Talking With A Poet: Part One

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. 

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11 Responses to Talking With A Poet: Part One

  1. t.s.wright says:

    Hi Robert O _waves_
    I love the phrase marrowbone of night. When you surround the description of a train with this phrase I think about the tracks as the spine and the train, fueled by the spinal fluid, being sent along the path from brain to bum and back again (although the bum end isn’t really all that poetic).

    I’m glad you clarified that your wife is still alive. Some of your poems speak of a reminder of love and a missing of love. I’ve wondered if you were projecting that sense of loss or truly experiencing it. How does your wife feel about being married to a poet? Do you jot down sweet little missives for her and slip them in her purse to stumble upon later? Does she read your work and share her thoughts before it’s finished?

    I run across so many people who say they don’t get poetry. I used to be one of them. It’s still not my go-to form of writing or reading, but I’ve found more appeal in it since joining the writing community. Do you find a particular form is your favorite for reading or writing? Do you think about the structure as you are writing or do you just let it fall into the pattern your words make organically?

    One thing that I enjoy about your poetry in particular, is how you combine elements people would not necessarily think of as poetic. Like the time it takes light to travel from the sun and prime numbers. Being a science nerd, I grin at these rational gems sprinkled in your word paint.

    Thank you for submitting to our interview 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • robert okaji says:

      Hello! First, thank you for your kind comments. But(t) I think the bum end is terribly poetic – depending upon perspective, of course.

      The Lovely Wife is indeed still very much with us. I’m not certain which poems you’re referring to, but I’d guess that the sense of loss you mentioned was heightened for the benefit of the poems, and that the circumstances may have not been mine – my life is rather dull and not good fuel for poetry. And of course the poems are often populated by fictional representatives in fabricated situations. For example, I’ve written a creepy poem from the point of view of a reminiscing serial killer, and believe me, I’m not that disturbed. Really. No, really!

      Lissa thinks of me as her goofy husband first, and a poet somewhere further down the line, perhaps after cook and maker of messes. 🙂 I don’t place sweet little missives into her purse, but when we’re apart I text her while having morning coffee, so that we may have coffee together (or at least simultaneously). Besides, anything I put in her purse would likely vanish. She once wondered why her purse was heavy, and after rummaging around in it, pulled out an unopened jar of pickles. So my missives wouldn’t stand a chance! She reads my work from time to time, but very seldom before it’s finished. Although Lissa claims that she doesn’t understand poetry, she’ll often will make an insightful comment about a line or an entire poem.

      As far as form goes, I don’t have a preference, but I enjoy working with them. Sonnets are fun to compose, as are centos, one of my more recent pleasures. I play with structure a lot. My default seems to be the couplet, but the poem usually informs me through its rhythm and pace. Thus I consider structure while writing, but don’t allow my initial impulse to constrain the possibilities.

      Poetry is everywhere, in everything from a snail’s love dart to cedar pollen and the pain of a sciatic nerve injury. You just have to sit back, observe, think and then write about your relationship with that particular subject. There’s never a lack of material. On the contrary, there’s too much!

      Liked by 5 people

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  4. C says:

    I love reading about other poets’ writing processes– glad to hear you are also a fan of the hastily composed iphone notepad poem 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Mary Tang says:

    I appreciate your thoughtfulness in crafting your poems, especially as I am more careless. I can see from your work that some polishing before and after putting words in print (or on paper – do you write with a pencil?) can let it shine.

    Liked by 2 people

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