Executive Interview: John Okrent 

Dr. John Okrent works at Sea Mar community health clinic in Tacoma and has been seeing patients with symptoms resembling COVID-19. Writing poems at night, Okrent said, helps keep him from feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic.   (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Source Image: The Seattle Times

Recently, I met with John Okrent, one of my favorite writers of this year, to discuss his writing process, advice for upcoming writers, and the core of his work which focuses on the global pandemic. 

Okrent, a poet and the author of This Costly Season is also a family doctor, father, and husband. He grew up in a small town in western Mass and moved to NYC when he was 11 years old.

He had been writing since he was a little kid and started “because of the way reading poetry made me feel. That feeling that Dickinson describes as ‘the top of your head having been taken off.’ I wanted to do that. I think that being alive is a wonderful thing, that the world is a beautiful place, and I wanted to praise it.”  

When discussing the writing process, Okrent reminded me of the best parts of it, leaning into the personal, reflecting beautifully on how “it helps me to think and is my own form of meditation. It helps me pay closer attention.”  

When I asked him about his advice for young writers trying to figure out their own process, he emphasized, “Read. Read. Read. Read…Poets can learn a lot from essayists and novelists—all of it, and it goes both ways.” 

We also touched on his work and if there was a certain moment that inspired him to start: “I wrote the first sonnet one night after a particularly distressing day at work and listening to the news and feeling a sense that this was not going away and was only going to get worse.” 

His book was intentionally structured into a crown, or corona, of sonnets, which, to him, “felt apt because all of those days of the early pandemic felt so terribly linked and inescapable, one bleeding into the next.” And after reading his work, beyond its remarkable lyrical beauty heard like a caring, beating heart, you’ll be able to see exactly what he’s just said too.  

I also asked Okrent for advice on dealing with an inner critic, which he noted, “Remind yourself that when you are writing your first drafts, they are just for you. No one else ever needs to see them. Write wildly, bravely, even recklessly.”

And when dealing with rejection, “make sure you are reading the places you are submitting. Is this where you really want your work to be? If so, just keep trying.” He added that “Rejection is the norm, not the exception.” In other words, this is inevitable; it’ll be okay.

Out of curiosity about his sonnets ending in 2020, I asked if he’s written anything after that takes on the world’s next season. Okrent ended the interview, and even his work, by saying he hasn’t written anything explicit about the pandemic and that he tried to formulate some sort of closure by saying there is no closure, which is why his work ends with a simile…