One of the probably false oppositions that often gets set up in conversations about poetry is the one imagined between what D.H. Lawrence called “the poetry of the present” and what I heard Dean Young once call “the poetry of steady light.” Young himself is not a practitioner of the poetry of steady light, and he said so with rueful reverence for what he described as its focused gaze at one thing. I think of Rilke’s poem about the panther. The “poetry of the present,” on the other hand, can be breathless, quick, casual, leaping from field to field and subject to subject, a sprezzatura’s sprezzatura, hurtling here and there as Young does in his work, or, as the more earnest but nonetheless roving diaristic poems of Joanne Kyger do, poems that gather as widely and unfastidiously as life itself coming at you.
Whether such an opposition exists or not, Kathleen Ossip is a poet who refuses it, who comes down firmly on both sides of the issue. (And maybe that’s fitting: for many of us, there’s no light steadier than the Twitter notifications flashing from our phones every few moments.) In the case of July, out this summer from Sarabande, Ossip again refuses the opposition over the course of a book. She moves from — one could say fuses — a long poem in the style of journal entries to the “rigor” (her word) of a sequence of almost-sonnets, thirteen lines each, rhymes often assonantal or otherwise askew so that they are muted, structuring the poems but in the background. There are a few individual lyrics that seem a blend of both modes, including an imagined conversation with a steadfast but mysterious robin. The long poem records and meditates upon, as in a diary, and in beautiful (I want to say natural, like raindrops) smattering lines, a trip that she took with her daughter in the summer of 2016 from New York to Minnesota to Florida, as the storm of Donald Trump built and built. Many of the poems were drafted in the hotel room after each day on the road. They record the travails of Disney World. The catching, sometimes, of the irreducible and fleeting peace of the seasons and the weather. The bad news emanating from every crevice of America.
The book’s second long poem, “The Goddess,” comes on the heels of this, the speaker imagining and narrating her transformation, for a time, into something divine. The poem’s tighter music feels like a bulwark, or a try at such a bulwark, against the storm that’s erupting. The country’s political imagination becomes a wasteland. “I saw the slivered moon, lonesome and mournful,” she writes. I “saw a rack of miniskirts in American Apparel; / an unshaded bulb in an unshaded window; / people fucking without affection” and “poems gone viral.” Even the popularity of a poem in these lines feels ominous, as if its virality is rooted in some catastrophe the poem is but a sign of. And yet the body resists entropy, keeps reaching for a music, even if that music is only the sound of our plumbing the void. “The question,” writes Ossip, “stays green wherever we seed it.”
JN: You’ve described in recent years a trajectory in your work that seems to lead toward directness. Away from opacity in your poems, at least to a certain degree. Do you think this book continues that course? How is something like “candor” similar and different from “directness,” at least for you? I’m curious – it feels related, somehow – to the way your newest book turns, in “The Goddess,” when you’re writing about (and “about” is a dangerous word, I know) recent political events in the United States: I’m curious why the speaker of that poem feels that “rigor” is the necessary response?
KO: I know I’ve said that I wanted my poetry to become more direct. An interviewer asked me about my first book, “Why don’t you just say what you mean?” That was really shocking to hear because of course I thought I was. I’m less concerned about directness these days. In writing July, I wanted it all: connection with a reader and fidelity to my inner experience, which, like all inner experience, has a complexity that doesn’t necessarily yield to a simplified declaration. I have more trust now, trust that urgent poems that speak their own language find their readers. My poems are direct about their concerns. Their concerns veer off in all kinds of directions and have or borrow any number of voices! I’ve always been attracted to poems that put everything in. So whether my poems have the same kind of directness that other kinds of texts can have, I’m not sure, and I’m not sure it matters to me.
What feels indispensable about poetry is its ability to let the reader, me, inhabit an imaginative space. Of course, other kinds of writing can do that, but not to the extent poetry can. There are some poems I read that make me feel the sense of possibility and magic that reading fairy tales did when I was a kid. I don’t mean an escape from reality; I mean a sense that the unexpected, even the unimagined, can take place. In the case of poetry, of course, it’s not elves and candy houses; it’s new states of emotion and consciousness, individual or communal.
I love the word “candor.” I remember reading a poem once (I think it was in Rachel Zucker’s first book) that used “candor” as part of a sentence, but on a line by itself, surrounded by space. That gesture felt like candor itself, which (I just looked it up) originally was used in the sense of purity, innocence, freedom from bias, or malice. Anyway, to answer your question about candor versus directness, I think candor is more about content, and directness more about delivery systems. Maybe? I can try out various language delivery systems with my eyes closed and my hands behind my back, but getting to candor, to best thought… that’s a more arduous, interior, and intuitive process—at least eighty percent of my task as a poet. Because it involves stripping away all of the garbage and defenses and received responses that make up my (anyone’s) outer layers.
In practice, it all happens simultaneously: shaping and thinking and checking against experience, in a kind of timeless, boundaryless zone or space. But it can be helpful to think about these elements as separate, as a way in to understanding what a poem is up to.
And I think this relates to rigor: wanting to get things right, not in a facile or formal way (though form is important) but as close to some kind of truth as I can. The rigor comes in not settling for less than that.
Thank you for using the word “speaker” to talk about the main character in “The Goddess.” I usually freely avow that the “I” in my poems is me, and that’s certainly true in most of this book, but anyone who reads “The Goddess” should conclude that it isn’t based on actual circumstances! Because (spoiler) I never actually turned into a goddess. But the first section, where she reacts to the 2016 US presidential election by craving rigor, reflects my real-life reaction. It would have been all too easy to feel apocalyptic anxiety and despair, and I did, but I needed to push beyond, so I wouldn’t collapse into a pile of miserable goo, which would benefit no one. For whatever reason, I decided that Dante’s Paradiso might feel like a rigorous antidote, a reasoned — at least he sets it up as reasoned — way to see toward some light. As in the poem, I crowd-sourced a translation via social media and settled on Sinclair’s prose. Dante’s always been important to me — talk about inhabiting an imaginative space and putting everything in! I love how scrupulously, even crankily, he created this other world as a way to make some sense of his experiences in this world. What a glorious way to figure things out! As a poet, I’m most engaged when I’m trying to figure out something that I don’t understand. The poems are steps along that path.