Anna Sieber on Otremba's poetry and the writer's task in the face of tragedy
Visiting Writer Paul Otremba came to PLU’s campus Nov. 9 to discuss his writing life and read excerpts from his new book of poetry Pax Americana.
Had he visited just a week later, I would have had different questions. I would have wondered more than just about the status and future of poetry (of writing, in general). I would have inquired about more than just process and craft. My peers, too, I think, would have wanted to know different things.
You see, that following Friday, terrorists attacked in Paris, and the world looked like a different place.
No—that’s not quite right.
The world was, for all its values and standards, no different that week than it was the next. But it felt wholly unfamiliar because we were forced to shine a light into its crevices, to confront its uglier parts and the horrors that comprise this time in our history.
Had Otremba visited a week later, I think we would have asked him about Paris. How do we write about this? How do we think about this? What do we read? Can we care about something that we cannot see with our own eyes? I think we would have asked about Beirut, too, and the natural disasters that hardly received mention. Why are we divided between tragedies? Why does one matter and not the other? How can we capture a history of conflict as it relates to right now?
You see, he is a writer in the new millennium. He is a writer writing about the way the world looks right now, how we make sense of those things, the images that mark this time and our understanding of the human condition. He writes of public transit. He writes of the greats. And he writes of television:
“Just the other night on television / When the heroes arrived at the goal of their quest / For friendship and love and discovered instead of redemption / A hole rent through the earth, the vampire with the soul / (That’s the other one) resigned: ‘Feels like we ought to have known.’” (“Epistle”)
And ought we to have known? That violence and natural disasters are a part of our new norm? That we are far from peace. That we often choose hate and fear before the effort to make things right?
We have a lot to learn from Otremba. Otremba is facing the past, present, and future of poetry—of writing and our role as writers—and posing the answers and questions we need to be investigating.
“Years of this across the daily feed and still hard / to connect what the mind reads with sustenance. / You either get to be the kind of person who resists / what’s coming or who helps dig under. Make it Happen.” (As Hero)
For all the things we may have asked him, Otremba, in his book, asks us to find sustenance, to face the uncertainties of this time, and to do it with some grace.