Ben Ostrowski ’17 is a psychology concentrator, music enthusiast and likely the only student at the University who has turned an email exchange with his father into a book. This time next year, Ben’s collection of poems, co-written with his father Steven Ostrowski, will hit the stands.
The seeds for the chapbook — a short collection of literary pieces — were planted this winter break when Steven, a professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, decided he wanted to start a “conversation via poem” with his son. Steven first sent Ben a poem ending with the question, “Where’s your flashlight pointed, kiddo?” Ben waited a few days and then responded. Then Steven. Then Ben.
Over the course of two weeks, 18 lyrical emails were exchanged in a rapid-fire poetry dialogue.
Once the email exchange had, as Steven said, “enough energy and juice,” the father-son duo brushed it up and sent it out to publishers. In a rare occurrence for the writing world, the manuscript was accepted immediately.
“When I read it, I loved it so much,” said Gloria Mindock, an editor for Červená Barva Press. “I didn’t want anyone to grab it.”
In many ways, Ben said, the book is a classic father-son tale. The father shows the son how to navigate a world he’s spent 50 years learning. But other portions, Ben said, represent a father and son “walking on the same path, trying to figure out questions we’re asking each other.”
To give the exchange a focus, Steven chose “Seen/Unseen” as the theme for the conversation. This would go on to become the title of the book.
“There’s a lot of words (in the book) … you might not initially associate with poetry — a lot of anatomical terms, physical or chemistry terms …‘Seen/Unseen’ came from that,” Ben said.
Cerebellum, synapses, cells and “summersaulting in the lungs of a star” are all themes featured heavily in the text, a manuscript of which was provided to The Herald.
Ben’s interest in neuroscience and cognitive science, coupled with a biology course he’s currently taking, spurred him to introduce these technical terms to the poetic exchange. He said this knowledge allowed him to take “poetic twists on hard science.”
Before the pair delved into poetry and science, Ben and Steven collaborated on rap and acoustic guitar, producing YouTube videos where Ben rapped while his father strummed along.
Steven said this history of working on rap and music influenced the content of “Seen/Unseen” in a “chemical” way.
Ben’s “hip-hop infusion that underlies his work started to affect me and loosen me up,” Steven said. “It was like a permission to be more playful.”
This change in style comes many decades after Steven’s beginnings as a poet. Every day, beginning in the seventh grade, Steven would sit in his backyard in Staten Island and write poetry inspired by the back of Bob Dylan’s album covers, he said.
Ben’s interest in the art form came later in life. With the exception of a middle-school poetry unit, he said he had not worked much in the form until taking “Poetry I” his sophomore year.
Before the class, he had tried fiction writing, but he said his poetic tendencies made it difficult.
“I would write these short stories … and there would be no plot,” he said. “I would just spend so long describing the girl’s hair.”
So Ben ditched plot-heavy fiction and found a new creative outlet.
“In poetry, through a collection of poems, I can focus on all these descriptions,” he said. “At the end there is a narrative. I didn’t try to write it — it just happened,” he said.
This mantra applies not only to Ben’s writing skills but also to the book, a two-week long email-exchange-turned published anthology.
But, as Ben admitted, two weeks is not exactly a fair assessment.“It had been building up for 20 years of my life,” he said.