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‘Bearing the past bravely’

Poet tries to make sense of his past in ‘Scarsdale’ collection

Dan O’Brien

In a blurb for Dan O’Brien’s new book of poetry titled “Scarsdale,” American poet Don Share wrote: “Not for nothing can the word ‘scar’ be found in the name ‘Scarsdale,’ but as this fine poet shows, we can bear the past bravely, and come away from it, as we do from this book, deeply enriched.”

Local readers may scan the lines for anchors to real places, but the truth is, O’Brien’s coming of age experience in America’s quintessential suburb could have taken place anywhere in suburbia.

A sense of yearning pervades “Scarsdale,” as O’Brien writes of growing up in a dysfunctional family. He bares his soul — sharing the humiliations, sadness, feelings of being an outsider and painful memories of a childhood spent trying to navigate the bewildering landscape of his parents’ pathology and fighting for selfhood in a family of six children. His poems are powerful, raw and sometimes deliver a punch to the gut. Their ironically quotidian titles don’t anticipate the deeply felt emotion contained within. There are also hopeful moments as well, expressed in O’Brien’s young adulthood, when the fledgling writer begins to fly on his own.

O’Brien, 41, a distinguished alumnus of Scarsdale High School from the class of 1992, has made a name for himself as a playwright, poet and librettist. O’Brien’s play “The Body of an American,” based on his collection of poetry titled “War Reporter,” received the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama and was also winner of the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play as well as the L. Arnold Weissberger Award, administered by Williamstown Theatre Festival, and the PEN Center USA Award for Drama.

“War Reporter” was published in 2013 by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn and CB Editions in London, which is also the publisher of “Scarsdale.”

The Inquirer talked to O’Brien from his home in Santa Monica where he lives with his wife, the actress Jessica St. Clair, and his 13-month-old daughter. O’Brien was on his way to the U.K. for the 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in Suffolk, England, where “Scarsdale” had its official launch Nov. 7, and for readings at other venues there.

“I think of poetry in a very fundamental way,” O’Brien said. “I want people to read them [poems] and connect emotionally. I’m not interested in elitist poetry.”

O’Brien, who earned a master’s in fine arts from Brown, said poetry classes there were so “postmodern, I couldn’t connect to that. I didn’t write poetry for seven years.”

He credits his time at Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where he has taught for 10 years, with reviving his interest in writing poetry. “I’m more interested in narrative and voice and connecting with the reader.”

O’Brien said he connected with his British publisher, Charles Boyle, who he met while guest editing a poetry review in London. Boyle is drawn to “cross-genre” writers, he said. “A lot of my plays are close to poetry,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien has been developing the 40 or so “Scarsdale” poems for the last 10 years. His publisher quickly made the decision in August to get the book out in time for the Aldeburgh Festival.


The poet started writing the older poems in the book about eight years ago “when my family fell apart,” he said. O’Brien is estranged from his parents and some of his siblings. “I wrote the bulk of them in the first few years after the family implosion happened. It’s not resolved, there’s no interest in resolving it.

“Sometimes, poetry comes from the most difficult periods of transition —seeing life and the past from a different perspective.”

O’Brien said that he “saw things with a lot more clarity, related them with more honesty,” after the family breakup.

“Scarsdale” is divided into three sections: the first contains poems about early childhood; the second is about the end of childhood and high school; the third contains poems about “leaving childhood behind” and his study and travel to England and Ireland as a college student, which for O’Brien was a formative experience.

Although confessional poetry is pejorative in the poetry world, O’Brien said he needed to be as honest as he could in the poems. “When your family disowns you, I felt less like I had to protect them,” he said. Still, he said the book feels “like an act of love for me.”

Although there is a line between privacy and secrecy, O’Brien said “it’s important to talk about” experiences that, in all likelihood, many families share.

“I’m being honest and saying this is me and this is my experience. Other people can connect to it.”

O’Brien found his connection to poetry at the age of 14 at the Scarsdale Library with the works of Anne Sexton, “the poster child of suburban confessional angst,” he said. “I felt so much less alone.”

O’Brien said he doesn’t have a negative feeling about the village. “Life is life everywhere,” he said. “I’m trying to capture, understand the roots of where I came from within my family in that culture.”

“Scarsdale is a beautiful place to live. I got a great education. I wouldn’t be writing poetry and plays if I didn’t have that education and college that came from it.”

Did becoming a parent alter the way he views his parents?

“Not really,” he said. “When you have kids, it cracks your heart open in a wonderful way. It’s given me more sympathy for my siblings and myself as kids. We were never touched, never told I love you. That’s instinctive to me and to most people. I have sympathy for my parents, their own childhoods and genetic dispositions.”

Did writing “Scarsdale” have a therapeutic effect?

“Every creative endeavor has a therapeutic aspect for you.”

By finding Anne Sexton, writing about feelings that “weren’t being acknowledged,” O’Brien knew he would feel better, would find “a way forward.”

“Art was the journey out,” he said.

“Scarsdale” is available on amazon.com.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of The Scarsdale Inquirer. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


November 14, 2014