Obsession: Books, or, Poetry Finds Me

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In another life books framed my days. I slept with them, dreamt about them, woke to their presence stacked by the bed and in various corners throughout the house, read them, handled them, discussed their merits with friends, co-workers, beer-drinking buddies, bartenders, customers, strangers, relatives, and even enemies. Traced my fingers slowly down their spines, identified some by odor alone, others by weight and feel. Bought, sold, cleaned, lent, skimmed, traded, gave, borrowed, collected, repaired, preserved, received. Traveled to acquire more, returned home to find still others languishing in never-opened, partially read or barely touched states. There were always too many. There were never enough.

The relationship began innocently. I’ve been an avid reader since the age of five, and over the years developed a knack for uncovering uncommon modern first editions. I’d walk into a thrift shop and spot a copy of William Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck, snuggling up to Jane Fonda’s workout book, for a buck. Or at a small town antique store, something especially nice, perhaps a near-fine first edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark, would leer at me from a dark shelf – $1.50. John Berryman’s Poems (New Directions, 1942) found me at a garage sale, for a quarter. Good Will yielded Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. There were others, of course. Many others.

I partnered with a few like-minded friends and opened a store, and when that didn’t work out, started my own home-based book business, which eventually expanded into a small brick-and-mortar shop, a true labor of love. And I mean labor. The forlorn space we rented was cheap and had housed for years a low-end, illicit massage parlor. Cleaning it out was, oh, shall we say interesting? I’ll never forget the furry massage table, the naked lady lamp or the various implements left behind after the joint was finally forced to close. But we hauled out the filthy carpeting, stripped and refinished the hardwood floors, fixed, painted and patched what we could, and hid what we couldn’t. It was exhausting, but well worth the toil.

My work schedule ran from Monday through Sunday, a minimum of eighty hours a week – in a seven-year period, I took off only two long weekends. It consumed me, but in the end I emerged mostly intact, a little more aware of my proclivities, of an unhealthy tendency to immerse myself wholly into an enthusiasm, to the detriment of family and friends. When we sold our store’s wares, I embraced the change; some dreams simply deplete you. But the itch remained.

Just a few weeks ago I found myself perusing an accumulation of books in a storage facility across the street from a junk shop in Llano, Texas, a small county seat an hour’s drive west of my home on the outskirts of Austin. The shop’s owner had purchased an English professor’s estate, and judging by the collection, the professor had specialized in poetry. My first thought was “I want it all,” but reason set in (I could very well imagine my wife’s reaction were I to arrive home with a trailerful of books) so I glanced over the criticism, fiction, drama, essays and biographies, and concentrated on the poetry. In the end I walked away with thirty-one books, including H.D.’s Red Roses for Bronze (Chatto & Windus, 1931), Randall Jarrell’s Little Friend, Little Friend, Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems and Questions of Travel, a brace of Berrymans – His Toy, His Dream, His Rest and Homage to Mistress Bradstreet – both the U.S. and U.K. first editions, which differ – and Love & Fame. A good haul, to say the least, but one that left me only partially satisfied and contemplating a return. But I remain resolute. So far.

As I said, the itch remains…

This first appeared in April 2015.

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Wherein the Book Implies Source

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Wherein the Book Implies Source 

And words form the vessel by which we traverse centuries, the river
stitched across the valley’s floor, easing access.

Accession by choice. Inorganic memory.

Vellum conveys its origin: of a calf.

How like an entrance it appears, a doorway to a lighted space.
Closed, it resembles a block of beech wood.

To serve as conveyance, to impart without reciprocity.

Framing the conversation in space, immediacy fades.

The average calfskin may provide three and a half sheets of writing material.
Confined by spatial limitation, we consider scale in terms of the absolute.

The antithesis of scroll; random entry; codex.

A quaternion equalled four folded sheets, or eight leaves: sixteen sides.

Reader and read: each endures the other’s role.
Pippins prevented tearing during the drying and scraping process.

Text first, then illumination.

Once opened, the memory palace diminished.

This originally appeared in April 2014 as part of Boston Review’s National Poetry Month Celebration, and is included in The Circumference of Other, my offering in the Silver Birch Press chapbook collection, IDES, scheduled to be published on October 15.

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Tupelo Press 30/30 Project (August 2015): Why I’m Writing 30 Poems in 30 Days, or, Poetry Needs You!

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Tupelo Press 30/30 Project (August 2015): Why I’m Writing 30 Poems in 30 Days, or, Poetry Needs You!

Dear Friends,

Tupelo Press, one of our very best independent presses, could use our help. Like many nonprofits, Tupelo depends upon donations to augment their programs, which vary from a Teen Writing Center to publishing literary works of emerging and established writers. To this end they’ve instituted innovative fundraising approaches to achieve their goals, including the 30/30 Project, one of their most exhilarating and interactive efforts – every month, approximately eight poets pledge to write 30 poems in 30 days, and raise funds by soliciting donations from sponsors (as many nonprofits do via sponsored walks, runs or rides). In August I am one of the participating poets.

I invite you to join me in this project and help out by reading, commenting, heckling, encouraging, insulting, cajoling, praising and yes, if circumstances allow, sponsoring me and donating funds (to Tupelo Press, not me). This might not be of much interest if the poems were simply going to languish in a file somewhere, but such is not the case. They will be posted online daily, warts and all, for the world to peruse. That’s right – you’ll see our daily work, unpolished and raw, finished or not, and if you listen closely you may hear a whimper or two oozing out from Austin.

Why am I doing this? I love poetry and admire small presses. Independent literary publishers produce 98% of the poetry published each year, and Tupelo Press is one of my favorite presses. If I, poet, reader and book buyer, don’t support their work, who will?

Previous participants have sweetened the pot by offering interesting incentives such as baked goods for certain levels of donations. Since I don’t bake in the August heat here in Texas, I’m offering other enticements (although you may consider a few of them half-baked). And of course the donations are tax deductible (at least to those who must pay U.S. taxes). Please consider donating any amount, but I’m offering these incentives at the specified donation levels:

Name That Poem! For a $10 donation in my honor, you can provide a title, and I’ll write the poem during the marathon. Be imaginative. Make the title as long or as interesting as you wish – consider this a dare! But this incentive is of course limited to only thirty titles, and reduces by one every day of the marathon, so reserve your slot soon!

$25 donation will get you a signed copy of my chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform. 10592324_10153113120915120_689180005_n

For $35, I’ll produce and send you, in September, a unique, signed, mini-chapbook consisting of any six poems (your choice) I’ve posted on my blog.

For $50, I’ll provide one of my limited edition (only 50 copies were printed), letter press mini-broadsides of “Jingting Shan Hill.” It’s a beautiful piece designed and printed by Emily Hancock of St Brigid Press.

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If none of these incentives appeals to you, but you’d still like to help, I’m open to suggestions, particularly for larger donations. But no, I won’t streak a convent for a mere $100. Been there, done that (hey, I was once young, dumb, thin and fast).

If you choose to sponsor me, please visit the 30/30 blog at: https://www.tupelopress.org/donate.php. Scroll down to “Is this donation in honor of a 30/30 poet?” and select my name, “Robert Okaji,” from the pull down so that Tupelo knows to credit the donation to me. And please inform me of your donation and provide your contact info via email at robertokaji at yahoo dot com or through Facebook so that I may acknowledge and send your premium.

If you’ve seen through this blog or other outlets enough of my writing to last your remaining days, you might consider a $129 subscription to Tupelo’s regular subscription series, which garners you ten books from one of the country’s top literary presses! If you choose this option, please specify “in honor of” and insert my name, “Robert Okaji” to show your support for my efforts. Click here to subscribe: https://www.tupelopress.org/books_subscribe.php.

For more information on the 30/30 Project, and to read the daily poems, see: https://tupelopress.wordpress.com/3030-project/ I plan on posting updates two to three times a week, but we’ll see what happens. Things are going to be hectic. No matter what, I look forward to reading your comments. Thanks very much!

Talking with a Poet: Part 3, on Brigit’s Flame

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Talking with a Poet: Part 3, on Brigit’s Flame

Wherein you’ll find a review of my chapbook, If Your Matter Could Reform, and an invitation to comment, ask questions or share insights on poetry.

https://brigitsflame.wordpress.com/2015/07/21/talking-with-a-poet-part-three/

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Fifty-Word Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Neither poetry nor prose, existing between but transforming both, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets astounds in its generosity of detail, insight and compelling language. Love, injury, art, failure, truth, loneliness, sex and the color blue in all its shades and moods permeate this work. Read it now. You have waited long enough!

Published by Wave Books: http://www.wavepoetry.com/

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