Two decades ago, the English Department decided to enhance its already robust contemporary poetry curriculum by creating the Westminster Poetry Series. Every year, the department invites a major poet to visit Westminster for two or three days, usually in the spring. The entire school studies books of poems by the visiting poets, guaranteeing an especially knowledgeable audience, something all of the visiting writers have loved. A generous grant from former trustee Maureen Ford-Goldfarb and her daughter Kirsten Ford ’00 funds the series.

For the past two years, the English Department has stayed close to home hosting former Connecticut poet laureate Marilyn Nelson for a return visit in 2016-2017 and current Connecticut poet laureate Rennie McQuilkin in 2017-2018. Nelson lives in East Haddam while McQuilkin lives in Simsbury within sight of Williams Hill. The department has ranged much farther afield to find his year’s visiting poet — the 19th Westminster Poet — Lisa Olstein. Olstein, who does hail from New England (she grew up near Boston, Mass.), currently lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches in the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. Olstein will read to the school on the afternoon of Monday, April 16, 2019, in Werner Centennial Center. In addition, she will be visiting with English classes during the academic day on Monday and Tuesday.

Olstein will be different from recent Westminster Poets in other ways, too. Her poetry is less rooted in narrative, more lyrical, more edgy and sometimes even surrealistic. She loves playing with words and images in her poems, and she uses moments of discordance and discomfort to pierce through the monotony of routine to maybe glimpse something like transcendence. The poet and critic C. D. Wright has said of Olstein’s poems: “The poems appear straightforward to the eye, and then familiar to the ear. It is the content that jars. It is the quick, compact, exacting delivery that destabilizes the reading.”

Olstein has published four poetry collections: “Radio Crackling, Radio Gone” (Copper Canyon Press, 2006), winner of the Hayden Carruth Award; “Lost Alphabet” (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), a Library Journal best book of the year; “Little Stranger” (Copper Canyon Press, 2013), a Lannan Literary Selection; and “Late Empire” (Copper Canyon Press, 2017). Her chapbook, “The Resemblance of the Enzymes of Grasses to Those of Whales Is a Family Resemblance” (2016), was selected for an Essay Press prize. Olstein has published her work in many journals and anthologies, including The Nation, American Letters & Commentary, Narrative Magazine, PEN, Bat City Review and Boston Review. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Writing Residency, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Centrum and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

In addition to writing poems and essays, Olstein is also the lyricist for the rock band Cold Satellite, fronted by acclaimed singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault. And while teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where she was the associate director of the MFA program, she co-founded the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, an intensive program for writers of all ages that has featured a number of former Westminster Poets on its faculty. Moreover, some former Westminster students have attended the institute’s Program for High School Writers.

Westminster’s Third and Fourth Formers will study Olstein’s third book, “Little Stranger,” while the Fifth and Sixth Formers will read her most recent collection, “Late Empire.” About “Little Stranger,” critic Josh English has said: “Lisa Olstein’s third book: “Little Stranger,” has a traveling shape, one that augments and condenses thematic currents as one reads, with poems that build from past poems and open secret chambers within subsequent poems. Throughout, her poems are rapid and direct, her syntactical complexity is measured with precise sketches of actual life, torqued by metaphorical dexterity. Olstein is an avid observer of transitions . . .” A reviewer of “Late Empire” claims that “this timely yet elemental collection . . . unfolds where the exigencies and distractions of daily life brush up against the political, the ethical and the existential” and goes on to discuss the variety of forms in the book: “the single-stanza meditations that open and close the collection mix[ing] humor, exposition and lyrical beauty; [the] relatively traditional sonnets [that] offer wordplay and imagination; a numbered sequence of poems in tercets [that] take Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” as source text and offer an apt ars poetica: ‘By clear-eyed words can one/ hear oneself close? The rote/ of the sea, the roar of, the glint.’ Olstein’s profound and attentive poems reveal her formal dexterity and knack for spotting modernity’s absurdities.”

Below are a few of Olstein’s poems taken from “Little Stranger” and “Late Empire.” The first three poems come from “Little Stranger.” The final two poems come from “Late Empire.”

List of 5 items.


    There is a point on every mission
    when something must be jettisoned

    into the thin, black air.
    Nothing likes to be abandoned,

    no one likes to be compared.
    There is a point when the plan

    lifts from our control panels
    and shimmers while we go ahead

    and stare. How long do we
    call the plan the plan after it

    disappears? There’s no such thing
    as a few minutes alone. There’s no

    such thing as making up your mind
    when everything is determined:

    the rate of our turning, our distance
    from the sun. I followed you here

    with my naked eye. You’ve lost
    your white glove. It travels now

    like a comet burning up the sky.

    This is how it is to sleep
    with deer nearby, invisibly around
in beds of flattened grasses,

    wet muzzles wetted with dew
late, when it comes,

    and early they are standing,

    true prey, watching the air

    with satellite ears as they nose

    the ground, crushing ferns

    between tooth and hoof.

    Forgive me if I touch your face

    in the place of another face,

    with these fingers in the place

    of other fingers, my own,

    the ones I remember.

    There is no end that does not end,

    no going on that does not worsen.

    The moment is far away.

    The dents in my eyes are

    where the future lives

    but my eyes are closed.

    Sleep ravels away from me.

    One by one we gentle our loves

    to the ground. This is how
it is to sleep near a sea

    that sounds like the traffic

    of familiar feet, the way rain sounds

    to the sea, the way deer sound

    to a cougar gliding across the field

    at hungry dawn.

    Fish dart like birds flock.
    Traffic runs like fish
    hell-bent upstream.
    We catch and release.
    We cease. We forget.
    We do it without noticing;
    we put on our finest clothes.
    We write love song after love
    song and find it hurts most
    when we stop singing.
    The anchorwoman’s hair
    makes sense next to
    the other anchorwoman’s hair.
    There are offices devoted
    to the demise of old words,
    others to the rise of new ones.
    Routes are mapped.
    Factories confuse the air.
    From a footprint, experts can
    construct a life story, predict
    a future path. I don’t want to
    know who you are, I don’t
    want to tell you who I’ve been
    walking down the street or
    at night in my bed. I want to
    sit next to you while fish kiss
    and twist the birded surface
    of the pond from underneath.

    The one right in front of me
    on e-mail, a chain message
    forwarded by my mother
    on the first day of the new year.
    She’s tangled in nets and lines
    and there’s only one way to
    get her out, she tells us
    with her bathtub-sized eyes
    one at a time because we
    have to swim around to see.

    As you round the bend

    keep the steel and mouse-skinned

    rabbit front left center

    and the track and the crowd

    and its cries are a blurred ovation

    as you stumble and recover
and then fully fall even if

    only onto the rough gravel

    of your inside mind or outside
in what is called the real world
as how many drunken grandfathers
holding little girls’ hands

    and broken peanut shells go
swirling by why are you racing?

    What are you racing from?

    From what fixed arm does this

    moth-eaten rabbit run?

    Captive is different than stupid.

    Near dead is different than dead.

    They call it a decoy but we know

    a mirror when we see ourselves

    lurch and dive for one.

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