A Conversation with Kathleen Ossip

Kathleen Ossip’s most recent book of poems, July, was published in June 2021. She is also the author of The Do-Over, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice; The Cold War, which was one of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Books of 2011; The Search Engine, selected by Derek Walcott for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize; and Cinephrastics, a chapbook of movie poems. Her poems have appeared widely in such publications as The Washington Post, The Best American Poetry, The Best American Magazine Writing, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New Republic, The Believer, Poetry, Paris Review, and many others. She teaches at the New School and at Princeton University, and she has been a fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. 


David Roderick: Since you’re a poet very much immersed in our cultural moment, with your toe almost always dipped somewhere in the immediate news, I’m wondering if you’ve seen today’s New York Times piece by Tish Harrison Warren titled “Why Poetry Is So Crucial Right Now.” I don’t aim to mock Warren, but as a poet I’m inclined to poke fun at her title, particularly the “right now” part. It seems like every few years we see an article in which someone rediscovers the value of poetry and feels the need to share that experience. How do you react or respond to statements like “Poetry seems to be making a comeback”?

Kathleen Ossip: My first thought on reading the article was “Bad title,” which I think probably wasn’t written by the author. This kind of “we need poetry right now” article kicks up every once in a while, especially in the New York Times. Like any fervent believer I feel uncomfortable with someone who only goes to church, so to speak, on holidays or when they want a divine intervention. But I can’t be against reading poetry, any time, for any reason. There’s very little I’d disagree with in the article itself. 

The idea of poetry making a comeback just makes me sad, because it seems based on upticks in poetry’s appearing in mainstream media outlets. Which I guess has become a pseudo-gauge of reality, but it’s only pseudo. Millions of people read and study and love poetry every day, whether or not it’s trending. It never goes away, so it doesn’t need to make a comeback.

DR: Speaking of how technology has warped our experience of reality, you were one of the first poets I remember who addressed technology as a subject. When your first book, The Search Engine, came out in 2002, there weren’t many writers tackling it because it felt like such a huge unknown. Or maybe just unforgiving as a topic. Can you talk about how your poems have developed alongside the technological advances of the last twenty years, through the development and universal use of search engines and smart phones and social media?

KO: Remember the old Virginia Woolf quote about human character changing on or about December 1910? What hasn’t changed since 2002? Human character and even human physicality have changed because of the technologies you talk about. I stopped handwriting drafts at about that time, which has surely changed my poems. I’ve always been a language-hoarder, keeping notes of language I read or hear to weave into poems, and in the past 20 years the availability and ease of access of language to choose from has increased by a factor of thousands or millions. And it’s all open to me and I’m open to it all. I hope that’s given my poems textures they wouldn’t otherwise have had. 

On the other hand, the availability of huge heaps of information at my fingertips has sometimes made me feel like shutting up. The multitude of voices I hear and read every day has sometimes made me feel that my own voice is pretty unnecessary. There’s truth to this. All those voices, all that articulation, so much of it from voices that are speaking necessary truths that the world needs to hear. I try to be a good listener, a good reader, a good audience member. 

DR: Exactly. I hear you.

KO: But I can’t shut myself up for long. I spent the first part of my life not being allowed and not knowing how to speak authentically; I didn’t write poems until much later. It still seems miraculous to me that I can. The individual voice is crucial, even sacred. The individual consciousness too. We need the sound of the individual voice. Let’s have as many voices as possible please. 

I’ve considered going on a prolonged media fast, though, because some of the voices and so much of the information I hear and read make me angry. And there’s no arguing: thanks to technology and media we all know the exact dimensions and sensations of the endless and pointless argument. I’m angrier than I was in my pre-internet ignorance. That has come out in poems. The poems I’m working on now will I hope make up my next book, which seems to be an angry book. 

DR: Related to your process, and maybe your use of technology, how does a poem like “July” coalesce and come to fruition? It’s an incredible 50-page sequence that vacuums so much daily life into it, and in such a rich tapestry of forms and registers: lists, an abecedarian, found poems, lyric interludes, observations. It even has a “political poem” in rhyming couplets embedded inside. 

KO: In some ways, “July” was the easiest poem I’ve ever written. It’s documentary in impulse. I wanted to document the month of July 2016, when my then-17-year-old daughter and I went on a roadtrip from the northernmost point in the continental US to the southernmost. Every night in whatever room we were staying in, I’d make notes about the day, which of course included what occurred on screens. It was a bloody month, every day a “violent incident.” The presidential conventions happened. These were as real to us, and therefore as real in the poem, as the hikes we took and the food we ate and the people we met. The poem is largely built of those notes and our experiences, which I did interrogate and shape over the following fall. Every so often a freestanding poem within the poem, like “Political Poem,” makes an appearance. It seemed right to have these “lyric interludes,” moments of slowed-down, heightened perception, interrupt the narrative. It’s the right rhythm for me, alternating observation and meditation. 

DR: Did you have any models in mind for a poem like this?

KO: I definitely did. I’ve always loved diary poems. One of the first I read was David Trinidad’s chapbook November. David is a masterful recorder of the lived life. When I told him I wanted to write a diary poem he sent me some examples by Ashbery, Joanne Kyger, and, the most direct model, Alice Notley’s early chapbook Sorrento. It’s about a trip she took one summer with her husband and children to visit her mother in Sorrento, California. Nothing dramatic happens, but of course the undramatic is fascinating filtered through Alice Notley’s consciousness. Read it if you can find it—when I got to the final diary entry with its glorious ending, I started crying. 

Then there’s the whole rich trove of documentary poetry, one of the major veins of 21st century US poetry. I’ve never written a purely documentary work—the lyric interior is too present—but I read documentary poetry fiercely, teach it often, and borrow from it admiringly. 

DR: How did your daughter experience that month with you while you were collecting, cataloguing, recording, writing? Are you still good company when all your antennae are alert?

KO: I hope so. I’m pretty good at emotional or mental multi-tasking. I can usually attend to reality while the inner wheels churn. I’m also a night owl, which means that I can be awake and writing while normal people are sleeping, which is what happened during that trip. 

This doesn’t really answer your question, but this is where I thought it was going: I guess I want to say that my daughter read and approved of my publishing the poem in which she’s a major character. I wouldn’t have published it, or parts of it, unless she said it was OK. I disagree with Faulkner that “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. People are more important than poems. 

DR: I’m with you there. If you were invited to read “July,” or parts of it, to a live audience, how would you approach it? And how would you frame it for the audience? I suppose I’m asking this question because I fear my line of questioning here doesn’t do it justice. 

KO: It’s a good question and I haven’t yet come up with an ideal playlist. Not only do I have “July” to deal with but also the two other, very different, sections of the book. So far I’ve tended to read a bit from the beginning, a bit from the middle, maybe the part set in Branson, MO when the real inferno begins. I try to balance motherhood and more political or public-facing moments. I usually frame it for an audience as a diary poem, a roadtrip poem. I tell them there’s a lot of environmental language in it—road signs, bumper stickers, t-shirts. I tell them there are standalone titled poems that interrupt the narrative. 

DR: Here’s a passage that stuck out for me, from July 26, Key West. You’ve just spent the previous evening watching the Democratic Convention in which Bernie Sanders makes a speech expressing his support of Hilary Clinton:

Last night (the convention) I was so dispirited that I wanted to open the bottle of Two-Buck Chuck the Miami Airbnb host left and drink myself to sleep. Today I’m more resigned and because we have to move on into the future, I have hope. 

Five years have passed, if I’m calculating correctly. Do you still have hope? 

KO: Frankly, no. Not at the moment. Not if hope means a belief that good can triumph. The five years that were the future when I wrote those words have overwhelmed me, and not only me, with the worst of human nature. I lost whatever spiritual beliefs I had about good holding evil in check, much less defeating evil. I no longer feel intuitively that a universal force for good exists, or that good and evil are in a perpetual equilibrium. I used to. That was a huge loss for me personally. I’d held onto some kind of basic spirituality since childhood. I’ve tried and so far failed to recover from the loss. I find the state of the world terrifying. 

DR: I think a lot of people are losing hope. 

KO: But the kind of hope I was talking about is less a logic than a response. We have no choice, as long as we live, except to move on into the future. Moving on, putting good into the world to the extent you can, is a kind of hope, even if you don’t believe it will change things very much. In the preamble poem to the “Goddess” sequence, there are these lines: 

We need faith while the possible is possible.
After, we need hope.

That kind of hope has nothing to do with belief. It’s an accessory like an umbrella that you carry in order to move through a storm. I think I have that kind of hope, the hope that keeps you moving. I just don’t see the storm ending. 

As a kind of wild card, a mediation between hope and despair, I keep this quote by Adam Gopnik handy: “Declinism is a bad idea, because no one can have any notion of what will happen next.” I’m willing to admit that I have no idea what will happen next, or even what’s happening right now. I also don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow. My beliefs and expectations are as limited and changeable as everyone else’s.

One more thing: If I do have any hope, it’s through knowing my daughter and other people her age. If the world can hold on long enough for them to take over, I think it has a shot. 

DR: There’s one more moment from the poem I’d like to ask about. At the bottom of July 11, Bemidji to Angle Inlet to Roseau MN you write, “It’s easy to love a country if you avoid its people.” This passage put me in mind of something Italian poet Cesare Pavese once said, which feels like it’s sort of the opposite or inverse of your statement. Somewhere he wrote, “It is not Italy I love, but the Italian people.” 

KO: I’m glad you called it a moment. A diary is by definition a recounting of what the diarist is feeling at a point in time. I saw plenty of things that made me not like people very much, or maybe made me afraid of them is more accurate. That doesn’t mean it’s a belief that I feel attached to or claim a more general truth for. 

At that point in time, what I loved about the United States was its geography, its landscape, as well as its folklore and its music. I still do. Dealing with actual living people is more complex. There are some strains of hate in the collective unconscious of the United States that are frightening and beyond my understanding.  

DR: Can I pivot here and ask you about form? I’ve always admired how restless your books feel—nearly every poem looks different. Just thumbing through “Occasions,” the book’s first section, “Go” relies on heavy anaphora and very long lines. “Bluebird” is written in three rhyming ballad stanzas. “On Boredom” is several pages long and leans toward an essay. “Chayote” is a concrete poem—a poem that is designed on the page in the shape of a chayote fruit. Those are the first four poems of the book! I think I’m interested in this rich variety because I get pinned in the spiderweb of a form for months… sometimes years! What’s your trick? 

KO: No trick but restlessness, I think. I wish I had the patience to explore a particular form for a long time, like you do. I’m easily bored, especially with myself. And I love poetry, you know. I’m a poetry glutton. So I want to try it all. 

DR: I’m a fan of your restlessness! I remember the delight of stumbling upon a batch of your acrostic poems. I think it was from your last book, The Do-Over. They were little elegies to celebrities who had recently passed. Amy Winehouse was one of them.

Do you work on a bunch of poems at a time and flit between them like a hummingbird? Or do you hunker down into a mode for a few days or weeks and then move on? Maybe you hum and hunker? I’m curious.

KO: First flit then hunker. I’m sure I’m not unusual in that. For a while, I’ll have one or two or three poems in waiting, and I keep separate files and toss language at them, separately, as it occurs to me. Then at some point, one or the other seems ready, or I’m ready to tackle it, and I focus on that one until I’ve done all I can for it. 

DR: July is your fourth book. You’ve been writing and publishing for a long time. How has your process changed during that period?

KO: One change—and it’s been coming gradually and is still happening—is a little less self-doubt, a tiny bit. Just enough to show up more regularly, and to accept what happens. 

I’ve also—getting back to voices—been a little more interested in my own voice, whatever that may be. Probably my own voices, plural. In other words, I’ve been relying a little less on borrowed language, multiple sources. That could change on a dime though. 

DR: And, if it’s something you can gauge, how have your aesthetics changed?

KO: I honestly don’t know if I have “aesthetics.” Viewed from the outside, it probably looks like I do. It’s hard, probably impossible, for anyone to escape their fundamental relationship to language, and everyone’s is unique. I like complication, except when I like minimalism. I like difficulty except when I crave clarity. I like tang, I like flatness. I like myself as a lyric subject, except when I get sick of it. I want to be in conversation with poems and poets that mean a lot to me. I try to put something true and beautiful and useful into my poems. I like poems that include as much as possible. I try to address the world. Is that an aesthetic? 


David Roderick

David Roderick is the Director of Content at The Adroit Journal and was recently named an NEA Creative Writing Fellow for 2021-2022. He is the author of Blue Colonial and The Americans. In Berkeley, California he co-directs Left Margin LIT, a creative writing center and work space for writers.

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