Good day, Flamelings!
Today I resume my conversation with Robert Okaji, author of If Your Matter Could Reform, and You Break What Falls. The first question posed this week is not from me, but relayed through me from t.s. wright — a fabulous question, and fabulous response!
K: If you were talking to someone who had never read poetry, how would you describe its purpose and place in art and literary form?
R.O.: Poetry reminds us of how little we know. A distilled form of expression that harnesses the power of language — it offers glimpses of truth and beauty, horror and love, humor, pathos, humility — the entire range of humanity’s experience, allowing imagination to take hold and grasp meaning.
I don’t think that poets have any more responsibility to achieve or communicate or moralize than any other artists, but I believe that it is within our power to shape language. How we do so is another concern. Some poets bear witness, others do not. Some lead the charge, others observe from afar. There’s room enough for all.
K: This “distilled form of expression that harnesses the power of language”, to finally take hold of that, and wield it elsewhere … is that possible? Has poetry taught you lessons in other writing? Do you venture into prose?
R.O.: For years, despite working at jobs in the financial realm, I have written and edited correspondence, press releases, articles and reports for my various offices, and even proofed and edited resumes and cover letters for job-seeking coworkers. Poetry has taught me the value of economy in language, and has engendered in me a heightened awareness of word choice, of clarity in expression.
After all, what do poets do? We craft “charged” language to present a point, often without even mentioning the point. We manipulate readers. We elicit emotional responses. With this in mind, I examine a piece of writing, determine its objective, and then carve away excess verbiage, replace flaccid words with strong ones, and rearrange phrase and sentence structures to vary rhythm (yes, even in a cover letter), all with one goal in mind: to achieve the piece’s intended purpose. This is poetry at work!
[Bob went on to discuss some of his recent prose (fifty-word book reviews, and an inventive new coupling of beer tasting & blogging), all of which I found to be made up of exactly what he spoke — that “charged” language. For your reading pleasure, I will share links to some of these pieces later.]
K: It’s evident when you speak of “manipulating” and “carving away excess verbiage”, that poetry has taught you to be thoughtful of what words you employ when expressing emotion and imagery, when recording your own sense of a specific moment in time, perhaps, as well as to be mindful of what words other poets choose. In all your reading, and all your writing, have you gained an appreciation of the countless, differing interpretations that might arise from your own work?
R.O.: Definitely. It’s often surprising how one line — a line I thought perfectly innocuous as I composed a poem — can touch a reader. It really doesn’t matter if a reader takes away precisely my thoughts or reasoning, or inspiration for a particular poem. What matters is that they experience something. Emotional response to some unseen thread between my words … inspiration gained, these are the highest forms of compliment to a poet.
K: Wonderful! Do you have a writing project in the works that we can be watching for, and if you will, tell us why you are embarking on said project?
R.O.: Yes, in August I am participating in the 30/30 Project, a fundraiser for Tupelo Press, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) literary press. In essence, the other volunteer poets and I have pledged to write 30 poems in 30 days, and will raise funds by soliciting donations from sponsors. Poets will sweeten the pot by offering premiums such as signed copies of poems or books, commenting on or editing poetry manuscripts, or even sending out baked goods for certain levels of donations.
Among my premiums are signed copies of If Your Matter Could Reform and a limited letter press broadside of my adaptation of a Li Po poem. And of course the donations are tax deductible.
This might not be of much interest if the poems were simply going to languish in a file somewhere, but such is not the case. They will be posted online daily, for the world to peruse. Aiiiieeeeeeee!
Why am I doing this? I love poetry and admire small presses. Independent literary publishers produce 98% of the poetry published each year, and Tupelo Press is one of my favorite. If I, poet, reader and book buyer, don’t support their efforts, who will?
I admit to being nervous about the project. My weekly output is usually one or perhaps two poems, if I’m really on a roll. So I’m likely to emerge from August an exhausted, bedraggled mess, looking and feeling as if I’ve been “rode hard and put up wet,” as one of my friends says. But it’ll be worth it.
Thank you, again, Bob! Talking with you is always a pleasure.
Flamelings! As promised, here are links to some of our featured poet’s prose: A Fifty-Word Review, Forth a Raven, and Which Poet, Which Beer? To learn more about the 30/30 Project of which Bob speaks, visit the Tupelo Press site.
AND IN OTHER NEWS! We are positively afire with creativity this week. Our writers have shared their interpretation of the prompt Knotholes, and those very individual creations await your reading, commenting, and voting here. I am beyond excited to see just who might edge out the prolific newbie Shane. (He’s won two months in a row, y’all. Let’s give him an interesting race this time!) CALL FORTH YOUR READING FRIENDS! Don’t let them miss their chance to choose favorites 🙂