by Ellie Smith
Born on Oahu, Derek N. Otsuji is the author of The Kitchen of Small Hours (SIU Press, 2021), which won the Crab Orchard Poetry Series Open Competition. He is a 2019 Tennessee Williams Scholar (Sewanee Writers’ Conference) and has received awards from Bread Loaf and the Kenyon Review. His poems are widely published in local and national journals, including Bamboo Ridge, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Bennington Review, Pleiades, Rattle, The Southern Review, and The Threepenny Review. A 2000 graduate of BYU’s Masters Program in English, he has studied with poets Leslie Norris, Susan Elizabeth Howe, and Lance Larsen.
Inscape: I was thinking we could start by talking about some of your biggest literary inspirations, maybe favorite pieces of literature or authors that have inspired you?
Derek Otsuji: When I was an undergraduate, one of the writers who inspired me was a fellow student who was at BYU. She had won a poetry competition run by BYU and she did a reading. Her name was Gina Clark, and I was just completely blown away by her poems. I thought, Wow, here I am an undergraduate, and she was just a freshman at the time, and she was just writing these wonderful poems. I was so moved by her work that I went up to talk to her afterward and asked her who she went to for inspiration because I loved her poetry so much, I wanted to read whoever she was reading.
She mentioned Elizabeth Bishop, so that day I went to the BYU bookstore. They happened to have the collected works of Bishop and I bought it. I’ve been reading her ever since. I think in terms of craft and tone she is probably one of my most important influences. What I really admire about Bishop (I believe she got some of this from Marianne Moore, who was a mentor to Bishop) is her precision of language, particularly in her ability to describe things accurately. Bishop has these three watchwords that she used to guide her poetic practice: “Accuracy,” “spontaneity,” and “mystery.” You want to be accurate in the words that you choose, but it cannot feel like it is labor. It has to feel like it just came to you as a flash of inspiration. That’s the spontaneous part. It has to feel natural. How does accuracy and mystery reconcile? Because it seems like one is rather analytic and scientific. You are trying to get things exactly right. I came across this book that really helped me understand this. It goes something like this: “Absolute clarity is mystery.” That’s worth thinking about. “Absolute clarity is mystery.” There is a poem by Emily Dickinson where she talks about poets who really know nature. They are not just taking a casual walk through the woods, but they actually can intuit things about nature that might escape even the most careful observer. She has this moment in the poem where she says, “The closer you get to trying to understand and describe the thing that you are looking at, the farther away it moves from you.” Even with someone like Dickinson, who is just incredibly precise in her descriptions, there is a sense that the closer you get to the actual, it flees from you. That to me is what I admire in the work of writers like Bishop and Dickinson is that sense of those three watchwords. Accuracy, spontaneity, and mystery. It’s an impossible standard, but I think you have to set high standards. That’s what you need to reach for whenever you write.
Inscape: So, to achieve that do you focus more on the form of the poem then? Or more on the subject you are writing about?
DO: I’m going to be a bit reductive in my approach. There’s your subject, what you write about. And then there’s technique, how you write about it. In some sense, your subject comes from just living life and being open to experience, so I really think the most important thing for a poet is to be radically open to experience. To be attentive to the things that arrest you, just stop you in your tracks and say, “What is that?” You know? Or just captivates you in some way. Even if it seems trivial and you think, “How could I ever write about that?” The fact that it captivates you, arrests you, moves you in some way always tells you that that is the subject for poetry, for you. It’s different for every writer. This comes from the novelist, Niapal. He has this analogy of writing as transcription. What you do is you hear the music of experience. Like all experience has a kind of music to it. As a poet, you try to listen and transcribe what you hear as accurately as possible. Of course, it involves all of the senses, what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell. But also, the emotions that well up in you as you live your life. You are trying to transcribe that music of experience as accurately as possible. So, the Irish poet who was also a Nobelist, Seamus Heaney, has this wonderful phrase in a poem: “The music of what happens.” I just love that phrase: “The music of what happens.” I think that what I understand of writing is you are transcribing the music of what happens as accurately and as completely as you can.
The problem is that words are flawed and imperfect, so you can never really capture in words the music of experience. There’s always a gap between what you are able to produce on the page and the music of experience. But that’s where technique comes in. I’m a strong believer in form, but I believe in organic form. Not form as a premade receptacle. You say, “I think I’m going to write a sonnet. What’s the rhyme scheme here? I’m gonna have three quatrains and I’m gonna turn the narrative here.” No. That’s not really how it works. It’s more like the poem finds a form. And sometimes the form does have rhyme in it, and sometimes it does have meter and sometimes it doesn’t. Again, it has to do with the music of the experience. What I look for is to invent a form that gives the fullest expression to the music of the experience that you’ve heard. You are trying to transcribe as accurately as you can. The more that I write the more I appreciate form. Not as a premade vessel or receptacle that you stuff your poem into that never really works. A poem invents its own form, even if it’s a received form. The rhymes that you choose and how you go about it are invented. I think the form is created as you go. Having said that, I do write a lot of sonnets. I know, this sounds strange right? It sounds a little bit old fashioned, but you know there are a lot of things you can learn by writing in a form that you can’t learn anyway else.
One of the most valuable things you can learn is compression. Poetry, if it’s real poetry and not just prose that’s chopped up, has an element of compression. It’s saying much with little. That is the power in a poem—for it to capture, maybe in fourteen lines, what it would take a social scientist a whole volume to describe. That element of compression. The sonnet also has the ability to project in ways that free verse can’t. There is a reason why Shakespeare went about writing about the vicissitudes of love and romance with it. He uses the sonnet form partly because of the drama that you can present in fourteen lines because of the turn (volta), and also that summarizing you get with the couplet at the end that encapsulates the whole experience. It’s like a very well-made violin, in the sense that the subject is the score of your music and form is like a well-made instrument. It helps to project the sound out there. It is my experience that if I am writing a poem in free verse, for example, and it’s just not working, it seems slack, it’s just blah. It’s not projecting any kind of feeling or emotion. Then I find that when I start to shape it a little bit, put some pressure on the line, all of a sudden the emotion starts to project in ways that I can’t achieve in free verse.
I don’t actually study poems. What happens is you read a poem and you think, That is gorgeous. It just knocks you out. You think, How did he do this? When something just knocks you out this way you have this desire to emulate it. You learn the technique, not by counting syllables, but by trying to imitate what it is that you admire, drawing upon your own experience.
I will just say one more thing about this because Bishop also says something about this, and I think it’s really valuable for young poets to learn. Don’t just study the new stuff. Don’t just read the new stuff. There are a lot of great writers writing right now, it’s exciting, it’s contemporary, and a lot of times you can connect with it more readily because it’s spoken in your idiom. Bishop says something that I think is really interesting. When you study the old poets, like Shakespeare, or my favorite, Marvell, even when you imitate them you won’t sound like them. Because they are using a completely different idiom. So you benefit from learning the technique but you update it because you are speaking in a contemporary idiom, whereas if you only read the new stuff you end up sounding like everybody else. That’s your idiom that you speak.
Studying language that’s slightly removed from your everyday language helps you to see the strategies and techniques a little more clearly. When you adopt those for yourself you won’t sound like anybody else, older or contemporary. I think that’s a very useful thing that comes from studying old poets.
Inscape: With form there are all these wonderful tools. Are there any specific techniques that you like to use in your poems, for example alliteration, consonance, assonance, or other different tools of that style?
DO: Sound is very important to me and my work. Not so much end rhyme, although I do use end rhyme sometimes, but internal rhyme, like you mentioned, and other sonic devices, like assonance, consonance, alliteration. It can, however, be overdone to the point of being distracting so I will explain to you my aesthetic when I write. A lot of my poems start rather prose-y and what I’m trying to do is to mimic the quality of ordinary speech. I think that’s a way of inviting a person into a poem, if it sounds conversational. I think sound effects work like this: sitting beside a lake when it’s very still. The surface is just completely still. It’s so still the sky is reflected in it and the trees around the edges. You can see them and the clouds reflected in the lake. Then without warning a fish jumps up. Splash! It is just a fish but because the lake was so calm and placid, that single leap into the air becomes dramatic and catches your attention. That splash ripples through the whole surface of the lake till it reaches the edges. That’s what I try to do in my poetry with effects, so to speak.
If you pour out the lyricism from the very start, it gets a little bit cloying and then nothing really stands out as arresting. My way of using those devices is to use them sparingly so that when they are used the effect is a lot more dramatic. As a counter example, I love Hopkins but sometimes the excess of alliteration and sounds is just a little bit cloying. I like to have a poetry of contrasts where you have the rhythms of ordinary speech and then just this outpouring of lyricism for a tiny bit and then you go back again. That image of the fish jumping out of the lake is what I have in my mind when I am writing using those devices.
Inscape: I love that. I know how you use form, so how do you pick the topics? You’ve got all of these amazing nature poems, and a lot about where you are from. How do you decide what you are going to write about?
DO: I think for a long time I struggled with that. I’m going to go back to something that I said earlier—cultivate a radical openness to experience. Meaning that anything could be a subject for a poem. If I have even the slightest sense of interest I will pursue it because you never know where it will go. Looking back, one of the things that I think caused me more frustration than was necessary was rejecting ideas before I even made an attempt to write about them. I would say, “Oh well, no one would be interested in that. I’ve never read anybody who wrote about that. It just seems so trivial.” But what I would say is don’t dismiss those things that you find yourself thinking about. The fact that it arrested your attention is an indication that that is material for poetry. I sincerely believe that’s true and as you explore that, you will feel a connection to the subject. You will realize it’s calling out to you and asking you to give it expression. I can’t tell you how valuable that has been because the poems I am happiest with are the ones that initially I had the impulse to reject. I said, “Who would be interested in that?” But it is precisely because people aren’t talking about it or aren’t thinking about it that makes it interesting to write about. It’s a novel subject matter. A quote from Emerson says, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Have you ever had that experience where you are reading and you think, Wow, I felt that, I have thought that, I have experienced that. The writer has just found the right words for it. You have had that experience but somebody else put it down for you because you rejected that thought. You didn’t recognize it as something worthy of being put on paper and so by rejecting it the revenge that is visited on you is that you see it written down by somebody else. That’s what Emerson is telling us, to be open to those experiences so that you find your words for it instead of having to encounter it in somebody else. That is the reward that you get for paying attention to those things that you might otherwise reject.
You might feel resistance to writing about something. That’s also a good indication that that’s something you have to face as a writer. I am very conflict-averse. I don’t like things that are unpleasant. I hate rude behavior. I don’t really like to think about those things. Being human we have to recognize those things are part of experience and we have to work through those things if our writing is to be true and alive. Some of the things that I initially resisted writing about actually turned out to be the most important to my growth as a writer. You have to be able to face those things and the value in that is other people have to face those things too. If you have the courage to write through those difficult things then your work might have value for somebody else.
Inscape: I know you have a book coming out, The Kitchen of Small Hours. How was the experience of writing a full-length novel of poems and having to stay on that one topic?
DO: I actually didn’t think about creating a book. If you are a poet that might be overwhelming; by nature what you are interested in is writing poems. Because of who you are and what your experience is—and you may have certain obsessions or concerns—if you are attentive to those things that speak to you, the thematic coherence of your poems will naturally emerge. This particular book was almost all family stories. I would go to these family parties and in Hawaii we have these gatherings called ‘talk story.’ The uncles get together and the aunties get together and they just talk. You hear the same stories over and over again. There is something to these stories which is why they are repeated. They came from my cultural DNA. I would hear my uncle or auntie or grandparents tell these stories so my mind and heart was just full of these things. I realized the impulse behind the book is, “How do you hold on to what you have to let go?” A lot of the people that I wrote about in my book are no longer here. My grandparents have all passed on, my great grandmother (who was the subject of the first poem in the book) passed on many years ago, and a lot of my aunties and uncles are getting really up there in age. The deepest impulse that drives me to write is again, how do I hold on to the things I have to let go?
I think poetry is a great gift because we have tried to do this in different ways; for example, taking pictures is one of the things I would do. You can look at a picture, you see people smiling, but you don’t know what they were thinking or what they were feeling. It is posed and artificial. We have this intense desire to hold on to these moments where we feel so connected and so alive but we know at the same time that it is not going to last. There is sadness even as we are experiencing life’s most joyful moments. I’ve always felt that very keenly even from when I was a child. I think, How do I hold on to these things and how do I hold on to the memory of people I love who are gone? For me just trying to capture the essence of who they were as a person is expressed in the stories that they told. That tells me a lot about who they were and that is what I’m trying to do in my work. I think because that impulse is the same, the poems naturally acquire a kind of thematic coherence. The rest of it is just arranging it. Then the question becomes, well, how do I order it? How do I arrange it? There I might be able to say something useful. I sent out this manuscript in a very different form and it wasn’t successful; it was rejected numerous times. Of course, rejection is just part of the game. I had this revelation when I was at a writers conference. I was sitting there and I realized that the book needed to have a different order and that I needed to put the stories of the women first. That wasn’t the original order. I put my childhood poems first. But I realized it was the stories of women that needed to come first and even the title poem, The Kitchen of Small Hours, came from the stories the women in my family told. Once the voice of my great-grandmother opens the poem, it is all the women who get a chance to speak. In some ways, their narratives were unspoken or suppressed. I realized that there was a lot of material that was unspoken. Even when they tell you a story, there is a story behind that story and I realized that that was the sort of thematic thread that needed to come to the front. It was interesting because I had submitted the manuscript to a contest one year, and it was a finalist but didn’t make the final round. When I rearranged the poems so that the voices of the women were in the foreground and I changed the title, that’s when the manuscript won. I knew that I hit on the right sequence.
Inscape: I never would have thought of the order as being so changeable but so important. I assumed it was like a normal novel— you begin at the beginning and you end at the end. But you are right: poetry is this whole collection and it’s a very different process.
DO: Yes it’s very very different; in fact, I will share this quote that I just came across: “The arrangement of your poems is the final poem in the book.” When you arrange the poems, it creates a kind of intuitive narrative arc. Not explicit because the links between the poems are unstated. That’s that unheard music of one poem speaking to another that becomes the last poem that completes the collection and so getting that right is very important. I spent a lot of time thinking about this sequence of the poems, and then when I hit on it, I said, “Oh, okay, I got it.” It just felt right. I think that was the reason why the manuscript, which had been rejected the first couple times, finally found a home. That was an indication that “Yeah, I got it right.” It’s always reassuring.
Inscape: You have this deep love of poetry and you have written so many amazing poems. Do you think you would ever branch out into more prose, like novels, or do you think that poetry is pretty much where you are going to stay?
DO: The title poem for this collection, The Kitchen of Small Hours, I initially conceived of as a novel. The story that is told in that particular poem is a story about a family being torn apart and then reconciled through illness as very often happens. I saw a lot of novelistic possibilities in that because it’s a story that literally covers decades of time. It begins in the life of a mother and daughter, and they have a falling out, they are estranged, then decades later when the mom develops Alzheimer’s, the daughter comes back. She is able to come back partly because the mom doesn’t remember anything. Forgetfulness becomes a kind of mercy that allows reconciliation to happen, and I just thought that would make such a beautiful novel. I had these grand ideas of writing it. I wrote out the first line and I would sit and try writing it out. I must have tried to write that novel for ten years. I never got past page one because I realized at some point, I am not a novelist. The poet in me can tell the story in a page. Once I realized that I said, “You tell the story as a poet would and you tell that decades-long story of estrangement and reconciliation in a page.” Then it just came. I realized at that moment I will never be a novelist. There is something deep in me that needs to compress things both spatially and temporally. To have the whole experience fully articulated and expressed in a form. I like that poems have a shape you can hold in your heart. That’s why I love learning poems by heart, because it gives experience a kind of shape you can hold with you. I love the idea of a pocket poem that you hold next to your heart. I realized as much as I loved the idea of being able to elaborate on something in a novelistic way, that temperamentally is not for me. I can deal with novelistic stories in poetic form if I just give myself the permission to do that. That’s actually how I think the book happened; because, again, the title poem comes from a failed novel.
Inscape: Do you have any ideas for another book that you might be working on?
DO: My next project is nature poems. I live in Hawaii. Are you familiar with the poet W.S. Merwin? I would encourage you to look at his poetry. He was probably the most important eco poet of his generation. Even though he is not native to the islands, he made Maui his home for many years. I mention him because he once referred to Hawaii as “the extinction capital of the world.” Hawaii is the world’s remotest archipelago; it’s in the middle of the Pacific, thousands of miles from any major landmass, so the life forms that evolved here are unique. They did not evolve anywhere else. When you introduce an invasive species, it just devastates the delicate ecosystem and so a lot of the indigenous species that are unique to the islands are gone. They are vanishing. I read a story about this tree snail—he was actually given a name, Lonely George. This is one of the saddest things you will ever read. On January 1 of 2019, Lonely George was the last surviving member of his species. He passed away in a lab. They had tried to breed his kind in captivity but one by one all of his kinsfolk died out until he was left alone. He lived alone for fourteen years.
I was just heartbroken by that story. The thing is, it’s happening right in my backyard. These mountains that I look out over were once home to these snails. They once were so abundant that you could shake the trees and they would rain down. Now you can’t find them anymore. You have to go to the very highest, most isolated parts of the mountain range. Even then the army has actually fenced off these areas so that predators can’t get in. When they breed these snails in captivity, they release them in these small sanctuaries with protected walls around them in an attempt to restore the native population.
The thing is when you remove a key species it has a cascading effect. We’re just beginning to understand what the consequences are. Because the snail is dying off, so is the tree that it lives on. The snail is amazing, it doesn’t even eat the leaves of the tree. It is like a vacuum cleaner, and it cleans off the fungus that grows on these trees. It keeps them clean, and it doesn’t hurt the tree at all. Think about how exquisitely fine-tuned the evolutionary link is between the tree and the snail. The snail is no longer there to clean the fungus off, the fungus develops into a disease, and then the tree starts to die. The native birds that feed on the flowers of the tree, they don’t have a food source and so the whole thing starts to collapse. We’re at the beginning of what could be the collapse of an entire ecosystem unless we can figure out a way to reverse it.
This has completely captivated my fascination. I started reading about Lonely George and researching all the other types of species that are in danger on the island. There are some very heroic people who are working valiantly to save some of these species, and I think some of them can be saved but some of them are probably past the point of no return. I’m talking about holding on to what we have to let go. In ancient Hawaiian legend the tree snail sang. They had a song. What could be more poetic? Scientists have tried to figure out what they meant by that because nobody has actually been able to record these songs. But I heard stories from people who still have memories of these snails. They say, “Yeah they do sing, they make noises.” It is all interconnected—the tree snail, the related flora and fauna, the song that the tree snail sang which is no longer here. It’s a poetic trope. I am very invested in that right now and I feel a sense of urgency because even as we talk some of these species are vanishing.
Inscape: Do you have any advice for an aspiring poet who is trying to add something to the world?
DO: Write the poem that only you can write. The only way that you can do that is by being radically open to your own experience and not rejecting those thoughts that come to you. Don’t reject those thoughts just because you think they’re not fashionable, they’re not trendy, that’s not what this editor at this magazine is interested in publishing, that’s not something that just won the National Book Award or something like that. Those things are a distraction, not that you shouldn’t keep your finger on the pulse of poetry because you always should be reading what is happening. As far as what you can add, it comes down to your unique life. You are the only one that has your set of experiences, that has your unique genetic makeup, that experiences the world in your particular way. You really have to be true to that. The way to be true to that is to cultivate patience with your writing. I learned this from a wonderful poet and teacher, Dan Beachy-Quick. I attended a writer’s workshop and Dan is one of the greatest teachers I have ever encountered. He read the poems of everybody who was in that workshop. He read with such attention and care that when he would talk about it you felt like a genius. He picked up on every nuance. Even things that you didn’t know were there he would pick up on. When I was talking to him, he would point out to me places in my poems where they would take a wrong turn. I realized, “Yeah, he is right.” And I recognized I was trying to second guess myself. I was thinking what would this editor be interested in, what is cool now, how can I make this sound edgy, that kind of stuff. Inevitably the poem takes a wrong turn. He taught me when you are writing, and it is an authentic poem, the poem starts to generate its own music. If you listen to the music that the poem is generating it comes from an actual experience. You will begin to feel your way forward until you arrive at a complete expression of what it is you are trying to say. You really have to listen to the music of your own experience and get that down as accurately as possible. When you do that, a lot of times it means writing against the grain. When you do that, don’t worry about publication, worry about writing the poem that only you can write. If it’s a real poem, somebody will publish it.