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Riley O'Connell: Poetry for the Soul

Riley O’Connell is the poetry queen. As a senior English major, she runs the Santa Clara Review, a publication for art, poetry, and writing. She also founded the Bronco Slam ‘n Jam, quarterly poetry and music competitions with Santa Clara County Poet Laureate Mike McGee. She has performed at events both at Santa Clara and across the country.


In this interview, we discuss what drew her in about poetry, her writing process, how she deals with the fear of performing, and more. She also shares one of her most popular poems at the beginning of the episode.

Riley performing.jpeg

Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: What was it about poetry that initially drew you in?


Riley O’Connell: When I initially started writing it, it was just because I wanted to take all the English electives. I’ve grown to like it because it’s more compact than writing a novel and you get to the heart of it quicker. It’s becoming a lot more accessible; you can watch people perform on YouTube. You’re not going to watch someone on YouTube read their entire novel. It’s nice little bite sized and raw. I like getting to explore parts of my life: growing up, being a daughter, friend and student, and getting quick responses.


GC: How do you think of topics to write about?


RO: I tend to write about things that have happened to me, using personal experience. Also reading a lot. For Christmas, I gave all my family a long list of poetry books. It doesn’t have to start off as a poem, I think it can start as journaling and making observations throughout your day about what you see, feel and experience. There’s not one way to write a poem but I think that being observant about yourself and others and reading a lot can definitely help.


GC: Because a lot of your poems are based on personal experience, when you’re up on stage in front of a crowd, it seems like it would be pretty scary. How do you deal with that fear?


RO: The first time I did Love Jones was fall of freshman year. I did a poem about anxiety and when my brother passed away, and I also finished it that night so I hadn’t practiced much. But I’ve gotten used to talking in front of people from speech and debate in high school. I love talking. I think that it’s so important to be able to share personal things about ourselves within reason and what you feel comfortable with. I didn’t know this the first time, but Santa Clara University students are so welcoming and supportive.


GC: How do you find your voice?


RO: Four years into writing poetry, I think I’m still figuring that out. Taking classes and being around writers has given me lots of opportunities to try new things. When I was starting senior year of high school, a lot of what I was writing about was my brother, and that loss and trauma from childhood. But I realized after a while that that shouldn’t’ be the only thing I write about. It’s not the only aspect to my life. I don’t think that you should ever get into a zone where you’re writing about one thing. Just like you should always be reading and getting other people’s perspectives.


GC: How did you get involved with the Santa Clara Review?


RO: The Santa Clara Review is Santa Clara University’s literary magazine, and it was started in 1869, so it’s one of the West’s oldest literary magazines. We’re run by undergraduate students but we take poetry, fiction, nonfiction and art from all over the world.


Fall of my freshman year I went to the involvement fair looking for the literary organizations. I knew Santa Clara was very engineering and business-focused, so I wanted to find my niche. I applied my freshman year to be chief editor, and that obviously didn’t happen. And I’m glad it didn’t happen because I wouldn’t have been very good at it.


GC: Do you think poetry will fit into your career


RO: I’m not pursuing poetry as a full-time career, but I’m still definitely wanting to pursue fields and avenues that would allow me to be creative and write. I’m looking into PR, marketing, advertising and event planning. I’m not quite positive yet, I’m going to go into the career center soon to talk about what to do with my life. I would consider poetry and writing more as a hobby, but calling it a hobby has a connotation that it isn’t very important. Creative writing has been so integral to my life and a therapy at times.


GC: If you could send a message to every person in the U.S. what would you say?


RO: Read, read a book. Stay up to date with your reading and with educating yourself on creative things or on political things. So long as you’re not harming anyone in the process, pursue what it is that you love to do.


GC: What does an ideal Saturday look like for you? 


RO: Going to the farmer’s market with friends. Going to Voyager Coffee and just writing. Making spreadsheets. I love making spreadsheets, I can’t emphasize this enough. Making myself some pasta; I love cooking. And reading a book.

Riley performing 1.jpeg
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