interview

TQL Interviews: In Conversation with Pam Munter

Theme : Questionnaire Interview (Open / Closed Format)

Prelude
1. Hello Pam. How are you?
I’m fine, thanks. Hope you are, too.

2. How is the weather?
Beautiful – in the 80s here today.

3.What time is it?
It was early afternoon when I began but early
morning the next day as I’m finishing it.

4. Are you busy with something?
This, fully engaged in the process.

Lead

TQL: Pam, what colour is your mental shelf? (Influence of Books, Visuals, Music)

Pam Munter copy

Pam Munter: I’m not in an office, but in my home with filled floor-to-ceiling bookshelves adorning nearly every room. The titles are varied but almost all nonfiction. My favorites involve the lives of others, complex and layered, much the way I see myself.

TQL: What led you to arrive at a point to contribute now as a psychologist, Becoming a Legend while tracing your history in this memoir piece charting out personal dreams against the era of 1950s hollywood? What is with the title of the piece?

Pam Munter: After many years of writing biographical pieces about other people, I decided it was my turn. “Becoming A Legend” is one of 21 in a memoir (to be published, I hope) and one of my personal favorites. The title’s intention is to blend the young Pam with the more informed one, putting myself back into childhood while adding the perspective that only comes with age. Much of my work blends a seriousness of purpose with a tongue-in-cheek approach. I wanted to memorialize a bygone era, both in society and in my own history. It meant something different to be a child and a teenager then than it does now. I would like to think there’s a universality in memoir, which can apply to any life, any generation. We all have secret fantasies as children but not many write about them much less act upon them.

TQL: You live in New York, United States. How long have you been living here and how have you been able to adjust and experience different shades of America, from a coastal town of Los Angeles to several rural and urban counties as a performer and finally to a major cosmopolitan city as a clinical psychologist? Moving through colourful fabrics of America, how do you see America now?

Pam Munter: I have lived in many places but only in New York for months at a time, when I performed there. For nearly 30 years, I lived in Portland, Oregon before moving to my current home in Palm Desert, California in 2002, a return to my Southern California roots. Palm Desert is a suburban oasis, its beauty, peacefulness and contemporary architecture serving as a soporific alternative to the chaos that seems to be enveloping our national political landscape just now. I travel often to urban environs, though, – to New York but more frequently to Los Angeles, just a few hours away. You can’t take the girl out of the city for long.

TQL: Consider, America which was predominantly welcoming for many different migrants and which is closing its borders by creating different geopolitical stereotypes against few middle east nations, while also burning out an issue with its neighbor downwards in regard with boundaries? You have explored breadth and depth of America. Following your answers on the demographic make-up and its diverse experiences as the most modern democracy in the world, I would like to know more as I too arrive from an oldest democracy in the world that is India. Let us observe cinema, the show business around which you were brought up in a coastal town Pacific Palisades and which leads you and me here for this interview. In 2001, there arrived a movie Crazy / Beautiful shot in your hometown, starring Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez. It showed dynamics of racial and dominant white experiences building up tragically triggered, romantic and realist frames with ambitions, aspritations, love of a mexican youth Carlos (Hernandez), sub-culture of drugs, alcoholism, and alienation of a white american youth Nicole (Dunst), political power and real societal battle of individualism of Nicole’s white father. Drawing back to a recent exposure of similar themes of racial tensions and sub-cultures of addiction leading to an investigative crime miniseries The Night Of in 2016 starring John Turturro, Riz Ahmed, Bill Camp, Michael K. Williams, we saw how the problems pertaining to racial discriminations in a dominant narrative leads us back to what America is as a super image in the world countries that is unable to deal with colour, even though it has better and advanced methodologies to embrace others in respect of other world countries like England, South Africa, and Australia while having an embracing attitude of plurality like India and Canada. In your immediate environment in New York, how do you see diversity moving in lanes and bends from your window office? How and what America is looking at you if you would press upon your diverse experiences through rural America which is now the heat of the contemporary politics that changed the narrative bringing Trump in White House while showing us how you grew up in your childhood years to become a legend in your own way later through failures, mistakes, and learning? This is a shade we haven’t read in your memoir piece, hence an elaboration would do justice to the later parts too.

Bay_Theater_1948
Bay Theatre, 1948

Pam Munter: You’ve set out a huge landscape to traverse here! First, the Pacific Palisades of my youth was much different that it seems to be today. In my public schools, it was unusual to find a person of color. I didn’t realize the inequity of this until I went away to college, fracturing the cocoon. I’ve long been a member of the ACLU, which advocates very strongly for inclusion, civil liberties and now against the provincial and cruel policies of the current administration in Washington. Immigrants have been responsible for the growth of America, allowing it to flourish providing progress and innovation. It both saddens and angers me that parts of our society live in fear and paranoia. In the Palm Desert area, there is more diversity and acceptance since a large percentage of our population is Hispanic and another large percentage are gay and lesbian. This brings a plethora of ideas, beliefs and cultures to the table, a feast, really. I haven’t seen the films to which you refer. The Palisades today is more diverse, as I understand it. I still read the hometown paper and even wrote an essay last year about visiting my childhood home. Some connections never die. My essays seldom deal with political issues, which is ironic given how involved I have been in politics and social justice since my teenage years. Perhaps I’ll write something at some point. It’s a crowded field in the literary world.

bob bailey
Bob Bailey

TQL: Do you think surrounded by people from different walks of show business somehow curtailed your dreams in-between like an over exposure to events and people related to it? Could it have thwarted your dreams indirectly if you were to remember your short and cold visit to CBS Studio with a radio actor, Bob Bailey as your neighbour where you performed off his traditional script to other actors present there?
PM: I opted to write about the show bizzy aspects of my childhood in this essay because that was the most magical part. But our neighborhood was populated mostly by blue collar families much like my own, completely outside the sphere of the entertainment industry. Few had education beyond high school, the women didn’t work, the men carried lunch pails every day. My dreams were fueled in part by the celebrities with whom I came in contact. As I said in the essay, I was surrounded by possibility even if one step removed. The Bob Bailey episode points out what I thought was true – that all I would have to do is read for a part and I’d be “discovered.” Of course, that didn’t happen but it didn’t stop me. It was exciting just to be in a radio studio.

TQL: In another incident later, a neighbour called Pete allowed your family to visit Oscar winner Edmond O’Brien’s dark woody home from where you found and copied Ida Lupino’s number off a Rolodex device when you could not find Doris Day’s number. You were young enough to have been exposed to such a larger-than-life setting. Is it around this time, the lifelong affectation for Doris Day started for you while your own dreams were moving in a backseat as a quirky adolescent teen?

Doris Day
Doris Day

PM: I still can’t believe I had the nerve to do all the things I wrote about in the essay. I became enamored with Doris Day very early, probably under the age of 8. She was a role model, for the career I envisioned, a way to escape my quotidian life. Of course, I had no idea who she was, only who she seemed to be. My own dreams were never far away. I imagined myself in her roles on the screen, singing the same songs. As a “quirky teen,” my dreams were often all I had to believe in. Adolescence is such a time of loneliness and alienation. I’m aware that my strong belief in myself, a conviction that I could accomplish most anything with hard work, was most unusual at that time of my life.
TQL: Consider if you were the Pam, dreaming about a career in movies living in a different neighbourhood without any people from show business, then it would have led you to see things from outside because here you were near to inside and yet remained on the fringe which is always the case that we see in different world industries of entertainment business, where such people who are surrounded by these industries, are subdued and their dreams thwarted while making them strugglers forever in their lives. It is true from Hollywood to Bollywood and other such industries. The opposite is also true considering your career. Your case is substantial enough for a teenager who would look for advice and run here to there with no ease. You made your own path through mistakes which many cannot do and it is great that you took a different turn after many stumbling blocks of career aspirations at such a perplexing age as a teenager, checking one thing out of another from the list of show business at a very early age. What would you tell them now, if you were to go back into your shoes and offer them light and perspective about making right and wrong choices while steering the wheel of life one one’s own?
PM: Life is one big, grand experiment. Following one’s dreams is one way to discover who we are. For me, the key to living a creative, productive life has been to develop a strong sense of myself, knowing what matters and what I’m willing to do (or not do) to get it. It’s my life and my responsibility. Sometimes the only way to learn about oneself is to risk making a mistake – learning from that mistake and moving on. My life has been diverse and multi-faceted and there’s little, if anything, I wanted to do that I haven’t been able to do through planning and perseverance. Living around show biz people played a minor but supporting role in my fantasy life. It would have happened anyway because it truly all came from the movies, where I spent so much time. It was a different life than I saw around me and I wanted to be a part of it. Today’s teens need to know it takes a long time to find the right place where they can be congruent and comfortable and to be patient with themselves during that quest.
TQL: In an earlier incident when you had crossed your fourteenth year in life, there arrived a small event which is an event of your look-alike photo arriving in an issue of Screen Stories matched with Doris Day. Does it effect you somehow when you think back on it? Do you think your friend Jacquie did the right thing by inflaming Doris Day affectation which was at its infancy like a crush and did the event really came on to your life “like a fireman shoveling coal in a speeding train?” at that moment? We would like you to answer this as a clinical psychologist, offering your thoughts to our new millenial readers while exploring themes of adolescent psychology and experiential learning mechanism.
PM: Jacquie and I shared an admiration for Doris Day and we encouraged each other, as friends do. An essential part of finding oneself is climbing on the backs of role models. As I said in the essay, there were few adults in my real world with whom I could identify. Movie stars gave me identity fragments I could try on, like a garment. Some of them fit, most did not. Developing an identity is a trial-and-error process but there have to be people present (even fictional ones) against which to measure oneself. One of the subtexts in the essay is the presence as well as the importance of having a passion, something that “inflames” one from within. It was a harmless passion, but one that made me feel truly alive, creating positive aspirations. Today, the mystery and ability to project ourselves upon celebrities is much more difficult. If we want to know something about a famous person, we can Google them. All we knew then was what we read in the movie magazines. It was a different world. And, by the way, I still have that magazine.johari-window.png

TQL: Pam, we would like you to explain a bit more about it, letting our readers know how Johari Window with its four quadrants are helpful for them to negotiate life choices through reflective learning practices. Offer us your experience and allow our readers to know how to deal with it so that they can know learning is an experience of three dimensional aspect where learning, unlearning, and relearning are intertwined together to make them whole from chunks and that they can and must learn to fail while exploring their career aspirations and dreams.
PM: When I was a practicing clinical psychologist, I did not use self-help mechanisms like the Johari Window, Myers-Briggs and such. I find them at best of transient value, merely scratching the surface. “Tests” that categorize personality into boxes tend to trivialize the complexity of the human personality, denying its fluidity, providing meaningless templates and false reassurances. There is no substitute for time alone, reflection and frequent journaling toward self-discovery. Throughout my life, I have also found it helpful to engage in honest, mutually disclosive conversations with a trusted friend. No outside pop-psych tests can truly tell you who you are.
TQL: Our millenial readers would surely imbibe the message you are sending when they are at crossroads to choose which career to follow while being hesitant to take a plunge in the unknown. Now coming back to your early adolescent life when, you wrote film reviews for school magazine and decided to major in music and later as the show business world rubbed itself against you like salt, you did theme-based jazz/cabaret performances with a jazz trio about which we would like to know more as you left us amazed just at the end of the memoir piece. How many years you did theatre performances and what influenced you back then?
PM: I’ve always had an indomitable creative drive. It has taken many paths, some of which I discussed in the essay. I’ve written elsewhere about the questions you raise – the how, why and where of performing. But the concept of performance can take many shapes, not merely the conventional ones. I was a university professor for almost 15 years (teaching political science and psychology), certainly a kind of performance. Readings from my essays in public are another form. And, of course, responding to your marvelously complicated interview questions is still another. It’s important to take an experimental view of life, especially in one’s 20s. Careers selected during that time of life are seldom a good fit because we don’t know ourselves very well yet. We’re still emerging. I would encourage people to lighten up, commit to the tasks in the moment but know when to let go and move on. My goal at this point is to use myself up, to tap every creative facet of myself that is available to me so that when I die, I won’t say, “I wish I had tried to…”
TQL: As we came to read your standalone piece of life experiences, we would like to know how you are working upon this whole memoir project and what a reader can further look towards, if you were to give a glimpse of performances you did and the cultural change that was going around you which later ended as you became a clinical psychologist? You surely have led an interesting life filled with uncertain road map and it would be a pleasure to know more about it.pam doris day

PM: Thank you. Over the past 18 months or so, more than 70 of my essays and short stories have been published., many internationally. I’ve completed a memoir—AS ALONE AS I WANT TO BE—containing 21 stand-alone essays, including “Becoming A Legend” that you were kind enough to publish. It’s possible to parcel out several dominant themes in the memoir, such as that creative drive, the persistent return to music, and a near compulsion to write. Yes, the “road map” has been an uncertain one but there are patterns that make sense and provide a unity of purpose, revealing resilience and calculated risk. Many of the essays are available on my website, www.pammunter.com. There you’ll find writing specific to some of the adventures—attending Doris Day’s 92nd birthday party, recording at Capitol Records using Frank Sinatra’s microphone and sitting in a crowded theatre watching the first movie in which I appeared. Looking back, I can say my intent has been to live a life that both interested and challenged me. As for becoming a clinical psychologist, that’s a whole other story! The decision was made in my mid 20s, a period in which I was surrounded by academics, a world where creativity was more elusive. Perhaps it was an awareness there was more out there, a restlessness that caused me to obtain the necessary university degrees to become a clinical psychologist. That profession was an ideal combination of intellect and emotion and required all of me to be fully present every single day, in many ways a perfect fit.
TQL: Now that you are retired, how do you spend your time?The Bees' Knees Dixieland Band, 2009

PM: The word “retired” always makes me laugh a little. In my parents’ generation, that meant playing golf, going fishing, traveling, doing…well, nothing. The big, energetic push in the show biz career came after I left the practice—the movies, the CDs, the live performances around the country. And all the writing, including obtaining my sixth college degree (an MFA granted just last year), came long after the “retirement” from clinical psychology. Now my days are full of writing along with the business tasks that requires. In fact, I just finished a play, four stories about women “of a certain age” in Hollywood. As with my other paths, I have no idea where this one will take me, but the journey has been a lot of fun. After all, it’s the process that matters more than the outcome.
TQL: We will take a different route to understand show business and we would like to know how you see things in present. Hollywood in contemporary period is dealing with a new digital media where artists have to be self promotional to gain a viewership before charting out to work with Hollywood and it is a platform of diverse cacophony and chaos. Times are changing but back then, Hollywood used to discover, discover in a sense Lana Turner, Clark Gable, Debbie Reynolds, and Janet Leigh among others as you describe early in your short memoir piece while pointing out your own sense of wonder as a plump kid with androgynous characteristics and a different eye sight to look at the world back then among your peers. These actors came from a poor background and were raised around the period of Great Depression and came of age with emergence of new media, do you think such a thing in our post-internet information world has blurred the real cost of struggle, privilege and misplaced identity which back then helped these actors in their popular careers to move away from their traditional familial background considering their parents usually came from working class background?
PM: That’s a great question. In the Hollywood of my day, everything was controlled by the four or five studios run by largely uneducated white men. Today, as you know, it’s no longer centralized. A kid can upload a two-minute spot on YouTube and be famous, at least for a while. Many of today’s actors have more education but less training. The nature of music has morphed into small niches as has entertainment in general, levelling the playing field to all comers. There was a time when we all listened to the same music, went to the same movies. Studios no longer concoct biographies or control the flow of publicity because everyone is on their own and there are few real studios left. The collective attention span is short; we seem to be living in an ADD society. If you’re not a hit right now, there are no second chances, no places to learn one’s craft. The danger is that with the massive corporate consolidation going on, the content will become more homogenized. It has certainly grown more polemical, fractionating the audiences even further. I’ve been told by agents that I need a “platform,” thousands of Twitter followers, to be commercially viable. I have to admit I long for those days when a studio executive could have done all that work for me!
TQL: In a similar vein, Netflix is taking over the traditional spaces of entertainment while also opening doors for new age people from millenial generation and older generation to work together on web based series and movies. It is moving with a global gaze like a multinational uber service or amazon for that matter to move into different cultural entertainment spaces. Would we see more of cross cultural experiences or would the mainstream essence of Hollywood still find an upper hand with closed cultural cues to enlarge and bet upon such a global audience which is primarily hooked on to Hollywood mainstream culture for long with its action-based, dystopian, and rom-com films or would they change the gaze and provide new air to breathe while allowing cross cultural references from one country to another thereby opening the subtle world of art and cinema to come out with new ideas?
PM: Hollywood will be open to new ideas if they bring financial reward. That’s a reality that hasn’t changed. I am encouraged by the fact there are more films starring and/or featuring people of color and more foreign language films reaching our shores. As society becomes more diverse, so will the nature of entertainment. I am also heartened by current social and political movements that cry out where there is injustice, whether it’s “OscarsSoWhite” or the recent controversy over men dominating the Grammys. While there is still a vocal, pathological part of society that wants to return to the “good old days” of white supremacy, it seems to me there’s a strong gravitational pull toward inclusiveness and justice.
TQL: What is Education?
PM: To begin with, it needs to be thought of as a verb, not a noun. To educate is to learn, in every sense of that word, an active process. While I’m very much a believer in formal education, I understand that much of what we learn is from experience and interactions with others. I would encourage anyone who can, however, to go as far as he/she can with formal education. It’s something no one can ever take away from you and it can help build a strong foundation for the rest of your life, both internally and externally.
TQL: What magical thing can you do for another person that would take no more than one minute of your life and which would change something in both for a lifetime to see?
PM: Ah, I wish such a thing were possible. Magic is no substitute for the hard work of developing one’s identity and the capacity for making good choices. Living life authentically takes time and effort.
TQL: Thank you for giving your time for the interview. Have a great day, Pam!
PM: It is my pleasure. Thank you. You too have a great day!Scan 1.jpeg
Pam Munter is a writer, dramatist, clinical psychologist, and former performer from New York, United States. Her memoir excerpt, Becoming a Legend was published in April Edition, 2017. You can know more about her books and her life over here: www.pammunter.com

This interview appears in our March 2018, Edition, TQL. Stay Tuned. For interviews, drop us an email at: editorialquietletter@gmail.com.

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interview, poetry

TQL Interviews : In Conversation with Robert Okaji

The Interview was conducted through email via an interview booklet and it is known as Digital Interview. Digital Interview defines how we connect through gaps and pauses in our contemporary period of technological renaissance as resources open up and anxiety takes over in the world of gadgets. Now we had come across Robert and his poetry last year when we published his poems in our inaugural April edition, 2017. Eight months later we thought of connecting the authors and readers when the interview space came like a proper thing to know each other. The interview is divided in several sections like a symphony and the tragic part is, it starts with the letters exchanged between us after the interview was finished and we would like to open the interview from the event like an interlude before going towards a prelude with our android message greetings, then with a tempo (short video capture), and finally a lead (interview booklet) towards a conclusion at the end. The whole interview utilizes each medium of our contemporary period, from text to image to audio to visual and hence with our inaugural session for interviews this year, we place before you our interview from The Quiet Letter with Robert Okaji.

I. The Interlude in Past

okaji-robert
Robert Okaji

Hello Robert. How are you?
I am fine. And you?

I am fine. How is the weather?
At the moment it’s dry and cool. But this is Texas,
and things can quickly change.

Okay. What time is it?
11:00 a.m.

Are you busy with something?
I’m currently revising a manuscript,
in hopes of getting it in shape
to submit to publishers. It’s going slowly.

II. Tempo (Short Video Capture)

Okaji with Book

TQL: We shall start our interview with you, Robert. As you know it is a digital interview through Internet and also that it is narrative induced, opinionated, and interactive space where each has a separate role in forwarding the tone and the substance of our digital connection while allowing each other an open area of negotiation to place an emphasis on certain questions, while slightly neglecting others, and in overall manner, putting forward our best for the readers. Okay. Before that I would like to say your office is looking great. The books are lovely.

Robert Okaji: Thank you. It’s a small, but comfortable space dedicated to writing.

TQL: That is indeed great. Now we will start with the question zero and after which you can simply write down answers for the questions in the booklet as the video interview ends here now with this question.

RO: Yes.

TQL: Robert, what colour is your mental shelf?

RO: My mental shelf is like a lake – the color changes with the sky – shifting from bright blue to grey to midnight black depending upon life’s circumstances, mostly pertaining to what I’ve been reading (currently Turkish Poetry Today 2017), the background music (today, traditional shakuhachi tunes), and of course daily interaction with people.

III. Lead (Interview Booklet)

TQL: That is what makes you a Poet, Robert, but tell us what does it mean to be called as a poet when the term itself is excruciatingly understood by the writers themselves who are different from other types of artists? Why is it hard to understand poets?

RO: Yes, the term carries a lot of baggage with it, and I don’t concern myself much with which connotations others want to attach to it. I take “poet” at face value – one who writes poems. As for understanding poets, I believe that people often err in attempting to “understand” poetry and poets. It might be easier and more productive to ask how the poem makes you feel rather than what it means. The next question is, of course, why does this particular arrangement of words push those particular emotional buttons. Answering those questions might allow the reader to discover a personal meaning, which, to me, is much more important than what the poet intended.

TQL: You are right and I would like to say it is the reader who sifts through them to find an urgent meaning to his or her life. Now coming back to the process of writing, we would like to know how you write poems from Texas, United States. Is weather an amicable requirement for arrival of certain poems from the deep recess of your mind? We would like to know how a poem arrives, how it breathes, how it is seen at first sight, and how and why it is changed later?

Agave Root.resized

Agave Root – @ Okaji’s Home

RO: Weather isn’t a requirement, but it certainly plays a role in much of what I write. In general, I sit down with absolutely no idea of what I’m going to write about. The weather occasionally frames the words – the way wind bends trees, or the sound of rain striking my shack’s metal roof. Of course I could say that about any external influence. My poems generally begin with a word or brief phrase, perhaps an image or simply a vague feeling. I jot down the word or phrase, or attempt to unearth the image or feeling. In other words, I seldom sit down with a preconceived notion of what will be written. It unfolds before me a word or phrase at a time. Sometimes the poems flow easily, sometimes they struggle to emerge. I don’t question the process, but just follow along. I revise as I write, but also like to let the poems lie fallow for a while, to “marinate.” The marination process may last a few days or even months, but when I look at the poems again, the errors or changes that need to be made are clear. This may be a matter of craft – line breaks, unintended repetitions, or form. Or it may seem that a certain portion is superfluous and needs to be deleted. This isn’t a quick process, but it works for me.

TQL:

barbed-wire fence-orchards of inheritance.resized
Yes, it is the marination process which takes time and allow a poet to reconsider elements of language with a preciseness like a doctor of language, but your process is similar to what being a poet means even for me as a new poet because I have yet to take the test of marinating poems while they keep assembling themselves like a growth of wine on an electrical pole lying away on the roadside where I live, overlooking a farm and surrounded by orchards of genealogical inheritance of those who seem to like seeing the barbed-wires to not allow anyone to enter except women and men coming from marginal castes still have to find their way, wobbling themselves inside to pick a shade to rest for awhile, or to look at coconuts or mangoes as per the season. I have seen the fall of their kitsch sarees stuck in barbed-wires and I almost feel at times to run and wobble myself too to see what pleasure is it to take on the pain from centuries like an outsider. I want to hug them and I do so when my eyes meet theirs at times when I pass them but we have no language except brief chance dialogue. This could be the reason why I do not like to follow marination process for poems and prose in entirety except I believe in performing at once in a certain weather even if it brings along with it few errors of language because now after years of writing poems in my diary, meaning is becoming more important than syntactical or decorative aesthetic. If it is long then so it be with a deeper breathe that I take and if it is short then so be it like a gentle kiss on the lips of my beloved who lies in distance away from me. I suppose that is what makes each poet a different person in showing us the world as it is and I am glad you write from that distance as I write from here but let us not go there except it is a part of my process because I too have been working on novels which deal with certain thematic issues like I have discussed here, but that allows me to open our interview space more and that is why, Robert, when I tell you that you are the son of an immigrant to the United States, what do you think because I would like to know what does this mean to you and how does your poetry reflect this? Tell us about it.

RO: I have always carried a sense of otherness, of being different and perhaps never quite belonging. This manifests in my interests: in place, in ritual, in borders and gray areas, in the mundane and seldom noticed, and how one accommodates oneself — spiritually, physically, culturally, mentally, politically — in a climate that is not always welcoming to outsiders.

TQL: Thank you for the preciseness over my digression. I too have been an outsider in this society where my identity has been crumbled, distorted and misplaced by categorical infusion of caste and tribe while the issue of class keeps adding more problems for me and I can empathize with you. It allows me to see how education and its liberal culture has been always in the centre of urban spaces. Considering this, tell us about Poetry and Art scene in Texas. Do you go to poetry readings or seminars at public institutions? If so, what kind of experience you have had?

RO: Yes, now I haven’t experienced the Poetry and Art scenes in all of Texas, but from observation I’d say they’re most vibrant in larger urban areas, and almost non-existent in lower populated rural areas, with a few notable exceptions. I attend on occasion readings at public institutions and venues. They’ve almost always been enjoyable experiences, but I often get the feeling that some of the attendees and/or participants are there primarily to be seen, to become “known.” I must say that I prefer smaller, more intimate gatherings, perhaps a salon-type atmosphere at someone’s home, at which the audience is truly there to listen and participate. Those gatherings are, to me, much more genuine, more rewarding.

TQL: Yes it is so because such an intimate gathering always helps in being connected to the normal routine of life with other poets and readers. I think your experiences reverberate here too where divisions of urban and rural seems to have defined what a space of reading and engagement means and with what kind of education one arrives and how it is complemented in the real world, hence I would like to know, whether you are working currently on any poetry book project. I would also like you to briefly share with us, your education and life experiences.

RO: That is a good thing to say. As I mentioned earlier, I’m revising a full-length manuscript, but also have several completed chapbooks in the pipeline, searching for publishers, and am slowly writing a series of letter poems to various friends and writer acquaintances. Other than that, I try to write daily. My education is rather pedestrian: I hold an undergraduate degree in history and have never attended graduate school. But I’m curious and read a lot, and have been known to ask professor-poets for their syllabi or reading lists. My work life has varied over the decades – I served in the U.S. Navy for a short while, owned and managed a bookstore, and was an administrator at a university. All in all, I don’t possess the typical poet’s resume or credentials.

TQL: That means you have followed a non-traditional route towards educating yourself and I can relate to it as many of our readers will be able to relate to our contempoary period where digital publishing platforms like WordPress, Blogger, and Social Media Networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are useful platforms for a person to explore anything that is creative while not worrying about institutional support. The syllabus of highest order can be found through internet archives thanks to Aaron Schwartz. Yet there is a dilemma, because certain prominent publishing platforms such as magazines specify clearly that they do not want to entertain any piece of work that has been published before on blogs or other such services. A certain reality can be that they are unable to understand how such a medium is the only medium of learning for many and how they do not have wider readerships except fellow learners with them. How do you see such things when you submit your work to other magazines?

RO: I believe many newer poets are impatient and push out their work before it’s ready for publication. They’ve not read enough, haven’t put a sufficient amount of time and effort into the work, and the writing reflects that. But they submit, and then get depressed about rejection. This is part of the learning process, but frankly poets who are early in the process might think twice about submitting poetry to publications that publish well known poets. There’s a reason those poets are represented, and newer poets, who simply haven’t written enough, are seldom ready to compete at that level. Also, there’s a difference between posting a piece on one’s own blog and submitting a poem to a publication where an editor chooses what will be published. I don’t consider blog posts to be equivalent to or synonymous with publication, but some do. In my mind, publication requires an editorial hand, even if it is only to say no. Or perhaps especially to say no. Quite a few publications accept pieces from personal blogs, or even previously published work, so I don’t worry about whether something I post on the blog will ever be published. Either it will or it won’t. I know that by posting a poem I’m limiting the possibilities, but there are still many other opportunities out there.

TQL: Yes and that is why seeing you as an example by putting faith in such mediums allows me another question because you have published several chapbooks of poetry through traditional small publication press. Would you care to tell us how you went on to build a credible list with such marginal platforms while informing us about the readership that you get through these channels, the nature of such platforms who have been diligently helping new authors in their individual capacity with limited finances, the sign of personal growth as a poet, and lastly how you see the future of publishing in our contemporary digital world?

RO: I believe the publishing world as we know it is becoming more and more symbiotic. Publishers rely, at least in part, on their authors having already established audiences for their work. A publisher once told me that if he was considering two manuscripts of equal quality, and one had a vibrant online presence, he’d choose the writer with the online presence, because they’d be more likely to sell books. The blogo-sphere and social networking are crucial to this.
To be truthful, I’ve been methodical about publication. I asked myself what would enhance my chances, and came up with this brief list: a) write better poetry, b) find or create a readership/community, c) get individual poems published in as many journals as possible. To reach these goals, I attended a few workshops (helpful, but not essential), created my blog, “O at the Edges,” and began targeting publications, i.e. matching poems I’d written to publications that published the type of poetry I wrote (or thought I wrote). This all took time (nothing happened overnight), but it was time well spent.
My publishers are able to tap into an established readership based largely on my blog, and I, in turn, am able to distribute my poetry through the publisher’s channels – via the printed books being made available for sale, through their assistance in marketing and spreading the word to strangers, and with their personal and publishing contacts.
I like to think that the future of publishing is bright – that technology and art can and will combine forces to continue moving forward. When I first started writing, everything was done via snail mail. The internet didn’t exist, smartphones were only a dream. There was no digital world. Writers now have more publication opportunities and options than ever before, with more on the way.

okaji - pine - interview

Second Part – Cutting Down the Anniversary Pine – TQL 2017

TQL: The technology, art and commerce can go hand in hand except there is a long way to see the future as bright and it should be bright in these times of chaotic network of information on the web. Now pausing here, I would like to take you to another space by evoking memories of my own experiences while trying to chart out a relation here. In Tokyo Story, Yasujiro shows contemporary Japan after the second world war with a subtle hint towards generational differences between young and old while exploring the meaning of warmth. kindness, loneliness, and aloofness through different characters as he does it with most of his movies which are different from his earlier work. He presents a humbled Japan trying to look at modernity while holding traditional beliefs which are rooted in natural world. In your poem, “Cutting Down the Anniversary Pine,” we could sense how spring, summer, winter, and autumn plays an important life and your poem resembles an earthy connection with earth while allowing a reader to experience sorrow. What led you to such a beautiful poem? Will you tell us how it germinated from a seed and expanded on to leave a meaning of time?

RO:

Okaji & Bridge
The genesis of this poem (and the others you published) is a bit unusual, in that they were drafted during a fund-raiser for Tupelo Press, in which 8 other poets and I were charged with raising funds by writing 30 poems in 30 days. One of the incentives I offered people, in hopes of enticing them to donate to the press, was to write poems to their titles. This particular title was sponsored by my brother-in-law, and I knew the story of the anniversary tree and have had a 30+ year relationship with him, so tapping into those histories established the poem’s parameters. The passage of time is of course crucial to the piece, as it is in many of my poems. We are such finite beings!

TQL: We are indeed but what about memory like this when you say, “If memory could speak, what would it not say? / Who else has rubbed this dust across his skin?” In this poem, Memory and Closets published in our inaugural April Edition in 2017, you unearth a picturesque memorabilia evoking objects that are lost and found again, which are of little importance except they last forever with us in our memories as writers, as poets. How did the poem arrive? What is memory for you Robert and how it is important for a poet to situate their being and contextualize life with larger ancestral and immediate societal environment in a constant flux?

RO: “Memory and Closets” was another sponsored poem, with the original title of “Cleaning Out Closets in Anticipation of Moving Closer to Children.” I chose an eclectic group of objects, some of which could be found in my house, others from imagination, with the hope of allowing readers to capture the sponsor’s intent and piece together their own stories from this grouping.
Poets have different focuses and means of extracting poems, so I can’t answer your question except from a personal angle: I can’t escape who and what I am, where I live, the various cultures and landscapes I’ve observed or participated in, the books I’ve read, the people encountered, the music and food sampled throughout a lifetime. They all contribute to whatever I produce, even if only in little nudges or micro-currents within larger pieces. I think it is important for poets to take notice of the world outside, to look beyond their personal lives. What they do with that is their choice.

TQL: We would like to hear a poem recited by you which is closer to your heart? (audio file)

RO: “A Word Bathing in Moonlight,” was published in Eclectica in summer 2017. The recording appears on my blog. The poem is:

A Word Bathing in Moonlight

You understand solitude,
the function of water,
how stones breathe
and the unbearable weight
of love. Give up, the voice says.
Trust only yourself.
Wrapped in light, you
turn outward. Burst forth.

TQL: That is a wonderful rendition, Robert and we thank you for providing it. This poem is a beautiful thought depicting forces of struggle and light. I like the texture it provides with the notion of solitude, water, and stone before opening the weight to say those words, Trust only yourself. Yet trust is what moves us as humans to belive in each other. Now moving over to the final two questions, we would like to know first, what is Education?

RO: Education is more than instruction, more than the accumulation of facts, skills and credentials. It is not simply memorization. It is a means by which we learn to analyze data, to draw together pieces of information, and reach theories or conclusions or suppositions. It is not black and white. It is not either/or. It is a constant state of learning, of seeking to learn. Education provides context, helps us frame questions. We should never stop questioning.

TQL: Thank you. Final question. What magical thing can you do for another person that would take no more than one minute of your life and which would change something in both for a lifetime to see?

RO: Sometimes a simple smile or greeting, an acknowledgment of another person’s humanity, can go a long way towards moving mountains.

TQL: Thank you. Have a great day.

RO: Thank you, you too have a great day.
Robert Okaji’s work appears in Boston Review, Vox Populi, Posit, Silver Birch Press, Panoply and elsewhere. You can find chapbooks from Robert Okaji here:

poetry

Verse – Robert Okaji

Cutting Down the Anniversary Pine

Things expand. Plans change. Clouds disperse,
people move. I remember swimming

through a dream’s warm water, and rising
for air only to find that I no longer lived

within that need, in that space demanding
the physiological transport of oxygen,

where the laws of physics reigned supreme,
and geometry, with a little luck, posited

all the right questions. And then the clock
blared and morning slammed me back.

Trees grow, as do needs and lives and even
cottages. We took down the dead Jack pine

that year, and drank skip-and-go-nakeds
by the pitcherful, while mosquitoes swarmed

me and ignored everyone else. It’s important,
but I still can’t recall the white pine, nor

where you planted it forty-three years ago.
Symbol or not, its treeness intrudes.

So we suffer these things with age, and if
what we cut down carries meaning beyond

cellulose and shade, bark and pine scent,
we’ll bear that mourning, too. So fuel your

saw, brother, and sharpen the chain. Today
becomes yesterday. Tomorrow never waits.

Robert Okaji is a poet from Texas, United States.