Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 — Isobel O’Hare

What’s the earliest experience, or a stand-out experience you can remember that made you realize that you can be yourself, write as yourself, and write about issues that matter to you? Has this been difficult for you?

The first moment I remember feeling free to write about, specifically, childhood trauma came after a brief email exchange with Margaret Cho when I was around 20 years old and living in Dublin, Ireland. I had moved (also see: run away) there directly after high school in order to escape an oppressive parent and redefine my life for myself. Of course, I was too young and inexperienced then to know that there is no running away from trauma.

At the time, Margaret Cho kept a regular blog on her website that I read obsessively, and she wrote an entry once about child abuse and its lingering effects through adulthood. It was one of the first times I can remember reading something on this topic from a celebrity. I wrote Cho an email vaguely alluding to my own experiences of childhood sexual trauma and thanking her for speaking on the issue, and she wrote back to me with a simple, “Thank you for sharing your truth.”

It hit me then that, yes, that was what I was doing. That what I had shared was, in fact, the truth — my truth — and that I could do with it what I wished. It took me several more years to dare to approach that topic in my own writing, but that early validation kept coming back to me. I’d spent so much time with the internalized message that the things I’d gone through were unspeakable, that I should be ashamed of them, that I had imagined their severity, that I shouldn’t burden others with my personal darkness, or that I was actually insane.

To this day, I still have a profound reaction when someone loudly and openly illuminates oppression and abuse on a public platform. It hits me right in the gut and brings me almost to tears when I encounter someone standing, fully grounded in the wholeness of who they are and what they have been through, blasting through fear for the sake of enlightening the rest of us. Individual truths, especially those spoken to power, have the ability to gather momentum in community and transform an entire society.

How does pressure to be legible as successful and productive in accordance with American norms affect the creative process?

There is this idea that, as artists and as poets, we should constantly be producing new work, constantly writing, constantly prioritizing our art over everything else. And in reality, there are very few of us who have the time and the resources to make that happen. As the child of a single mother who raised three children largely on her own, I often wonder what my mother could have done with her life if she hadn’t had to work four jobs to support all of us. Don’t get me wrong: my mother was and is a badass superhero role model for me, and she took the role of mother and rocked it (and still does), but sometimes I feel like we stole her life from her. And the men who didn’t pay her child support or ducked out of the picture entirely stole her life from her.

This manifests for me in comments from people (who love me) asking, in the aftermath of my father’s death, “When are you going to write again? Are you creating new work? Why aren’t you writing right now?” and I get very frustrated in response to those questions. I know people mean well, but they also have no idea how all-consuming a parental suicide is. It hasn’t been a year yet since my father died, and right now I am focused on getting through every day to the best of my ability. I’ve been bumped down to the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and it’s going to take some time for me to get back up to that Self-Actualization part.

There is a myth that writers need to write every single day in order to be a Real Writer. And this might be true for some people, but I know plenty of people who have months-long dry spells and then shoot out a ton of work over the course of a couple of weeks. For the people who are obsessed with the constant creation and constant publication cycle, and who project that onto others, I say, “Don’t apply your capitalistic standards of production to my creative process.” It is an ongoing battle against the pervasiveness of the language of capital.

Is there any way to survive in this world without assimilating into systems of power? How do we acknowledge our active and passive participation in totalizing systems that we are at odds with?

While out with friends recently, we discussed the idea of so-called revolutionaries working within electoral politics. I made the comment that true revolutionaries have two options: get assimilated into the state, have their ideas watered down, and become part of the status-quo maintenance crew; or be murdered. A friend chimed in, “Or move to Taos, New Mexico,” where we all live, a place full of kooks and weirdos and probably the only rural community I have ever lived in that isn’t predominantly conservative.

I think all we can do is the best we can do, and that part of that best is sharing our knowledge and resources with people who have less than we do rather than lecturing them about how they live their lives. We are all subjects of capitalism and we all have to give money to large, terrible corporations now and then in order to participate in society. I try as much as possible to support local artists, farmers, and small businesses that are doing good work, but sometimes I have to give money to some company I really don’t like. And sometimes I’ve had to work for companies whose impact on the planet was less than perfect. We do what we can to get by in this world, and hopefully, if we are fortunate, we can figure out other ways to sort of balance that so that we don’t feel like we’re just helping rich people get richer.

One of the things that disturbs me most about this late stage of capitalism is that we are constantly being tricked into thinking there are “benevolent” corporations because those corporations co-opt the language of activism and turn it into an ad campaign. Resistance branding. Personally, I don’t believe in voting with my dollars or that consumerism can ever be a meaningful revolutionary statement. I’d rather give my money to actual activists or social justice organizations whose work is predominantly for the good of marginalized people rather than a company that manufactures disposable goods, benefits from slave labor, and contributes to the degradation of the environment. But again, that said, I don’t want to lecture other people too much. These things are often hard to escape, and again the language is so pervasive. I think the fact that I do live in a very isolated rural community contributes to my ability to live separately from a lot of this messaging, but I’m certainly not immune to it because nobody is. For me, it is a battle that I am constantly engaged in and always thinking about.

How do you feel about the ongoing debates concerning “writing outside of your identity?”

I tend to take the stance that every single person is writing from within their identity, whether it is explicitly referred to in a poem or not. When older poets refer to the work of, usually, Millennials, they sometimes complain that the work is too self-reflective, almost narcissistic. I disagree. I believe these are identities that haven’t ever had their proper time in the spotlight, and so of course we’re experiencing a renaissance in what could be called “confessional” poetry, but this time from perspectives other than that of a cisgender hetero white person.

Really, these complaints stem from the fear that other identities gaining power means less power for those who have always occupied that space. It’s the same dying gasps we’re seeing in the political arena in the US: those who have always held positions of power see power as a zero-sum game where another person’s gain is their loss.

I’ve seen this play out in small literary scenes as well, where poets become alarmingly competitive and feel they have to fight for spots in local reading series and become territorial when another poet appears who is writing on a similar subject matter. I don’t see poetry this way (you’re going to run into people who write about the same stuff that you do, and they aren’t necessarily stealing from you), but I recognize capitalism’s effects on our scene. I think there is room for everyone at the table, and that collaboration and cooperative writing spaces are where the real magic of literature takes place.

Does gender or gender performance affect your writing?

Absolutely. I have struggled with my gender identity since childhood, and it’s something I go back and forth on Cover of Wild Materials, chapbook by Isobel O'Hareconstantly. I have at times been uncomfortable with the word “woman” applied to me, and I have publicly requested that people refer to me using the singular they. I’ve been approaching this topic in therapy recently and have emerged from that feeling perfectly fine with either she/they and with other people calling me a woman.

I spent years feeling alienated and dissociated from my body as a result of all of this, and that comes up in, I think, everything I have written. My first chapbook, Wild Materials, spoke to dissociation as a result of sexual trauma, and the desire to create ritual space in order to combat that dissociation and rejoin my body. My second chapbook, The Garden Inside Her, spoke to the experience of becoming very physically ill for six months and feeling further traumatized by Cover of The Garden Inside Her by Isobel O'Hare. bodily forces beyond my control. In all this can be yours, a book very much focused on the violence certain bodies inflict on certain other bodies, the gendered language of the source material created another form of dissociation in me that I describe in the book’s introduction.

In all this can be yours, the use of “man” and “woman” became almost a code for “aggressor” and “victim” because I wanted to make it very clear that not all instances of sexual oppression occur between a dominant man and a powerless woman, but I was limited by the language in the texts with which I was working. I went through some pretty severe gender dysphoria as a result of that experience, as well as the gendered language of the news outlets reporting on my work, and although it was difficult for me, that difficulty led to some surprising revelations regarding my own gender identity.

These days I am content to identify as non-binary, queer, and/or gender-fluid, but I’m less married to a specific set of pronouns because I have realized that, regardless of how people refer to me and regardless of what I look like, I am going to feel somewhat dysphoric and alienated from my body. And I think this alienation will always be expressed somehow in my work.

What does it feel like in the body to write the grief space of the inconsolable?

I am still figuring this out (how to do this), but for now it feels like communing with the dead in the only way currently available to me (I’m holding out for the invention of a direct telephone line to the Abyss). It also feels like an impossible task, attempting to translate this experience in a way that will resonate with both other grievers and people who haven’t inhabited this space yet. Since I lost my father, I have felt like I am closer to the veil than ever, and there is a seductive quality to that sensation in that it has connected me to something so much larger and more infinitely expansive than anything I’ve ever felt before. I feel so much more animal now, and thus more human, and that occurs all over my body, a totality of racking that moves through you without your consent and leaves you changed. In this way, the inconsolable and unsayable are the same creature, a hybrid familiar that is always lurking just behind and to the left.


Image of the non-binary poet, Isobel O'Hare, wearing a gray blouse in front of wood background.ISOBEL O’HARE is a poet and essayist who has dual Irish and American citizenship. They are the author of the chapbooks Wild Materials (Zoo Cake Press, 2015), The Garden Inside Her (Ladybox Books, 2016), and Heartbreak Machinery (forthcoming from dancing girl press in 2018). Their collection of erasures of celebrity sexual assault apologies, all this can be yours, is now available from University of Hell Press.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for this anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.