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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Grad and Acclaimed Poet Kicks Off 38th Literary Festival

As a freshman at Old Dominion University, January Gill O'Neil believed she would study economics and pursue a career as a small-business owner.

How her path redirected seems a kind of poetic justice.

"I took an 8 a.m. econ class and didn't do very well," O'Neil said. "I knew I liked creative writing. And I'd always been good at English."

So O'Neil refocused from numbers to letters. She tutored under such ODU poets of the time as Toi Derricotte and the visiting Ruth Stone, and graduated in 1990 with an English degree.

Twenty-five years later, O'Neil is a widely published poet, an assistant professor of English, and executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

But the Massachusetts Festival isn't the one most on O'Neil's mind at the moment. Rather, it is her appearance Monday, Oct. 5 at 12:30 p.m. as the first featured artist of Old Dominion's 38th annual literary festival.

With the theme "A Place to Stand," which was taken from an Archimedes quote, the festival begins with a welcoming reception and gallery display Sunday, Oct. 4 and runs through Thursday, Oct. 8, with most readings taking place at the Chandler Recital Hall in the Diehn Center for the Performing Arts.

O'Neil is among 14 authors scheduled to appear. The impressive lineup includes two members of ODU's department of English, John McManus and Michael Pearson, who will read from their published work at 2 p.m. on Tues., Oct. 6, as well as noted humorist, novelist, poet and radio host Garrison Keillor.

Keillor's appearance Monday, Oct. 5 at 7:30 p.m. will be in the Big Blue Room at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Tickets to Keillor's reading have all been claimed.

Accomplished Haitian American author and social activist Edwidge Danticat will close the festival with a 7:30 p.m. reading Oct. 8 in the North Cafeteria of Webb University Center as part of the Old Dominion President's Lecture Series.

O'Neil, who was raised in Norfolk and graduated from Norfolk Catholic High School, said she is proud to be included on the roster, and even more so to be invited to read in her hometown for the first time.

"It's one thing to be asked to read somewhere," she said from home in Beverly, Mass. outside Boston where O'Neil is an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. "But to come back to Old Dominion, where the first inklings of writing all began, is thrilling."

O'Neil will read from her compilations "Underlife" (2009) and "Misery Islands" (2014), both published by CavanKerry Press. The audience, she said, will include her preteen son and daughter who will travel with her, but also her parents and other relatives who still reside in Norfolk.

"It's always exciting when one of our alums makes good," said Janet Peery, the author and ODU English professor who co-chairs the festival with senior English lecturer Katherine Jackson.

"We thought Jan was a natural choice for our festival," Peery added. "Despite its difficulty and the tough balancing act it can be, she's living the life of the writer and will be an inspiration to students who share the desire. She's proof that it can be done."

O'Neil has composed poignant poems about love, sex, family and divorce, but says she often tries to capture the smaller, "everyday" moments of life.

"I think poetry is equivalent to taking a snapshot," O'Neil said. "It's a moment in time. It doesn't tell the whole story, but it's my perspective of what I see."

O'Neil graduated from ODU in 1990 and earned a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. Her first collection, "Underlife," was a finalist for book of the year from Foreword Reviews. Her poem "Chocolate" (below) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

In a dark time

there is always chocolate.

Each bite is the perfect bite,

sweeping over the hemispheres

of the brain like a lunar eclipse.

Otherworldly in its bitter sweetness,

it awakens some hunger,

some growl in you that can't be sated -

you feed it and it feeds you.

It lingers on the tongue's tiny alcoves

leading you into some momentary depravity,

into desire and longing and sin.

No one can stop you in this place

infused with darkness,

and what you cannot explain

you accept as indulgence

long after it melts.

Since 2012, O'Neil has directed the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem, which annually showcases about 100 poetry readings and workshops.

Teaching, writing and running the festival keep her busy, but O'Neil said she thrives on "looking for the next thing. I feel very lucky and grateful. I've worked really hard, and I continue to work really hard.

"I love poetry, I love how it changes, and I love how writers now have more ways to get their work out without having to go through a major publisher," she continued. "I just wish artists in general were recognized financially and publicly for their contributions."

ODU has held its literary festival every year since 1978. Past festivals have featured such noted authors as William Styron, Ann Beattie, John McPhee, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Johnson, Derek Walcott, Susan Sontag, and George Plimpton.

This year's lineup of featured readers, their biographies and the entire schedule of events can be found on the 38th
Annual Literary Festival website

The Village Bookstore will have books available at each event prior to and following the readings along with a signing. Festival authors' books will also be on display at the Village Bookstore prior to the start of the festival.

In case of University closure due to inclement weather, Literary Festival events will not be held. Please monitor the ODU website, Facebook or Twitter for updates on conditions and University operations.

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