Thursday, December 18, 2014

Interview with Essayist, Novelist, and Poet Okla Elliott


Michael T. Young: Thank you, Okla, for agreeing to an interview.  
Your new collection of poems, The Cartographer’s Ink, has such a wonderfully provocative title.  I wondered if you could comment on the title itself and the significance it has for the collection.  What is it meant to suggest?
Okla Elliott: I recall precisely when I came up with the title. I was taking what I call a brain-walk, which is when I take a break from work and just wander around aimlessly for about an hour, thinking through some movement of a piece I am working on, or just wrestling with whatever political or philosophical conundrum is caffeinating me at the time. That evening, I was running through possible titles for the collection, just letting random associations play out as they would. Then the title just popped into my head, and I knew it was the title for the book without any doubt at all. In a way, the entire collection is a mapping of personal, cultural, and literal geographies, thus the cartographer of the title seemed fitting to me. And there was something pleasantly undefined about the idea of a cartographer’s ink. I imagined it as still in its bottle, on an eighteenth-century desk, textured paper of an unmade map of some uncharted territory beside it. I know that’s very specific and awfully Romantic-sounding, but that’s how the image came to me along with the title that evening walking across University of Illinois’s campus on one of my little brain-walks.
Michael T. Young: Birds show up in this collection in significant places, at the end of sections and in the last poem.  What do you see as the significance of the birds in the collection, what they symbolize, perhaps?  
Okla Elliott: All of these dark birds and birds-that-aren’t-really-birds—but rather bats or war jets—kept popping up in my poems for about a year. In fact, I had to discard several poems because they got too repetitive, but my general rule is to trust these unconscious or semi-conscious obsessions, because the unconscious and semi-conscious parts of our mind are often smarter than the conscious parts.
It is worth noting that no pretty birdies show up, only birds of prey or death. The only colorful bird in the entire book is a dead cardinal, so it’s safe to say these aren’t spring birds singing in the joys of new life, but rather autumnal birds reminding us of death and human destruction. Not sure if that says something good or bad about me or the poems, but it is what it is. There is also something defiantly transgressive about many of the birds in the collection. And they often have companions in their apocalyptic landscapes. This suggests that even in a world in drastic decline, they are not without hope, and companionship can help ward off the sufferings of the world. They’re not completely bleak figures, in other words.
Michael T. Young:   A number of the poems, especially toward the beginning of the collection, deal with historical events or confrontations with the past such as the poems “Blackened,” “Visiting Lenin’s Tomb” or “Alien War, Human War.”  What do you see as the importance of confronting these elements in the past in the context of the collection?
Okla Elliott: The geography I am mapping is partially personal, but it is also cultural and historical. You might have seen one of the various internet memes showing all the violent conflicts around the world over the past century. If you haven’t, go find one. It proves that any cartography of human culture that leaves out war and other historical calamities would be delusionally remiss in its duties to historical truth and intellectual honesty. I teach Holocaust studies at the University of Illinois, and my dissertation deals with trauma centrally, so these are interests of mine, but we just have to read the Senate Torture Report or any number of history books produced every day to know that these sorts of events are ubiquitous.
Michael T. Young: “Learning Russian (a Letter to My Schizophrenic Mother)” says, “You’re not what I keep of you” and “Pointless Movement” says, “Our patterned selves, playing at being ourselves.”  Over the course of the book, the poems seem to wrestle with the conflict between our social or public self and our genuine identity.  Do you see this as central to the collection?  In what way?  Also, do you see this as a general problem we face in our society: that is, conflicting versions of the self?  
Okla Elliott: Issues of the self are philosophically and psychologically complex, which is part of my point in this book and other things I’ve written, particularly in my creative nonfiction. The first thing I feel pretty certain of—and there is very little we can be certain of on this subject—is that there is no stable self. Everything from Buddhism to existentialist philosophy to contemporary cognitive psychology bears this out. Our psyches are a series of patterns always in a state of flux, however subtle or slow that flux might be—though often it is incredibly fast (just think of the vast changes in our desires and demeanors that occur during puberty).
This is why, when I hear someone say “be yourself,” I cringe. There is no permanent, settled self for me to be. Even over the course of a single day, what I want or think will change drastically. We are ever-changing projects, and the only way we can judge our authenticity is at a given moment and in a particular situation. What is hardest is to not feel beholden to past selves and therefore stick to beliefs or patterns of behavior that are no longer valid for the new self we are and the new selves slowly emerging on the horizon.
If there is a conflict between this flux of selves and society, it is that society insists as often as possible that we remain one ossified version of ourselves in perpetuity. If you change your taste in music, your style of dress, or your political beliefs, etc., or if you ditch your religion, society tends to punish you as being fickle or flimsy of character. So, in effect, there is a lot of pressure to stay consistent in our patterns of self, even when those patterns are antiquated artifacts of previous selves that no longer hold authentic interest for us. I mean, how many times have you watched someone hold onto an affectation that was part of his/her identity long after an honest interest in it was gone? How often have we all done this?
Michael T. Young: Nikola Tesla turns up in more than one poem in the collection.  What is his importance to you and to the collection? 
Okla Elliott: I began college as a physics and computer programming double-major and remain an amateur enthusiast for science. Newton and Tesla both make appearances in the book, as does science more generally. I think I like those two figures because they were basically so smart it drove them insane, yet the visionary way they approached the world was something almost superhuman. That tension between the powers of intelligence and the dangers of it intrigues me. As it turns out, on a related note, depression is much more common among those with higher IQs. I think there are several explanations for this, but the one that comes immediately to mind is that intelligence can alienate people from those around them. I don’t imagine Tesla was invited to a lot of cocktail parties for his gripping conversation, ya know? And he must have felt so removed from the thoughts and concerns of others. Yet his vision of the world was transcendently genius. It is that tension that interests me, and I also like the idea of trying to understand the minds of such thinkers, to humanize their technical and theoretical pursuits.
Michael T. Young: Many of these poems seem – as one poem puts it – “fertile with bizarre need.”  They seem to suggest we are driven to sometimes dark places by those needs.  Yet, they also suggest there has to be some kind of acceptance of this, like the bat in the final poem that we are encouraged to “make its future our own.”  Do you see this embrace of or acceptance of the darker side of our nature as essential to our survival or at least some way of decreasing the violence in our world?  
Okla Elliott: Well, I would say that ignoring the dark cargo our species carries with it everywhere isn’t going to do much good. As the self-help cliché goes: you have to acknowledge the problem before you can fix it. As a person who teaches Holocaust literature and does research in trauma studies and the ways violence and suffering shape our lives, I spend a lot of time wrestling with some of the more horrifying things humans have done to each other and continue to do to each other daily. And even if we bracket the genocidal horrors and constant wars and daily reports of rape, murder, and general mayhem from every corner of the Earth, I find our species riddled with pettiness, greed, scorn, and small-mindedness.
There are, of course, generosity and love and kindness as well, but I think any honest assessment of the way the vast super-majority of us deal with our fellow humans, and certainly how groups of humans treat other groups of humans or animals (don’t get me started on our sadistic cruelty toward animals), would reveal that we bring much more suffering and destruction into the world with very little concern that we have done so, often not even being willing to acknowledge we’ve done anything damaging.
So, what’s my point? It’s not that we have no hope, but rather that we have to admit the depth and breadth of the violence our species has wrought on each other and the world around us before we can make the proper steps toward correcting it. It is only after we internalize the problem of homelessness—I mean really internalize it on an empathic level—that we might volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate to a homeless shelter. It is only after we fathom the suffering of animals that we might change our habits toward them. Only after recognizing the victims of our wars as full human beings who live full internal lives like we do will we stop agreeing so blithely to allow our governments to bomb the hell out of them. In effect, I want to show this stuff in visceral detail and get people to acknowledge it on both the abstract philosophical level and on the visceral gut level, because it is only by integrating our reason and our empathy that we have some small chance of improving the state of affairs in the world and reduce the amount of suffering that fills every second of every day.
Michael T. Young: The main figure in “The Philosophy Student,” thinks to herself, “There is no convincing proof that we have any right to happiness.”  Do you feel this is true?  If so, how do you see it in the context of the darker issues addressed in the book: war, violence, helplessness, etc.?  
Okla Elliott: Given the situation of the character in that poem—her brother is already at the Chechnyan front; the young man she has romantic feelings for is about to be sent there; and her family is haunted by Soviet oppression from previous generations—I was exploring how a deluge of horror can alter the way we philosophize about the nature of human existence. Given her situation, the philosophy student in the poem has deduced that our lot as humans is unhappiness and that we can’t really expect much more. I am not quite so pessimistic personally, though I see her point.
Michael T. Young: You are as much a philosopher as a poet; the influence of philosophy is very much in your poetry with references to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Kant and others.  Outside the obvious references, how does philosophy influence and inform your poetry?  What do you see as the relationship between these two fields?  
Okla Elliott: Norman Mailer once wrote that literary writers are doing important philosophical work because they operate on the edge of the language system, and Martin Heidegger believed that literary language dis-closed truth to us much more than rigid philosophizing. I take from their two statements that the divide between literature and philosophy is not so great as it is often assumed. The greatest writers—Atwood, Beauvoir, Dostoyevsky, Mailer, Oates, Sartre, Shakespeare, Stegner, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Wright, and a dozen more I could name—are philosophers and literary authors in equal measure, or there is at least a strong element of philosophy in their literary output. So, I guess I see the relationship as being one of a large Venn diagram overlap, where we of course have philosophy that is not literary and some literature utterly devoid of philosophy, but the truly great stuff merges the two seamlessly and productively.
Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Okla Elliott: I love to cook. I think it’s an unsung art form—and a highly practical one, at that! I am also an on-again, off-again gym rat. I really feel at my best when I am working on various projects intensely, and then take a break to go fully inhabit my body via a punishing workout. And then I get to cook myself a huge meal, since I’ve earned it, thus combining my other two loves.
Michael T. Young:  Thanks for your time, Okla.  Let’s close with your favorite poem from The Cartographer’s Ink. Which is it and why is it significant for you?
Okla Elliott: I have several that are tied as nearest and dearest to me, and even the poems on that list change every time I think about the book, but the one that most often makes it among my favorites, the one that if you put a gun to my head and forced me pick just one, is “Alien War, Human War.” It has political scope without being preachy (I hope), and I like the way the ending forces the reader to finish the incomplete line about the “gnawing void of the world.” Something seems very fitting to me that those words should be forced into the spaceless space of a reader’s mind.
Alien War, Human War

      written on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion

Death is an underwater bird,
not a bird at all;
an eel with wings. It is a metal bird
loaded up with techno-artillery.

War, this war,
war between the eagle and other birds-of-prey
(different prey).

Death is depleted uranium, 

radiating strangeness into the cells of our victims.
It is a strangeness we are all born into,
borne by all of us.

It is a strangeness taking many forms,
natural and un-
in equal measure.

Stranger still to be guilty
of murders we did not commit.

Making ourselves alien to ourselves
we diminish all things.

That curve of a bell, the curve of buttocks
the bell-curve normalizing us all,
the image of a model’s ass that makes us want
to find that image in the flesh of the world.

Making others alien to ourselves
we diminish all things.

The curve of a bell,
the curve of a missile scudding
toward its living targets—
the curve of a line representing
fatality statistics over a six-week period.

When an alien dies, nothing human is lost.
When we make others alien,
we diminish all beings.

When the bird flies into the storm
it is gone to us. When the bird
swims into the earthquake
it is gone to us until       its perennial return.

The imbricated self, the implicated subject.
The guilt-threads are tightly knotted.
Imbrication, implication—the nouns sound
so alien, so Latinate
I can’t feel my way into their fact. Abstraction
alienates lived life. To make others alien
we must abstract them to mere ideas,
not particular flesh and thoughts peculiar
to them. To kill others we must       make them alien.

Murder, therefore, is an abstraction abstracted.

Our appetites and terrors fill the gnawing void
of the world.

Our appetites and terrors fill the gnawing void
of the world.

Our appetites and terrors fill the. . .
Keep up with Okla Elliott and his work at his website: