The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Jena Osman

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The Rumpus Poetry Book Club talks with Jena Osman about her collection The Network.

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.

This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.

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Brian Spears: I think one of the biggest things we talked about in the group was how this book stretches the boundaries of what we consider poetry. Did you conceive of this as poetry all along, Jena, or were you just seeing how it went as you built it?

Jena Osman: It’s very much poetry to me, combined with essay—a form i love.

Brian Spears: And did you have a concept of what it was going to look like from the start, or did it come together later?

Osman: I basically follow my obsessions and see where they take me.  The “Franklin Party” poem kind of traces that process. The “Financial District” poem began when I discovered a very old etymological dictionary and I started trying to chart out connections between words. About the same time I was reading that book called Gotham about the history of New York, and the two forms of research started to speak to each other.  But when I put the two together it didn’t feel like enough was going on, so i came up with that “fiction”—something completely un-researched—as an experiment.

Spears: I think the choice to start with the etymology was what drew me to the book—I read the first thirty pages or so in one sitting and knew almost immediately I wanted this for the book club.

Osman: Thanks! I’m glad.

Kevin: I love this book. The closest thing to your poetry that I’ve read I think is Ezra Pound. Was he an influence? What other poets informed The Network?

Osman: Not so much Pound, although others have mentioned him. I’d say the biggest influence was Susan Howe. Her interests in etymologies (see her work on Emily Dickinson) and history are so amazing and I think about her work all the time. Also Cecilia Vicuna and her work around etymology, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee—another kind of essay poem, even something like Williams’s Paterson—his collage methodology, his combination of prose and poetry. Also, the writer Thalia Field. Bhanu Kapil. Any writer who is somehow stretching the world of the poem toward the essay.

Spears: We noted also the mentions of Leslie Scalapino and Ron Silliman in the Franklin poem. Did the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement play a role in how you conceived this? Jeez, that sounds like a pompous question to me.

Osman: I love Leslie Scalapino’s work—she has been incredibly important to me. I wrote a memorial tribute to her at the site called Delirious Hem that sketches that influence out more specifically than I can do so here in this little box.

The Language writers are definitely important to me—the way they call attention to how language is never neutral, how it’s really important to attend to the way that words can never be separate from ideology.

Back to Scalapino—the italicized fiction narrative in “Financial District” was written very much with her work in mind.

Spears: I’m sure it’s an oversight on my part, but I’d never seen poetry combined with essay the way you did it here—in fact, I don’t know that I’d have recognized it as such. Who else works this way? Or did you come to it on your own?

Osman: I’m sure I didn’t come to it on my own—all of the writers I mentioned above make use of it, including Susan Howe. or someone like Kamau Brathwaite in his book Trench Town Rock. John D’Agata edited a great anthology called The Next American Essay that includes a bunch of this stuff as well as more readily recognizable essayists. There’s also a great press called Essay Press that is putting out some wonderful work—Jenny Boully, Kristin Prevallet, Carla Harryman, etc.

Also I have to mention Juliana Spahr (my co-editor for the journal Chain) as a major influence. She also does this kind of investigative essay work.

Charles: I’m wondering what the idea of “the network” means to you, Jena, and what themes or images mean the most to you, or are the most significant?

Osman: As you can probably tell, all of the poems come from different lines of research; and as I researched, I started to notice connections and synchronicities. I love when that happens. So the network is really just a place to point to those moments of contact.

Spears: Are the connections the important part to you? I found myself more entranced by the various pathways I wandered down.

Osman: Yes, the process is definitely the most important part. I’m more interested in the pathways as well. The Borges quote that I use as an epigraph is pretty key—that if you just tune in from a different angle, you can sense this buzzing sensation of connectivity.

Spears: In the group, Scott Cunningham said he was drawn by was the “challenge of creating music without line breaks and without the form of the prose poem.” What music is possible in the graph of an etymology of a word? Is music even the right term for it?”

Osman: That’s a good question. I have yet to include those charts in a reading—I feel like they exist more as images and need to be projected or something.

Spears: Speaking of reading these, how did the slideshow go? I wish you’d been able to find a way to send that to me. What sorts of images made their way into the presentation?

Osman: I ruthlessly stole images of statues of Hermes and Mercury from around the world off of people’s Flickr sites, as well as The Flash. And of sparrows. Volcanos. Mercury Nevada. Power plants. etc.

I think I sent you (Brian) instructions on how one could reconfigure what I did. I used the “sliding frames” function in iPhoto and put it on random function so that any one time there would be three of four images on screen—colliding with each other and with what I was reading. At various times the images synced up with what I was reading.

Spears: There’s a town named Mercury, Nevada?

Osman: Yes! it’s where nuclear testing was done. No one actually lives (or lived) there. The Nevada desert is filled with military history.

Spears: I’ve driven past some of the bases in the past, but it cracks me up that that’s the name of a town for some reason.

Osman: I’m not sure how it got that name—that would be something to look into.

Thelma: I wonder if you could tell us a little more about the fictional strand weaving through the “Financial District” section.

Osman: Well it’s the closest I’ve ever come to writing fiction. Does it work as a story for you? Did you find yourselves reading the italicized lines together?

Spears: I found myself reading the piece as a whole and then separating it, to see what the different effects were.

Thelma: Yes and no—I was intrigued and occasionally frustrated by my inability to understand the “she.”  But she certainly pulled me along.

Spears: Another member of the group called the “Financial District” section “Gibsonesque,” and suggested there was an intentional puzzle there. Would we be asking you to give too much away to talk about that perception? Are we on the right track?

Osman: Yes, I think of it as a kind of sci-fi narrative. (I hate to admit that I have not yet read William Gibson!)

A friend wants to turn it into a graphic novel of some kind. Not sure if that’s possible, but I love the idea.

Thelma—I think of the “she” as simply trying to make a connection (she has the network key) and the three boys are keeping her from doing so.

Spears: You should certainly go for the graphic novel—at least make the attempt.

Charles: Jena, I loved this book, had a real lightness that reminds me of “Four Quartets.” “The Joker” was the most accessible section for me and really drew me in. I love prose poetry and possibly for that reason read most of The Network as poetry.

Spears: This book also gave me a greater respect for Latin as a language, and makes me think I should have found the time to study it. The way we get vest, invest, transvestite and travesty from the same root is fascinating to me, and also speaks to Latin’s flexibility, just for one example.

Osman: Yes, I wish I knew Latin. And I should say now that I’m waiting for someone who knows classical languages, or linguistics, to call me on the carpet and tell me I’ve got it all wrong.

Kevin: Earlier you mentioned The Next American Essay, which is a pretty amazing book. Do you like the term “lyric essay?” Or would you rather just call it “poetry?” Or something else? (Or do you not care.)

Osman: I find myself resisting the term “lyric essay.” because often lyric is associated with some form of “self-expression” that is perhaps not what I’m aiming for. So I use the term “poetry” for what I do, because I find that to be the most open. But I do think both poetry and the essay allow for investigations without closure, and I really appreciate that.

Spears: Kevin, there’s no question that the fact that this didn’t look like what I tend to think of as poetry when I opened the book helped drive my decision to choose it. But I’m a person who wants to widen the definitions as much as possible.

Spears: Investigations without closure, that’s interesting. Did you actively resist closure in this book?

Osman: I think I’m always resisting closure. Like I said above, the process is much more important to me—it more closely aligns with my experience of the world, which doesn’t seem to have much actual closure in it.

Joan Retallack has a great essay called “Wager as Essay” that speaks to why essay is such a powerful form.

Spears: I spent the morning and afternoon reading student essays. I wonder if doing that might change Retallack’s mind 🙂

Osman: I know what you mean! On closure: check out Lyn Hejinian’s now classic essay called “The Rejection of Closure.”

Spears: Is this where I get ridiculous and suggest that actively resisting closure is a form of closure itself? I guess it is.

Osman: I guess it depends how you would define closure. But I don’t find myself resisting closure so much as attending to process and where language can lead my thinking.

Charles: Closure and linearity don’t seem to be very true to actual experience. Process and following language trails are more akin to what you do perhaps?

Osman: Charles: yes, that’s a good way to put it.

Spears: Above you mentioned that you don’t know Latin or other classical languages. Did that make you nervous when you were putting those connections together?

Osman: Yes, it makes me a little nervous—as does all the history stuff in “Financial District.” I’m sure I’m getting some of it wrong. But I’m also interested in those mistakes. Our understanding of things comes from so many different sources and we all deal with those sources in such different ways—and that interests me.

Spears: I’m often amazed at how much wrong history becomes reality, of how many things I’ve thought were accurate when I was younger turned out to be wrong, and insanely so. And that the only reason I didn’t figure it out earlier was because I never had reason to challenge that received wisdom.

Osman: Yes, and even the history of things we ourselves experience—our memories kind of rewrite these events. I’ve written about this as well in my last book, An Essay in Asterisks, in a poem called “Memory Error Theater.”

Spears: So maybe you’ll wind up creating a new reality for some people

Osman: Hopefully it’s not a reality based on errors!

Spears: That’s something I talk about with my students as well—how multiple people can experience the same event but have contradicting stories, while telling the truth as they’ve seen it. I use a car accident as a metaphor—I live in south Florida, and that’s as close to a shared experience as anyone can have down here.

Stephen Elliott: So true.

Osman: And the event changes depending on what point in history you look at it from. Jane Tompkins writes about that in an essay called “Indians.”

Stephen Elliott: Or so true about there not being an absolute truth 🙂

Osman: But at a certain point you have to decide what’s true—Tompkins makes the point that it’s only in academia that you can say that there’s no absolute truth. At a certain point you have to decide what is your truth based on the facts at hand.

Elliott: But if it’s your truth, then it’s subjective, as opposed to “a” truth, or “the” truth.

Isaac Fitzgerald: There are always different facts for different people though…

Elliott: Facts are vastly outnumbered by memories and interpretations.

Osman: Stephen and Isaac: yes, but Jane Tompkins is making the point that in certain instances—say in the face of the genocide of native Americans that happened early on in the history of this country—saying there are different facts for different people is highly problematic.

Elliott: All of it a tiny island in the ocean of unknown 🙂

Thelma: What are you working on now?

Osman: I just finished a book based on a slide lecture called “Public Figures.” It’s about public statues in Philadelphia that are carrying weapons.

Spears: Do the statues become less armed as you get closer to the present day?

Osman: Brian: yes—they stop at about WWI. Let me send the link—a version is online at the great journal HOW2.

Elliott: It’s problematic but still there’s no truth, especially in history.

Spears: Interesting—that’s about the time that there was a marked shift in the tone of war poetry, I’d say, what with Wilfred Owen and Sassoon and Bunting and all.

Osman: How would you describe that shift?

Spears: We’re talking about huge generalizations here, but it strikes me that much of the war poetry pre-World War I and some of it from that period was focused on glory and honor and all these abstract notions and not much on the ugliness of it. Whitman was a notable exception, I think in the U.S., and I think he was driven by his experiences on Civil War battlefields, like Owen would be later on.

Osman: Brian: yes, and then after the World Wars, it was impossible to continue to think that way.

Spears: I’m far from an expert on the subject, but I don’t remember seeing much of it after WWI, at least not in what we’d consider mainstream poetry.

Kevin: This is silly, but: the Happy Tappers, with their sombreros and ponchos and guitars, look a lot like Pierrot. Was this your intention? (Does it matter?)

Osman: Kevin: no that wasn’t my intention, but that’s a really interesting connection to make! And yes it matters—it matters that a reader could then start building his/her own networks of connection.

Thelma: I always like to know how the editing process went…

Osman: Thelma: a lot of the pieces were written over the course of years and went through radical changes.

Spears: What was it like to work with Fence? They produced two of my favorite books this past year, yours and Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton.

Osman: Fence is great—they really have their act together and it was a very easy process. They do great work.

Thelma: A very clean edit—I was impressed. I think it’s a wonderful book.

Spears: Thanks again for agreeing to do this Jena, and I look forward to spending even more time with The Network and all the extra stuff you’ve introduced us to tonight.

Elliott: Thank you Jena!

Osman: Thanks so much everyone—this was a pleasure.


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