Profile of a Poet: Robert Okaji
Bio: Robert Okaji lives in Texas. The author of five chapbooks, he’s also penned three micro-chapbooks published by Origami Poems Project, as well as Interval’s Night (Platypus Press, 2016), a mini-digital chapbook. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crannóg, Blue Fifth Review, Vox Populi, Right Hand Pointing and elsewhere. Visit his blog, O at the Edges.
In your eyes, what is the purpose of poetry?
RO: Like any art form, poetry exists to crack open questions we can’t readily formulate, to help provide context to our shared human experience, to entertain, awe, prod, educate, anger, horrify, annoy, to confound, illuminate, communicate and elucidate. I could go on, but I think you get the drift.
What drew you to poetry? What’s your “style”?
I disliked poetry. Ignored it, read it only when forced to. I was a fiction writer, or so I believed, though there was scant evidence supporting that belief, and when I got out of the Navy and went back to school I started writing stories. Awful stories. Poorly written, terrible stories. Bad. Just what you’d expect from a novice. But I started reading literary journals, and somehow the language of poetry sucked me in – the way poets conveyed meaning and emotion with so few words. I wanted to do that. In my nascent writer’s mind, I thought that learning how to write poetry might improve my prose, so I enrolled in a poetry course.
The more I read, the more I wrote, the more I was drawn in. The fiction fell away, and rather quickly at that.
I no longer consciously attempt to write in a certain style, but over the years certain traits and patterns have amalgamated and now consistently pop out in my work – an economy of language, an attention to rhythm and pace, vivid imagery, and sufficient space for readers to draw their own conclusions. By the latter, what I’m really saying is that my desires and intentions in a poem are of little consequence – I hope only that readers find something worth hanging onto, a resonant tone or emotional chord that speaks to them, that offers a glimpse at our shared lives. I want readers to engage, to think about the words, and then find their own personal messages, their own histories. We’re all different, yet we’re much the same.
Tell us about your recently published chapbook, I Have a Bird to Whistle (7 Palinodes) — what inspired the poems and why are they unique?
These prose poems were written in the fall and winter of 2013-2014, a few months after my heart attacked – I’m still annoyed about the body’s betrayal – and reflect my interests in symbols and language and the randomness of life, and the questions that inevitably arise when contemplating such matters. And while I was engaged in writing this series of poems, a friend died suddenly. We’d talked briefly one Thursday, made plans to meet soon, and she followed up with a voice message.
Early the next morning her supervisor called to inform me that she’d died. She simply went to bed and never rose. Another’s body, betrayed.
So the poems were “colored,” to say the least, by these bodily betrayals, by the divergences and refutations, the repetitions and retractions exposed in my daily life.
I don’t claim that the poems are unique, but they differ from most of my writing, especially in form. I’ve been told that they’re “more difficult” to comprehend, but I can’t attest to that. The book is available here.
What’s your writing process like?
My process sounds odd to most people, as I seldom know what I’m going to write about when I sit at the table. I simply start writing. Sometimes a word or a phrase sets me off. Or an image, or even a vague feeling, a discomfort or a pleasure of some sort. Life’s circumstances also come into play, and my landscapes, both emotional and physical, affect the words, as they most certainly did in I Have a Bird to Whistle. The words carry me along, and at some point in the writing, perhaps only one or two lines in, but often much deeper in the piece, the poem, the flesh of it, starts coalescing. And then I backtrack and revise.
In essence, my subconscious guides me, and such a guide is not always trustworthy or easy to work with, as many false trails are pursued.
But even the false trails lead somewhere, often to greater rewards.
Not knowing is central to my process. This probably sounds cryptic, or pseudo-zen, but it’s honest. I learn by questioning. By doing and failing and trying again. I revise during the course of writing, even during the first blush of creation, as well as after. The poems always sit and marinate for a while, sometimes for just a few days, sometimes for weeks or months, and there are a few that have stewed in their juices for years. When I return to them, I immediately see problem points that weren’t apparent before, and I revise accordingly.
What’s the hardest part of being a poet? The best part?
The struggle to be heard, to connect, can be exhausting. And isn’t that what we want? To connect, to reach others, to affect them, if only in small ways – a smile, a knowing nod, perhaps a few tears – some form of acknowledgment that this endeavor, this laborious process of creating art, isn’t in vain – to learn that we aren’t alone, that others share our fears and desires, our hopes, our dislikes, our humanity. And it is a struggle. It’s not easy finding readers. It’s not easy to find publications willing to publish your work.
You’re steadily putting yourself out there, and constantly facing rejection. Even old friends and family ignore your writing. It’s poetry, ya know?
You can spend an inordinate amount of time submitting work to publications – many have specific guidelines and formats to follow, and it’s not simply a matter of attaching a word document to an email. And for what? The rewards, beyond the joy of writing, are few.
But having said this, the other side of the coin makes up perhaps the best part of writing! Actually connecting, finding that special community – those readers, those editors and publishers who appreciate the writing– offers a balm to the sting of loneliness and rejection. As does contributing to the community – helping edit publications, mentoring newer poets and seeing their work being published, spreading the word about publication possibilities, promoting other writers – actively working at being a good citizen of the poetry community! That floats my boat, and keeps me both excited and grounded.
Who are your favorite poets (or artists)? Why do you respect their work?
I could produce a long list of well-known poets whose work I adore, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, I’d rather mention my peers, the people I’d most like to chat up and perhaps hoist a few drinks with, if we were able to gather in one place:
Daniel Paul Marshall. Daniel’s poetry is dense, intellectual, sometimes humorous, often devastating, and his vocabulary annoys me (LOL), as I’m often forced to interrupt my concentration to look up words when reading his work. The man thinks!
Clare Martin is the founder of MockingHeart Review, and is one of the bravest people I know. She lays it on the line. I’ve been following her work for years, and have been consistently awed by its depth. I’m also dying to taste her gumbo.
Anna Marie Sewell’s prose and poetry transports me to places I never thought I’d find, emotionally and intellectually. The former poet laureate of Edmonton, her latest book, For the Changing Moon: Poems and Songs, is a must-read!
As I’ve said before, Jeff Schwaner is taking all the good lines, and there won’t be any left for the rest of us. His Mei Yao-Ch’en sequence is one of my all-time favorites. I’d place it alongside anyone’s. A masterpiece.
Lynne Burnett’s language is irresistible, as is her chapbook, Irresistible, published by Finishing Line Press in 2018. Her poetry is beautifully crafted, with never a word out-of-place.
Stephanie L. Harper’s poems make me grin and laugh. They bring tears to my eyes, offer hope and, yes, even cause me to break out in massive goosebumps. She’s a remarkable poet, and even better human being, and I can’t wait to get my mitts on the printed copy of her latest chapbook, The Death’s-Head’s Testament, coming out in April from Main Street Rag.
There are so many others, but I should stop here before your readers’
eyes glaze over.
There are so many others, but I should stop here before your readers’ eyes glaze over.
What parts of your life inform your poetry? How?
My entire life enters the poetry in one fashion or another. My environment, interests and obsessions, concerns, relationships, history, work and desires all insinuate themselves into the writing.
When I was young I made a point of not writing about myself, only to realize, years later, that in not writing about myself, I actually said as much, if not more, than I would have had I set out to tell my story. So these days, everything is poetry fuel.
If you could let our readers know just one thing, what would it be?
The reward in writing poetry is in the doing; the writing is everything.
What’s next for you?
I recently signed the contract for my next chapbook, The Sadness of Old Fences, which Clare Songbirds Publishing House will be releasing later this year, and I have several others circulating. Beyond writing more poetry and earning a bunch of rejections, I don’t know specifically what’s next, but change is in the air. I smell it. I taste it. It’s coming.