Each month, THERMOS interviews a past contributor; August’s star is Janine Oshiro. She answered our questions and sent along a new poem (you can also check out her five poems from our second issue). Enjoy!
THERMOS: How does what you’re writing now differ from the poems we published?
JANINE OSHIRO: The poems in Thermos and most of the poems written during that time and the years before belong together. They are a thematically complete group of poems that I am not interested in adding to, so I feel as if I have been starting over in some sense, not sure of what I’m really doing. I’m fine with that. I learned something from making those poems and now I am ready to do something else, something that is nothing like those poems, if possible. I am not interested in having a particular project that I write poems into. I’d rather work on individual poems and figure out how and if they work together after a few more years. Writing for the past two years has been difficult and sporadic. The handful of poems I have been working on lately have little sense of cohesion, though they seem to be exploring worst case scenarios and states of emergency. Kitchen tables exploding. Children directing traffic. Supermold with the power to eat up a house. Some feel very loose and conversational and others feel like tightly wound metrical objects. Lately I’m more interested in the ones that are tightly wound. I’ve been fooling around with a mostly 2 beat line, with the line slicing an uncomfortable angle. I want to achieve more compression, rigorous music, uneasiness.
TH: What are some of the first poems/poets you loved? How do they seem to you now? How do they relate to your own work?
JO: The first poem I loved was “Stepping Backward” by Adrienne Rich. I was comforted to read: “We are a small and lonely human race / Showing no sign of mastering solitude / Out on this stony planet that we farm.” And later: “But all we can confess of what we are / Has in it the defeat of isolation– / If not our own, then someone’s, anyway.” Reading this poem made me want to write poems. It made me feel less lonely. I haven’t read Rich for many years now, but I needed this poem 15 years ago. Looking back at her again, I prefer the early poems.
I have had one constant and dear friend from my first poetry class until today: The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. I turn to that book more than any other. I remember first reading “The Armadillo”—the moment when the “short-eared” rabbit jumps out: “So soft!—a handful of intangible ash / with fixed, ignited eyes.” That moment is still astonishing to me, the body transforming to ash the moment you touch it. Her poems first seemed so conservative and kind of well-behaved, but the more I read her the more her poems become unexpectedly risky and strange. I may get obsessed with a new book or poet for a period of time, but I always return to Bishop.
Caryl noted that her list of first poets lacked girls—not me. I first read and loved women poets: Anne Sexton, Mary Oliver, though I came late to Sylvia Plath. Doesn’t every girl have a Mary Oliver phase? Oddly, or perhaps not, the poets I’m most interested in right now are Ammons, Hopkins, and Whitman. A few years ago I sold my Whitman, vowing never to read him again, but this summer I am in love with him—it’s true, he stopped somewhere waiting for me.
TH: What’s something you noticed about the poems—or a particular poem—by the contributors in the issue of Thermos you were in?
There were many striking poems in that issue, but there were a few poems I kept going back to. I kept lingering at Mia’s “First Hector, Then Achilles, Then Troy.” How can this poem encompass detainees and pimple cream and clowns and still feel reverent and quiet and rather intimate? It’s a powerful poem. I love Chas’s poem “New Face,” especially the “hand shaped like an ampersand.” I’m interested in how that fruit bowl is funny but kind of terrifying, and the poem as a whole is pretty violent but also really hopeful. Hopeful! I’m intrigued by Helen Parson’s drawings, particularly the one on the page with my name (not just because of my name). I’d like to see a whole book of these strange and wonderful creatures.
TH: What’s your typical day like this month?
JO: This month I’ve been obsessing over my extreme love/hate relationship with Whitman and looking up every single reference made in Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer, which my American Lit class is currently reading. (Why can no one agree on the origin of scalping?) I’ve also been watching Civil War documentaries like mad, baking sweet cream biscuits, and trying to find something to do with plantains. I try to do at least one fun non-work related thing everyday, and this month I’ve mostly managed it! Today my fun thing is beet salad. Beets are fun!
TH: What do you dream of but feel in some way limited from achieving? Does that affect your poetry in some way?
I’m intrigued by this question, though I don’t really want to answer it specifically. I believe in limitations. Maybe I should say that I believe in a lively, generative grappling with limitations in both life and a poem. I don’t think that anything can happen in a poem. I know that all my dreams in life can’t come true. I can’t achieve everything that I want. And yet that does not stop me from dreaming and longing for the impossible. I am, in the deepest part of me, happy. Longing for what I know I can’t achieve doesn’t make me delusional, nor does it fill me with despair I can’t handle. Stubborn persistence in the face of the impossible has everything to do with my experience of writing poems.
A new poem from Janine:
Hear Ye, Hear Me
Sister Worst a
What’s coming is
to end and what
ensues, the script
One, the other
mouth, a froth
“Even her funny
bone a broken
a batter batter
cord cut up a
I don’t think
who made up
She throws her
to the Acoustic
Janine Oshiro lives in Hawaii, where she teaches at Windward Community
College and coordinates a poetry program for 3rd-12th grade students.
She is glad to be among such fine company in Thermos.