Alas, all good things must end …
The poet Robert Okaji has shared a month of Tuesdays with us, and all I can do is gush over his generosity, patience, and remarkable openness in the spirit of sharing experience, insight, and encouraging other creatives to keep creating.
This might be our last publicized conversation, but you can bet I will continue reading shared thoughts on O at the Edges, while anxiously awaiting his next chapbook.
Dear Flamelings, I hope you enjoy this last installment of Talking With A Poet featuring Robert Okaji.
K: Though each of us have a strong sense of self, of individual taste and purpose in our writing, external influence is undeniable. I would like to discuss your inspirations and influences at great length, but for today, I will limit my curiosity to two questions:
a) Have you identified a single writer, piece of work, or event, that inspired you to write poetry? b) Whether subtle or not (in your opinion), what writers have influenced the development of your poetic style and/or content?
R.O.: Various writers, artworks, objects, people and events have sparked pieces of writing, but I can’t identify any one thing that kept me writing poetry long after I graduated, and with no goals or milestones or any tangible incentives in sight. Writing just felt right. I believe I mentioned to you that the prof in my intro to writing poetry class asked who believed they would still be writing poetry in 20 years, and I was one of the few, if not the only one, who didn’t raise his hand. But here we are 32 years later…
The greatest indirect influence was my friend the poet Prentiss Moore, whose writing and conversations led me to seek out writers on the global stage — international poets and thinkers — which let me see that there indeed was poetry beyond the first person linear narrative so prevalent at the time. David Wevill would be the second greatest indirect influence, as his writing was not “American” in style, and his reading recommendations reflected an international bent.
I’ve recently been dipping into the writings of Francis Ponge, whose work I initially read in the 1980s after discussions with both Prentiss and David, and I’ve noticed some similarities, if not in style or focus, in a fascination with the ordinary, with minutiae, with nature and language and connotation and etymology, and all those entities that comprise my writing. But what’s most interesting, is that my early readings of Ponge were superficial. I didn’t look beyond the phrases on the page, and simply enjoyed his disquisitions on objects, without considering connotation and indeed, language. Yet somehow Ponge’s lessons seeped into my subconscious and I’ve incorporated some of his traits (at a much lesser level) into my work.
K: Which Poet, Which Beer is a terrific reinvention of food blogging, not to mention a creative way of gratifying the senses — who knew poetry might enhance taste buds, or vise versa?
I issue a writing/drinking challenge: What beer might you pair with your poem “Interiors”. In addition, is there a poem by another writer that you have read that is simply begging for a beer pairing? If so, please share.
R.O: For “Interiors,” I’d recommend Jester King’s El Cedro, which is an unfiltered farmhouse ale (a style I don’t regularly drink), with its citrusy taste and decidedly cedar overtones. A golden delight in the glass, it’s a bit yeasty, with just the right amount of bitterness to carry you along. One might taste and see in it “clouds, the moon, burning wood. November, dying.”
“Xantha Street” by Weldon Kees needs a good beer. It opens with “I close my eyes and all I see is rain,” which puts me in the mood for something to ease the darkness, but something still substantial enough to stand against such lines as “the climate of murder hastens newer weeds,” and “Beasts howl outside; authorities, however, keep the pavements clean.” Ah, yes. The Lone Pint Brewery’s Yellow Rose IPA, a strong IPA which exemplifies good brewing technique — single malt, single hop — with a bitter yet mellow finish, grapefruit overtones, and sufficient attitude to withstand another Kees poem or two. Both the poem and beer are worth investigating!
It has been an honor and a pleasure to spend this last month getting to know you, sir. I can testify that your conversational tone is very much like your poetic voice — accepting, gentle, and knowledgeable, as quick to express humor, encouragement, and humility as to skillfully personify the wind. Thank you for those conversations.
I would like to ask you to leave our audience with this: What books might a gentle wordsmith, a bold yet humble wind personifying poet settle down to read on a given day?
R.O.: Ha! Thank you, Kathy. You’re very generous, and I believe that I’ve learned quite a bit from our conversations.
I highly recommend Christina Davis’ Forth A Raven, for its simplicity and depth, Toby Olson’s We Are the Fire for his range and humanity, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s Nest, for its complexity and space, Cecilia Vicuña’s Unravelling Words and Weaving Water for its exquisite use of language, and David Wevill’s Other Names for the Heart, which never ceases to amaze me, even after thirty years.
K: I’ll be searching for those titles soon! At the risk of being repetitive, thank you, Robert. And thank you readers for following along. This has been a lovely experience.
Our ever indispensable t.s. wright has put forth another inspiring prompt to which Writing Flames have responded! Be sure to read these brief, unique interpretations and vote for your favorites by Thursday night.