Kathleen Ossip with Jasmine Dreame Wagner

Kathleen Ossip
Kathleen Ossip

This interview focuses on Ossip’s book The Cold War (Sarabande, 2011).

Jasmine Dreame Wagner: When I think of the Cold War, I think of stalemates, secrecy and pervasive, unspoken anxiety. I think of difficult, uncomfortable alliances between powerful forces. Could you speak a little bit about why you chose The Cold War as the title for this collection of poems? If not a literal reference to a historical period, how are you using the historical period metaphorically?

Kathleen Ossip: The impulse for the book began as a bewilderment with the (post-9/11) present—how did we (as individuals and as a nation) get into our current predicament? By predicament, I mean the whole mess of hostility, anxiety, repression, compulsion that seems to dominate our culture and society. That mess looked very reminiscent of the Cold War period to me (which, remember, lasted from the end of World War II all the way through to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989). So I started to wonder about the trajectory—how we got from there to here—and started to explore that wondering in poems. As a title, I expected The Cold War to have a resonance both as a historical marker and as a metaphorical one for an interior struggle.

JDW: One poem in particular that I’m fascinated by is “The Nervousness of Yvor Winters.” This poem feels exactly like what you’re describing: an exploration of the intersection between text as historical marker and chronicle of an internal struggle, both Yvor’s and the narrator’s.

One thing that struck me about “The Nervousness . . . ” was the aesthetic of failure in Winters’s text, how his judgments and criticisms of his contemporaries reveal more about his own internal struggle than they do about the works he was critiquing. His judgments failed to stand the test of time. By bringing his work into a contemporary context, it feels almost as though his efforts are showcased like a dated appliance in a museum of design.

Do you have any thoughts on an aesthetic of failure in contemporary poetry? Does a contemporary poem perform “failure” by skirting narrative or breaking into fragment?

KO: I think that any rigid judgment is a failure—failure of the imagination and failure of the heart. Yvor Winters’s work was tied up in making rigid judgments. I’m disheartened by the fact that you can’t gather three poets around a table—I’d say any kind of artist, but for some reason poets seem particularly prone to this (maybe because of their articulateness and maybe because their art is seen as so devalued that the poor things are on the defensive)—anyway, those three poets around the table are inevitably going to start making judgments about the work of other poets. And they mean well, but I think our energies are better spent in appreciating or even honoring all of the voices, approaches, works, we can get. Variousness is an important part of seeing reality.

Now, I’m all for an aesthetics of failure. It’s the only kind of aesthetics I’d put my money on. If you’re not risking failure, at every moment, you’re probably risking boring yourself and your readers. I’m definitely attracted to the brink of failure, and feeling I’ve failed is an important part of the process for me.

It’s interesting that you tie this feeling of failure to narrative. There’s nothing I feel more like a failure at than creating narratives. I’ve been working on a particular narrative poem (at least I want it to carry a narrative) for two years, and I can’t get it right. What to put in, what to leave out? How to do justice to the complexity of “what happened”? We can’t be human without telling ourselves stories, but it’s so easy to oversimplify stories, and that sense of falseness we get from an overly simplified narrative is, I guess, the reason for the fragmentation and irony that has seemed so necessary in contemporary narrative poetry. Still, I think there’s a huge hunger for narratives in poetry—I know I feel it—and one of the things that is starting to feed that hunger is the explosion in documentary poems and books we’re now seeing.

JDW: I seem to be reading a lot of New Narrative poetry these days—also, poems that skirt narrative while remaining intensely personal—that neither emulate form nor do away with it altogether, instead, weaving formal references into a new kind of quilt. What forms or formal relations do you envision will gain traction in the future?

KO: Speaking only for myself, and this is nothing like a poetics but only a taste, I have a hankering for poems that are either clearly verse or clearly prose. I have very little interest in writing what’s called “free verse.” If a poem doesn’t sing like verse, I’ve been feeling, it might as well be in prose. In terms of trends, I see an increasing interest in using prose in more fluid and flexible ways to create poems—instead of the old “prose poem” form that looks like a paragraph or two of block text, I’ve been seeing “lines” of poetry that are composed of sentences or groups of sentences, and prose passages that use line breaks. This is an extension of the prosification of poetry that exploded with modernism, and I’ve been using it a lot in recent poems.

JDW: Not to spend this entire interview on “The Nervousness of Yvor Winters,” but I see exactly what you’re talking about—the increasing interest in the prosification of poetry—in this poem, how the lines of the poem desperately want to become full prose blocks yet stubbornly resist the prose form, using space and break to avoid lapsing into biography, essay, memoir, short story. “The Nervousness . . . ” provides enough narrative for the reader to intuit Yvor’s inner struggle, to feel as though she knows him, but doesn’t give enough of his biography to actually know, to document, to argue definitively. The poem is a poem, not a psychological case study.

On that note, by suggesting that the state of Winters’s health ran parallel to his inner logic, and thus his line of criticism, you have implied a continuity, a parallel, between the subjectivity of an author’s body and the objectivity of her written works, something that is taboo in many lines of criticism. Any thoughts or opinions on the interplay between the subjective being and her objective self?

KO: I’m a bit of a crank on this subject: I believe pretty strongly that any of the productions, expressions, manifestations of anyone—physical, intellectual, emotional—are connected to and affected by all the others. There is no mind/body divide—that divide is just a limited way of thinking that may be useful in some limited situations. When I get a physical symptom, my first thought isn’t “What can I take to get rid of this?” It’s “Why am I feeling this way at this time?” There’s usually a pretty compelling answer. Like I said, I am a crank about this and I try not to be too dogmatic about it with other people—but I usually find it more fruitful to try to see the big picture. And since Winters was so dogmatic in his criticism of poets I love, I didn’t feel too guilty about putting him on the couch.

JDW: While reading this poem, and many others in the book, I experienced a feeling similar to observing a ruined modern or Victorian building. Living in suburban Connecticut, I see these older, unfashionable structures abandoned for new construction all the time (and now, new construction left empty due to the recession). Sometimes, people or businesses move into these houses and renovate them; sometimes, people move in and change nothing. Sometimes, the structures are razed to the ground. I can’t help but equate verse form with architectural form, structural erosion with the proliferation of the fragment, and emptiness with an evasion of meaning. Some poets defend “meaning,” some eschew “meaning” altogether. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on the remnants or futures of “meaning” in poetry.

KO: I’m a pretty frugal person and poet, and it bothers the hell out of me that something usable could be thrown away. I want to use old structures where I can as much as I want to create new forms, and I don’t see why I’d have to choose between those two affinities.

But I think “meaning” can and does and has to happen with either approach. My experience is that when I use old structures, I have to distance myself from old (more direct?) styles of meaning and vice versa. I’m kind of uncomfortable talking about meaning. There are so many ways to mean, and fragmentation is one of them. Accretion is another one that’s very important to me: if you keep applying language around a subject, it’s going to end up making a meaning. Also, as I tell my students, meaning can only be made in the interaction between reader and text; there’s a continuum of how much control a writer tries to keep over the meaning in his/her text—sometimes I like more control, sometimes less, but the control is never absolute.

JDW: When I think of “control” in poetry, I tend to think of formal verse and its elements, rhyme and meter. One thing that struck me was how edgy and dangerous your end-rhymed poems feel. Tightly controlled, but flashy and dangerous, like sports cars or amusement park rides. I felt uncomfortable reading these poems, like I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying something so constricted, so confined, yet so splashy and decadent in the way they luxuriate in the obvious consonance of their sound. End rhyme feels manipulative and dated to me, oblivious to its own implications of logical endings and bow-tied happily-ever-afters, reminiscent of promises in Hallmark cards and in advertising jingles.

It’s not uncommon for poets these days to experiment with verse form (Ben Lerner’s “Lichtenberg Figures” and Stephanie Strickland’s “Wave.Son.Nets” are two stand-out collections.) End rhyming, however, is not as common. Perhaps that’s part of why your end rhyming feels transgressive.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the formal elements of your work. Why, in this “skittery” moment we are experiencing where the fragment reigns, have you chosen to explore the end-rhyme and its implications of continuity and closure?

KO: I like rhyme. It’s an elemental, physical pleasure and a gift to the reader. I think people feel uncomfortable with end-rhymed poetry because rhyme seems outmoded and at this point in the history of English-language poetry it’s hard to avoid the association of rhyme with doggerel. There are definitely lots of things I couldn’t accomplish in a rhymed poem, but I swear if I go too long without rhyming I hear Louise Bogan whispering, “What about me?”

The rhyming poems in The Cold War are pretty blatant—they’re rhymes you can really hear, partially because they’re in the context of metered, end-stopped lines. They’re not tasteful or subtle in any way, and I can see why you’d connect them to ads, greeting card verse, and political slogans. I don’t think I was conscious of this connection when I was writing them, but those echoes do reinforce the social criticism aspect of the book. But I have to admit that my only conscious objective in writing rhymed poems is because I like to and because I can. I don’t want to feel I have to forsake anything in poetry’s big, big bag of tricks.

And I’m hardly alone in writing rhymed poems at the moment. Just off the top of my head I can think of marvelous rhymed poems by Brenda Shaughnessy, Susan Wheeler, Craig Teicher, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Devin Johnston, among many, many others.


Kathleen Ossip (http://www.kathleenossip.com) is the author of The Cold War, which was a finalist for The Believer Poetry Award and was one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2011; The Search Engine, winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Derek Walcott; and one chapbook, Cinephrastics. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review, the Washington Post, Fence, The Believer, and Poetry Review (London). She teaches at The New School in New York, where she was a founding editor of LIT, and she’s the poetry editor of Women’s Studies Quarterly. Kathleen has received a fellowship in poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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