Perseverance pays off

Joyce Odam

Photo By Larry Dalton

Joyce Odam has had time to set things up the way she likes them. Her South Sacramento house is packed tightly with papers, books and mementos of her life, all of it meticulously organized and labeled. At 80, Joyce has been one of Sacramento’s most dedicated and published poets for several decades. Now, between several weekly workshops; reading, writing and talking about poetry; and publishing projects such as Brevities, a monthly magazine of very short poems she publishes on her home computer—along with seemingly endless other publishing projects—she appears to be doing more than ever.

Describe your average day.

I get rid of the cat. I have to shut the door. I sit up in bed, put on my glasses and sip my cold coffee from the night before because I don’t want to get up, and then I start reading. And hopefully I start writing. I always say I read in order to write. But it always involves poetry, whether I’m reading or writing or revising or editing.

Is it cool to be Joyce Odam?

Why not? Would I say no? It’s got to be cool to be whoever you are. We have to accept and love ourselves and come to terms with ourselves—make peace with our failures and blemishes and all the things you don’t like about yourself. It’s all part of the package.

How big is your collection of contributors’ copies?

Oh my God. I should show you my room. Hundreds. One of the oldest—not the oldest but one of the oldest—I was most proud of was in Epos magazine, which is defunct now, of course, but it was a magazine I targeted. I said, “I know I’m right for that magazine.” I used my perseverance, and finally I did get in there.

How many books do you have in print?

Thirty or more of those little mini-chaps and maybe a dozen chapbooks. I had one hard-cover book that won a contest. I just have a few copies of it. It seems to have disappeared. I have no idea where the publisher is. I don’t even like to count it.

How has poetry been good for your life?

Despite all the rejections, it has been good because that makes you try harder. If it’s too easy, there’s not that much value in it. You have to keep struggling; you have to keep fighting for it. Each piece is a new experience.

Does poetry help you stay youthful?

I think so, even though I write dark poetry, and people can’t understand because I’m not especially dark. I think the darknesses in us are more interesting. You don’t probe your happiness; you’re just happy.

Most poetry comes out of the despair and the unhappiness and the disillusionment. You want to express it; you want to know it. You just explore these roots of yourself.

What’s it like physically to write a poem?

Exciting and frustrating. The poem comes so fast you can hardly read your own writing. That’s exciting. It’s wonderful, and you do your best to catch it. Then the poring over it, to whip it into shape—that’s frustrating because you want it to be perfect.

Did moving around when you were young contribute to you becoming a poet?

It’s all a part of it. I find that I’m searching a lot in my poetry for a sense of place. I find I reflect back to different places: rooms, hotels, streets, atmospheres.

They come into my poetry. I think the poetry was probably because I was an only child, and quiet—shy and obedient and withdrawn and all that. And reading became a passion for me. I just read and read and read. I discovered poetry when I was a child, and I’ve been trying to write it ever since.

How did you get to be such an authority on form and structure?

Staying with it. Staying with it and reading. One of my credo words, I guess, is perseverance. One of my old junior-high-school lines is “'Perseverance is a great element of success,’ so said Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” I’ve pretty much lived by that line.

The reading is the best thing. I don’t just read for the pleasure; I find out how they’re doing it. I study while I’m reading.

How many hours a week do you devote to poetry, between your own work and the workshops you attend?

It’s like a full-time job with me. I treat it as a job. My computer time, the business side—that’s all part of it. That’s what I’ve dedicated myself to do. I don’t want to go out and be something else. I’m doing and being what I want to be. This is my love. This excites me. These are the people I want to be around, these other poets. I just keep at it.