Robert Okaji's work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Extract(s), Prime Number Magazine, and Clade Song. Sometimes he dreams of living in foreign lands, but his life in Texas seems sufficiently different at the present.
In this interview with editor Dariel Suarez, Robert talks about the thin line between aural, visual and literary influences, about the themes in his poetry and about the role poets should play in contemporary society.
DS: Who would you say are your main influences as a writer? What about their work appeals to you most?
RO: The poet Prentiss Moore expanded and influenced my reading greatly by recommending non-English writers, including Ponge, Celan and Tanizaki, which certainly played a role in the beginning. I loved their uses of nuance, of texture and detail. But my influences are not limited to writers. A while back I attended a mandolin workshop led by bluegrass great Mike Compton, whose analogy of Van Gogh’s art and bluegrass founder Bill Monroe’s mandolin style reveals the thin line between aural, visual and literary influences. Compton points out that Van Gogh used a simple wavy line to represent birds. You recognize instantly, by context, what the line represents. Similarly, Monroe adapted the limitations of his instrument (four open notes) to create the illusion (implication) of complete chords – he’d omit the flatted third of a minor chord, and perhaps play drones or duplicate firsts or fifths. You know by context that the chord should be a minor, so you hear the minor. All this is to say that delicate shadings appeal to me in various genres, and that influences arrive from unexpected sources. I accept them as they find me.
DS: Would you mind sharing a bit about your background and how it has impacted your work?
RO: My father was in the army and we moved a lot during my childhood. A sense of otherness, of not belonging to any particular place, certainly accompanies that lifestyle, and the word “home” has held different meanings to me over the years.
I also read a great deal of nonfiction, and am one whose curiosity has led to innumerable areas of interest. My degree is in history, and I and have had no real training or directed focus in literature, which has of course led to gaps that I’m forever trying to fill. Always running behind, never enough time. The curse of years of undirected reading...
DS: What are the main themes you like to explore in your poetry?
RO: I’m fascinated with perception, in nuance, in the liminal, in connections, real or imagined, between incongruous entities. I’m also entranced with details – minutia – and find etymology irresistible. As a consequence, I often reduce words to their core, and examine them in context with an enthusiasm (ranging from the origin of numbers to alchemy to ancient navigation), i.e. whatever piques my interest.
DS: Your poems featured in Middle Gray, "Letter From Insomnia" and "Ritual," seem to be quite different in tone and structure. Is your work always this varied?
RO: I tend to concentrate on sets or sequences of similar form and subject matter for a period of time before moving on to something different, so the pieces vary in form and subject depending upon when they were written. And of course outliers, those unrelated works that sneak out during the course of writing those sequences, pop up frequently. So to answer your question, yes and no: in the short term my poems tend to follow a similar format, but over time the form varies quite a bit. But I believe a consistent thread weaves through it all.
DS: Do you have a preference when it comes to form in your poetry?
RO: My writing ritual lends itself to form – I try to write daily, but have little free time. Using forms, even those as broad or simple as “16-line poems,” provides a framework, and constricting my choices maximizes my time. And of course I’ve found that this self-imposed constriction offers me greater freedom and flexibility than I might find otherwise.
What's more important to you, how a poem sounds or the strength of its images? In the first blush of creation, sound and rhythm carry the poem. Then it’s a matter of crafting the images, creating textures that mesh. In the end, it’s difficult to separate the two.
DS: Could you talk about where the inspiration came from for "Letter From Insomnia" and "Ritual"?
RO: “Letter from Insomnia” is actually the third part of a correspondence with a friend who had lamented the lost art of letter writing. So naturally I wrote a letter poem, printed and mailed it to him. “Ritual” sprouted from Camille Dungy’s workshop prompt at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference last summer. I’d been reading an anthropological work on death rituals, and the poem flowed from that. So the creative impulse of the two rose from very different circumstances.
DS: What role do you believe poetry plays or should play in contemporary society?
RO: Poets find meaning in unusual places. In our country we aren’t considered “players,” and we certainly lack a recognized role in the greater culture. But I believe we have a charge to, as Auden said, "disenchant and disentoxicate," to illuminate those dark reaches, to bring voice to the unsayable, to interpret. In this world of manufactured anxiety and mass disinformation, the shapers of language, especially poets, can offer and share perspectives, can engage, demand, acknowledge, insinuate and provoke. And poets do speak out - bear witness - as so powerfully illustrated in Carolyn Forche's anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness. Read the selections by Robert Denos, Yusef Komunyakaa and Bei Dao, or look at Forche’s body of work!
DS: Where can readers find more of your work, and what can they expect from you in the near future?
RO: My poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Otoliths, Prime Number Magazine, RiverLit, Extract(s), Clade Song, Ijagun Poetry Journal, and Vayavya. I’m currently working on prose poems, which I hope will be published in the not-too-distant future. My blog, O at the Edges, can be found at www.robertokaji.com.