Review: dg okpik Craft Talk

by Eva Whitney, February 21, 2024

Poet dg okpik visited the Arts Research Center on October 5, 2023 for a craft talk following her reading through the Lunch Poems series. The full recording of the craft talk is available for viewing on ARC’s YouTube channel, here, and the Lunch Poems reading is available for viewing here.

dg okpik stands at the podium

What’s in a word? On October 5, poet dg okpik visited the Arts Research Center to give a craft talk following her Lunch Poems reading earlier in the day. Interested in getting to the very core of a word, parsing it apart, and unfurling its layers, okpik described her process, background, and current life as a storyteller for her Inupiaq lineage. okpik, born and raised in Anchorage, is the author of Blood Snow (Wave Books, 2022) which was a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and Corpse Whale (University of Arizona Press, 2012), which won the American Book Award and the May Sarton Award. okpik is a Lannan Foundation Fellow at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She now lives in Santa Fe where she works on her poetry practice.

okpik began first by describing her surnames—her personal words—revealing that “nanouk” is from her matrilineal side and refers to a polar bear, while “okpik” means “snowy owl.” okpik has begun the process of learning Inupiaq after not being raised speaking it. An adopted child, okpik straddled her Inupiaq heritage and her parents’ German-Irish identity; as okpik said, this doubleness gives more perspective on both worlds. We can see this sense of duality in her poetic practice: each poem is first written in Inupiaq, then translated to English, and back, the movement resulting in pieces that are compact and assured in their diction. Inupiaq, okpik explained, can tell a whole story in a single word, while English involves more trudging through. Her indigenous language has no “I,” but rather uses “we” in place of a personal pronoun. We can see this appear in okpik’s use of “she/I,” invoking a sense of the whole being, the voice of both the poem and the speaker, as well as the many voices that are behind her. Inupiaq is unique, too, in its circular temporality and nonlinear sense of time. Despite reading her in English, there is a sense of an influence of some more expansive language behind okpik’s work.

dg okpik close up, smiling

okpik’s attention to the word comes alive in her poetry. She begins with the dictionary, defining an interesting word, turning it over, and carefully pushing against it. The idea of the “periphery” intrigues her, how marginal uses of a word can be used to “twist, turn, and tweak” it. She traces how the word moves in the world, and how its connotations bring it outside of itself and reinvent it. okpik describes her poems as having a “lighthanded decorum,” clear, concise, and to the point. As she edits, she is constantly cutting away until a piece is at its most essential form, “until the words don’t have anything more to say.” Language is regarded as a living thing, and she watches where it wants to take her.

okpik borrows poet Gary Snyder’s idea of using the page as a field, playing with the silence that an extra gap or space can imbue into a poem. Her sparse use of language gives extra weight to each word, honoring it and letting its meaning reverberate outwards. Just as polar bears and snowy owls are part of okpik’s name, her work is in touch with life itself, giving a special recognition to the natural world. okpik’s craft talk and detailing of her meticulous methods give insight into how her poems come to feel as if they breathe on their own, communing with language and nature in a way that feels sturdy and subtle.

Bio: Eva Whitney is an undergraduate at UC Berkeley studying comparative literature. Born and raised in San Francisco, she attended Ruth Asawa School of the Arts for creative writing and has been immersed in the city’s art scene her entire life. She has led poetry workshops at 826 Valencia, been a gallery assistant, and currently runs a creative writing publication through the Comparative Literature Department at UC Berkeley as well as works as ARC’s communications assistant. Her work has been featured in NYU’s brio Literary Journal and BAMPFA’s Student Committee Film Festival. Having just returned from a study abroad program in Barcelona, Eva is using her final year at Berkeley to write a senior honors thesis.