“Writing is inherently hopeful. I have long thought that what motivates me to write, above all other things, is a longing for wholeness and completeness.”
The Way Things Fall (Anchor & Plume Press, 2017)
You allude to Romantic poets throughout your poems. How does your work as a professor of British literature influence your themes and writing style?
I was a student and then a teacher of literature long before I started writing. I don’t think I realized then that, during all that time spent admiring the work of other writers, whether it was Wordsworth, Austen, even Annie Dillard, I was discovering my own voice, slowly making my way to the page. Those years in the classroom provided me with the intellectual tinder I needed to fire up my own work. I’m continually inspired by what I still discover about texts I’ve read many times before, and, more often than not, this process of discovery and inspiration takes place within the context of the classroom and a study of “the canon.” After all, the human experience really hasn’t changed that much in the last 200 (even 1,000) years or so—the basic struggles of life remain the same across time. This is why, after my divorce, teaching Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” helped me to understand and articulate my pain in ways that were as true as conversations with friends and mentors. When I look back at the book’s “narrative arc,” I realize that most of the poems chronicle a decade-long process of confronting loss and the ways this process has taken spiritual, relational, geographical, and even literary forms. To see my students having the same kind of personal and spiritual experience with literature, and to know that I played some small part in that, gives my teaching and my writing greater purpose. I think I’ve been inspired in this by Holly Ordway and her concept of “literary apologetics.” Her book, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, is a valuable read.
In “Theodicy,” you write, “Maybe it was gravity, not villainy…,” which hints at ideas of God’s allowance of evil rather than his creation of evil. Was there a particular work or thinker that influenced the philosophy behind this poem?
It’s hard to isolate a single influence, but if I had to cite one thinker, it would be C.S. Lewis. In The Problem of Pain, he explores the issue philosophically, while in A Grief Observed he does so on a raw emotional level. Both books have been profoundly influential to me and are must-reads for anyone (read: everyone) who struggles to understand evil, death, and suffering. In “Theodicy,” I am seeking, exploring, trying to reconcile personal suffering with the same suffering I see in the natural world around me, a nexus of suffering in which I, too, am implicated. The poem challenged me to think of my trials from a new vantage point to avoid the pitfalls of solipsism and self-pity that personal trials can inspire. In some ways, pain can become an idol that traps us in a cycle of cynicism and dysfunction, even violence. The only way out of that is to see the drama from an authentic place of humility, a place where we can find freedom from it only by extending to others the same grace and forgiveness we have been given. By doing so, we embrace some mysterious and otherworldly form of justice that has the power to truly transform and heal. G.K. Chesterton was once asked what he thought was wrong with the world, to which he simply replied, “Dear Sir, I am.” Studying writers like Chesterton and Lewis have changed the way I understand sin and evil as not just things “out there” but things “in here,” ideas which occupy the emotional terrain of this poem as well.
The theme of gravity is also present in “Maricopa County Fair,” but here “zero gravity holds us together.” How do you reconcile gravity’s role of unification in this poem to gravity’s function of separation in “Theodicy”? What does gravity mean to you with respect to this chapbook?
I think this all boils down to me watching George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the movie Gravity one too many times! Despite the film’s vacuous landscapes, I was inspired to imagine space not only as empty and terrifying but as a place sublimely outside of time, where things, beyond the reach of gravity, might remain immutable, constant, even eternal. “Maricopa County Fair” expresses this longing to find that place where things don’t fall apart, where things—relationships in particular—aren’t subject to change. I’m completely terrified by carnival and amusement park rides, so that poem captures my very real phobia of falling and uses it to explore the equally terrifying psychological and emotional experience of falling out of a marriage.
What is the inspiration behind “Entropy” and its ideas of maturation and true identity?
I first became acquainted with the term when I bought my quaint 1935 Tudor bungalow nearly ten years ago. Newly divorced and on my own after living with friends and family for over a year, I was eager to feel settled in a permanent home with my girls, then ages 4 and 1. Little did I know what owning a vintage home would entail—patchwork plumbing that would give me fits for years, an underground wet-weather spring that would flood my basement/crawl-space, constant upkeep. Then, I turned 40 and realized maintaining an old house is not so different from maintaining an aging body, as both are subject to the law of entropy—which, in a nutshell, is the tendency for systems to move towards disorder: cars don’t get newer, bodies don’t get younger, homes don’t renovate themselves. I think my poem is a feeble attempt to find imaginative freedom from the cultural demand that we can and should somehow outwit nature, that we are more powerful than the laws of physics. You can’t escape math unless you stop trying to get life to add up and embrace the uncertainty and chaos instead. It’s like seeing the world through the lens of quantum versus classical physics, I suppose—not that I understand either!
One of my favorite poems from The Way Things Fall is “Clocks” because it cleverly combines a lack of time with a maturing perception of time. What is the relationship between the passage of time and personal relationships in this poem? Does this idea of time relate to your poems about divorce and the inconsistency of nature?
This is one of several poems about my dad, who figures prominently in the collection and to whom the book is dedicated. He has always been an avid reader, and so I owe much of my love of books and words to him, since he read to me and my brothers tirelessly when we were little. He was a hands-on father, from making us breakfast every morning to taking us on random excursions—even if it was only to our backyard, as I recount in the poem “Orbit.” “Clocks” was inspired by a childhood memory of him lifting us up by his thumbs—one of our favorite games—juxtaposed against more recent memories of him always setting my clocks to the right time. He worked most of his life for Northwest Airlines, loading and unloading airplanes, and so he was always very strong. Having turned 83 back in May, he is no longer the robust father of my youth, and this poem pays tribute to him and the ways he still shows his love and care for me. I’ve realized by writing these poems how much he invested in his family and just how far his devotion extended. In the titular prose piece that is placed in the middle of the collection, I recount a summer I spent in Glacier National Park during college. My mother was nervous about me traveling that far on my own, and so my dad accompanied me on every leg of the trip out there and then flew back again in the fall to bring me home. The mortality of a parent, as much as our own, is a difficult truth to face and one that sends shock waves through my soul. But, I’m grateful for an earthly father who, despite all the inexplicable vagaries of life, would never leave me to find my way out of the wilderness on my own. What a gift that has been to me. He is not a perfect father, any more than I am a perfect mother, but he comes oh so close.
Your chapbook explores childhood memories and maturation, and in “Extinction,” you even directly address one of your daughters. Do you find the ability to reflect on your childhood while watching your daughters experience their own to be a significant source of inspiration for your writing?
Absolutely. Toni Morrison once said that writers are like water, always trying to find the way “back to our original place.” I think that’s what many of my poems attempt to do, exploring the strange prophetic quality of memory and the way the past shadows the present and illumes the future. My eldest daughter, Marin, is a voracious reader and my youngest, Maeve, loves to write stories; just the other night, Maeve wanted me to help her edit a narrative she wrote for school. It’s a joy to watch them grow up so well, becoming young women with such wisdom and compassion. But at the same time, it also feels like loss. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Extinction,” which grapples with Marin turning 11 and outgrowing her bunk bed. I also love “Hosea plays in the rain,” which describes Maeve and her friends playing with the water hose in the yard on a hot summer day. These are simple, even cliché childhood moments that may seem sentimental. In some ways, I understand the pathos of what Wordsworth must have felt watching, from the vantage point of age and experience, his younger sister Lucy still living in the “thoughtless days of youth.” Maybe these poems are my “abundant recompense.”
I noticed that you write about God and religion throughout your poems and in your blog articles. Do you find writing to be a spiritual practice or even a way of solidifying your faith?
Yes, definitely. On the most basic level, writing is an act of faith. Rarely do I know what a piece is about when I start writing it; writing is itself an act of discovery that requires a stepping out and gradual clarity. With each new piece, there’s a risk of failure and the inevitability of rejection, but a writer writes on anyway, despite it all. Writing is inherently hopeful. I have long thought that what motivates me to write, above all other things, is a longing for wholeness and completeness. Like Conrad expresses in the book’s epigraph, I think creativity is a gift God gives us, a momentary fulfillment on this earth of our deepest longing to understand, to set things right, to see “into the life of things,” as Wordsworth said. Writing doesn’t change the material conditions of our life, but it can alter our understanding of these conditions, our attitude and our behavior. In this way, writing is a spiritual practice that, like prayer, can change the world, one heart and mind at a time—starting with our own.
Do you have a favorite contemporary author, and if so, does his or her writing influence your own? Do you ever attempt to emulate new styles or techniques?
Annie Dillard. When I read and taught her essay “Living Like Weasels” for the first time years ago, it was one of those turning points in my writing life. Her audacious style challenged me to loosen the restraints a little, letting go of some of my writerly inhibitions. Her attention to the finest details of the natural world, gleaning wisdom from all created things, taught me that writing isn’t about waiting for those epiphanic, mountain-top moments of inspiration but rather about taking what we are given, what’s around us, and finding the meaning in them through the process of writing itself. That may seem like an obvious principle, but I didn’t understand that for a long time. I was often paralyzed by the notion that I had to start with the dazzling and the profound and work my way to the particulars when in fact the process is exactly the opposite. Dillard taught me that if she can write so spectacularly and profoundly about a weasel, maybe I could write a little less so about the seemingly non-entities of my own life and experience.
Could you discuss the relationship between your writing process and your research? Do you research to supplement an idea, or are you more apt to write because of the ideas that arise during research?
I will say here what I tell my students all the time, that research is as essential for creative projects as it is for academic ones. Without it, a piece can often lack depth, relying too much on the voice and thoughts of the author. Research adds layers of meaning, detail, and complexity. Many of the poems in TWTF relied on outside research, especially “Imago,” which required me to study the life cycle of cicadas. Through research, I was able to find interesting vocabulary (words like imago, timbal, even thrumming) and a fresh way of describing the cliché idea of lost innocence. Studying the river dolphins in India helped me to express my emotions in “Extinction.” I could cite many other examples. Doing research is also a technique I use to work my way out of writer’s block. It never fails to pull me out of my own cycles of thought and allows me to make new and interesting connections.
Angie Crea O’Neal’s poems have appeared in the Cumberland River Review, San Pedro River Review, Kentucky Review, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Gravel, and Kindred. Her chapbook The Way Things Fall is available from Anchor & Plume Press. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she received a Ph.D. in English from Arizona State University and currently holds the Joan Alden Speidel Chair in English at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia, where she lives with her daughters.