Meet Poet April Ossmann, in Conversation with Kate Asche
April Ossmann will read from Event Boundaries, her new collection, at Sacramento Poetry Center on Monday, April 24, 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
April Ossmann is the author of Event Boundaries (Four Way Books, 2017), and Anxious Music (FWB), recipient of a 2013 Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant, and former executive director of Alice James Books. She is an independent editor (poetry, essays, reviews) and a faculty editor for the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Sierra Nevada College. Learn more at www.aprilossmann.com.
This interview is the first part in a series presented in conjunction with Sacramento writer and teacher Kate Asche’s blog, Kate’s Miscellany. Kate interviews April Ossmann in two parts: Part I (below) focuses on April’s brand new poetry collection, Event Boundaries, just out from Four Way Books; Part II focuses on craft. To read Part II and to learn more about Kate, whose poetry chapbook Our Day in the Labyrinth was published Finishing Line Press in 2015, visit www.kateasche.com/katesmiscellany/.
Q: April, to start with, you have some very close connections to the Sacramento Valley and to California. Could you share a bit about these?
A: I was born in Santa Barbara, and lived there and in Richmond (and southern CA, after I left home), but spent my teens on the rural fringes of Vacaville. My mother lives in Vacaville, my niece and her family near Sacramento. I have friends in Woodland, the Bay area and Los Angeles; and my cousin, David O (the composer-musician-musical director), lives in southern CA with his family. I work with poets in northern and southern CA, and teach in the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, so altogether, I have many reasons for frequent visits.
Q: Let’s turn to the book now. “One night,” the first poem in the collection and one that opens with a lone fawn startled by a car’s headlights, echoes (for me, at least) aspects of the story of Saul’s encounter with God on the road to Damascus, as does the final poem in the collection, “O, Chicago, O’Hare,” in which readers glimpse one among “the multitude / of humans en route / through mystery, / to mystery.” In the first poem, the speaker’s point of view is very aware, analytical, and explicitly god-like in relation to the fawn’s vulnerability in that moment. In the last poem, the speaker’s point of view is very much that of a fawn—the airport behavior of humans is even described explicitly as “herding.” What can you tell us about the spiritual development of your poems as you worked on this book?
A: Wow, what great observations and questions! I could spend an essay answering. One my favorite aspects of book publication is the sometimes the out-of-body experience of learning about my psyche from readers of my work. I didn’t realize I had switched roles with animals in the first and last poems until now. I did consciously order the poems throughout the book to reflect my spiritual and emotional growth: in family and romantic relationships, in culture/society, and in nature. Most of the growth as I see it relates to desires and loss (especially mortality), learning to serve spirit rather than ego—or to teach my ego to serve my spirit. One of the benefits of my practice has been an increased sense of personal responsibility and humility, acceptance, compassion, and oneness, including with deer, despite their unflagging appetite for my perennials!
I hadn’t read the story of Saul when I wrote the poems, but I see why you made the connection. I wrote “One night” based on the event I describe, wherein I became an unwitting persecutor of an animal I was trying to save. Perhaps Saul would have claimed something similar for himself in his religious persecutions. I think that many of us intend good, even when others see evil intent because of unintended outcomes or conflicting ideas of good.
Q: How did these poems first accrete into a collection, and how has the process of working with them connected to your own spiritual development?
A: For the first few years of writing after I finished Anxious Music (April’s first poetry collection, also published by Four Way Books), I expected the next book to focus similarly on challenges/growth in relationships, and lesser kinds of loss than death, but then I lost my stepfather, my father, and brother (my only sibling), in three and a half years, and that resulted in a big thematic shift, as I began writing my way toward acceptance and peace with my loved ones’ mortality and my own.
Q: The poem “This Blue” seems to converse with a rich literature of contemporary writings about the color blue. I am thinking of Bluets by Maggie Nelson, moments in Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World and the first (in particular) of the “The Blue of Distance” chapters in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. In all of these, as in your poem, blue is connected with desiring, expressed at all rungs along the hierarchy of needs. Your poem initiates a triptych of poems in Event Boundaries meditating overtly on desire(s), and many other poems in the collection investigate this as well. Here comes the question, and it’s a choose-your-own-adventure: As a writer with a self-expressed spiritual bent toward mindful acceptance and non-dual thinking, how does writing desire inspire and challenge you? And/or: I notice my contemporary writers of blue are all women. Why/how—to you—might this contemporary “literature of blue” engage and extend a feminist poetics? And what is “a feminist poetics” to you? What does feminism mean to poetry now, and/or poetry to feminism?
A: If by “non-dual” thinking you mean “non-binary,” oppositional as opposed to inclusive (i.e., yin and yang), that sounds like me. I talk a lot about relying on both my conscious and unconscious contributions when I talk about writing poetry, and since writing is one way I grow spiritually, I rely on both modes to serve my growth―and my general health and welfare.
On the subject of feminism, I’ll just say that though I’ve identified as a feminist since coming of age amid “Women’s Liberation” in the seventies, my feminist political action has mostly been personal, and expressed more in my private life than in my poetry, i.e., working toward equality in relationships; and forging ahead professionally like a cross between a steam roller and a wood chipper. That said, there are several poems in Event Boundaries that express feminist sentiments using humor, most notably “Celestial Solo, or Divine Funk?,” “3D Feeling,” and “Table for One.”
Q: I am going to allow these words of introduction written by April to stand on their own, as we begin discussing the title: “We finally have name for what happens when we enter a room and can’t remember what we intended to do there―and it’s not senility. When we go through an entrance or exit like a doorway, it’s a signal to the unconscious to clear the decks to prepare for the next event, what psychologists call an “event boundary”—not to be confused with an event horizon, the point of no return where the gravity of a black hole pulls everything into it, including light.”
The concept of the “event boundary”—while not introduced in a direct way until the title poem appears in the third section of the book—permeates the collection, though it manifests in negative ways, in events themselves rather than the moment before them. These events, furthermore, seem less time-oriented and more about changes of various kinds of states. So many poems in the collection play in this space: “The Terror of Doors” explores the emotional life of a door with “an urge to escape its fate / and go winging off / after something / unimaginable in space— / the knob turned beak.” In “Where the Wolves Are,” the speaker’s “eyelashes / are birds” and “hands are wolves” while, in the same moment (or in every moment), “the chickadee’s / homing dives mirror my grasping hands.” In “A City, Like Venice,” the beloved becomes “a city, like Venice, / just barely kept from drowning.” Talk some about your poems’ thirst to capture transformation. How is this thirst a strength in poems, and how is it a liability or a challenge?
A: I didn’t consciously plan to write about transformation, but it is a common theme. In “The Terror of Doors,” I explore how ignorance engenders fear of others and of change/transformation. In “A City, Like Venice,” I explore fear of intimacy, due perhaps to a lack of trust in others and the self, which perhaps is the fear of change or transformation. “Where the Wolves Are,” explores transformation through a sense of oneness in desire. The challenge or liability in trying to write about something as ineffable as emotional/spiritual transformation is its inherent impossibility, which you could say is what all poetry attempts in some sense, expressing the ineffable. Perhaps my poems’ thirst for transformation is a strength in that writing is transformation, and attempting it models curiosity and courage, and hopefully comforts or inspires others.
Q: I find it interesting that the title poem appears in fairly close proximity to a five poem series that directly engages with the suicide of your brother. In my experience, suicides are often associated with ideas that I see in your definition of an “event horizon:” “the point of no return where the gravity of a black hole pulls everything into it, including light.” Your book—through its poems’ progression—invites readers to instead examine suicide as an ultimate event boundary, a profound entrance-by-exit into the most unknown next. Here are some possible questions: How soon after your brother’s suicide did you begin to write about it? What in your early drafts surprised you most? Did you ever write anything about his death that made you feel afraid, or lost, or ashamed, and if you did, what did you do with those lines or poems? When you read the poems in Event Boundaries now, what stays with you? Is there anything you wish to say to writers who feel called to engage with family trauma and/or their own in their writing?
A: I had both event boundaries and event horizons in mind during the last couple years of writing the manuscript poems, including those I wrote about my brother’s death. I wrote “After” a few days after my brother’s memorial service, a little over a week after his death, and the other poems in the sequence (except for “Reach”) over the next year or so. I wrote “Reach” after my stepfather’s death and before my brother’s, but revised it to fit both. “After” was the poem that surprised me, in the way it arrived. I listened to “Free Bird” in honor of my brother just before going to sleep, and woke in the morning with the poem nearly fully formed in my mind. I rushed to type it up before I lost it, before coffee or anything. I’m still amazed by how much of the conversation between Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics and mine happened unconsciously, so I had a sense of the poem being given to me.
I encourage writers to engage with their traumas, familial or otherwise, in their writing. Writing what we struggle most with can engender our best writing and growth, painful though both may be. Some need to begin writing immediately, and others need to first take time for non-literary processing. Either way, after the early drafts, I’d advise allowing time for more emotionally detached revision, including peer or mentor assessment, before submitting the writing for publication.
Q: Now, I am going to borrow some moves from Amber Pearson’s great 2008 interview of you for Southeast Review. The following questions can be answered in a word, phrase, or single sentence. Name a writer whose work is currently inspiring you.
A: Christian Wiman’s Once in the West has been inspiring me with its craft, beauty and spirituality.
Q: Name a writer whose work is currently challenging you in some way, and note the way.
A: Dr. Joe Dispenza’s You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, is challenging me to take increasing responsibility for my physical health and well-being, and for what I experience as my reality in general; and challenging me to continue transforming my quality of life by changing what I think and believe.
Q: Describe your relationship with submitting your work.
A: I think of submitting my work as part of the business side of poetry. I think that most of us begin by taking rejection personally, but thanks to having been on both sides of the publishing desk, and learning detachment, I let go of emotional reactions to literary rejection a long time ago. I research journals/magazines, and do my best to submit appropriately, and to keep the faith that I’ll find homes for the poems if I persist, in periodicals and in books.
Q: Which poem caused you to confront and let go of the most attachment? How?
A: “Sigh” is the poem I think most directly confronts and lets go of attachment, not just attachment to a lover, but to all loved ones, including the self: I write “no breath is ours to keep,/just as no body is.”
Q: Which poem surprised you the most in this collection?
A: Since I talked about this earlier in discussing my writing of the poem “After,” I’ll mention another poem that surprised me, in a different way, “Guaranteed Ten-Minute Oil Change.” I used to get my car’s oil and filter changed at a particular shop, and usually chatted with the manager as I waited. One day, when I arrived for an oil change, he wasn’t there. I asked a mechanic about his absence, and something strange happened: all of the men working there crowded around me to tell the story of “Larry’s” stroke, his return to work, and his retiring from work. What surprised me was how angry they all seemed in telling a sad story. I wrote the poem in an effort to understand why they might be angry.
Q: Which poem continues to surprise you?
A: “After” continues to surprise me, in the large contribution my unconscious made to its making, and how thoroughly it questions and subverts the Free Bird song’s lyrics, and in how accurately it captures some of the experience of losing a loved one to alcoholism and suicide.
Q: When you aren’t reading or writing poems, what are you doing?
A: When I’m not reading or writing poems, I’m editing other poets’ poems, my full-time employment. I’m also snowshoeing in Vermont forests, hiking, walking, gardening, lawn-mowing, home renovating, baking, spending time with loved ones, reading news, and fiction and non-fiction, when I can squeeze them in.
Continue the conversation with April in Part II of this interview over at Kate’s Miscellany, the blog of Sacramento writer and teacher Kate Asche, at www.kateasche.com/katesmiscellany/.
Kate Asche’s poetry is forthcoming in Santa Clara Review and has appeared in The Missouri Review (as an Audio Prize finalist) and in Colorado Review, Bellingham Review, RHINO and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Our Day in the Labyrinth, debuted in 2015 from Finishing Line Press. A graduate of the UC Davis Creative Writing program, she teaches workshops in Sacramento and is associate editor at Under the Gum Tree. www.kateasche.com.