Hobart Festival of Women Writers is delighted to welcome Cynthia Dewi Oka as a Participating Writers for Festival of Women Writers 2018.
Award-winning poet Cynthia Dewi Oka is the author of Salvage: Poems and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water. She has contributed to a diverse selection of anthologies, including Who Will Speak for America, Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism, Best of Kweli: An Aster(ix) Anthology, Read Women, Dismantle, and Revolutionary Mother: Love on the Frontlines. She has performed her poetry at venues throughout the country. Oka is a three-time nominee for a Pushcart Prize and is the recipient of the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor’s Prize in Poetry. She has also received scholarships from Vermont Studio Center and Voices of Our Nations (VONA). Born in Bali and currently based in the greater Philadelphia area, she is a 2016 Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grantee for which she partnered with Asian Arts Initiative to create Sanctuary: A Migrant Poetry Workshop. Additionally, for The Blueshift Journal’s Speakeasy Project, she has served as a poet mentor.
Cynthia Dewi Oka speaks with Stephanie Nikolopoulos for HBVFWW
SN: You received a grant from the Leeway Foundation to run Sanctuary: A Migrant Poetry Workshop alongside the Asian American Initiative. What was the objective of the workshop? How can we as readers and writers better engage with and support poets with migrant backgrounds?
CDO: The workshop was meant to develop a craft foundation for emerging migrant poets in Philadelphia with a curriculum that centers international poets and poets of color, foster trust, and community among those whose lives, experiences, bodies and languages have been devastated, erased, and criminalized by American empire, and create a space for us to experiment with a multiracial, multilingual, and multicultural migrant poetics. To support poets with migrant backgrounds, I think it’s critical that American readers and writers learn to navigate a sense of estrangement when engaging with our work. Too often, I think, Americans expect us to render our lives in ways that are easy for them to consume and mistake that consumption for understanding or empathy. And of course—read, publish, review, amplify many more migrant poets!
SN: You were one of the contributors to the anthology Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism, which was published earlier this year. What does this “new”—fourth-wave—feminism mean to you and your work?
CDO: For me, it means the voices and perspectives of women, nonbinary, and LGBTQ folks have, in this moment, more universality and resonance than ever before—thanks to our own persistence and ingenuities. We have more capacity to define and intervene in the historical, political, and cultural contexts within which we are writing. We are establishing new norms and holding patriarchal institutions that have marginalized us more accountable than before. That means, for me anyway, more responsibility to model feminist ways of holding and using power. We’ve got to be able to debate what that looks like without resorting to “canceling” human beings. I come from a displaced people, an unwanted people. As a poet, I strive not to be afraid to look at anything we humans are capable of. As a survivor, I know that not even language can destroy me.
SN: Both of your poetry collections—Salvage: Poems(2017) and Nomad of Salt and Hard Water(2016)—explore the themes of identity and language, and in doing so your work deals with fragmentation and resilience in both content and form. Would you say the same holds true for your writing process—do you shape your poems by breaking them apart and putting them back together again—and could you tell us a little about your writing process?
CDO: I am definitely a radical reviser. I love breaking drafts apart and open, then rewriting with new horizons in sight. For me writing a poem is a migratory process, it’s about learning how to be in the world in a new and unanticipated way. I try [to] write a complete draft in one sitting. Then I put it aside. I live and read and watch a bunch of other things, before coming back to it with a hammer. The revision process takes me longer than generating, usually at least a few months before I feel “ready” (which isn’t necessarily the same as feeling “finished”) to live with the poem for the foreseeable future. As a poet, I tend toward the dark. I used to feel self-conscious about that, but now I accept it as a gift because it’s in the cover of darkness that we plot the fall of the king. It’s in darkness that we make our escape.
For Hobart Festival of Women Writers 2018, Cynthia Dewi Oka will present the very timely workshop, Poetry as Migrancy. As immigrants are being criminalized, detained, and deprived of their civil and human rights – a process made possible by acts of language and rhetoric, the workshop will explore how we read migrant qualities in American poetry through their craft elements, and what we might learn about the act of writing poems when we put on a migrant lens.
for the full description of this workshop and all of the other workshops offered for Festival 2018. go to Workshops