Contributor Interview: Steve Bellin-Oka

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Bellin-Oka, Steve

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts. What inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

Two of these poems, “Dalet” and “Zayin,” are parts of a longer sequence I refer to as a metaphysical love poem. I’ve studied some ancient languages in my life, and the beauty and strangeness of the Hebrew alphabet, and how the letters originally were pictograms, is fascinating to me. Hebrew also ascribes mystical qualities to its letters, and I’m hoping to capture what’s both knowable and unknowable in my own 20-year marriage to my husband, who is Japanese. The sequence will move on to Japanese alphabets when I finish the Hebrew part. “Letter to John Ashbery” is an elegy of sorts for him and is a true story about a likely apocryphal story he told me when I met him in graduate school.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

I’m haunted by my memory of Ashbery’s brilliant blue eyes and his way of looking at you when you spoke, as if it was the most important thing to say in the world at that moment in time. I tried to capture that in the elegy for him.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Read as much as you write, and write as much as you possibly can. Seek out other writers you trust to give you honest feedback on your work. You can’t underestimate the importance of community, especially in poetry.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I’m an American, but I lived in Canada for 10 years before returning to the U.S. in 2015 after the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriages. My husband is a Japanese citizen, and after a while, there were no legal ways to keep him in the U.S. any longer. Not many people think about how the need to protect the equal rights of LGBQT people is even more imperative for binational couples like us.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I have my first book of poems coming out next year (I hope). It’s called Ash Sonata. I only finished it at the end of 2017, so I’m waiting for the poems I’m writing now to reveal to me what a second book is going to be about. I’m listening and I think they’re telling me.

Steve Bellin-Oka is the author of a chapbook, Dead Letter Office at North Atlantic Station (Seven Kitchens Press, 2017). He earned his M.F.A. from the University of Virginia and his Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi. He has received fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. He teaches at Eastern New Mexico University.

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