The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kathleen Ossip about her new book, The Do Over, Catholic school, the afterlife, poem-like things and how form sets sorely-needed limits.
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.
Mark Folse: Parts of this poem suggest it is a sort of anti-elegy, or at least a struggle with writing one. (“No Use”,”The Do Over”, “Oh, Wow, Mausoleums”). “Let go of that beautiful despair. /The shackles of the lyric, let them go.”
Kathleen Ossip: Which poem, Mark? Or do you mean the book as a whole?
Mark Folse: The poems I mentioned, but I could probably find other examples. A struggle with the idea of elegy.
Kathleen Ossip: Definitely. It’s always a struggle for me to write, period. But the idea of an elegy—that so often it turns into a kind of narcissistic mirror of one’s own grief, was daunting.
Mark Folse: ‘”and my writing of this is no use…”
Kathleen Ossip: But then I thought, why isn’t the voice of the bereft a valid subject? It has its own beauty, one we’re all destined to share in. That freed me a bit.
Sarah: Do you think the daunting-ness is what led you to the acrostics? Or rather, what led you to the acrostics?
Brian S: I’m glad to hear you say that writing is a struggle for some reason. I think non-writers don’t get how difficult it is sometimes.
Kathleen Ossip: Definitely the dauntingness led to the acrostics! For me, form is always a way out. It sets limits, which I sorely need.
Dana: Yes, I was wondering about what influenced the acrostics as well. Do you find that some of your poems naturally lend themselves to certain forms?
Brian S: I was surprised by the acrostics. It’s a form I almost never see.
Kathleen Ossip: Brian: The first poem that ever gave me the shivers was the acrostic at the end of Through the Looking Glass. It spells out the name of the original Alice, Alice Pleasance Liddell. I thought: I want to do that. I think of it as a very 19th c. form, akin to mourning jewelry.
Sarah: How did a poem like “Lyric” (which I LOVED) come about?
Ellen: I’m curious about your use of space on the page, for example in “Road Trip” and “The Apron String.” I don’t have a specific question but would love to know about the thought process that went into that.
Kathleen Ossip: Thank you for liking “Lyric,” Sarah! I felt very unsure about that one. I love to tell the story of Anne Sexton writing “Music Swims Back to Me” and immediately calling her pal Maxine Kumin to ask “Is this a poem?” That’s how I feel about “Lyric.”
Hmmm, Ellen. Trying to remember writing that one. I think I was trying to make the poem feel as dynamic and leapy as the feelings were.
Sarah: It was deeply moving and had me laughing out loud, too.
Ellen: “Lyric” has that same sort of bold use of space
Kathleen Ossip: That’s so funny, Sarah. The first time I read it to an audience, they laughed, and I thought, uh-oh. This isn’t quite the reaction I intended. But now I understand that the bluntness of the statements is the poem is kind of funny, or at least surprising.
Sarah: Yes. They cut you when you’re expecting it to move along like a poem. And just the abruptness has a sort of bwahaha/thank you for talking to me, poem/type feeling.
Kathleen Ossip: I think “Lyric”—or I hope, anyway—has the kind of irony I most appreciate, where what the poem says is both deeply and sincerely meant AND absurdly self-aware.
Dana: “I’m eating a salmon // The salmon died in terror and agony”
Sarah: (I feel like I need a like button for liking your answers instead of just typing more responses.)
Kathleen Ossip: Dana, that’s exactly the line where the audience laughed! And I get it, it’s funny, but it’s also true—the salmon DID die in terror and agony. And that’s not funny.
Sarah: Will you talk about “After” and its role in the book? (Again, really enjoyed. Ready for the novel spin-off.)
Mark Folse: It’s wry, a type of ironic humor that is hard to do.
Kathleen Ossip: Ha ha ha. I actually do want to write a novel. But “After” is the first (and so far only) short story I’ve written (as a grown-up). I love reading fiction, though, and wanted to try my hand at it. Also, at that point in the book’s narrative, after the death of A., I felt that logical next step would be to explore the idea of the afterlife. And I wanted to do it as if it were not speculative but real. I wanted the afterlife to have some reality in the world of the book. The only way I could figure out to do that was as fiction. I’m no Dante.
Ellen: Did your publisher have any qualms about including a short story in a book of poetry? Or do they leave that sort of thing entirely up to you?
Brian S: Nobody’s Dante. 🙂 And that’s probably for the best.
Also, this is where I admit thinking “this is the longest prose poem I’ve ever read.”
Kathleen Ossip: Sort of a combination of both, Ellen. My wonderful publisher, Sarah Gorham, did say that she usually resists the idea of combining poetry and prose into one book. But she also liked that particular story and felt it did work in this particular book.
Sarah: Yes, I really like it in play with poems like the one that says, I believe it and I don’t believe it, which I can’t find and properly quote right now. It’s like, where does this book stand? And I really appreciated that.
Mark Folse: I wonder how many poets are also fans of imaginative fiction, of magical realism.
Brian S: *raises hand*
Dana: After (heh) I read “After” and went back through and re-read some poems, I found that the tranquility of the afterlife portrayed in the short story kept coming back to me… I saw it each time a poem mentioned plant life or nature and it was a nice reminder that there’s always a little magic here on earth too.
James: Hi Kathleen. As death seems the major theme of this book of poems, I wonder if you could tell us a little about your religious (or areligious) influences.
Kathleen Ossip: It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we need our labels! I see the discomfort about labels around Citizen now too. But I don’t think of “After” as a hybrid or as poem-y in any way. It’s a pretty traditional mainstream short story.
Re my religious influences: I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school for 12 years. Nuff said?
Ellen: Great point about labeling. I too found myself wondering, is this a poem or a short story?
Brian S: I find it interesting that the most vivid descriptions of the afterlife (to me) have come from non-sacred texts.
Kathleen Ossip: The afterlife was not merely a speculation, for me as a kid. It was every bit as real as the “real” world.
Brian, can you give some examples?
Dana: Life After Life by Raymond A. Moody Jr. is one I can think of personally
Kathleen Ossip: And I think that sense of the world being magical that Dana mentioned also comes from my Catholic upbringing.
Brian S: Well, we’ve already mentioned Dante. Merrill’s Changing Light at Sandover. Milton. Ann Carson’s take on Geryon in Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>. Compare that to the incredible lack of detail in the Bible about heaven, except in some parts of Revelation, Daniel, and Ezekiel.
Kathleen Ossip: Interesting!
Mark Folse: I loved that the dead you did not know were shadowy and unapproachable. A nice touch, worth of Murakami or Borges. It gave a perfectly reasonable texture to the unreasonable. And yes, the magic of the mass and ritual. It’s hard to shake.
Sarah: (I think my first depiction of the afterlife was All Dogs Go to Heaven.)
Brian S: I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Very different view of the afterlife.
Ellen: I only did seven years of Catholic school but have that same sense of the afterlife. I may not agree with that particular faith any more but those nuns sure do a good job of instilling a belief in the hereafter 🙂
Brian S: That’s awesome Sarah.
Kathleen Ossip: And the line someone just quoted “This I don’t believe or disbelieve.” Even though I try to be rational (I try!), I will never shake that deeply ingrained reality of Catholic belief. So I’m ambivalent about most things most of the time.
Kathleen Ossip: What is the JW view, Brian?
Sarah: Even without religious beliefs, I think it’s very easy to feel a conflict over believing and disbelieving in an afterlife.
Kathleen Ossip: Yes, it’s hard to imagine the sensation of all that pulsing energy and consciousness just stopping.
Brian S: There will be a resurrection to earthly life of the faithful, except for a (relatively) small number who will go to heaven. No hell–death means an end to life. Oh and the earth will be returned to an Edenic paradise where humans will have everlasting life.
Sarah: Do we have to be nude?
Dana: Well, I just learned something new!
Kathleen Ossip: I have actually used JW tracts (which the nice JW’s leave when they come to the door) as source texts for poems. The language tends to be so clear and definitive about things that are so unclear and indefinite.
Dana: Mark, that line stood out to me for the same reason.
Brian S: Sarah, in the artist’s renderings, everyone was clothed. I don’t know if they felt there was a scriptural basis for that or if they were just prudish. Probably the latter.
Kathleen, they’re very sure that they and only they have it right. They are not ecumenicists, even though they’re mostly polite about it.
Mark Folse: I wanted to ask about “Ode,” and flipping back this line jumped out at me after talking about “After”: “Or will see her in shortgrass, summerly.” It seems you are speaking of before death, but that is such a beautiful image, suggesting some place of immortality.
Kathleen Ossip: About “Ode”: At that point in the narrative, A.’s illness has just become real to the speaker (me). She’s in that state, which we all know, of wondering what’s going to happen, and when. She (I) seems to need this imaginary man as a companion in this time of uncertainty. The shortgrass I actually thought of as a burial plot, which she (I) knows is where the story, and the poem, must end.
Brian S: Speaking of, where did the line “The Lord God Yehovah is as vengeful as the moon” come from, because holy crap that’s a great line. It’s from the poem “Ghost Moon.”
Sarah: I loved “No Use” and thought of it again because Citizen came up and it reminded me of Citizen in its “the facts” and “a poem” work that it’s doing. Do you want to talk about that poem at all?
Mark Folse: I probably could have guessed Catholic school survivor by the line “wimpled by unknowing”.
Kathleen Ossip: Thanks, Brian! “Ghost Moon,” as anyone who’s a Plath nut like me must know, is an homage/ripoff of SP’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree.” I used that poem as a template, so I’m sure that line was a riff on one of her lines.
Brian S: That was another great turn of phrase, Mark.
Ellen: So many great lines throughout this book. I was underlining all over the place. One of my favorites is “For what is the purpose of judgment, with its snap-snap?’ (from “A. in January”)
Dana: Thank you for the excuse to jump up and grab Ariel off my shelf.
Kathleen Ossip: And, speaking of Plath, on to “No use.” I actually found the note from Aurelia Plath at the Lilly Library in Indiana, which houses the SP archive. I had never seen it mentioned in any of SP’s bios, and believe me, I’ve read them all. I had to find some way to write about it. I tried to write an essay, but the best I could do was this poem-like thing.
Sarah: Poem-like things are awesome.
Kathleen Ossip: Thank you, Ellen. I still don’t know what the purpose of judgment is.
Ellen: I happened to be reading Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman when I read your poem. I can’t believe she didn’t use it. Must not have seen it!
Kathleen Ossip: I know! I love The Silent Woman. It’s the most intelligent of the biographies, I think. (But it’s not a true biography.)
Ellen: I wish she would update it with all that’s gone on since.
Kathleen Ossip: If she did, Ellen, I would be first in line to buy it.
Brian S: How long did it take you to write this book?
Kathleen Ossip: Um, how long did it take to write the book? I think about 3-4 years. But you know how it is writing a book of poems. You start out just noodling around, discarding a lot of crap, and then at some point you see a coherence and a momentum and then it goes fast.
Hope: Agreed, Ellen. So many beautiful lines in this book. Kathleen, I read through the poems a few times and after each read came away with something new. I truly enjoyed reading your book.
Kathleen Ossip: Thank you, Hope!
I think poem-like things is where we’re all headed (getting back to the issue of labels).
Mark Folse: How do you reconcile “poem-like things” with the acrostics, and structure? All poems are poem-like things. They shock you like dragging your feet across the carpet and say, “Poetry!” There are simply different ways to wire up the effect.
Brian S: “Poem-like things” reminds me of a poet I heard read years ago–don’t even know who it was–who said the poems she was reading were from her “second manuscript, excuse me, I mean lengthy Word document.”
Kathleen Ossip: Great question and observations, Mark! Even though I love poetic form, I’m not sure most readers or poets care that much about it at this point? I think? I think the melding of poetic brevity and intensity with prose may be the future? I don’t know how much of this I believe but this is what it seems like to me right now…
Ha ha! But I love the magical moment when the lengthy word document does turn into a manuscript.
Dana: I’m always curious about “the writing life” of different poets. Do you find the need to write every day or do you have any specific writing rituals (I know this is a boring question… sorry!)?
Brian S: I’m curious about that as well, as someone who struggles to write fairly often.
Kathleen Ossip: It is a classic question, Dana! I resist routine and whenever I try to impose it on myself I rebel against it. For me, writing is very much guided by impulse, intuition, inspiration. But recently, especially with the idea of writing a novel, I have tried to put in at least some time every day. It helps that I have a sabbatical semester.
Brian S: What are you working on now?
Kathleen Ossip: I’m at the noodling stage with poems right now, writing individual poems for pleasure, with no project or theme in mind. I’m writing my second short story, and then I want to plunge into a novel.
Ellen: Who are some of your favorite poets?
Kathleen Ossip: Ellen: My favorite poets: Plath, Bishop, Berryman, Pound. Two grandmas and two grandpas. And throw in O’Hara as a marvelous uncle.
Mark Folse: Given the poems’ autobiographical nature, if A.’s grandchildren are all ‘tweens, how to you manage to find time to write around that? I work from home, alone in silence on conference calls, with many other people wrassling children, dogs, etc.
Kathleen Ossip: Mark: My daughter is actually 16 now, and I feel liberated. When she was little, I found that the extremely limited time I had to write forced me to make use of it, especially at night, when she and my husband were asleep.
Brian S: Mark, Amy and I have had to give each other specific time ever since the twins were born. It helps that we live across the street from a coffee shop, so we can escape the house while still being close enough to return in an emergency.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now Kathleen? Who should we be on the lookout for?
Mark Folse: Will you marry me? Oh, wait, never mind. Just spent a month in The Castle studying Pound, the father of “poem-like things.”
Kathleen Ossip: What I’m reading now: A lot! I am the co-editor of a soon to be launched poetry review website named Scout, so I’m trying to keep up with what my reviewers are writing! But I have recently loved The Open Secret by Jennifer Moxley, who is one of the contemporary poets whose work I most look forward to.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight Kathleen, and for writing such an engaging book.