Distinguished Writers

By Carlie Sisco, English and creative writing, '19
Widener Pride statues
Cynthia Dewi Oka
Poet Cynthia Dewi Oka visits Widener as part of the English and Creative Writing Department’s Distinguished Writers Series.

Poet Cynthia Dewi Oka visited Widener on Nov. 12-14 as a part of the English and Creative Writing Department’s Distinguished Writers Series.

Oka, a three-time Pushcart Prize Nominee, published her debut collection of poetry with Dinah Press called “Nomad of Salt and Hard Water” in December 2012. A second edition with new and revised poems was published in April 2016 with Thread Makes Blanket Press.

Oka’s latest collection is titled “Salvage: Poems.” Published in December 2017 with Northwestern University Press, the work interrogates what it means to reach for our humanity through the guise of nation, race and gender.

On campus, Oka was the featured speaker at the Honors Freshman Composition Forum. She also met with several students for tutorials and visited creative writing courses. For many students, Oka’s visit was transformational.

Rohan Suriyage, a senior English and communication studies double major, found Oka’s presence and communication to be like that of a friend. Suriyage, along with classmates, said he gained incredible insight from the visiting writer in a short amount of time.

“Her prowess for effective writing, aesthetic, and finding a writer's voice is truly incredible,” Suriyage said. “I've rethought the way I approach my writing, for the better, of course, and I thank her.”

Oka concluded her visit with a public reading during which she read new, never-before-published work about Indonesian history and culture, specifically the 1960s mass killings, which the Indonesian government and citizens do not acknowledge.

She utilized documents once deemed to hold classified information on the killings to formulate a narrative, bringing to light the tragedy of what happened, as well as the integration of Indonesian culture. After the reading, Oka took time to answer questions regarding politics and poetry, sign copies of her book, and speak to students.

Domenic Gaeta, a senior anthropology major, found Oka’s new poetry on the tragic killings in Indonesia to be powerful, rich in detail, and attention grabbing.

“I would have never thought to use classified documents as the general vocabulary makeup of a poem, nor would I think to write about such tragic events,” Gaeta said. “Still, I knew each time she was telling a story that needed to be told.”

Much of Oka’s poetry has been published online and in print in such places as The American Poetry Review, Guernica Magazine, and Apogee Journal. In addition, Oka is a contributor for anthologies such as Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism and Who Will Speak for America among others.

She has also been awarded the Fifth Wednesday Journal Editor’s Prize in Poetry, as well as the Leeway Foundation Transformation Award. She is currently pursuing a masters in fine arts as a Holden Fellow at Warren Wilson College.

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