Chapbook Confessions is a series in which poets discuss, at length, the writing of their most recent collection of poems, in whatever way they desire. For more information on the series, go here.
Below, Robert Okaji writes on his 2017 collection From Every Moment a Second.
Chapbook Confession, or, How to Write Chapbooks without Knowing How
I confess that I’ve never intentionally written a chapbook, that I’m too scatter-brained to plan one. Instead, I write individual poems, and after a suitable stack has accumulated, attempt to force them to comingle, however reluctantly, hoping to form a semi-cohesive collection for someone’s reading pleasure (or dismay, as the case may be). This is not to say that the occasional series of poems never escapes my subconscious, but I never deliberately set out to write a certain number of poems with the intention of publishing them as a discrete entity. Also, these series generally run their course well before reaching chapbook-length, and I may or may not incorporate parts of them into collections. So it would not be inaccurate to say that my chapbooks are incidental to the writing, that they’re simply byproducts of the ritual.
Case in point, my most recent chapbook, From Every Moment a Second. The poems were written over the course of about two years, and probably comprised about fifteen percent of my total output during that period. Different days, different emotions, different impetuses propelled them into being. For example, “Latitude” was drafted during the August 2015 Tupelo Press 30-30 challenge, during which I wrote thirty poems in thirty days to raise funds for Tupelo Press, one of my favorite small presses. The title “Latitude” was sponsored, and I wrote a poem to match the title. “Firewood” came about after years of drought followed by a nasty freeze killed some of my favorite oaks on my rural property. “Mayflies” emerged during the early spring, when like insects were fluttering and dying all around me, and “With No Mountain in View” arrived from the unlikely combination of two memories – a recent one of horses in a pasture, and a recollection of a high school girlfriend some forty years before. An upper respiratory infection inspired “Runaway Bus.” “Bottom Falling” was forged in response to a friend’s handwritten note, and bumbling green beetles thumping into the shack’s glass door sparked the whimsical “To the Lovely Green Beetles Who Carried My Notes into the Afternoon.” As I’ve mentioned before and elsewhere, I don’t know what will send a poem to the page. The challenge is to allow it to unfold, to trust the words, even when they don’t make sense. And then revise! Herd those jumbled, rambling words into something coherent.
To assemble the book, I selected around thirty-five pieces that seemed to share an amorphous common thread (I’ll let others debate on what that could be), and which represented a good mix of what I strive to do, shuffled them around, removed a few here and there, then let the assemblage marinate for a few days. When I looked at the manuscript with fresh eyes, I detected some obvious clunkers that gummed up the works, and pulled them out. I also searched for poems that resembled each other too closely, or which contained a line or two reminiscent of lines in other poems, and I yanked a few more. In the end I was left with twenty poems that seemed to mesh well, and I arranged them to mix different elements – humor, grief, wonder – in such a way as to avoid bludgeoning the reader with too much of any one of them, yet still providing a smooth path from one piece to the next. Was I successful? Beats me. Only the readers can say.
My true focus is on individual poems, on writing daily, relaxing into a flow, and allowing whatever surfaces, whatever piques interest or yes, pisses me off, to take control – a word, a vague feeling, an image – or perhaps lead me down a meandering path or seven. This is the beauty of being an unknown poet of little consequence – I can write what I want, one piece at a time, without worry of publication or status. Unlike the red wheelbarrow, nothing depends upon the poetic production, except perhaps my spiritual well-being; I can’t stop writing, and feel anxious when I’m away from it for more than a day or two. It is what I do. Anything that follows – publication, derision, acclaim, is no more than icing on the trite cake. Here, have a slice. There’s plenty where that came from.
Simply put, my process begins with butt in chair. I say “begins,” but the subconscious never really stops processing data and themes and images and emotions, so the pump is forever priming, even before I sit with the intention of writing. There are always multiple pieces in various stages of development, and I may choose to work on one of them. Or an intriguing phrase or tidbit of information may jumpstart a new piece. In other words, the process is haphazard. Little is planned, until lines emerge, and then it’s not so much planning, but rather reacting to the lines, to the words comprising them. Sometimes I’ll jot down a word I’m not really familiar with, and will look it up to make sure that I’m using it correctly. That may lead me into investigating its etymology, which may in turn send me down multiple paths, each with equally interesting diversions. I might spend hours exploring one concept, only to abandon that very concept simply because something else catches my eye. Yes, yes, this is not an efficient use of time. Well, maybe not. But I consistently sit at the table and tap out words on the keyboard. Sometimes they flow. Sometimes they stutter and stumble, and they often embarrass me. How can I write so poorly? Really! After all this time? This? This is what I’ve got? Arghhhhhhh!
Diversions are also a key component of my ritual. I’ll often stop writing at a troubling spot in the poem, when the right word refuses to emerge, or the entire piece seems too much or not enough, and pluck at the guitar for a few minutes, or blow on the shakuhachi, or ride the stationary bike or plan dinner or answer email and reply to blog comments. And the windows! How could I ignore the live oak with whom I’ve shared space for the past thirty-four years? And the birds, the dirt, clouds, insects and lizards. I haven’t even mentioned the dogs. These brief respites spent concentrating on matters other than poetry often reinvigorate me. I return to the page and the sticking point unsticks, the dam melts and words ooze out.
I’m also not above employing tricks to lubricate the poetic flow. Sometimes I’ll deliberately end the day’s writing in mid-line or mid-phrase, providing an evocative (one hopes) continuation point the next time I pick up the piece. Or I’ll write in forms – ghazals are a fairly recent enthusiasm, but I’ve worked with sonnets and other forms, too – as the formal restrictions open new avenues of thought. And this past spring I produced fifteen self-portrait poems, which are of course not quite self-portraits, because, as you know, I’m a terribly dull subject. The key is simply to write.
Sometimes it’s enough to know
that a chicken preceded this egg,
that some crossed the Atlantic,
and others, yes, the road. Perhaps
I am too enamored of this fondness
for imprecision, never certain where
evening ends in your latitude,
where morning begins in mine,
but I’ve come to appreciate, late in
life, the finer points of egg cookery,
the beauty of basting with olive
oil, three ways of poaching,
and the tender art of scrambling.
This is of course metaphor, and
not. The truth is seldom so simply
derived. You hold the egg. I
offer salt. Your pan. My butter.
We both bring the heat.
For two years the oak
We had aged
together, but somehow
I survived the drought
and ice storms, the
regret and wilt,
the explosions within,
and it did not.
I do not know
the rituals of trees,
how they mourn
a passing, or if
the sighs I hear
betray only my own
frailties, but even
as I fuel the saw and
tighten the chain,
I look carefully
for new growth.
Having no functioning
mouths, adults do not eat,
and live their lives
the pleasure of food
and drink, the bitter
bite of dandelion greens
with the crisp notes
of prosecco rolling over
the tongue. Instead,
they engage in aerial
sex, often in swarms
above water, many dipping
to the surface to lay eggs,
some submerging, while
others die unfulfilled,
eaten. Who’s to say
which life burns brighter;
even knowing these facts,
still I dream of flight.
With No Mountain in View
Like a mirage, you shift ever forward,
blonde hair concealing your eyes, one
long leg draped over the chair’s arm,
a reminder of inconstancy and promises
constructed to collapse. Such power,
such wisdom, at seventeen.
Through the window I see
horses in the paddock, a lone
figure by the road, and steam
rising from the earth. Your voice,
as it was, and mine, as it never sounded,
merged only in fantasy. Something
crumbles at the edge. A crow flaps away.
Wishing for pristine airways
and unfeathered dreams, I lie
on my right side, and wait.
Again, the bellows flex and pump.
The relentless tickle, exploding,
another round of gasps and mucus retained,
one droplet among others,
spread across the night.
Comfort’s runaway bus never slows,
and I watch it pull away, shrinking in time.
Wait, wait, I say. I bought a ticket.
Through that window you see another bird
rising, unlabeled, unwanted, yet noticed.
A limb’s last leaf. The boy’s breath.
Like the morning after your father died,
when temperature didn’t register
and heat shallowed through the morning’s
end. Still you shivered. Glass. Wind.
Night’s body. How to calibrate nothing’s
grace? Take notes. Trace its echo. Try.
To the Lovely Green Beetles Who Carried My Notes into the Afternoon
Such beauty should not be bound,
thus I tied loose knots,
knowing you would slip free
and shed my words
as they were meant,
across browned lawns,
just over the cedar fence
or at the curb’s edge,
never to be assembled,
and better for it.
“Latitude,” Poetry Breakfast
“Runaway Bus,” Postcard Poems and Prose
“Bottom Falling,” Into the Void
“To the Lovely Green Beetles Who Carried My Notes into the Afternoon,” riverSedge