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.”