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Jena Osman, 2023-2024.

© Amze Emmons

1Jena Osman, an American poet hailing from the east coast, is the author of an extensive collection of poetry spanning more than thirty years recently published by DABA press: A Very Large Array: Selected Poems (2023). Her other books of poems include Motion Studies (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019), Corporate Relations (Burning Deck, 2014), Public Figures (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), The Network (Fence Books 2010, selected for the National Poetry Series in 2009), An Essay in Asterisks (Roof Books, 2004) and The Character (Beacon Press, winner of the 1998 Barnard New Women Poets Prize). Osman was a 2006 Pew Fellow in the Arts and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Howard Foundation, and the Fund for Poetry. She co-founded and co-edited the literary journal Chain with Juliana Spahr for twelve years. She currently teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Temple University, in Philadelphia.

2We were pleased and honored when Jena Osman agreed to an interview for the Transatlantica journal. The exchange was designed to mark the release of her new volume (Large Array: Selected Poems), while bringing to light the contributions she has made recently in France to the community of scholars working in the field of American literature and translation studies. A number of different interactions with various audiences of poetry in France are equally noteworthy events over the course of a visit in 2023. As a visiting professor at the Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 in May 2023, Jena Osman took part in a new series of poetry readings and conferences (“Poetry Talks”) sponsored by the research group EMMA (Études montpelliéraines du monde anglophone), in partnership with Montpellier’s publicly-funded poetry house, La Maison de la Poésie Jean Joubert. There was a conference followed by a poetry reading, in preparation for which Jena Osman met with undergraduate and graduate students in English at UPV who had drafted translations of some of her poems. Jena Osman’s other activities during this period involved her participation as a plenary speaker in a symposium devoted to the American poet Charles Reznikoff co-organized by Université de Nanterre, Université de Lille and Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 (“Charles Reznikoff. Inscriptions, 1894-1976”). Jena Osman also took part in a group reading in homage to Charles Reznikoff at the Maison de la Poésie in Paris during that same period. Subsequent to this time spent in France, Jena Osman graciously agreed to be interviewed by email and provide us with recordings of the poems she had read at the Montpellier poetry house.

Cover of A Very Large Array. Selected Poems (2023)

© DABA (New York, 2023)

Fiona McMahon: Your most recent work, a volume of selected poems, entitled A Very Large Array, was published in 2023 by the New York Press, DABA. I would like to begin by asking how the editorial project for that volume came about. The Klein-blue cover, the shape and heft of the book invite the reader, who is apostrophized at the end of the volume, to allow for a sensory approach to the reading experience. Once in hand, you find yourself turning it over, sifting through the pages, testing the unusual binding and wondering about the dark grey that borders The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist and Corporate Relations and the excerpts from “Choral Argument.” How would you describe the stages during which the aesthetic for the volume came about? From your perspective as the author of these poems, how transformational is the combination of color, texture and shape? Does it add to the underlying unity of the volume, does it inflect in any way the reception of the individual volumes within the collection? More broadly, would you say that it was important that this collection assume the status of an artefact? 

Jena Osman: The project began in the summer of 2022 with an email from Craig Garrett (who was then the manager for DABA Press, the publication arm of artist Adam Pendleton’s studio) saying that they wanted to introduce my poetry to a new audience. DABA distinguishes itself in its commitment to experimental writing and art—first by publishing books affiliated with Pendleton’s various exhibitions, and then branching out and publishing under-the-radar experimental works like Brion Gysin’s Permutations and a reissue of EECCHHOOEESS by N.H. Pritchard. I believe my book is their first by a living author! It might also be their first paperback, though I’m not entirely sure about that. All of their books have a very particular design aesthetic, so it makes sense to me that your questions call attention to the materiality of the book object. The book was designed by Alec Mapes-Frances (who is the primary designer for DABA). I think I knew this intuitively, but your question has made me really appreciate all of the quiet decisions behind the minimalist design that serve to maximize and highlight the physical pleasures of reading.

The only design idea I suggested was the border for the two longest pieces in the book so that they held together as books within the book (which I have to admit is an idea that I stole from the design of the 1995 Vintage edition of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes). I wanted to include Corporate Relations, which was originally published by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s inimitable Burning Deck Press in 2014, in its entirety because it is now out of print. It was one of the last books Burning Deck put out before closing up shop after 50 years of publishing. Like DABA is now, Burning Deck was dedicated to providing a publication platform for experimental literature. Also, Corporate Relations was used as the basis for composer Ted Hearne’s mind-blowing composition Sound from the Bench, and he generously allowed us to include pages from the score in the book.

The second bordered poem is “The Periodic Table as Assembled by Dr. Zhivago, Oculist.” This was a poem I began in the early 1990s after being introduced to hypertext in graduate school. I didn’t know anything about programming, but I decided I was going to make an interactive hypertextual poem, with the goal of creating a platform that could turn the reader into a writer. I used the periodic table of the elements as a structure and wrote a short poem to pair with each element. The idea was that once online, the reader could choose various elements from the table and combine the short poems in a way that would cause a “reaction.” Through the years, there have been many versions of the poem, both on the page and on the screen. In fact, in 1998, part of the piece was translated into French and adapted into print for Format Américain, an imprint of Un Bureau sur l’Atlantique. Under the direction of Emmanuel Hocquard and Juliette Valéry, it was translated by the group Langage & Écriture at L’École des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux. In the resulting chapbook, the hyperlinks of the web version appear as half-sheet inserts on blue paper; it was a beautiful solution to the problem of translating from digital to print formats. The latest digital version of the project was programmed by Vlad Zykov in 2011 and has been slowly decaying and losing its functionality. I guess it’s a bit ironic that my only idea to prevent this digital work from vanishing altogether was to put it in the book, and that’s why it’s there in its entirety.

As for overall organization, after reading through just about everything I’ve ever published (which was a rather unsettling endeavor), I realized that for the last thirty years I have continued to revisit the same fascinations and there are a number of repeated references and motifs. The poems started to organize themselves into broad categories: history, news, science, Supreme Court, and theater. Rather than presenting my work as a linear progression, I’m hoping that the categories adequately represent a series of conversations and concerns that have continued throughout my writing life.

FM: The organizational scheme around the term “array” and its various meanings is also quite arresting. You mentioned once in an essay that you were not interested in “the poem leading the reader by the hand toward a safe and predetermined conclusion” but instead in the potential for the poem to present “the reader with language” as “evidence of our social being,” language “to observe and make decisions about” (“After Language Poetry”). There appears to be in this instance a willingness to identify a particular rationale borrowed from computer sciences whereby we view each grouping of poems as a tableau of sorts. While the merging of the sciences and poiesis is a recurring aspect in your work, now that a large portion of your writing has been assembled in one volume, it is very striking just how thoroughly the scientific conceit is embedded in your thinking and in your poetic landscape. How would you describe the way in which your writing incrementally came to interact with the language and the processes of science? I wonder if you feel any particular affinity for the American poet Muriel Rukeyser, who consistently demonstrated her fascination for scientific invention and prowess? 

JO: The short answer is that my father was a chemist. I was never very good at science or math, and maybe because of that, I’ve always been intrigued by disciplines that seem so certain of the truth and the way things work (which is perhaps why I’m so often rooting around in nineteenth-century how-to books for source material). I like taking the cadence of sense-making and certainty and messing with it in order to make a different kind of sense. As for Rukeyser, I do have an affinity for her work, but not because of her fascination with science. I am most interested in her poem “The Book of the Dead,” because of her use of documentary materials. While that poem includes science with its references to how photography works, and its joining of the “glass” of the lens and the mined silica that ultimately killed so many men at the Hawk’s Nest tunnel in 1930s West Virginia, what most impacted me upon reading it was her hybridizing of a lyric voice with a journalistic investigation. Her primary source of information for the poem came from the Congressional hearings about the incident, and she recontextualized the testimonies from those hearings—without altering them—so they could be heard more intimately. I found that choice incredibly powerful.

FM: In a similar light, when poetry makes overtures to science, what does it say about the relationship between poetry and knowledge? What position does your writing suggest one may have in the face of the Romantic premise that poetry be utilitarian? As in Shelley's A Defence of Poetry: “The functions of the poetical faculty are twofold; by one it creates new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure; by the other it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good.” 

JO: I love that Shelley quote. As the book notes, the actual Very Large Array is a giant radio telescope observatory located in a volcanic field in central New Mexico. I’ve only seen pictures, but it’s a stunning site. And even though these enormous satellite dishes in the desert are being used for scientific research, they seem like grand artworks to me. I like that destabilizing leap, from the knowable external fact of science to the subjective interpretation of art. We make that leap from objective to subjective hundreds of times a day without noticing it; a poem can make us aware of it.

FM: Over the last two decades, your poems have distinctively embraced modes of appropriation and recontextualization, culling words and images from a variety of documentary sources, fiction, poetry, dictionaries, travel narratives and others. The trope of the “open archive” is sometimes used to explain the appropriative strategies of your writing and more widely of those of your contemporaries associated with the strain of conceptual poetics (Craig Dworkin or Vanessa Place, for instance). You gave a plenary talk on the poetry of Charles Reznikoff at a 2023 symposium in France celebrating his work. What is your relationship to Reznikoff, one of the twentieth century’s foremost and yet most discrete practitioners of appropriative writing?

JO: All of the poems in the “Supreme Court Section” of A Very Large Array were directly influenced by Reznikoff’s multi-volume work, Testimony: The United States (1885-1915): Recitative. I’ll reiterate some of the points I made in the plenary talk: Reznikoff started the Testimony project in the 1930s, set it aside, returned to it in the 1960s and continued working on it until his death in 1976. He used case law summaries published in West’s National Reporter System as source text, and distilled and shaped the lengthy prose of each case into relatively short lyric poems organized by geographical region and topic (such as “The South,” “Social Life,” “Domestic Scenes,” etc.). Most of the words in the poems are taken directly from the transcribed witness testimonial sections of the summaries, and the actual stakes of the cases (who did what, who was being sued, etc.) are not always clear, as they aren’t really the point. Instead, Reznikoff selected words and phrases that triggered a feeling in him; the poems capture—almost scientifically—how language itself leads to an emotional response.

I’ve always had a suspicion of the confessional mode in poetry; it can be manipulative and turn the reader into a passive voyeur that looks solipsistically inward, measuring the self only in relation to the subjectivity of the author, in the guise of some “universal” feeling. So Reznikoff’s approach to feeling and empathy felt right; the reader stays at a critical distance, and as the cases pile up, can perceive patterns of human tragedy through time and get a sense of how those individual experiences are not universal at all, but the result of ideological/national systems. There’s the sense that it could have been otherwise, that the tragedies that make up this history of the United States, as recorded by our justice system, were the result of choices made as opposed to some inevitable destiny. Because of that, I think that Reznikoff’s appropriative work is perhaps less connected to the conceptual poetics of the aughts than it is to current digital datamining practices, as the poems of Testimony are the result of “processing” hundreds of cases. And as with any algorithmic procedure, the purpose is to detect patterns.

I was first introduced to Testimony in a graduate seminar taught by poet Charles Bernstein in the Buffalo Poetics Program. While reading the book, I was also listening to the radio, where a National Public Radio reporter (Nina Totenberg), was reading bits of testimony from the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. That confluence of recontextualized public testimonies led me to write a found poem called “A Real Life Drama” (published in my 1999 book The Character), made up of phrases taken from Supreme Court cases at that time. Unlike Reznikoff, I was culling phrases that seemed to reveal a kind of creative thinking in a forum that we normally don’t consider to be creative. While Reznikoff was “mining” his source text for words that created a feeling in him, my first experiments with Supreme Court transcripts were more concerned with quirky linguistic delights. Over time, my work with Supreme Court speech became more content-concerned, perhaps most fully in Corporate Relations, which tries to figure out why corporations sometimes seem to have more constitutional protections than U.S. citizens.

  • 1 Review of US1. The New Republic. N° 1214, vol. LXXXXIV (March 9, 1938), 141-142.

FM: There is a lasting memory in your work of Muriel Rukeyser’s approach to testimony, one that you mentioned earlier. More broadly, there is the example of her “material,” as William Carlos Williams explains in his review of her 1938 volume, “The Book of the Dead”: “She knows how to use the language of an x-ray report or a stenographic record of a cross-examination. She knows, in other words, how to select and exhibit her material.”1 The effort to bring public discourse to poetry ripples over your writing, as in “The Joker,” a poem sourced in part from congressional hearings. The other sections of The Network, your 2010 collection (“The Knot,” “The Franklin Party,” “Financial District,” “Mercury Rising”), also foreground the interaction between language and fragments relaying economic and cultural histories. Do poems for you begin as an investigation into the reception of political or historical contexts?

JO: My poems usually begin with a question or a longstanding fascination. For example, the thinking that led to “The Franklin Party” began in the late 80s, when someone at a party recounted to me with great enthusiasm an episode of the television program, NOVA, about the doomed Franklin expedition of 1845. Their goal was to discover a shortcut to Asia through the Northwest Passage—a mythic waterway (at the time) that was thought to run from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the Arctic. They never returned. Bodies of sailors from that original expedition were found perfectly preserved in ice in 1984 and forensic tests showed the lead content in the organs of the men to be up to 9 times the normal level—perhaps from faulty soldering, as canned goods technology was very new at that time. The program implied that lead poisoning may have been responsible for why the sailors were found with strange objects, like full sets of silver and scented soaps. So that was the beginning kernel that led me into various strands of research: Ron Silliman’s concept of “the new sentence,” the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the nineteenth-century expansion of the British Empire, John Franklin’s stint in Tasmania overseeing “convict transportation,” Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen.” A random conversation had piqued my curiosity, and I followed that kernel where it led. When I’m doing this kind of research, I don’t ask questions to get a definitive answer; rather I think of the questions as vehicles to take me elsewhere. A research question usually branches out, leading me down multiple pathways. And sometimes the pathways cross, which leads to that networked feeling. I love that sensation—of not knowing where I’m going but uncovering a connection. It’s like the writing is revealing a forgotten circuit.

FM: During your time in 2023 as a visiting professor at the Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3, there was an event organized at the Maison de la Poésie Jean Joubert (Montpellier’s publicly-funded poetry house) where you gave a bilingual reading with a small group of undergraduate students who had translated some of your poems into French, including “Dissent and the Hydra” (2022), one of your recent poems, sourced from Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. Can you describe what that experience was like?

Jena Osman at the Maison de la Poésie, Montpellier, 25.05.23.

© Fiona McMahon

JO: It was delightful. The translating began before I arrived, and by the time I spoke with the students, they had only a few questions about specific definitions. They made translation look easy! I very much enjoyed having the students read their translations along with me; even though I knew what they were reading, the poems felt different to me—somehow they were more fierce, more intelligent. This poem, which is about the vagaries and betrayals of the American Supreme Court, became more French!

Aya Arifi and Camille Geisler reading translations of Jena Osman’s poems, Montpellier, 25.05.23.

© Fiona McMahon

FM: At that same event, you gave a talk entitled, “Quipu Procedure” that offers up a discussion of the work of the poet-artist Cecilia Vicuña. You explained at the time that you were working on a new book of essay-poems called “A Textile Coincidence,” which is in part an examination of literature as material culture. How has an understanding of the technologies of writing, both production and reception, been crucial in your own development as a poet? Reading your poetry, one might say that “contemporary data mining,” as you describe it in your talk, has always been an important impulse driving your work and a distinctive method with which you have been experimenting. It is as though your books are haunted by the modalities of “ancient data collection” that you observe in the work of Cecilia Vicuña. How would you describe the affinities you might feel for either ancient artisanal modes of craft or for contemporary algorithmic processes?

JO: I like the way you’ve suggested that my writing practice is data mining with a difference. As I’ve alluded to above, my process is a kind of wandering while seeking connection points that I hadn’t noticed before. In this work-in-progress, I’m trying to emphasize the gap between a human processing of data and machine processing of data. I’m trying to do it without seeming like some kind of naysaying Luddite. I’m interested in the artistic collaborations that can be had with emerging forms of artificial intelligence. But AI is often at work on us without our consent, and I do believe that we need to have the option to question the algorithmic processing of our lives. Sometimes I admire how spot on the advertisements targeting me on social media can be—but they can also be quite off. As a pleasant thought experiment, I like to think of those errors as evidence of my human unknowability. But on the flip side, these algorithmic data profiles that are created by aggregating every digital move we make can be quite faulty, and their mistakes can have enormous repercussions. I started thinking about this with the research I was doing for “Motion Studies,” and it’s continuing in this latest project, which began thanks to an amazing machine translation glitch that let me translate the checked pattern of my dining room tablecloth into English. This brings me back to the question about the student translators—the gap between their grappling with my language, with wanting to honor it as accurately as possible, is so far removed from the corpus-based sorting that occurs in order for GoogleTranslate to work. Don’t get me wrong, GoogleTranslate is an incredibly useful tool, but it’s a first step and nobody would mistake it for the most accurate representation of a language. And yet we give similar broad-stroke algorithms incredible power in other areas of our experience—they shape our worldviews, they control the information we have access to, and they can determine how the outside world perceives us beyond the digital platform, with no human translator to add nuance to the output. So in answer to your question, I’d say I’m not so much interested in the ancient technologies of writing as I am in the gap between how a human versus an artificial intelligence makes use of any writing technology.

FM: I wonder if you might say a few words about your editorial work in the 1990s and early aughts on Chain magazine? Over the course of more than ten years (1994-2005) of collaborative work with Juliana Spahr, the seeds of your own networked poetics seem to be taking root. The various issues of the magazine give prominent place to the relationship between literature or the arts more generally and documentary (issues on “Fact,” “Documentary,” “Procedures,” etc.), the magazine also resonates with the desire to connect attention to poetic materiality, attention to the medium, to a conception of writing that considers it as a social act, bringing the writing subject closer to the community. Also, importantly, Chain showcases the often-marginalized activity of contemporary women's writing in the United States. Looking back, how would you assess the importance of this editorial project with respect to your poetics and your career? Also, in your view, how has Chain magazine furthered the representation of women’s writing and what efforts are being made now through literary magazines to provide a window onto underrepresented groups?

JO: Editing Chain with Juliana was central to my development as a poet; it is impossible for me to adequately articulate how important that project was for me. We started the journal because we wanted to create an alternative model for poetry publishing; rather than conceiving of the editorial role as that of a taste-maker, we wanted to be facilitators of a platform where a wide variety of works could co-exist. Each issue was organized around a special topic (like the ones you mention) and we put out as wide a call for work as we could. Once our first issue was out, word spread pretty widely. In those days there were so many bookstores, and the good ones were well stocked with poetry journals, which was how you got the poetry news of the day. It was also the early days of the internet, so our calls for work actually got around, rather than being buried by an algorithm that sorts for commercial value. Our editorial consideration of each work we received didn’t revolve around the question of “is this to our taste” but “does this add something different to the conversation.” Because of our emphasis on inclusivity, the issues ballooned to 250-330 pages. The diversity of the contents made for a very lively reading experience, and editing the journal introduced me to writers that are still so important to me. We were early publishers for a number of poets who are quite well-known today (like Cathy Park Hong, Bhanu Kapil, M. Nourbese Philip). Our first issue published only women writers, and each subsequent issue (there were 13 in all) had at least 50% women contributors. We aimed for international and racial diversity, as well as aesthetic diversity, and we arranged each issue in alphabetical order so that chance would determine placement of the works together. I’m not sure the journal would have made nearly as much of an impact if it were to come out today. While we might have been able to find the funding to make the issues, the distribution networks in the U.S. have pretty much collapsed for small presses (Small Press Distribution, the primary distributor for Chain and so many small press publications over the years, folded just a few weeks ago!), and the few remaining bookstores there are seem to have very little space for literary journals. In parallel, the latest trends in library design seem to be about hiding books in depositories so that the building can have a sleeker open-work look. You really have to know what you want in order to request it, rather than discover something by chance. I supposed web browsing is the new forum for serendipitous discoveries, but once again you hit up against that overly-determined algorithm problem. I also think the act of reading has changed dramatically—at least I know it has for myself. Reading on screen is not great for poetry, but that’s how a lot of people are introduced to the form these days. So while poetry in Chain had a kind of raucous approach to poetic form where the only limit was the 6x9 page space, the internet more easily accommodates polite poems that fit into sonnet-sized blocks. It’s a confusing time, as I’m not sure how people are having that eye-opening experience that we aimed for with Chain, where you’d could come across someone who was doing something you’ve never seen before. I find myself following the poets that mean something to me, looking out for their next books, following the presses they publish on—but it’s a lot harder to be introduced to something new. However, I’m of the generation whose habits were forged pre-internet; I’m sure that younger readers and writers have figured out how to find what they need to find, algorithms be damned!

Recordings by Jena Osman of the following excerpts (French translation by Aya Arifi et Camille Geisler, Fiona McMahon et Karim Daanoune):

1. “Dissent and the Hydra” / « L’Hydre et la Dissension »

Dissent and the Hydra

“[G]uided by the history and tradition that map the essential components of our Nation’s concept of ordered liberty, we must ask what the Fourteenth Amendment means by the term ‘liberty.’”

—Justice Samuel Alito, leaked draft, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

“Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra.”

—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Shelby County v. Holder

We turn our collars up against the chill of raw judicial power

The fabulous many-headed snake of the marshes of Lerna

It is said that if one head is smyte, three heads grow

A rancorous national controversy

Of spring-headed Hydras and sea-shouldering Whales

Members of the court split three ways

Gestational age ministers life to this monstrous Hydra

We make a long list of circuit conflicts

To cope with this vile infection

We are a quick child

We expect more from an opinion striking at the heart

Had we as many mouths as Hydra, our answer would stop ’em all

For liberty is a capacious term

A jettisoned framework

An animated hiss and whistling wail

Hydra assailants return every hour

Yet their cuts produce in time a perfect animal

Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition

Of a deeply rooted right, full of hydras and crocodiles

This scheme of ordered liberty is the Court’s own brainchild

Poison fumes, poisoned blood

In a long constellation

With a few bright stars

Jena Osman, A Very Large Array. Selected Poems. Brooklyn, NY: DABA, 2023.

Originally published in “Poem-a-Day” on July 22, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.​poem/​dissent-and-hydra

« Guidés par l'histoire et la tradition qui façonnent les composantes essentielles du concept de liberté ordonnée de notre nation, nous devons nous demander ce que signifie le terme "liberté" dans le 14e amendement. »

Le juge Samuel Alito, ébauche de l'affaire Dobbs contre Jackson Women's Health Organization divulgué à la presse 

« Les premières mesures prises pour faire face à cette vile infection revenaient à se battre contre une hydre. »

Le juge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Shelby County contre Holder

Nous relevons nos cols pour nous protéger de la froideur de ce pouvoir judiciaire brut

Le fabuleux serpent polycéphale des marécages de Lerne

Il se dit que quand on lui coupe une tête, trois lui repoussent

Une controverse nationale et à la rancune tenace

D’hydres aux têtes jaillissantes et de baleines pilier des océans 

Les membres de la cour sont divisés en trois

La période de gestation pourvoit aux besoins de cette Hydre monstrueuse 

Nous dressons une longue liste des débats stériles à  la cour d’appel 

Pour faire face à cette vile infection 

Nous sommes un enfant à l’esprit vif

Nos attentes sont plus élevées lorsqu’il s’agit d’une décision qui nous frappe en plein coeur 

Si nous avions autant de bouches que cette Hydre, notre réponse les ferait tous taire

Car « liberté » est un mot vague et vaste

Un cadre que l’on largue

un chuintement sifflant et une plainte chantante

Toutes les heures, les assaillants de l’Hydre repartent à l’attaque

Mais leurs entailles ensemble conjuguées ne créent au bout du compte qu’un animal parfait

Le mot « hubris » décrit parfaitement la démolition d’aujourd’hui

D’un droit profondément enraciné, peuplé d’hydres et de crocodiles 

Cette stratégie de liberté ordonnée est née des machinations de la Cour à elle seule

émanations toxiques, sang contaminé

Dans une vaste constellation

Où brillent quelques étoiles.

*Traduit vers le français par Aya Arifi et Camille Geisler, étudiants LLCER anglais Master recherche, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3.

2. “Flag of My Disposition” / « Le drapeau de mon humeur »


"Flag of My Disposition"

A child said What is the grass?....
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
—Walt Whitman

A child said
I run across the street against the light
I am he having been;
having been run over,
that this is what it must be like
I continue, having been dismissed.
"I accept reality and dare not question it."

You see, I am he.
Someone had died,
someone had taken
I am having been
a picture of me.

Thus, I am healthy, strong, but "if you'll pardon my saying," a bit
lazy. It causes a persistent pain, either in the heart, or chest. When
the steam comes in through the floor, it's like a bomb going off.

Hurrah for Positive Science

The wind
the tulips
in city hall yard

You see it has been
having been an almost being
but not present;
having been
it will be
what image you'll remember,
having to be, having to do
with exteriors

beside the stories:
the police take senior citizens shopping
the poorer workers shuttled into the suburbs
the hazardous fumes contained in an incubator
the falling masonry from the western union building

large crowd,
adding powders,
having been a picture of me,
recipes, mixing faux chemistry
turning into an invention
vinegar and sugar lands on me

Thus, I am waking up thinner, having been another in the thin air
between sleep and science—an attempt to understand them, I guess.

The clowns are in coincidences occurring. An empty bucket falls over his
head and then another bucket falls over my head.

In having been a lecture about prepositions, especially "of," the
appropriative one, creates a narrative that's not there, having been
pointing to dangers of even the smallest in order to condemn a larger
illusion? having been imperialism?

copper and then glass plates of solidified chlorine
sounds of birds to drive me crazy
a woman in a bathtub of mud, then
the skeleton of a mermaid in the boiler room
having been of them, now see them
through radioactive imposition and probing

no extensive presence or shadow
a skeleton of its former body
circular with slender staircases
on the surface of a jar

a ball, a shot, glancing off of shining surfaces
how it sits beneath the ground,
the flowers in the gutter in front of the signatures

There is a photograph of three men in military gear
with arms
around each other
he knew his entire idea and had chosen to present
just the edges to the audience
having just a bullhorn

A child said What is the grass?
It must be waifs and strays set loose from an abandoned frame

Jena Osman, “Flag of my Disposition” (5_Trope), “The choke chain of lightheartedness”, n° 12 (Dec 2001).​5_trope/​12/​index.htm

Un enfant dit C’est quoi l’herbe ?...
J’imagine que ça doit être le drapeau de mon humeur, tissé d’étoffes vert espoir.
—Walt Whitman

Un enfant dit
Je traverse la rue au feu rouge en courant
Je suis lui ayant été ;
Ayant été renversé,
Que c’est à ça que ça doit ressembler
Je demeure, ayant été renvoyé.
« J’accepte la réalité, je n’ose pas la remettre en question »

Tu vois, je suis lui.
Quelqu’un était mort.
Quelqu’un était parti
Je suis ayant été
Une image de moi

Ainsi, je suis en bonne santé et en bonne forme mais, et « excusez ma franchise », un peu
flemmard. Cela me provoque une douleur persistante, tantôt au cœur, tantôt à la poitrine. Quand la fumée s’élève du sol, c’est comme une bombe qui explose. 

Vive les Sciences Positives

le vent
les tulipes
dans le jardin de l’hôtel de ville

Tu vois, cela a été
ayant été un être, presque 
Mais pas présent
ayant été
cela sera
l’image dont tu te souviendras
devoir être et devoir faire
sont liés aux apparences

au-delà des reportages :
la police aide les personnes âgées à faire leurs courses
Les travailleurs les plus pauvres sont expédiés dans les banlieues
Les dangereuses émanations que contient un incubateur
La structure de la WesternUnion s’effondre

Une foule immense
cimente cet édifice,
ayant été une image de moi,
des recettes, des mélanges de chimie pastiche
Qui deviennent des inventions
du vinaigre et du sucre me tombent dessus

Ainsi, je me réveille plus léger, ayant été quelqu’un d’autre après m’être désagrégé
À cheval entre le sommeil et la science : j’essaie de les comprendre, je suppose.

Les clowns apparaissent par hasard.
Un seau vide lui tombe sur la tête puis un autre seau me tombe sur la tête. 

Ayant assisté à un cours sur les prépositions, en particulier la préposition « de »
dans son sens possessif, cela crée une histoire qui n’est pas là, ayant été
attirant l’attention sur des dangers aussi minimes soient-ils
afin de condamner une plus grande
illusion ? Ayant été l’impérialisme ? 

du cuivre puis des plaques de chlore solidifiées
le bruit des oiseaux pour me rendre fou
une femme dans une baignoire remplie de boue, puis
le squelette d’une sirène dans la chaufferie
ayant été l’un des leurs, les voir à présent
par des projections radioactives et des investigations

ne reste ni présence prolongée ni ombre
un squelette de son corps premier
circulaire et monté d’escaliers élancés
sur le couvercle d’un bocal

une balle, un tir, qui ricoche sur les surfaces brillantes
comme il gît six pieds sous terre,
les fleurs dans le caniveau devant les signatures

Il y a une photo de trois hommes en treillis
bras dessus
bras dessous
Il maîtrisait son sujet dans son intégralité mais avait choisi de n’en présenter
à son public que les contours.
n’ayant en main qu’un porte-voix

Un enfant dit C’est quoi l’herbe ?
Ce doit être des enfants errants, libérés d’un cadre laissé à l’abandon 

*Traduit vers le français par Aya Arifi et Camille Geisler, étudiants LLCER anglais Master recherche, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3.

3. Excerpts from “Motion Studies,” Motion Studies: For the revised and completed version of this poem, see Motion Studies (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)


Excerpts from “Motion Studies"

first there is the heart
blood passes through the vein
this is the pulse

first there is the band
placed across the wrist
an elastic tongue of steel
the edges metal wings

first a steel spring
screwed to a frame of brass
covered by a plate of ivory
the plate moves up and down

first the pulse speaks
to the plate
by means of the knife
to the wooden lever

movement etched
on a piece of smoked paper
peaks then valleys
trace the interior

watch myself live
in a line


The 19th century physiologist, Etienne-Jules Marey, began his research in the age of vivisection. In order to understand the body’s “vital forces,” animals were being cut open alive. Marey wasn’t interested in this method of research—not only was it cruel, it relied on the distortions of human perception, on metaphysical suppositions rather than empirical knowledge. Marey wanted to understand the mechanics of the body without interference. He knew that every function of the human body, no matter how hidden in the folds, created movement; he simply needed to find a way to translate those movements to paper, turn them into text that could be read, data to be analyzed. 


They had struck gold; they had won the right to be forgotten. The ticket granted them that.

All they had to do was sign on the dotted line and then disappear into the sunset, onto the horizon,

around the corner, into the mist, over the rainbow, into complete silence.

But for their breath.

The noise of her pulse. Of his. Recorded in a line.

They draw a breath and it’s made visible,
They have a thought and that’s visible as well.

Shallow breath and stealth. Holding breath—

[to ward off the tracker]
[to escape the sensor][the reader]


Marey’s father wanted him to be a doctor, so he went to medical school. His thesis was on the circulation of blood in the body—particularly the second part of the pulse, the rhythm heard when the heart’s cavities dilate and fill with blood. After graduation, he tried to set up a practice, but it failed, so Marey became a “pure” research scientist. He created a number of instruments; the first, invented in 1859, was a graphing tool called a sphygmograph—an early precursor to the blood pressure cuff. Five years earlier, a German physiologist (Karl von Vierordt) had made the first sphygmograph; Marey’s version, however, was lighter, portable, and created a readable output; as a result, it won a big prize from the Académie des Sciences and Marey was invited to demonstrate its workings to Napoleon III. At the demonstration, the device detected an irregularity in the heartbeat of a courtier, who then died a few days later. Marey’s reputation was sealed.

The sphygmograph worked by pressing one part of a lever against the pulse in the wrist while the other was connected to a stylus. The stylus then traced the pressure of the blood in the artery onto a sheet of paper. As the blood expanded the artery, the pen moved upward; as the artery relaxed, the pen moved down. Reading the heart via the “graphic method” was a matter of understanding the variations of curves.


An eye blinking becomes a landscape.

She remembers him in his suit, in a hospital bed, sleeping.
The machine by the bed traced his breath and pulse.
The charted lines became an ultrasound.
The fetal shape became a shoulder of meat.
The shoulder of meat became a foot.
The foot became a heart.
The heart became a skull.
The skull became a face.
The eyes in the face were in the rear view mirror,
framed in the mirror.
Rain hit the windshield.
The windshield wipers waved back and forth,
left a trace of themselves from every position.

She found him, a transparent man who lives more as a trace, a clue, data: an experimental animal. She is the same, though opaque. They ran.

For the revised and completed version of this poem, see Jena Osman, Motion Studies. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019.

d’abord il y a le cœur

le sang coule à travers la veine 

c’est le pouls

d’abord il y a la bande 

placée sur le poignet

une langue élastique d’acier

dont les bords sont des ailes métalliques

d’abord un ressort d’acier

vissé à un cadre en laiton

recouvert d’une plaque d’ivoire

la plaque s’élève et s’abaisse 

d’abord le pouls s’adresse

à la plaque

par le couteau 

sur le levier de bois

un mouvement gravé

sur une feuille de papier jauni

monts et vallées

en font le relief intérieur 

je me regarde vivre

en une ligne. 


Etienne Jules Marey, un physiologiste du 19ème siècle, débuta ses recherches à l’époque de la vivisection. Afin de comprendre les “forces vitales” du corps, les animaux étaient ouverts vifs. Cette méthode de recherche n’intéressait pas Marey, non seulement parce qu’elle était cruelle mais aussi parce qu’elle reposait sur la vision biaisée de l’être humain, sur des théories métaphysiques plutôt que sur des connaissances empiriques. Marey voulait déchiffrer le fonctionnement du corps humain sans interférence. Il savait que chaque fonctionnalité du corps humain, aussi profondément cachée soit-elle dans les replis de la chair, était à l’origine d’un mouvement ; il avait juste besoin de trouver le moyen de transcrire ces mouvements sur le papier, de les transformer en un texte lisible de tous et en données à analyser. 


Ils avaient touché le jackpot ; ils avaient gagné le droit d’être oubliés. C’est le prix que leur avait accordé ce billet. Ils n’avaient plus qu’à coucher leurs signatures sur la ligne pointillée et s’éloigner vers l’horizon pour se fondre dans le coucher de soleil, disparaître au coin d’une rue, dans la brume, au-dessus de l’arc-en-ciel, dans un silence absolu.

Rompu seulement par leur souffle. 

Le son de son pouls à elle. À lui. Retranscrits en une ligne. 

Ils respirent et leurs respirations sont rendues visibles,

Ils pensent et leur moindre pensée est rendue visible à son tour.  

Une respiration saccadée et discrète.  Ils retiennent leur respiration…

[pour fuire le traqueur]

[pour échapper au capteur] [au lecteur]


Le père de Marey souhaitait qu’il devienne docteur, aussi fît-il ses études à la faculté de médecine. Sa thèse portait sur la circulation du sang dans le corps, et plus précisément sur la deuxième phase de la pulsation, le rythme que l’on entend lorsque les cavités du cœur se dilatent et se remplissent de sang. Après avoir obtenu son diplôme, il tenta de monter son propre cabinet, mais cela échoua, et Marey se consacra donc à la recherche scientifique « pure ». Il créa de nombreux instruments ; le premier, inventé en 1859, était un instrument de graphie appelé un sphygmographe - précurseur précoce du brassard de pression artérielle. Cinq ans plus tôt, un physiologiste allemand (Karl von Vierordt) avait créé le premier sphygmographe ; la version de Marey était cependant plus légère, portative, et produisait un résultat lisible, ce qui lui valut de remporter un grand prix de l'Académie des Sciences et Marey fut invité à en expliquer le fonctionnement à Napoléon III. Lors de la démonstration, l'appareil détecta une irrégularité dans le rythme cardiaque d'un courtisan, qui décéda ensuite quelques jours plus tard. La réputation de Marey était scellée.

Le fonctionnement du sphygmographe consistait à appuyer une extrémité d’un levier contre le pouls du poignet tandis que l'autre extrémité était connectée à un stylet. Le stylet retranscrivait ensuite la pression du sang dans l'artère sur une feuille de papier. Lorsque que le sang dilatait l'artère, le stylet se déplaçait vers le haut ; et lorsque l'artère se relâchait, le stylet se déplaçait vers le bas. Lire le cœur via la « méthode graphique » revenait donc à analyser la variation de ces courbes.


Une paupière qui s’abaisse devient un paysage 

Elle se souvient de lui en costume-cravate, endormi dans un lit d’hôpital, 

La machine aux côtés du lit retranscrivait sa respiration et son pouls.

Les lignes tracées devinrent une échographie.

La forme fœtale devînt une épaule de chaire.

L’épaule de chaire devînt un pied. 

Le pied devînt un cœur. 

Le cœur devînt un crâne. 

Le crâne devînt un visage.

Les yeux de ce visage fixaient le rétroviseur arrière,

encadrés par le miroir. 

La pluie s’abattait sur le pare-brise.

Les essuie-glaces battaient de droite à gauche,

laissant une trace d’eux même dans toutes les directions.

Elle l’avait trouvé, un homme transparent qui vit comme une trace, un signe, une information, : un animal 

de laboratoire. 

Elle lui est semblable, bien qu’opaque. Ils coururent.

*Traduit vers le français par Aya Arifi et Camille Geisler, étudiants LLCER anglais Master recherche, Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3.

4. Excerpts from “System of Display,” Motion Studies (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)


Excerpts from “System of Display"

I might want to see the teeming archives of the organized world,

single file in the valleys of convolutions.

I might condemn empirical knowledge detached from culture.

I might become a mineralized skeleton of the lily-shaped radiaria

pouring its calcareous secretion on the parent mass.

You might claim the current climate a form of denial.

You might be a nervous system

Inside hemispheres with valleys that extend the entire width of

domed colonies.

I might propose an expert separate from the world.

I might inhabit an intermural furrow, a double-valley character

broader than the true valley.

I might propose an expert separate from the world.

I might inhabit an intermural furrow, a double-valley character

broader than the true valley.

I might register a paradigm shift in modes of understanding.

You might be a ribbon-like columella feeding on small

drifting animals.

You might be the expert called into question.

You might slip on the deep arm of the sea, an unexpected shelf

trapped in a greenhouse gas mantle.

I might opine that these days opinion determines fact.

I might point to problems in the celestial mountains, irreversible

melting flooding ports.

I might say scientific facts are symbiotic with human acts.

You might reply “look up into a green sky of

photosynthetic bacteria.”

You might argue that science is what determines culture.

You might be devastated by the crown-of-thorns starfish and

cyclone scouring, succumb to warmer waters and become

a crumbling mound of calcium.

I might want symbiotic bargains.

I might shout that the earth can't buffer.

I might dream of a broadcast spawner that anchors in the vast

aquatic deserts of open sea.

You might hallucinate the delicate arms of a basket star

reaching out to predict the future.

You might grasp and sting the brittle flower animals.

You might want all of the surface area, all the sun.

Jena Osman, “System of Display”, Motion Studies. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019.

Je pourrais vouloir contempler les archives foisonnantes du monde organisé,

alignées debout dans les vallées des circonvolutions.

Je pourrais condamner la connaissance empirique à l’écart de la culture.

Je pourrais devenir un squelette minéralisé du radiaria en forme de lys

versant sa sécrétion calcaire sur la masse maternelle.

Tu pourrais affirmer que le climat actuel est une forme de déni.

Tu pourrais être un système nerveux

À l'intérieur d'hémisphères composés de vallées qui s'étendent sur toute la largeur

de colonies en forme de dômes.

Je pourrais proposer un expert séparé du monde.

Je pourrais habiter un sillon intra-muros, un personnage à double vallée

plus large que la vallée elle-même.

Je pourrais enregistrer un changement de paradigme dans les modes de compréhension.

Tu pourrais être telle une columelle en ruban se nourrissant de petits animaux

à la dérive.

Tu pourrais être l'expert remis en question.

Tu pourrais glisser sur le bras profond de la mer, un plateau inattendu

piégé dans un manteau de gaz à effet de serre.

Je pourrais estimer que de nos jours l'opinion détermine les faits.

Je pourrais signaler les problèmes dans les montagnes célestes, la fonte irréversible

inondant les ports.

Je pourrais dire que les faits scientifiques sont symbiotiques avec les actions humaines.

Tu pourrais répondre « regarde vers un ciel vert

de bactéries photosynthétiques ».

Tu pourrais argumenter que la science est ce qui détermine la culture.

Tu pourrais être dévasté par l'étoile de mer couronnée d'épines

et au passage du cyclone dévastateur, succombe aux eaux plus chaudes

pour devenir un monticule de calcium qui s'effrite.

Je pourrais désirer des marchandages symbiotiques.

Je pourrais hurler que la terre ne peut plus absorber.

Je pourrais rêver d’une femelle reproductrice qui s'ancre dans les vastes

déserts aquatiques de haute mer.

Tu pourrais halluciner les bras délicats d'une étoile de mer

qui s'étendent pour prédire l'avenir.

Tu pourrais saisir et piquer les fragiles animaux à fleurs.

Tu pourrais vouloir toute la surface, tout le soleil.

*Traduit par Fiona McMahon et Karim Daanoune.

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1 Review of US1. The New Republic. N° 1214, vol. LXXXXIV (March 9, 1938), 141-142.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Jena Osman, 2023-2024.
Crédits © Amze Emmons
Fichier image/png, 78k
Légende Cover of A Very Large Array. Selected Poems (2023)
Crédits © DABA (New York, 2023)
Fichier image/jpeg, 34k
Légende Jena Osman at the Maison de la Poésie, Montpellier, 25.05.23.
Crédits © Fiona McMahon
Fichier image/jpeg, 159k
Légende Aya Arifi and Camille Geisler reading translations of Jena Osman’s poems, Montpellier, 25.05.23.
Crédits © Fiona McMahon
Fichier image/jpeg, 150k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Fiona McMahon, « An Interview with Jena Osman »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fiona McMahon

Université Paul Valéry Montpellier 3

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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