On December 10th at the New School, former and current students, faculty members, friends, admirers, and aspiring writers joined professors and poets Mark Bibbins and Kathleen Ossip as they read their poems and discussed their careers. The forum, aroused feelings of nostalgia for Bibbins and Ossip, who had both been members of The New School M.F.A. Writing Program's first graduating class. Luis Jaramillo, the Chair of the Writing Program, gave Bibbins and Ossip a warm welcome, saying they weren't just guests or faculty members, but family.
"If we had an alumni award, these two should get the alumni award," Jaramillo said.
"Will we have to share it?" Bibbins remarked, giving the audience a sense that he was just as funny in person as the humor he creates in his poems.
"You'll each get your own," said Jaramillo.
"They're wonderful literary citizens, not just at the New School but in the broader poetry community. I'm so honored and humbled to be able to introduce these two," Jaramillo said before giving the podium to Bibbins.
Bibbins is the author of three volumes of poetry, most recently They Don't Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full (Copper Canyon Press, 201. He is the poetry editor of The Awl and a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Boston Review, Tin House, Poetry, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, and elsewhere. Poems of his have been included in three volumes of The Best American Poetry (2004, 2009, 2010).
During their time as New School MFA students, Bibbins and Ossip were workshop students of David Lehman and they spoke proudly of the work they had produced in his class.
To introduce the his first poem, Bibbins referenced the man who inspired his writing of it: “David Lehman has a poem, one of the first of his that I read. It’s called ‘A Little History’ and I rewrote it.”
“Some people find out they are post-modernists./ They can’t believe it./ They had always hated post-modernists./…Sometimes they were content to chase a post-modernist and he could elude them by theory,” read Bibbins, provoking hearty laughter from the audience.
“I don’t remember what book the original was from…No Lehman scholars in here?” Mark said after reading his revision of Lehman’s poem. [Editor's note: It is in Lehman's 1996 book Valentine Place.]
Bibbins had once been advised to say the name of his books before referring to the poems in them while speaking at a panel or forum.
“[The title is] too long for that,” Bibbins said, referring to They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full. “I’ll look like a tool. More of a tool.”
In his poem “The Editors,” Bibbins describes how barbaric their jobs can be: “To statements made in order/ we introduced disorder./ It even felt like a rupture./ Of literal chopping block/ the editors used for others’ phrases./…Even to the font.”
“I’m going to read some new stuff which makes me happy to say,” said Bibbins. “Because sometimes writers feel they’re never going to write again after they write something and the feeling lasts for months.” Bibbins offered many opportunities to laugh and the audience never missed one.
“When I see an escalator,” read Bibbins, from his poem, ‘Swallowed.’ “I have to kiss everyone on it. Don’t you?/…Wind any creature tight enough and it does what it has to do.”
Bibbins uses humor to accompany political commentaries:
“We cannot measure the corruption of our age,” Bibbins read from “Grand Reopening.” but we can make the heat of it ever hotter by leaping onto the pyre.”
“Attention next generation: Your new porn name shall be the first kind of yogurt you tasted plus the last name of your senior senator,” Bibbins read from his poem, “A Ripple Through the Electorate,” eliciting a roar of laughter. “…All the senators come back from whatever they do and retire…/Have a seat on my belly, the pinkest one says, his mouth a wallet open to the meat lobby.”
Kathleen Ossip is the author of two volumes of poems. Her third book, The Do-Over is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in 2015. She has received prestigious grants from Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation, and Bread Loaf and was awarded a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, is the poetry editor of Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2001, the Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Believer, London’s Poetry Review, The Boston Review, the American Poetry Review, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Ossip began with a poem she had written in David Lehman’s class saying, “I remember him never being effusive in his comments but I remember he wrote ‘great’ in the right-hand corner of this poem.”
Ossip took the time to provide some context for each poem before she read it, which she believes help to illuminate the poem for the listener.
Of The Do-Over, The Believer has said “[Ossip] has an uncanny ability to convey what it actually feels like to be alive today…Ossip is one of our foremost ethnographers of contemporary unreality.” This not only applies to her latest book, but to many of her poems.
“In the Atrium,” the second poem Ossip read, was also written for Lehman’s class.
“Groups of women in full makeup drink vodka and fruit juice and play shopping strip-tease/…and kids from Oklahoma with the kinetics of boredom dash across the veiny floor, Air Jordans squeaking/…he strokes my hair and kisses me but that’s impossible,/ I’m a vessel, et cetera…/…someone comments ‘There’s more than ten keys on a keyboard.’”
“[My book] is all about death,” warns Ossip. “Sometimes I think all poems are all about death. This book follows a friend of mind [stepmother-in-law] through her process of dying and also brings in other aspects of death in our sort-of death-obsessed but also death-denying culture.”
“I’ll invoke David Lehman one last time,” Ossip says, before reading her poem “Lyric,” from The Do-Over, “because I remember being in his class and him telling us that in high school, you learn that irony is saying one thing but meaning something else, but he said, the better kind of irony is when you say one thing and mean the opposite but also mean what you said at the same time. Concurrently, you’re aware of the complete and absurd inadequacy of language to express meaning at all.”
“When I look a cow or pig in the eyes,” reads Ossip, “I see a person/ I don’t feel that way about salmon/ I have kept/ I have lost/ my religious faith/ I’m eating a salmon/ The salmon died in terror and agony/ I’m eating him with a vinegar sauce/ You’ll like what you are told to like.”
Although the theme of her book is death, Ossip skillfully infused humor, triggering many laughs from the audience as she read “Lyric”: “What caused the economic collapse…/ I’ve been irresponsible I have no pension/ I will die in poverty/ I’m a poetess/ I’ll be killed and eaten/ I have no money.”
After the reading, Ossip and Bibbins commented on the importance of providing context for a poem for the spectators during a reading. Bibbins recalled attending Lucie Brock-Broido’s reading at the New School. Even though Brock-Broido’s introductions were often longer than her poems, Bibbins found them “generous.” Ossip agreed, saying the an introduction “opens up space for the poem.”
Ossip gave advice to current and potential graduate writing students: “I had stumbled into poetry; I had never studied it in college. One of the things that [I realized] was language’s potential and there doesn’t have to be a direct route from thought to the logical expression of that thought. You can indeed tell it slant.”
Bibbins admitted the most valuable thing he learned from his professors David Trinidad, Susan Wheeler, and David Lehman, as a graduate student was “the idea that humor was a tool that could be used in poetry.”
“You really took that idea and ran with it,” remarked Ossip, generating laughter from the entire room.
Bibbins and Ossip took on the role of mentor for the students and writers in the audience.
When asked about her use of language, Ossip responded: “After my first book came out, I felt really consciously that I needed to be more direct. An interviewer had said to me, ‘Why don’t you just say what you mean?’ I thought I was. But then I thought, ‘What would it be like to just say what I mean?’ I have been trying to do that but what one means isn’t always as simple or direct as one wishes it could be.”
When I asked Ossip and Bibbins about whether they keep an audience in mind as they write, Bibbins responded, “Being in a workshop helped me develop an internal audience. Gertrude Stein had said, ‘I write for myself and strangers.’ To Stein’s statement, I would add ‘and friends.’”
When asked about her role as a poet and teacher, Ossip answered, “Writing can be sheer agony, whereas teaching and editing can be pure pleasure. What I keep in mind in both of those roles is that I want to present the whole gamut of what poetry can do.”
After the Q&A session, Bibbins, true to his witty reputation, jested, “Should we let people smoke pot before class?”
Poets are the observers of the world. They keep their eyes open even when they’re afraid to look. Perhaps that’s the kind of courage we need to survive what we already know.