Steven Ostrowski, Persons of Interest

Wolfson Press

ISBN 9781950066124
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Persons of Interest
by Steven Ostrowski
Winner of the 2021 Wolfson Press Poetry Chapbook Prize
paperback, 44 pages

Introduction by contest judge Nancy Botkin:

Steven Ostrowski’s speaker in Persons of Interest is unabashedly nostalgic, but these mournful, searing, and celebratory poems, while aiming for the heart, rise above sentimentality. The artists he admired growing up shook his world, challenged him, changed him, and ignited his own desire toward artistry. Bob Dylan’s lyrics blew his mind—“Wait, you can even say that?” he asks incredulously, and in the opening poem, “Skeleton Blood Memoir with Bob,” he says Dylan

               Leaves tracks that harp in your blood.
               Leaves you spastic balletic, moonful in your poems,
               howl-round in the bedroom, a little lonely in the eye sockets

Ostrowski’s language throughout this book has a kind of gritty musicality which is fitting when paying tribute to musicians of the ’60s. In “Neil Young,” the description goes primal:

               Low in the fade-out sky, the moon-eye
               of a ghost opens and shuts. Down
               from the canyon’s teeth comes an animal howl,

His passion for those he admires extends beyond music to artists like Willem de Kooning, Franz Wright, and Allen Ginsberg, those who made an impression as he moved into young adulthood and beyond. But, there are lesser, unsung heroes that crossed his path and played a role no less powerful: ex-lovers, friends, and even poetry itself. The poem “Wayward in the Blood” is an epistolary poem to his friend, Sull, in which he recalls a past life they shared during a care-free period when drugs, hitch-hiking, fishing, picking up girls—years of “lust, rebel and howl”—dictated an urgent agenda. Ostrowski reminds us that reveling in and relishing the past serves us in the present by reminding us of who we used to be and what we yearned to become. In “Ars Poetica” his budding talent is recognized after he recites his own poem to a class, and the teacher, a little stunned, asks him to read it again.

The phrase “persons of interest” conjures up images of law enforcement, investigations into possible suspects in criminal activity. The term carries sinister connotations, but in Ostrowski’s world, his persons illuminate, instruct, and impart gifts, and there are sure to be more of these riches forthcoming if luck—or art—has any say.


Poet/painter Steven Ostrowski’s latest collection bursts onto the page (or canvas if you will) with masterfully crafted bounds and leaps of imagery. And right from the get-go, no less. This from the first stanza of his opening poem, “Skeleton Blood Memoir with Bob”: “Port Richmond got too small; / too hindsight-driven, way past tense. / They converted stop signs into funerals / and juke boxes into arrest warrants.” Ostrowski never “telegraphs,” he surprises the reader on every page. He colors each poem with clarity, not annoying opacity, so in vogue by the too-smart-by-half set these days. I once heard Billy Collins remark: “I don’t care if you lose me in a poem—but first let me find you.” Ostrowski succeeds over and over again, with no sacrifice to wild creativity. This is no easy tightrope to navigate. Steven performs it like a Wallenda. This, from his poem “Flannery”: “Though I hobble now / among peahens / on these aluminum crutches, / I’ll make my way / soon enough / to the fire / and I know who I’ll leave / in the flames.” After nearly 25 years of editing, mining for the gold, I would offer the name of Steven Ostrowski, stamped 24k.
—Robert Nazarene, founding editor, The American Journal of Poetry

Persons of Interest’s passionate irreverence knocked me out. This raucous, insightful mélange of poems to the heroes and anti-heroes of Steven Ostrowski’s youth includes iconic musicians Mitchell, McCartney, Lennon, and especially Dylan, sharing space with a killer poem to painter de Kooning, and deft homages to Ginsberg and Wright, poets whose work Ostrowski particularly admired on his journey to discover his own, powerful, singular voice.
—Alexis Rhone Fancher, author of Erotic: New & Selected; poetry editor, Cultural Daily

Halfway through Persons of Interest, we encounter the speaker as a student in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry class. Ginsberg’s students, “nervously fingering the contents of our bags / of untried linguistic yelps,” are told: “Illuminate me!” Ostrowski has taken that assignment to heart. These poems do illuminate, revealing the ways our past refracts into our present, the slim margins by which one’s destiny is decided, and especially the vulnerability of choosing to “love you even if you’ve murdered a starfish.” Large-heartedness infuses Ostrowski’s meditations, whether on “a young girl who / reminded me of Jesus, / the way she handed me my fish sandwich . . . / like our fingers were miracles” or the persona’s own students, who “walk downheaded / into a future that seemed to threaten like weather.” In today’s uncertain weather, Persons of Interest offers shelter, compassion, and light.
—Sarah P. Strong, author of Tour of the Breath Gallery and The Mouth of Earth

About the Author

Steven Ostrowski, Professor Emeritus at Central Connecticut State University, is a poet, fiction writer, painter, and songwriter. He and his son, Ben Ostrowski, a PhD candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, are coauthors of a full-length book of poems, Penultimate Human Constellation (Tolsun Books, 2018) and a chapbook, Seen/unseen (Cervena Barva Press, 2018). Steven has published five other chapbooks, four of poems and one of stories. His individual poems and stories, several of which have won national awards, have been published in numerous literary journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Arts & Letters, Aji, Midway Journal, Harpur Palate, American Short Fiction, The American Journal of Poetry, and New York Quarterly. Steven’s paintings have appeared in Lily Poetry Review (cover art), Stoneboat (cover art), The William & Mary Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and numerous others.

In 2022, Steven’s first novel, The Highway of Spirit and Bone, will be published by LeFora Books.

When not writing or teaching, Steven enjoys being a new grandfather, family gatherings of all kinds and in all kinds of places, playing men’s league ice hockey, noodling with his guitar, hiking, traveling, and, not least, sitting, walking or driving around with Susan, his wife of 31 years, laughing about almost anything—the more absurd, the better.