what the novel is about?
HAO: I just finished my novel—Hers to Hold. It’s about a woman struggling with her past as she prepares to become a mother. It’s about the mistakes she made and continues to make. It’s also a book about uncertainty, I suppose, and how that threatens the life that this character has worked so hard to build. In terms of writing and even reading, poetry is my first love. It comes more naturally to me. I have to work harder at writing fiction. But a background in poetry, I think, helps and influences any writing. It forces you to pay attention to your language.
MC: What are you reading now? Any recommendations?
HAO: I’ve actually been reading a lot of longer books lately. I’m rereading Moby Dick right now based on a friend’s suggestion. I last read it a decade ago for a class and I have to say it’s a completely different experience for me this time around. The first time, I just wanted to rush through the book, but now I can sit back and experience the story. It’s almost meditative. I’m about to have another kid in March so I figure I might as well get in the meditation while I can. I won’t be reading 500 plus page books then. I’ll go back to reading poetry.