A Conversation with Janine Oshiro
Janine Oshiro holds degrees from Whitworth College (now Whitworth University), Portland State University, and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a Kundiman fellow and the recipient of a poetry fellowship from Oregon’s Literary Arts. Her first book Pier was the winner of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize and was recently published by Alice James Books. She lives in Hawaii and teaches at Windward Community College.
LR: In Pier, which is so richly evocative of the complex emotions surrounding the illness and loss of a loved one, you strike a fine balance between confession and creative license, authentic experience and fantasy. How did you find this balance? And how did you avoid sentimentality?
JO: I’ll first respond to the “S-word.” I didn’t think consciously about avoiding sentimentality; while I don’t want to be sentimental, I do think that sometimes the fear of sentimentality can inhibit the exploration of emotions. Sometimes the truth of a person’s experience can come off as sentimental in a poem. There is no way around that. I would much rather read a poem that strikes me as authentic and a little sentimental than a poem that is just hip and ironic or detached and intellectual. I think about a poet like James Galvin, who in his latest book has a poem called “Two Angels,” featuring a boy with a mental disability and a dog. It walks the fine line. I truly admire that he doesn’t shy away from what might be construed as sentimental. In a way I think the fearlessness to even approach the sentimental is what makes some of his poems so powerful for me. I know that I have written some sentimental poems and poems I would never want anyone to read, and those poems have been important in my development as a writer and as a person.
I don’t really know that I can answer the question about balance. Did I have a strategy for finding a balance? No. I had all these questions about losing my mom, seeing my dad’s health decline, experiencing invisible presences, having a distinctly marked body, and feeling an “other” to myself. Writing the poems was my way of trying to answer these questions—even though I wasn’t really aware of that as my “project” at the beginning. Of course, I could have chosen to answer these questions through journaling and therapy, which I did to a certain extent. But then there is this—making a word-object with sound constellations, reimagining experience, creating a new and authentic experience in the word-world. What really happened? I didn’t really see a school of spoons swimming in the ocean though I write about it in the poem “Setting,” but I really did experience something crawling out of a zippered compartment in the wall and running down my body as I describe in “Next, Dust.” In the world of the poem what really happened doesn’t matter. It is all really happening in the world of the poem.
LR: How did you discover the language of this book, which, as in poems like “Three Capes”, “Eleven Dancers”, and “Next, Dust”, makes ready use of off-rhyme, sentence fragments, interjections, disruptions, and onomatopoeia?
JO: I love fooling around with words. I love just writing words on the page and giving those words sound siblings to see what happens. I love found language and jotting down words and phrases that are striking. I remember reading something once in a National Geographic about bodies oxidizing, and that ended up as “our bodies rust” in the poem “Relic.” I have found language from medical texts, of course, and books about grammar, book arts, gardening, critical theory, psychology, etc. I even find the explanatory language of the dictionary compelling. It is often the case for me that found language triggers an idea or emotion that starts a poem. Sometimes the found language finds its way out of the poem at the end, and sometimes it stays.
LR: Your voice is restrained, ethereal, sometimes clinical, and other times, it captures the whimsy of childhood. Did you have particular strategies of craft in mind while you were shaping this voice?
JO: The word “strategy” has been tainted for me by my college’s accreditation activities, which results in so much chatter about “strategic plans” and “strategic outcomes,” so I’m having a bit of trouble connecting strategy with poetry. Right now I want them as far away from each other as possible. I guess I think there is a danger in too closely identifying a strategy. Okay, so something happened, and I like it, but it isn’t the case that I necessarily want the same thing to happen again. I don’t want an “exportable strategy” in poetry. In the writing process I stumble upon a voice, and I want to see how far that voice will go. Maybe it keeps going, or maybe it dissolves. Maybe I stumble upon another voice, and I want to see how the two voices will work together. The poet Mary Szybist visited a class I took at Portland State University, and I’ll paraphrase here something she said: I’m not interested in finding my voice, but in making many voices. This was liberating for me to hear at the time, and I still think about it today. How many voices can I make?
LR: How did you come upon the tripartite structure of the book?
JO: Going from a manuscript to the published book was a fascinating experience. Sarah Gambito actually helped me to find the structure. It was originally just ordered without sections, and then I put it into five sections. I remember she asked, “Why five sections?” I really had no answer. I started thinking more about what I wanted the reader to experience as a whole. It took time for me to be able to see the poems without attachment to the order in which I wrote them and surface content, but eventually I eliminated some poems and came to this sequence. The simplest way for me to explain it is that in section one, there is a problem. In section two, I’m trying to act out various solutions to the problem. Section three attempts to resolve the problem. It creates an arc, though hardly original, that makes sense for the individual poems. It seems simplistic as I’ve explained it, but it took quite a process to figure it out.
LR: Can you describe the journey that this book took in its writing and path to publication?
JO: I certainly couldn’t conceive of a book when I first started writing poems. These poems were written and revised during my three years in graduate school at Portland State University and my two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I am so grateful for the poets I worked with in Portland and Iowa, both fellow workshoppers and teachers. Many of these poems are in conversation with poems I read in my workshops. I continued to make minor revisions for a couple of years after graduate school, but the poems were mainly formed during those five years. After I won the Kundiman Prize, I did more revising and the final shaping of the manuscript. Sarah Gambito was my “editing buddy” during that time, and it was such a pleasure to work with her. Everyone from Alice James Books was incredible; I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Of course the manuscript was rejected countless times before this. When Sarah Gambito called to tell me, I cried. It was happiness, but something else, too. It was maybe fear, maybe a sense of emptiness. This one thing that I wanted more than anything had happened. Now what?
LR: Do you have any advice for poets who are putting together their first books now?
JO: I loved my time in workshop, but I think the time when I most needed feedback was when I was looking at the manuscript as a whole. Getting feedback on the whole manuscript or even a small collection seems more useful to me now than feedback on individual poems. Mark Levine was my thesis advisor at Iowa, and he suggested an ordering for the manuscript that was radical for me because I was attached to the order in which I wrote the poems; he suggested ending the manuscript with the poem “February,” which I never would have considered on my own. The idea of ending the manuscript with the line “It was not spring” was so devastating to me that it actually made me write the poem “Chorus,” which now ends the book. I didn’t know that thinking about the poems as one manuscript could generate new poems.
I think it’s important for poets to feel good about their own process—no matter what anyone else is doing. When I was in graduate school, I was shocked by how prolific some poets were—and they were writing amazing poems, so it wasn’t just quantity! I work slowly, and now that I teach, it’s going even more slowly. It used to make me a little anxious, but now it’s okay. I’m writing my poems in my own way and in my own time.
LR: What is your writing process like? What do you draw on for inspiration? Do you have favorite exercises or rituals that you like to use? If so, can you share a few of them?
JO: I accumulate notes and journal entries and scraps of language, and then I play around with them to make something meaningful for myself. I think play—exploring and enjoying language— is essential, no matter what the content. I like to write, go for a walk, and then write a little more. I usually have some formal concern that I am also working through—maybe couplets, or the relationship of prose chunks to lines, or iambic pentameter, or just writing a nine-line poem. What can happen in nine lines?
LR: How do you keep yourself accountable? Do you have writing partners, people to whom you send your work, or a writing group to which you belong?
JO: Sometimes writing is a priority. Sometimes teaching is a priority. Waking up and meditating is always a priority. Moving toward spiritual growth is always a priority, and writing is definitely part of that growth. I haven’t been writing very much lately, and that is fine. I’m not a fanatic about writing every day. I don’t have a writing group right now, and I’m much more interested in starting a reading group at the moment.
LR: Pier won the first Kundiman Book Prize. How has your involvement with Kundiman influenced you as a writer?
JO: Because I grew up in Hawaii, I really didn’t identify with the term Asian American. It wasn’t until I moved to the mainland that it even made sense to me. I really didn’t know that I was missing anything until I went to the Kundiman Retreat in 2006. I had been in many amazing and supportive workshops prior to that, but there was something present at the retreat that I had not ever experienced. I was so much more conscious of belonging and being an integral part of a group. With that sense of belonging came a different kind of confidence in myself. It was a confidence that was also a call to action because I learned that belonging was not automatic; it required that leap to be part of and to embrace community. I’ve had a few experiences that have given me more confidence in myself as a writer—and being part of Kundiman is one of them.
LR: Aside from Kundiman, what other resources would you recommend to emerging Asian American poets who might be either outside of, or freshly graduated from, the M.F.A.?
JO: Definitely look to Kundiman, but I would also say that everyone is a potential resource and friend, and don’t underestimate your own ability to create community wherever you are and with whoever happens to be around you.
LR: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline? If so, can you talk a little about them?
JO: I’m working on individual poems that aren’t intentionally part of a project. I remember a friend once telling me that my poems were noticeably absent of people. These newer poems have more people, more men in particular. I don’t quite know what to make of them yet, but I’ll find out.