Kathleen Ossip is the celebrated author of The Cold War (named one of Publisher's Weekly 100 Best Books of 2011), The Search Engine (which was selected by Derek Walcott for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize), and the recent play The Status Seekers. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, and the Washington Post. She teaches at The New School, including the upcoming Summer Writers Colony. I spoke with her about the variety of her work, her experiences editing WSQ and LIT, and the effects of cinema on her poetics.
Roberto Montes: Your play-in-verse, The Status Seekers, had a stage reading earlier this month at The Medicine Show Theatre. How would you say the experience of writing a play differs from writing poetry? Are there any points of intersection?
Kathleen Ossip: It didn't feel all that different. For me, writing a poem is always about listening for voices. Usually the voices are pretty disembodied and free-floating, and often they're pieces of me. But with The Status Seekers, the voices attached themselves to a specific time (Mad Men-era) and place (the burbs) and to specific characters. What was different, and a real revelation, was hearing actors speak my lines. I'm in awe of what they do, how they projected emotion from lines that were often pretty oblique and repressed. I cried. And laughed.
RM: In your chapbook, Cinephrastics, each poem is comprised of a 9-10 line stanza meditating on contemporary cinema in brief, discursive verse. How did you find the form for these poems, and which of the films first inspired this series?
KO: Cinephrastics is the result of a deal I made with myself. I told myself that I would write a poem for every movie I saw. It was a way to force myself to see movies. I was going through a period where it was unbearable for me to watch a movie -- they seemed so predictable and constrained, so slow and so overlong, even the good ones. I have a very low threshold for boredom. So getting a poem was the reward for seeing the movie. That was the inspiration, rather than any particular film. But I'm pretty sure that the first poem in the chapbook – The Godfather, Part III – was the first one I saw, and wrote. Talk about slow and overlong! I think the compact form was a reaction to my impatience. And the poems use syllabic lines – it's always fun to count syllables.
RM: Your poetry collections have varied widely in form and you’ve recently written a play; what forms and structures are you working with now?
KO: It's true, I love exploring different forms -- it's another way to keep myself from getting bored. I just finished my third full-length book of poems, called The Do-Over. It includes a lot of acrostics for people who've died fairly recently, some for celebrities (Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, Donna Summer) and some for someone I loved who's now gone. Other forms in the book are prose poems, two long poems, one with a rather hysterical voice a la the best of Sylvia Plath, syllabics, and a long fictional prose piece (aka short story).
RM: How is being the poetry editor for the critical journal Women’s Studies Quarterly different from your past editing experiences, such as with LIT? What kind of work do you look for?
KO: WSQ is a journal of women's studies published by the Feminist Press. Most of the journal is filled with academic essays, but for every issue, I get to sneak in 10-15 pages of poems. Each issue centers around a theme (for example, the issue we just closed was Fashion, and the next one will be Debt) and while the essays address the theme directly, the poems get to be slant. I love seeing just how slant they can be! I always look for poems that surprise me with their beauty and their meaning and the way those two things play off each other. A sense of urgency is a must, and a sense that something fresh and new is happening in the poem. That holds true for LIT too, but with LIT we aren't tied to a theme.
RM: We’re excited to have you back teaching the poetry workshop at the Summer Writers Colony this June. What has been your experience as an instructor in such a focused and intensive program?
KO: The Summer Writers Colony is always the high point of my teaching year. Over and over, I've found the experience to be life-changing for the students I work with – and for me. I'm always inspired by the progress that my students make and by their openness to try new approaches. Spending time with them every day for three weeks allows me to get to know them and their writing, their goals and their resistances, in ways that just aren't possible in a typical once-a-week semester-long workshop. We all get comfortable with each other real fast – and then the fun begins.
Kathleen Ossip's poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, the Washington Post, The Believer, A Public Space, and Poetry Review (London). She teaches at The New School, including for the Summer Writers Colony, and online for The Poetry School in London. She has received a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and grants from Yaddo, Ragdale, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. You can follow her on Twitter @KathleenOssip.
Roberto Montes's first collection, I DON'T KNOW DO YOU, is forthcoming from Ampersand Books in 2014. His chapbook, HOW TO BE SINCERE IN YOUR POETRY WORKSHOP, will be released this Fall by NAP. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Best of the Net 2011 Anthology; Forklift, Ohio; ILK; Sixth Finch; and Hot Street among others. He lives in Queens. You can follow him on Twitter @robertogmontes.