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A Conversation with Bevin O’Connor, Winner of the 2023 Michelle Boisseau Prize in Poetry

But From that Same Light the Grief Sets In

Bevin O’Connor’'s anonymous contest entry won our fourth annual single-poem prize. Our judge, the beloved poet and Bear-Review contributor Ama Codjoe, who chose O’Connor’s “Harvest Syntax” (read it via the link below) as the winning poem from among too many outstanding ones to count, had the following to say about it:


“I admire how, from the beginning, “Harvest Syntax” calls the reader’s attention to the landscape of fields and the fields a poet’s language can make. Echoes and variations such as “the matter no matter,” “felling is falling,” and “the object, objecting” create a kind of music that carries me. This poem winds, unfurls, and burrows into itself, into the period—the closing and meaning—we’ve been holding our breaths to reach. In the poem’s final stanza the poet offers us three short lines, instead of the couplets we’ve become accustomed to, a replication or elaboration of the absence the poet marks so well. I appreciated the chance to wander through the field of this poem."


Preferring written conversation about craft, process, and aesthetics, O’Connor and I "spoke" over email.


 Marcus Myers: Bevin, your Michelle Boisseau-prize-winning poem “Harvest Syntax” is about a season of loss and grief and how it shapes language. I love how open this piece is. While there are some details particular to your experience, the poem doesn’t name the loss and sources of grief. Almost paradoxically, these ambiguities allow me to know this mournful landscape because mine’s so easily transposed onto yours, or yours onto mine, maybe. At least in terms of the emotional terrain and subterranean layers where your poetic imagination and reality coheres with mine.. Could you speak to our readers about writing through, or around, your grieving in this piece and others? Did you attempt a poem that goes directly into the particulars? 


Bevin O’Connor: I do have poems which attempt to speak more directly to the source of the loss explored in “Harvest Syntax.” The same seed is there--the grief of my father's long illness and then his passing. The poem grew out of that experience. And yet, there is so much about the experience that is unnamable. Grief can feel completely overwhelming and, at the same time, never fully accessible even to the griever. I was thinking a lot about that movement between excess and absence, legibility and illegibility—how they blur. So the poem was a way to explore these seeming paradoxical qualities of my grief. If my grief isn't even legible to me, how do I write about it? It's a bewildering experience and, at a certain point, all there is left to do is wander in it. To be wildering. I think that's what ended up driving the metaphorical mechanisms of the poem as well as the movement of the poem's language. 


MM: Ooh, I'm so looking forward to reading these more particular pieces, hopefully while holding them open in a journal, or in your first book. What you say about the difficulties in accessing grief, not only because of how it overwhelms language, but also how it moves between these two poles of excess and absence, legibility and illegibility, interests me and I would think any of your readers now grieving or experiencing pre-emptive mourning (as I am, actually). And this brings to mind the two stylistic ends of the spectrum in North American poetry, but maybe all poetries: descriptive and flourishing verse in one quadrant and spare and implicit verse on the other side. Would you say the kind elegiac poem you're writing in this group of poems oscillates in a different way? Rather than moving from concise to descriptive, have you thought about, in these separate individual poems, ways in which these poems, as a sort of wilderness-wandering group, might move in and out of the blinding but also gorgeous light and shadow of remembering and forgetting? (Forgive me if, in your mind, this is just what elegies do! I’m soothed and edified by reading them. And I’ve written in elegiac tones about loss, but I've not really written any true elegies yet.) 


BO: That’s such a lovely way of putting it—I think most if not all of these poems do oscillate between remembering and forgetting. A moment might catch the light—but from that same light grief seeps in. I’m really interested in the surface area of grief and the paradoxes it can contain. 

I love that you’ve brought up elegy—the relationship between excess and absence feels important to that mode. In elegy, absence is a presence excessively felt. I wasn’t explicitly thinking about elegy when I wrote “Harvest Syntax,” but I think it definitely moves along in that mode. 


MM: Speaking of the surface area of grief, elegiac movement, and absence excessively felt, I'm so intrigued by how your poem reflects and echos each of these elegiac preoccupations with the dexterous use of em-dashes, colons and semicolons, but without a single hard stop. Like, friends, "Harvest Syntax" is a 27-line poem and yet there's no period until the end! Your speaker begins with the gorgeously Orphean line, "you want to follow the sun like a sibling: under the earth—" and closes with the lines, "your absence holds / a hard place in me." Throughout, there's an above ground realm or sense of the present moments of living, which blur one season unto the next, and these are always felt with the intensity of a disappeared, roaring river or artery of lava, which carves out the psychic karst, softened by a loved one's death, and never seen / only sensed beneath the speaker's feet. Could you talk to our readers about what you remember about how and when you found this wonderful scheme of punctuation and syntax? Was it when you first drafted the piece, or did it come later while revising? And while we're here, what does your drafting process look like these days?


BO: I love talking about syntax! (perhaps that's no surprise, given the poem's title). Harvest Syntax moves in a way that is syntactically different from much of the poetry I write. I often don't use much punctuation--I tend to gravitate toward the caesura or line break in order to modulate rhythm and breath in a poem. However, I was thinking about what punctuation does for tension in a poem while working on Harvest Syntax...the control over a certain punctuation, or its lack, seems to attempt or suggest. I wanted to work with the tension between the control of punctuation and the sprawling nature of the poem's subject. So, the syntax and the poem emerged simultaneously—from the very beginning, it felt like the content needed that form and the form needed that content. At one point, I removed all the punctuation from the poem to see what would happen, and I remember feeling like much of the energy became diffuse, so I returned the poem to its original form. 


My drafting process varies, but one thing that is unusual for me is to write a poem all in one go (so the fact that I wrote Harvest Syntax in one sitting is pretty rare for me). Sometimes, I'll become aware of the shape of something, a movement of sound or a phrase, and then I'll begin to follow that thing to see where it goes and it becomes a poem eventually (hopefully). Other times I have to sort of let myself meander... read different things, pull random books from the shelf, etc. I also read my work aloud a lot as I compose. The sonic qualities of language are really important to me, and I find I connect a lot more with what the poem is doing if I oscillate between writing and reading the writing aloud.


MM: This is wonderful discussion, Bevin. So interesting. Your concern over form and content, your deliberating about whether or not to go without punctuation, after the first draft, which is most often when the rubber meets the poet’s road in terms of thinking about composition, reminds me of conversations I’ve had with friends about how poems are usually best when they’re mostly unaware that they’re poems at all. So there becomes, in my mind (as influenced by my friends), this third thing a poem always already is. Before a poem is form and content, it’s this other, ephemeral bolt of existential and/or celestial fabric (threads of our intertextual meanderings and sonic qualities from careful listening as one woven pattern) from which we cut and hope to fashion as our own contribution to capital-P Poetry. What first emerges and then takes shape on the page, if we’ve allowed such a dialectic to play out in good faith, has our singular (though culturally infused and inherited) energies, densities and textures. As does your “Harvest Syntax.”  


But as you implied before with your “seed” and “growing” metaphor, a poem is at least a bit more organic than textiles. A poem, like a plant seed in the soil of the body, draws from the seemingly immaterial and unseen energy in the nervous system, on the air and in every carbon atom, and becomes this at once delicate and hardy organism. Which brings me to the perception that goes into cultivating the awareness, memory, and language we gather like seeds for a future poem. As a poet, do you know of any tricks for marking perceptual experience as good seeds for a future poem? Please interpret this context and question any way you’d like….


BO: I love your phrase “celestial fabric”! I’m often thinking about the material qualities of language, and I think considering poems alongside textiles is really exciting. In terms of tricks for marking perceptual experiences that might yield future poems, the action of “careful listening” (as you beautifully put it) is certainly one way to practice marking perceptual experiences. Being open to picking up a frequency—Jack Spicer uses the metaphor of a radio receiving signals, and perhaps that’s one way to think about perceptual receptivity. Eileen Myles talks about a poem like a musical note. I think for me, being receptive to potential poems is about honoring attention and bewilderment. Not shutting oneself off prematurely, but allowing one’s attention to stretch out in whatever direction it seems to want to go, even if the reason is hazy. Staying with that hazy something. A useful practice for me is making sure to jot wisps of potential poems as I become aware of them—whether in a notebook or on my notes app (even if a glimmer of something occurs when I’m just starting to fall asleep, I try to muster the energy to jot it down while I can still catch its contours). I don’t think I’m aware of whether such wisps will develop into anything more tangible…but at least I have them to return to. It's been most generative for me to not worry about what something might develop into too soon. Also, sometimes I think we become aware of seeds that don’t become full poems until much much later, so being mindful that some poems take shape more readily than others, and not giving up on stubborn poems. 


MM: What projects or stubborn poems are you working on now? 


BO: Well, I have some sequence poems that orbit around the name “Evelyn,” and that project has been treading water for a while now—I suppose the Evelyn poems are a bit stubborn! But I’m trying to be patient.

In addition to that project, I’m working on a manuscript and doing some other visual projects with paper-making. I’ve really been enjoying thinking about my writing practice alongside the tactile experience of making paper, and I hope to continue to explore the intersection of those modes. 



MM: Thank you, Bevin. It’s such a pleasure to introduce your work and process to our readers. Be well and stay in touch.

authorphoto - bevin oconnor.jpg


Bevin O'Connor is a poet and educator from Southern California and received her MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa and the University of Southern California. A 2022 finalist for the Best of the Net Anthology, her work can be found or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Annulet, Palette Poetry, Afternoon Visitor, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Poetry at the University of Houston, where she is an Inprint Nina and Michael Zilkha Fellowship recipient and serves as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast magazine.


Marcus Myers is a co-founder and managing editor for Bear Review. He teaches, parents, writes and gardens badly in Kansas City, MO. Author of the chapbook Cloud Sanctum, his poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from The Common, The Cortland Review, The Florida Review, Mid-American Review, Salt Hill, The Southeast Review and other such journals.

Bear Review


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