Sonora Review

SR 72 Contributor Interviews: Elizabeth O’Brien

What is it about the genre or cross-genre you write in that interests you/draws you in?

I write in all genres, and I’m often most interested in the similarities and differences between one genre and another—how a piece that isn’t working as a poem suddenly feels right when it’s taken into prose.

How does this published piece fit in with the larger thematic concerns that you see in your overall work?

“Taunt” speaks to my larger interests in types of speech—jokes, invective, and so on. I have a casual background in linguistics (casual meaning here, I took a couple linguistics courses in college and another in grad school, but I never minored or dedicated any long-term study to it). I have an abiding interest in linguistic categories and in the patterns to be found in jokes and insults, and I like playing with those patterns.

What are you influenced by? 

I’m influenced by whatever I happen to be reading at the moment. Diane Seuss is one of my recent big poetic influences. I read her book Wolf Lake, White Gown, Blown Open shortly after it first came out, and I was blown away by the language and the energy of the voice. That book got me through a very hard winter in Minnesota, and I carried it around with me for months, telling everyone I knew—friends, my students, my grad school cohort—how good it was. Then a few years later, when her next book came out from Graywolf and was nominated for a Pulitzer, I was really psyched. It’s a really good feeling to see someone whose work you believe starting to get wider recognition.

What does your typical writing schedule look like? What aspects of working do you look forward to? What aspects frustrate you?

Right now I’m working full time for Consortium, a book distributor, so I wake up early—except for those days when getting out of bed that early is impossible, which does happen—and from about 5am to 7, I write. Sometimes I just read and jot down thoughts, sort of messy drafting for essays and poems. Sometimes I really write, and those are the days when it’s hardest to leave the house for work. I often write a bit in the evenings after work, too, if I’m really into something. And then on Sundays, I usually try to block off several hours as well.

It can be hard to balance my job and my work, but when it’s going well, it’s great.

For fun, if you could pick one meal that matches the piece we published, what would it be and why?

A coarse loaf of sweetbread, with berries and nuts in it, and buttermilk. For whatever reason, that’s what popped into my mind first, so I’m going with it.

ELIZABETH O’BRIEN is the recipient of a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant through the Loft Literary Center, and the James Wright Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her worhas appeared in many magazines, including New England ReviewThe Rumpus, Tin House, Ploughshares, and AWP’s Writer’s ChronicleHer first chapbook, A Secret History of World Wide Outage, is forthcoming from Diode Editions in 2018.