by Joey Phoenix
This month, Creative Collective is celebrating Women’s History Month! Follow along as we tell the stories of women writers, makers, small business owners, organizational leaders, and community heroes.
Acclaimed Poet, Salem State University professor, and Beverly resident January Gill O’Neil (she/her/hers) found herself and her two teenage children in Mississippi during the start of COVID nearly a year ago today. Selected as the 2019/2020 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), January was drawn to the rich South for its rich flavors and landscape, complex history, and vibrant writing community.
“My daughter Ella pointed out that being in a new place on the outskirts of a college town in Mississippi was its own kind of isolation, because where we lived was pretty remote. So in a way we were prepared [for the start of COVID]” O’Neil said.
“But lucky for us we traveled a lot before lockdown. I was in New Orleans for my birthday, which was February 14, at the [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] AWP conference in San Antonio shortly after, then took a brief trip to visit the North Shore in early March,” she added. “By Saint Patrick’s Day we were back and Mississippi and not allowed to go anywhere.”
O’Neil is the author of Rewilding (CavanKerry Press, 2018); Misery Islands (2014, Paterson Award for Literary Excellence 2015), and Underlife (2009). She also served as executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival (2012-2018) and is an Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ (AWP) board member.
Black Heartache, Black Joy from Mississippi to the North Shore
Mississippi is the land of writers William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury , As I Lay Dying , Eudora Welty (The Optimist’s Daughter, 1972), Natasha Trethewey (Native Guard, 2007), and Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing .
It’s also the home of Emmett Till – a 14 year old boy who was murdered in a racist attack, an occurrence which, similarly to the series of events set off by the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, sparked a nationwide Civil Rights movement; and Booker T. Wright, a black waiter at a whites only restaurant in Greenwood, Mississippi who used the opportunity to speak out about racism during the filming of the NBC documentary Mississippi: A Self Portrait.
“Mississippi is exactly what you would expect and it’s not like what you’d expect,” she described. It’s beautiful down there, there’s so much land; but also everywhere you go, there’s trauma in the land. It’s where slavery took foothold.”
Although she was born in Virginia, she had never really spent much time in the deep south and was drawn to this duality of landscape and the ever-present shadow of regional anguish. January spent her residence writing about Mississippi, about the landscape, the nature of the environment, and about Emmett Till – who had a new bulletproof marker reinstated during O’Neil’s residency in October of 2019.
“Being immersed in that experience and learning about Emmett Till, who became quite a figure for me during my stay down there, I still feel connected to that place,” she said. “And that coupled with last summer with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter movement – and this political season – I’ve refocused in trying to think of ways that I can be more present in my community on a local level, even in the midst of COVID.”
Daily Life and Activism in Lockdown
In addition to being a prolific writer, university professor, and arts administrator, O’Neil is also a single mother of two teenagers (Alex, 17 and Ella, 15) – which contains its own challenges, and joys.
Her poem “Hoodie,” from Rewilding which was featured in New York Times Magazine in February 2019, was introduced by Rita Dove who said: “The mother in January Gill O’Neil’s poem can only watch with her ferocious love and bottomless terror as her son plunges down the path that will shape him; a child simply trying to grow up into a man.”
Media, as a whole, has frequently centered on the challenges and tragedies of being Black in a world which is a far cry from being equitable. But, for O’Neil, while the fear still exists, there are also healthy amounts of both joy and normalcy in COVID times. Because while she is responsible for her kids’ remote learning, they are mostly able to self-direct and her role is mostly supportive in nature.
“We get along really well, so that helps,” she explained. “I’m just as busy as I was before all of this, and probably even busier because it seems we have to go an extra step for just about everything. But things could be worse. We’re all healthy and happy.”
A day in the life of the O’Neil household consists of schoolwork: on the teaching and also the learning side of things. They get outside when they can for walks and small adventures. O’Neil also spends her time writing and working on personal projects, Ella enjoys cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, and Alex plays basketball. Together they watch a lot of Netflix and Disney+, including recently WandaVision, the newest creation from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Framing Britney, a documentary about the Free Britney Spears movement.
In the midst of these normal days, O’Neil has also found ways to engage with regional social activism. In the wake of the 2020 elections and the Inauguration of Joe Biden, O’Neil wrote a piece for WBUR about Black poet and activist Amanda Gorman (she/her/hers), the 22-year old woman who delivered a “showstopper” with “The Hill We Climb” during the Inauguration. The piece was called “Amanda Gorman’s Poetry Opened The Door, And ‘Let Everyone In’,” and centered on the role of arts and culture – and in this case poetry – as a means to convey hard to grapple with concepts and unite people with truth.
“I’m thrilled that Amanda Gorman got to be our spokesperson for this time. We couldn’t have asked for a better representative,” O’Neil said. “She made people stop and notice, and that helps all of us. It has reminded people of what we’ve known all along: that poetry is vital and important and can tell the stories, especially the lost stories and the forgotten stories, and it makes a space for everyone.”
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation at Creative Collective. As the resident storyteller and town crier, they encourage you to send story ideas, inspiration, or pictures of adorable critters to email@example.com.
This month, Creative Collective is celebrating Women’s History Month! Follow along as we tell the stories of women small business owners and woman-led organizations.
And make sure to use the hashtags #shareHERstory, #shareTHEIRstory, or #shareyourstory to highlight the women, the femmes/fems, and the non-binary/genderqueer individuals in your community who have and are continuing to inspire you.