Staff Spotlight: Q&A with Kimberly O'Connor

Editor's Note: Please join Lighthouse on Friday, November 5, for a happy hour reading and book launch for Young Writers Program Co-Director Kimberly O'Connor's debut collection of poems, White Lung, out now from Saturnalia Press

First, congrats on the book! What’s it like having a brand new, shiny “debut” book of poems that you’ve been working on for so long? Do these poems feel different now than when you were assembling the book?

Thank you! After working on this book in one form or another for over ten years, and then waiting almost two years for it to come out after being accepted for publication, it feels surreal that it’s actually happening. Receiving my box of author copies in the mail was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I love the way the book turned out physically, the shape and size and the amazing, weird, cover, and I am excited to share these poems at last. They do feel a bit different now, I think just because I’ve been writing new stuff, but at the same time by now I’ve read and reread them so many times over the years that they feel quite familiar. 

What can readers expect from White Lung? What might surprise them about the poems?

The poems in White Lung cover a range of topics, from the ways racial epithets are passed down through generations to mass shootings to abortion to what it means to have a president that says he grabbed women’s pussies. Over the years I worked on the books, I experimented with the ways I could incorporate political and current events into lyric poems. It was important to me as an artist to press beyond the personal and to approach subjects that scared me. There’s a poem in the book called “Gentrifier,” for example, which started out as a way for me to explore my feelings around the experience of selling my house in Denver’s Baker neighborhood. So I think some of the subject matter might surprise readers, as well as the occasional humor in some of the poems.

Breakthroughs, obstacles, light bulbs, rages of writing the book?

Hmm. One obstacle occurred around 2015 and 2016 when I was writing a long poem called “Kali Kali Kali.” That poem is about the events surrounding the 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma. Clayton was my husband’s legal client. If you google that event, you’ll quickly learn that the execution was botched and, frankly, horrific, and my husband witnessed it in person. I struggled as I wrote with my place as a witness and my “right” to tell the story at all. Eventually that struggle took its place as a theme in the poem itself. 

A “light bulb” poem for me was one titled “Early Pleistocene Horses.” I wrote that one while I was taking one of Lighthouse’s hybrid genre workshops. I had seen an exhibit in the Smithsonian American History Museum that featured models of early Pleistocene horses, and was taken by that phrase. I sat down to write from it, and that poem arrived almost whole, from some magic in the air that seemed to flow out of my pen onto the page. I have very few poems that “arrived” that way, and I was pleased by the way the poem captured themes in other parts of the book about women’s freedom and power.

How are you celebrating? Are you going on a book tour?

I feel like I’ve been celebrating on and off since summer 2019, when I received the call from Saturnalia Books that they wanted to publish White Lung. Right now my book tour is a couple of readings in the Denver area, including at Lighthouse on November 5. I had planned to read in Portland in late October, but I postponed that trip due to the pandemic. I’m looking forward to being able to plan more trips and readings, hopefully to North Carolina, Maryland, and NYC, in the spring and summer. 

Which writers/artists are you really into at the moment?

I have to admit that my attention span for reading has been pretty short during the pandemic. I really enjoyed the latest issue of the lit mag Crazyhorse, and I’ve become a big fan of short stories. I’ve turned to rereading some of my all time favorites, like poems by Robert Hass and Ruth Stone, and the novel The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende, which has been a pleasure. Right now I am rereading Tiffany Quay Tyson’s Three Rivers. I’ve also found pleasure in watching international television shows like Dark, La Casa de Papel/Money Heist, and Lupin. It’s really fun to sit down in the evenings and listen to a story unfold in a different language.