Oscar Oswald is the author of IRREDENTA, an Editor’s Choice manuscript to be published by Nightboat Books in 2021. The collection engages the pastoral tradition from the American context of Thoreau, Stein, and Niedecker. His poetry has appeared in The Antioch Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Blackbox Manifold, and Fence, among other journals. He has a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he was a Black Mountain Fellow. He has also served as an Assistant Editor for Noemi Press and as the Poetry Editor for Witness.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Irredenta is my first and only book. I wrote it during the Trump administration, living in Las Vegas where he announced his run. My neighborhood was Paradise - an airport landing lane - and I was escaping to the Mojave whenever possible. I began the book trying to work through the bluntness and impossibilities of Las Vegas, and I ended up studying cactuses. That trajectory reflects my consideration of political poetry and what political poetry is. Political poetry is pastoral.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction never. When I was in high school I liked poetry, I wrote it on my own. I fought against my teachers in terms of what literature was and poetry seemed like the field on which to fight that fight, privately. I was watching David Lynch and John Carpenter and I was writing loud music like the Comets on Fire and Erase Errata. I think that there is an experience to literature that exceeds the ingenuity or craft of the writer, and that the words which drive a poem are its most important things (i.e., words don’t have to mean anything for literature to mean something). There is no conclusion to a poem - it opens at the end. You read again. That’s all you do and I like that. I tune out once there is something prior to or absent from the act of reading and surprise.
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?
My writing turns on what’s at hand, and so the time for any poem is dependent on my mode, which changes with the project. I used to craft poems from parts, like a collage, chopping and dragging lines until I got the poem where I wanted it. That took a long time and lots of pages and patience. During COVID I gave that up. I started writing without editing, without looking back, practicing the Keatsian poetics of passivity that people like Jack Spicer carried into the 20th century. Keep the mistakes, wrong turns, don’t polish, trust the invention, it’s not my poem, I’m a reader… I don’t know where I’m going next.
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?
I find the book from writing poems. I start with pieces by hand, pieces of impressions or interruptions, working with an atmosphere of ideas or a pose (like a mode). I type those up, take what I like, lose the rest. I write a lot, reflect, edit, type, edit, write again. I want to write against myself to get somewhere I didn’t think to go.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’ve never loved readings, but some of that is because I don’t enjoy sitting dutifully in bookstores or cafes or bars, hunched and quiet and zoning in and out, which is how most of them are for me. That said, I do have some readings I remember fondly: Alice Notley echoing the chapel at Reed College, Donald Revell and a moth around his head in Spokane, Brian Teare gently turning pages at a letterpress in Portland, Gillian Conoley cool on Zoom in the pandemic… I have not given many readings myself, but I’ve never lived among a reading community, so that could change. I can pull out my theater training and put on a show if need be.
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?
Irredenta comes from a pastoral pulse, the genre in its political garb. Pastoral shepherds, lovers, witches, children - in classic pastoral literature these figures occupy the boundary of civilized and wild worlds, where the terms ‘wilderness’ and ‘culture’ ripple into one another (Forest of Arden, “books in the running brooks,” all that). I wanted to work within pastoral confines, the generic stuff, the flowers and death, and bring this to the western United States and its deteriorating domestic empire. Out there, in the Mojave and the Sonora, on occupied land, is a place where American property, personhood, and the lyric “I” are unsettled. You can’t write about a rock in the Mojave without knowing that this rock belonged to someone else, belongs to no one, is part of the iconography and propaganda of America (Roadrunner and Coyote), that it lives in drought, and is beautiful. The pastoral incorporates all of this, and it always has. Virgil’s first Eclogue is about marginalized farmers; Theocritus’ poem “Thyrsis Lament for Daphnis” puts regeneration, death, and community into the pastoral lexicon. That’s why I wanted to write with the pastoral instead of diminishing it and razing its foundations. You see this often - the treatment of the pastoral as if there is nothing redeemable in it, like we have to write against it, because it is associated with romanticized poverty and bucolic landscapes (this is the controlling aesthetic of The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral). The pastoral is about disenfranchisement and empire, and it is a meta-genre, one that reconceives itself at every point (see Milton’s Lycidas in particular). It is also a flexible and modern form, one that has a framework for political histories. I think Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas is a pastoral book. Same goes for Brian Teare’s Doomstead Days. Those books include nature and ecology and environmental justice without dropkicking the pastoral from the planet.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The notion of a public utterance is complicated. Speaking into a discourse that is prepared in advance - or that you accept passively - is not speaking per se, it’s recitation. So much political poetry delivered on the market avoids the issues of utterance, aesthetics, or form - is that really political? I try to write new discourses in my work (impossible), with an eye for how discourse is defined by the poetry publishing market and other cultural forces. I think poets oughta keep us on our toes and disrupt literary communities that have defined their scope (explicitly or implicitly) within strict modes of writing or reading. I think poets need to question the culture of poetry and the specific kinds of poetics and poetries that publishers market. I write with a plastic “I,” one that is informed by the postmodern, instead of the stable lyric “I” that continues to dominate American poetry despite the rise of hybrid forms, modes, and identities. That’s why I don’t read much Louise Gluck; that’s why I read and reread Aditi Machado. I don’t know if that makes me difficult or pretentious or unmarketable - we’re going to find out! I want my readers to access my poems in sound or feeling, nothing else required.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I tend to write on my own and figure things out from there, only rarely do I reach out for readers of my work. I’ve had teachers in my education, of course, but they mostly focused on poetics - the way of writing - not the poems. Change the poetry not the poem.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Poets are not cool” - Claudia Keelan. She was discussing the drive in poetry towards currency or signifiers of culture. I took this to mean that poets should write in their own culture, one that hopefully excludes them from the culture at large. I am attracted to poetry that does this even if it fails. Blake’s “Tyger,” Marosa di Giorgio, Maria Baranda - how the hell would someone workshop that stuff? Strange, excessive, enthusiastic… not cool.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
During COVID: Walking and wandering around, finding paths that cut over private property. Memorizing trees on trails, the ones people grip when they climb (making bark smooth). I’m unmoored at the moment. Writing when I can, mornings or evenings, editing a book, reading at night.
Before COVID: Writing in the mornings strictly, working the afternoons distractedly. But I don’t want to do that anymore. Things vary. Sometimes you write before your brain is muddled by the day, sometimes you gather muck for a poem afternoon…
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pinon, desert rain, hot dust. Humidity: I’m somewhere else.
13 - 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?
Natural forms like horny toads and creosote of course, and seasons and conversations with people. I’m pretty much a dunce with visual or performance mediums. That said, I just enjoyed seeing the Gauguins at the Art Institute of Chicago while visiting a friend, and the ‘amateurism’ of his work really struck me. Colors unbalanced, unrealistic, slabs of them with blocky people, chunkiness abounding, ”stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over.” It was almost like the terrible paintings by DH Lawrence you can see in Taos, blunt forms and goofy limbs, execution garbled, vision alone. Agnes Martin is also cool for me, for different reasons - meditative, simple, formal, uses colors. I also recently saw a collection by the painter Carmen Chami. She was working with classical myths and painting styles but applying this aggressive, polemic content for each piece. One painting was a woman cutting off her lover’s head mid-cunnilingus and staring you the viewer down. That was cool. I also really like Bob Dylan’s album Infidels.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read on the way to something or away from something in my work. So I buy and rent books and give them away once I get somewhere, a state of circulation and going forth. That said, I always have Julia Kristeva around to keep me honest - her presence on a bookshelf is dominant. Conquistadors are also important, for all their idiocy, greed, and foolishness. The first European to have a vision in America was a guy named “Cow Head.”
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Achieve professional and personal stability and then make money.
16 - 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?
Maybe a trail guide. I spend a lot of time on trails or making them. I trust my feet. I like teaching. I’m a writer because I don’t want to do anything else.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I acted for the stage before I wrote. I stopped because I couldn’t carry my persona off the stage. Some people can - that’s what makes them actors. But for me, once I wasn’t acting, I was just me - acting was just acting like an actor. Poetry is something I am always in and always doing. When I am not writing, I’m reading, everything feeds the poetry, teaching, talking, etc. That’s why I’m doing it right now.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Film: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Book: The Uplands: Book of the Courel and other poems
19 - What are you currently working on?
A long book of sequences. Trying to find another grip on language that doesn’t do what I’ve already done. Trying to work with literatures outside my cannon, outside the market, just stuff I’ve never heard before. Trying that without writing into / out of a sense of exoticism of the ‘unheard.’ Basically tuning out as much as possible from poetry and trying to do my own thing with writers who also do their own things for better or for worse. I am also about to move for a job.
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