Interview with Kathleen Ossip

Andrew Kuhn: You have written elegies, sonnets, rants, odes, thumbnail biographies, prose poems, acrostics, lyrics ultra-compressed and expansive, “true” flash fictions, and even a full-scale short story in prose—and this all just in your much-celebrated third collection of poetry, The Do-Over (2015). You have taken on the Cold War, pop icons, death with a capital D, and love, and desire, and being a mother. You are such a protean poet, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Not quite at random, let’s start with “On Beauty.” It is reproduced in full below.

 

On Beauty

 

Firstly, you are beautiful,

moonfaced brothers and sisters.

 

But after that, what

is not open to question?

 

To pick up the torn wing

and paperclip it onto the angel

 

is a distortion rapidly done.

Distortion is beautiful,

 

and loud hearty laughter

as of the gods.

 

Beauty moves upwards from the leaf,

downwards from the root.

 

Beauty is quietly

born from boredom

 

into fabulousness or plainness.

Don’t ask whether it exists.

 

It’s a redundancy to say real.

Beauty is truth? Don’t ask.

 

Ask for inner resources unlimited.

Ask for a goldfinch feather

 

in a balsawood box.

Look not at what is loved

 

but what stimulates and soothes.

Brothers and sisters,

 

are words beautiful or ugly

because we mean them

 

so very deeply?

 

AK: Stunning poem. A lot of poets nowadays would run screaming for the exits rather than take on an abstract, classic subject like “Beauty,” especially with the pre-fix “On,” which almost seems to defiantly double down on the ambition. “Thanks, Aristotle—I’ll take it from here.”

Can you say a little about how you came to write this poem? Was there anything in particular in your reading or your life at the time that you can recall having sparked or formed the germ of it?

Kathleen Ossip: Yes, I remember exactly what made me interested in taking on that big abstract subject. It wasn’t Aristotle but Francis Bacon. I was visiting my parents and they had a volume of his collected essays, and I started reading it. They all have titles like “Of Truth,” “Of Death,” “Of Adversity,” etc. I always tell my students to go in fear of big abstract nouns, but I liked Bacon’s ambition and his questioning but argument-driven approach. I like trying to figure things out, and I wondered if you could do something similar in a poem without being unbearably preachy or dull. I wrote “On Beauty” and “On Sadness,” which is in The Do-Over, as companions. Since then I’ve written “On Giving Birth” and I’m currently working on “On Boredom.”

AK: The assurance, even the bravura, of your opening is characteristic of much of your work, I think.

 

Firstly, you are beautiful,

moonfaced brothers and sisters.

 

But after that, what

is not open to question?

 

It’s not obvious that moonfaced brothers and sisters would be beautiful, let alone so beautiful that it would not be open to question. But you sell us on this notion, even while rhetorically undercutting it immediately, signaling us that even the most emphatic statements to follow may turn out to be standing on thin air. You go on:

 

To pick up the torn wing

and paperclip it onto the angel

 

is a distortion rapidly done.

Distortion is beautiful,

 

and loud hearty laughter

as of the gods.

 

AK: Already we’re in trouble—way over our heads. The magisterial assertions are coming so thick and fast we don’t know what to make of them, really. And yet we want to believe. We believe!

Of course, we think, it must be true, for example, that to pick up a torn wing and to paperclip it onto an angel is a distortion. And naturally, such an operation, with the wing and the paperclip, would be rapidly done. . . Once you have posited angels and paperclips in the same frame, you are free to describe their interaction according to the natural laws of the universe you have conjured, at least for the moment.

How important for you as a writer has it been to establish early and often the degrees of freedom you are claiming in a given piece, a given collection?

KO: I’m not sure that establishing my freedom is a conscious process, but freedom is very important to me, and one reason I like writing poems is that they’re an utterly free space, one of a very few I can think of. That’s why writing poems is a political act.

AK: In another poem you confide, “Facts never did anything for us.” This past week in The Times Dwight Gardner interviewed Langdon Hammer about his biography of James Merrill, who as I’m sure you and our readers know was fascinated by the Ouija board and turned his engagement with it into a celebrated book-length poem.

Merrill was apparently also friends with and greatly admired Elizabeth Bishop (Hammer’s next biographical subject). Hammer, however, noted that Bishop was not crazy about Merrill’s Ouija poem, telling him “not so delicately that it just doesn’t make sense.” Hammer goes on, “Like a biographer, Bishop cared about facts (or at least pretended to).”

Would you place yourself more in the Merrill camp, or the Bishop camp? Or do you object to such oppositions as unwarranted restrictions on one’s range of motion as a poet?

KO: As a reader, Bishop means more to me than Merrill; I can’t quite get beyond the nonchalant background tone of privilege in Merrill’s work, though this is only a personal preference—my limitation, not Merrill’s. (And it’s there in Bishop too, of course, much muted.) For a long time after I read Bishop in graduate school, I felt that she knew the shape of a poem more intimately and more surely than anyone else. By shape, I don’t mean only form, but progression, pace, what to put in overtly, what to gesture at, what to leave out, when to use facts and when to use flights of fancy, and much more. I’ve modeled several poems very closely on some of hers.

I think when I wrote “Facts never did anything for us,” I meant that I don’t find facts very useful when deciding “how to live and what to do.” This is partly because when you look closely at a “fact” you tend to notice how quickly they dissolve into, at best, partial facts.

But on the issue of facts in poems, I believe facts are grist as much as anything else: lies, dreams, fantasies, imagining . . .

AK: Twice in this short poem, “On Beauty,” you address your readers as “brothers and sisters.” Are you aware of any impulse in yourself to preach a sermon, to get an “amen”? Much of the poem is in the imperative mode—carrying an unspoken but unmistakable “You should” if not “Thou shalt.” You borrow other preacherly rhetorical tropes besides the brothers and sisters: “Look not,” for instance. Who says that? And, of course, you do mention an angel . . .

You’ve spoken elsewhere about being raised Catholic, which I imagine must have involved regular exposure to sermons if not also sermonizing. Do you think hearing such cadences and modes of address has affected the development of your poetry?

KO: Guilty! I’m very prone to the didactic, I’m sure sometimes to a fault. I try to rein it in, but I figure it’s better to channel it into poems than in face-to-face interactions. And yes, my Catholic background, which included Catholic school, is an influence.

AK: Another startling assertion is this:

 

Beauty is quietly

born from boredom

 

into fabulousness or plainness.

 

This is a provocative, original, weird aphorism. We can picture the bored beauty, or the bored artist finally goaded by her own boredom to create a thing of beauty. You mentioned just now you’ve returned to boredom as a topic . . .  What role does boredom play in your own creative process?

KO: A big role. I’m easily overstimulated and I find it impossible to feel creative when I get in that state. Cultivating a boring (or soothing) environment makes me fill it with my own daydreams and imaginings and interior language.

AK: In this take, beauty is not static, it has a career, developing into either fabulousness or plainness. (Both would seem to be a comedown from the original ideal or idealized state.) So, far from being “a joy forever,” for instance, beauty is subject to time, like the rest of us.

Do you set out with the intention of frankly trying to make something beautiful, when you make a poem? Are you mistrustful of that impulse at all, or feel any pressure to hide it under a bushel?

KO: I always set out trying to make something beautiful. For me, that’s part of the definition of a poem.

But beauty isn’t limited to Keats-ian beauty (or fill in whatever name you like). I teach poetry workshops at The New School, where my students are often a mix of undergraduates and older continuing education students. One day, one undergraduate brought in a terrific poem he’d written using environmental text, language he found around him on the city streets, which included the line “Think noodles.” An older woman student said, in response, with a dissatisfied tone, “When are we going to talk about beauty?” I told her that I thought “Think noodles” was a very beautiful bit of language. And I do, I’m very attracted to that kind of plain, fresh, flat language. That was in my mind when I wrote that “fabulousness or plainness” line.

AK: After developing a rhetoric of great assurance, the turn at the very end of “On Beauty” is disarming. The question seems not to have been asked for effect, but in a spirit of genuine wonder.

 

Brothers and sisters,

 

are words beautiful or ugly

because we mean them

 

so very deeply?

 

Despite the multiple ironies and indirections that came before, this closing registers as a moment of true feeling. There’s an admission of a vulnerability in common—an invitation to consider the mystery of the shared passion that we bring to words, and that they bring to us.

The ambit of this interview was more deep than broad; to those readers looking for a more comprehensive survey of your work, I apologize. Will the poems you’ll be reading at the library here be consonant with some of what we’ve been discussing with respect to “On Beauty”? Or have I just perpetrated false advertising?

KO: I appreciate the close reading! I hope to be both consistent and surprising.

AK: As you probably know, the Katonah Poetry Series has featured many of the most accomplished American poets of the past half century. Looking at the list of past readers, http://katonahpoetry.com/kps-poets/, do you see any who have been particularly influential  in your development as a writer?

KO: What a fantastic, varied group of poets! I’m thrilled to be one of them. As for influences, I’ve always liked Anne Sexton’s belief that “We are all writing the poem of our time.” If that’s true, we’re all influencing each other in all possible ways and in all possible directions, like the physicists tell us.

AK: Thank you, Kathleen, for sharing your thoughts with the Katonah Poetry Series!