Interview: Steve Bellin-Oka, Author of INSTRUCTIONS FOR SEEING A GHOST (2019 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry Winner)

BellinOka author photo

Steve Bellin-Oka

What was the inspiration for this book?

There’s kind of a long backstory for the book. My husband is a Japanese citizen, and we’ve been together since 1998. Of course, same-sex marriages were not legalized in the United States until 2015 and, therefore, I couldn’t get a green card here for him until then. After eight years of cobbling together a string of temporary visas for him, in 2006 we ran out of legal ways to keep him in the country. We were lucky enough to qualify for permanent residency in Canada, and we moved there that year. It was a horrible decision that straight people would never have had to make. I gave up my career as an English professor and immigrated to a place where we knew no one and had few job prospects. It also happened at a time when my sister, who is a major figure in the book, was at the start of her terminal illness. She died from adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare cancer, not long after we moved to Canada. So I was under tremendous emotional pressure even after we left to not stay there, to abandon Kenichi and return to the U.S. This only got worse because in the two years following my sister’s death, both my brother and one of my nephews passed away as well from the consequences of alcohol and opiate abuse.

All of this finds its way into Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. There are literal ghosts in the book—my sister, my brother, and my nephew—as well as figurative ones. I don’t regret anything that Kenichi and I have had to go through, but there are poems that speculate about what my life would have been like had an earlier relationship with an American man worked out and had Kenichi and I never met. There are poems about how immigrants in any country are like “ghosts”—we’re both there and not there simultaneously, since one never leaves one’s birth country behind really, and thus one never feels like they fully belong in their new country. And, of course, Kenichi’s whole adult life has been like that; he left Japan for North America in the early nineties and has been here ever since. Finally, I’d say the book is about the experience of return from exile as well. As an ex-patriate, your whole conception of your birth country changes because you see how you’re seen by the rest of the world. As a gay man who has only been given access to the same constitutional rights as straight people recently, a lot of our national myths—that everyone is welcome here, that we are all created equal, for example—turned out to be hollow ideas. So the book is interested in those ideas as well.

How long have you been writing and what brought you to poetry?

 I didn’t start writing poetry seriously until I got to college. Before that, I always wanted to write music and be a musician. I was drawn to music from a very young age, mostly classical music, and I played the piano and some wind instruments. For a lot of reasons, that didn’t work out. I’d always been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember; there’s a family myth that I taught myself to read before pre-school, but I don’t know if that’s really true. So literature was always something I loved, and I always excelled at languages as a student. I also grew up in a very religious household. There was always something about the hymns sung in church and the rhythms and cadences of the readings from the Bible, especially from the Hebrew Bible, that I always found fascinating. But it wasn’t until I got the chance at the University of Maryland to study with some great poets—Stanley Plumly, who recently passed away, and Michael Collier, who let me enroll in his graduate poetry classes when I was still an undergrad—that I started realizing poetry had chosen me rather than the other way around. Creative people will find their outlets, I think, regardless of challenges and hurdles others set up for them or they set up for themselves. Despite long periods in my life of not writing any poetry at all, I’ve always returned to it.

How was writing and/or compiling this collection different from your previous publication work?

 Putting together a book of poems is not an easy enterprise, and not something anyone ever teaches you in M.F.A. programs. During your writing workshops, your focus is almost exclusively on one poem as a single entity and crafting and shaping it in isolation from the rest of your work. And then in graduate programs, you write a thesis or a creative dissertation, but your emphasis is an academic one instead of compiling your work in the way that’s going to have the most impact as a book. I think all poets, like filmmakers, have images and metaphors that haunt them, but for compiling a book, the trick is to make them speak to each other from poem to poem. It took me about three years to do that for Instructions for Seeing a Ghost. The book has a few major themes, the deaths of my sister and brother, exile and return, the ghost idea, etc., and I had to figure out how and when to introduce each of those themes and what development and arc they were going to have over the course of 80 pages. You have to decide which poems are going to be in the book and in what order. And you have to think about form, too. For example, there’s a series of love poems in the book that are all named after letters from the classical Hebrew alphabet. Did I want to group them all together in the book, or spread them out through the whole manuscript? For a long time, I thought the former was most powerful, but then I realized doing so would deprive the reader of the sense of an arc to those poems, so I spread them out through the book. That way, the images that come up in them had new possibilities of working in concert or counterpoint to the other poems in the book.

Ultimately, I ended up reading a lot of full books by contemporary American poets I respect and paid close attention to how they did it in those books. Before this book, I had published two chapbooks—short books of poems of about 20-25 pages, so I had a little experience in this, but not enough.

Do you have a favorite poem in the collection? If so, what makes it your favorite?

 There’s a poem called “She Was Always Sleeping Then,” which is about the last time I saw my sister alive, and it’s pretty special to me because I didn’t know it was the last time. We were living in Vancouver at the time, and she was at home in Baltimore, where I’m from originally, and receiving palliative care only. In the final stages of her illness, I’d been making that long trip back every couple of weeks or so, but it was very hard to predict when she might pass away. She was only 39 years old and her body was fighting her cancer tooth and nail. And on her last day, I arrived on a flight from Vancouver about two hours too late. The poem is about that situation, but also my ambivalence and guilt about being so far away because my personal relationship with my husband required it. Here’s the poem:

She Was Always Sleeping Then

For me, you died too slowly,
wall paint drying in humid weather.
Oil on a wet street. Syrup.
Ink on vellum.

No use raising my arms
to the god gone deaf, whose language
is unanswerable riddles, inscrutable
paths of birds in flight. Entrails
of a rabbit sliced open like a parcel
from the other side. Who says
he can read the return address lies.

I’m not lying now. Even your Rottweiler
was suffering, curled with his head
crooked in his arms on the old hooked rug
at the foot of your rented hospice bed.
Exhaling at random intervals. Most days
the home care nurse clucked her tongue
and said you were too young. Cancer
wouldn’t kill you—it’d be the heart
or the lungs or the kidneys. Some failure
in a system of your body not yet forty.

Your spleen rupturing like a water balloon
thrown against the side of a barn.

You were emptiness inside
cupped hands. Bruises under
a fingernail. A sinkhole opening up
after weeks of heavy rain. How else

to explain how you were both there
and not there, the way one catches
a ghost’s trick in the corner of the eye.
You turn to look and a tree branch

lightly scrapes a lead glass windowpane.
You turn to look and nothing’s there.

You turn to look. All night your brother
hunches forward in the sick room
chair, turning to stone and back again.

Can you tell us about your typical process for writing a poem, from inspiration to sending it out for submission?

 I’m not sure I have a typical process for writing a poem, but a lot of them do seem to evolve similarly. I’m on the autism spectrum, which for me mostly manifests itself by the repetition, usually unelicited and disorganized, of images, phrases, metaphors, snippets of music or lyrics, dialogue and visual images from movies I’ve seen, other poets’ lines, in my head all day long as I move through my everyday life. For some reason or other, one will embed itself and my own words will start coming in an emotional response to it. In my writing time, I’ll start building poems from those mental interactions. At the same time, I benefit greatly from discipline; being on the autism spectrum also means it’s very difficult to focus sometimes. So I’ve also engaged in projects with other poets where we draft a poem every day during a particular month, and I wrote most of the poems in Instructions for Seeing a Ghost that way. And a lot of poem drafts that didn’t go anywhere at all. But the more you get out on the page, the better. I took what I thought was the strongest work from those experiments and revised them with an eye toward constructing a book, asking myself how they spoke to each other and to other poems I’d already written and was hoping to include. When I was happy with a batch of poems, I’d send them out to journals for publication consideration.

What is the one piece of craft advice you would give aspiring poets to help them on their writing journey?

 I think most of us start writing poetry because we feel the desire and need to express ourselves, which is wonderful. But a lot of aspiring poets don’t feel the need to read a lot of poetry by people who are more experienced than they are. And that’s not a dig against them; the way we’re taught poetry in our schooling too often takes the joy and wonder of experiencing a poem and turns it into the drudgery of analyzing it as a kind of “puzzle” made up of disconnected pieces like form, sound, imagery, etc.—all the things we’re tested on and have to define. And too often the only poems we encounter in school are “masterpieces” by long-dead straight white males, and maybe those poems don’t really speak to us. Fortunately, poetry in America has been enjoying a considerable boom in readership for a while now, and the numbers of previously marginalized voices that are being published is very encouraging. With a little digging, an aspiring poet can find other poets who are writing about similar concerns and from similar identity stances as they are. I think, also, aspiring poets should read living poets attentively to see how they handle problems of formal and craft elements in their work. One can experiment with the same methods when drafting poems, and all poets learn by doing, I think.

What power can we find in poetry today, in the time of COVID-19?

 I think the power we can find in poetry, even in times of crisis, is the same one we always have. Poetry has a dual function. First, it connects us to each other through its universality. Human beings, despite our differences, are really not that dissimilar from each other. We share far more with each other than we don’t. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s helpful to feel like we’re all in this together, and to know that since the beginning of the written word (and well before), humanity has lived through, and survived, one plague after another. We’re lucky to have living still, or in living memory, poets who’ve written about the most recent plague before this one, poets like Frank Bidart, Thom Gunn, Tory Dent, and Mark Bibbins, who have documented their experience of the AIDS pandemic. But of course, the literature of plague in the West goes back as far as Homer’s Iliad and the Hebrew Bible. If we read poetry from any era with true openness, we’ll find that poets can name for us our own emotions and experiences and help us make sense of our lives, which often seem overwhelming and random. There’s extraordinary value in that connection. At the same time, though, poetry is one of the few ways in which we have relatively unfiltered access to other people’s and cultures’ individuality. Artists take the universal and particularize it. We can never experience directly someone else’s thoughts and emotions, even if we’ve known them all our lives. That’s part of the human condition. But in reading poetry, we can get as close to that as is possible. It then allows us to empathize with others who may be very different from us, and there’s tremendous value in that as well.

Steve Bellin-Oka is the author of a chapbook of poems titled Dead Letter Office at North Atlantic Station (2017). His first book of poems, Instructions for Seeing a Ghost, won the 2019 Vassar Miller Prize from the University of North Texas Press. He is a 2019 Tulsa Artist Fellow in poetry and a Nimrod Editorial Board member.


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