Jacqueline Osherow Reads Her Poetry

Jacqueline Osherow
Jacqueline Osherow

On Feb. 12, 2020, the Provost’s Humanities and Jewish Studies Colloquium Committee invited Jacqueline Osherow, an award-winning poet and Distinguished Professor at University of Utah, to read from her latest book of poetry, My Lookalike at the Krishna Temple (LSU Press, 2019). In her introductory remarks, Dr. Linda Shires, chair of the English department at Stern College for Women, said about Osherow that “she is known for her technical mastery of notoriously difficult poetic forms as well as for her serious subject matter, her humor and a conversational tone.”

Osherow read her poems to a room of creative writing students and YU faculty members, a poetry that blended religious themes with her own experiences searching for beauty around the world.

An example of how Osherow integrates the sacred with the natural can be seen in “Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon, Utah,” a poem she composed about Bryce Canyon National Park as a commission from the U.S. National Park Service and read to her audience.

Maybe it was just for this that God pulled
water from dry land: to rescue hoodoo
after hoodoo. That’s what they’re called—

a bastardization of voodoo
these unrepeatable needles of rock,
geology’s answer to flakes of snow.

A sound enough hypothesis: dark magic.
But I like God’s approach—so straightforward:
the light, the land, the sky, each feat of handiwork

a matter of a single uttered word
(that’s the first version; the clumsy second
was more hand’s on, with dust and ribs required)

though it’s a stretch to claim this place was planned.
Maybe, just like us, God was stupefied;
He rarely knew how any day would end,

had to see things finished to call them good….

In a commentary about writing the poem, she said that it “turned out to be an expansive experience, enabling me to talk about the Bible, the ways we see and understand our world, the notion of geological time, the interactions between art and science.”

At a Q&A, students asked Osherow a number of questions about her writing process. One wanted to know which came first for her, the image or the idea. “Depends,” said Osherow. “A lot of my poems are about visual images, and so the image might come first. But sometimes I’m trying to make a connection to something I’ve heard or seen and will start with that. So, it depends.” Another question about colors and places in her work elicited an answer about traveling in the world. “I love writing about places, but never in the place where I am. You’ve been somewhere, but it’s what you remember about the place that’s going to make its way into a poem, because for me, what’s interesting is what stays with me about a place.”

Questioned about her writing process, she said “it’s ninety-nine-point-nine-percent revision. It’s mostly revising, revising, revising, revising—largely cutting, though you sometimes need to add as well.”

A student wanted to know what texts and writers inspire her. “King David—I love the Psalms, a gigantic inspiration. I fell I love with Emily Dickinson but I also love nursery rhymes, a Child’s Garden of Verses, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Keats, Yeats, Coleridge. If you’re interested in poetry, get yourself a copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry and read around in it, and when you find what you really like, go to the library and get out the whole book. And not just in English—it’s very good to read poetry in other languages because it sets you thinking about ways of expressing things.”

The audio of her presentation can be found here, and more of her poetry can be found online. A close reader of her texts will see how she seeks connections between different ways of understanding the Earth and shares those connections with her readers.