This is the first part of Amy and Kathleen’s conversation: you can read the second part here.
Following the success of our inaugural Poem to Poem, for our second feature in the series we invited Amy Key and Kathleen Ossip to hold a transatlantic conversation.
The first step in putting together a Poem to Poem is to find two pieces of writing that seem to speak to one another, whether through congruencies of subject matter, sensibility or ambition. Kathleen Ossip’s ‘To the Poet Who After My Reading Said “Your Poems Are Good. Eccentric, But Good.”’ begins with the speaker recalling her eighteen-year-old self’s ‘loving ideals about penises’, soon shaken by having a Parisian flasher’s thrust into her hand. Ossip comes back repeatedly to the poet’s ongoing search for the ‘ideal word’ – a phrase that seems also to contain, by way of ghosted pun, the utopian search for an ‘ideal world’. Amy Key’s ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’ takes the form of a series of visceral, glittering fragments. We overhear the tussle of a consciousness trying, at first, to impose order on this leaky inner discourse, before (apparently) giving in to its flow. ‘“Prone to” but not “prone”’, the poem wittily and movingly explores the ways our emotional lives relate to the body and to gender.
Kathleen and Amy exchanged messages over the summer of 2016. Their dialogue considers, from many angles, ‘the effect’, as Key puts it, ‘of society’s demands on girls and women and the bewilderment and damage that can cause.’ We begin to see how each of their poems reflects, variously, on sexism in the poetry world and beyond, ideas of consent, shame and rage as gendered experiences, and the forbiddeness of female anger. Insights emerge about their writing processes: how the ‘ghost’ of form often leads the way, how to negotiate artifice and phoniness, and how the relationship between poem and reader is often a sort of compromise. Always in sight is the biggest question: why write poems anyway?
Amy Key’s first collection, Luxe, was published in 2013. She is also the author of two pamphlets: Instead of Stars (tall-lighthouse, 2009) and History (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The Poetry Review, New Statesman, Rough Trade Magazine, Best British Poetry 2015 and anthologies from Faber & Faber and Penguin. She co-edits online journal Poems in Which.
Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Do-Over, a New York Times Editors’ Choice; 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, The New Republic, and Poetry Review. She is a 2016-2017 Radcliffe Fellow and the editor of the poetry review website SCOUT.
What I immediately loved about your poem was how wild and sprawling it is – we’re both past and present, in the sky and oil on the speaker’s neck, dead and alive. But you interrupt, with irregularity that is both strange and urgent, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ (even though the poem eludes a binary outcome). Putting aside how the poem opens up with the dismantling of the speaker’s ‘ideals about penises’, it is hard for me to think of those words – arranged as they are throughout the poem – without thinking of the nature of sexual consent. Were you aware of that potential reading? How interested are you in interpretation being open (like ‘hearts and dictionaries’)?
My first impulse was to answer your question – about the use of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as language intended to invoke the idea of sexual consent – with ‘No, that wasn’t in my mind at all.’ And yet… the poem does address dominating behavior by a male figure. (Which I probably don’t need to say actually happened to me: If I had had a better response in the moment I wouldn’t have had to write the poem!) Hearing one’s own work mansplained is not in the same universe as non-consensual sex but it at least falls into the category of micro-indignity. The anger is different but it’s still anger.
To the extent that writing poetry is conscious of intention (it isn’t usually, for me, too many balls in the air to keep track of) I think my use of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and ‘what’ in my poem was to honor the complexity of anything I say, in the poem or out of it. I mean that when I make an assertion, it’s always true but also, viewed another way, false, or at least subject to questioning. Language is full of slipperiness, and so is life, and I can never forget that when I’m making a poem, so bald declarations must always be examined, qualified, waffled. Maybe this hypervigilance about staying true to complexity is what led the poet in the poem to use the word ‘eccentric.’
I think all of the yes/no/what’s also sound a little sarcastic and a little angry.
Ha, this makes perfect sense to me, particularly since my reading of poems has the same quality of slipperiness. Why did consent come into my head & stick there? Perhaps I brought my own hyper vigilance regarding patriarchy to bear – it’s maybe a state of being always on guard.
I’m really glad you talked about the bald declarations & examination and ‘waffling’ – this is what makes the poem so exciting to me. It is the vitality of the poem – something you talked about in your Brooklyn Rail interview last year. The Irish poet Maurice Riordan talks about this a lot, though he says ‘rapidity’ – how a poem should always be moving from one thought to another (something your yes, no and what do so well in this poem). So this makes me wonder how you drafted the poem –it has the alertness and spontaneity of Frank O’Hara – so as to trick you into thinking it just came out that way first time. But of course, that is very rarely the case, and your reference to Emily Dickinson’s ‘little crosses’ & never being able to ‘choose/settle on an ideal word’ suggest the sort of mania composing a perfect riposte in one’s head can create. Thinking about those things, could you talk a little about how the poem happened – how the draft emerged?
I think being on guard is smart. I tend to be shocked anew every time something like this happens, and that’s pretty wearing.
This was one of my more spontaneous poems, given the shock/anger/mulling that l’esprit de l’escalier always involves. It came out in draft form relatively quickly and – although it probably reads as jumpy – in a linear progression, with one idea or image leading to the next. At some point early on, I realized I wanted to use syllabic lines. I tend to use that kind of crafting when I feel a poem is ‘voice-y,’ meaning when it sounds like a single voice moving, in the way an actual voice might, in a single-minded progression. (I mean that the poem feels voice-driven to me rather than feeling like a ‘crafted object’ kind of poem.) So the crafting of the syllabic lines took the most time after the initial burst of voice and image. But I enjoy counting on my fingers. I remember lying in bed with my laptop on Mother’s Day morning in 2014, waiting for my green tea and almond croissant and counting out the lines.
At the very end, the syllabics fell apart, and it seemed right to let them do so. The fury had nowhere else to go but to try for some kind of mutual understanding – imperfect, of course.
So maybe a little bit of both O’Hara and Dickinson?
Oh my, I didn’t notice the syllabics until you pointed them out, but I should have guessed there would be another ‘ball in the air’ as I know form is very important to you as a poet. I think I remember you once said that you’re a form nut? The fact I didn’t notice the syllabics makes them seem all the more impressive somehow, like a successful magic trick.
The other thing that is going on in the poem, and that I think contributes to the fierce energy of it, is the way it pulls together these variant registers and borrowed language. On the one hand, it made me consider the poem as a mood board, patching things together in pursuit of the imperfect understanding (‘no. But I so wanted so to call it something.’) and, on the other, as a sort of language storm that would provide the necessary contrast for the recurrent lightning image – a kind of rude interruption to the wandering imagination (much like the man’s unsolicited opinions on your poems). I guess this made me think it is possible this poem is giving a deep insight into one of the things that gives you energy as a poet, because you’re on this sort of daredevil pursuit for the right language. It seems to me triumphant that you are able to turn the indignity of being patronized into something so clever and sassy.
I think it’s interesting that both of these poems, yours and mine, do seem to enact in their formal/aesthetic choices what their content is ‘about.’ That gives me deep pleasure when it happens in poems.
I am a ‘form nut’ in that I can’t get through a poem, can’t even start a poem really, unless I feel the ghost of a shape or shaping element haunting me. I work by intuition, so when this ghost attaches itself to a given set of preoccupations, like a narrative or a complex of feelings or a scene or a stray thought, I go with it. It hardly ever steers me wrong. Where I sometimes get into trouble is when I start too early, before the ghost comes calling.
Can we go back to consent, which you asked about earlier and which I don’t think I addressed very well? I did have the idea of consent and consent narratives in mind when I wrote the first stanza, which tells the story of what happened to me in Paris as a university student, a pretty undramatic story of a guy coming up behind me, exposing himself, grabbing my hand and forcing me to touch him. Thinking back on the event, and even at the time, it was a weird experience but not a traumatic one. It was broad daylight and I was walking with a friend; I didn’t feel scared or disgusted, just felt a kind of doubletake, like ‘Did that really just happen?’ And when it came to me to use it for this poem, I thought about how a conventional take on the narrative might be to position myself as a victim, and the fact that that wasn’t my experience might be seen as ‘eccentric’ – trying to second-guess what this person meant by that word – that’s what got the ball rolling.
It makes me angry how many of us have had experiences of being flashed at, groped and cat-called. When I was much younger my reaction to this kind of behaviour was definitely more ambivalent. So yes – eccentric can mean ‘the person didn’t behave in the expected way’. It can be a euphemism for a person’s behaviour or character being unacceptable, grotesque, or as in the title of your poem ‘eccentric but good’ – a patronizing assessment framed as praise. I’ve encountered some astonishing sexism among male poets and critics, either as experienced personally or by any number of women poets I am friends with. Your ‘True Story’ in The Do-Over, where the distinguished ‘White Male Poet-Critic’ dismisses you and your ‘Distinguished White Female Poet’ friend seems uncomfortably familiar. The woman poet is left to call out the sexism and is rebuffed – told they are wrong. This happened recently when a friend received a fan letter which at once praised a particular poem (& invited her to read his poem inspired by hers) and described the other poems in her book as ‘too twee’.
When I was re-reading The Do-Over recently, the phrase that stuck in my head (& which I wrote on a post-it and stuck to my wall) was ‘EVERY DAY BRINGS FILTHY COMPROMISE’. So some questions: to what extent, if any, is there a role for compromise in this (or any poem)? By which I guess I mean is the form a poem takes a sort of bargaining with the reader? Do arguments in poems need to be resolved? How important (or not) is ‘neatness’ to you? (By the way, I hope that guy is still waiting for you to say ‘gee thanks’.)
I’m sure the encounter didn’t loom as large for him as it did for me! Thank you for bringing up the idea of compromise. As we know, if we’re going to share this planet with other humans, we’d better be ready to compromise at every opportunity – that’s just reality. The alternatives, which alas we see all around us, are either hostile standoffs or violent confrontations. It was important to me that the poem extend itself outward at the end toward a kind of compromise – ‘Let’s wait together’ for the inevitable moment when neither of us is here any longer. Without the other party’s participation, the poem can only make the gesture, and so it ends unresolved, but maybe hopeful (with one last little dig).
But I absolutely love your idea of a poem being a compromise between reader and poet. It never occurred to me but I think you’re on to something. (Is there an essay in the making?) I think the context of difficulty and accessibility – one of the foundational sine qua nons of poetry. How much do you have to, do you want to, should you make crystal clear for your reader? How much handholding do you have to do? How can difficulty be in service of the poem and the reader? The strategies we use to invite the reader in may feel like a compromise of the ‘ideal poem’ which begins with unworded sensations that are usually only the starting point for what ends up on the page. Feeling those sensations isn’t enough but we may wish it were, in the same way we (I) sometimes wish friends or partners or family members could read our minds. At the same time, I think that the tension between wishing the reader would just understand and having some things that can’t be worded without complexity or difficulty and also wanting to be gracious to the reader – that tension is where the poem takes off, isn’t it? Without it, you and I would be out of business.
This is the first part of Amy and Kathleen’s conversation: you can read the second part here.
Imagine that you, at eighteen,
in Paris for the first time with
all your loving ideals about
penises intact, in your new
mini-trenchcoat and smelling the
smell of garlic and unfiltered
smoke and assaultive coffee, were
approached from behind. Imagine
un Français, bald smooth spectacled,
grabbed your right hand and pressed it to
his yes soft yes exposed penis
and hissed C’est chaud, hein? as he kept
walking past you shaking with his
poor French demented laughs. Would you
say ‘trauma’ (it wasn’t) would you
think ‘poem fodder’ would you bring
to bear your rhetoric textbook
and wall of metaphors built up
from yes stone yes sky yes Shakespeare?
You no not arrogant mentioned
your encroaching baldness (which I
said that I yes liked). You were not
spectacled nor smooth but admire
I think smoothness? You didn’t want
to say ‘bad’ you couldn’t commit
to good. Smoothly the current does
not run; smoothness can never shock.
When electricity veins through
the sky, is that really its best,
its crispest manifestation?
Must Emily Dickinson ride
through the yes ‘cloud-dark sky’ on a
‘flashing bolt’ screaming ‘All men say
what to me’? Hands tattooed with the
small crosses that meant she couldn’t
choose/settle on an ideal word?
fairer than prose for a what word?
Imagine this same hot lightning
snaking up your rectum. That was
childbirth 14 hours hard work!
And my husband’s smell and my cow
moans and the doula’s watered-down
grape juice helped. I couldn’t call it
‘pain’ no ‘orgasm’ no ‘earthquake’
closer but no. But I wanted
so to call it something. This is
the merry disease we share! I
suspected that the Queen’s English
and I would not run smoothly then.
So I wept, past imagining.
Is it possible that death will
be a yes? Immortality
not a marble stone but a what
maxipad? A silver perfume?
There is no yes true metaphor.
Each eccentric as the others.
When I dab my wrists and neck with
the oily rollerball of my
favorite ‘perfume essence’ (Rain
by Terranova a bargain
at yes less than $20
for .3 oz notes of lily
of the valley, clover and musk)
I do it because it smells fresh,
like a new earth. Imagine that
same lightning struck you down on the
new earth dead. You’d say ‘critical
judgment’ I’d say ‘poor social skills.’
Imagine instead the lightning
struck the earth and a laurel bloomed
where once stood only tombstones! I
know it’s hard to be a man, with
an ideal between your legs and
nothing but Shakespeare’s cold lightning
on Judgment Day.
Let’s wait together.
We open our hearts and dictionaries.
You were waiting, weren’t you,
for me to say ‘Gee, thanks’?
And are still what yes no waiting?
First Published by Prac Crit.