Introduction to Tony O'Neill's Songs From the Shooting Gallery
essay by Rob Woodard
Burning Shore Essays, September 2006
By Rob Woodard
Songs From the Shooting Gallery
poems (coming Winter 2007) Tony O'Neill
Burning Shore Press
I first read Tony O'Neill's poetry on his own website maybe a year ago. It only took two or three stanzas before I was completely hooked. It's like that with the truly great ones: you know immediately that you're dealing with something special, something powerful, honest, and unique that leaves no room for questioning. I had recently founded a publishing company, Burning Shore Press, which was to be dedicated to exactly this type of serious, uncompromising writing. So, after reading thru all the poems on the site, I spontaneously emailed Tony and proposed that we should work together to put out a book of his poetry. The next day (or maybe it was that same day) he returned my email, responding with enthusiastic yes to my idea. It was that easy: we were on the same wavelength from moment one.
Over the next several months Tony sent me poems almost as he wrote them, and I gave him feedback in as close to real time as possible. And less than a year later we had a complete manuscript for this book.
There is of course far more to the creation of this work than the short description I have rendered thus far-but I don't want dwell on editorial details, or even the dynamics of the interesting long-distance literary and personal friendship Tony and I have developed over these last months: I'd rather concentrate on the man and the poems themselves.
What are the important details of Tony O'Neill's life? Well, he's an Englishman of Irish decent, who apparently grew up under typically depressing gray British skies in an equally gray and bleak urban wasteland of dead-end jobs, government handouts, and intellectual and creative stagnation. Like so many English youth of recent generations, however, he used music as his escape from this sorrowful landscape, learning to play keyboards and then hooking up with touring bands that eventually took him all the way to Los Angeles. Once in Los Angeles he paired in the biggest way possible his love for music with his life's other great passion: drugs, including cocaine, crystal meth, and most importantly, heroin. His life quickly turned into a wild ride thru L.A.'s party culture, on its way into a spiral of bad marriages, the darkest mazes of Southern California's drug underground, and finally the narrow hell of deep addiction.
Unlike many a junkie, however, he somehow pulled himself up out of this pit and found himself again, thru a temporary return to England, the love of a good woman, the birth a daughter, and finally the finding of a new home in New York City.
This is of course just a thumbnail sketch of Tony O'Neill's days and nights, which is fine-because the details are all there in his poems, which is where they're best experienced. Besides, what's more important, I'd say, is the way in which these facts of a life are explored, are made to live again. In others words, it's the poems that really matter.
There are of course as many ways to write a poem as there are poets. Tony's way is that of the clean simple line, stripped down to its declarative essence. In his poetry there are no word tricks, no obscurities, and especially no literary posturing; his words are like a polished pane of glass, thru which we see the workings of his vision of the world with the least amount of distortion and deception as possible.
And it can be a very difficult vision at times. On the surface this universe often exists as a kind of drug-fueled death match, and beneath this surface we find a profound rage and loneliness based in shattered dreams and hearts so badly broken that they could only be the result of the loss of faith in a god whose most fundamental promises turned out to be blatant lies. But there are cracks in this darkness, sometimes huge cracks thru which the light just pours. Usually they are discovered at the most unexpected moments and thru the simplest of gestures: a look, a kiss, a tiny act of human kindness, the sight of the poet's newborn daughter sleeping ... And it is this light that gives the poet and his readers the strength to hold on-because this light promises no less than redemption, no less than a revealing of love itself ...
Hard stuff. Very heavy at times. But ultimately not bleak, I'd argue: for these poems also contain a great deal of warmth, passion, and most especially hope. Tony O'Neill's vision is a tough one, but it's also surprisingly forgiving: for all the degradation, overdoses, slow suicides, and screaming train-wreck lives are ultimately redeemed thru a deep compassion that lies at the heart of every word the man writes.
How this vision came to be is largely evident in his poems and need not be gone into in any more depth here. How he came to write the way he does, however, may not be quite as apparent. English-language poetry has of course undergone massive changes in recent decades, shedding much of the ornate and obscuring excesses it has acquired thru previous centuries-and Tony O'Neill works deep within this movement to reclaim the simple language of storytelling that once, and will perhaps again, make poetry relevant to large numbers of people. To put it another way, he's about as far from being an academic or establishment poet as possible: he is shielded by no literary paycheck or formalist cocoon: he is completely "open to the street," as Henry Miller so famously once wrote. Tony O'Neill, in other words, is very much the real deal ...
Those familiar with this type of poetry will recognize some of Tony's influences right off the bat. There's Charles Bukowski of course, the colossus of Post-Modern American poetry following poets can ignore only at their own peril, and other L.A. writers John Fante and his son Dan Fante quickly pop into mind as well. William S. Burroughs has also played a huge role in Tony's development. The aforementioned Henry Miller is in there as well, I'm sure. I've never read Nelson Algren, but I'm told there's a connection with his work too, and Hubert Selby is another likely reference point. Go deeper back in time and names like Knut Hamsun and Dostoyevsky simply demand to be included in this little survey. Cˇline? Lawrence? Baudelaire? Rimbaud? I can't say for sure, but I'd bet these guys have also filtered thru this man's world at one time or another. Less obvious influences perhaps than these luminaries are writers such as Richard Hell, Lou Reed, and the lyricists for dozens of rock-and-roll bands from London to L.A. and back again. In other words Tony draws inspiration from "poets" of a very wide range indeed ...
There's one other poet I have not mentioned but whose presence I believe hangs luminously and tellingly over this work as well. When Tony first proposed SONGS FROM THE SHOOTING GALLERY as the title of this book my initial reaction was to cringe a bit: I thought it sounded kind of hokey, a touch too Walt Whitman. But after living with this title for a while I began to see that his instincts were completely on target-for like Walt Whitman, Tony O'Neill is a prophet of sort, and definitely a poet of the people. In fact, the greatest difference between these two poets, I would argue, is simply the times in which they've lived. If Walt Whitman's wide-open nineteenth-century America caused him to sing "democracy," then Tony O'Neill's constricted twenty-first century causes him to scream this concept, like a man desperate not to lose the last thread of humankind's greatest dream ... And if it sounds like I am being over the top here I assure you I am not-Tony O'Neill is that good and that important. If Walt Whitman were alive today would he be searching for a vein in a dirty depressing Hollywood motel room? I cannot answer this question. But I do believe that he would have completely understood where a poet of such a world was coming from-for Tony's journey, like Whitman's, has fundamentally been one in search of freedom, for himself, for us all ...
So what I guess I'm trying to say is that despite his place of birth and English accent, Tony O'Neill is very much an American poet, both in that this land has fundamentally shaped his vision, but also because he innately shares the best dreams that this country exudes, and therefore weeps for it people and curses its failures with the anger and hope of even its most native son. SONGS FROM THE SHOOTING GALLERY is first and foremost Tony O'Neill's song of himself, but it's also the song of an England fled and an America discovered, the song of an immigrant searching for a place to be. And it is this, my fellow Americans, that makes it our song too, the song we all sing each day in our own way ...
But enough of this theorizing and explaining-again, it's the poems that matter and with Tony's blessing I now give them too you, raw, uncensored, and fully alive, as poems should be. Whether you love them or hate them, whether you can swallow them or find yourself gagging on their jagged edges, they're now yours to do with as you please.
Good luck, dear reader, and stay strong.
ROB WOODARD is the author of the novels Heaping Stones (2005, Burning Shore Press) and What Love Is (to be published by Burning Shore Press in the summer of 2007). In 2008 Burning Shore Press will be bringing out King of Long Beach, his first volume of poetry. He lives in Long Beach, California. Contact: