Interviews

Okla Elliott

Interviewed by Gentris L. Jointe

GLJ: In an interview with Pif Magazine, you said your father, a soldier in World War Two, “came home a mostly useless drunk and ruined his family.” Did you have his experiences and nightmares in mind when you wrote “The Patience of the Landmine?” How did you arrive at this poem?

OE: I was actually thinking of a different theatre of war when I composed this poem, that of East Asia. I had read an article (no idea where now) about children in Vietnam who would run around playing in fields and happen upon a decades-old landmine left there from the Vietnam Conflict and have a leg blown off. I was also, in some vague way, thinking of the DMZ at the border between North and South Korea, which includes a massive field of landmines between the two nations.

So, those are the literal inspirations for the poem, but what you say about my father back from WWII (or any soldier back from whatever war) is applicable here. These wounded men and women, often suffering PTSD and often inflicting further damage on their loved ones and communities because of the violence they have suffered, carry around the metaphorical landmines of war in their psyches, landmines that remain operative for decades, much like the more literal one in my poem.

This is one of my poems where I try to deal directly with a political subject without proselytizing or resorting to aesthetically blunted language. I thought the best—and the creepiest—way to pull this particular poem off was to personify the landmine, to make it a patient psychopath of sorts, lying in wait for its victim. I also wanted to weirdify (to use the technical term) the poem a bit by having the landmine dreaming yet never growing tired, which makes it seem as though it never goes to sleep. That paradoxical waking dream of death somehow just felt apt for the psychology of a landmine—though now that I say that, I worry I sound insane.

GLJ: In the length and shape of the lines, the character of the enjambment, and of course, those haunting images, this poem reminds me a little of Yusef Komunyakaa’s work in Dien Cai Dau. Could you speak to his, or other, influences on this poem?

OE: I haven’t read Komunyakaa in years, and I only read a small amount when I did, but I just now looked up Dien Cai Dau and see what you mean about there being some similarities between the poems of that book and “The Patience of the Landmine,” particularly given that I was envisioning Vietnam mostly while writing it. But I can say that his work did not influence the poem, at least not in any conscious way. I recall trying to capture something of Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” while going for something more sinister, and perhaps something of Marvin Bell’s political poetry. Also, Brecht’s poetry is always lingering in my mind when I write a political poem—especially the way he finds a unique, indirect, and often satirical or comical way into his subject matter.

GLJ: Does your work as a fiction writer bleed into your poems, or vice versa? How about your work as a translator?

OE: I mostly translate poetry, and that work has certainly influenced my own poetry. In effect, in order to translate a poem well, you have to teach yourself how to write that poem in English. This has allowed me to get into the structures and lyric logics of the poems I’ve translated and thus allowed me to learn new techniques and tactics I would likely not have otherwise explored on my own. I think this learning process is one of the joys of translating poetry, in addition to the puzzle-like challenge of rendering the original into English.

As for how my other efforts inform each other, my scholarly work in trauma studies has certainly informed my writing when it comes to violence and its effects on the human psyche. And my work in Holocaust studies has informed my forthcoming post-modern, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi novel The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement). The works of writers like Tadeusz Borowski, Charlotte Delbo, Primo Levi, and Viktor Frankl have informed the way prisons and POW camps and such are depicted in the novel. For example, in the Nazi concentration camps, there were prisoners selected to be part what was called the Sonderkommando and who were forced to help with the extermination of their fellow inmates. These prisoners took to their duties with varying degrees of enthusiasm or resistance. In The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, we have what we call oberzeks, who are precisely these sort of prisoners forced to collaborate with their captors. This comes directly from my work in Holocaust studies. And the term “zek” comes from reading the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, particularly his novel The First Circle, so here my studies of Slavic literature show their influence. In fact, the fictional author of The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, Aleksandr Tuvim, is a mash-up of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Julian Tuwim, a famous Polish poet I began reading when I studied abroad in Poland during undergrad. (Since a “w” in Polish is pronounced like an English “v,” we changed that so readers would pronounce it correctly, instead of hearing the Elmer Fudd-sounding “Too-weem.”)

In terms of the various genres bleeding together, I don’t see much direct influence of my poetry on my fiction or the other way around, except in the general sense that I learn how to craft better images or phrases in both. The place the various techniques really blend is in creative nonfiction, for whatever reason. There I see my fictional techniques and my lyric impulse converge frequently. And since it is nonfiction, I often make use of philosophy and my other scholarly endeavors there. This might be why I notice myself writing more and more creative nonfiction as the years go by.

GLJ: How has teaching poetry affected your own writing? What do you think you learn from your students?

OE: I think the biggest thing I have learned from my students is to look at poetry with a fresh eye, one less jaded by years of reading and thinking about poetry. Since all of my students thus far have been undergraduates, many of them have had limited exposure to poetry and so aren’t yet fluent in its creative and critical idioms. This has the illuminating effect of reminding me that it is the poet’s job to build communicative bridges to the audience and that nothing should be taken for granted.

JLG: What do you admire in the work of contemporary poets that is different from your own work in subject, style, or tone?

OE: I like poets who do virtuosic things with language, either in a formalist sense or in a wildly experimental sense. I find I tend to err on the side of comprehensibility and therefore often tone down my flights of language a bit. I rarely let myself get fixated on pure form or pure language, and I’m fine with being that kind of poet, but I love seeing others just let it all hang out, everything be damned.

I would like to add here that I am one of the few optimists about contemporary literature in all the genres. I hear people bemoan the lack of variety in the literary world, but if you set the poetry of Andrew Hudgins beside that of Albert Goldbarth beside that of Jillian Weise beside that of Allison Joseph, how can you possibly think poetry is stagnant or one-note? Or put the prose of William T. Vollmann beside that of Kyle Minor beside that of Joyce Carol Oates beside that of Samantha Irby. If you think all of their prose is the same, you have lost your mind. There is, therefore, a lot to pick from and I never get bored.

GLJ: What music do you listen to as you write?

OE: I actually have a YouTube playlist I sometimes listen to on repeat as I write—not always, but semi-regularly. It has only four songs: the theme song for the movie Pina, Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” Emily Loizeau’s “L’autre bout du monde,” and Destroyer’s “Streethawk II.” The first song is instrumental, so there are no words to distract me, yet it is upbeat so I tend to type pretty fast there. The second is so energizing and the words repetitive enough that it has a similar effect. The third, being in French and sung so beautifully gives me something of an exotic aesthetic and a graceful feel about the words I am writing. The last one is just so excessively grandiose about the nature of art that it gives me that high sense of purpose I find I need to push myself to my writerly limits. I’ve oversimplified here how these songs work for me, but that’s a rough sketch. I go through month-long phases where I don’t use that mix, but those four songs have been my writerly theme music, as it were, for a few years now. I wonder if I will ever bother to change that mix, since it’s treated me so well for so long.

GLJ: Are there any words, images, or places you find yourself returning to in your recent work?

OE: I just finalized my full-length poetry collection, The Cartographer’s Ink, coming out later this year from New York Quarterly Books, and I feel myself casting about somewhat for new directions I can take poems. For some reason, birds and apocalypses keep popping up—to the point that I am just going to have to trash half of them, it’s gotten so repetitive. I was telling Raul the other day that I think this is happening in part because I am trying to find new forms and structures to write in, so I catch myself falling back on similar content to free up that part of the effort. But that might be a bit of convenient nonsense. I will say that I always trust these obsessions that take hold of me. They are usually a case of the unconscious mind being smarter than the conscious mind, leading me somewhere productive.

Interestingly, this sort of repetition doesn’t happen when I write prose. I don’t want to speculate overly much about why that might be, but I imagine it has to do with poetry’s closer relationship (for me anyway) with associative thought and some guiding unconscious intelligence. Of course, both things are at play in prose as well, but they are much more dominant for me in poetry. When I start a new novella or essay, I tend to have it about halfway planned out before I start, whereas with poems I just sit down and start typing, and then shape what comes out as I go and later during revisions. With prose, especially longer prose, I need to have enough of a plan that I know where I’m going, yet enough unknowns that I can feel the joy of invention in each day’s work.

GLJ: What is your main advice to aspiring poets?

OE: Read, read, and re-read. Write, write, and re-write. I am more or less convinced of the 10,000-hour rule for mastery of a skill, as Malcolm Gladwell describes it. One of my favorite novels, The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil, has a character who is a mathematician. He is not on par with, say, Einstein or Bohr in terms of genius, but he has made a few significant contributions and dozens of minor ones to his field, and he has been a prolific author on the subject. At one point he is asked how he managed to accomplish so much. He responds simply that he wakes up thinking about the problems of mathematics, spends every minute he can during the day thinking about the problems of mathematics, and he goes to bed thinking about the problems of mathematics.

Basically, given the intense degree of difficulty involved in writing well (to say nothing of writing something truly great), we have to be constantly reading and writing, and perhaps more importantly, we have to keep ourselves attuned to possible inspiration even during our down-time. I can’t tell you how often I’ve tried to have a decadent Netflix binge and something a character says sparks an idea, and suddenly I’ve paused whatever schlocky TV show I am indulging in to scribble notes for an essay or poem or a scene in my novel, etc. So, even when I am not writing or reading, my mind is still at work and receptive to new materials. It’s no fun to have to point this out, but to succeed as a writer is much harder than to succeed as an accountant—and I mean “succeed” both in the artistic sense and in the sense of having a career related to writing—so we have to work twice as hard to get half as much.

And to make matters worse, on top of reading and writing and thinking constantly (and as widely as possible), we also have to absorb tons of experience, so that means travel and taking summer internships on oil rigs and going on dates at the local ice-skating rink and some unwise late nights and flinging ourselves into all the normal human suffering that is love and family and friendship.