Creative Writing alumnus Phil O’Neill publishes his first collection of poems

Phil O’Neill studied Creative Writing on our MA programme in 2016-17, switching between our campuses in Canterbury and Paris. He has now gone on to publish his first collection of poems entitled Poems From the Unconscious.

Dorothy Lehane, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, taught Phil during his time at Kent, “It was wonderful to watch his voice develop at the time, and it is a huge pleasure to see his ambition realised by rendering this fascinating and troubling story into poetic utterance. The therapeutic function is important here: using poetry as a mode of expression has enabled Phil to gain insight into how this terrible trauma has impacted his family. I’m absolutely thrilled that he has managed to complete his vision and that he is also helping others by donating the proceeds from his collection to the Mental Health Resource charity”

Can you tell us about ‘Poems From the Unconscious’ and your inspirations for writing it.

I planned in 1992 to compile a pamphlet of poems that I felt might help people with depressive illness. In 2016, I found papers with my proposed title “Poems from the Unconscious”. There were more than 300 poems. It was fascinating to read those long-forgotten pieces as well as discovering where I had written them; on payslips, boarding cards, meeting agendas, theatre tickets, faxes (remember them?) and most intriguing on the back of a speeding ticket.

During my MA, my tutor presented her work about some terrible historical, medical events. Her poetry was breathtaking, and I immediately thought I should write about my family’s tragic past. Hopefully, I could turn my family’s history into a force for good through poetry. My tutor encouraged me in this endeavour.

In 2020, I became a trained Samaritan volunteer where I received numerous calls from people with depressive illnesses. Maybe poetry could help them.

I decided I had enough material and a story to tell to develop the pamphlet into a book, with encouragement from my daughter, Agatha, who designed the book. Once I decided to put them in a single collection, writing and editing took me nearly 2 years.

How has writing helped you?

My original plan 30+ years ago was to publish a pamphlet of my poetry which I felt could help people with mental health issues. It was undoubtedly cathartic at the time. When I decided to write a narrative around my family’s story, it became more of a poetic challenge rather than a catharsis although, undoubtedly, revisiting these terrible events have affected me emotionally.

Producing or consuming Poetry, Art, helps in dealing with life’s tribulations and clearly enhances one’s life experience.

What was the process from writing your book to publishing it?

The challenge was which poems to include once I decided to embark on a book rather than a pamphlet. Those 300 poems related to my narrative. I decided very early on not to edit the poems that I had written in the period of my mental health crisis 30 plus years ago and selected those that I felt reflected best the trauma. I had a portfolio of poems that covered the periods before and after which required significant editing to fit in with the narrative. My MA training helped me enormously in this process.

The formatting and illustrations (by my daughter Agatha) came next including the cover pages. I had a wonderful editor for the non-poem sections who did a great job in eradicating mistakes and making these sections accessible.

What made you choose your course and Kent?

I attended the MA taster course which enabled me to gain the confidence to apply for the MA. A serious motivation was to study in Paris where I had lived 40 years earlier (in Montparnasse). I also attended the Arts Festival organised by the Paris School in the year before my MA.

I gave my first public reading there and was so moved and reassured by the feedback from that year’s students, the guest writers and the University’s academics that it confirmed my decision was a good one.

How did our academics support you and your creative process whilst studying at Kent?

Brilliantly! Recognising my personal needs as well as being totally honest and demanding. When I was finally told that I was “a poet” it was meaningful.

I was asked to write the same poem in so many different ways ending in a Sestina which I worked on for a full 24 hours! The poem is in my book as a syllabic poem based on the number π and you can still see the remnants of the Sestina.

I learnt the craft.

What was your time in Paris like?

One of the best times of my life! Working in small groups with young, talented people and meeting some wonderful writers as guest speakers in such a great, intimate environment.

Being focused on reading, writing and my general creative life- what better place than Paris?

Which aspects of your degree did you enjoy the most, and why?

The support of my peers and tutors. The learning process, the focus on creativity rather than critique. I loved the translation work in the first term. I feel I really developed as a writer. The cheap beer on Campus especially in Woodies!

Are there any aspects of your degree which have influenced your writing?

The editing process. Before my MA I would leave poems “finished” and not re-visit; now I understand that extra effort has an exponential improvement effect.

One of the visiting poets from the USA, Jon Thompson, commented that is always with me: “Turn up the volume of disquiet!”.

What is your favourite memory of Kent?

The welcome, the continued support and faith from all the tutors and fellow students to a very mature student outside my comfort zone. They gave me the confidence to live my dreams.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

Work hard and never give up. Read well to write well.

Where can we find/purchase your book?

Amazon but also all bookshops with lead time.

Many congratulations from the School of English, this is a significant achievement!