SARAH VEST – STAFF WRITER
Typically, prose writers worry more about place, and poets are more concerned with structure. This is not the case for Week Seven’s writers-in-residence with the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, who will be giving a reading of their work at 3:30 p.m. EDT Sunday, Aug. 8 on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch.
January O’Neil is this week’s poet-in-residence, and she is the author of three poetry collections: Rewilding, Misery Islands and Underlife. She is an associate professor at Salem State University and from 2019 to 2020, she served as the John and Renée Grisham Writer In Residence at the University of Mississippi, Oxford.
According to O’Neil, when she moved her family from Massachusetts to Mississippi, it was the first time she had done so for a residency. She said that her only responsibilities at the time were to teach one class a semester and spend the rest of her time being a writer and working on her craft.
When she moved down to Mississippi, she got a new perspective on the story of Emmett Till, “a 14-year-old boy who was killed in 1955 — beaten, shot, (and) hung with a 75-pound cotton gin and thrown into the Tallahatchie,” O’Neil said.
A few months before O’Neil moved, three Ole Miss students had shot up a memorial for Till on the bank of the Tallahatchie where he was pulled from the river. O’Neil said that these two events became a focal point of her research while living there as she worked to “(understand) the trauma of the land.”
As a result, she has generated a lot of currently unpublished work around this topic and the landscape of Mississippi that she wants to share in her reading. She will also be pulling a poem or two from her latest book Rewilding.
In addition to the reading, O’Neil will be teaching a workshop over the course of Week Seven titled “The Only Way Out Is Through: Writing Poetry During Uncertain Times” and will be hosting a Brown Bag at 12:15 p.m. EDT Tuesday on the Virtual Porch.
The prose writer-in-residence is T. Geronimo Johnson. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Stegner Fellow. He is a recipient of the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, the Ernest J. Gaines Award and the inaugural Simpson Family Literary Prize. His novel Hold It ‘Til It Hurts was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and selected by the Wall Street Journal Book Club. His other novel, Welcome to Braggsville, was a national bestseller, was shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, longlisted for the National Book Award and for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. He’s also been a finalist for The Bridge Book Award, a finalist for the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award and included on Time magazine’s list of the top 10 books of the year. He is currently a fellow of the American Academy in Rome.
For his reading, Johnson said that while he wasn’t entirely sure which piece he wanted to read from out of the three projects he is working on at the moment — but all of his work deals with race in America in some form.
He said that for the last couple years he has been reading from his unpublished works because it “feels novel.” According to Johnson, always reading the same few excerpts from a book starts to get stale for the author, even if the work is new to the audience.
In his writing he likes to play with structure: everything from the narrative arc all the way down to how he structures a sentence has thought behind it. He enjoys working poetic inflection into his prose writing.
Johnson will be teaching a workshop on structure and other formal craft elements titled “The Hook” during the week. He will also be giving a Brown Bag lecture at 12:15 p.m. EDT on the Virtual Porch titled “The Hook: An X-Ray” that will be informed by his workshop.