The Writer’s Hot Seat: Lisa Olstein

10 November 2017 on Blog, Poetry, The Writer's Hot Seat   Tags:

Poet Lisa Olstein

Lisa Olstein is the author of four poetry collections: Late Empire; Radio Crackling, Radio Gone, winner of the Hayden Carruth Award; Lost Alphabet, Library Journal best book of the year selection; and Little Stranger, named a top book of the year by Coldfront. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Writing Residency, and an Essay Press chapbook prize, as well as fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Centrum. She is a member of the poetry faculty at the University of Texas, Austin.

Interview by Poetry Editor Dan Haislet

Dan Haislet: Some of the poems seem like they are in direct conversation with current events. For example, the first line in, "Arrangements." “It’s November, so we’re talking politics.” How many of these poems were written in just the last year, or even in just the last six months?

Lisa Olstein: None of them, actually. [The opening line to "Arrangements"] was referring to an earlier November. They’ve all been written in the last four years, but none of them have been written in the last year to year-and-a-half.

DH: Wow. What does that say about our systems that these poems are relevant with such consistency?

LO: We’re certainly on repeat, right?

DH: That’s surprising, particularly when I read the poem, “What We’re Trying to do is Build A Community of Dreamers.” These lines, “Show me every car dream. / show me every car dream / in Moscow,” could have been written last month.

Lisa Olstein_1LO: Feels that way. One of the balancing acts when you’re referencing news events, current events, anything from “pop-culture,” is that question of resonance, intersection with time, and the question of so-called timelessness. When you reference specific news events – I do think there’s so much that’s on repeat these days that that does often take care of the concern on its own – what I was starting to say is that there is a rule of thumb that gets used as to whether a specific reference is working in a poem. Whether it’s to some arcane text or to a personal friend, and the whole gamut, it seems a decent enough standard. The rule is, it has to work if you know the reference, and it has to work if you don’t know the reference. So, knowing that the author had a best friend named John, or knowing that the author is quoting a specific 14th century text can add new resonances and bring levels of history and depth to the association, but it has to be working even if you don’t have access. As with all rules of thumb there are many exceptions to that rule, but I think at least to some extent there’s a parallel in terms of reference to so called current events.

DH: You mean in terms of making a poem readable and accessible?

LO: Yeah, and it has to invent its own experience and its own reality or else, in my opinion, it’s not really doing its job as a poem. And so, poems generally do age, and must age, differently than a news story or journalism of any form. It’s funny; I’m teaching a seminar that’s looking exclusively at American poetry books written between 1964 in 1969 and part of what’s amazing is how unbelievably current some of the voices in the poems feel. The opposite is true, too. Sometimes there is use of language or approaches which do feel dated. But, good poetry feels fresh, and the other thing that occurs to me is part of what I revere about language is its independence, its independence from us, its ability to enact new meanings. So, when you read that poem that mentions dreamers, and mentions Moscow you’re able to bring an incredibly current valence and association to that meaning. And that’s just an example of what words are doing all the time. So words are like haunted houses; they’re carrying with them all these ghosts, associations, and histories from the past, and then they’re re-combining in new ways in the present and they’re going to re-combine in the future, too.

DH: In many of the poems, something has been damaged, or deranged for the speaker, standout poems being, but not limited to, “Arrangements,” “The Disaster,” and “Cinders Of.” Would it be fair to say that derangement or disaster worked in hand with your poetic vision?

LO: I shy away from terms like poetic vision because, whereas I can apply it to others, applying it to myself might be a sort of paralyzing experience, and also it’s just not accurate. But I can easily say that the idea of disaster, or damage, or derangement is one of the primary preoccupations of these poems and one of the primary areas of urgency and friction that I feel compelled by. It feels a little like disasters of various kinds are presenting themselves kind of at every turn. In particular, I think I’ve been trying to understand and reckon with the way in which – in the hyper contemporary context, with all of us on our phones, and all of us leaning into our feed – disasters are traveling at lightning speed, and we are experiencing them in a funny flow that is intimate and integrated in our private lives and therefore very up close very personal, yet at the same time so highly mediated and therefore so distant. So, I’m not interested just in the disasters themselves but how we are metabolizing them, how we are experiencing them, and what that means for the experience of our inner lives, our community lives, and especially what it means for language itself.

DH: I am reading wit and humor into “Arrangements.” Mark Ruffalo is a funny insertion into a poem charged with damage and derangement. Am I reading that the way you want it read?

LO: Humor, of course, is closely aligned with rupture and often, with sadness and darkness. It’s way of thinking inseparable to me from other ways of thinking, and it’s a means of navigating the world—of understanding it and coping with it, and also of resisting it. I’d never want to segregate it from other modes of thinking and feeling since I think it’s much truer to explore how integrated it is to our thinking, our reckoning. In this poem specifically, Mark Ruffalo emerged out of the space I was writing in and then became essential to what the poem came to explore. I was supposed to be writing a poem based on a still life for an anthology, but in reality was preoccupied with the shock and grief of the hideous, and hideously public, murder of the journalist James Foley, who was a friend of mine from grad school. My desk and my email queue became the only mise-en-scène I could engage with and the private/public mash-up of these two very different people, who were also figures, became to some extent what the poem explores.

DH: You wrote a selection of sonnets for Late Empire. They are and are not sonnets. Can you speak to the use of form and the decision to break it?

LO: In these poems, I was interested in ghosting the sonnet form. I love the Petrarchan 8/6 arrangement; it's just an off-kilter balancing act of gathering and dispersing. There was a sort of symbiosis working to propel these poems: I felt the form as an invitation to brevity marked by immediate intimacy and I felt the tenor of immediate intimacy as an invitation to brevity and thus, the form. My hope was to pursue what I thought of as a mechanics of suddenness in emotion and sound. The sequence began with and is laced through with a recurring line about being (or not being) a safe house for something and this idea, both literal and figurative, ties into the slant- or ghost-sonnet architecture, too.

DH: I have a favorite quote on creativity. Czeslaw Milosz said that creativity comes from an “inner command” to express the truth. I wonder if you can give me some ruminations on that idea and how the truth is put to task in the poetry of Late Empire?

LO: We live in such a complicated and troubling time as relates to “truth.” It’s bizarre and horrifying to see so many of language’s powers and possibilities—powers and possibilities writers and theorists have long explored and often championed—being put to such malicious and destructive use. I love the idea of “inner command,” though, and I feel like when it comes to creative work, discerning and pursuing what feels deeply, idiosyncratically urgent usually leads to art that resonates as true. Anne Carson said something in an interview that I love: “Every accuracy has to be invented.” To me, poems are driven by and expressive of discovery and inherent, I think, to discovery is that what is discovered is somehow real or true—emotionally, intellectually, perceptually—and unable to be ascertained by other means. That is, the poem is an experience of body and mind, and experience is a form of truth. The poems in Late Empire rely on language as a means of discovery to reveal and reflect but also to invent and transform how and what I’m thinking and feeling at the often dizzying intersections of private and public, personal and communal, individual and collective.

DH: The third section is made up of prose poetry. What even is a prose poem?

LO: Well, in this case, they’re eco-pastorals with an epistolary address that seemed best suited to an essayistic or prose-like form. I worship line breaks and adore the range of effects they conjure, and originally the poems making up this series were lineated. But I found there were other things I wanted to privilege in terms of the presentation of this voice and its concerns; I found that here the line breaks seemed unnecessary and perhaps a bit superfluous or distracting. Also, this group of poems operates in a unified register distinct from other poems in the collection, and I wanted there to be a clear visual cue expressing that reality.

DH: I’d love to hear your thoughts on what it means to read a thing “correctly.”

LO: I really believe that good poems teach us how to read them, which is both obvious to say and hard to do. Often when we misread, we’re failing to meet a poem on its own terms. The flip side of the equation, of course, is that the poem has to establish its own terms; it has to meet a reader’s attention and intelligence with its own. I also think that sure, poems can get unproductively misread due to either their own or their readers’ failings, and that’s not good, but also, in the context of good poems being read with real intelligence and openness, part of what’s so powerful about language as manifested in poetry is its malleability and the way it operates on multiple levels all the time. We bring personal, cultural, and historical contexts to words. We’re affected by visual and sonic cues alongside semantic ones. Our brains engage associatively whether we’re conscious of that process or not. So language resonates, and good poems resonate, across multiple registers and this can lead productively, aptly, to more than one reading of something.


What We're Trying to Do is Create a Community of Dreamers was re-published with permission. It's included in her most recent book of poetry, Late Empire, which was published in October 2017 by Copper Canyon Press. 

Photo credit: Matt Valentine. Courtesy of Copper Canyon Press.

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