Its Infinite Variety: An interview with Okla Elliott
David Bowen interviews LAR issue 11’s Okla Elliott.
Okla Elliott is currently the Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he is a PhD candidate working in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His drama, non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, and A Public Space, among others. He is the author of a full-length collection of short fiction, From the Crooked Timber, and three poetry chapbooks. He also co-edited (with Kyle Minor) The Other Chekhov.
David Bowen: You’ve published a number of poetry chapbooks, but you’ve recently published your first collection of short stories. Does it feel any different to release a book of stories? When your author’s copy of From the Crooked Timber arrived and you first held it in your hands, did you feel a shift in your writerly identity at all?
Okla Elliott: It used to be that every time I published anything I got a bit disappointed that it didn’t make me feel more like a “real” writer or whatever. I still felt like the same old me doing the things I always do. So, over the years, I’ve stopped looking to moments of publication or external recognition via prizes or fellowships or whatever to make me feel validated or real as a writer. I enjoy getting publications and awards, as anyone does, but I feel most like a writer during and just after a great writing session. And I feel most like a critical thinker or philosopher when I am gnawing on a difficult problem on a long brain-walk, as I call my almost nightly walks of about two miles around town here in Urbana, Illinois. (Side note: I sometimes worry my destiny is to end up that slightly unstable-seeming guy who walks around town muttering things to himself like “Well, of course, you’d think that, but you’re not listening to me!”—where both the “you” and the “me” of that accusation refer to myself.)
All that said, and parenthetical joking aside, a first full-length book of whatever sort (poetry, short fiction, a novel, scholarly monograph, etc) is a major thing in a writer’s life. I would be lying if I said I haven’t felt as if I’ve gone through some sort of rite of passage. But it’s less about the book coming out and getting reviewed and all that, and more about the work I put into writing and rewriting the stories and the novella in the book—finally arriving at a product that I was happy with, and even proud of. I did over a dozen drafts of all of those pieces, and I wrote over 230 pages on the novella, which clocked in at about 80 manuscript pages in its final form. After all that effort and what I learned doing it, I do feel like I’m at a different stage as a writer. I’m approaching my new projects with a new attitude. It’s hard to describe, but I just feel I know what I want to be doing as a writer more than I previously did.
DB: You’ve said previously that real art demands that the artist remain “critical” and avoid “falling victim at every turn to ideology and thus to safe thinking as usual.” Clearly we want our artists to help us discover new ways of seeing the world, but is there any way to actually avoid “falling victim” to some form of ideology? Do you think about how ideology is or is not manifesting itself when you’re writing a story or poem, or translating the work of others? Do you think differently about ideology when you do these different kinds of work?
OE: Well, as you point out, I said remaining philosophically and politically critical can help us avoid falling victim at every turn to ideology. I don’t think we can ever fully escape the ideology of our time and culture, but we can avoid falling victim to it at every turn. We can reduce our blind-spots a bit, though never totally. And I think the best weapon against this is to avoid what Jean-Paul Sartre called bad faith, which is more or less a type of self-deception whereby we don’t admit to ourselves what we’re really up to when we do or say or think a certain thing.
I would never want to suggest, however, that writing ought to become programmatic and politicized in a cheap proselytizing way. Bad writing of this variety often turns into self-congratulatory preaching. I think writing ought to be a sort of fictional laboratory of sorts, where we put characters into situations and then see how they respond. This requires being as emotionally and intellectually honest as possible, if it’s going to achieve real art and be truly effective. The comparison I often make is between a book like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and a book like Upton Sinclair’s Oil—the former is a masterpiece of literature that is also a depiction of political and social injustice; the latter is cheap propaganda written in a prose style that makes me want to die (though P.T. Anderson did adapt it into the wonderful film There Will Be Blood, which required that he completely rewrite the thing and give it some artistic life). Both books tackle issues of social justice from a progressive standpoint, and I agree with the worldview put forth by both books, but Oil just fails utterly as art, whereas The Grapes of Wrath completely owns me when I read it.
DB: As a poet, fiction-writer, essayist, blogger, critical scholar, and translator, you direct your energies in a lot of different directions. We’ve talked before about the way graduate writing programs often encourage specialization in fiction, poetry, or nonfiction, whereas many of the writers we’ve admired did substantial work in all these fields. Should writing programs do more to encourage or even demand work in different genres? Who are the polygenre-ists working today that you most admire?
OE: I absolutely believe we need more people working in multiple genres, and I also believe that the tendency for people to focus on only one genre is a product of graduate writing programs—though some programs, like Ohio State’s, allow taking classes in multiple genres. I won’t go so far as to say programs should require that students work in multiple genres, since some people really are just interested in poetry or memoir or whatever, but I think working in multiple genres should be encouraged and rewarded. I think some people worry that writing in more than one genre will make a writer’s efforts diffuse, and one will become a jack of all trades but a master of none. But when I think of past writers such as Conrad Aiken, Simone de Beauvoir, Bertolt Brecht, Chekhov, Hugo, Goethe, Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Robert Penn Warren, as well as many contemporary writers such as Margaret Atwood, Fred Chappell, Kelly Cherry, Joyce Carol Oates, David R. Slavitt, and so on, I find it hard to believe that working in multiple genres is somehow detrimental to a writer. In fact, I think writing poetry can help a person focus on precision of language in a way that will carry over into the prose, and a keen sense of narrative developed in story writing can help a poet do more ambitious work in verse. It’s all language, and nearly all the tricks you learn for one genre can somehow inform the others.
Myself, I think I would get bored if I didn’t write in various literary genres, translate, conduct scholarly research, and produce political commentary. I just find everything in the world so infinitely fascinating that I can’t imagine cutting myself off from so much of it. Also, you mention that many of our mutually favorite writers work in multiple genres, but I think I can go a step further and say that all of my literary heroes do so. Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertolt Brecht are two of my foremost heroes from earlier in the 20th century. Sartre wrote drama, essays, novels, philosophy, political commentary, and short fiction with equal mastery and recognition, and Brecht wrote drama, essays, poetry, and short fiction. Norman Mailer is a hero of mine from the second half of the 20th century, and he wrote creative nonfiction, novels, political commentary, plays, poetry, and screenplays. I like my heroes to be larger than life, bursting with creative energy and thought, not safely playing a single game they know they can win. Margaret Atwood is another shining star in my literary cosmology, and I love her novels and poetry equally (though her short fiction, while quite good, does not own me in the same way).
As a final thought on the subject, I’ll add that with jobs going the way they are in the humanities, I think we’re going to have to wear multiple hats if we want good jobs, so hopefully people will become less resistant to what was pretty common in past generations.
DB: To continue the previous question, how do you see the demands, requirements, hopes, or expectations of academia shaping writers’ writing choices? Given that very few literary journals or magazines pay for publication rights, and given that most of the books published every year struggle to earn back their production costs, we find the lion’s share of our most promising writers co-dedicating their lives to both writing and teaching as a means of earning a livelihood. Does such a situation expand or limit literary production in important ways? Does it offer certain benefits to writers and readers? What would you say to an undergraduate student who came to you and said, “Tell me how to make it as a writer when I grow up”?
OE: You have to have a day job unless you’re the heir to a massive fortune or have the good luck of writing a bestseller your first time out (and even then, you likely still need a day job unless you can keep cranking them out). I think it’s mostly people raised around educated people who see academia as somehow evil. Neither of my parents graduated high school, so I see education as an unalloyed good. If a person wants to teach and read books and write books for a living, more power to them. If they want to be a bartender and read books and write books, more power to them. I figure we just make this stuff up as we go, and whatever ends up working is what we do. I’ve worked dozens of different jobs ranging from janitor to film projectionist to kitchen staff to library manager to visiting professor. I love teaching and plan to make that my day job when I’m done with my PhD. Nothing fills me with greater joy than opening a student’s eyes to some hugely important philosophical issue or to some wonderful little aesthetic trick. Hell, I even love teaching grammar and composition, which some friends tell me makes me insane, but I really do love it.
But none of that has really answered the final question in your list of questions. What would I tell undergraduates to do today? I’d tell them, first off, to read constantly and widely—everything from Stephen King to Maxine Hong Kingston to Kingsley Amis (as well as authors without the word “king” somewhere in their names). This is by far the most important thing. To be a serious writer you have to be a serious reader. And since you’ve made the question about what I would tell undergraduate students specifically (as opposed to, say, a thirty-year-old bartender thinking about working on a novel), I’d tell them to pick good majors and/or minors. Double-major in comparative literature and anthropology, or in English and philosophy, with a minor in creative writing; or major in history and double-minor in creative writing and German; etc, etc, etc. Major (or double-major) in something that will bring cool and smart stuff into your writing, and then take a handful of creative writing workshops to help you learn some of the tricks of the trade. I would tell them to take workshops in every genre they can—creative nonfiction, fiction, playwriting/screenwriting, and poetry—since at that age, they need to just be exposing themselves to as much stuff as they can as they figure out what they want to do and where their talents lie. And speaking of exposure to things, I have advised many students to do a study abroad, preferably to a country that does not speak English. This gives a writer two very valuable things: 1) Experience in the world, and 2) A foreign language they can use for getting jobs or doing translations.
You’ll notice that very little of what I’ve said was about the career of a writer and more about the formation of a writer. That is not an accident. As I said earlier, we have to have a day job of some sort, but if we truly have the real vocation of being a writer, it doesn’t matter what our job is. Just think of William Faulkner working as a night guard at a factory where he supposedly wrote As I Lay Dying, or think of Stephen Dixon working as a bartender for many years as his stories showed up in places like The Paris Review and small press journals all across the country—or, if this is more your speed, think of Louis Auchincloss working as a Wall Street lawyer as he cranked out novels and short stories and nonfiction books at the rate of about one book every sixteen months for nearly fifty years. There are dozens of jobs you can have and be a writer, but the only way to be a real writer is to absorb as much experience and education (in the broadest sense of that word) as you conceivably can, engage the world in its infinite variety, and then to translate all that into words in the best way you know how.
DB: Since this is an interview for The Los Angeles Review, where your poem “Wishing on a Shooting Star My Friend Informs Me Is Likely Just a Satellite” appears in the current issue (Volume 11), could you talk about that poem for a bit? It is a long poem, over three pages, and is humorous, high-brow, and heartfelt all at once. Could you tell us about its composition and how you managed all these disparate parts?
OE: It’s weird to dissect your own work, but I’ll give it a go. First off, for a while there I was writing a book of poems based around famous scientists of the past, but my particular scientific heroes (since I started college as a physics guy, I have scientist heroes along with my literary heroes). These include Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and Nikola Tesla. I ended up abandoning the book, even though I continued writing the poems as single pieces, so I have a bunch of poems about these guys, and I have all this research I’ve done about them. I got the longish epigraph for the poem in LAR from the letters of Isaac Newton. Then the poem took a weird turn when I learned that most of what we see in the night sky that looks like shooting stars are really just satellites falling and burning up in the atmosphere. I did not learn this from a friend, as the title claims, but from the Yahoo News science and technology section. That said, for some reason I’ve always imagined the friend in the title being this great guy named Chris Boyette I used to hang out with a lot when I still lived in Greensboro, North Carolina. Not sure why. He’s not the kind of person to pooh-pooh someone’s star-wishing activities, and he’s not all that interested in science to the best of my knowledge. I think I just needed a person to fill in the character of this friend, and I wanted it to be a playful friendship the speaker of the poem and his friend have, one full of little jokes and amiable jabs, which was true of Chris and me, so I guess maybe that’s why I picked him, but I didn’t go through that conscious process to pick him. I just always kinda saw him as the friend. Anyway, as for the other stuff you mention, it is a pretty long poem by some standards, and I don’t always write poems that long, but I really enjoy when a poem spreads its legs and walks around for a while. But long poems can be tedious. For some weird reason, when I open a book of poetry and see a six-page poem, I immediately think, “No way, dude. I’m reading a one-pager first”—and I do this even though I love reading longer poems and love writing them. I have a ten-page poem in my most recent chapbook, for example, and Albert Goldbarth, who writes ten- and twenty-page poems all the time is among my favorite living poets. But for some reason, I think a lot of us have an initial negative reaction to longer poems. Of course, when we open a short story collection and see a twenty-page story, we think nothing of it. This has something to do with genre expectations, I think, but that’s the way it goes. This is likely why I put the humor you mention in the poem. It was a rhetorical choice. Almost like I was saying to the reader, “Hey, you gotta read this long poem with all this science-y stuff in it, I know, but you’re laughing now and then, so everything’s cool.” I’m not sure what else to say about the poem. I hope what I’ve said is helpful to anyone who reads it. And I hope everyone buys a copy of the issue, not only to read my piece, but for all the other great stuff in the issue.