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Interview w/ Emily O’Neill @ Up The Staircase Quarterly

Emily O’Neill, one of N!’s 2016 Chapbook Contest winners, was interviewed over at Up The Staircase Quarterly about her upcoming poetry collection, Pelican (YesYes Books), grief & loss, pop-culture, & brutalities in Nature.

Up the Staircase Quarterly: Emily, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join us for this interview!

To begin, I would like to discuss your full-length poetry collection, Pelican (YesYes Books, 2015). You start the book with a stunning quote by Guillaume le Clerc, in which a male pelican kills his young, then guilt-ridden, brings them back to life with his own blood. How did you discover this quote, and what attracted you to its concept? How did it help shape the conception of Pelican?

Emily O’Neill: I don’t remember where I came across the quote originally, but its discovery followed my finding out from some book that during medieval times the pelican was a symbol for Christ similar to the lamb of God. I grew up Catholic and am obsessed with all the weird imagery of blood and suffering that occur in Catholic rituals and storytelling, both because I spent decades entrenched in that world and because while I was growing up Catholic, my father was quite literally bleeding. He suffered from a constellation of complications from Type 1 diabetes (amputations, transplants, infections, etc) and was forever healing from something. The whole “I bleed for my children” concept was really viscerally represented to me from a very young age. And at the same time that these immense sacrifices were being made on his part, he was also a really angry, scary person to me for much of my life. There was also this really strange phenomenon where he would get all the way to the brink of death and make these miraculous recoveries that were medically inexplicable. Like he had willed himself back to health. Most doctors who interacted with him couldn’t believe how much his body had been through while continuing to function.

While all this health drama was happening, there was this other side of my dad where he was angry and also gigantic in his anger. To say that my father suffered from bouts of extreme, barely rational rage is putting it lightly. I spent so much of my childhood doubly terrified of him: terrified he would die, but also terrified of his presence. When I was in college I finally confronted him about this terror. He had just had a massive heart attack and subsequent sextuple bypass surgery against medical advice. He came out of the surgery alive but weak. Certain things in him had disappeared because of the heart attack–he had been clinically dead for a time, and I think it affected his brain somehow. He complained of not being able to make sentences as easily, but to most people he seemed mostly the same as before: formidable. We got into an argument about respect in our family and I confronted him about his rage, told him that if he wanted to keep pretending his mistakes as a parent out of existence that we couldn’t have a relationship anymore. Against expectations, he broke down and apologized. We spent the last year of his life very close, trying to salvage what we could of our relationship.

The pelican is him, but it’s me too. There are ways I have died to feed myself, ways I have harmed what I know is good in me to help someone else. He was hard on me my whole life, and there are times it feels like that went on because we are so similar. The world caused him a lot of pain beyond the physical, and one of his fears was that I would suffer in the same ways. So he tried to toughen me up by being harsh. I gave us a bird between us because it made the most sense. He was a sailor when he was young, so finding an image from the ocean to circle for the book felt right.

Read the full interview @ Up The Staircase Quarterly


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