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Cynthia Dewi Oka Offers Insight On Creative Vision and the Labor of Writing

Poet Cynthia Dewi Oka visited Widener on Nov. 12 through 14 as a part of the English and Creative Writing Department’s Distinguished Writers Series.

Oka, a three-time Pushcart Prize Nominee, published her debut collection of poetry with Dinah Press called Nomad of Salt and Hard Water in December 2012, celebrating journey and its relentless precision of language. A second edition with new and revised poems was published in April 2016 with Thread Makes Blanket Press.

Much of her poetry has been published online and in print in such places as The American Poetry Review, Guernica Magazine, and Apogee Journal. In addition, Oka is a contributor for anthologies such as Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism and Who Will Speak for America among others. She has also been awarded the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor’s Prize in Poetry as well as the Leeway Foundation Transformation Award and is currently pursuing her master’s in fine arts as a Holden Fellow at Warren Wilson College.

Oka’s latest collection is titled Salvage: Poems. Published in December 2017 with Northwestern University Press, Salvage interrogates what it means to reach for our humanity through the guise of nation46094202_10156720303009754_2090155279231483904_n, race, and gender.

On campus, Oka was the feature speaker at the Honors Freshman Composition Forum. She also met with several students within the department for tutorials and visited numerous creative writing courses. For many students, Oka’s visit was transformational and eye-opening.

Rohan Suriyage, a senior English and communications studies double major, found Oka’s presence and communication to be like that of a friend. Suriyage, along with several students in the Creative Writing department that received tutorials with Oka, believes he gained so much incredible insight from the visiting writer in such a short amount of time.

“Her prowess for effective writing, aesthetic, and finding a writer’s voice is truly incredible,” Suriyage said. “I’ve rethought the way I approach my writing, for the better, of course, and I thank her.”

Oka concluded her visit with a public reading during which she read new, never before published work surrounding Indonesian history and culture, specifically the mass killings that took place in the 1960s which the Indonesian government and citizens now act as if did not happen. She utilized documents once deemed to hold classified information on the killings to formulate a narrative, bringing to light the tragedy of what happened as well as the integration of Indonesian culture. After the reading, Oka took time to answer questions regarding politics and poetry, sign copies of her book, and speak to students.

Domenic Gaeta, senior Anthropology major, found Oka’s new poetry on the tragic killings in Indonesia to be powerful, rich in detail, and attention grabbing.

“I would have never though to use classified documents as the general vocabulary makeup of a poem, nor would I think to write about such tragic events,” Gaeta said. “Still, I knew each time she was telling a story that needed to be told.”

Oka also sat down with me for an interview with The Blue Route during her interview. The full conversation will be featured in our 21st issue set to be published in the next couple of weeks. For a preview of the interview, read below!

I was reading some of the reviews on Salvage and some of the descriptions were that it is almost as if you have “one foot in time, the other in timelessness”, that the poems exhibit “mythical depth, civic outcry, and lyric inventiveness”, and that the collection is almost as if “entering a dream world”. This is what other people have said about your work. I’m curious as to how you view this collection and what your vision was in building it.
Every project I’m working on is an effort to grow and transform. That is the superpower of creative writers. We get to remake ourselves. For me, Salvage is an enactment in life, it was happening parallel with life. What was happening on the page was an attempt to sort of recuperate, to integrate a lot of the worst things that I’ve seen or have been through.

My first book, Nomad of Salt and Hard Water, was really an affirmation of strategies of survival. Part of the process of surviving difficult or traumatic things in our lives is that we end up having to bury a lot, so you can keep moving. Salvage was an effort to actually unearth those things and to bring them back into conversation, to reintegrate them, to repurpose them, to make them useful again.

I think of the structure of the book like an onion where you’re looking at the most external forms of violence, war, displacement, gentrification. Then you move inwards to the family, the legacies, and the exchanges that happen in that space. The final layer is intimacy, relationships. That was the vision. It is a trajectory moving inward.

I find that if I’m writing something from a darker place or something that is slightly out of my comfort zone, a little less like me, it takes me a bit to get into that headspace. Are there any poems in Salvage where you had to remove yourself and get into another headspace? How did you get there and then how do you shake it off?
For me, it feels less like going somewhere else and more like being your whole, true self at a given period of time. I give space for all that I am, everything I shut out to arrive when I’m writing.

I tend to be one of those people where, if I finish something, I’m like, “Okay, on to the next thing!” Salvage really taught me that I can’t just do that. A rest period is important. For example, when I finish working on a poem, I can’t necessarily switch out of it. There has to be a transition period where I’m slowly moving back into the pace of my daily life and I think it’s good to plan for that rather than feel cut-off. This is why I stress it is so important to have a writing practice, because then we learn what our tendencies are and what is optimal for us in how we take care of ourselves after we finish. It’s labor, so much labor when we write, and we need sustenance after it. If you’re an extrovert, your sustenance might be from surrounding yourself with people, whereas introverts need alone time. We have to build that into our writing practice so that we don’t becomeat least for meso that I don’t become a terrible person to the people that I love.

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by Carlie Sisco