The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Cynthia Dewi Oka about her new collection Fire Is Not a Country (TriQuarterly Books, 2021), engaging the communities you write from, and how grief and joy can be simultaneous and entangled.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Matthew Olzmann, Jennifer Huang, Angel Dominguez, Jos Charles, C. Russell Price, Tara Betts, and more.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: As I wrote in my piece introducing Fire Is Not a Country as the Poetry Book Club’s November selection, I was drawn to the theme of fire—in the title as well as in so many of the poems. Can you talk some about the centrality of that image to your work?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: That’s a great question, Brian. Similarly to you, I was brought up in a very religious family, and fire as a purifying and divine element was a major theme throughout my childhood, mostly used to inspire fear and obedience. But fire was also a constant in my environment. This is kind of dark, but church burnings were quite regular when I was growing up in Indonesia, as well as trash fires dotting the night.
Kimberly Sailor: Hello! Cynthia, I loved this book. Or rather, “love,” to be active about it, because I think about your poems quite a bit. I would love to know more about your choice to include the “interludes.” As writers, we’re taught to make sure everything fits, that everything is tidy… did you question your process with these interludes?
When I first read the title, I presumed it meant living in a world on fire is no way to live.
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Kimberly, yes! Both in the way we imagine fire as a destructive and purifying force.
The interludes were an important element of the creative process for me when I was finalizing the manuscript.
I was feeling at that point, limited and exhausted by poetic techniques. I was also thinking about the people I wanted to engage, who are in fact central figures in the book—like my mother, for instance, or my son, to whom the book is dedicated. Writing in screenplay form allowed me to both expand the frame of the book, as well as to create a more collaborative, interactive space within the book. It was important to me to be able to engage the people in the communities I write from, for whom poetry is not necessarily an accessible form.
Kimberly Sailor: So, the interludes were the last pieces to go in?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: They were the last pieces I wrote, yes, though I was still revising other poems in the book as well.
Brian S: As a reader, I felt like they gave me room to breathe differently as I was making my way through the book, which felt intentional for me. A change of pace, even a way of knocking me a little off balance.
Kimberly Sailor: Yes, they are quite refreshing!
Cynthia Dewi Oka: That’s exactly what I intended, Brian. The book doesn’t have sections, so the interludes literally operate as intermissions, in a way, and I suppose it was also a way for me to gesture toward a larger imaginative context. The feeling of our world ending—I think that is something many people who have lived under oppression experience on a fairly daily basis. I don’t believe it necessarily carries the same meaning as it does to mainstream America, for instance. The apocalypse is also a site of possibility, and even perhaps, absurdly, celebration, as in “Ode on Her Last Day of Work,” for instance, where immigrant women finally get to stop being exploited for cheap labor.
(Ofc we are yet to see that narrative on television or film, despite the proliferation of apocalyptic cinema in the past decade!)
Brian S: Yeah, the faith I was raised in, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have this belief that the faithful who survive the apocalypse (which will have happened any day now for the last hundred years) will remake the earth into a paradise, so that fire makes renewal happen. And they’ll get to live in that paradise forever.
Cynthia Dewi Oka: I loved what you wrote in your introduction to this book’s selection for the club: “That’s fine if you can abstract it, shunt all the people with their lives and loved ones and the things that hold memories and beliefs and histories into a class of stuff that doesn’t matter because it’s not you, after all, and they were bad in some way anyhow.” I think this is true both of fire as an abstraction of the cost of achieving paradise, and paradise itself.
What if the apocalyptic and paradisiac moments were actually simultaneous, entangled? The way grief and joy can be?
Brian S: That’s a really interesting way to approach it, I think
Cynthia Dewi Oka: I think that was a big part of this book for me, was writing toward simultaneity. Both the multiplicity of worlds that I inhabit, and these experiences of extremity. Some of the most joyful organizing experiences I had, for instance, was with the Indonesian diaspora in Philadelphia, as the community was facing imminent ICE raids. And anyone who has been displaced knows that is a form of apocalypse.
Brian S: Yeah, I think about what the situation for me would have to be in order to be willing to leave everything I know and risk my life and the lives of my family to try to find a place in another country where I probably don’t know the language and don’t know if we’ll even be allowed in and apocalyptic seems to fit pretty well. World-ending.
Cynthia Dewi Oka: It is. Starting a new life is a quite literal process, and the old lives follow us, you know? I’m thinking about what Kierkegaard said, about the most painful state being that of remembering the future, especially the one you will never have.
Emily Francis: Hi, Cynthia! Really enjoying this book. I love all the different forms, including the interludes and the pictures, and also all the different poem structures. I know you mentioned some ways the interludes are working, but is there something about the story being told in this book that needed this variety?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Emily, great question, thank you!
So, I think about the many shapes that I am required to have to enter the rooms that exist in America, rooms that are not meant for someone like me. How often those shapes have nothing to do with who I am, what is important to me, what I desire.
On one hand, it is exhausting! On the other, I have by necessity learned to adapt, to create new shapes for myself as needed. The difference with a book, is that I get to decide what those are. I think of each poem as its own body, with its own voice and priorities, and for me, the specificities of form it takes is a way to honor the singularity of the poem.
Brian S: Since you mentioned form, can we talk for a moment about “The Roots Do a Live Cover of Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’” for a moment?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Of course!
Brian S: I was really entranced by the multiple ways I could read that poem. The different forms of type made it polyvocal for me, and I saw the circles as Questlove hitting his drum in those moments as well.
Cynthia Dewi Oka: YES!
Emily Francis: I don’t think I have ever encountered a poem quite like that one! Also, the pop culture references throughout were always surprising and delightful.
Brian S: But it was the font that looks handwritten that really just punched me in the gut.
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Honestly, for me the black circles were also a way gesture toward space—like outer space—breaking into the poem/page, because The Roots live album was without question the most important album for me in some of the most difficult years of my life, i.e. after my father passed and when my son was very little, and I was single mom in college trying to make ends meet—I listened to it on repeat so much I had to buy three copies of the CD because I kept scratching it.
Every time I listened, it was like I could leave earth.
Brian S: Ah, the days before we carried our music in the cloud with us everywhere.
Emily Francis: Brian, I totally thought it WAS handwriting!
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Ah yes, the handwritten font. I had to arrange those letter by letter, actually, haha, and I don’t know, I think about how the shape of writing itself is so emotional, and communicative, how something that looks like scratching on a chalkboard gestures (for me) toward innocence.
Kimberly Sailor: When you are done with these awesome insights, I’d also like to hear more about “Elegy with a White Shirt,” which I first read in the Kenyon Review. I am dumbfounded, frustrated, very still, that this poem is so timeless despite the specificity, that it feels like it keeps happening and happening. The first line just guts me, every time, because that feeling is really holding on, forever somehow. I’ve read that you worked as a community organizer; does it feel natural or unnatural to tell other people’s stories of strife? Even the generality of “my homeland,” knowing how many stories and perspectives there are to cover… does it come easily? When I try to write about other communities, I feel like I have to be very careful to not misrepresent.
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Kimberly, yeah, you hit the nail on the head. I think it was exactly the sense of being caught in a timeless dilemma that inspired this poem.
I was an organizer for about fifteen years, and as an organizer, my job was to facilitate, support, amplify from behind, and in fact, to make myself increasingly less necessary because organizing should be about people reclaiming their agency as individuals and collectives. If I am telling a story, it is because some aspect of that story is something I am claiming responsibility for, whether as a participant or as witness.
Indonesia is a country with three hundred tribes and languages and 17,000 islands. Even the government can’t speak for all of it, and certainly not for the territories it continues to colonize, like Papua. When I say “my homeland” I say that because I was born and raised in a political construct called Indonesia, and it comes with a responsibility to be attentive to what is happening for the peoples who inhabit it.
Kimberly Sailor: Three hundred tribes and 17,000 islands. I had no idea. Thank you for this.
Emily Francis: I would love to know at what part of the writing process the poem reveals its body/form to you! Is it something you know right away? Or something that emerges along the way?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Emily, the form is definitely something that reveals itself along the way for me. Very rarely do I write drafts that are in their final forms. The poems go through so many revisions to find the forms that I feel meet their priorities—for instance the “final” form of “The Roots Do a Live Cover of Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’” didn’t emerge until nearly the last stage of the manuscript.
Brian S: Every month I hope I won’t be asking this question, but it remains depressingly relevant: what’s it like trying to launch a book during a global pandemic?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: It’s hard to launch a book during the pandemic, for sure, but I have been very lucky to have been able to do both a virtual launch and an in-person launch. Those events have been so incredible because I got to collaborate with my friends and create new experiences for my readers.
Kimberly Sailor: Is your first draft just a big block of prose, or do you attempt a form to have a starting point?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: Kimberly, it very much depends on the flow of thought, I think. Sometimes I have these very long lines that go on and on and it is because my mind is working around something and I am trying to hold on to a thought that I am afraid to let go with a line break! Sometimes, it is driven by cadence, in which case I might end up with lines that look similar in length, and ends up being a block.
Emily Francis: I am so jealous you are in the Berkshires. I’ve been there once and fell in love. Has it been a good place to work?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: It’s been really lovely here. It’s quiet, and there is a big yard that my office looks out onto (sometimes bears walk by).
I have written in pretty tight confines for a long time—for most of my writing life, I had a corner of the kitchen table to work at in the hours before sunrise, lol. Having this space to myself has been new, and what’s most exciting has been the way it allows my mind to work differently, to expand and investigate feelings, thoughts, experiences—because of a lessening of urgency, I think—that I couldn’t really approach before.
Brian S: Who have you been reading lately? Anything new you’d recommend we watch for?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: I am currently reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz! I’ve been reading quite a bit here, a recent favorite is The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet. They are both incredible stylists, and truly, masters of language (i.e. their language is so muscular and flexible, it can hold any thought, and that also leads to very unpredictable thinking!), it’s such an ecstatic experience reading them.
Kimberly Sailor: Thank you for your generous time and thoughts, Cynthia! I’ll be telling my friends to buy your book!
Brian S: Last question from me: where can people find more of your work online?
Cynthia Dewi Oka: I try to keep my website updated: www.cynthiadewioka.com, and otherwise you can follow me on Instagram or Twitter at @freedewi. I do share about new publications and projects on the socials more regularly than the website.
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us tonight and for this wonderful book. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.
Cynthia Dewi Oka: The feeling is mutual; I am so grateful to y’all for spending the last hour with me!
Photograph of Cynthia Dewi Oka by Jose Quintana.