A MHR Conversation: Robert Okaji

A MockingHeart Review Conversation with Robert Okaji, author of If Your Matter Could Reform (Dink Press, 2015)

 

MHR: Hi, Robert. I am glad we have this opportunity to talk to one another about your new chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform.  I have a few questions which I hope will illuminate us.

RO: Thank you, Clare. I’m thrilled that you asked.

 

MHR: The first poem is “Wind” which introduces us to the ethereal voice that has a calming effect but also the authority and power to speak the deepest questions that you explore in the book. I love the wind motif that blows in and out of poems, like a wind.  What does the wind signify to you and what can we learn, formally, from paying attention to your use of it?

RO: We share our lives with the wind, yet are able to see it only through its effects. We can’t touch it, but we feel it. It has no voice, but we hear it through various vessels – leaves rattling in trees, wind chimes, discarded bottles, the vibration of it slamming against the house’s siding. Wind is a force, a carrier, and like poetry, like words, has the capacity to affect us in almost subliminal ways. There always seems to be an undercurrent, something pulling us towards the unsayable. There are no definitive answers. The wind is an open-ended question.

 

MHR: “Ashes” is breathtaking The last line made me gasp: “Scatter me in air I’ve never breathed.”  I won’t make assumptions about the emotional impetus of this poem, which is written in first person, but can you recall when composing the poem, the formation of that sentence, or was it something someone actually spoke?

RO: My mother had expressed a desire to be cremated, to have her ashes scattered in the Pacific, but later changed her mind. I asked myself how I’d like my earthly remains disposed of, and decided it would be most pleasing to have my ashes released somewhere I’ve never been, perhaps in the Jetstream (again, the wind motif), to move along strange paths, dispersing and mingling and covering more ground than ever possible in life. Hence the line.

 

MHR: “Rain Forest Bridge” is another lovely piece. Did you personally traverse such a bridge? I’m curious. If so, where? Is there something that is not in the poem that you would like to share about it?

RO: I have not crossed such a bridge. A poster, or wall hanging, served as the impetus of the poem. That, and the memory of a novel I read when I was about ten years old, in which a scene of the difficulties of walking across such a bridge for the first time apparently made a big impression on me. Such is the power of language!

 

MHR: All of the poems have a spirited, imaginative, reflective tone with language that approaches mystical writings. Please answer this questionnaire: In addition, or because you are a poet, would you also say you are a mystic, a philosopher, a metaphysician, or all/none of these?

RO: None of these. I’m primarily a reader, observer and inveterate questioner, and to a lesser extent, a thinker, whose influences and interests lean ever so slightly towards Eastern philosophy.

 

MHR: You have a longer-sequenced poem, “Earth’s Damp Mound” in the chapbook. In part III, “The Bowl of Flowering Shadows” the exploration of the unseen is most prominent. This statement contains the question which frames the whole work and give us its title: “So which, of all those you might recall, if your matter could reform and place you back into yourself, would you choose?”  Have you thought what your answer might be as a human being/poet?

RO: I’m much better at asking questions than answering them, but assuming that my matter would be reforming, and taking that experience into account, my reply would probably be framed with sensory elements – odors, sounds, colors, touch, tastes – rather than words, likely in the form of food (Asian/Southwest fusion) and music (Edgar Meyer on the bass).

 

MHR: Thank you for taking he time to talk with us about If Your Matter Could Reform, and best wishes from MockingHeart Review for many more words written by you.

 If Your Matter Could Reform is available from Dink Press: http://www.dinkpress.com/store/robertokaji

***

 okaji

Robert Okaji lives in Texas with his wife, two dogs and some books. He is the author of the chapbook If Your Matter Could Reform (Dink Press), and a micro-chapbook, You Break What Falls (Origami Poems Project). His work has appeared in Boston Review, Prime Number Magazine, Mockingheart Review, two Silver Birch Press anthologies, Hermeneutic Chaos, Kindle Magazine, Clade Song, Eclectica and elsewhere. Visit his blog, O at the Edges, at http://robertokaji.com/.

 

 

Happenings with Tim Suermondt

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MockingHeart Review contributor, Tim Suermondt, has poems in the latest issue of Ploughshares and The Southeast Review. His next full-length collection of poems ELECTION NIGHT AND THE FIVE SATINS will be out shortly from Glass Lyre Press. He continues to write book reviews for Cervena Barva Press and does poem evaluations for Bellevue Literary Review.  Great news, Tim!

 

Susan Tepper talks with us about ‘dear Petrov’

MockingHeart Review’s Founding Publisher and Editor, Clare L. Martin, connected with MHR contributor, Susan Tepper, for a one-on-one interview about Susan’s stunning new book, ‘dear Petrov.’ 

We hope you enjoy the interview and are intrigued enough to get your hands on Susan’s new book. We highly recommend it.

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CLM:  Hi, Susan.  Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for MockingHeart Review’s “Beats” blog. My first question begins with the beginning. I want to ask you about inspiration. When did you first encounter the voice of the woman in ‘dear Petrov’ and begin writing her?

ST: Clare, the female narrator appeared to me on a June day in 2015.  I sat down blank at the screen and she popped herself in.  I often feel we writers are doing the work of the ‘so-called dead poet’s society’—in that we are channels for writers who have passed on to wherever they go.  I don’t say this lightly.  It’s my belief system that Mozart, for example, wasn’t born a genius but carried his musical abilities over from an earlier lifetime, then expanded on them, plus received help from other great musicians who’d passed away.  This makes total sense to me.  It’s how art keeps growing and evolving.  This passing along of knowledge, or coming to the artist and banging on the walls until the voice is heard by the one currently doing the work.  There is nothing worse to the artist than to think when they are gone it’s all been for naught.

CLM: What is it that led you to set this in 19th century Russia? Were you interested in the historical period? Can you enlighten us a bit about your initial process and any research you undertook?

ST: Before I took up the writing life, I was an actress from the age of seventeen.  I had the great opportunity of acting in several Chekhov plays, and I think I’ve read them all.  Plus, the Chekhov stories.  The time period in which he wrote his plays and stories, and the Russian settings, probably lodged into my unconscious mind.  When a method actor takes on a role, the point is to inhabit both character and setting and their history.  So it was undoubtedly brewing for some time, and when my female protagonist in ‘dear Petrov’ said (wrote) the name of her lover, in the very first piece, it came out as Petrov.  If I were to really dig deep, into my own recesses, I would say that Russia came out due to my experiencing one of the coldest, darkest, most forlorn winters imaginable, just prior to the writing of this book.

CLM: There is so much that can be said about a woman oppressed in this book. Can you speak to the different kinds of oppression that this character experiences?

ST: My female protagonist (who isn’t named in the book) is one of the loneliest women I’ve ever encountered.  She lives in a remote part of Russia, and the man she loves is a career soldier who mostly isn’t around.  That wasn’t particularly unusual for those times.  Career soldiers fought in their homeland as well as in wars of other lands.  Often they were gone for years.  When Petrov did make an appearance in the book, it was generally lacking in what my narrator needed and desperately longed for.  I truly don’t know why she put up with him.  Or, as many reviewers have suggested, whether Petrov actually did exist, or was a conjured up creation to fill her emptiness.  If you are a believer in solipsism, then this would be the ultimate solipsism—a glimpse into all that is missing, except you.

CLM: The woman is not voiceless. We are reading her words. They might have slipped away if you had not written them. Can you tell us how it channeled through you? Does it still come to you now?

ST: Yes, it was most definitely channeled to me.  It could come to me again if I sat down again with her.  But I won’t.  Her story is finished.  She decided.  She dictated and I typed.

CLM: Are there aspects of her voice that you identify with?

ST: Einstein was a believer in parallel universes.  I subscribe to that same theory.  Perhaps while I am living as Susan Tepper, I am also this woman living in late 19th Century Russia during a time of war.  Perhaps she broke through to me.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  In another of my books ‘What May Have Been’ I wrote the voice of the artist Jackson Pollock.  People were stunned that Pollock’s voice came through a woman.  I was also stunned.  It just happened.  Because it was effortless, the way the woman came effortless in ‘dear Petrov.’  It required no effort on my part.  So, yes, I identify with all that she says and feels.

CLM: The woman’s horse features in the book.  What, for you, does the horse signify?

ST: Well, first of all, I grew up around horses, cows, and other animals.  Their spirituality always amazes me.  Animals are leagues ahead of humans when it comes to loyalty and unconditional devotion.  So after the first story, it became clear to me that my female protagonist was living without a male companion.  The second story, Floods, was a breakthrough.  And that’s when the horse presents.  Her love for the horse and what he symbolizes for her was quite heartbreaking to me.  He is her sole companion about 99 % of the time.  Without her horse, well, I can’t imagine.

CLM: There is a sentence in the book that reads, “My time here must be more than lines.”  Is this the perilous predicament of the writer?

ST: Yes, I believe it is.

CLM: I loved this book and will return to it often. There is a consistent flow. What was the length of time that it took to write, up to publication? Did you write the pieces fluidly and then break them, or were they always short prose pieces?

ST: When I start something, I generally write every day.  Unless I’m travelling, then I never write.  So I started the Petrov stories in June and wrote one or more a day.  I did revise them.  Some have been previously published in journals and zines, and when I realized I had a book length of them, I did go through and revise here and there.  For me, revision is usually some descriptive lines added.  The structure of each piece, and what it was about, came out in the first drafts.  They were always in the short form that you see now.   So, all in all, the book took me about three months to complete.  Thank you, Clare, for loving the book!

CLM: Do you work on several writing projects at once, or work singularly on one work at a time?

ST: It depends.  I often work on long fiction (full length novels) and cap the writing off with a poem.  It isn’t an intentional choice, just happenstance.  If I’m in a mad writing whirl, I’ll often go to other work that isn’t, in my opinion, ready to be presented to the world.  And I’ll work on that.  I think doing alternating repertory theatre (a different play a night) makes it easy for me to switch from different characters and themes.  It’s the best thing in life, this writing we do.  It shapes my life into a big bowl of happy.

CLM: I think of the phrase “a body besieged.” Could this be an apt description of the female narrator? Could this be the soldier’s predicament, too? Or, all of ours?

ST: That’s an interesting concept but I don’t have the answer.

CLM: Can the woman define herself apart from Petrov? Is this what she is trying to do; delineate herself in the world, apart from his dominance?  Will she become one with nature, which features prominently in the book?

ST: I don’t think she can define herself apart from Petrov.  He is some underlying condition in her.  I think he’s her fevers and chills.  Or a fantasy perhaps to keep herself sane.  I don’t know exactly why he’s so relevant to her.

CLM: For a long time, some of the only writing women committed to paper was in letters, diaries, and personal journals. How does this feature in ‘dear Petrov’? Is the page freedom, as this kind of writing seems to suggest?

ST: These pieces in ‘dear Petrov’ were never meant to be letters.  They are musings, at best, or a glimpse into this woman’s psyche.  I don’t think freedom exists anywhere in any form.  Freedom is an illusion.  My book ‘dear Petrov’ is illusory, as well.  It doesn’t ask anything from the reader.  It doesn’t take anything either.  It just exists the way nature does.  It either calls to you or it doesn’t.

CLM: So much of this book conjures mystery. Can you speak to the importance of mystery in literary writings, how it impacts you as a writer and reader, even if the book is not classified as a mystery?

ST: Clare, I think fiction and poetry must contain some surreal elements if it is to be really good work.  The best poets know this by instinct.  And surreal elements suggest mystery, because anything in art that’s surreal is not realism.  It’s a distorted realism, a heightened realism.  That’s what I’m drawn to as both a fiction writer and poet.  I want my eggs scrambled, not discernible on the plate.

CLM: We kindly thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. And congratulations on a fantastic work of art.

ST: Clare, talking with you here has been an act of pure joy.  Thank you for having me, and for your loving support of ‘dear Petrov.’

***

 

 About MockingHeart Review Contributor Susan Tepper

Susan Tepper has been a writer for twenty years.  ‘dear Petrov’ (Pure Slush Books, Australia, 2016) is her sixth published book.  Stories, poems, essays and interviews by Tepper have been published worldwide.  Her column ‘Let’s Talk’ at Black Heart Magazine runs monthly.  FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, has been sporadically ongoing for eight years.  www.susantepper.com

Progress update

We are at capacity for the Spring/Summer Issue of MockingHeart Review. Poems sent during this open reading period (currently open until April 1, 12:00 a.m. CST) will be considered for the Fall issue.

 

Excited to have been flooded with fine, fine poetry from across the planet. Thank you for understanding.