Kathleen Ossip is the author of four books of poetry. She teaches at the New School in New York City.
You have a new book out this year, The Do-Over, which has been called an "unsentimental elegy." Could you tell our readers a little about the making of these poems? Is there a back story?
There is a back story, and it's this: In 2008, the woman known as A. in the book, who was my stepmother-in-law and a beloved friend, died of lung cancer. The pain of the loss was startling and nervous-system-changing: it's no new revelation that nothing makes us really believe in our own mortality like the death of a parent -- a parent-substitute, in this case, since my own parents are happily alive and healthy. During and after the process of A.'s dying and death, I predictably saw death everywhere. I wrote poems of grief for her, poems of astonishment at our death-obsessed culture and poems of trying to figure out how to live amidst all that death. Every experience I had began to be colored by this death-awareness: a summer hike through the woods, a New York literary dinner, listening to pop songs, career woes, a road trip through the southwest, even walking two blocks from my house to the post office, on land that was stolen from the Weckquaesgeek tribe. Everything made its way into the book.
Which poets do you think are the greatest poets that have written about death or loss?
I'm fairly sure I'm not qualified to make a pronouncement like that! However, some of the poems and poets and lines that have influenced me are Emily Dickinson, particularly her very eerie poems from beyond the grave ("I heard a Fly buzz" and "Because I could not stop for Death" -- the latter inspired the final poem in my book); the chilling but undeniable line of pentameter from King Lear when Lear discovers the dead Cordelia: "Never never never never never"; Elizabeth Bishop's "First Death in Nova Scotia"; Andrew Marvell for his very dark view of bodily life and death; Sylvia Plath's "The Moon and the Yew Tree," which is deliberately plagiarized in my "Ghost Moon"; also the more outraged and histrionic Plath poems like "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus"; John Ashbery's "At North Farm"; and a poem I read early on in my writing life, "The River" by Mona Van Duyn, an elegy for her mother that seemed, to this young poet, so long and feelingful I felt I was swimming in it.
Question 3: Can you tell us a little about the actual writing of your poems for your latest book?
The book came together in the same way my other books have: first, slowly, tentatively and in the dark; then, in a rush. When A. was actually dying, I wrote just a few poems about the experience. Then, gradually, I began to see a shape for a book that would have A.'s story as a backbone, all the while continuing to write poems about her and about other aspects of death. Finally, the miracle moment occurred, when I could see the book as a book, and the stages in the journey of the book, and the poems that would have to be written to make that journey go forward. After that moment happens, writing the remaining poems was quick and satisfying. Although I was still tinkering up until the time, the final manuscript had to be submitted to Sarabande. I felt I needed one final A. poem for the last section, which became "A. in September."
I knew I wanted a lot of texture in this book: I wanted to look at death from all sorts of angles, via all sorts of forms, stances. The whole time I was writing it I kept thinking of my all-time favorite album, Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. It's an album with three very different singer/songwriters, so the songs by Lindsey Buckingham are deliberately crudely produced and raucous, very anti-mainstream at the time, but then you also have Stevie Nicks's country- and folk-based songs, and Christine McVie's honey-voiced bluesy pop. But they're all in the service of exploring this one grand theme (heterosexual romance and heartache). I never get tired of it, and I wanted that sort of ranginess for The Do-Over, which includes rhymed poems, a short story, syllabics, sequences, a mini-essay, etc.
Finally, when I read your question the first thing I flashed on was where I was for the actual writing of some of the poems. I remember writing the Amy Winehouse elegy sitting on a bench in the lobby of the British Museum, and I wrote "The Millipede" after many failed attempts, sitting on the floor of my home office with a blanket over my head, my stab at a sensory deprivation tank.
What is next for you? Have you started on your next book?
Honestly, when I finished that final poem for The Do-Over, I thought every last drop of poetry had been wrung out of me. I wasn't sure I'd ever write another poem, which felt kind of OK, because I wanted to write some more fiction and maybe even start a novel. But to my surprise I'm writing poems furiously, with an ease of inspiration that is very new to me. And they do seem to be trying to cohere into a book. I'm also working on another short story and making notes for a novel. This is exciting for a writer who always thought of herself as un-prolific!