Interview with Okla Elliott, author of From the Crooked Timber

by David Bowen


David Bowen: I know you’re often asked about working in multiple genres when you interview, but I’ll open by asking again. How do you manage writing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, while also conducting scholarly research? To what degree do these disparate projects help or hinder one another?

Okla Elliott: I’ll answer your last question first. They definitely all help each other. My scholarly work in trauma and Holocaust studies deeply informs much of my forthcoming novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, as well as several other pieces of fiction and nonfiction I have published or am currently working on. For example, a creative nonfiction piece of mine that recently appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, “Cinnamon or Crocodiles, Romanticized Suffering, and the Productivity of Error: a Polymorphous essay in Fragments,” draws heavily on my time studying in Germany and Poland, as well as my experience teaching Holocaust literature.

I would also add that writing narrative prose can expand the possibilities of your poetry, and writing condensed lyric verse can teach you how to put more verve into your longer narrative prose. The genres are all considerably more porous than many people seem to imagine. I would say that after the modernist movement, the old distinctions between poetry and prose probably no longer make much sense—or, minimally, I think most of us can agree that the categories have been substantially blurred over the last century or so.

DB: Your translation work involves another distinct approach to writing projects. How does translation inform your other projects and vice versa?

OE: They are definitely mutually informative. My years of writing poems and my education in German language and literature have allowed me, I hope, to be an effective translator of German poetry—since in order to render the German poetry into English, it is helpful to have written a fair amount of English-language poetry, and of course it is necessary to know German and the cultural context for the German-language poetry I am translating. But there is also a reverberation from these translations back into my own work, whereby I learn new tricks and tactics by playing the poetic ventriloquist for a bit. Doing translations and thinking about the theoretical aspects of translation have also informed the way I understand and teach literature from different cultures and languages. In some ways, even though I do much less translation than my other endeavors, translation sits at the center of everything I do.

DB: I read the novel that you wrote with Raul Clement, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, while it was still in manuscript, and I was particularly drawn to the conceit of the book, which held that you and Raul had translated another writer’s history of Joshua City, a fictional post-apocalyptic city-state set in southern Siberia. In what ways did this translation-frame create story possibilities as you were writing and developing the novel? How did you come up with the idea?

OE: Well, it’s actually a fictionalized form of me and Raul who did the translation. The fictional Okla and Raul are two scholars at the recently rebuilt University of Illinois in the Federated States of America, which has emerged after The Great Calamity. As for the idea of a faux translation, I thought it would allow for a lot of fun po-mo moves, like translators’ notes that explain the culture of Joshua City and the other parts of the world, and when I presented the idea to Raul, he immediately agreed. It also allows for making comments on the language we invented for Joshua City, Slovnik. The fictional Okla Elliott and Raul Clement translate from the Slovnik into New High American with some vernacular Middle High American thrown in for readability. Those are the languages of the Federated States of America in our alternate reality. In effect, the faux translation helps us create our particular brand of slipstream fiction, where we blend literary tropes and tactics with sci-fi tropes and tactics, hopefully creating interest for both types of audiences.

DB: Describe an average workday.

OE: I don’t do fixed schedules, though part of me wishes I could. I end up writing and editing pretty much every day. I always have the vague goal of writing three manuscript pages (double-spaced) and editing nine manuscript pages each day. Of course this changes based on deadlines. For example, before turning in the final draft of The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, I was editing more like twenty pages a day and writing zero. And then there are days when I simply fail to meet my goals because of all the usual reasons—other obligations or just outright laziness. The important thing is to keep at it even if you have a bad day or fail to meet your goals one week, or whatever. Just like professional athletes, writers have to practice constantly to maintain and improve their skills. There are certainly differences between physical and literary endeavors, but probably not as many as some would like to think.

DB: What about reading? Where does that fit in?

OE: I read several hours a day and try to make that reading as diverse as possible—recent and classical literature from the United States and around the world, scholarly studies, popular news media, philosophy, and of course I am always reading as an editor for New American Press and MAYDAY Magazine. I suppose the kind of writer one wants to be guides the kind of reading one does, and a current project will shape my reading list in a major way. For example, while working on The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, I read several sci-fi novels so that I could better understand one of the traditions the book would be engaging. Interestingly perhaps is the fact that I never read in order to write poems. Whatever I’ve been reading or watching on Netflix will simply find its way into my poems willy-nilly, almost as though poetry is a place where I process all the excess data rattling around in my mind, whereas I do specific research for novels and essays. I don’t think that’s any kind of universal rule, and I never noticed that pattern until just now as I was typing out this answer.

DB: Since you mentioned your poetry, let’s talk about The Cartographer’s Ink. The book travels the world, both geographically and conceptually. What were your influences and inspirations while writing these poems?

OE: My poetic influences are probably too numerous to list, but I have to acknowledge a debt to Margaret Atwood, Marvin Bell, Bertolt Brecht, Albert Goldbarth, Andrew Hudgins, Thomas Lux, Joyce Carol Oates, David R. Slavitt, and Wisława Szymborska. There are, of course, dozens more who have influenced me over the years, but the poets I just named loom large over me and my work. I should also add certain songwriters like John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats) and Leonard Cohen to my poetic influences. As for inspiration, my various travels and my scholarly pursuits in comparative and world literature are all over the book, as the title suggests.

DB: One of my favorite poems from The Cartographer’s Ink is “That the Soul Discharges Her Passions on False Objects.” I like the way it roams through pop culture and high philosophy and personal narrative, weaving Montaigne and Slavoj Žižek with an evening spent surfing Netflix. What are the origins of such a poem?

OE: That is a poem that uses what I jokingly call “stream-of-blather.” Without having done any official count, I’d say about one in ten poems I write is in that vein. In such poems, I allow myself to freely associate as wildly as my mind desires—so if, as happens in that poem, I start with Montaigne and move to Netflix, which gets to an adult cartoon I watched as a boy, which gets me onto the ideas of pop-cultural dealings with racism, but then I am reminded of another adult cartoon I also watched around that same age, which then gets me on an embarrassing memory of masturbation, and so forth, then so be it.

DB: But it’s not simply free association.

OE: Right. It’s a kind of controlled chaos. The difficulty with such poems is to create the illusion of total free-form thinking while actually controlling the language and flow of ideas with aesthetic stricture, though never allowing that stricture to show—which I guess is just a way of rephrasing Wordsworth’s dictum that a poet must spend hours making it seem like it only took a few minutes to write the poem. What I most like about writing such poems is how everything becomes fair game, the full range of my experience, be it reading Sartre or eating tacos or falling in love or being annoyed at the options on Netflix. I think too often we limit what we write about in really unnecessary ways, either lopping off our lofty ideas to seem more down-to-earth, or ignoring the fact that a huge part of our daily experience is not comprised of lofty stuff at all (using the bathroom, eating food we know isn’t good for us, feeling emotions we have been taught we should rise above, etc.). In these poems I give myself permission to write any- and everything, no matter how philosophically dense or vulgarly quotidian, as well as a dozen stations in between.

DB: Since Netflix already popped up, let’s talk about television and film in the twenty-first century. Television in particular has become a far more literary medium since The Sopranos reinvented the dramatic series, spawning The Wire, Rome, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and the rest, and ultimately attracting literary writers to work on them: Chris Offutt supervised True Blood; HBO just finished airing the first season of The Leftovers, which Tom Perrotta adapted from his novel; Ben Percy’s currently at work adapting his novel Red Moon for Showtime. Have you ever written a screenplay or considered writing one? How conscious were you of film and television narrative structures when you and Raul were writing The Doors You Mark Are Your Own?

OE: I have written various dramatic forms—short plays, full-length plays, and screenplays, though no teleplays yet. Jason Bruce Williamson and I are currently planning a film or mini-series adaptation of The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, as a matter of fact. When I was applying to writing programs, I was admitted to USC’s screenwriting program, but I decided my preferred genres were prose and poetry, though I have taken a year-long screenwriting course and enjoy writing in the form. I do think that television is the dramatic form of our current era. My hope for the adaptation of the novel is that it will be a six-episode mini-series at least, since a single film adaptation would require such massive cuts to the novel it would no longer be the same beast at all. We’ll see what comes of it…

DB: The Notes on Craft for Young Writers Question: What advice do you give your creative writing students?

OE: My primary advice to young writers is that they explore subjects that interest them widely, so while they might major or minor in creative writing, I suggest picking a second major or a couple minors in things like history, a foreign language, philosophy, or a scientific field. I also often suggest that they do a study abroad, since that can give their writing invaluable material as well as maturing them as thinkers and human beings in more ways than can be counted. Also, it’s rare to find another opportunity to spend a summer or semester or year abroad later in life. And then I advise that they push themselves beyond their writerly comfort zones—that is, if they usually write free verse poetry, I will often assign a metered or form poem for them to write; if they do prose, I suggest writing some poems; and so forth. Finally and perhaps most importantly, I incorporate reading into every workshop I teach and do my best to impress upon my students that writers are readers first, that we enter into a long discourse with centuries of literary pursuit when we write.

And on a more practical note, I suggest that they get an internship at a journal or literary press if at all possible—sometimes offering them one at New American Press or MAYDAY Magazine—so that they can see behind the curtain, as it were, and better know the contemporary literary landscape. There is very little more educational than seeing literally thousands of submissions from contemporary writers at various stages of their development to give young writers a snapshot of the field they are entering. I also feel these sorts of internships help the students develop a more committed attitude toward writing and publishing.

DB: What are you working on these days?

OE: Following Robert Penn Warren’s advice to his students, I tend to have a few different projects in the works. That way, if on any given day I hit a wall on one, I can get good work done on another. Currently, I am finalizing a book of translation, Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker, out from Black Lawrence Press in late 2015. I am also finalizing my dissertation, which I am scheduled to defend in February. And finally, I am about 100 pages into a projected 350 on Salt of the Earth, a novel that blends the literary and crime genres in a similar way that The Doors You Mark Are Your Own blends the literary and sci-fi genres.


About the author:

Okla Elliott is an Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of a story collection, From the Crooked Timber, as well as a collection of poems, The Cartographer’s Ink. His novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in early 2015 from Dark House Press, and his book of translation, Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in late 2015.

About the interviewer:

David Bowen is a senior editor at New American Press and MAYDAY Magazine, and a contributing editor at Great Lakes Review. His work has appeared in The Literary Review, Colorado Review, Flyway, Serving House Journal, Printer's Devil Review, and elsewhere. He is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he’s at work on a novel.