A Conversation with Nicole Stellon O’Donnell
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell is the mother of two teenagers and an educator who was born in Chicago and now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her work has appeared in various publications including Literary Mama, Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Beloit Poetry Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Anchorage Daily News. Her first collection of poems, Steam Laundry, won the 2013 WILLA Literary Award for Poetry. She has received a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award and Artist Fellowship, a Boochever Fellowship from the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation, and served as a writer-in-residence at Denali National Park. In 2016, she spent some time in South India as a recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. Her latest collection, You Are No Longer in Trouble, explores the life of a teacher and was selected to be part of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, which is dedicated to promoting prose poetry. Rhonda Havig recently talked with O’Donnell about living in Alaska, teaching, and writing.
Rhonda Havig: In your Literary Mama column “Subarctic Mama,” you wrote about raising your two young daughters in Alaska. Since writing that column, what new challenges and opportunities have you found raising children in Alaska? Did you ever buy the second set of snow pants for your daughters? (See “How to Raise Kids Who Love Winter: Sixteen Tips” Literary Mama, April 2013.)
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell: I didn’t buy an extra pair of snow pants! But eventually, we wound up with spares. The too small ones. The ripped ones. And those could fill in when needed. These days my kids are old, thirteen and fifteen. At this age they’ve given up on snow pants. Years ago, they made a shift when I’d tell them to put on more clothes. They started telling me, “Mom, you weren’t born here. You don’t understand that it’s not even cold.” They make their own choices now and I let them figure out if they’re warm enough. So far no one has gotten frostbite.
Now that the kids are older some of the challenges of raising kids in Fairbanks seem more mundane. For example, we’re in the middle stages of teaching a driver with a learner’s permit. Yes, winter and icy roads will be a challenge, but there’s the bonus of less traffic where we live. Our younger daughter has gone out moose hunting several times, and this year had to decide whether she would go or not. My kids have elaborate tales of times the bus went into the ditch on the way home from school. Those might be the kind of things I would write about in a column now.
But I’ve discovered complications of living in Alaska I couldn’t even have imagined. When she was eight, my younger daughter was diagnosed with kidney cancer and underwent surgery and chemo. She’s doing very well now and has had clear scans, but during her treatment she and I had to live in Anchorage, 350 miles from home. So medically, raising a kid in Alaska can be extremely complicated. But I will say that most pediatric cancer families experience times of geographical separation for treatment because of the rarity of the illness and the complexities of providing care. For parents of children with major medical issues, our geographical isolation can be a real struggle.
RH: After growing up in Chicago, what was your initial reason for moving to Alaska and what drove your decision to stay?
NSO: I came to go to graduate school in 1994, and I never left. And yes, along with the specifics of the MFA program they were offering at the time, I chose University of Alaska Fairbanks because I did want to live here. And yes, I did live in a log cabin without running water for those first four years, so my life in some small ways fit the stereotypical vision of what Alaska is. But that stereotypical vision isn’t what Alaska is at all. It’s also not the version people see on the many reality television shows featuring Alaskans.
It’s hard to explain what’s different. But, for me, much of it has to do with pace. I feel more free here to take my own time with things. To do things my own way. People tend to accept each other’s varying internal clocks here. In Fairbanks, there’s a little less concern with performative consumerism than I see Outside (that’s what Alaska residents call everywhere else), so dressing however you want is the norm.
I want to add, though, that the state is huge, with different local customs and cultures informing different regions. There are many Alaska Native languages spoken in the state—Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Athabaskan, Tlingit, Aleut (and others as well). Population density makes a big difference too. From Anchorage being a smallish city (which feels urban compared to the rest of the state) to more remote villages that are very small. So, my perceptions of pace are informed by my experience in the Interior of the state (and of course the contrast with the Chicago of my youth). For people living in other regions, it likely feels different.
I’ve been here so long that it’s a challenge for me to think of life as different. It’s just life. Interior Alaska is home to me, so I don’t notice differences until I’m Outside.
RH: Your book Steam Laundry tells the story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, a woman who arrived in Fairbanks early in the gold rush days. What drew you to write about Sarah Ellen Gibson, and why did you choose to use the form of a novel in poems?
NSO: I started writing Steam Laundry when my younger daughter wasn’t even two. At that time, I knew I wanted to write in persona. I had the idea to write from archival material when I was in grad school, but I wasn’t able to pull it off as my thesis. I was working part-time as a high school English teacher and focusing on a baby and toddler, and I decided if I didn’t start taking writing seriously, I never was going to. I applied for a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to pay for some additional hours of daycare so I could spend time in the archives. Getting the grant provided both credibility and accountability.
In the archives, unfolding letters and puzzling over handwriting, I got to imagine another life. It was a kind of escapism. In that way, it was like writing fiction. The historical facts provided the framework, but I was able to plug in my experience living in this environment to fill in the gaps. It was freeing.
In terms of form, I never had any question that I would write in verse instead of prose. I saw myself as a poet, but looking back I realize that by writing a historical novel-in-poems I had to grapple with the problems of a historian, a novelist, and a poet all at once. In You Are No Longer in Trouble, prose poems and flash essays seemed to fit better. It was a natural shift. I found myself letting go of line breaks as I went, so once I began submitting it, I stripped them out entirely.
RH: You Are No Longer in Trouble looks at education from the perspective of a student, a teacher, and an educator’s daughter. What inspired you to write this collection?
NSO: I was working on a different manuscript, which is now going to be my third book, and I felt like the teaching pieces needed their own place. So, I pulled them out and put them together.
But I came to that decision slowly. I felt a lot of the same self-consciousness about writing about my own life that I did when I wrote my first book. In movies and books high school teachers are often portrayed as human jokes, targets for a main character’s needs or frustrations. Teachers aren’t respected in this country, and that’s only gotten worse of late, so I avoided writing about my public school teacher life. Especially in the world of poetry. Eventually though, I let go of the second guessing. I decided I had to write what I had to write. Work is a place I spend a lot of time and energy, so I had a lot to write about it. And it felt good. It was such an honor to have the manuscript selected for the Marie Alexander Series.
My father was still alive when it was selected, and he died in the middle of the revisions. My editor, Nickole Brown, had asked me to think about getting “closer to the bone.” That was a struggle for me. I couldn’t figure it out. Once I started writing the pieces titled “Excuses for the Principal,” I felt the manuscript come together in a different way. As I wrote, the connection between my family history and my professional life became clearer to me. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth the risk and struggle.
RH: Some of the poems in the collection refer to your position as a teacher in a school for incarcerated youth. For people who have never been incarcerated or worked with incarcerated youth, what is something you would like them to know about this experience and the students you have encountered?
NSO: This is a challenging question for me. Often people want to know what it’s like teaching in jail, but I don’t always trust the motives behind the question. Sometimes people ask, and it’s clear that they want some “stories.” Like the plot of a movie in which a teacher “saves” a student. That narrative is a way of othering the kids that are there. Incarceration is deeply tied to the structural racism in our society. The demographics of kids in jail reflect those in the adult prison system. The kids there are kids who are not different than the kids in the larger, traditional high school where I taught. The school-to-prison pipeline is visible in stark relief when you teach inside a facility. Once a student is in the system, getting out is hard because society has built it to keep people there.
RH: In the notes for the poem “Four Poems My Incarcerated Students Assigned Me,” you mention that you write along with the students when you give them a writing assignment. What prompted you to try this approach with the students? Has anything surprised you with taking this approach?
NSO: Writing alongside students isn’t my idea. I don’t know who first introduced it as pedagogy, but it’s been around a long time. In the facility, classes are small and constantly changing. Students come and go based on the machinations of the court system. When I made a habit of writing alongside them, each time I had a new student I had the chance to model the concentration I used.
For me though, the most important part was that I let my students pick the assignment they were giving me. Students in institutions have so little autonomy—actually none. Socks, underwear, all clothing, and shoes are a uniform provided by the facility. They can’t eat what they want. Their schedules are strictly regulated. Offering choice as part of an assignment was the best thing I had to offer. So, they picked their own options and then told me which one of the options I had to write. Because they got to tell me what to do, they were more likely to pick up their pencils and write. Even those pencils, little half-sized, mini golf pencils, were prescribed. No one could have a full-size pencil because it could be used as a weapon. I figured at least they could have some choice in what they got to scrawl on the page.
Later, I wound up doing an action research project as part of the Heinemann Fellows program. My focus was the impact that trauma-informed teaching practices could have on student engagement. In the research phase of that work, I learned that autonomy and choice go a long way to helping people who have high levels of Adverse Childhood Experiences heal from multiple traumas. I restructured the whole language arts curriculum to include even more choice.
RH: You had the opportunity to travel to India and observe schools there. Please share with us how that experience impacted your perspective on teaching, learning, and writing.
NSO: Oh, so much. It was transformative. The time I spent in India as a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching recipient was actually what pushed me to collect the pieces in You Are No Longer in Trouble into a book.
I spent four months traveling around South India, observing schools, talking to teachers, working with pre-service teachers, and observing teacher training. That was just part of my project though. The other part was interviewing contemporary Indian poets who write in English with an eye to designing lessons for teachers to use in their classrooms (in the US or India).
In the classrooms I visited, I found myself reverting to my elementary school self—sitting back and listening to the soothing music of the teacher’s reading voice. I was that kid who loved story time, but I hadn’t had the experience of sitting among the students and listening to the teacher for so many years. It brought my own childhood back so strongly. That’s when I started gathering my pieces about being a young student and being a teacher together. I was in my apartment in Pondicherry when I first began assembling the book.
So even though India doesn’t appear in the book, the experiences I had there led me to reflect deeply on how my experiences as a student shaped how I teach. Visiting classrooms and talking to teachers from another part of the world opened me more fully to observing how the classrooms I learned and worked in over the years functioned.
RH: What are you working on next?
NSO: I’m finishing the manuscript I started before You Are No Longer in Trouble came into being. It’s a collection of poems called Everything Never Comes Your Way. It’s due to come out in Fall 2021 from Red Hen/Boreal Books, the same press that published Steam Laundry.
To read more about Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s You Are No Longer in Trouble, click here.