KR Conversations

Kathleen Ossip

Kathleen OssipKathleen Ossip is the author of three books of poetry, including The Do-Over, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She was a 2016–17 Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. An excerpt from her poem “From July” can be found here. It appears in the May/June 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “From July“?

I wanted to write a diary poem. I’ve never been good about keeping a prose diary but a diary poem seemed like a good way of sustaining and framing my interest in my own experiences. I mentioned wanting to write a diary poem to David Trinidad and he sent me some wonderful examples, including “A Vermont Diary” by James Schuyler and “Sorrento” by Alice Notley. Both take the poet out of their home surroundings and both are enlivened by relationships with other people, in Notley’s poem with her closest family relationships. In July 2016, my daughter and I took a road trip from the northernmost point in the continental US to the southernmost, and this seemed like a good opportunity to document not only our adventures but a series of unfamiliar landscapes and everything that was happening in our country and world at the time.

What appears in Kenyon Review is just a fraction of the finished poem, which narrates the whole journey.

Spanned across several days, your poem spills from line to prose and even to chart, seeming to embrace the formal freedom of an associative journal entry. Can you talk a little bit about how you made the decision to play with form, and to change the reader’s genre expectations with each new section and subtitle?

Every night I would sit in the hotel room and write everything I could think of that happened that day. Sometimes this was typical spill-your-guts journal-style writing but often a form suggested itself because of the shape of the experience. Once in a while, set pieces were written in the form of separate finished poems, removed from the main narrative, like the songs in a musical.

I really didn’t have in mind the reader’s genre expectations. I was just trying to keep myself interested.

Once I got home and began to feel my way to polishing up what I had, a lot of the initial journal-spilling fell into syllabic lines, my default way of creating rhythmic drama and tension. One thing, though, I never changed or prettied up any of the content. Everything happened just the way the poem says.

There was a legible excitement and possible exhaustion in your piece, characteristic of long American road trips, just as much of your poem’s contents also seems to be excitingly and exhaustingly American. In what ways do you understand this as an American piece, if you think it is fair to call it that, and if not, why not?

I don’t think I’d know how to write a poem that isn’t American, and this long poem is particularly so. Later on, as we got deeper into the month of July and deeper south geographically, the political campaigns and conventions were always on our minds and on our screens, and we were also always aware, via our screens, about the violent events, often involving police officers, that took place every day. The landscapes I describe are, of course, as American as they can be. So are the bumper stickers, road signs, T-shirt slogans, BuzzFeed quizzes that of course made their way into the poem. Most fundamentally American, maybe, is the idea of “needing more” which is a kind of a refrain in the poem. “I need more” was my baby daughter’s first sentence.

The end of this excerpt sees your speaker giving “dominion” to a young woman who is presented as confident and gentle, therefore deserving of this dominion. After a flurry of possible dangers, most of them white, patriarchal, and masculine, we see a silent transfer of possible power on the grounds of gentleness and without formal restraints, definitions, or even understandings. What does this unspoken gift from your persona to this girl mean to the both of them? In what way is there a hope for power and deservedness inside of gentleness?

Almost everything that happens in our culture, every transaction, every interaction, reflects the idea that dominance is the way to show power, to lead, and to accomplish. I would like to experience a world in which gentleness, compassion, cooperation, and nurturance has a similar function. My daughter’s generation gives me hope that something like that could happen.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

Best: Turn off the TV.

Worst: Don’t write confessional poems.