I have a really lovely interview with Lauren Walsburg up at The Cerurove today about my upcoming collection, my creative process, my inspirations, and my goals! You can read it here.
Congratulations on your upcoming debut poetry collection GRIEF, AND WHAT COMES AFTER! What is the focus behind this collection?
A: Thank you so much! I am so excited for my labor of love and pain book to be out in the world. “GRIEF” is something I’ve been writing for about four years. It chronicles my journey through mental health and trauma and the eventual reclamation of my mind and my voice from that place of despair. I suffered a lot in 2014, when I was 19 years old, almost died after an attempted Klonopin overdose, and was stuck in that place up until about 8 months ago. I had to write my way out of it, alongside a great deal of therapy. I wanted to write something that other people who were struggling could read and know they weren’t alone, but I also wanted to tell the story of how I moved through that grief and eventually came out the otherside. I wanted people to know there is always hope, even if you can’t find it.
The road to publication is often difficult. As a poet who is about to release your debut collection, what advice would you give to unpublished poets?
A: First, and I know we’ve all heard this, read more than you write! When I first started writing, I wasn’t reading very much and my work shows that and it wasn’t getting published. When I started making reading part of my writing process and branching out of my comfort zone in terms of what I was consuming, my writing blossomed. I think every book I’ve ever read has been a creative writing class in its own right. Secondly, don’t ever give up. Submit, submit, submit. Don’t let the rejections bog you down. I had about 50 rejections before I got my very first publication and I just kept plugging through. I knew I had something worth saying to share with the world and it just took me time to find the right homes for my work. Believe in your voice!
What is your creative process?
A: I don’t think I have one singular creative process. Sometimes, I notice something in my day to day life, like how my dad smokes a cigarette in 90 seconds and the way the ash lights up his face, and boom, there’s a poem. Sometimes I’m reflecting on something that happened 8 years ago and how it affected me long term and boom, poem. Sometimes I’m reading something and a certain line or image strikes me so deeply, I have to write my own piece about it. Sometimes I sit in Starbucks, listening to Mitski and drinking iced coffee, and I internally scream at my laptop until a poem appears. I often have this sensation that I have a muse in my chest (probably a mermaid or faerie or maybe a little green gremlin) and I physically feel her turn over inside me and I know that means I have to write. I think everything is a poem, really. Poems come to me in a myriad of diverse ways and I just try to always be open to them and prepared to bring them into the world.
Who has been the greatest influence on your work and why?
A: Richard Siken, hands down. His book “Crush” struck me so deeply, I feel like it changed my DNA. It was the first poetry collection I ever read and it truly altered the course of my life. I can’t recommend it enough. He wrote it after his fiance was tragically killed in a car accident, so it’s a rumination on grief and guilt and navigating the repercussions of such tragedy, not unlike my book. I actually have a tattoo based on his poem “Wishbone.” I would venture to say every single line he’s ever written has taken my breath away. That method of learning to cope and process such things through writing fundamentally shaped me as a writer. I’m not sure anyone would read my work and think “Hey, this sounds like Richard Siken,” but maybe one day. Also, my favorite band, The 1975. I started listening to them when I was 19 and was first falling into depression and their music helped carry me through that which, in turn, influenced my writing. One day, I’m going to write a whole book of odes to them.
Your poetry contains vivid imagery and evokes the need for both self-reflection and for interrogating society. Do you think it is necessary for writers to questions their own beliefs in order to aid the journey of their audience?
A: I think that poetry has the unique ability to provide a platform on which people can question their beliefs about society and themselves, and I think it’s important to take advantage of that. I’m not sure I would say it’s necessary — I am a very naturally self-aware, self-speculative person and I think that shows in my writing. My therapist is always telling me to get out of my own head. But I think ultimately the only necessity of poetry is that it help the writer deal with whatever they’re dealing with. If you write something and you feel better afterwards, then poetry has done its job. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be meaningful, it doesn’t have to be something that ever sees the light of day: it just has to make you, the writer, feel better. However, if a poet is in a place with their writing and their own mind where they can craft poems that hold a magnifying glass to toxic societal and cultural mores, I think poetry is a great place for that and those poems hold a special place in the world.
What is your greatest challenge when writing and how do you overcome it?
A: I deal with a lot of all-consuming self-doubt and a complete inability to ever be satisfied with any of my accomplishments. I see other people publishing full-lengths or being selected for fellowships or winning awards and my internal monologue is pretty much, “Just give up, you’ll never get to that place, your accomplishments pale in comparison.” I love the TwitLit community and I love the people I have met there, but sometimes I have to take a break from Twitter so I’m not devoured by that doubt. In those moments, I shut my computer, turn off my phone, and I make a list of all the things I’ve accomplished. That’s actually something I learned in therapy to deal with anxiety and the ramifications of having been in an abusive relationship where my partner routinely gaslit me. I make the list and then I read it over and over again and I tell myself, “You are enough. You are good enough.” And then when the wave of anxiety has passed, I use that energy to push me towards my goals: I apply for fellowships, I submit to contests, I edit my manuscript. I try to turn that doubt into fuel to push me towards everything I want to accomplish.
So, what’s next for Ailey O’Toole?
A: This is such a big question because I never thought I’d get this far. Four years ago, I almost died, and then I was stuck wanting to die for several years after that. And even when I started pouring a lot of time and energy into my writing, I never expected to even have this much success. I’m still trying to process it and let it be real. Long term, I’d like to go back to school and get my MFA and eventually be a professor. Recently, I’ve been considering starting my own zine. There’s an idea for a manuscript in my head about childhood trauma and toxic family dynamics and how those experiences playout across someone’s life, which I have several poems already written for. But that’s all so ethereal right now! The next few months, I’m just going to be focusing on “GRIEF” and trying to share it with anyone who might need to hear my story.