Interview by Rita Mae Reese
Okla Elliott is currently an Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois, where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of the fiction collection, From the Crooked Timber (Press 53, 2011) and a poetry collection, The Cartographer’s Ink (NYQ Books, 2014). His novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in early 2015 from Dark House Press, and his book of translation, Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker, is forthcoming in late 2015 from Black Lawrence Press.
Rita Mae Reese: You seem like a very busy man. You teach, you run a press, you edit, you write fiction and collaborate. Can you talk a little about those roles and how poetry, specifically The Cartographer’s Ink, fit in with all of your other roles?
Okla Elliott: I teach comparative and world literature here at the University of Illinois, and this broad global approach to literature certainly informs The Cartographer’s Ink. My studies have led me to live and/or study in places like Germany, Mexico, Poland, and Quebec, among others. This travel and the study of foreign languages and literatures in these various locations also inform the poems in the book. In some ways, many of the poems can be considered travel writing—but as someone famous once said, travel writing is as much about the travelers as it is about their destinations, so my own experiences in these places inform the poems as much as the places themselves do.
I also do translation, which is a great place to learn new techniques, since you have to teach yourself how to write in ways you wouldn’t normally, in order to render the piece into English. I can also say that writing narrative prose has altered the way I do certain poems, especially longer ones. “Emerging from Clouds” in The Cartographer’s Ink is basically a short-story-in-verse.
As for what running a press has taught me as a writer, seeing literally thousands of book manuscripts and thousands of submissions to Mayday Magazine, I know the literary landscape pretty well and know what things pop up ad nauseam—e.g., tired bloodless poems referencing Greek or Roman literature just to get that unearned gravitas, nature poems that pretend we still live in 1914, not 2014, and so forth. Of course a poet can reference anything and make it work, and nature can still be a valid subject matter for poetry, but the way these things are normally done use these two topics to manufacture faux importance instead of doing the hard work of actually reaching a reader. As you know, I reference ancient literature in The Cartographer’s Ink, among tons of other things, so it is not some dogmatic rule of mine not to make cultural references, and nature plays a role in several of my poems as well, but in these instances, I always ask myself if I am honestly using the material to bolster what I’m thinking through in the poem, or am I just trying to falsely generate credibility.
RMR: This book grew from a chapbook called A Vulgar Geography. Maybe I’m reading too much into titles, but it seems that you moved from an interest in describing borders and landscape to investigating the ways of knowing and recording place, specifically on the medium used to convey this idea of location. Is this accurate? Can you talk a bit about that interest in ways of knowing and conveying place?
OE: I remember the moment the title for the book came to me quite vividly. It was one of those flashes of language you know is exactly right for what you’re working on. I liked the idea that words are put down in ink and that those words would form a personal and philosophical map of the world I think and feel in. I believe one of the reasons most of us write is to make some sense of the world and ourselves, to know more and to know better—though of course we will never know the world or ourselves with anything approaching certainty. I think a sense of finitude is at the center of a lot of my work. It is difficult to admit there are no absolutes in life and that we simply have to suffer our finitude and navigate it as best we can. And this is more than an abstract philosophical question for me. People like Joseph Stalin, who was absolutely certain his version of communism was right, ended up a mass murderer, and religious fanatics who believe they have a direct line to an absolute power end up flying planes into buildings, and even on much smaller scales, this kind of certainty just turns people into insufferable asses. So, it is not just an aesthetic choice on my part to place uncertainty at the center of much of my writing, but an ethical choice as well.
RMR: There is also a locating in time as well as space going on in this book, even in the title. The Cartographer’s Ink seems like an archaic tool, given GPS and satellites and Google maps. Is there nostalgia at work here? Or is it a sense that our tools of perception and portrayal never keep pace with our perceptions and what remains to be mapped?
OE: I definitely meant to make my poetic map include time and memory as much as or more than literal geography. And this fits with a lot of new work being done in trauma studies and memory studies, where locations, objects, and words are seen as loaded up with affect and memory. My dissertation at U of IL deals with trauma studies and memory and the psychological aspects of suffering and violence, so I work regularly with these topics in my scholarly life, and they bleed over into my creative work as well. So, I wouldn’t call it nostalgia, which is a longing for a past (real or imaginary), but rather a mapping of memory in all its manifestations.
RMR: Eavan Boland said of Elizabeth Bishop, “She used place as an index of loss; almost never as a measure of identity.” This strikes me as being accurate for your work here as well, though perhaps “failings” would be even more accurate. The loss seems to be a loss of the speaker’s potential best self, or at least the way he would like to see himself. I’m thinking specifically of the long poem that makes up the second section, “Emerging from Clouds,” which is a rehearsal of a confession of infidelity. We have the idea of a traveler as picking up souvenirs and enriching experiences, but the opposite seems to hold true here. Is geography a way of mapping loss, even a loss of potential self, in this book? And how do you see the intersection of identity and place?
OE: That short-story-in-verse is a circular confession. It begins with the words “We were younger” and at the end, when the couple returns to the US, just as their plane is about to touch down, he begins his confession with those same words, which loops you back to the beginning of the poem. This is mimicked by the fable (which I made up) inside the poem, where a king is tricked into killing his son and condemns himself to repeating the tale of his hubris and the tragedy it caused for the rest of his life. And that’s not the only imbedded document in the poem. There is a poem written by the husband’s mistress, which the husband translates. Of course, that poem is made up and the translation is a false one. (Faux translation seems to be a favorite technique of mine, since my novel coming out next year, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, is also a faux translation). And the mistress’s name is an anagram of Okla Elliott. I mention these layers of intra-textuality and faux stories and poems and translations I made up, as well as making myself the mistress to a character in a story I wrote, just to point how the structure of the piece is a kind of reverb-loop of the self, largely made up, though made up from the facts (sometimes warped or funhouse-mirrored) of my year studying abroad in Germany. So, to finally answer your question, I think literary production is a way to construct one’s self and also a way to make use of the random things floating around in you that you don’t use for your daily self.
RMR: Can you say what drew you to the confessional mode for that particular poem? In general, what do you think of the role of confession in poetry?
OE: This one gets a little personal, but I think the impetus for the poem shows how we process certain things, so I’ll plough ahead. After having done a few studies abroad myself, I was back home in the US and was in a really serious relationship. The person I was dating was interested in traveling as well, so I encouraged that she take advantage of the excellent study abroad system our university had and do a semester-long program (she wasn’t interested in a full year, as that seemed like too large of a commitment, and even though we were in undergrad, we were seriously dating, so three months apart seemed more manageable than twelve months). To make a long and painful story short, she did study abroad and while there ended up having a relationship with another guy who went on the program. I eventually found out about the infidelity and, as so many before me have done and as so many after me will do, insisted that she divulge every detail of her affair—the more graphic and painful for me, the better. This went on for a few months, and then we got past it more or less, dated another couple years, and finally broke up for unrelated reasons. But it was this obsessive need of mine to hear and hear again all the minutiae that first got me interested in the repetitive nature of confession, especially in breeches of romantic trust, though I think most confession/remorse has a repetitive structure. So, in effect, I made the narrator of that short-story-in-verse the unfaithful partner and gave him the compulsive need to hear the lowly facts of his conduct repeated again and again. So, the piece is yet another instance of how we process our lives through the creative act—though saying it in that neat little phrase somehow takes all the blood and anguish out of it.
RMR: One of my favorite poems in the book is “Learning Russian (a Letter to my Schizophrenic Mother),” which entreats the mother, “Stay where you are.” It beautifully evokes a sense of the world being at once too wide and too small. The juxtaposition of the dying woman in Kentucky and the son in Kaliningrad is very powerful and I think begins the process of the portrait of the poet as a man composing himself of distances. Can you talk a little about this poem in particular?
OE: That one’s a mix of autobiography and fiction as well. When I was studying in Poland, I thought a lot about how weird it was to be this poor Kentucky boy whose parents didn’t graduate high school, yet there I was struggling through Wisława Szymborska in Polish. Without going into too much detail, my mother was diagnosed with various mental illnesses, and the last one the doctors settled on was schizophrenia. She was pretty abusive, to the tune of a state like Kentucky removing me from her home and placing me in the care of my sisters who were in college at the time. So, I moved myself from Poland to Russia in the poem and then wrote it as a nonfiction poem in every other regard (e.g., my mother does have emphysema). I did visit Kaliningrad, but I wasn’t learning Russian at the time, but rather Polish. So, that poem maps my past and various geographical places as well as the tension I feel between my past and where I am today.
RMR: Nikola Tesla, John O’Hara, Isaac Newton, Kierkegaard, and the heroine of the soft porn Heavy Metal movie all make appearances or contribute to these poems in some way. They seem to be creating a sort of constellation of identity for the central speaker of the poems. How do you see their roles in these poems? What drew you to these figures, and to Tesla in particular?
OE: Those are all figures who have fascinated me at different stages of life and for different reasons. I started out thinking I was going be a scientist, so I read a lot about Tesla and Newton and other scientists when I was younger. I started college as a physics major, and remain an amateur enthusiast for all things scientific. As for the animated soft porn heroine in Heavy Metal, I think I first saw that when I was about eleven years old and anything sexual at that time was so mysterious and fascinating to me, which is why it is still a movie rattling around in my head to this day. I think my goal throughout the book was to be as honest as possible about all of my obsessions and to follow my interests and thoughts wherever they led me, be that to a disquisition on some high-brow topic or to the shoddiest of pop-cultural matters.
RMR: Someone once said that it takes a hundred books to make a book (my math might be off there). Which books contributed the most to the making of you as a poet and to this book in particular?
OE: I like that idea a lot, and it strikes me immediately as true. The poets who have influenced me the most are likely Marvin Bell, Albert Goldbarth, Andrew Hudgins, Denise Levertov, Joyce Carol Oates, and David R. Slavitt. But philosophy has influenced all my writing as much as literary texts have, so Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among others are all over these poems.
RMR: Finally, how do you see the role of poetry in contributing to a sense of place in the world today? I guess what I’m really asking is, what use does a poet, particularly an American poet writing today, have of a country?
OE: This depends on which country we’re talking about. In places like Costa Rica, where poetry is regularly read on the radio, or in Iran where it is regularly published in the major newspapers, it might play a larger role in the national consciousness. In the US, it feels more regionalized in terms of its influence on how we think of place. Living near Chicago and having my novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, coming out from a Chicago press means that I know the Chicago scene pretty well. I really feel a Chicago vibe to the poetry. Same goes with Milwaukee, where I spend a lot of time and engage in a lot of literary antics. The writers know their cities and their audience, have a Midwest atmosphere, but also an urban savvy peculiar to these two cities. And lots of other cities or regions have a similarly idiosyncratic flavor to their poetry.
I think that in the internet age, we can cross-pollinate between these various cities, regions, and even countries. Also, poetry is perfectly suited to the internet. Short bursts of brilliance are easy to read online, but even the best novella is annoying to read on a glowing screen. So there is this locationless place of the internet that can be used more productively to expand the audience of poetry—and it’s already happening, I would argue.
Rita Mae Reese is the author of The Alphabet Conspiracy (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press). She is a recipient of numerous awards, including a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship in fiction, a “Discovery”/The Nation award, and a Pamaunok Poetry Prize. Visit her at www.ritamaereese.com and follow her on Twitter at @RitaMaeReese.