Saturday, January 22, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Gillian Osborne

Gillian Osborne is the author of Green Green Green, published in 2021 by Nightboat Books. Raised in upstate New York and trained as a poet and scholar at UC-Berkeley, she is currently Director of Curriculum at ASU’s Center for Public Humanities, and regularly teaches for the Harvard Extension School and Bard College. Her poetry, essays, and criticism have appeared in such publications as The Boston Review, LARB Quarterly Journal, Harpers, The New Republic, and The New Emily Dickinson Studies.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Well, this is my first book, so—to be seen! At the same time, this book draws on and grows out of a lot of past writing—poems, a dissertation, critical essays. The difference from that work is that this book more fully embodies the way I enjoy writing most, which is to combine creative and thoughtful energies, to pay attention to form on a line or sentence-level, but also to gain momentum and expand, associate, connect. Finishing the book has allowed me to experience my writing as for others in a new way, and myself as a writer as well as someone who writes.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I’m attracted to how poetry wields peripheries. I love the empty, charged, space around and inside of poems, the way blanks gesture toward worlds beyond language, the way the slightness a poem comprises folds vaster outsides into it. For me, poems are the best expression of the interplay between texts and contexts, the way life feeds language and vice-versa.

That said, Green Green Green isn’t poetry! Even though it is a book I couldn’t have written without being a poet. I shared one of the chapters, “On Reading Natural History in the Winter,” in a draft phase with a shortly-lived writing group. The main feedback of one of the participants, who is a translator and a scholar, was that this wasn’t an essay; it was a poem! I’m not sure I agree, but I appreciated that comment.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I’m almost always writing, but much of that writing is exploratory: it’s about figuring out what I’m thinking about, what I’m working on, how to think and write, and what to pursue further. In that realm, I often get pulled in many directions, one after another. One week I’m interested in plants, the next in dirt, the next in vistas, then Anne Spencer, Francis Ponge, Robert Smithson, planets, that kind of thing.

I have another, very different, methodical, process for writing that responds to other texts. That process is: read, read, read; make massive amounts of notes; organize and expand; re-order; revise forever. There’s often some dancing back and forth between paper and screens. All the pieces in Green Green Green were heavily revised, and several of them, particularly the final essay, “Lichen Writing,” had very different forms before arriving in their current shape.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

For a long time, poems would emerge on their own timing and often as a turn away from something else that was more obligatory or rigorous in a defined way. Sometimes they’d emerge out of the exploratory process outlined above, but more often, they’d come from something else—a conversation or encounter—and initiate a new trajectory of investigation.

I’ve also had the experience of writing a lot of poems all at once in response to a particular life event that was especially devastating, or expansive—following a death, for example, or when my child first began using language. Those poems are ones I have trouble shaking, or drastically revising; for me, they maintain something of their original urgency, which maybe makes them harder to see objectively, and definitely makes them difficult to integrate into a larger “project.” 

Since this winter, I’ve been practicing a very constrained kind of daily poetic writing—10 lines first thing in the morning over the course of an hour. This was something I started doing through a mentorship with Caroline Bergvall. Only some of the pieces are things I’ve come back to and worked on. But I’ve really loved the ritual of that process; it’s allowed me to eddy around language and ideas in a new way.

I’ve had ideas for projects or books, but often they aren’t the ideas that have the momentum to keep me writing. I want the process of writing to be one of genuine discovery and pleasure, so there has to be some element of the unknown, something I’m writing toward. Almost all of the pieces in Green Green Green began in that way, as separate inquiries; it was only later that they began to speak to each other.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Yes! I really enjoy the sound and feeling of words spoken deliberately, entering air, mingling. It’s one of the things I like about teaching, too, that statement and restatement and circling around a text, voicing and re-voicing of it. I’m not a very dramatic reader; in fact, I really like the juxtaposition between staid reader and lively written voice. But I’m also deeply attracted to performative poems by others, particularly those that are really stripped down, like Caroline Bergvall’s “Via” or M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong! poems. Both of those pieces are ones that need to be read aloud, I think; or at least need to be heard in order to really resonate. There’s a this-is-happening-in-real-time quality that intensifies the work and can’t be grasped purely visually. The earliest research I ever did was on Dickinson and performance—on her readings of Shakespeare and all the lengths she goes to suspend a moment of cessation in her poems, to keep the play going even after the player may or may not be dead. More recently, I’ve been drawn toward language that incorporates elements of ritual or prayer; chants, spirituals, old Shaker songs. All to say: I’m really interested in the ways in which words are animated, and I like to make that visible in my work in a variety of ways, including through readings!

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

This question feels a little dangerous for me. Definitely lively. In short: yes! I trained as a scholar of literature, but also always wanted to be a poet; so theoretical questions about what poetry is, the work it does in the world—what magic is—are very active for me. I’m also drawn to contexts, texts, writers who are deeply besotted with, or concerned for, the natural world in some way—its current crises, but also its longer histories, and its bare, enduring, impersonal, materials.

As a scholar, I find it difficult to translate the questions that feel most compelling to me to a strictly academic audience. As a creative writer, it feels more open. For example, in Green Green Green, the theoretical concerns are quite meta: what is reading? How does it happen in time and place? How does the time of reading correspond to other time-scales? Why is repetition so affecting, even when it’s so seemingly linguistically basic? I’ve been thinking about this question again recently as I revisit 19th-century transcriptions of indigenous American chants and songs; I find those feats of language profoundly moving, not least of all for their insistence that language is an activation, causing something to happen in the world.

In terms of what the current questions are, I think there are a lot of them, and that writers should take up the ones that feel most pressing to them. Political questions and solutions often feel a lot clearer to me than the kinds of questions that invite me into writing. Questions like: how do we build a more habitable, just, planetary community are essential and also questions I don’t feel I can answer in a poem. Should we tax the rich? Yes! Should we redistribute funds to more equitably fund public schools? Yes! Those are some questions I already know the answers to. In my writing practice, I need there to be an element of the unknown; that’s what keeps language feeling alive for me.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Writers serve so many roles within culture—to invite others into thinking, to entertain, educate, to energize, activate, enrage, and provide solace. The one thing I think they all have in common, though, is the demonstration that language matters, and the renewal of that mattering. Writers write so that we can read or listen and have both experiences of companionable solitude and community facilitated by language.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I really like working with editors. The writer-editor relationship at its best can be generative and collaborative. Editors can also be invitation-givers, the same way that a teacher can craft questions in response to a student’s work that might lead to new ideas. I enjoy the process of writing something for someone else, or in response to a particular request. If anything, I’d like to write more often in conversation with editors. Editors, call me!

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I remember hearing from another friend about a colleague of hers in creative writing that had written a book he thought “did everything” he knew how to do. I don’t know if that counts as “advice,” but the idea of the book that brings together one’s different faculties really stuck with me and was on my mind when I was putting together Green Green Green.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

Early on in graduate school, the poet Jessica Fisher told me I should drop whatever else I was working on whenever I felt the urge to write a poem. That’s a more straightforward piece of advice, and one I took! For years, I was always pivoting in this way, back and forth, from reading to writing, arguing to imaging.

In a certain way, though, I think this turning from one to another created false boundaries between the two modes of writing, and made me feel like neither practice was whole. More than anything else I’ve ever written, Green Green Green draws together my training as a poet, essayist, scholar, and educator.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

See answer to #4! Just since this winter, I wake up most mornings around 5am and work on poems. Usually I write something new; occasionally I go back to something ongoing. For longer pieces of writing—like all the essays in this book—I need to carve out longer chunks of concentrated time to focus, which is increasingly hard for me to find. Some of these pieces were drafted when I had a fellowship; back then, I could spend the whole day reading and writing, so that was the routine, punctuated by breast-feeding, lectures, and meetings. These days, writing is more compressed, but even more precious and devotional because of that.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Reading! I’m a passionate and active reader. I’m generally reading multiple things at once. And these days, because my work isn’t bound by a particular historical or theoretical field, I can follow my reading inclinations, swerves, and enthusiasms. This past winter, for example, I read most of Inger Christensen’s work for the first time—poetry and prose. Earlier in the year, I read a lot of Alice Oswald’s and all of Lucille Clifton’s poems. Some of the poems I’ve been writing in the morning begin as direct responses to lines or phrases from another text. I often have ideas for essays—hardly ever poems—while walking.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I love this question. These days, it’s the smell of sage in California chaparral. The juniper and cedar that grows at my grandmother’s house in Massachusetts are another kind of home-smell. And the dear reek of the marsh mud there, too. In general, wet dirt smells homely to me.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Definitely the natural world! Also, history, and the way it gets written onto landscapes in particular. At one point, I thought Green Green Green might be a “bioregional biography” of a 50-mile square area in central Massachusetts at the middle of the 19th century. I spent some time walking around in that part of the world, looking at some of the wildflowers Dickinson or Frederick Goddard Tuckerman might have seen in their environs, looking at the low hills around Amherst.

Plants figure strongly in my work, and those fascinations arise from actual encounters. Now that I actually have a garden (I didn’t when I wrote most of the essays in Green Green Green), I feel increasingly drawn toward what’s going on under it, toward soil and stone more broadly. For the past few years, I’ve also been thinking and writing a lot about hills: these brief vantage points from which one could have some kind of experience of transcendence, if properly primed for that sort of thing, but that otherwise are quite approachable and mundane; local wildernesses that could go either direction—toward the sublime or the quotidian—depending on what you bring to them. I grew up in this little, hilly, village in upstate New York, with a river (the Hudson), and a cemetery and orchard at the top, with a view across a border to Vermont; that geography is deeply imprinted in my psyche. And I’ve lived beside a number of hills in California, Bernal Heights in San Francisco, and this small hill outside my window in Santa Barbara. I also had a number of very formative experiences of being—and getting lost in—mountains that continue to haunt me.

I like dance and performance art a lot, too—aesthetics in motion, which create an experience; I think of poems in those terms, also.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Dickinson and Melville were the writers that brought me to grad school, and the reason I focused on American literature there. But prior to getting deeply into the weeds (and wildings) with them, I had a more cosmopolitan engagement with literature and art. (Ha!) I love the urban music of Apollinaire and the every-day documentary impulses of Ponge. Basho was a big part of why I lived in Japan, this idea that one could pilgrimage to a place where poetry had happened and recreate that experience. Jamaica Kincaid’s My Garden Book is one of my favorite works of prose ever; I find the balance of indirection, suggestion, and forthright declaration in her writing thrilling. I also really love books that demonstrate other ways of living with books that aren’t literary criticism; there are some passages of dizzingly-close reading in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond that are like that. Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk and Robert Glück’s Marjory Kempe are other examples of this that I’ve really enjoyed.     

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Publish a book of poems! Editors—see response to #8 above!

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

In terms of jobs, these days, I devote a lot more time to the work of being an educator than to my own writing work. When I was much younger, I thought I would like to be a farmer and a poet, but not like Wendell Berry, weirder. My first job was working for a farmer who had a PhD in comparative literature and used to tease me about how I should write poems for the vegetables. And later, I worked for some nurseries and “landscapers” in New York (“landscaping” living rooms and roofs). I really like working with plants, but I wouldn’t rather do that than writing or teaching. In any job I’ve ever had, reading, writing, thinking has always felt like the real work—the thing that's at the core.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I love words. More than other things!

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Inger Christensen’s alphabet. I don’t know if it’s a “great” film, but I really enjoyed and keep thinking about My Octopus Teacher. That film made interspecies love feel way more real to me than anything I’ve ever read about encounters between humans and animals, or any of those encounters I’ve had myself.

20 - What are you currently working on?

1-3 collections of poems: see notes on hills, wildernesses, and rituals, above. A sequence about mushrooms, worms, and reproductive energies in the dirt. Something that may be a novel on mountains, desire, and obscurity. Ways to make writing a more embodied practice, generally. Watching this house finch and a hummingbird have a face-off out the window. An ecologically sustainable ornamental garden. Learning the names of the southern hemisphere trees in my town. A lesson plan. Dinner.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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