In conversation with Melissa Studdard
Okla Elliott’s books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and the recently released Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction). His work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, and a nonfiction piece of his was listed as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2015. Elliott is an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania and holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois and an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University. In the conversation below he discusses politics, translation, co-authorship, and the writer’s place in the world.
Melissa Studdard: Okla, you’re a force of nature. In the couple of years I’ve known you, you’ve written a dissertation; earned a PhD, started a new job; published a novel, a poetry collection, a book of translation, and an anthology; and toured the country twice. I’m sure I left something out. Most recently, I noticed in social media that you were contracted to write a book about Bernie Sanders. Then, it seemed like mere weeks later, you announced that the book would be done in a few days. And now the book is out already. So, two things to start: 1) How do you do it all? And 2) Tell us about the Bernie Sanders book!
Okla Elliott: To answer the first question, I’ll do two things. Firstly, I’ll channel a few of my favorite writers. William T. Vollmann is wildly prolific and therefore gets a similar question a lot. In one interview he simply responded that he enjoys writing, so he does it every chance he can. I really liked that answer. Some writers seem to think of writing as an onerous chore, but I wake up every morning wanting to do it and go to sleep every night wishing I had done more of it. The other two writers who have given answers I like are America’s foremost woman-of-letters, Joyce Carol Oates, and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, both of whom have variously said that they feel something like a compulsion to write in order to feel like they fully exist, and that if they stop producing words, the realm in which they live, they feel their existence waning. That might seem overly Romantic or maybe even pathological, but I get what they mean. I never feel so fully alive and myself as when I am producing words.
As for the Bernie Sanders book, it is a small pocket-book in the style of Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series. It’s a 130-page book, which I hope is in depth enough while being quickly digestible. My goal is to offer tons of facts and cogent arguments for supporters and to convert others to the cause while remaining as objective as possible. The publisher is out of London and the book is part of its Squint Books series, which features small accessible books on contemporary topics and figures like Jeremy Corbyn, Lana del Rey, and now Bernie Sanders.
MS: Your work before Bernie engages with politics and social awareness in a different, but also important, way. Can you say something about how these matters manifest differently for you when processed through the alchemy of literary, rather than literal, writing?
OE: I think it is sometimes assumed that aesthetically pleasing/sophisticated writing and politically/socially engaged writing can’t coexist. This is a largely American notion of literature, by the way.
MS: And how is it elsewhere?
OE: In nearly every other country on Earth, it is expected that writers will engage with politics, however overtly or obliquely. I think my own tactic has generally been to do it via character in my literary writing, as opposed to through big concepts, which lend themselves better to philosophical and cultural commentary. In fiction they can come off as proselytizing, which is nearly always a turn-off. My favorite writers—Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, John O’Hara, Jean-Paul Sartre, William T. Vollmann, Robert Penn Warren, et cetera—all make politics central to their work without allowing it to diminish its literary joys. One way they often do this is by making the setting and time period be so utterly political and of historical importance that every character and event in the work are permeated by those concerns.
MS: Excellent. Your description of political concepts woven organically into literature through elements such as setting and character reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s charge to “tell it slant.” So, let’s let that lead us to poetry for a minute. How does your interest in politics play out in your poetry?
OE: I process political thought in my poetry with a lyric logic instead of a polemical consciousness as I might in nonfiction. In poetry I let the political be interrupted and interpreted by random personal facts, so the memory of an ex-, a favorite dessert, Facebook, and the military use of depleted uranium might all find their way into a poem. I think the goal here is to depict my full consciousness, which isn’t entirely occupied by any one thing or one type of thing, so I put it all on the table and try to connect it all with the most interesting language I can muster.
MS: Yes, I can see that! And as your poems depict your full consciousness, they often seamlessly integrate concepts people are not accustomed to thinking of as linked. I love, for example, “That the Soul Discharges Her Passions upon False Objects,” in which we find Montaigne, Fritz the Cat, Judith Butler, Netflix, magpies, and masturbation all in the same poem. I know why it’s important to me to be able to find Fritz the Cat and Judith Butler in the same poem, but what does it mean to you to have them intermingle?
OE: I am, to borrow a phrase from my old teacher Lee K. Abbott, an all-things-all-at-once kind of thinker. I am most interested in the vast plenitude of the world and all its movable parts. I think the more of these parts we can put into dialogue, the closer we will get to accurately depicting and therefore understanding the world we live in. In the poem you mention, I attempt to honestly describe the contents of my mind on one evening, and it turns out that high-end philosophy, Netflix binge-watching, and memories of watching X-rated cartoons when I was a young boy all made up the contents of my mind on that particular evening. To cut out the Butler reference in order not to seem high-falutin’ or to cut the Fritz the Cat reference in order to seem more high-brow or to cut the reference to masturbation in order to hide an embarrassing episode in my childhood sexuality would have been false, so I tried my best to find a way to make all of these things and more live together in one poem.
MS: I read The Cartographer’s Ink when it first released, and, in addition to the political and personal, I was impressed with the way you located the spiritual within most of what you described. Poem to poem, whether the spiritual was overt or subtle, it was present. It all felt very Buddhist to me. Can you say something about your spiritual or religious leanings?
OE: I have a personal morality/spirituality that is an idiosyncratic mix of Buddhism, existentialism, Tolstoyan philosophy, and a bit of leftist Catholicism in the vein of the Sisters of Mercy. Basically, I have a vast appreciation of the wonder and awe in the world and a deep-seated hatred for the injustice, suffering, and stupidity in the world.
MS: Here, here to that last sentence.
One work of yours that clearly manifests your concern with suffering is your dystopian novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own. I think it’s interesting that you co-authored this novel. What was that process like? If someone were considering co-authoring a novel, what would you advise them to take into consideration first?
OE: You just have to pick the right person, because it’s really hard to write with someone else, especially a novel. Dramatic writing naturally lends itself to co-writing because it’s dialogue created via a dialogue, but prose is a different beast. I always say I couldn’t do it with anyone but Raul, because we have so much in common in terms of our writing predilections and interests.
MS: In addition to co-authoring a novel, you have worked multiple genres, you have translated poetry, and you teach. Truly, you are engaged in a universal literary discourse. Do you consider writing to be more of a social or private act? Are they in opposition? How do the social and the private interplay with each other in your life of letters?
OE: I think the interplay is vastly different for different writers, but I am interested in the public aspects of writing. Most of my favorite writers are what you could call public intellectuals, and they serve as my model. One of my favorite writers, James A. Michener, who was very much a public figure in addition to being a monumentally successful writer, titled his memoir The World Is My Home, and I share his sentiment. I have lived in various countries and all over the US, love travel and learning about the world in general, but most importantly, I feel I belong out in the world; that’s when I’m happiest. I guess the private aspect for me is that I process everything via language, so whether what I write becomes public or not, it’s always private at first when I’m alone with that process.
MS: Several times here you’ve mentioned other writers and the importance of their work for you, and I know you’ve also translated poetry, which seems to me the ultimate way of connecting to another writer. Can you say more about translation? How did it impact you and your own work to live inside the rhythms of Jürgen Becker’s mind?
OE: In order to translate a poem, you have to take on the poet’s voice and thought patterns, which forces you to think and write in ways you normally wouldn’t. In effect, it forces you to become a different writer, which then becomes part of your repertoire. It’s as though I have a version of Becker living in my mind, and I can consult him when I am writing my own poetry now.
MS: That’s incredible, especially the part about being able to consult the Becker in your head as you write your own poetry.
So, what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
OE: The publisher of the Bernie book has commissioned me to write a book titled Pope Francis: The Essential Guide, a project I am very excited about. It should be released in late November of this year, just in time for the holiday season. I have about 130 pages of a projected 300 or so on a novel that blends the crime/legal genre with literary fiction. And I am working with my coauthor on the sequel to the dystopian novel you mentioned earlier. And there are always shorter pieces—essays, poems, reviews, stories, et cetera. So I’m keeping busy, the way I like it.