An interview with katie o'brien
katie o’brien is a poet, community worker, queer activist, and Netflix enthusiast originally from St. John’s, Ktaqamkuk, on unceded Beothuk land. a peal of thunder, a moment of (The Blasted Tree, 2019) is their third chapbook. katie dislikes lying, sings a lot, and doesn’t kill bugs.
How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?
I'm not sure when I began considering myself a writer, to be honest. my mum still has this godawful chapbook that I wrote in eighth grade for a class project, so maybe that was the beginning? or was it the angst-ridden writing I did in my teens, trying to make sense of a heady combination of nascent queerness and raw grief? or maybe it was when I had an early-twenties crisis in university and decided to rescue our undergrad lit mag from financial collapse, despite never having taken a writing class in post-secondary and feeling like a complete fraud? who can say. poetry is one way that I can make sense of the world, and that's what keeps me going at it – that, and the phenomenal community of writers I'm lucky to know.
Have you noticed a difference in the ways in which you approach the individual poem, now that you’ve published a handful of chapbooks?
I think I tend to have more of a focus on longer-form projects now, like suites, collections, and chapbooks. it's so satisfying to me to have more flexibility in how I express a story or feeling, especially given that my poems are usually short-form.
How has the process of putting together a manuscript evolved? How do you decide on the shape and size of a manuscript?
the chapbook that I self-published in 2015, my first published chapbook, was an attempt to piece together poems that I had written over a number of years into a cohesive narrative about my eating disorder and experiences of anxiety and depression. looking back at it now, I'm not sure it hit the mark, exactly. I'm proud of it, definitely, but my other chapbooks feel much more put-together. I think that's because I started them with the intention that they'd be collections, where with my first book, I kind of cobbled it all together. I'm still figuring out how to decide when a manuscript is complete – working with great editors like Kyle Flemmer and Lisa Murphy-Lamb has really helped.
What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?
as basic as it is, I'd say e.e. cummings’ playful use of punctuation piqued my interest in poetry, and for a long time I aspired to write exactly like him. I am continually inspired by friends like Amy LeBlanc, Kyle Flemmer, Leslie Ahenda, jaye simpson, Ren Pike, and so many more. derek beaulieu’s work has also been really influential in developing my concrete poetry practice.
How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?
I've never met him offline, but rob mclennan is a phenomenal support to me. it seems that whenever I'm feeling unsure about my work, an email from him pops into my inbox suggesting a submission opportunity or soliciting poetry of mine, which is just so, so lovely and kind. he's a real force in the community.
What are you currently working on?
I launched an experimental poetry tarot called blood orange in late 2019, and it's been my main focus for the last month or so! the idea is to publish a poem for each of the cards of the tarot, both upright and reversed. so, I’m corresponding with lots of poets and artists, tinkering with website code, and figuring out how to make the whole thing financially sustainable (if you’re stoked about the project, you can find and support us on Patreon!). I’m also working on a (potentially) full-length concrete poetry collection based on Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 14 score.
Can you name a poet you think should be receiving more attention?
I am completely in love with Petero Kalulé's debut collection, Kalimba. his work is so musical, it's playful and challenging, and I just want everyone to read it!