Poet in the Mirror: Kathleen Ossip
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This week, Kathleen Ossip—author of July (available now from Sarabande Books)—shares insight into feminist writings, changing forms throughout poems, and centering her book around a singular month.
On Arranging the Collection
The way this book moves through time is so wonderful to me. It’s descriptive and it lingers for sweet moments before suddenly jumping to a new memory. It gave me the sensation of driving down a long open road with my hand floating out the window, breaking the wind for a moment before letting it take me. Perhaps I’m meant to feel that way, due to the long title poem “July,” about a road trip the speaker takes.
What motivated the poems around “July?” Did you always intend for “July” to be the centerpiece of this collection?
I think I did, at least as soon as I knew it was a collection. Unusually, the three sections appear in the book in the order in which they were written. The long road-trip poem “July” is so big it kind of couldn’t help but be the centerpiece.
July, the month, has always had a special significance. When I was a kid, I loved it–no school, and, for me, no other organized activities, so the gang of neighborhood kids and I ran feral from morning to night. Later on, as a teenager, it was a sad month for me. I went to high school in a different town and so I didn’t have easy access to my friends, and then I missed the structure and purpose of school. Once I grew up and started writing, July became my writing month, when I didn’t have to teach and my daughter went away to camp. A lot of my poems have July in them. July always had an emotional punch, one way or another, so I like the idea of a book called July.
Can you talk through a little bit more about the writing of “July” as a singular poem? It melds forms, changes up its white space, turns to prose and charts, contains lists and even poems within the poem. I’m struck by and in awe of it.
How did this poem come to be, and what was its revision process like?
Thank you! Two things happened: I wanted to write a diary poem, and my daughter graduated from high school. We are a family who love road trips, and we decided that she and I would take one from the northernmost point in the continental US to the southernmost point, before she went to college. That was July 2016. You may remember how infernal that summer was. If you don’t, the poem will remind you. It was infernally hot–and hotter as we progressed–, there were “violent events” on the news every day, and the presidential campaigns were boiling.
Every night, I’d write about what we did and saw that day. Just rambling prose, notes, lists. It wasn’t until later that it took shape in the ways you’re talking about. In fall of 2016, I had a fellowship that allowed me more uninterrupted writing time than I’d ever had before. I spent the first few months of it turning those diary notes into a poem. If I hadn’t had the luxury of all that time, the shape of the poem might not have become so spacious and various.
In real life I’ve never been a regular diary-keeper, but I do love diary poems. One of my favorites, and probably the first I ever read, was David Trinidad’s November, which is a booklength diary of one of the Novembers of his life. When I mentioned to David that I was in the middle of writing a diary poem, he generously sent me pdf’s of some of his favorite examples: James Schuyler’s “A Vermont Diary,” Joanne Kyger’s “The Wonderful Focus of You,” and most influentially, since it involves travel and family, Alice Notley’s “Sorrento.”
The speaker in this collection seems to always be searching for words, dissecting words, defining them in a way that makes sense to her. How would you describe this book’s relationship to language?
Obsessive, enraptured, alert.
On the Pandemic
It seems to me that books always find us when we need them most. July is being published during a pandemic, and in the opening poem “Go,” there were a few lines that struck me as being exactly what I needed to hear at this moment. Namely, “It is the fight in you / and the fight in you dying.” But also “it is a little project called loving the world” and “You can’t let it hurt you. / You must let it hurt you.”
I can only imagine how it feels to be rereading these poems and promoting them during a pandemic. What has been re-energizing you these days? What advice would you offer writers who feel the strain of writing?
Thank you for saying that those lines were what you needed to hear. I guess that is the hope of anyone who writes.
I’ll answer honestly. Why not? The pandemic was not terribly hard on me in a lot of ways. I had work I liked that I could do at home. I live with two people I like. I didn’t go hungry or get sick. I wasn’t close to anyone who got seriously ill. I have a high tolerance for solitude and staying at home. Yes, I missed the possibility of random conversations with strangers, and I missed museums and cafés. Yes, I was anxious a lot. But what I found hardest was “loving the world.” The pandemic and other related and unrelated violent and political disasters made that difficult to impossible. I went from being a basically optimistic person to being … another kind of person. I’m still trying to figure that out.
What was the most surprising thing—either a joyful or challenging one—about ushering this collection into the world?
Zoom readings! I didn’t imagine those when I finished the book. I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of Zoom before March 2020.
On Feminist Poetry
It looks like your book is built around two feminist quests, the title poem and “The Goddess.” Why? What inspired you to want to write a feminist epic?
I don’t think I’m capable of writing a poem that isn’t feminist, because the hatred for women and their bodies is so ubiquitous. Until that’s more widely recognized (so much of it is unconscious) and prioritized, I wonder how much possibility there is for radical change. My inspiration was one of my favorite books, Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks, in particular “The Anniad.”