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Dion O'Reilly: California Poets Part 7, Five Poems

Dion O'Reilly

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Dion O'Reilly

Five Poems

First Date with the Father of my Children

Twenty minutes late, he flagged me down

as I drove away in my ‘83 Chevy, indignant,


never one to wait. But, then, God help me,

I stopped, parked, walked the levy with him


as sunset split the sky.


I heard about his jail time in Spain,

his mother visiting with stage 4 cancer


a week before she died. Seeing her,

the Catalan guard cried


as she hobbled in, still smoking,


fragile as a stick, loving her boy

even if she drank gin every day


she’d carried him, unsafe, inside her. 


I saw his glasses, finger-thick,

from in-vitro assault, the black gaps


in his teeth like shot-out glass.


Back then, everything was a metaphor

for my own sore story,


a story I wouldn’t tell

for fifty years.


He slept in a bread truck

in a pot-smoke fugue,


salt high of California swells,

Jim Beam, and coffee,


but that evening on the levy,

as the day dissolved,


that we were both alive

seemed like enough.

Waiting for You

I want to insist on a certain

rightness to things. Although uncles

force themselves on children

at garden parties, and sulfur

pours from chimneys

to keep us warm, despite all

this and more, I want to sing

as Whitman sang, as the tender

poets, even today, still sing.

But what if I can’t? What if I fail

to notice a funny groundhog, or a black

squirrel screaming at a Stellar jay.

What if there’s no split tail

of a swallow, no peridot flashes

slicing the air?  What if I can’t

break free from witnessing,

be seen instead, made whole

by the sight of the world?

What if I can’t get out

of this by saying I can’t,

but then I do, because, briefly,

you assume my sadness

and I, yours—

and there’s a rightness to that,

which refuses to go unsung.

Horaltic Prose

Used to describe …vultures in a characteristic pose with wings spread and raised.

It is speculated that the derivation of the word is a mishearing of "heraldic."


They came like what they were—

death birds with clean necks,

a wake for my steer,


his packaged, spoiled meat,

thrown down the slot canyon

when the freezer broke.


They came for more


than a week, feasted,

cleaned him from the ravine,

carried up the heavy flesh,


to eat it in my field.

Gorge done, they gathered

before my door, thirty of them,


frayed wingtips splayed

toward the ends of heaven,

living crucifixes, windless trees.


And yes, they lifted their wings

to sun the skin,

burn blight from flesh,


but I knew it less as fact,

more as tribute

to the chattel who’d fed them,


stranger-still human

who’d served them,

who stood before them, struck


by their salute—


until they surrendered

the breath-held moment, the heat

on lifted veins, and one by one,


rose, gyred, vanished—

heralds of what was to come,

a piece of me taken


in a pearl-white beak.

Praise Her


with a line from psalm 39:14

About the time my breasts

lifted twin-cones

across my chest,

I met a friend

who clotted her fingertips

with period,

ran them across

the bathroom stall,

who said her blood

was granada,

who said—

when Scott Thorne

of curly hair

and leafy eyes

passed in the halls

Me siento mi womb 

trepando paredes.

My womb was not

what I thought of,

but she conjured lust

bruja style

—something about agua

tibia beating on her

from a faucet,

or the pulsing corner

of a dryer pushed

against her quick.

What luck she had

and I too, to know her

—avid Catholic, touching

each nipple after prayer,

nearly naked Jesus,

on her clavicle,

La Virgen papered

on her wall in a vulva-

shaped shrine.

How did she know

to worship the incense

of her body.

How did she know

we are fearfully

and wonderfully made?


—the psalm of the heart is wordless,

silent as cedars


watching me dream beneath them,

love-lit girl, feeling everything,


the moment cut open.


One day, when death croaks a song

from my throat,


I hope to fear it no more

than this silence. How easy it is


to waste life's quiet

in needy regret,


in thoughts of men


and women—the blood of their fathers—

who sought to blacken


my insides, sought to steal the eagle’s wingbeat

from my chest.


Look, as it lifts from the shiver-skin of stream, so still

as it rises.


July 21st, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Dion O'Reilly, Poet, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You divide your time between the Soquel Valley and Bellingham, WA. Do you sense that your writing changes with the changing environment or is it a matter of what’s on your mind?

DOR: In Washington, the cedars sneak in, the lion’s mane and amanita. And the rain, of course. I lived there in my wayward youth, so old friends and lovers literally and figuratively haunt the place. I love ghosts! Nostalgia and longing drive a lot of my writing, so… lots of juicy feelings. Most importantly, though, traveling back and forth, especially along the spectacular Oregon coast, jolts me from habitual thoughts.

DG: Teaching has played a major role in your life. Being a credentialed English and Spanish teacher, you’ve taught language in different contexts. In addition, you’ve facilitated poetry workshops. How much poetry do you use in your classrooms and to what extent do you focus on the mechanics of language in creative settings?

DOR: Years ago, when I taught high school English and Spanish, I taught very little poetry because state standards—controlled by College Board, a private, for-profit company—dictated what I taught. So I held private salons in my home for my students; some of them are now emerging poets. Poetry is a magnificent craft in which to contain the conflicts of teen life because poetry is of this world, yet it carries the latent possibilities of other realms within it, which is a mirror for teens, their changing identities, hopes, and desires...

These days, I facilitate private poetry workshops with adults—where I share my linguistic knowledge, but it happens on the fly as we critique work. I have a few recorded craft talks about syntax in particular. Syntax—the sentence and its interplay with the line—is a powerful tool to deliver meaning. I think teaching grammar, mechanics, and a second language has been invaluable. I love the crystalline structure that underlies language. It’s like the periodic table—how amazing that there is method to all this madness, and we can wield it to understand the complexities of existence.

DG: Apart from teaching, you’ve also been very welcome on the other side of that equation. Mentorship with poets from a wide variety of backgrounds and aesthetics has been a key element of your development. Did it ever feel like aesthetics clashed and how did you navigate seemingly opposite viewpoints—i.e. what advice to follow, what advice to reject?

DOR: That’s a good question because you have to learn to take critical feedback and you also have to learn to ignore it. That balance is a moving target as one’s poetry transforms.

Poetry contains obscure realms within it. It is mythic, archetypal, and dwells in the subconscious. It is beyond difficult for anyone to know what another person is unearthing in a poem. Helping with syntax, diction, and form is the easy part. How to take voltas into deeper levels is sacred and Orphic.

In my MFA—where I had luminaries for teachers, where I workshopped with dozens of MFA candidates— balancing all the conflicting input from a number of helpful (and not so helpful) people taught me to listen first, be open, but ultimately learn to listen to the poem.

There’s a little voice (it comes from the poem) that says, “Yeah, I’m willing to make that change,” or “Nah…that’s BS.” Learning the subtleties of that distinction was one of the greatest benefits and challenges in my MFA. As teachers, our job is to help students do that for themselves—help them see the substrata of their poems, the shadow, the body in the fog, and to bring it forth. It’s like being a diviner. One must tread lightly.

DG: You’ve interviewed quite a number of poets, both conversationally and in written form. Which do you prefer and what are the limitations and advantages of each method?

DOR: I prefer to be in-person, sipping tea and chatting. I think one of the reasons podcasts are so popular is they’re like eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. The audience loves to hear the interviewer create two-part harmony, even when it’s not 100% successful. And when the conversation peels the skin off the great subjects of poetry—sex, love, death, brokenness, bliss—well, that just adds energy to the experience. So, in person is best, then Zoom, then on paper. Also, some of my interviews are done live in the studio at KSQD 90.7 FM. Nothing can be edited, and that has its own rawness.

DG: If you had the opportunity to be interviewed by two poets (one living and one dead), who would you choose and why?

DOR: Fun question: I love the podcast, Breaking Form, starring ​​James Allen Hall and Aaron Smith. They’re hilarious. I think it would be really fun and really filthy. On the other hand, I’d also love to be interviewed by Gregory Orr. His poetry is reverent, spiritual, and lyrical, and he’s super-insightful—such a kind man. Everyone should read Poetry as Survival and also his memoir The Blessing.

In terms of gone poets, maybe James Baldwin, a true visionary. I can’t think of anyone else with such a probing, incisive mind. But I demur from naming him here. I fear he would not be interested in my work, but who knows, both of us write intense, resolute, gutting poems. Hopefully, my honesty would be universal enough to appeal to him. God! I would love to talk with him, but he looms so large in my mind, I’d be afraid it would burn my skin to do so.

(I’d also love to talk with Rilke and Sappho)

Sorry, picking two was too hard.

DG: Animals feature frequently in your work, and they do most centrally in Ghost Dogs. There does seem to be an overarching theme of haunting in the collection. Can you talk about the writing process and whether the title was driving the poems all along, or did you notice the theme taking shape as you wrote and then choose that title?

DOR: Choosing the title Ghost Dogs was intuitive. When I structured the collection, the theme of animals did not play into it, but afterwards I saw that, in the text, I looked at the past through the lens of my relationships with animals, so my feeling about the title was spot on.

Like most poets, I often structure my poems around, as Buddha put it, “suffering and the end of suffering.” The humans in Ghost Dogs are the source of suffering, the animals, my relief. So that dichotomy threads the poems together. It’s a motif in the text.

DG: What do you use to get the writing process started? Prompts, a walk, coffee, the sunrise, the sunset, the morning, the night? Is it whatever works at the moment or do you have a more structured, linear approach?

My dawn ritual has a few essential ingredients: sitting quietly for a few minutes, then reading about five to fifteen poems—really studying them—I mark up my books, take notes, and keep track of what I love. Reading opens my mind, prepares the soil, sparks ideas.

Next, I pick my fountain pen carefully and write, forming every letter with alertness. Each character, especially in cursive, has its own life, history, and culture. I’ll write anything: notes on the text, my dreams, journaling. Then my work involves laboring over a new poem, revising, submitting, preparing for interviews, composing craft talks or critical essays—whatever’s on my table. I work for about 2 to 5 hours a day. Then I have as much fun as possible, doing whatever.

In the late afternoon, I read prose: literary fiction, popular fiction, trash fiction, memoir, social commentary, the local weeklies. I like to read on paper, not on the screen. I just finished High Price, by Carl Hart PhD about drug neuroscience, criminalisation of drugs, racial politics, all wrapped up in his bildungsroman of the Florida projects. Stunning work. One way or another, the concepts will inform my writing as it informs my life.

For those who are not retired, I want to say the following: for thirty-five years, I was a teacher and single mom. In those days, I arrived at work early, locked the door of my classroom, and wrote for 5-20 minutes. I read a poem or two in the afternoons after work and a little prose before bed. That minimal practice kept my writing alive, and with the help of mentors, I wrote many of my Ghost Dog poems during that time.

DG: In your essay “Demoralization, No: Intention, Yes!” you talk about the poets on opposite spectrums. Those, as you say, who fly under the radar releasing well-crafted collections every seven or so years and those who self-publish thinking quite highly of themselves. As for yourself, you write: “I don’t want to discount ambition. It moves me, motivates me, and informs me. No one’s pure. Submitting my poems forces me to study journals, to reconnoiter the literary landscape, and to refine my poems to meet the challenge.” Do you have a large volume of submissions at any given time and how do you process rejection? Do the poems usually see some revision or do you trust the first impulse and chalk up acceptances rejections not to quality, per se, but in fact to editorial tastes?

DOR: First to your question about revision: I revise like crazy. I really love to revise. But sometimes poems are born whole, like Athena, and need no revision.

Now, in terms of the spectrum you refer to: I don’t know if people who highly promote themselves feel highly of themselves, but I think it’s helpful to figure out how much promotion, how out-in-the-world one wants to be. It’s helpful to realize the spectrum exists, that there are many ways to be a poet. It’s also helpful to hone intention as a way to establish a level of comfort with how much to submit and self-promote. For now, my intention is driven by the lyric moment—the quiet realization when poetry hits the bloodstream, either as reader or writer. I aim for that feeling to underlie everything, even promotion of my work.

For example, I look over my list of “done” poems, and a poem might speak to me. It might say, “I want to be in the world.” So I send it out. It’s not like my ego is completely divorced from the project. But as much as possible, I want to hear the poems’ desires. Sometimes, I like to look at old poems and ask myself, Does this poem believe in itself? If the answer is Yes! I try again.

Reading also helps. I read a journal or see where a particular poem was previously published, and I hear the placement calling my poem. It’s like matchmaking.

Rejections are annoying. Some more than others. But, they’re part of the game. As Dylan put it “Everybody must get stoned.” What can you do? Not everyone is going to adore your stuff, just like I don’t adore everything. Sometimes, for whatever reason—not enough sleep, being hungry; preoccupation with my small, egoistic nonsense—I miss the fact that someone’s poem is brilliant. Poetry is a well of mystery. I guess the bottom line is, as much as possible, let mystery be the guide.

DG: In your essay “Craft Is Only Part of It” you talk about growing up in a less-than-ideal household dynamic, and yet it was your father’s library that ultimately was the starting point of your writing journey. Do you now see sorrow as an inherent ingredient in the poet’s journey or do you look back and realize that you would’ve written in spite of that upbringing—albeit written differently?

DOR: I think most poets have been silenced at some point in their lives, so there's that.

This question harkens back to my previous point: poets often structure their writing around suffering and the end of suffering. Dan Beachy-Quick says: “It’s hard to know what we are: the poet singing a solar ode, or the poet reminding the shades there’s a sun.”

Like the animals on my childhood farm, my father’s books alleviated my suffering. They allowed me to enter an alternative dimension through a literary portal, a portal which I still seek to enter when I read and write. It’s a little like Through the Looking Glass, which was one of my father’s books—mysterious, magical, a funhouse mirror.

When I enter my life like a book or mirror I can more easily study it without fear, blame, shame—with radical empathy for all the characters, including myself. This takes the situation into something deeper, grander. 


In a way, it’s like looking at things the way I look at nature. After all, everything is nature. For example, in terms of the person who hurt me, I can look at her the same way I look at a predatory bird who can’t be blamed for her hunger, for the fact she ripped my heart out again and again. She’s a predatory bird! That’s what they do! I died over and over, and yet I sing. How cool is that? That’s mythic. The point is this: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I want to sing about it all, but the mind demurs when we have been acculturated to maintain silence, shame and guilt.

When I talk about radical empathy, it’s not just that we must “see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent,” as Vivian Gornick put it. It’s not a matter of condoning “bad” behavior. Cruelty shouldn’t happen, but historically, we see that it does, so I prefer to see it mythically, metaphorically, removed from the usual moralism and victim identity. That’s the power of metaphor: it changes one thing into another on a feeling level. The lyric moment is blissful, despite the “darkness” of the content.

So, to me, my poems are as much about suffering as they are about the end of suffering. It’s all one. But the negativity bias is strong, so that might be why people often fixate on the suffering, or maybe for some, my craft isn’t strong enough to overcome the negativity bias.

I have no idea what I would have been had I not suffered. It’s like wondering who I would be if I were never born or never gave birth—both painful processes that most would choose to do all over again.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

DOR: Just the usual stuff! Reading, writing, submitting, interviewing, teaching, reading poems for Catamaran Literary Reader, promoting my new book, Sadness of the Apex Predator, and preparing for the release of my chapbook, Limerence, which will come out in 2025 from Floating Bridge Press. I have two other manuscripts in the wings, which I will sculpt—maybe combine—and send out in a couple of years when the hullabaloo from Sadness and Limerence dies down. Mainly enjoying this terrible and beautiful world as much as I can, keeping in mind “there is another world, and it’s this one!”

On a final note, thank you for these thoughtful questions. They really helped me clarify what the heck I am doing!

Author Bio:

Dion O'Reilly is the author of three poetry collections: Sadness of the Apex Predator (University of Wisconsin's Cornerstone Press 2024), Ghost Dogs (Terrapin Books 2020), and Limerence, a finalist for the John Pierce Chapbook Competition, forthcoming from Floating Bridge Press. Her work appears in The Sun, Rattle, Cincinnati Review, The Slowdown, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She is a podcaster at The Hive Poetry Collective, leads poetry workshops, and is a reader for Catamaran Literary Quarterly. She splits her time between a ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains and a residence in Bellingham, Washington.


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