The newest Grisham Writer in Residence, January O’Neil, has never been to the Deep South, but she said that she is a southerner at heart. She plans to move to Oxford in the coming months to teach classes and write for the 2019-2020 academic year.
“I’m excited for the challenge, and I want to be influenced by the place,” she said. “I think looking at things anew is huge. As a writer and an artist, I’m not interested in walking down the same path that I always have.”
Originally from Norfolk, Virginia, O’Neil is now a tenured professor at Salem State in Beverly, Massachusetts. She’s a prolific poet who’s received numerous fellowships in her career. She has worked in education and as a poet through her career, and writes on her blog, Poet Mom. Her son, 13, and her daughter, 15, will move to Oxford with her.
“I’m excited to get to know the students of Ole Miss,” she said. “I’m excited because I’m coming from an area that is not as diverse. I look forward to exploring Mississippi’s literary past, its artistic past, its landscape. We’re excited for the contrast, we’re excited to really become of the local fiber and get to know the people.”
Her two most recent collections focus on divorce, breakups and the effects of them on families. Her poetry also considers relatable topics like work, family, conflict and race.
“It seems to be finding its audience,” she said. “I’m really pleased that people are connecting to the work.”
She’s written numerous poetry anthologies, with her latest release, “Rewilding,” published by CavanKerry in November 2018. Based on an ecological term which is to rejuvenate to an original state, the book explores O’Neil’s experience “coming out stronger on the other side” of hardship, she said.
The position provides a place to stay, writing time to work on new pieces, and the opportunity to teach one workshop class per semester. Though the position isn’t something that can be applied for, but writers are chosen through internal nomination each year, according to the Ole Miss English Department.
Many Mississippi natives have spent their time in this position while pursuing their written pursuits some of these are Mary Miller and Kiese Laymon who are both Jackson natives. Laymon also stayed at Ole Miss and most recently published his book, “Heavy: an American Memoir.”
O’Neil said that though she is working on a new book, she will keep her schedule open for the landscape and people of Oxford to lead her creativity over the coming months.
“As far as my own work, I’m keeping it relatively open,” she said.