Interview with Kevin J. O'Conner

Published 2018-03-05.
What's the story behind your latest book?
THE LILAC YEARS was nearly two years in the making.

The title originated in a blog post about working titles, in which I offered the opinion that they are usually more interesting than the titles that ultimately get chosen. I suggested that I could call my next book FRED: THE LILAC YEARS. As it turned out, by the time I began compiling the poems for that next book, I had several poems that fit with the themes of love and romance associated with lilacs. Although I dropped "Fred", I kept THE LILAC YEARS.

THE LILAC YEARS incorporates poems from two would-be collections, THE OSTENSIBLE SLOTH OF DISTRESS and EKPHRASIS À GOGO, that were submitted to competitions but not chosen. This gave me more to choose from in compiling the book, while also allowing me some distance from the material, which made it much easier to edit and revise as needed..

In its finished form, the book contains five sections:
• The Lilac Years
The 'love and romance' section, as such.

• I Don't Need Video of the Grand Canyon to Have an Existential Crisis
Themes of depression and isolation.

• The Little Moments
Scenarios and little moments, real and imagined.

• Ekphrasis à Gogo Part Deux
Ekphrastic poems—that is, poems about or inspired by art.

• Ars Poetica and Other Tales
Poems about poetry and writing.

For a while, the book contained a sixth section, Dystopia Now, that dealt with current events and topical themes. I decided that these poems didn't belong in this collection; their inclusion disrupted the intended flow of the book, so I cut the section altogether.

THE LILAC YEARS contains more than 140 poems.

The official blurb:

Almost two years in the making, THE LILAC YEARS is Kevin J. O’Conner’s eleventh collection of poems. The book’s five sections explore the venerable themes of love and loss, the difficulties of living with isolation and depression, the little moments of life, the images and thoughts that art brings to the surface, and musings about poetry itself. The Lilac Years is a world of (among other things) trains, music, shadows, silence, memory, weather, trees, crows (dead and alive), ghosts, penguins at the Ueno Park Zoo, neon-marker hallucinations, Vasilina Orlova, Jean Cocteau, and Harvey Keitel.

(5 March 2018)

* * * * * * * * * *

8: EIGHT-WORD POEMS came out of a late choice of writing challenge for the month of August 2017. I hadn't come up with a new challenge by the time August 1st came around, so I figured that I'd write eight-word poems, since August is the 8th month of the year. Plus, I like the idea of trying to be as concise as possible.

It was not unusual for me to write several eight-word poems in a sitting; by the time I'd finished, I had 691 poems. When I read some of them at open-mics, people seemed to get quite a kick out of them—I am more apt to employ humor when I write shorter poems—so I thought I'd go ahead and publish all of them in one book, rather than sprinkling a few of them here and there in the next book. Their short length makes them more approachable, and the fact that they're numbered makes it possible to make sort of a game out of reading them—call out a number, read the corresponding poem.

The cover art came together very quickly as well. Usually, I create several drafts before I find the one that best matches the contents of the book. This time, I got the basic design in just one draft.

I look at 8: EIGHT-WORD POEMS as a compact introduction to my work.

(13 October 2017)
What is your writing process?
My process combines monthly writing challenges with writing every day (or as close to it as possible). I get initial feedback by posting each day’s best (or least horrible) poem to my blog, and reading new poems at open-mic events. (At last count, I regularly attend seven open-mics in the Seattle area every month.)

These monthly writing challenges are a way to make myself write things that don't necessarily sound like something I would write, by trying out forms and subjects I would otherwise not consider if simply left to my own devices. Along the way, I try to remain open to one-off challenges, such as the annual Poetry Marathon, workshops, and other opportunities.

The only real downside to this approach is that it disqualifies my work from being considered by most journals, leaving self-publishing as my main avenue for getting my poems into print. (On the other hand, most journals charge reading/submission fees, so it does save me from having to spend a lot of money trying to get my poems published.)

(13 October 2017)
What makes your poems different?
I prefer direct language over decorative language. "Pretty" (academic) poetry has its place, but I think that more direct—even conversational—language makes it easier to convey emotion, by reducing the distance between the poem and the reader.

I also prefer more sensible line breaks and less complicated visual presentation. I see a lot of poetry that breaks in weird places—I especially hate it when poets begin a stanza with the last word of a sentence begun in the previous stanza, and/or end a stanza with the first word of a sentence that continues in the next stanza. I'm also not keen on poets who replace every instance of the word 'and' with an ampersand (&); it feels sloppy and affected. The main thing that bothers me about these techniques is that they take me out of the poem in much the same way that a typo takes me out of a novel, by making me aware that I am reading print on a page. For me, the best poems are the ones that I can simply read without having to think about the way they are presented.

Finally, even when writing in a specific form, I take an intuitive approach to what I am writing. I want what is on the page (or screen) to reflect what I was thinking and feeling at the time I wrote it, even if it means taking liberties with the form, creating non-sequiturs, or occasionally creating confusion. It is more important to me that the poem conveys emotion than it is that the poem is formally "correct".

(13 October 2017)
How do you approach cover design?
This is where the graphic designer and photographer parts of me come in. First, I'll look for images that will help convey the emotional content of the work, then look for complementary typefaces. After that, I explore type and layout possibilities until I come upon the one that feels best for the book.

(12 September 2016)
What are you working on next?
This month concludes Year Four in the 'Love Notes to the Days of the Week' series, so I will be getting that ready for publication soon.

I am also starting to pick out material for my next poetry collection, which I am still calling THE LILAC YEARS. Because I held some material back for poetry competitions, I have a lot more poems to pick from than I have allowed myself in the past, so I expect it to be quite the process—and probably a bigger book (in terms of number of pages) than most of my previous collections. I'm itching to get it put together quickly, but I think it probably won't be ready until early next year.

(13 October 2017)
What motivated you to become an indie author?
The publishing industry is so impenetrable to anyone who hasn't already built up a following—in this respect, it's not much different from the music industry—that, as a first-time author, self-publishing was really my only option. Fortunately, self-publishing has progressed beyond the 'vanity publishing' reputation it had when I was growing up, so there are numerous options available for just about anything you'd want to publish. Also, since I tend to operate at a very DIY (do it yourself) level, I wanted to maintain more control over my work.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
The main thing is seeing the stray thought or phrase that entered my head for no apparent reason develop into a finished piece. I also enjoy trying out new forms and working under different restrictions—which is why I give myself a new writing challenge every month.

(13 October 2017)
When did you first start writing?
I started writing when I was a kid. English (or "language arts", as they called it in my school district) was one of my best subjects, so I was writing poems and stories from early on. I was fairly prolific by the time high school rolled around—at least, when it came to poems.

I pretty much stopped in college, though. I had one poem published in the school paper's quarterly arts supplement my freshman year, but my next submission was rejected by an editor who essentially accused me of ripping off Richard Brautigan—whom I'd never heard of; that effectively killed my literary ambitions. It wasn't until I began keeping a journal a few years later that I started writing poems again, albeit sporadically. Even then, it's been only since early 2013 that I've been writing poems on any kind of regular basis. Since January 2015, I write new poems almost every day.

(13 October 2017)
What do you read for pleasure?
I generally like to read non-fiction, but I have been making an effort to read more in general. At the time of this writing, I am reading these books:

The Difficulty of Being—Jean Cocteau
All the Odes—Pablo Neruda
Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries—Kory Stamper
Colour Me in Cyanide & Cherries—Mirjana M. Inalman

Some of the other books I have read this year:
Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt—Marcus O'Dair
The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us—James W. Pennebaker
1Q84—Haruki Murakami
The Book of Embraces—Eduardo Galeano
The Game of Love and Death—Martha Brockenbrough
Holy Robots—Vasilina Orlova
The Purple Wash—Minnie A. Collins
Not Aloud—Christopher J. Jarmick
Chasing Utopia—Nikki Giovanni

(13 October 2017)
Who are your favorite authors?
Milan Kundera, Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O'Rourke, Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, Ksenia Anske, Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
I have to see what's going to happen next.
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Latest books by This Author

The Lilac Years
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 12,710. Language: English. Published: April 30, 2018. Categories: Poetry » American poetry » General, Poetry » Contemporary Poetry
Kevin J. O'Conner's eleventh collection of poems explores the venerable themes of love and loss, the difficulties of living with isolation and depression, the little moments of life, the images and thoughts that art brings to the surface, and musings about poetry itself.
8: Eight-word Poems
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 7,170. Language: English. Published: October 27, 2017. Categories: Poetry » American poetry » General, Poetry » Contemporary Poetry
Kevin J. O'Conner's tenth book of poetry is a collection of nearly 700 eight-word poems written as a creative challenge. These short, often haiku-like verses range from whimsical to profound, frequently capturing life's small moments and those random thoughts that enter one's mind, with the occasional reference to pop culture thrown in.
This Is Not the Book That Will Save Your Life
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 11,260. Language: English. Published: April 21, 2017. Categories: Poetry » American poetry » General, Poetry » Contemporary Poetry
The ninth collection of poetry by Kevin J. O'Conner explores the worlds of blitz and Pi-Archimedes poems, dips further into ekphrastic poems, and covers a variety of subjects, ranging from hats to cats and the state of the world.
…But for the Thoughts Running Through My Mind
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 6,380. Language: English. Published: February 6, 2017. Categories: Poetry » Contemporary Poetry, Poetry » American poetry » General
The eighth collection of poems by Kevin J. O'Conner, including his ever-popular alphabet poems.
This Is Fifty-three
Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 14,440. Language: English. Published: September 23, 2016. Categories: Poetry » American poetry » General, Poetry » Contemporary Poetry
THIS IS FIFTY-THREE is Kevin J. O’Conner’s seventh collection of poems—and his most ambitious to date. This is not your typical poetry collection; it is an exploration of living with uncertainty at a time when we’d expect most of life’s big questions to have been already answered.
Coffee Stains
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 7,040. Language: English. Published: January 5, 2016. Categories: Poetry » Contemporary Poetry, Poetry » American poetry » General
The sixth collection of poems by Kevin J. O'Conner. Divided into six sections—Observations, Autobiography is Hard, Romantical Feelings and Such, Reading and Writing, Commentary, and Short Forms—the poems address matters from the personal to the universal, contemplating life, love, identity, love and lust, words, and the mundane aspects of everyday living…
Refusal to Remain Invisible
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 5,340. Language: English. Published: September 26, 2015. Categories: Poetry » Contemporary Poetry, Poetry » American poetry » General
REFUSAL TO REMAIN INVISIBLE is the fifth collection of poems by Kevin J. O'Conner. A recurring theme in this collection is the struggle to be seen and heard when the world renders people invisible—something we are seeing a lot of in 2015. The poems address personal struggles of identity, current events, small moments in everyday life, memory, time, and mortality. There is also one cat poem.
Quiet on the Outside
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 6,900. Language: English. Published: July 2, 2015. Categories: Poetry » Contemporary Poetry, Poetry » American poetry » General
Quiet on the Outside… is Kevin J. O'Conner's fourth collection of poetry. O'Conner still employs a straightforward approach to tone and language, but works with an expanded palette.
The Imperfect Document
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 6,140. Language: American English. Published: March 18, 2015. Categories: Poetry » American poetry » General, Poetry » Contemporary Poetry
The Imperfect Document is the third collection of poems by Kevin J. O'Conner, with subjects ranging from love and loss to writing, from nostalgia to art, from social commentary to drunk social media posting—all written in O'Conner's straightforward, thoughtful style.
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 4,780. Language: English. Published: September 30, 2014. Categories: Poetry » Contemporary Poetry
Journalism is the second collection of poems by Kevin J. O'Conner. Illustrated by sketches from the author's personal journals, the poems in Journalism explore a variety of themes—among them weird dreams, peaceful vignettes, commentary, and the occasional bit of humor. Poetry for people who don't like poetry.
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