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ISSUE 121 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/25/2008

O'Reilley shares poetry: Writers gather for reading, conversation

By Margaret Wade
Arts Editor

Friday, April 25, 2008

Mary Rose O'Reilley, 2008 judge for the annual English Department Writing Contest, shared her fiction and poetry with students and community members on Thursday. Her reading included both published and unpublished work, as well as plenty of conversation about writing.

Assistant professor of english Jenny Dunning introduced O'Reilley, noting her roles as "a poet, a spiritual seeker, a teacher and a writer" and listing her recent publications. "In one breath she can admit the bleakest vision while at the same time absolutely affirm life," Dunning said. "She is a category of her own."

O'Reilley emphasized her preference for the process of writing poetry rather than the finished product after publication. "Everything I'm reading is new," she said. "Why am I reading all this trashy stuff? It's very hard to make value judgments. I'm interested in how we discover new congruencies in our writing and the process of consciousness that writing entails."

The first poem she read, "Family Recipes," is the prologue of her recent book, The Love of Impermanent Things: A Threshold Ecology. She explained that this poem was inspired by an assignment to write about a family dinner. "It's a way into surfacing a whole lot of issues about the family," she said.

O'Reilley read "My Mother Was an Actress," another poem that reflects on her family. "Do you experience life behind a scrim?" she asked. In this poem about growing up with the theatrical worldview of her mother, she discussed her interest in "multiple scrims of reality."

Her reading of "A Week Without God" illustrated her interest in "sacred play" as "a very important way of being religious" and her fascination with art depicting the annunciation. "You have to wonder what Mary was really thinking," she said. O'Reilley writes frequently about this "dark night of the soul," that she perceives as a sort of positive feeling of obscurity, rather than depression or sadness.

Her reading also included "The Abandoned Farm," a poem set in Dakota country; "Confession," which included a litany of domestic sins, such as owning too many shoes; and "Absolution," which ends with the comforting image of a dog.

"You may notice that there are a lot of dogs in these poems," she said. "Who knew they would bark their way in."

To conclude, she read an excerpt from a novel in progress that explores a 19th century point of view. "Nobody writes in an old-fashioned omniscient voice. We're democratic." The novel takes place in a French monastery in 1943, but she refuses to do a lot of research until she's on her fifth draft. "The themes must come unbidden," she said.

O'Reilley will judge the annual English Department Writing Contest. She reflected on the process of submitting her work to contests and shared her wisdom with writers in the audience. "This is all complete rock and roll," she said. "It's impossible to make judgments. You shouldn't let it get to you."

A brief question and answer session followed the reading, where audience members inquired about how to write about your friends and family, as well as questions about her writing process.

O'Reilley explained how she strives to write from 8 a.m. to noon each day, and she has to force herself to pull away. She explained how her first drafts are very thoughtless, but the revisions are extremely fastidious.

When a student asked if she ever gets frustrated, O'Reilley responded: "I try not to, but I do get frustrated sometimes. We have to be very forgiving of ourselves as writers. The writer has tremendous power -- even if we never got asked to the prom, we have the last word."

She was awarded the 2005 Walt Whitman Award for her first book-length collection of poems, Half Wild. Other recent awards include a Contemplative Studies Grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, a Bush Artist Grant and the McKnight Award of Distinction.

O'Reilley is the author of The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker Buddhist Shepherd (Milkweed Editions, 2000). She is also a potter. She lives in St. Paul and is a Professor Emerita of English at the University of St. Thomas.

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