2014_NYR_02877_0126_001(edward_weston_nautilus_shell_1927124346)
How to Write a Poem
by Robert Okaji

Learn to curse in three languages. When midday
yawns stack high and your eyelids flutter, fire up

the chain saw; there’s always something to dismember.
Make it new. Fear no bridges. Accelerate through

curves, and look twice before leaping over fires,
much less into them. Read bones, read leaves, read

the dust on shelves and commit to memory a thousand
discarded lines. Next, torch them. Take more than you

need, buy books, scratch notes in the dirt and watch
them scatter down nameless alleys at the evening’s first

gusts. Gather words and courtesies. Guard them carefully.
Play with others, observe birds, insects and neighbors,

but covet your minutes alone and handle with bare hands
only those snakes you know. Mourn the kindling you create

and toast each new moon as if it might be the last one
to tug your personal tides. When driving, sing with the radio.

Always. Turn around instead of right. Deny ambition.
Remember the freckles on your first love’s left breast.

There are no one-way streets. Appreciate the fragrance
of fresh dog crap while scraping it from the boot’s sole.

Steal, don’t borrow. Murder your darlings and don’t get
caught. Know nothing, but know it well. Speak softly

and thank the grocery store clerk for wishing you
a nice day even if she didn’t mean it. Then mow the grass,

grill vegetables, eat, laugh, wash dishes, talk, bathe,
kiss loved ones, sleep, dream, wake. Do it all again.

Originally published in Indra’s Net, an anthology in aid of The Book Bus charity (Bennison Books, 2017).

PHOTO: Nautilus Shell by Edward Weston (1927).

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: My process sounds odd to most people, as I seldom know what I’m going to write about when I sit at the table. I simply start writing. Sometimes a word or a phrase sets me off. Or an image, or even a vague feeling, a discomfort or a pleasure of some sort. Life’s circumstances also come into play, and my landscapes, both emotional and literal, affect the output. The words carry me along, and at some point in the writing, perhaps only one or two lines in, but often much deeper in the piece, the poem, the flesh of it, starts coalescing. And then I backtrack and revise. In essence, my subconscious guides me, and such a guide is not always trustworthy or easy to work with, as many false trails are laid out and pursued. But even the false trails lead somewhere, often to greater rewards. ¶ Not knowing is central to my process. This probably sounds cryptic, or pseudo-zen, but it’s honest. I learn by questioning. By doing and failing and trying again. I revise during the course of writing, even during the first blush of creation, as well as after. The poems always sit and marinate for a while, sometimes for just a few days, sometimes for weeks or months, and there are a few that have stewed in their juices for years. When I return to them, I see problem points that weren’t apparent before, and I revise accordingly. At some mysterious point, the poems are done, or at least as done as they’re going to get, and I consider sending them out in the world.

Okaji

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Robert Okaji is a displaced Texan hunkering down in Indiana. He holds a BA in history, and once won a goat-catching contest. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vox Populi, North Dakota Quarterly, Slippery Elm, Panoply, Book of Matches, Buddhist Poetry Review, The Night Heron Barks, and elsewhere. He blogs at robertokaji.com.