Transgressing the Literary Zeitgeist with Absurdist Poet Joseph Osel

An interview by Andrew Wright

Ask Seattle poet Joseph Osel what he thinks of elitist poetic values and he’ll tell you they’re “an infection of narcissism.” Ask him about his influences and he mentions Jean-Paul Sartre, gangster rapper Ice Cube, and goats. No, I’m not kidding. I’ve been anxiously intrigued by Osel’s poetry since I witnessed him perform at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, which hosted a reading for the 2008-2009 Seattle Poet Populist election, which Osel nearly won despite being a write-in candidate.

Osel calls himself an absurdist in an effort to describe his worldview and his work, which he says is heavily influenced by his “personal existential angst.” Osel’s work lives at the logical meeting point of philosophy and Dirty Realism, or minimalism. Not surprisingly, at nearly every turn his work and personal philosophy run antithetical to the prevailing mood of the literary establishment. For example, he views the use of specific nouns as largely disposable, saying that in some cases the reader should be free to project their own nouns onto the poem. It’s this sort of transgression that’s led to both praise and scorn for Osel’s work. I recently corresponded with Osel in what turned out to be a remarkable conversation.

Wright: Let’s talk about style. How would you characterize or classify yours?

Osel: I wouldn’t. Thinking about such things doesn’t facilitate creation — instead it obstructs it.

If you try to write for a certain niche you’ll miss because you’re restructuring the organic order of creation, which embraces sincerity — natural flow.

Wright: In our previous conversation you mentioned that your work exists in the intersection of poetry and philosophy. Can you elaborate?

Osel: In essence all writing worth its salt exists at this juncture.

For me the point of poetry is the study it provides. Simply, I’m interested in the philosophical, the existential, the existence of essential meaning, purpose, reason, and so forth. So that’s the end my poetry serves. It takes hundreds of poems to scrutinize these subjects adequately so each stanza serves as another probe. I suppose that the connection between poetry and philosophy is more evident in my writing because I explore the philosophical questions frankly. I use metaphor sparingly and my writing isn’t cryptic. Many people are convinced that for poetry to be good it must be obscure. They want to keep poetry exclusive to a certain group; the dance of it makes them feel smart. You know, I don’t subscribe to that nonsense; I don’t want to look words up in a dictionary or dissect a complex metaphor just to understand what a writer is trying to convey. What’s the point?

Wright: But isn’t it difficult to describe complex philosophical issues without being slightly esoteric? Doesn’t it require a degree of accurate language which might not lend itself to everyone?

Osel: No it doesn’t. Meaning or lack thereof exists universally. My personal existential angst not only drives my work but is forcibly intoxicating human beings, all of them, not just the academics.

In some instances you just have to look for it harder. I’m not saying that precise or obscure language doesn’t have its place. It has a place in poetry, philosophy, and other literature but it shouldn’t be used as a prerequisite. I’d be shocked if I was reading Sartre and his words weren’t precise and calculating, but Sartre was detailing a comprehensive, objective theory of existence. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m taking a single subjective idea or perspective, sometimes complex, and giving a simple narrative through which it can be examined. It’s just a glimpse of the bigger picture; in this case my subjective worldview.

Wright: You’ve told a previous interviewer that “words do not need to be perfectly precise if the narrative is strong” and implied that the reader should make up their own nouns when reading a poem...

Osel: Sometimes I’ll write something like “the ugly thing sat next to the other stuff” without giving any other details about the objects. If the narrative is strong you can get away with that. In fact, sometimes that makes the narrative stronger because it doesn’t distract from it. As for the message, I frequently write existentially themed poems and the vagueness of the nouns lends support to the overall idea, which oftentimes is the absurdity of existence. So if I write “the thing is over somewhere” it’s communicating that it doesn’t matter where or what the thing is, it only matters that it exists. Plus, since all experience is subjective, and everyone is an individual, it helps if the reader can mentally insert their own nouns from time to time without the writer dominating every single aspect of the poem.

Wright: That’s a rather transgressive attitude when you consider that most people think of poetry as a creative form which is very exact in its wording.

Osel: Maybe, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. Without transgressions our species might still be living in caves. There is crucial beauty in imperfection. I pity those who can’t find brilliance in a stain; their minds are doomed; they’ll always be miserable.

Wright: There’s also a significant amount of what could be called black humor in your poetry. You end “Once in Awhile,” a seemingly optimistic poem, like this:

“spontaneous realization
is true bliss
you can only hope the
moment of death
is like that
but it’s probably not.”

Am I wrong in assuming that the end of that poem is supposed to be funny?

Osel: Take what you want from it. This is what psychologists call projection.

Coincidently, it’s this projection that allows the reader to consume a poem with very vague language and still take pleasure in it. In the case of the poem you’re referring to, the end is meant as a jab at optimism. So if you’ve got pessimistic tendencies then I suppose it’s funny. Sometimes the reader’s projection reflects the author’s intention and sometimes it doesn’t. In this case you’ve matched my intention.

Wright: Your poetry has received mixed reviews. While it’s been admired by various small press critics a reviewer from The Stranger (one of Seattle’s major weeklies) called your poetry “viciously thin” and “self entitled.” What does it feel like when a paper with a circulation of 80,000 criticizes your writing so harshly, and in your home city no less?

Osel: I guess I understand it, even through I clearly disagree. The author of the review also wrote that poetry by definition is hard to comprehend.

I presume that’s where the ideological split occurred. Simply put, he thought that my writing was too direct. There are plenty of people that want to be dazzled by a poem like it’s a magic trick. They think that mysterious language is a poet’s obligation, a requirement; that straightforward poetry is a contradiction in terms.

It makes them feel elegant and superior. They don’t want to be caught reading something that any manual laborer can understand. It’s a form of literary snobbishness — an infection of narcissism. In other words, given the reviewer’s statements about poetry, I’m pleased he doesn’t like my work; I’d be disturbed if he did.

Wright: Tell me about your muse.

Osel: She never stops tapping; I pull from everything. I get plenty of ideas from observation but I’ve been deeply influenced by the theoretical as well; I enjoy the mixture.

Wright: What or who have been your five or six major influences?

Osel: Six? How about… being, Camus, Sartre, Bukowski, Ice Cube, and the feral goat.

Wright: Do you mean Ice Cube as in the rapper and goat as in the animal?

Osel: Absolutely. I’m part of the first generation of poets to be influenced by Hip-Hop music; Ice Cube appeals to me — he’s sort of like the Céline of Hip-Hop. And the goat, well, the goat is a fantastic creature. I identify with the feral goat on a very core level. If I wasn’t a human I’d probably be a goat.

Andrew Wright’s work has appeared in a variety of publications. He holds a master’s degree in creative writing and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in comparative literature.

Joseph Osel is a critical theorist, poet and Editor of Imperative Papers. He is the founding Literary Editor of The Commonline Journal and a Contributing Editor for International Journal of Radical Critique. Osel studied Society, Politics, Behavior & Change at The Evergreen State College and Existential-Phenomenology at Seattle University. Forthcoming books include Catastrophe-In-Miniature: Poetry in Fatal Tense (2017), Savannas (2018) and Revolutionary-Antiracism (2018).

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Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Transgressing the Literary Zeitgeist with Absurdist Poet Joseph Osel." ThoughtCo, Apr. 7, 2017, Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2017, April 7). Transgressing the Literary Zeitgeist with Absurdist Poet Joseph Osel. Retrieved from Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "Transgressing the Literary Zeitgeist with Absurdist Poet Joseph Osel." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 24, 2018).