Spring Semester Poetry Series Kicks Off with Kathleen Ossip

Gathered in Lawrence 105 this past Valentine’s Day, students and faculty spent a fitting afternoon eating pink cupcakes and discussing poetry. Opening the Poetry Spring Semester Series, Kathleen Ossip was warmly welcomed by Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities, Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Peter Balakian, who spoke at length about her two books of poetry, her experience teaching at the New School in New York, her work as the founding editor of LIT and as the poetry editor for the Women’s Studies Quarterly. The poet spent equal time reading excerpts from her two books of poetry as doling out advice and sharing recollections of her journey to become a recognized poet.

Balakian, who teaches many of Colgate’s English department classes on American poetry and creative writing, spoke of the author’s poetry and prose as having a “popping tongue” and as descriptive of a personal as well as American experience. Ossip’s encounters with early 20th century life – including vivid descriptions of American spaces and places – are understood to be linked to her own family history. Indeed, Ossip describes her second book of poetry, “The Cold War,” as a personal reflection on the repercussions that the period had on her parents, and her resulting quest to understand its effects.

Discussing “The Cold War,” Ossip recalled her “slight obsession” with understanding her parents’s childhood years during the Cold War as well as its effect on her own life. Describing the trajectory of the book, Ossip spoke about her early years as an avid bookworm looking through her parents’ bookshelves and discovering texts of what she described as “an anxious and repressed era.” The poet explained that it was the texts she had read, so redolent of the fears of the time, which had driven her to write.

With requests from fans in the audience, Ossip went on to read selected poems from her first book of poetry, “The Search Engine,” which was inspired by the writings of the Confessional Poets. Reflecting on her introduction to poetry through her love of this group of writers, Ossip explained that her transformation into a poet from her “boring” desk job in publishing was sparked by the work of Sexton and Plath. Calling it her “typical adolescent love,” the author discussed the importance of everyone delving into poetry to find his or her own understanding of reality.

Ossip’s work also focused on comedy, such as her witty poem, “The Deer Path,” and darker topics in her collection of short elegies of famous deaths in 2011. The elegies, formed as acrostics spelling out the names of Steve Jobs, Tory Davis, Lucian Freud and Donna Summer, took phrases from the work of other poets, mainly Sylvia Plath.

During the Q&A, Ossip addressed her use of Plath’s language in her work, calling herself frugal and explaining her love of borrowing language that already exists. The discussion became extremely lively when the author began fielding questions concerning the meaning of select poems from her works. Students and poets compared their own interpretations of various lines, debating potential meanings as well as use of language. Responding to one student’s comment about the incoherence of a certain poem, Ossip gave one final piece of advice, reminding the readers and writers of the room of the importance of reading to find meaning.