A Conversation With Oscar Oswald And Gillian Conoley On Irredenta

Today we’re celebrating the publication day of Oscar Oswald‘s Irredenta! In a conversation for the Nightboat Blog, Nightboat author Gillian Conoley and Oscar Oswald discuss the seductions, pitfalls, and politics of the pastoral, the lyric “I,” and the American West, among other topics. Take a look below!


Gillian Conoley: Dear Oscar, your debut Irredenta, so aptly named, is both positioned within and a critique of the pastoral tradition. I’m intrigued by the lyric you shape throughout, a “herdsman’s song” full of resistance and dissent, and yet also a lyric that retains a delicious lush sense of the lyre. You might not want to tell us how you mix your paints, but could you speak of how you arrived at the lyric that both resounds and shatters throughout Irredenta?

Oscar Oswald: I began with the language of other poets, particularly pastoral poets, and I was wondering if writing about nature was just an occupation of it. I thought through this question in Irredenta: to speak of place in nature, but not to own it; to have a language of my own reflective of a desert space, to be a person or persona there, but not to ignore catastrophes and droughts. I drove the deserts of Nevada to look for what a poetry like this might be, not as a Wordsworthian method of extraction but rather for my person, the speaker who could speak.

I was thinking of renewal in Irredenta, and the Nevada desert where I lived, and how to handle the iconography of the west. As an inhabitant of Californian dangers, do you write into that “westest” place as a poetic? There is a western character that supposedly can sink into the mind—explored in Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger—and that was at the edges of my book, to take that “western vibe” or leave it well alone. Regional as a poetic, a bioregionalism of poetic form, going imperial…


GC: “Westest,” “imperial” as empire—one gift the triumvirate of (pandemic/climate/racial and social justice) might bring is that perhaps we’ll all start thinking/creating with more of a global, even cosmic world view? Ed Dorn! Intriguing, complicated writer. I avoided his work for years due to the misogyny. In a 1977 Naropa interview “Road-Testing the Language,” Stephen Fredman asked Dorn about his representation of women, and he responded: “I think there’s only one Woman, anyway. It seems to me that men are multiple and women are singular…formally, all you need is one Woman. The presence of women always modifies circumstances a lot. They make it extremely social.” So, that’s hard to get past. Still, Gunslinger, modeled on Parmenides’ philosophical poem “On Nature,” was ahead of its time. Dorn’s was an anti-imperialist, outsider stance, like that of Thoreau, and he, too, created a character named “I.”  Your “I” is almost like an object, or a structure. Often, your “I” is not singular and carries a plural verb. Was Dorn’s work important to you in this regard? Others?  Can you talk about your use of “I” and the way it pushes up against the pastoral herdsman’s song, along with the whole notion of the pastoral, of who owns the land, of who can sing of it?

OO: Wow, Dorn: “The presence of women always modifies circumstances a lot”—perhaps the driest statement ever to summarize the anxieties of the patriarchy? Ya, I could see that shit turning me off for a long time, or forever. That gets to my ambivalence about the “western” writer. The west US is this place that writers try to own or control, I think, without considering which legacy they operate in, which wave of occupation they represent, and what they are doing to this area. It’s like the typical mining town, which has its boom and then its slow demise: am I just stopping by “the west” to grab what I need, mine it for all it’s worth, and leave it all behind? I try to avoid making a “means” of my materials. I got this from Thoreau—he criticizes writers who only go to nature to “make a means” of it.

I’ve thought about a “global” poetic beyond my experience as a western American. I’ve wondered if that perspective would lose the local, and how this would effect the frameworks of pastoral poetry: “us” vs. “them,” “good” vs. “bad.” This gets to what we expect a poet to do: Do they deliver impressions from their “place, ” or are there other tasks? Is place another word for identity, a deflection of identity onto where someone lives? Perhaps a poet makes a “place” of the page? I’m thinking especially of your poems floating around the page, and the voice or voices in them… It’s like a very decisive drift, one inclusive of a “global” perspective because it’s not tied to region, it’s not “tied” to anything, Californian or so on…


GC: There is a sense of place as page in your work as well, one deeply rooted but also in inevitable flux. The sense of a body in Irredenta, its relation to its lyre, makes me think of Merleau-Ponty’s “The body is our general medium for having a world” and the notion that place, particularly one’s original place, never quite leaves the body, no matter where it travels or is forced to go. It seems to me that a pronoun is a part of speech that not only tries to represent one’s gender, but also one’s experience of experience and one’s position within it. And therein lies many problems. How could one word possibly encompass the perspective of such a massive, fluid, evaporating entity as identity and experience? Some days it’s too heavy to roll out of bed and take on this “I.” And yet, manifest destiny: “I” go west! “I” conquer west! Your “I” in Irredenta seems a radical takedown of American Western dominant colonial mythos. Your “I” seems not only a destruction but a demolition, like the toppling of Confederate statues. Would you agree or disagree or fall somewhere in between with this description of your “I”?

OO:  Absolutely. I am wary of the totality of “I,” which, as you’ve described brilliantly, is tied into American imperialism. My favorite literatures complicate the self and its place—prove it porous, deflate it, prop it up but wobbly. This drew me to the pastoral because the “I” is deferred there. It’s in a second person, or shifting person, or in a character.


GC:  Part of the pastoral poem’s historical tradition is its relation to political allegory. I’m thinking of Virgil’s pastorals, their contrast of urban and rural life, and Irredenta’s connection to them. Your herdsman who is eager to “tune up my pipe with grease and gasoline” for example. Your lyric as both ancient and new, both urban and rural: “the starbuck and the ratany I go there all the time.” To what extent is Irredenta a continuance of the pastoral tradition via Virgil, and a departure? Both engagement and resistance?

OO: The goal was to write pastoral that drew upon tradition (scary as that was to be a little T.S. Eliot) while trying to break new ground. I wanted to recycle pastoral personas from classic poems (Lycidas, Comatas) and I wanted to reimagine “pastoral values” for the 21st century. I tried to do all this without making the pastoral a strictly critical or political medium—to let the flowers breathe! This is why Theocritus and Virgil were so important. There is an ambivalence with them, not just ambivalence towards a political stance, though Virgil invites this reading—it’s also ambivalence about “beauty, ” nature, and community—a sense of anxiety that touches things. This was prescient to me as the world fell (more) apart the past 10-15 years.


GC: I’m intrigued by the last line of Irredenta: “rescue nothing I have written of a song—” I read this as an utter rejection of the pastoral and its romance/possession of land, while earlier in the book, there is a sense of hesitant, complicated participation—in the pastoral, the guilt, the pain of that, almost an ambivalence at times, a tossing down of the lyre and then a picking up of it again. Your treatment of the pastoral is not an easy yes or no.

OO: Certainly. I sought a sense of discovery and expansiveness in my poetics, yet I accepted these terms cautiously, knowing that “expansion” and “discovery” come with unintended and, more often, very intended consequences for peoples in the Americas. I do want to celebrate and loaf across my poems—I must admit it—but I’m no fool. My celebration is a celebration of colonialism in America, built upon power and wealth drainages. America is a place prepared for me to sing. In this sense, I started to question the pastoral as I was writing it. “Rescue nothing” became a mantra, as that sense of “rescue” can carry this missionary, colonial tone (“let’s rescue Iraq, ” “I must rescue the helpless female”). It was tough to refrain from slipping into pastoral for the sake of pretty things alone, even as I worked within the images of beauty that are quite standardized: flowers, vistas, etc. What was there in the pastoral I could apply to the 21st century that would not deny its call for reckoning?