Poet Lisa Olstein visited Westminster April 15-16 as the 2019 Westminster Poet. The English Department has invited a major poet to campus for the past two decades as part of the Westminster Poetry Series. The poet gives a reading to the school community and speaks with students in their English classes.
Olstein is the author of four poetry collections: “Radio Crackling, Radio Gone,” winner of the Hayden Carruth Award; “Lost Alphabet,” a Library Journal best book of the year; “Little Stranger,” a Lannan Literary Selection; and “Late Empire.” Westminster’s Third Formers and Fourth Formers studied “Little Stranger,” while the Fifth Formers and Sixth Formers read “Late Empire.”
Olstein’s work has been published in many journals and anthologies, and her honors include a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Writing Residency, and fellowships from the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Centrum and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her chapbook, “The Resemblance of the Enzymes of Grasses to Those of Whales Is a Family Resemblance” was selected for an Essay Press prize.
In addition to writing poems and essays, Olstein is the lyricist for the rock band Cold Satellite, fronted by singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault. And while teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she was the associate director of the M.F.A. program, she co-founded the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. Olstein lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches in the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She earned a B.A. from Barnard College and an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, undertaking additional studies at the Aegean Center for Fine Arts and Harvard Divinity School.
Olstein began her reading in the Werner Centennial Center, by thanking students for “their fantastic questions in classes.” She then read numerous poems and discussed the inspiration behind many of them. In commenting about her poems that reference animals, she said, “Animals give me instant access to my emotions.” She also shared that she can find inspiration in current events. “I might ricochet off what is happening in the news.”
During meetings with English classes, she read poems at the request of students and responded to questions. “For me, writing a poem is an act of discovery, usually starting with a voice in my ear,” she said. “I don’t plan it out. I love to find out what happens.”
When asked about how much research she conducts for her poems, she responded, “One of the awesome things, is you don’t have to fact-check a poem, although sometimes I will,” she said. “I don’t keep a notebook of facts but one of word phrases. I also keep a list of potential titles.”
She explained that her process for crafting a poem varies. “Sometimes it is close to the first draft and other times it can be 15 drafts,” she said. “I might have a spur to write something but don’t want to be limited by it.” She added that she believes in multiplicity of meaning and does not like to offer advice in poems.
A generous grant from former Westminster trustee Maureen Ford-Goldfarb and her daughter Kirsten Ford ’00 funds the Westminster Poetry Series.