O’Brien recieves 40 North ACE Award

On average, a woman will speak 20,000 words per day while her male counterpart will, on average, only speak 7,000 words per day.

Used consecutively, single words form sentences that help us relay ideas, give context, educate, sell or tell. Some people use a thousand words and end up saying nothing and others use fifty words to say everything.

While nearly everyone ends up spending their entire life using words, there are a select few who study words; the ways in which they are used together. They play with the words, are brave enough to write those words down, share them, edit them, revise them, and some even publish them.

While St. Joseph Resident Jim O’Brien has spent a lifetime working in these ways to perfect his working with words, his work making sure that others have the opportunity to create, experiment with and experience the written word landed him a 2018 40 North ACE Award.

O’Brien received his award at the City Center on November 4.

The 56-year old father, husband and University of Illinois employee also co-founded the CU Poetry Group, which meets weekly at the Champaign Public Library. He also runs “Poets at the Post,” an open mic for all spoken words artists, at the Iron Post, ran a poetry marathon at the 2018 Pygmalion Festival, helps to choose a haiku poem to be featured in the News-Gazette each Saturday and makes sure poetry is displayed on the MTD buses that run through Champaign-Urbana during April, May and June.

“It’s very important to me to keep poetry visible in the community,” he said.

Often looked at as an art form that is available at universities or only for those interested in academics, O’Brien has worked for the last decade to tear down the walls that separate writers and readers so that poetry become accessible to all.

“One thing I pride the CU Poetry group on is we are an open group,” O’Brien said. “Anyone can come in at any level and participate. There are a couple other poetry groups in town, but they are closed groups.

“We are an inclusive group; we encourage everybody to come in,” he continued. “We have people who have been coming for close to a year who have never brought a poem themselves. But they come in, they listen and they give feedback.

“We tell people when they bring their poems that they will get conflicting feedback, and that is perfect. It’s your poem. This isn’t poetry by committee. We’re going to give recommendations, and our recommendations don’t have to be in agreement and you don’t have to accept any of them; it’s your work. So take it and run with it.”

“I just want to offer that space to people. A place for them to bring their work; it’s a very nonjudgemental and supportive group.”

O’Brien, who publishes under the pen name James Escher knows how competitive and daunting the world of writing can be. With published works in journals such as “Pilcrow & Dagger”, “The Tishman Review” and “Pegasus”, among others, O’Brien also produces in-the-moment poetry while his subject sits right across from him and his 1960’s Olivetti typewriter.

“Poets on Tap”, a one-on-one time between subject and writer, stemmed from the practice of writing from a prompt.

“I started offering (prompts) with our poetry group,” he said. “We would have a generative workshop where we come in, give some prompts or poems and (the writer) can just write. Maybe you get three rough drafts out of that. But not everyone likes doing that. But I like it a lot.”

While on vacation in San Francisco, O’Brien came across a man on the street with a typewriter, composing on-the-spot poems for people who were passing by. Then O’Brien saw different writers in cities like New Orleans doing the same thing.

“I thought I could do that because I write well from prompts,” he said.

He first started producing these quaint and personal poems for people at the Boneyard Arts Festival. Now he can be found at the Urbana Farmers Market, at art shows, at Allerton, at Champaign Park District events or weddings typing out original poems on bookmarks for people.

“There are often things in there that they don’t expect,” O’Brien said. “I take to keeping a pack of tissues with me when I’m writing those because occasionally people will want a poem about somebody they know or are related to who has had some experiences. Through trying to capture that experience, it gets kind of emotional.”

After writing approximately 300 of these poems, all of which he’s taken a picture of for his record, and many other poems for personal keeping and publication, O’Brien has learned that the final product is not always the complete picture for the reader.

“A lot of poems that I write are from another persona. The letter ‘I’ is rarely the poet himself; it’s the persona they take on while they are writing, and that’s where we find new meaning. I may think that I feel one way about an experience, but when I start writing this poem and start imagining how somebody else would feel in that experience, then that will allow me to get a different meaning out of it.”

“Any poem I write that someone else is going to read, I feel like I’ve written only half of it. Because the reader is going to bring their own experience into it. They may get a different meaning than I have.”

No matter what the writer intended for readers to get or what the reader takes away from an encounter with a poem, O’Brien wants all people to have access to a variety of poetry.

When the Champaign-Urbana MTD began a campaign to feature local visual artists on city buses, O’Brien reached out to see if, during National Poetry Month in April, local poets could showcase their work throughout the bus system.

The MTD agreed to showcase local poets in the months of April, May and June, and has done so for the last three years. A committee that includes O’Brien now selects local submissions to be included in the rotation.

Nominated by submission form on the 40 North website, O’Brien was chosen for the ACE Award for sharing “his passion for poetry and spoken word in an engaging and supportive manner, for his dedication in creating a venue for writers of all levels to gather, discuss, interact and share their voice, for enthusiastically supporting this creative community and inspiring authors to read and display their craft and connect individuals from all walks of life.”

Even after O’Brien learned that he would receive the ACE Award he said it’s not about the recognition, but instead about accessibility.

“Anything that is going to help get poetry out there.”

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I may do it all, but I have not done it all.

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