My Mother’s Ghost Scrubs the Floor at 2 a.m.
Robert Okaji’s chapbook, My Mother’s Ghost Scrubs the Floor at 2 a.m., is a beautiful collection of poetry that grapples with the theme of loss. In this book, Okaji uses imagery in his poems to describe his mother and the void she left behind. This gorgeous, heart wrenching collection takes us on a journey of learning how to keep the memories of the people we love close to our hearts and helps us remember that they never truly leave us even after they’re gone. Okaji creates a feeling of familiarity that lets anyone who’s experienced a loss relate to this book.
Interview with the Author
Etchings Press: What inspired you to become a writer and create this chapbook?
Robert Okaji: I’ve been an avid reader since age five, and have been fascinated with books and the printed word for most of my life. My father was not an educated man, but he believed in the power of books. There were books in the house, and I always had my nose in them. So writing was a natural outcome, though I didn’t start reading and writing poetry—really reading poetry—until I was 24. Prior to that, I thought I was a short story writer. Poetry didn’t make sense to me. But then somehow it clicked, and I started attempting to write it. Decades later, I’m still trying. The chapbook wasn’t written as a project; it’s an assemblage of grief poems composed over the course of about seven years. I’m not a writer who waits for or requires inspiration. I just sit at the desk, write, and let my subconscious leak out what it will. A lot of grief seeped out between 2013 and 2020, and that seepage led to what became this chapbook.
EP: What books do you enjoy reading or that have inspired your writing?
RO: There are too many books and authors to list! My taste is eclectic, and ranges from poetry, crime fiction, historical novels and urban fantasy, to nonfiction tomes on various topics including insects, numbers, etymology, travel, food and anything else that piques my interest while wandering in a bookstore. I return to the works of certain poets time and again: Arthur Sze and Jane Hirshfield have long been favorites. Pablo Neruda, Ai, David Wevill, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and Linda Gregg also often grab my attention, for different reasons.
EP: What other projects are you working on?
RO: I’m not much of a project person, but instead write individual poems, most of them unrelated except perhaps in tone. But having said that, I’ve haphazardly produced series of poems, sometimes over the course of many years, and one of those series has recently reemerged: a group of epistolary poems, or letter poems, to various friends and acquaintances, most of whom are writers or artists working outside of academia and the literary/art world. I started this batch in 2012, and have completed perhaps fifteen, two in the past month. I don’t know that I’ll ever write enough of them to form the basis of a full-length book. But one can hope.
EP: How did you decide what order to put your poems in when creating your table of contents?
RO: The title poem and its two companion “My Mother’s Ghost” pieces were intended to be the “skeleton” of the collection, so the rest of the manuscript was assembled around that framework. I began by listing pieces that seemed to fit the theme, printed out about 30 poems, and began shuffling and cutting. I looked for resonances between pieces, but didn’t worry much about chronology. Believing that less is better, I reduced the manuscript to fifteen poems, and then wrote “Higashi” as an intro to the rest of the book.
EP: What advice can you give young writers who are trying to get published?
RO: Read. Read everything. Read more. Write. Revise. Revise again. And again. Don’t rush. Of course that’s easy to say, and I know from experience that patience is in short supply. So, young poets, here are a few tips: Determine who you are as a writer, and where your work has a reasonable chance of being published. What, you say, how do I do this? Think about your favorite living poets, those poets you’d most like to be associated with, whose work has influenced your writing, and with whom you’d like to “converse” through poetry. Where does their work appear? Look at their lists of publications in the acknowledgments sections of their books. Read these literary journals cover-to-cover. When you find in these same journals other writers whose work appeals to you, examine their publication lists. After a while you’ll notice that certain journal titles repeat. Compile a list of these, and consider them your “targets.” If your sense of aesthetics meshes, send them your best work.
Also, look for newer publications calling for submissions. They may be more amenable to your work, and the competition may be a bit lighter. How do you find these? Read Poets & Writers. Check out New Pages‘ calls for submissions. Duotrope is a must read, and the data on publications’ acceptance rates is invaluable. For example is it realistic to submit to a lit mag that accepts only one-half of one percent of submissions? Or would your time be better spent submitting to publications accepting 5% to 10% of what’s sent to them? One can over-think this, but knowing the odds can increase your chances. Duotrope‘s “News” tab also provides links to both new markets and those that have recently opened or closed to submissions.
When your work is rejected (and it will be—no one is immune), look closely at it. Was it indeed as ready as you first thought? If so, send it to another journal. If not, revise it. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep sending.
I submit my work cautiously, as if editors are looking for excuses NOT to publish me. This means that I attempt to ensure that every piece I send out is flawless in appearance—no typos, no grammatical errors, etc. Unless a publication specifically requests more, my cover letters are brief and say very little but “thanks for the opportunity,” and might at most contain a few sentences noting biographical details or previous publications. Anything else is superfluous. I don’t want to give them any reason not to accept my work. And please, always read submission requirements. Don’t submit styles or genres that publications specifically say they don’t want. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste theirs—most independent lit mags are labors of love. Most editors earn no money from their journals, and often, if not usually, bear all publication costs. Be kind to them.