The America I Encountered: A Q&A with Paul Otremba

Article by annalia

by Annalia Linnan 

A lesson I’ve been learning this year is that sometimes you just need to let things breathe. Paul Otremba seems to have no problem with this. Between the publications of his debut collection (THE CURRENCY) and his latest (PAX AMERICANA), there are six years and at least two cities. Arguably, some of that time was spent doing edits, but that’s at least four or five years of doing something else.

In reading Otremba’s books, I was happy to discover that some of that “something” has been mixtapes and TV shows, letters and Shakespeare. He reminds me that everything we experience shapes how we write and (by extension) move in the world.

Otremba is a graduate of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, and I asked him a few questions in advance of his reading at Brazos on Friday, May 1.

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Brazos Bookstore: In THE CURRENCY, you write, “I take back nothing. I regret nothing.” In PAX AMERICANA, that sentiment returns but with more reservation: “I have tried hard to live without regrets.” How does your past work speak to your new collection?

Paul Otremba: Recently, I was talking to a friend about putting together books of poems, and he told me he thinks of his books as posing questions that he then seeks to answer. I’ve thought about individual poems in that way, but I hadn’t considered my books explicitly in those terms. I told him I didn’t know what the questions were for PAX AMERICANA until I articulated some answers for myself. Thinking about poetry, my poems included, a couple of years back, I thought up the phrase, “There is no place the mind goes.” In my first book, THE CURRENCY, I seemed to always be trying to bridge the perceived gap between observing mind and the world seen as something beyond the self. In the new book, I don’t have that anxiety as much, and the perceiving self, or mind, is explored for how it is inextricable from the world we find ourselves in. How we often find ourselves is through our language. That includes the stories and movies and television shows and poems we make to explain our place, so I spend a lot of time in the book talking about the stories and movies and television shows and poems that have helped make a place for me. The other answer I discovered that seemed relevant to my poems was “There is no outside,” which I took to mean that there is no privileged place outside ideology and politics and economics, and so everything we encounter is part of the conditions that make us possible. I wanted to let those conditions come to the surface of the poems.

BB: What is something you regret?

PO: Before graduate school, I spent a lot of time working in restaurants, but it was mostly front of the house jobs, waiting tables and bartending and managing. I wish I would have spent more time working in the kitchen. I did a little of that in high school, at this place that didn’t know if it wanted to be a roadhouse or a supper club. I love to cook, and I wish I had taken the chance to learn more closely from masters at it.

BB: The notes in both your books include a variety of influences, some you would expect from a poet (Shakespeare, Camus, letters penned by Keats) and some less so (Ice Cube’s “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up,” THE SOPRANOS, ANGEL). How does drawing from different media shape your work?

PO: I started to talk about this a little bit in the first answer, but I can add that after my first book, I felt that my poems hadn’t made room for the full range of my tastes and experiences. I can find ANGEL and Ice Cube just as helpful in trying to find a vocabulary fit for my experience, or to find some language to frame my thoughts and feelings, as I might discover in the letters of Keats. Letting in those sources felt honest to how I encounter the world.

BB: There are six years between THE CURRENCY and PAX AMERICANA. When did PAX AMERICANA begin to come together as a whole? Were there whole other collections you conceived before it became this one?

PO: There were other drafts, some that have groups of poems that ultimately didn’t make it into the final version of the book. Some of those poems may find a home in another book, others I was glad to just let be. The oldest poem in the book (an early draft of what became “From the Provinces”) was started in 2005. The book really came together, however, around two periods of productivity. One was around the time I started writing the letter poems about six years ago. The other was the two years I spent working in Dallas and driving back to Houston on the weekends. That started just before the 2010 elections, and the America I encountered on the highways of Texas and coming through my radio to keep me company had effects on me that found their ways into the poems.

BB: You have no idea who we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

PO: What is a sentence or phrase you read or revisited recently that captured you? What about it arrested you?

BB: Speaking of, Kirstin Valdez Quade wants to know: What’s the worst advice about writing you’ve ever received and why?

PO: Mostly the bad pieces of advice out there are those hackneyed prescriptions that are either not honestly followed by writers or that are really just narratives of a particular writer’s practice. It is helpful to hear how other writers make it happen, but I’ve found no alchemical recipe. I only have habits, and when a habit ceases to be useful (writing every day for a few hours, writing consistently at a certain time of day, writing from exercises, etc.), I have to get a new habit and work it. But if I could relay the best advice I’ve ever gotten as a writer, it is to read, to read widely and closely. I also like to have some books I love with me when I write.

Pax Americana Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9781935536567
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Four Way Books - April 7th, 2015

The Currency Cover Image
$15.95
ISBN: 9781884800894
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Four Way Books - April 1st, 2009

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