Omoizele Oz Okoawo
Have you ever showed up late to a party, made all of the rounds, and assumed you met all the cool people? And then someone tells you there’s this OTHER person in ANOTHER room, doing some OTHER cool shit that you can’t even imagine? Oz is the other guy in the other room, doing the shit I can’t figure out. And, true to form, I arrived at his work late. Last summer, I saw Oz in person, and his work really connected with the side of me that craves a unique narrative. And when I excitedly rushed off to tell everyone what I’d seen, the general response was “Oh, yeah. That’s just Oz, man. That’s what he does”. Oz is a technician, I think. And I think it tends to be hard to appreciate technicians of his ability, because of the time it takes to approach and consume the work. It’s easy to look at LeBron James and see what makes him this great, unstoppable force. But far less people are willing to watch a guy like Al Jefferson put on an absolute clinic in the post night after night with footwork, soft touch, and an array of post moves. Oz is the player in the post in an era where post players are dying. Still getting 20 points a night off hook shots. It is an incredible joy for me to watch.
What I’ve really enjoyed in my discovery of your work is how you often times avoid the obvious story for one that you craft on your own. For example, in “The Beast: 1944”, you have this clear and obvious tragedy of George Stinney Jr. And yet, you find a way to create a work that gave life to the story taking a unique route, using a unique voice. How important is it for you to find that story within the story?
I guess I have a couple things pushing me when it comes to the story I choose to go with in a poem. One is that the first idea you have about a story is usually direct and obvious, what people would expect from you if you tell them “My story is based on (x).” Unless I have an incredibly beautiful image to go with this or I can already feel an emotion I want to explore like a composer hears the first notes that compel him towards a musical movement, I almost never go with the first idea. The second idea is often the exact opposite of the first idea and is usually just as predictable. Any ideas after the first and second are usually interesting enough to hang out with for as long as it takes to get it down on paper. The other thing I have going for me is in the fact that I will often only write about things that I don’t understand. For me, when I saw the picture of George Stinney and learned his story, I couldn’t understand how, even if you were a racist cop, you would let a boy physically incapable of the crimes he was accused of committing be executed while the real killer was left scott free. It didn’t make any sense to me until I contemplated the idea that living in a society where race skews everything often ends up pushing, even the people who benefit from it, to do things they don’t want to do. Also, purely from a sociopathic writer’s perspective, writing from George Stinney’s perspective would have been dramatically flat. He was 14 years old. So essentially he was confused and then he was executed. The stories of the adults around him who had to live with what happened are far more dramatically dynamic than telling his story directly would be. **short answer** Maybe I have ADHD so I get bored easily. Maybe my parents beat me as a child when I wouldn’t memorize the long lists of words they gave us to memorize in catholic school. I can’t say I recommend this child rearing technique My parents will spend their retirement in a fucking cannibalistic leper colony. Easily being bored + the ability to discipline oneself if the task is important enough = Finding interesting stories that are capable of sustaining your interest for the amount of time it will take to create the work.
This winter, when I was out in the Northeast doing some shows, one of my favorite moments was getting to hang out backstage at the Cantab and have you play me some new shit, which I thought was complete, but you were still really interested in feedback. How do you determine a stopping point for your work? When do you straighten the photo and then walk away?
I tend to define poems, for my own purposes, as machines designed to effect the emotional levels of others. So I feel like if I’m not asking careful questions of several people about how the poem is effecting them I’m doing something wrong. Joss Whedon talks about how when a friend asks him to watch a movie they made and he asks them why a scene is in the movie, he isn’t asking them to explain to him why it’s there, he’s telling them that what he saw didn’t make any sense to him so either they need to fix it so it feels necessary or they need to cut it out. When I feel like a poem is done I will record it and play it back to myself a few times, and/or have someone else read it back to me because that allows me to judge the poem in the same way I would judge any piece of art, whether music or movie, that I would attend to outside of myself. Sometimes the editors in my head do a terrible job of cleaning up a poem. There was a poem I wrote in 2010 where I fell so much in love with the surrealistic beauty that I put into it I really couldn’t see how it pulled people away from the person I was trying to show them. That was a poem that I didn’t ask for any feedback on and it showed in that it was a difficult poem for people to get into. The Lincoln Letter poem that I played for you at The Cantab that night was a poem where you and several other people gave me the same advice of cutting the last three lines because the smell of a dead horse being beaten was unpleasant. I took your advice and that of several others and the poem is a much better piece of work. **short answer** If I rub my hands together and whisper “Yisssssssssssss! The precious is mine!” after reading the poem it’s probably done.
Boston’s poetry scene was really interesting for me to take in, not only during NPS 2013, but during the shows I did out there. As a long standing member of that scene/community, what role do you feel like you play now within it, and how has Boston informed your writing?
I have no idea what role I play in the scene. Isn’t that kind of like asking someone about a nickname they gave themselves? I think you would have to ask other people about that. Personally I just like setting up chairs before the Cantab show and drinking with my friends. I might be lying though. I do enjoy talking to people about what works and what doesn’t in poetry but that conversation is tempered with the idea that you can’t really dump those ideas on everyone and expect them to care or to have what you’re talking about take hold for them in any meaningful way. If someone is looking for a way to expand what they’re doing and/or I really like their work I’ll get into it with them about it. So maybe I’m seen as a hermit/teacher type figure but it isn’t an identity that is particularly important to me. That might be another lie. I write poems and then I inflict them on other people. If I have done my work right, they will ask for another. Whatever else I do in a scene is extraneous to that. How has Cambridge informed my writing? Maaaaan what da hell you talking about? I don’t go outside! Kidding. Not really. I think with the advent of the internet people can communicate with other people in the same field who live no where near them or who have such a different view of the art that it enriches your own view and re-excites your interest. I don’t think that it matters so much where you live anymore when I can throw up a poem I’m working on and tag people from all across the country to take a look at it and give me feedback.I probably wouldn’t write if I were in hell. The paper would burn in the fire and all the electric sockets blow up your computer.
You did some shit that I imagine a lot of artists wish they can do, by completely walking away from your long held day job, and committed to spending your days writing. Can you talk a bit about what you’re working on now, and how that commitment to the craft has changed your process?
What a polite way to describe crying in my bed for a month. It was MANLY crying. I sounded like lions fucking in my bedroom. For a month. I’m working on prose right now. It’s definitely one of the more humbling experiences I’ve had in recent memory. It’s definitely a craft that is 70% anxiety management and 30% effort. There is this gap very similar to that which exists between quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics; I can make up plots all day but when it comes to the scene scene scene scene that, linked together, make up a novel, I was getting stuck. The stickiness was probably coming from the fact that I was judging the things that came out of my pen based on works of literature that had gone through 8 drafts that had been read by 3 good friends, an online writers group, several workshops, an agent, a proofreader, and an editor. After I realized that it was ok to write things that were awful because once you had a bunch of scenes that made sense, no matter how terrible they are, you can go back and figure out how to make them amazing, I was able to settle down and get some work done. It has changed my process in that I am trying harder to write every day and when I read books I read with intent. There are books that I considered ‘throw away easy reading’ books that I read for fun that, when I looked at how the author made it move, suddenly became as complicated as looking at DNA. The effect that reading a book has on you is completely different when you are watching for the mechanics of how it is structured to effect you the way it does. Reading Stephen King for fun is fun. Reading Stephen King to figure out what he does can be excruciating when you realize that he is designed to be read by speed readers and suddenly this chapter that you zipped through and added a certain fullness and flavor to the novel is suddenly this insanely long trudge that has no reason for being there really. Elmore Leonard, who was always good, suddenly becomes way more interesting in that he has no parts in his work that can be thrown away. No matter what speed you read his work at it is all necessary.
You haven’t really published often it seems (at least to this point). I now have two copies of your chapbook Doors, keeping the other one in case I lose the first copy I got last summer. But outside of that, you haven’t put a lot out. Is that intentional? I mostly ask this selfishly.
I started out in poetry from a very story driven perspective which I think is a little rare. I feel like often people write poems without paying attention to editing the idea as much as they do everything else. I think if you can distill the poem down to one sentence and it is still fascinating then you are doing something right. Because of that I might end up mulling an idea in my head for quite some time before I attempt to put it down on paper. I have this hypothesis that there are three ways that you can catch someone’s attention in poetry and so you end up with poets that often focus on three different types of poems because that’s what they were listening for before they started writing; story, beauty, and emotion/energy. Most poets start being really focused on one, ok with another, and not really interested in the third. You can define a poet based on how they use these three legs. A funny poet leans first on energy, then on story and doesn’t often have a great deal of obvious lyrical beauty in what they do. There are poets that stun you with the beauty of their work and the emotional energy they put into it, but don’t have a particularly well developed story going on. And then there are quieter poets that use story and beauty but aren’t throwing a lot of energy around. I think Patricia Smith was the first poet I saw that did all three at a really high level. It’s actually easier to write a poem that utilizes all three. A well balanced poem doesn’t fall flat because you don’t have the energy to perform it at the emotional pitch it needs to be performed in to sustain interest. A well balanced poem doesn’t have to be stupidly beautiful with every single line because the story you are unwinding, and the character you are revealing is enough to sustain interest and indeed if you are trying to create a realistic character whatever they say has to be consistent with what they are. A well balanced poem doesn’t have to worry about someone wondering if it is, in fact, a poem at all or just a misplaced comedy open mic rant. I usually don’t write a poem unless either the imbalanced poem is so compelling it is worth doing or until I have all three of those pillars developed as well as I can. Either way, that means that an idea could be sitting in my head for a month or three before I really get at it. **short answer** I’m lazy.
I find that your work is best consumed when one can sit with it and digest it slowly and over time. I sometimes think the best thing to mark a writer isn’t necessarily WHO they read, but HOW they read. How are you as a reader?
I’m a voracious reader of scifi/fantasy if the story is good I don’t care so much about how well written it is. When it comes to poems I’m very picky about what poems I read because I’m only interested in reading people who are doing particular things that I don’t know how to do. I think I have read every single book that Patricia Smith ever put out because she was the first person I read that used the three pillars I talked about earlier at a really high level. Reggie Gibson’s book Storm Beneath My Skin was the first poetry book I read from cover to cover. There really aren’t a lot of poets that can sustain my interest for an entire book. Rachel Mckibbens did it with Pink Elephant. Scott Woods did it with We’re Over Here Now. Simone Beaubien would do it if she EVER BOTHERED TO PUT A BOOK TOGETHER.
Your character development amazes me. I’ve heard work of yours no longer than three minutes where you really give someone breath and blood. Loves and fears. How do you manage to make that work?
Maya is an idea that many eastern religious traditions share about the illusion of the world. I was once talking with a friend of mine while he was going to Harvard and I casually mentioned, “Well you know Disraeli said, “Men make their destiny and then they call it fate.”” The dude got all excited and started talking about how Benjamin Disraeli was the most amazing Prime Minister of the British Empire to have ever served and going on and on because he was such an anglophile and he was so happy to have finally found someone to share his love of all things british with. I pretended to listen but really I was simply amazed at the idea that he assumed that I had all this knowledge just because I spouted a quote off the top of my head that came up on my quote of the day app. I had no idea who Disraeli was. Didn’t even know his first name! But that comment was all he needed to believe that I did. It actually doesn’t take that much for you to believe in a character because that’s what people are kind of designed to do anyway. If you pick the right angle and the right perspective you can observe an entire world through a key hole…. If the door is in space…?
So, tell me about the “fake books library in my head”, because that is some odd and glorious shit.
The Fakebooks Library started because I was trying to get comfortable with dialogue so I started writing these passages from books that didn’t exist. Wait…. That’s a lie. I think I was pretending to write a book for National Novel Writing Month and so I kept putting these outrageous posts on facebook that I pretended were excerpts from the novel. It allowed me to play with a wide range of emotional moments, philosophical musings, and cock ring jokes. Kind of like a prose/haiku mash up.
Who are the writers who feed you most often, most consistently? The ones that push you to write?
Khary Jackson. Fuck that guy. Also Scott Woods can go to hell. Lynne Procope can join him. Rachel Mckibbens can jump in a lake of fire. Robbie Q can take his Clowns poem and walk into a BURNING HOUSE. Rico Frederick can take his Joe Jackson poem and walk into a fucking volcano. I will personally set RC Weslowski on fire myself. Ken Arkind: Oz! This is madness! Oz: Madness? Madness?! THIS IS SPARTA!!!!!! **Kicks Ken into the well.** “Shira Erlichman? Officer, how would I know what happened to that alienlanguageinventingmotherfuckerthatIcanunderstandbetterthanmyownbirthtonguewritingassmotherfucker? I think she drowned. I think she took Iyeoka Okoawo with her.” If I ever get my time machine together I’m going to invite Simone Beaubien to watch God destroy Sodom and Gomoorah and see if that shit turns her into a pillar of salt. If that doesn’t work I’ll just strand her in the past. Yes. But Khary Jackson? Khary Jackson definitely dies first.
Do you feel, as an artist, responsible to speak on, or speak to anything in particular? What I like about your work is that I don’t know what’s coming, or where it’s going to come from. Yet you also, outside of your poems, have a lot of really sharp social commentary (usually in perfectly timed/worded social media comments.) Do you ever feel the need to marry those ideas to the work you create? Or do you feel like you do?
That effect is purposeful. I feel like if you can tell where the poem is going from the first line that you don’t really have to pay as much attention to what the person is saying. I think that my work does have some social commentary in it but if you noticed that I would feel like I wasn’t doing my job.
Oz, thank you for doing this. Soon, I will live close enough to see your poems frequently, and I’ll stop asking you to come to Columbus so often.
(photo by Marshall Goff)
OMOIZELE OZ OKOAWO An integral member of the New England slam scene, Oz was the co-founder and one-time coach for the Boston Poetry Slam’s cross-town rivals/sister slam at the Lizard Lounge. He reached the Individual Finals of NPS in 2007 with the Lizard Lounge team, then competed with the Boston Poetry Slam Team at Finals in 2008. He is most frequently found in the darkest corner of the bar.