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8/06/2008 [ interview ]

An Interview with April Ossmann

by Amber Pearson

Q: One of my favorite qualities of this book is something you say in “Satisfaction”: “So you’re grateful, / even if what you don’t have / is more real / than what you do.” I can’t help but think that this is in some way the experience of reading Anxious Music. The paper book I hold is permeated with things that can only be said to be present in the mode of not being there, whether they are things that weigh less than nothing, numbers below zero, or someone who died and now is not gone but, thanks to physics, is everywhere. Why—or perhaps how—is your writing so full of things that aren’t there?

A: What an interesting insight! No one else seems to have noticed that before in my writing, including myself. I can think of a couple of reasons this is a constant in my work. One has to do with desire—that we tend to think of desires as being what we want but don’t yet have. I think we are less conscious of desiring what we do have (and like having)—though we’d be happier if we were more conscious of it! I think the other reason that my work is “full of things that aren’t there” is that I’m questioning what we think of as reality. Maybe everything we can imagine is here, but we haven’t learned to see—or even imagine it, yet. We didn’t know that atoms or bacteria where there until we learned to see them.

Q: The world in these poems is not a passive object upon which the “I” voice acts; instead, doorknobs reach out unexpectedly to grab the hand grabbing them, an ass and a chair depend on each other for identity, and in “Rain,” water in a gutter, shadows, and an imaginary trip to Brazil all demand the attention of “you.” How do you see a world so full of its own agency? How should we read such a world?

A: It’s not that I (consciously, anyway) see the world as being so much full of its own agency, as much as that I see everything as interconnected, that each action we take has ripple effects beyond what we ever intended or imagined; and that other’s actions affect us similarly. I hope to become increasingly aware of that interaction, to be a more thoughtful and better co-agent or co-creator. Naturalist John Muir said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” and disciplines as various as quantum physics and mysticism tell us the same thing. These ideas have been a major influence for me.

Q: The narrative voice in this book keeps asking anxiously for a sense of unity. “One” pleads, “I wanted anything / I couldn’t have / or perhaps to become one / with the culture of wanting.” “One With It” celebrates snow’s “picture-perfect equanimity / and equality.” Yet the book is full of failed unions as well; for example, in “Separations,” despite the “ascension” at the end of the body becoming elementally connected to the world, the title suggests the unity is lacking, and in “Satisfaction” the narrator’s sense of connection is also a sense of loss. What is the role of this tension?

A: My ego likes feeling different/special, but my spiritual self sees the apprehension of oneness or unity as the ideal, all as integral, but not interchangeable, parts of a whole. I guess that accounts for some of the tension, and also makes me a species of mystic (in the Taoist sense of the term). And mysticism seems to me to be a way of dealing with—of denying, redefining or transcending—loss. I think that many of our strongest connections are inspired by a shared sense of loss—and fear of loss, and that most poetry, maybe all, owes something to that sense or fear, acknowledged or not. The text of “Separations” is meant to contradict the title, to suggest that the separations we make are false, but as you point out, it also speaks to the tension in my work. I have to thank my unconscious for that one.

Q: Many of these poems call themselves sure, self-reliant, controlled, or certain, and they are: clean, cogent, a sure sense of line—and then promptly question that sureness, as in “Y”: “The more you know, the less you comprehend. Is this / where apprehension begins?” Even unexpected line breaks like the one above begin to erode that surety. What does it mean to be sure? What are these poems sure of?

A: I think that “what it means to be sure” has changed for me since I wrote those poems, maybe partly through writing (and re-reading) them. I’ve never had much tolerance for living in a state of indecision or limbo—or ignorance; and I’m very goal oriented, very focused (and impatient). I like being the arrow en route to the target. But the longer I live, the more I realize how little I know, how everything we think we know is subject to change, including “truth,” science, love, our bodies, etc. Now, being “sure” has more to do with a different species of confidence, with the belief that events in my life will always work to benefit me, even if I can’t immediately see how. Many of the poems in Anxious Music struggle with various forms of anxiety, worry, and fear, as they work toward the opposite: acceptance, faith, gratitude, and learning to love unconditionally. I can see that now, but I don’t think I had more than a glimmer (consciously) when I wrote the poems. Beyond their craft, I think that most of the poems aren’t sure of much besides the certainty of change/loss, and the importance of love.

Q: “A Kind of Music” is one of my favorites in the collection—I love the frenetic self-chasing quality of thought, the way the poem drives us towards its own death. I was both amused and alarmed that the poem is true: “the body / hearing music, is moved / to motion”, and while reading it, I found myself beginning to fidget, both mentally and physically. It makes me wonder about the book’s title—why Anxious Music?

A: Thank you. The book’s title was inspired first by that poem (then others), as I tried to pin down the kind of music the collection made. I knew from very early on in the writing of the book that I wanted the title to have the word “music” in it, because it forms a leitmotif in the book, and because writing the poems felt like dancing to a music I couldn’t quite hear. The first working title for the book was The Music We Travel By, then A Kind of Music. I decided that both were a little too static, so I wrote a whole page of possible titles, most of them two words, an adjective and “music.” Anxious Music felt the most apt, and sounded the best musically.

These questions can be answered in a word, a phrase, or a sentence:

Q: Name a writer whose work is currently making you jealous.

A: I’m inclined to be inspired by rather than jealous of good poets. I have most recently been inspired by poems in Time and Materials, by Robert Hass.

Q: What kind of child were you?

A: An introvert in extrovert’s clothing.

Q: What's your relationship with rejection like?

A: I’ve learned to mostly not take rejection personally, because I’ve learned that most of the time, it isn’t.

Q: Which poem do you feel you suffered for the most? How?

A: Writing is what saves me from suffering, by helping me to transform and transcend it. One of the poems with the most emotion behind it is “Red Glove,” which is an elegy for a friend.

Q: What was the greatest surprise for you in writing these recent pages?

A: “A Kind of Music” is the poem that I was most surprised to have written. It felt stylistically different from any of my previous poems, and oddly alien to me. Ironically, it’s a thematically pivotal poem in the book.

Q: Do you have a writerly habit you'd like to break?

A: No, but I’m currently adjusting my work habits to allow myself to do more writing.

April Ossmann is the author of Anxious Music (Four Way Books, 2007). She has published poetry in numerous journals including Prairie Schooner, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Harvard Review and Seneca Review, and is the recipient of several awards for her poetry, including a Prairie Schooner Readers' Choice Award for ten poems published in the Summer 2000 issue of Prairie Schooner. She is Executive Director of Alice James Books, and has taught creative writing and literature courses at Lebanon College and at the University of Maine at Farmington.

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