Jackie Osherow Interview By Courtney Manwaring Inscape: Considering that poetry is more than just a set of rules, how does teaching those rules allow you to become a better writer? Jacqueline Osherow: The thing is, writing poetry is an incredibly solitary business, so you’re really on your own all the time, and it’s phenomenally lucky, I think, to be able to interact with people about this thing that you care about so much. . .There are a lot of hermit poets, but I’m not among them—I like talking. And so for me [teaching is] fantastic. It’s very good to have a living human connection. In other words, I think if you’re not actively engaged in it, you can’t be a good teacher of it— or you’d be a different sort of teacher of it. There are various elements to my teaching: I make my students read a great deal because it’s the one thing I’m sure of. I think that’s how you learn to become a good poet—reading great poems. And so I make sure that my students do a lot of reading; that’s one way to interact with them, but then another thing when you’re actually work-shopping is to go for the problems: here’s the problem, why is it a problem, what would be the approach to fixing it? It’s not necessarily a rule that gives you the answer—it might be—but it might not be. It might just be ‘well, it’s not interesting enough.’ Inscape: Are there problems that riddle themselves out the more experience you get? Jacqueline Osherow: Yes. When I was much younger, I learned that after I finished a poem I had to read it onto a tape recorder and play it back to myself because hearing it I would notice things that, when I was reading it off the page, I diluted myself that they worked. But when I didn’t have the page in front of me and all I did was listen, I’d say ‘ah, that’s no good.’ But by my third or fourth book, I didn’t learn anything from taping the poem. When I heard it, it was fine. In other words, I had internalized that process. I think you internalize a lot of processes. But everything you start, you do feel like you’re starting from zero. There’s no question about that. There is a little faith in saying, well, you tried before; you had something a little inchoate and you eventually made a poem out of it, so you have a track record, so try. Then you hook yourself on something you don’t want to abandon until you get it right. But you’re still starting from zero. Inscape: What do you do to stimulate inspiration and figure out a starting point? Jacqueline Osherow: Waiting is not my idea. No, no. You sit there and you try things, and eventually you hook yourself. But waiting wouldn’t do me any good. Sometimes, I really do find I have to think something through but . . .thinking is one thing and writing poetry is another. A certain amount of thinking does go into it, but there’s also something like inspiration. And that you have to work at. And sometimes you just get lucky. The pressure of the situation—the pressure—kind of makes a leap happen and you surprise yourself.
People get writer’s block, and I have to say I think writer’s block is expecting too much of yourself. In other words, I don’t get writer’s block because I say, well, I’ll just sit down and see what happens. Will I throw it out? Yeah, I’ll probably throw it out, but so what? To me, that’s part of the process. I think it’s only people who can’t live with writing a bunch of stuff they throw out that get writer’s block. That’s sort of my inoculation against writer’s block because I say well, if you’re writing you’re making progress. Inscape: What does the form of your poetry allow you to do that free verse doesn’t? Jacqueline Osherow: I think it was Auden who said that it’s easier to write a good formal poem than a good free verse poem. I agree with him because the form gives you a sense of direction. You have to arrive at this sound, arrive at this word, repeat this line. You know where you’re going—line breaks for example—are much easier when you’re writing in form because the line breaks determine themselves. I think it also gives you something to explode and surprise against; the form sets up an expectation and you can do something else. It’s like a rocket and it launches it further. It’s magical when you say exactly what you mean to say and it rhymes—or it’s magical when Donne does it or Dickinson does it or Yates does it. But I’m not a formalist. I don’t believe in form for its own sake. I get called a formalist because I write formal poems, if I get called anything at all, but I’m really not. I always say, I’m an opportunist. I take whatever I think is going to work. Inscape: Where would you recommend people go to read great contemporary poetry? Jacqueline Osherow: Here’s a very good recommendation: Poetry Daily (poems.com). They have a new poem a day, and they comb all the different magazines, and they take something and they print one a day. And you might not like all of them. But what I really appreciate about the people that do Poetry Daily is that they have very wide taste. So you’ll have very different aesthetics. One day you might see a poem that’s formal. Another day you might see a poem that’s more like a language poem. Another day you might see a narrative poem. Another day you might see a lyric poem. But I think they tend to pick good poems. There’s a new poem every day and rarely do I miss it. Usually, when I do the archive for the week, it would be a rare week when I didn’t see something I was very glad to see. I think Poetry Daily does an excellent job. I look at it all the time. It’s not so much to read one poem a day.