Reaching for Mastery
April Ossmann is an author, award-winning poet, editor, teacher, and consultant. She has taught creative writing and developed the workshop, “Thinking Like a Poetry Editor: How to Be Your Own Best Critic.”
April is also the proud recipient of an FY2013 Creation Grant from the Arts Council. The $3,000 award enabled her to take eighteen days off work to write new poems to add to an in-progress manuscript. In her grant application, April said she had three goals in mind. They were “to grow and improve as a poet; to complete and publish a book manuscript; and to share it with others by performing readings from it.” By the time she submitted her final report, she had met the first goal and half the second. Securing publication, waiting for publication, and performing readings, she said, would “likely take several years.”
Three years later, April’s third goal has been achieved. She contacted the Arts Council about an upcoming reading (April 8, 2017 in Montpelier) from her book “Event Boundaries,” published by Four Way Books in March 2017.
When you applied for the Creation Grant, you planned to write on subjects and themes other than those you ended up writing about. What did this teach you about the writing process and about yourself?
It taught me that in writing, as in life, it’s best to expect the unexpected, to let go of what I can’t control, and to do my best to learn the lessons presented to me. At the time I signed the contract with Four Way Books, I had written and included in the manuscript one poem about my brother’s 2013 suicide. By the time FWB asked for my final manuscript version, I had written and added a few more such poems, which now form a suite in the third section of the book.
How has your own writing changed over the years?
Thanks in part to editing poetry manuscripts full-time, my writing has become more honed, more spare, and I hope more musical. I embed a lot of wit, wordplay and humor, and I think there’s more of that, though it’s so subtly done, that I think readers notice it more on the page than at live performances. I use humor as a poetic tool for even the most painful subjects, including mortality.
How has your teaching changed?
That might be a better question for my students to answer objectively, but I hope I’ve continued to learn how to better present discussions of poetic weaknesses as opportunities for further inspiration and creativity, and for building on strengths. I continue to challenge myself to achieve greater poetic mastery, as a poet, poetry editor and teacher, so I’m continually learning to “see” more, which means I also have more to teach.
The grant gave you eighteen uninterrupted days to write. Anything else? (You had hoped for “new reading and speaking opportunities, anthology invitations, and hopefully, teaching offers, literary grants, fellowships and awards.”)
In addition to being artistically productive, the writing retreat (my first ever, and still my only one), provided a wonderful sense of validation for me as a poet. The book’s winning of the Council’s Creation Grant will no doubt continue to recommend it to potential readers as Four Way Books publicizes “Event Boundaries,” and I perform readings. I just learned that Library Journal is reviewing it in their April 1 issue, very exciting! I receive fairly regular solicitations to submit poems to literary journals, magazines and anthologies, as well as invitations to teach workshops and perform readings. Four Way Books will be submitting my book for post-publication awards, and I’ll be applying for fellowships this year. Here’s hoping!
There’s a proposal right now to de-fund the National Endowment for the Arts. What argument(s) would you offer against that idea?
I would argue that funding the NEA is a miniscule fraction of the budget with a disproportionately positive effect on US citizens’ lives and culture. I wish more of the success stories were reported more widely, like the arts in schools programs which have been dramatically improving student engagement, academic performance, and graduation rates, to cite one of many examples. Not coincidentally, we have NEA-funded media sources like PBS and NPR to thank for most such reporting.
What are the up-front issues most affecting your writing now?
My own growth and struggles to grow are generally at the forefront of my writing. Currently, I find myself absorbed by investigating prejudice. It began with my being horrified by the news of racial prejudice leading to extra-judicial deaths in policing, which continue to demand my attention, and to inspire me to examine many kinds of prejudice in our society (religious, class, gender, sexuality, age, weight, etc.). I hope to become more aware of my prejudices, which I see as a step toward evolving beyond them. I would argue that no one is completely prejudice-free, and that we can all work to improve and to set better examples. I’m working on doing my part, in life and in my writing.
How do you balance the long, slow, solitary practice of writing with building your business?
Eight-plus years into my business, I’m focused on maintaining it at a self-supporting level (vs. all-consuming) more than building it, to allow time for my writing (and personal life). Currently, I’m pleased with the balance. I’m about a third of the way into my third book manuscript, and writing regularly, and that feels great. Of course, I’d love to win a big fellowship allowing me to take a year off to write, but in the meantime, I have no complaints.
You’re also an editor, teacher, and consultant. What is your one piece of advice to all writers?
Read more, write more, keep the faith, and persist even when you lose faith!
You’ve met the three goals. What’s next?
What’s next is several years of performing readings from “Event Boundaries,” finishing the new manuscript, and hopefully, further poetic mastery!
— see April Ossmann’s website and reading schedule
— read other Featured Stories