Kathleen Ossip’s The Do-Over, her fourth book of poems, is a study in poetic crosshatching as it slashes moments of recollection and longing with that of inquiry and curiosity. The speaker functions as a character within her own life, a character in the life of long-lost relatives, (too old for her to remember), and a character in conversation and contemplation with dead writers like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The collection brings the reader into Ossip’s life as a mother, pop-culture fan, poet, and as a young 20-something trying to find success in Manhattan. Her poems are as complex in form, as they are in intensity; this is a layered book about the loss of her step mother-in-law, but also about the near-loss of the selfhood of a young woman. Readers familiar with her book, The Cold War, will enjoy a similar narrative and reflection into the many worlds we straddle in a single day.
Leah Umansky: This collection not only weaves between different voices and forms of writing (such as prose poems, formal poems and experimental poems) but also between dreams and visions. How did this book inform your choice of form, as a poet?
Kathleen Ossip: As for the question about form: I’m easily bored. Sameness makes me itch. I’m not a reader who likes to read the same kind of book or poem all the time. As a writer, if I can do many different kinds of things, why wouldn’t I want to?
To be utterly transparent, the shape and texture of this book were inspired by what’s probably my favorite album of all time, Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. It’s this big album of songs by three very different singer/songwriters and I love the way the different kinds of songs (some raucous, some dreamy, some bouncy, some just plain weird, etc.) and the different voices create this epic harmony and polyphony that’s almost novel-like. And the subject of the novel is heterosexual love, and you get all these different facets, narratives, shadings around that subject. I wanted to do something similar around the Grand Subject (of Death) in my book.
I also found, predictably I guess, that some things I wanted to explore in the book could only be achieved by using certain forms. The best example of this is the short story, “After.” The book follows the dying and death of A. At a certain point in that narrative, I realized I would need to confront the idea of an afterlife—really, the desire for an afterlife—and I couldn’t figure out how to do that in a poem, because I wanted to make the afterlife seem and feel real. So I wrote my first and so far only short story.
LU: The Do-Over seems as much an elegy to your step-mother-in-law, Andrea Forster Ossip (referred to simply as A. throughout the book) as it is an elegy to the past.
KO: I think of my previous book, The Cold War, as the one “about” the past. But I guess all elegies are looks back.
LU: I found this book to be very much like a self-help book, in the best way possible. Through addressing and accepting loss, we find understanding and in that understanding, a guide to life. In this book, you have a series of “A. in ____ “ poems, for your late step-mother. In “A. in May,” you say, “…We are still studying. Each of us one cell in a universe of process” Can you elaborate on this process you mention?
KO: No matter how much you think you understand death, death is a bewilderment. But I actually believe I understand very little. I think often of the Wallace Stevens title “How to Live. What to Do.” That’s why I need poetry, as a reader and a writer: to figure out how to live and what to do.
LU: I agree, we need poetry for that exact reason. As a female poet, how much of your writing would you say is “feminist”? Is it something you sought after in your work? After all, this is the age of #readwomen 2015.
KO: At a certain point last summer, there were a great many public debates going on that I just couldn’t fathom. I remember clearly that one of them began when a professional football player was arrested for hitting his small child. And then the debate began: Is it ever OK to hit a child? Athletic organizations weighed in , and religious groups, and the usual talking heads and bloggers. And SMH, as the kids say. I couldn’t believe that this debate was happening. To me, it’s obvious that no, we don’t hit kids (or anyone else).
That’s how I feel about feminism. Of course! It’s a question that shouldn’t have to be asked. What is there to debate? But feminism as a subject doesn’t automatically presents itself to me as fruitful for poems—I’m not saying this is a good thing, just that my head is in that other “no debate necessary” place. Social criticism plays a part in some of my poems and since I move through the social world as a woman, there’s bound to be a feminist stance.
More specifically, some of my poems come out of motherhood, and that kind of assertion is feminist, I think. Also, there’s a Great Man character in some of The Do-Over poems who’s both a patriarchal figure, an agent of death, and someone to be empathized with as completely clueless.
Beyond that, I believe that writing poems is a political act in all sorts of ways (the importance of the individual voice, the utterly free space the best poems inhabit) so since my politic beliefs encompass feminism, the poems do too.
LU: One of my favorite poems in your book is “Lyric,” you make the argument that it is odd that our society often makes villains out of women who “think they are great.” Men boast about their greatness all of the time. What’s wrong with women thinking highly about themselves? How would you say this is addressed in The Do-Over ?
KO: I’m glad you like “Lyric,” thank you! I felt unsure about that poem, which seemed histrionic to the point of absurdity—on the other hand, I knew that I meant every single word of it. I wanted it to be histrionic in the Plathian mode, not as an ironic pastiche but as an homage and a continuation. I wasn’t sure it would play in the 21st century.
I grew up in a middle-class family, with immigrant, working-class grandparents. I encountered an attitude where people were encouraged not to believe themselves better than the rest of the family, that “getting above one’s station” was cause for mockery or even anger. There’s some kind of fear behind that attitude, I haven’t exactly figured out how, but it seems like a class-based attitude.
LU: Poetry Magazine published some of your elegies that referenced celebrities like Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, and Donna Summer (to name a few). What I love about those poems is that they are not just about one’s connection to an icon, but really to one’s understanding of society. It shows a poet thinking about our modern world, through the lens of the media, and using it to propel their own thoughts. Just because a poem is about pop culture, doesn’t mean it is not a serious poem.
In your poem, “Amy Winehouse,” you say, “When a desire to escape becomes formal, / it’s dangerous. Then escape requires/ Nullity, rather than a walk in the park or a movie” (38). One typically doesn’t associate the death of a loved one to the death of a celebrity, so what inspired these poems?
KO: I found that when Andy/A. was sick and then dying, over the course of about 2 years, I had a heightened awareness of death all around me, wherever I looked. I’m also just plain interested in celebrities. They seem to fill the same needs that the pantheon of gods filled in classical culture—each with their own devotees and attributes. They’re lightning rods for our wishes and desires and fantasies. So their deaths are bound to be emotional experiences.
LU: I love that notion of “lightning rods!” You so often take something traditional, and make it strange and beautiful. In your series of A poems, you are also using Acrostics. What a great way to both write about your step mother-in-law, and honor her with poetic form. What brought on this formal writing?
KO: I’m a nut for form. I can’t write if I don’t feel a shape or form first to contain whatever language I generate. Of course, this doesn’t always mean a traditional, received form. Acrostics are especially meaningful to me. The first poem that made an impression on me as a kid, besides nursery rhymes, was the acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking Glass, which spells out the real Alice’s full name. Mind: blown! I couldn’t believe you could do that with words.
LU: It is interesting to look back and see what stimulated you as a child, isn’t it? Almost more so, when you’re a writer.
In “After,” you created a short story , essentially, something unexpected and thrilling to read in a poetry collection. This reminded me of some of Rachel Zucker’s writing, where a meditation on life finds itself on the edge of narrative. This story challenges not only the reader’s notion of reality but also the notion of life as we know it. As in some of the other poems in this collection, the speaker is trying to find her own logic in how the world works by addressing loss, but, here, this speaker is grasping at how to use that logic in her day-to-day life. How was writing this story different from writing some of the longer, narrative poems in the book, like “No Use,” or “On Sadness”?
KO: I consider “After” a short story, and a pretty traditional one. It’s got characters, plot, narrator, beginning, middle, and end. As I said above, it’s the first short story I’ve written (as a grownup, I wrote lots as a kid) and I found it fantastically difficult. Writing fiction felt like drudgery to this poet—how much I had to explain, spell out, dots that had to be connected. At the same time, it also felt like a lot of that work could be done by perspiration and didn’t rely as much on inspiration as a poem does. Now that it’s done, I’m eager to write more. And it terms of the sweep of the book, a long conventional narrative felt right there.
LU: In your poem, “On Sadness,” you address an issue, many writers come across:
“A. always asked: What do I feel like doing? I always ask: What should I be?/ Those are two very different ways of being sad” (81).
What do you see as the distinction here? As writers of the the 21st century, we are often inundated with shoulds and coulds and woulds, as it is a challenge just be in the world and live in the present. Of course both men and women encounter this problem, but it’s rarely spoken about in terms of male writers. It’s typically an issue men don’t publicize on social media, or in interviews, but women often do. This book reminded me, as a female poet and writer, to act more and think less. How would you say you address this sort of this inner-conflict, writers often face?
KO: I like your takeaway from my book: Act more, think less. That would be a good motto for me too. I think it’s a motto A./Andy would approve of. The fact that time only moves in one direction (as far as we know) is something I’ve never quite been reconciled to, and a death is the harshest reminder of it. So this book about death is a good argument for acting now rather than later.
Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Do-Over; The Cold War, which was one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2011; The Search Engine, which was selected by Derek Walcott for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize; and Cinephrastics, a chapbook of movie poems. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Magazine Writing, the Washington Post, Paris Review, Poetry, The Believer, A Public Space, and Poetry Review (London). She teaches at The New School and online for The Poetry School of London. She has received a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.