#AWP18 Featured Presenter Q&A with Lisa Olstein

AWP | January 2018

Event Title: Can Poetry Hold the Center? Sponsored by Copper Canyon Press
Description: Yeats writes “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” In this era when objective facts become alternative and science is willfully ignored, how do writers respond effectively? These acclaimed poets have faced, in their lived experiences, destabilizing forces and rapid cultural change—the chaos of early communist China, the shifting cultural landscape of rural Kentucky, and the volatility at play on our current political stage. Together they ask: How do literary artists help hold the center?
Participants: Lisa Olstein, Maurice Manning, Ha Jin, Michael Wiegers
Location: Ballroom B, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor
Date & Time: Saturday, March 10, 3 p.m.–4:15 p.m. 

Q: What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
A: A seminar I taught this fall had me reading a bunch of seminal books from the late ‘60s—Gwendolyn Brooks’s In the Mecca and W.S. Merwin’s The Lice were particularly revelatory to revisit just now. Some more recent favorites: Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, Jennifer Chang’s Some Say the Lark, Noy Holland’s I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like, Anne Carson’s Float. Oh, and Watership Down, a soul-saving summer read!

Q: What are a writer’s main responsibilities in this particular cultural moment?
A: Probably the same as ever, but with increased urgency. We need it all: reflection and instigation; documentation and invention; discovery and disruption; sanctuaries and calls to arms and voyages into otherwise unthought and unfelt places. The multivalency of language’s meaning-making arsenal and the powers of aesthetic "pleasure" are on scary parade all around us right now. Poems enact essential conversations with ourselves and each other, but also with and in language, with and in time. As ever, we need the imagination to press back against reality, but we also need to reckon with the ways reality presses in on the imagination, and how language shapes both.

Q: Has public funding for the arts made a difference in your life and career as a writer?
A: Public funding for the arts makes a difference in every writer’s and every reader’s life, so often helping to make possible the publication and in many cases the creation of work that constitutes contemporary literature. A huge percentage of journals, presses, and writers are vitally supported, directly and/or indirectly, by public funding via the NEA, state and local arts councils, and other organizations. For me personally, it’s the same: a huge number of the books, journals, and writers I read are in some way or another helped into the world by public funding and without them my intellectual and creative life would be greatly impoverished. This is also true for my own work. I’ve been supported by a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship; my extraordinary press, Copper Canyon, receives crucial support from the NEA; journals I’ve been affiliated with as a contributor or in some editorial capacity have also received support; and my communities have been enriched by readings, talks, workshops and other programs supported by public funds.

Q: When AWP was found in 1967, there were a dozen creative writing programs, now there are approximately 1,800 undergraduate and graduate programs. What do you think has changed for readers and writers since creative writing became ascendant as an academic discipline?
A: I don’t think of creative writing as an academic discipline, more as a fine/studio art that has found a way to create space within the academy, a circumstance that brings with it both opportunities and limitations within the overall context of a society that does very little to support art and artists. Insofar as MFA programs afford time (and financial support) for diverse populations of emerging writers to read, write, think within supportive and dynamic communities, I think that’s to the good. Insofar as they replicate society’s damaging biases, impulses toward the homogenization and commodification, and other ills—well, within MFA programs and beyond them, we have to fight against it.

Q: If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP18, who would it be and what would you talk about?
A: Grace Paley. I had the good luck of knowing her toward the end of her life and am forever inspired by her work and her person. I’d love to be in the presence of the particular radiance that was her presence, and to lean on her a little bit for some loving wisdom and advice.


Lisa OlsteinLisa Olstein is the author of four poetry collections, most recently, Late Empire. Recipient of a Hayden Carruth Award, Pushcart Prize, Lannan Writing Residency, and Essay Press chapbook prize, she has fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, and Centrum. She is a member of the poetry faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.
(Photo Credit: Matt Valentine)

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