Steven Ostrowski on writing father-son collaborative chapbooks

You are the author of four chapbooks, two in poetry, one in fiction, and a collaboration with two additional chapbooks forthcoming. Your newest collection is Seen/unseen (Cervena Barva Press) that was written with your son, Benjamin Ostrowski. Talk about your collaborative process for this work. How did Seen/unseen begin? What technology did you use to write, revise, and create the sequence? How did you write—face-to-face, online, simultaneously, or other ways? When did you know a poem was done?

My son Benjamin was a junior at Brown and was home for winter break. He was a psych major but was writing poetry and taking poetry workshops. Seen/unseen came about when I proposed we try writing a few collaborative poems, just to see what we might come up with. I started the sequence, basically with a poem addressed to him in which I tried to offer us both permission to play with language and ideas. (“Let’s not talk the way we learned.”) The truth is, I was probably offering that permission more to myself than to him, because he was already writing really interesting, playful, rule-bending, linguistically-inventive, sometimes hip hop-infused poems.

So Benjamin responded to my first poem with a very energetic poem of his own, and off we went. We wrote about our family, our own relationship, our daily lives, science-y things, memories, dreams, reflections. But we wrote wildly about these things. We wanted the poems to be as much about the language, about the images, as about the specific topics. We were living in the same house, but we wrote separately, sending each other poems as we finished them, then waiting for the response, then moving on with the next one. It was very much a conversation, a correspondence, but decidedly and as consciously unmundane as we could do. I thought we were creating something kind of new, and that the energy and honesty of the poems was authentic. So when we had enough material for a chapbook—it only took about three weeks, as I recall, because the energy was feverish—and after we’d done a little bit of revising, we decided to see if we could get it published. One Sunday night I asked on Facebook if anyone knew of a publisher who might be interested in a chapbook-sized father-son collaboration. By Monday morning, Gloria Mindock asked to see the manuscript, and by Monday night, we had a publisher. Benjamin thinks it’s that easy. Ha!

Talk about the collaboration for your forthcoming chapbook Black Magic Media, also with your son, Benjamin Ostrowski. Was the process the same or different? What has this work revealed to you about the creative process, inspiration, and collaborations?

Actually, the second chapbook is called q&a. It was originally accepted by a start-up publisher called Black Magic Media, but now, through some complicated series of events, is About Publications. By the time we started q&a, Benjamin was back at Brown. The process was exactly the same, except we were at a little greater physical distance. I’d write a poem in the form of a question, send it off, and he’d write a poem in the form of an answer. Mind you, the poems are very much free-form, in both style and content. The book doesn’t read like an interview. More like a conversation you might have with someone you love in a dream, with a dream’s logic or anti-logic.

I’m inspired in a different way by collaborating with Benjamin than I am when I’m writing by myself. It’s a different form of energy, a synergy. It’s more jazz-like, more improvisational. The poems are likely to go in unanticipated directions. In both collaborations, we pick up on each other’s words, motifs, images, but they change in the consciousness of the other, and that’s been fascinating to experience.

For the record, we’ve also written and published (in The American Journal of Poetry) a sequence of eight poems called “Letters from Southeast Asia; Letters from Southeast Connecticut.” They may represent our best work together so far. And recently I put together a full-length manuscript comprised of all our work. It’s called Penultimate Human Constellation. Hopefully it will find a home someday. Lastly, we’re almost done with a prose poem-ish novel about a day in the life of a college student struggling to come to terms with a relationship he had with a friend who died in high school and an aging professor struggling to deal with the death of his wife. It’s experimental in some of the same ways the poem collaborations are. It’s called somethinggg. Benjamin gave it that working title because when we started we didn’t know if we were writing poetry, prose, drama, or some hybrid. I don’t think of it as a working title anymore. I think it’s perfect for what we’ve got, which really is something.

In the first two poems of Seen/unseen the energy of the language is conversational. This clarity is achieved by your use of pronouns (I and you) and monikers (kid, kiddo, pops) and the use of parenthesis. You write:

Kid, let’s have the penultimate human conversation.



tell me what you see.

Where’s your flashlight pointed, kiddo?

let’s have the penultimate human constellation.

hey pops hey pops…

This works to create an intimacy in the dialogue between the speakers and invites the reader into the playful space the two poets share. As a songwriter, painter, writer, and poet, in what ways do you consider the audience as you create? What did you add to or take away from a poem as you considered what your reader will need to know or understand? Did you and your son dialogue about audience during your collaboration and if so, in what ways did this serve the poems collected in your chapbooks?

Regarding both Seen/unseen and the forthcoming q&a, I think it’s important that the exchange of poems between Benjamin and me not seem so exclusive to ourselves that nobody else could get in there and get any pleasure or meaning out of them. The themes are universal: love in its many forms, longing in its many forms, coming of age and coming of older age. What is newer, I think, is the language we use, the phrasings, the images and metaphorical leaps, some scientific terminology, and I hope readers find those things exciting or at least intriguing. That said, I don’t think we were too conscious of audience when we were writing. We never once discussed audience. I think we both assumed, frankly, a small audience. Maybe somebody will review these chapbooks of ours, or maybe something somebody will say on FB or somewhere else will prompt others to read the books. That would be nice.

As far as the other things I write and do artistically and their relationship to audience, I honestly don’t think about it too much. I’m wary of the term “accessible.” There are many writers and artists throughout history whose work at first was not considered accessible, but it’s canonical now. My chapbook After the Tate Modern, which will come out in the next few months, is experimental and strange, but it won the Atlantic Road Prize, so I guess there’s an audience for that kind of thing. I’d love a bigger audience for my work, but I don’t worry about it. Despite having published a lot of poems and stories over the years, I have very little idea once they’re out there how they go over with people. I’ve sold some paintings, so I know some people like them, and some of my songs on Youtube have gotten a decent response, a nice little comment in the comment section. But it’s all very limited. I don’t even qualify for cult status. 🙂

But, you know, I always want to get better, more authentic, more original. I like what Flannery O’Connor says, that our task as writers is to deepen mystery. I don’t think I’d want to create art for the sake of getting a bigger audience. At least I say that today. Who knows? I do think Benjamin’s work will find a significant audience someday. Not because it’s got mass appeal, but because his sensibility is unlike anyone else’s, and eventually people find and stay with artists like that.

How do you define chapbook? I’ve never tried before, but I love chapbooks. How’s this: pocket-sized packages of powerful literature? Good things often come in small packages. Content-wise, anything goes in a chapbook as long as it’s good and as long as it holds together in some fashion. That fashion should not be overly-obvious.

What makes a good chapbook? You can read it in one sitting. In fact, you can’t put it down. It creates an experience. After you’ve read it, if you’re a writer, you wish you’d written it. You’re tempted to imitate it, to steal its magic. As a reader, you feel like you’re a slightly different person for having read it, like maybe now you can almost see through solid objects.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? Paula Cisewski’s The Threatened Everything. Inventive sonnets. I’m looking forward to Charles Rafferty’s new chapbook called Something an Atheist Might Bring Up at a Cocktail Party. I’ve read several of the poems that will be in it and they are terrific. Everything Charles writes is good.   

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? David Cappella’s Gabo, A Solitaire’s Opera, from Bright Hill Press, is brilliant. Mason Cooley published a bunch of chapbooks that were promoted as books of aphorisms, but many are gorgeous poems. Leslie McGrath published a chapbook with ELJ called By the Windpipe on mental illness that is intense and beautiful.


What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Is this little book going to give readers a big experience? Is it going to feel new to them? Does it deepen the mystery? Is it going to invite readers in and is it going to make them want to stay, and come again, and again? Is it going to change them in some psychic or spiritual way?

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet?
I haven’t, necessarily, thought of myself in terms of being a chapbook poet, per se, though in fact that’s been my publishing M.O. I am trying to get better as a poet, as a fiction writer, as a painter, as a songwriter. How? By reading and by doing. Meditating. Reflecting. Listening. I’m also trying to be a better, more present, more loving, more patient person.

What’s next for you? First, another cup of coffee. Then, in addition to finishing up the novel somethinggg, Benjamin and I are working on another chapbook of poems called Topics in Orbit. So far the chemistry for that has been strong. I’m also about halfway through a long poem called Doubleness, which I will probably try to publish as, you guessed it, a chapbook.

Current chapbook reading list: Apologies. Aside from Charles’s new chapbook, I don’t have a list at the moment. I read them as they come to me. I’m reading a big book about Picasso right now. I’m finding more and more commonalities between writing and painting. After the Tate Modern is a series of paintings in words, I think. And most of my paintings aspire to be poems in paint.

Number of chapbooks you own: Maybe thirty… and counting.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Forty or so. Fifty.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. You are making me aware that there is a chapbook community. I like the idea of that, because a chapbook is a thing unto itself, as are makers and publishers of chapbooks. I will definitely pay more attention now. I’ll say this: the people who’ve published my chapbooks are wonderful, committed people, and I’ll support them in any way I can. Bertha Rogers, Gloria Mindock, Leah Maines, Gary Rainford, Anthony Ramirez, Ariana Den Bleyker—writers and publishers all. They are gems.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I haven’t done much along those lines, I confess. I do mention and share them on social media once I’ve read and enjoyed them. Or mention them at readings.

Your chapbook credo: Give the reader an experience that they can’t forget. Deepen the mystery.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: That’s a joke, right?

Your chapbook wish: That people will give my individual work and my work with Benjamin a read, and afterwards will contact me to chat.

Residence: Niantic, Connecticut

Job: Professor of English, Central Connecticut State University

Chapbook education: Reading and doing.

Chapbook Bio: Steven Ostrowski is a poet, fiction writer, painter and songwriter. His work appears widely in literary journals, magazines and anthologies. He is the author of four published chapbooks–three of poems and one of stories, the publishers of which are Bright Hill Press (In Late Fields), ELJ (A Pile of Crosses), Finishing Line Press (Birds, Boys, God); Seen/unseen is a collaboration written with his son Benjamin and published by Cervena Barva Press. Forthcoming are two more chapbooks. One, After the Tate Modern, won the 2017 Atlantic Road Prize and will be published by Island Verse Editions in mid-2018. A second collaborative effort written with Ben Ostrowski, called q&a, will be published in late 2018 by About Publications.





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