Contributor Spotlight:
Interview with Derek N. Otsuji

Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We were compelled by the juxtaposition between fishing, eating, and recovery in “Bass Fishing.” How did these ideas come together for you?

Derek Otsuji: Even in the progression of a long terminal illness, there are moments of reprieve, however short-lived, that feel like grace: we are strong enough to rise from the bed, our appetite returns, we are welcomed back into life by the sun on a clear day. This poem is about what it feels like to live fully in one of those moments, knowing that such a day might not come again. Fishing, cooking, sharing a meal are a kind of ceremony whose effect is to restore, if only for a day, the health and vitality that had been lost.

RR: We were interested in the use of quatrains with a distinct pattern of drifting lines in each stanza. What inspired this structure?

DO: I believe that every poem is, in some sense, trying to find a form, a stanzaic shape that gives the subject its fullest expression. The form depends on the rhythm of the line and the pacing of the narrative as it unfolds. With this poem, the narrative just seemed to fall naturally into quatrains. But somehow, on the page, the solid stanzaic block felt ponderous, inert. I wanted to introduce into the poem’s form an element of movement—like that of, say, casting a fishing pole—so I experimented with indented lines. I really like your description of the lines as “drifting.” That’s precisely the effect I wanted to achieve.

RR: We were pulled in by the details of the natural world such as the “night crawlers” and the “hidden reservoir.” How do you approach crafting such lush natural images?

DO: I grew up on a farm and spent much of my time outdoors, so I became acquainted with insects, flowers, plants and birds before I had any interest in books. In fact, I wasn’t a bookish child at all. I preferred “reading” the natural world and attending to the creatures I discovered there. In a poem, an image must be a living image, not a specimen pinned and labeled in an exhibition case. It must move and have its being in the little biome that the poem creates.

RR: We learned from your website that you teach at Honolulu Community College; how has this experience affected your writing? 

DO: Writing comes from life. That’s what my students are always teaching me. Once writing become an academic exercise, it’s dead.

RR: What’s your favorite comfort food?

DO: Miso soup and rice, with a poached egg and spring onions for garnish. My grandmother used to make this traditional Japanese soup for me all the time when I was a child. On cold rainy days, it hits the spot.

Derek Otsuji’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here