The following interview with Poet Robert Okaji occurred August / September of 2014 via email.
Robert’s poem Rain Forest Bridge is here.
Robert Okaji is a self-described military brat who has lived in Texas for the last thirty-two years of his life. He claims an undergraduate degree in history, has owned a bookstore, served in the Navy, worked in a library, and currently spends an inordinate amount of time deciphering spreadsheets and determining how to do more with less. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Clade Song, Prime Number Magazine, Middle Grey, Otoliths, Lightning’d Press, and Extract(s), in addition to the Silver Birch Press Self-Portrait Series.
Your poem has been very popular on 4Ties. Many elements have to come together to achieve a successful poem like “Rain Forest Bridge,” but one of the poem’s outstanding strengths is it’s pacing. Can you speak to the importance of line length and line breaks in the poem (and what your were trying to achieve)?
I wanted this piece to sway in the wind, so to speak, and to, in some small way, emulate one’s halting steps across such a bridge. After much experimentation, short lines prevailed. Enjambment proved crucial as well in providing the desired sense of motion and hesitation.
Many of your pieces, including this one, have a very reflective tone. The idea of the thoughtful poet is almost a cliché. What is it that sets your point of view apart from other poets/ How do you keep your perspective fresh?
If any quality sets apart my point of view, perhaps it’s a penchant for consistently looking outward, examining disparate threads and attempting to gather and connect them in some way, if only in my imperfect personal vision. I also do not feel the need to provide linear frames, but instead would rather offer pointed detail and sufficient space for readers to fill in missing pieces and maybe unearth something worth hanging onto. But in the end I just try to write something that would interest me as a reader. My reading interests and tastes may also be eclectic, with a flavoring towards the less “approachable” (I don’t care what a piece “means” – I’m more interested in emotional resonance), which has certainly shaded my work, no doubt giving the appearance of intentional obscurity. Achieving balance is difficult, but I try.
“Rain Forest Bridge” is steeped in natural imagery whereas “Self Portrait with W” (recently published with Silver Birch Press) uses fleeting examples of the natural, but both address the speaker’s relationship with himself. Do you find these subjects consistent sources of inspiration? Where else do you search for inspiration?
The external world in all of its manifestations is so infinitely fascinating – a blossoming agave plant, the concept of zero, our alphabet and its evolution from Egyptian hieroglyphs to Sumerian characters to the present form, dung beetles, language, glass, limestone, food, philosophy, gravity, in short, everything – that I find it easy to hitch myself to a subject, allow it to take me elsewhere, and then attempt to achieve an understanding (compromise?) or resolution of sorts with that topic. So in essence I look outward, pull back to me various curious threads, and perhaps then configure them in relation to my personal world, myself. Hmmm. Maybe it really is all about me?
Can you tell us a bit about your poetic roots? When did you start writing? What motivated you? Which poets were early inspirations?
My roots are rather tangled, with early influences lying equally in Europe, Asia and the English-speaking world. I started writing poetry in 1983. Fresh out of the Navy and back in school, I considered myself a fiction writer, but enrolled in an undergraduate poetry workshop, believing that it might improve my prose. Somehow the fiction fell away. I’d always been a voracious reader, but when I turned to poetry, the universe expanded overnight. Through a poetry group, I became friends with a slightly older and much more accomplished poet, Prentiss Moore, who was, although he never realized it, the single greatest influence in my writing life. His recommendations ranged the world and varied widely beyond poetry; without them, I might never have turned to Ponge, to Barthes, Tanizaki, Celan, Jabes, Niedecker, and the list could go on and on. In fact just last month I purchased Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building, which Prentiss had recommended in the late 80s. So his influence continues even seventeen years after his death, despite my slow response.
Which poets/poetry are you currently reading? Who are your favorites?
A glance at my writing table stack shows that I’m currently dipping into Arthur Sze’s latest book,Compass Rose,which is a marvel, as is his other work, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Nests, Camille Dungy’s What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, Brian Teare’s Sight Map, and various translations of Li Po and Tu Fu. The bedside stack includes The Blue Tower by Tomaz Salamun, Sun Under Wood by Robert Hass, Cecilia Vicuna’s Unravelling Words & the Weaving of Water, Charles Simic’s The Voice at 3:00 A.M., and Sam Hamill’s A Dragon in the Clouds. I confess to being a bookworm.
I’ve too many favorites to list, but I frequently turn to those I discovered when first introduced to poetry – James Wright, David Wevill, and Lorine Niedecker, among others.
Do you have a writing routine that you can share with our audience?
I like to write daily, but am not always successful. Life intrudes on occasion – you know, those minor annoyances like illness, death, friends and family… But I try to set aside a little time each day for writing. The ritual consists of butt in chair, surrounded by books and papers, usually in front of a computer, with a vague sense of unease and a single word or short phrase gnawing at me. One word leads to another, perhaps even a few short phrases, which may then spark a closer look into something – a word’s etymology, the structure of corn, the time it takes light to travel from the Sun to the Earth (499 seconds, but who’s counting?) – which then likely leads me down some other path. The trick is to know when to stop taking these paths and attempt to draw them together.
You seem to have a very active career as far as being published. What is your approach to this aspect of your writing?
The activity consists mostly of rejections, but the key is persistence. I could easily state “write, send them out, and when they’re turned down, send them out again,” but of course that’s only part of the approach. I follow the advice of two very successful poets, who advised on separate occasions to 1) treat your submission as a conversation you’d like to enter – send to publications who publish poets with whom you wish to “converse,” and 2) determine your place in the publishing hierarchy. Figure out where your work best fits, send it out accordingly, and only send out your best work. Of course I violate these rules from time to time.
Is there any advice you’d like to offer aspiring poets?
I’m still a student meandering through the labyrinth, attempting to refine/define my own work, so I’m not certain that my words should carry any weight at all. But since you asked: Read widely, read deeply, read daily. Write often. Revise. Revise again. And again. Be patient. Slow down. Don’t rush to publication. Challenge yourself. If you find writing sonnets difficult, compose sonnets. If long lines are anathema to you, write long lines. Be honest with yourself – is the piece truly ready? Is that particular verb the best you can do, or is it merely the first one that popped out in the first blush of creation? And this noun? Does it move the poem forward? What does that adjective accomplish? What does this beautifully written line bring to the poem? Does it truly belong in this piece? Also, life is too short to waste on bad beer and fast food. This is all advice I could have used thirty years ago. Ah, wasted youth!
Robert, thank you for the words, time, and energy you’ve shared with us and our readers. We wish you all the best.