Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Poetry

Read Nin Andrews’ Interview with January Gill O’Neil, author of “Glitter Road”

As we continue our celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re excited to share a conversation between Nin Andrews, author of fifteen poetry collections, including her forthcoming collection Son of a Bird, and January Gill O’Neil, whose new book, Glitter Road, was published by CavanKerry Press earlier this year. January shares her guiding influences, how Emmett Till’s story is woven into her own, and how she honors both the light and the darkness in her writing.

book cover for Glitter Road showing a colorful map

Nin Andrews: Many years ago, I read with January Gill O’Neil at an independent bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts. What a memorable evening! The audience and I were spellbound by January Gill O’Neil’s poetry, which is accessible, lyrical, narrative, moving, and uplifting. Now, years later, reading Glitter Road, I am again mesmerized. Carefully crafted, the poems move with a natural grace that is both enchanting and endearing.

January, as you know, I love your work—I’ve been a fan since our reading in 2010, but Glitter Road is my favorite. There is so much joy and artistry present in these poems. It’s like reading/watching a blossoming, a kind of transcendence, taking place on the pages. I feel as if I can almost see the orchid opening inside you, as you describe in your poem, “Bloom.” Was this book a joy to write?  Do you see it as a tale of transformation?


An orchid grows inside of me,
blooms from a tight bud
in my chest; its milk-white petals
lean against the wall of my ribs.
Lost breaths, red heart bulging,
steady pulse of my soul shifting
in this incomplete landscape
of light. Loneliness takes root
with a beauty that surprises me,
suggests a kind of comfort,
feeds on everything I am.


It feeds on everything I am,
suggests a kind of comfort,
with a beauty that surprises me.
Loneliness takes root and light
in this incomplete landscape.
My soul shifts, steady pulse,
red heart bulging, lost breaths
lean against the wall of my ribs.
In my chest, milk-white petals
bloom from a tight bud,
an orchid grows inside of me.

January Gill O’Neil: Thanks, Nin! Writing Glitter Road was a unique experience. I have never had an experience like being a Grisham Fellow (John and Renée Grisham Writers in Residence at the University of Mississippi, Oxford), which allowed me the time and space to explore a new landscape. I don’t consider my books project books, but this one was certainly a labor of love. I love that idea of blooming. Yes!

NA: When I admire a poet as I admire you, I always wonder, who is/are your North Star(s), your guiding influence(s)?

JGO: Right back atcha, Nin! Once of the glorious things about this life in poetry is that I never stop learning. I have studied with a few of my North Stars: Sharon Olds, Toi Derricotte, Phil Levine, Galway Kinnell, and Ruth Stone. Lucille Clifton, of course. Too many mentors to count. And every poem is an opportunity to open.

NA: I love the poem, “Woman Swallowed by a Python in her Cornfield.” I especially love the line, “I am done telling the kinder story.” Can you say a few words about this poem?

Woman Swallowed by a Python in Her Cornfield

Inside every woman is a snake. Some think I’m a hoax or an oddity,
rarer than winning Powerball or being struck by lightning. Everything
has a form, even doubt. Think of me as someone you’ve met in a dream.
Green stalks shade the sun, keep me hidden from the villagers,
the nonbelievers. To find me you must enter me. Oh,
that your body fits into my body makes us unholy. Let me press
my mouth to your scar, run my tongue along your flesh so I can taste
how you wound. The wild boars patrolling the edges won’t save you.
Footprints. Flashlight. Machete. Slippers. All that I’ve left behind.
Inside every snake is a woman. That’s the part of me I love the most—
reticulated constrictor, word made flesh, time unfolding, lore or legend,
I am done telling the kinder story. I am a myth of my own making.
Part my snake flesh and you will find me intact, clothed as I was
when I visited the corn. Think of me as the gift you’re unsure how to open.

JGO: Speaking of North Stars—In April 2021, poets Jennifer Martelli, Cindy Veach, and I did a 30-day poem-a-day challenge. The twist was our efforts to learn more about the American Sonnet. So, we were reading Diane Seuss’ Frank and Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. We wanted to take a seam ripper to the form and see what we could take from it. We wrote 30 American sonnets, and this is one of them—maybe my favorite.

I love to complicate poems; meaning, I love putting in things that probably shouldn’t go together and making them work. This is one of those poems that surprised me after I wrote it. I am most “myself” in this poem.

NA: I think of most confessional poetry as dark, as being written by poets like Sylvia Plath who had/have a talent for digging up the proverbial dead bodies in the basement. But your poetry is so full of light and love, even as it describes the suffering and challenges of single motherhood, divorce, the death of your ex-husband, and African American women. As you write in your poem, “Cartwheel,” you always land on your feet.  I particularly admire the poems about your daughter, Ella, your mother’s cooking, your family sleeping while you have sex with a lover. Is there a conscious, maybe spiritual choice on your part to honor the light as well as the darkness in your writing?

JGO: Yes! I am trying to honor joy. And you can’t have joy until you name the pain. I am mostly landing on my feet, but I’ve certainly had my difficult moments. I like poems that transform the speaker in some way. I want to see the moment become larger than itself. It may be a slight change, but I don’t want to be in the same place as when the poem started.

NA: But of course, there are dead bodies in your work—not in the basement, but in American history. Emmett Till plays a prominent place in this collection—his story is woven into your own. Can you say a few words about his importance to you? And the writing of your poem about Emmett Till?

Three white Ole Miss students use guns to vandalize a memorial to lynching victim Emmett Till

—USA Today, July 2019

They pose their bodies as if they’ve just bagged
their first 10-point buck. One holds a shotgun,
other squats below the shot-up sign,

a third stands with an AR-15.
Three faces smiling, hoisting guns
in front of a bullet-ridden marker:

This is the site where Till’s body
was removed from the river.
It is hunters’ hours.

The sign’s jagged holes could slice
a finger. Those students are someone’s sons
or brothers, not much older than

the young black boy, his body beaten,
tethered to a 75-pound cotton-gin fan
and thrown into the Tallahatchie.

This is an old story, a Southern Gothic.
To deny this boy’s life and then
deny the marker that says he lived

breaks me every time. The camera captures
the night’s dark cover, the tall grasses,
the momentary flash

illuminating their shit-eating grins
and the gun barrels’ glint—lifetimes
of getting away with it.

JGO: During the 2019-2020 academic year, I taught at the University of Mississippi (a.k.a. Ole Miss) on fellowship as the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence. So, my then-teenagers and I went down for this big adventure. But before we moved, we learned that Emmett Till’s historical marker was shot up with assault rifles by three Ole Miss students.

Now, everyone we met was kind and supportive. It really was a great experience becoming a part of this community and getting out of my everyday routine. I like to say that Mississippi is nothing like you expect, and exactly what you expect.

My daughter and I attended the re-dedication of the Emmett Till River Site Memorial Marker at Graball Landing. This is the site where Emmett Till’s mutilated body was pulled from the Tallahatchie. Now it’s a protected federal landmark. Amazing to think we were witnessing history that day. 

NA: I remember a professor telling me once that the I in poetry should never be trusted or equated with the poet. The first person is just a persona. But when I read your books, I believe every word. I think your honesty introduces an element of intimacy. Is that accurate? Deliberate?

JGO: I tell my students the same thing, too. When I come to my poetry, however, what you see is what you get.  

NA: What are you most valued skills, insights, or habits as a poet?

JGO: When I write, I try to write a complete draft in one sitting. It’s very rough. I’ve learned to lower my standards just to get a few lines down. I wish I could write more regularly, but it’s hard with teaching and a new book to promote.

Also, I believe it’s OK not to write. Not writing is a form of writing. That means I’m reading and interacting with family and people in my community, which is as valuable as anything else I do. If I’m not writing, it means I’m living.

NA: What is the best advice you’ve received in your career?

JGO: Read widely. Don’t just read what you like. Read other styles of poetry and other genres. Even if you read something you don’t like, it will show you what’s possible. 

NA: I love how you describe loneliness and relationships in your middle years.  I especially love your sexy, celebratory poems. I think maybe we should end this interview with “Clit Ode.” And if you could add a closing remark?

Clit Ode

Peach pit sucked clean.
Cosmic marble. An orchid

in a perpetual garden, or sea glass
brushed smooth by the surf ’s rough tongue.

Afternoons we wasted as the sun dipped
below the horizon, stretched out on my bed,

my back arched, your mouth made to amaze
as I climb a trellis into the wild familiar.

My mind hovers over the magnolia trees,
the windows, the deep pond, the open field

where I stood sometimes under the stars
listening to a coyote’s howl, an aching

in the low light of winter.

JGO: I remember speaking with a poet friend about her work and at one time she was writing a new definition of womanhood. I took that to heart. What is it like to be a Black woman of a certain age? What does it look like to claim and celebrate these life experience? What does it look like to find love again after a long absence? It looks like this.  

author photo
January Gill O’Neil

January Gill O’Neil is associate professor at Salem State University, and the author of Rewilding, Misery Islands, and Underlife, all published by CavanKerry Press. The recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Cave Canem, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, O’Neil was the 2019-2020 John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.

author photo
Nin Andrews

Nin Andrews has won two Ohio individual artist grants, the Pearl Chapbook Contest, the Kent State University chapbook contest, the Gerald Cable Poetry Award, and the Ohioana Prize for poetry. Her poems have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, Agni, The Paris ReviewBest American Erotic Poetry, The Best of the Prose Poem, and International Journal, Great American Prose Poems: from Poe to Present, and four editions of Best American Poetry. Her next book, Son of a Bird, is forthcoming from Etruscan Press.

Glitter Road is available now from our website or your favorite bookseller.