Contributor Spotlight: Daniel O’Brien

Daniel O’Brien’s poems “Becoming Singular” and “Chopin’s Heart I” appeared in our Fall and Winter ’15 Issue and can be read in their entirety here.

Tell us a little about “Becoming Singular.”

Like most of my poems, “Becoming Singular” comes from obsession—here, an obsession with Dionysus. The poem expresses the desire for a singular, stable personal identity in contrast to the multifarious, dynamic personal identity that I experience (and that I suspect many others do, too). Dionysus is the enemy of stability; he fosters chaos, disassociation, even madness. As a meditation on Dionysian themes, the poem explores the human desire to suppress alterity, to drown out disharmonious inner voices. For me, the speaker of “Becoming Singular” addresses these other selves, the inner madness. It shows that attempts to suppress that madness are an exercise in futility and self-destruction; if one self, one voice, drowns, so do all the others. This also informed the disjointed formal elements of the poem: the jagged lines and breaks; the movement of the piece is very much designed to mimic the content.

What’s the most difficult part of the writing process for you?

I find that the most difficult part of the writing process is the push and pull of my obsessions—my immergence within a particular subject matter followed often by its abandonment—which can sometimes leave me spiraling among theory at the sake of practice. The best solution for me seems to be to make a list of topics, titles, ideas, concepts, words, phrases, etc. I have come across, topics that have impelled me to explore further, and then to almost systematically develop them into something tangible through free association. A poem doesn’t always come to fruition, but it does mean I always have a backlog—ideas I can return to that I know are worth exploring at some point. If all else fails, I look to the page; I try to read one “ancestor’s” collected works and multiple collections of contemporary poetry a month. Whether it is thieving a style or form or establishing a conversation between myself and another poet or poem, reminding myself that the work that already exists explores the craft we can and must learn from, is always an aid to my own production.

Recommend a book for us that was published within the last decade.

Speak Low by Carl Phillips. I love exploring the way Phillips’ constructs sentences—their syntactical complexity and divergent contemplation, which might at first seem digressive, but returns ever so gracefully back to its origin with power and poignancy. His exploration of the body and of conquest is of great interest to me, such as in the poem “Distortion,” whose final lines read: “Don’t go. Let me show you what it looks like/ when surrender, and an instinct not to, run side by side.” He’s a master.

If you could have a drink with any living author, who would it be?

I would like to sit down with Nick Flynn. His collection, Some Ether, was one of the first I read that really revved me; it got me excited about translating personal tragedy into something productive and beautiful. I specifically remember the poems “Cartoon Physics, I  & II.” They were some of the first “sibling” poems (or, whatever term you want to use for two poems in explicit conversation in a collection) that I had encountered. I spent a lot of time with those poems, and learned a lot from them. Flynn recently had a poem on the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day that rekindled that original thrill I felt about his work. I wrote feverishly for hours after reading “The Incomprehensibility.” The way he moves through that poem—his seamless use of allusion, metaphor, and analogy—just blew me away. He weaves Lorca into the Annunciation into a Boeing 777 wreck into his mother’s suicide, and captures a depth of emotional resonance that I crave from the poetry I consume, and hopefully, produce.

What are you working on now? What’s next?

Right now I’m working towards my MFA at The Ohio State University. I’m really just trying to read and write and engage with poetry in any and every way I can during this time. I recently returned from a weeklong workshop and seminar in Hudson, New York called The Home School. It was immersive and beautiful and generative in so many ways. I’m not exactly sure where I’m at in terms of any one “project,” but I’ve been exploring a lot in the way of madness, gender expression, and the ephemerality of the human body. Most recently, I’ve been working on a series of poems that are from the perspective of a crematorium operator, which has been equal parts morbid, informative, and pleasurable. I feel like that is a fair way to summarize most of my experience writing poetry.

Our thanks to Daniel for taking the time to answer a few questions and share his work. Read Daniel’s poems here:


Daniel O’Brien’s work has previously appeared in, or is waiting in the wings of, BLOOM, The Boiler, Gandy Dancer, and the Susquehanna Review. His work was also named honorable mention for the 2013 Red Hen Press Poetry Award. O’Brien is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at The Ohio State University.