Jasmine Dreame Wagner: Tell me a little bit about “Wyoming”—both state and verb—in your poem “State Report.” I love how I feel both the pleasure of play and of conceptual shift when the state’s proper noun is used as gerund. A proper noun of a state names both a region of land and an organized political entity, as a gerund names an action of a verb. Can you talk a little about this kind of naming and how you came to title your collection “Wyoming”?
Jasmine Dreame Wagner: Tell me about your choice of title: x. Is “x” a variable, a value that could and might change within the context of a system? Is a poem like a mathematical function where, in the act of writing, you can search for and define a feeling or a thing? Or is “x” a Roman numeral? Does it refer to a street address, something secret you are counting or counting down from?
Dan Chelotti: At first, x was a mistake. Before McSweeney’s ever saw the manuscript, I was unhappy with the title, so I took the title off and replaced it with an “x”—a variable—and asked my friend, one of my most trusted editors, for some suggestions. My editors at McSweeney’s asked this friend if he knew of any books worth looking at, and he sent them my book. Next thing I knew, my editors were in touch asking if they could publish x. I agreed, and it took me a couple days to tell them that “x” wasn’t the title. They went on to mount some serious arguments in favor of x, and it didn’t take them long to convince me. x is any and all of the things you mention, or it has the potential to be any of those things. When my editors started fighting for x, I reveled in the potential for questions like yours—that “x” would be pushed around by the reader and turned into a Roman numeral, or a variable, or a street address, or a million other things that I haven’t thought of yet! Actually, the process through which a reader will take on the title is not all that different from the process I used to write this book: I would be on a walk or a drive thinking drifting thoughts, and I would say, Hey, I can make a poem out of leftover sushi; I can make a poem out of anything. In the same way, the reader can attribute all sorts of poetic meanings to x. It’s easy to proliferate a list of things it could be (an old lover, a warning label, a treasure map) but at it’s heart it is a little glitch that appears in the system that can’t be accounted for—a mistake that, if you can accept it, will take on a life of its own.
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.