I have a special presentation for you today, dear Flamelings!
t.s. wright knows my interests so very well. When she came upon a WordPress site featuring a gracefully compiled cento poem, she was quick to get my attention. We have since been happy reading fans of Robert Okaji and the always evocative writing he shares on O at the Edges.
Bob has graciously accepted my request for a series of interviews to share with all of you lovers of the written word. Over the course of July’s month of Tuesdays, I will post a different Q & A session, then leave the floor open for questions from the community. Due to my own problematic schedule, this first ‘interview’ was conducted via email, hence the lack of immediate responses to the author’s insightful answers — I will do better next time, Bob just has to continue being awesome.
Without further ado I present a talk with Robert Okaji, author of If Your Matter Could Reform, and You Break What Falls.
K: Can you name what calls you to poetry?
R.O.: I’ve not ever questioned it. Perhaps a combination of factors — starting with a love for and fascination with the written language. I’ve been an avid reader since the age of five, but did not start reading poetry, really reading poetry, until I was 24. All of a sudden it clicked. Add to that a smidgeon of curiosity and a creative drive (I’m not sure where that came from) and a realization that what matters to me are not answers but rather the questions, the exploration.
K: We will definitely discuss this ‘exploration’ at a later date! Meanwhile:
I read in last year’s interview with Four Ties Lit that you began writing poetry in 1983. If you will, take us through the journey from there, to submitting your work for publication the first time.
R.O.: I considered myself a fiction writer, but thought that taking a poetry writing class might improve my fiction. At that point I was clueless about poetry — couldn’t have named five living poets — but over a few months time I read a great deal and wrote even more, all of it bad. Then I won a poetry contest sponsored by the English department, and subsequently submitted a few poems to a small publisher in Oregon. They accepted them, warts and all. It was all too easy. And then my long string of rejections began.
K: In that same interview you touched on a subject that I would like to explore: revise, and revise again. Do you feel that you learn as much during the revisions as during the initial creative process? Feel free to expound upon your experiences with writing vs. revision.
R.O.: My revision process could be divided into three distinct areas: 1) revision while writing; 2) revision after a complete first draft; and 3) long-term revision, which I call “marinating.”
I seldom start a poem with anything concrete in mind. One word leads to a few more, an image or two pops up, and perhaps a historical tidbit or item of etymologic interest will spark something. It’s all quite mysterious. I revise as I write, line by line. In this stage, the revision process — the tinkering with words, sounds and rhythms — often directs me; through this I discover what I’m writing about. So to answer your question, the initial revision process is part of my creative process.
After a first draft is complete (usually over a period of days or weeks), I adjust words and phrases, trim it here and there, move bits around, until it seems more cohesive. Then I let it sit for a while (days, weeks, months, it differs), pulling it out from time to time to find problems that I’d overlooked. Sometimes this results in removing or adding entire sections. At some point the piece finally feels done.
K: Nine Ways of Shaping the Moon, for Lissa – The execution of this poem is … taut. Yet, somehow, the brevity and precision of the numbered stanzas leaves room for natural beauty and passion to do cartwheels. It is an inventive love letter, simultaneously intimate and universal. I want to know everything about this poem! Nevertheless, I will settle for asking what was involved in its creation: Did you initially envision this format? How long did this piece live with you, from inception to final draft?
R.O.: Disregard everything I said above. Ha! It’s all Jeff Schwaner’s fault, as it was written in response to his invitation to participate in a virtual “Full Moon Social,” during which participants would post, on the day of the full moon, poems having something to do with the moon. I had nothing four days before the deadline — the poem I’d started was utter crap. In despair I went to the gym, and the opening line hit me as I was riding a stationary bike — using my iPhone, I wrote six of the nine sections during my forty minutes on that bike. Talk about multi-tasking! This was on a Monday. I completed the draft on Tuesday, revised on Wednesday, and posted it on Thursday. Not my usual process at all. But the details, the feelings behind the poem, had lived with me a very long time. Lissa, my wife of 30 years, was at our rural property that week, and I missed her. Thus, the poem.
K: Trains — Let’s discuss that first line, In the marrowbone of the night …
That line is so astonishingly perfect. Deep, dark, and vital. How exactly does one come upon such an idea as this? What was the inspiration for this line?
R.O.: I’d been thinking about trains, how I enjoy their whistles in the deepest part of night, and the phrase came to me while driving home one evening. My subconscious had probably edited the line before releasing it. I know that I wanted to express a depth, a core, and marrowbone fit the bill. There’s also the visual aspect of the bone, its hollowness, which could remind one of a tunnel.
Stay tuned! Next Tuesday we discuss discovering liberation in form, prose writing, and a terrific upcoming summer project. Until then, feel free to leave questions and comments for the author below.