Originally published in Potato Hill Poetry, Vol. 3 No. 4
Her third-grade victory prize-a chance to read her poem before the school's student assembly-posed an insurmountable obstacle. Young Susan stuttered. Through poetry, she could express herself without having to speak. It's why she started to write in the first place. It gave her a communication tool she believes children and teenagers frequently need.
Today, as a teacher at Thomas Prince School in Princeton, Massachusetts, editor for the Worcester Review, editor of Morrigann, a new publication soon to be launched at Thomas Prince School, and a mentor at KIDSWRITE and the St. John's Young Writers Conference in Shrewsbury, Roney-O'Brien's commitment to encouraging the craft of writing among young people is central to her life as a poet.
While raising her son and daughter, she spent several years working as a poet in schools. "I traveled from school to school, never spending more than a few days in each location. I was continually amazed to find kids who couldn't talk to others, but who could write beautifully. Sometimes, they'd have started to write on their own. But often, they didn't discover their own ability until we'd worked together for a few days.
"I remember one boy, a teenager, that I was told was pretty unreachable. It's true, he didn't say much. But once he began to write, he could talk about all kinds of things he couldn't verbalize. I've thought of him often. I hope he continued to write after our program ended."
That hope is what led Roney-O'Brien to get a Master of Education degree and go into teaching full-time. "Few young people think of themselves as writers. I wanted to give kids more than just an introduction to poetry and writing. I wanted to give them continuity and somewhere to go to talk with other writers and be completely accepted."
As a poet, Roney-O'Brien struggles with many of the same issues her students face. Probably the biggest one is time. Although never short of ideas, she can't always stop to expand on them as they occur to her. "About three years ago, I started to keep a journal," she says. "It's a useful tool. First, I use it as a diary. After a while, you see patterns emerging out of daily routines, which is excellent raw material for poetry. Sometimes in the middle of writing about my day, a poem will form. I also use it to jot down ideas and phrases that pop into my head. If I didn't write them down, I'd never remember them."
A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA program, Roney-O'Brien is candid about the effect on her writing of a highly checkered work career that has included stints as a short-order cook, genetics technician, nursing home aide, and metal factory inspector.
"If you write," she explains, "life is never defined simply by what you do. You look for as much experience as you can get, because ultimately, you write about what you know."
She's found the breadth of work experience has done wonders for her vocabulary, introducing her to terminology she'd never have picked up otherwise. "As a writer, you need to always be sleuthing out new words. With new words come new feelings. And the more feelings you can experience, the more words you need to express them. It's a cycle."
Roney-O'Brien believes some of the best raw material lies closest to home in a writer's own history, and cites her strict Catholic upbringing as the source of rituals and sounds that she finds comforting and easy to integrate into her poetry. "Listen to your family stories," she suggests. "They're rich with mythology and symbolism that are probably already finding their way into your work. But if you're conscious of it as a well-spring of ideas, you'll listen even harder, or get people to talk about it more."
Nature motifs are prevalent in her poetry, and spur memories of her own past. She seeks ideas in nature, and sees within nature's cycles a way to work out her own life issues. Dreams are also a frequent source of inspiration, pushing into corners of thought and experience not accessible to the conscious mind.
She believes poetry is an effective way to deal with anger. "I often use poetry to try to work out issues I don't understand. These can be personal problems, or a world crisis. It doesn't matter. If it troubles you, poetry might be a way to find answers that satisfy you and defuse the anger.
"If you can make an experience true to what it means to you, you have a poem. There's no badness left. It gets transformed."
Although she believes in them, Roney-O'Brien doesn't feel she is prone to writer's blocks. When she's not writing, it's because she chooses not to. But she admits that writing changes her mood and makes her easier to live with.
"When I'm not writing-and I sometimes stop for months at a time-I feel emotionally constipated. I feel guilty, robbed. But teaching draws from the same well, and it's exhausting. I'm sometimes just too tired to write. That's when I have to remind myself that I'm a writer.
"What's a writer? An observer, recorder, witness, an imparter of ideas. Writers define things. We push at hard edges to find room for ourselves. But writers can't be judges. As soon as you start to judge, you close doors. You're no longer open to what's going on around you."
She believes it helps to be playful, and to enjoy toying with words and ideas.
"You have to have a lot of faith to be a writer. Faith in yourself, and faith in your writing. Let it take you where it wants to go. Don't try to control it. Have faith in the emotional integrity of your experience, and let it take you somewhere new and unexpected.
"When that happens, it feels like a miracle."