An Interview with dg nanouk okpik
dg nanouk okpik was born in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1966. She graduated from Salish Kootenai College with an AFA in Liberal Arts and Liberal Studies. Later she went to The Institute of American Indian Arts and graduated with an AFA and a BFA in Creative Writing, until finally attending Stonecoast College to receive an MFA in Creative Writing. okpik has won the Truman Capote Literary Award, the American Book Award for her first book Corpse Whale (University of Arizona Press, 2012), and the May Sarton Award. Currently, okpik resides in Northwest Montana.
Her second book, Blood Snow, newly released from Wave Books in October 2022, is a multilayered meditation on the micro and macrocosms of the physicality of being: blood in the snow after hunting, as well as the consequences of climate change. As Terrain.org put it in their review of okpik’s Corpse Whale, okpik “overlaps pronouns, times, places, and creatures to build a layered consciousness that delivers an invigorating read.” In the interview that follows, okpik discusses how she built this overlap between the inner and outer spaces and plural and singular pronouns in Blood Snow to create a reflection of the Inupiaq identity and way of thinking.
Olga Mexina: I love your work. Your voice resonates with an integral, non-Western layer of my own identity, and your craft is impeccable. Corpse Whale, your first book, received the American Book Award and revolves around Inuit identity in the modern world, ecology, relationships between human beings and nature, and more. In Blood Snow, you build on these themes “of a homeland under erasure,” in your publisher’s words. The title itself can be interpreted and perceived simultaneously as a symbolic complex of these themes and their embodiment. How did Blood Snow come to be?
dg okpik: I remember seeing blood pool in the snow after my uncles were hunting. How the blood saturated and made the snow go from crimson red to watermelon colored. The watermelon-colored snow, though found in the Arctic, is caused by climate change. Whether it be from oil extraction or fallout from a natural gas pipeline eroding, the climate is at risk. I feel specialized, concise, clear, intoxicating language is much more effective and appealing than prose at conveying this.
OM: Similar to Corpse Whale, the use of pronouns, corresponding points of view, and the tensions between them infuse a special meaning into the symbolic landscape and poetic language of the collection. “Forgrass,” the first poem in the collection, begins, “A toil of one inside me: / She/I cast a thick, / sod-wall / time out of mind, / out of sync, off course.” Other poems have either the first-person “I” or the third-person “she” directing the point of view and qualifying the speaker. “Oil Energy & Natural Gas” juggles the two, like “Forgrass”:
She fishing in the mountains of the Brooks Range
She/I churn: hallowed antlers of many moose mountain goat;
Dall sheep gruff claps of beaver tails stir Teshekpuk lake.
Fragmentation is the name of the game in contemporary poetry, in my opinion. I think this grammatical complication/expansion mimics the fragmentary nature of our reality, where, to survive, we must superimpose our identities on top of existing narratives. Is my interpretation anywhere in the realm of your intent? What is driving this imagery/meaning?
DO: Use of pronouns, the symbolic meaning of the “I” of the poems, helps me open the poetry to new curves or slant writing to appeal to the reader, to draw them in in a physical way, to present the internal strife of one, me, she/I, mind. Especially, the “we” instead of the “I” is represented as an Inupiaq way of thinking.
Then the external world is given by metaphorical language such as boundaries. Sod walls create a sense of border, then the complications and tensions mount when the mind (internal) changes. Change is presented in an altered state of mind, which creates space for fragmentation. There is no ego. There is a transformation going on with the internal and external language. So urgent is the writing, but these times require the urgency of language.
OM: The symbolic landscape of the collection is vast and beautiful; the descriptions of the physical world make the spiritual ever more vivid. In “Early Morning Sky Blue Pink,” you write the lines:
The morning dream in a distance, an inukshuk,
young-old-women of igneous rock standing
at rest, tall and safe. In the sunglow I roll
a handful of ice silt clay, roll it in my hands until
they’re red-rose red—I don’t let them bleed….
My eyes flow, eyes of tears to the angels & archangels,
as I make wet, dry, warm, cold & fire flame. I’m off kilter.
What are the main principles/aesthetics that drive the construction of your symbolic landscape?
DO: I think of the ocean in all the many myriad ways of its state of being—whether frozen in icebergs or the movement in flowing water.
OM: How do you focus your diction in order to arrive at such a degree of symbolism?
DO: Because of the many travels in life at home and abroad, my diction is a composite of these travels and many stories told. It is comprised of beauty and the agony of man’s struggles. In eight types of symbolism that come naturally to me. I let the writing speak for itself.
OM: You are an Inupiaq-Inuit poet writing in English. How did your identity influence your development as a writer—the main struggles and successes of your process, the changes in voice, and poetic intentions of your journey? Who were the writers or outside influences that deeply fostered your style?
DO: My identity in poetics comes from the many places I’ve lived, visited, or traveled. My intentions are influenced by who I studied with at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I studied under a wondrous poet, Arthur Sze. He is a major influence on my writing. He is a master poet. Arthur Sze opened my eyes to the I Ching. He made me aware of the possibilities of chance, which I use all the time in my craft. Other influences are Anne Waldman, Derek Walcott, C. D. Wright, Forrest Gander, Charles Olson, Li Po, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many others. I’ve had many diverse teachers and mentors who have introduced me to varying poetics. Also, I use the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which ushered me into the poet I am now.
OM: You use translanguaging in your poems to evoke spirits and worlds inhabited or constructed by/through languages; your poems are multilingual in more ways than one. “A Year Dot, for Arthur Sze” begins:
(Qin) Dim Sum equivalent to dot, speck, heart
Stone piled on stone I finish my meal.
In this early sunrise I see a shadow where a cairn of rocks
stood in the eastern light.
Meanwhile, “Anthropocene” has bits of Russian and geographically oscillates from Alaska to Canada. Alaska used to be a part of Russia, a part of Chukotka, which lies across the Bering Strait. How has your geopolitical environment influenced you as a writer?
DO: I have the ethos of water in all its many roles/forms to create fluidity. Of water frozen, salt, fresh. I don’t force words into place with my poetry. I don’t carry strict intention or purpose but leave the reader with 60% of the work, and as the poet, I do 40% of the work. (As taught by Derek Walcott.)
OM: “Blood Snow at Cambridge Bay,” the last poem in the collection, creates the final recursion in the self-referential structure of the poetic narrative, indirectly redirecting the reader back to the very beginning—the title of the collection. The last poem echoes the first one’s tension between the “I” and the “She,” between—
in and out
auroras magnetic red dust searing
to the Beaufort sea
The prosody of the poem lulls me to sleep, gently pushing me out of the symbolic landscape I was inhabiting with the speaker. When I wake up, both the world and the narrator are gone. Is that how the last poem was meant to function? How did you choose it as the exit?
DO: Again, I let the writing speak for itself. Exit is a good word choice here. Natural Law vs. Man’s Law. I think the poem is meant to come full circle in thought and process—form being an extension of process and process being an extension of form.
OLGA MEXINA is pursuing a PhD in Poetry at FSU. She was born in Leningrad, USSR, and lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, until she was twelve. She has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Houston. Olga is a writer, translator, and editor. She lives with her daughter, Elsa, and son, Huckleberry, in Tallahassee, Florida.