The journal Poetry Kanto, designed to bring Japanese and other international poets into dialogue, has just released its newest issue completely online. (Click here to follow the link.) In it are some translations of some important Japanese poets: ŌOKA Makoto 大岡 誠, one of the leaders of the Japanese poetic world in the mid-twentieth century, and TSUKAGOSHI Yūka 塚越祐佳, one of the new, dynamic generation of poets whose work I have been following in recent years with great interest. Alongside them is Gorō TAKANO 高野吾朗, the Hiroshima-born poet who tests the boundaries of language in his adopted language of English. Check out their work, along with the many other writers included in this issue.
The newest issue of Asymptote, one of the very best journals of international writing out there, contains lots of gems, including a short story by Tawada Yōko, who in my book, is nothing short of a genius. (Whenever I hear all of the hype about Murakami Haruki being in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature, as we did last week before Alice Munro finally took home the prize, I always secretly hope that Tawada, who is so much more creative and brilliant than Murakami, will stage a radical upset.)
Here is how the story in Asymptote begins:
One day, when you open your eyes, perhaps there will be a tiger standing beside your pillow. The sky is azure, the earth is amber, and should the two go to war, all words shall be swallowed up in the turbulence and suffer a hundred falls, a thousand scratches; and no beast, bird, or man shall be able to tell the chill from the swelter, joy from dolour. Perhaps the tiger will speak to you. No one may learn the words of the tiger, but on that day, perhaps you will listen carefully to what it says, and comprehend.
Next week, two of the most thrilling and dynamic Japanese poets, Mutsuo TAKAHASHI and Hiromi ITŌ, will be visiting Michigan for a series of three poetry readings and talks at Western Michigan University, University of Michigan, and Kalamazoo College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. Details about each of the three events can be found in the posters above. Already, the poets are talking about how to make each of the events unique and fun, so no two events will be the same.
Mutsuo TAKAHASHI (b. 1937) stunned the poetry world in the 1960s with his bold evocations of homoerotic desire. Since then, he has published more than three dozen collections of verse and countless books of essays, earning a place as Japan’s most important gay writer. In addition to poetry, he has written novels, plays, haiku, tanka, countless essays, and even an opera libretto. Five volumes of his work are available in English, including Poems of a Penisist, which became a favorite work of Allen Ginsberg, and the memoir Twelve Views from the Distance, much admired by novelist Yukio MISHIMA. Takahashi currently lives in Zushi, Japan.
Hiromi ITŌ (b. 1955) made a sensational debut in the 1980s writing about sexual desire, pregnancy, and abortion with a directness that shocked some and made her a feminist hero to others. Since then, she has become a prominent fixture in the literary world, writing with unfailing originality about women’s issues and experiences. She has lived in California since 1997 and written several prize-winning works about her experience as a transnational migrant. Her English translations include Killing Kanoko, which was on the SPD Poetry Bestseller list for over one year, and the forthcoming Wild Grass on the Riverbank. She lives outside San Diego.
"Stackable/s" by MATSUDA Aoko
Click here to read excerpts from the novella.
During the 2013 British Centre for Literary Translation summer workshop, I had the pleasure to serve as workshop leader for a group of talented young translators who had gathered from four continents in order to work with the young, experimental Japanese author Aoko MATSUDA 松田青子 on the translation of one of her novellas.
The work selected for the workshop, “Sutakkingu kannō” was a clever, surreal, and often quite funny tale about the workers in a multi-storeyed office complex. On each floor of the building, similar characters do similar things, giving rise to the illusion that as people, they are virtually interchangeable. The characters are, in a sense, “stackable”—able to be lumped together, placed in neat, conceptual piles like generic, plastic chairs placed in a pile.
Still, as the novella unfolds, those expectations are frequently undermined. Some characters do not fit in to the office and have trouble figuring out how to. Some characters defy the expectations placed upon them by their gender. Some characters see surreal visions. Some characters question their place in the office hierarchy.
The website New Writing has placed online our translation of certain passages from this wonderful novella, which gives such a good glimpse into the Japanese office workers’ inner lives. Click here to read them.
The translators at the 2013 BCLT Summer School were Asa Yoneda, Dan Bradley, Ginny Tapley Takemori, Hart Larrabee, Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, Lucy Fraser, Lydia Moed, Morgan Giles, Sam Malissa and Takami Nieda, and myself. The translation was completed in the presence of the author.
One of the most poetic visual artists is the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Each one of his small-scale installations—whether it be filled with antiques, bits of broken glass, balls, sand, or clippings from books and magazines—serves as a small, intimate world that draws the viewer in, inviting him or her to make sense of the work’s poetically suggestive juxtapositions. For this reason, the Japanese poet Takahashi Mutsuo, has long been drawn to Cornell’s work.
This World, or the Man of the Boxes
Dedicated to Joseph Cornell
Pilgrim on earth, thy name is heaven,
Stranger, thou art the guest of God.
—Mary Baker Eddy
The shade of sooty quince
The bloom of dusty roses
——And beyond that
A fence of metal wire entwined with vines
Of spiderwort or knotgrass perhaps?
There tossed among the plants
Reclining in a weather-worn wooden armchair
Hands folded at his abdomen like a dead man
Who could he be this man who looks as if
He was washed here from some distant world?
This man is a decrepit adolescent a broken angel
Swept here by the ark of dreams a boat in the shape of a box
When was that? Yesterday or a hundred years ago?
The world to which this man really belongs is not here
The world to which this man really belongs
Is far away through the fissures of dream
Guarded by sensible, steadfast parents
This man wearing a starched collar is a clever boy
He has two beautiful younger sisters
And a younger brother with an upright spirit
This family of angels with wings hidden under their fancy dress
Is enveloped in golden happiness
That world of distant memories
Is like a box floating in a galaxy of tears
One morning suddenly that box-shaped boat ran ashore
In the doorway to that timeless world of happiness
When was that? A second or a hundred million years ago?
Dreams are always nightmares interlopers with foul intent
Drawn by death the father was pulled backward
And the rest of the family were dragged quickly away
It was here they disembarked the backyard of a sickly city
Here not even angels could escape human fate
The mother grew ill from anxiety the sisters grew thin
And wrinkles spread across the brother’s spotless soul
In this false world perched atop the scales
This man was the quiet, noble head of the household
Working harder growing old faster than everyone else
But that was not the reality of who he was
His real self is hidden under the disguise of an old man
Strewn across his chair seated like a corpse
He inhales the blue-green seas of his own world of reality
Watches clouds trailing behind airplanes over the sea
And pricks up his ears to overhear the daytime dialogue of the stars
This man suddenly stands from his chair
And slowly descends through the fallen leaves
Underground he finds his own private box-like world
With objects neatly stored in shelves and drawers
Candy boxes pill boxes candle boxes
Cut-outs from old images musical scores lost wooden blocks
Shells brass rings sky blue marbles
Cracked glasses soap bubble sets——
These too are fragments of the real world
Drifted here through the fissures of dream
This man gives himself plenty of time
How long? One week or thirty years?
He chooses the fragments then puts them together
In just the right place in just the right box
While the faint reflection of the golden happiness
Belonging to the real world so far away
Turns into pale afternoon sunlight and falls
Upon his deftly moving fingers
Is this man no longer at his chair in the garden?
Is he no longer at his basement table?
If he is nowhere to be found
This man must never have been here at all
What we thought we saw was nothing more
Than the shadow of his real self
His shadowy eyelashes drawing the bow of vision toward the real world
His shadowy hands caressing the flotsam from the real world
It is not for us to lament his absence
Like little birds we should descend into the garden to bathe as usual
And play on his basement window like light
Then what about these boxes?
The objects captured inside the princesses
The ballerinas the rabbit princes
The parrots the honeybees the butterflies
Does this man lodge inside them
Borrowing the forms of these ephemeral creatures?
Like the garden and basement these boxes are also
Cheap hotel rooms inhabited briefly by this man’s shadow
It swings upon the roost pours some sand
Creates nimble cracks across the panes of glass
And then vanishes
The destination for his shadow is the real world
These wistfully nostalgic boxes before us are
The frames around the well through which
We peer into that world and are drawn in
NOTE: Takahashi originally wrote the poem “This World, or the Man of the Boxes” for an exhibition of Cornell’s work held at the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Sakura, Japan. This poem was such a success that in 2010, when the same museum once again held a large scale Cornell exhibition, the curators invited Takahashi to write one poem to accompany each of the artworks. The result was the collaborative exhibition “Intimate Worlds Enclosed: Joseph Cornell x Takahashi Mutsuo,” which drew large crowds and quickly sold through multiple prints of its catalog. The English renditions of the poems in the catalog were done by Jeffrey Angles. For more information, see the museum’s website: http://kawamura-museum.dic.co.jp/en/exhibition/201004_cornell.html.
TAKAHASHI Mutsuo (1937- ) came to international attention in the 1970s for his bold expressions of homoerotic desire. He is one of Japan’s most prolific contemporary poets, with over three dozen anthologies of free-style verse, haiku, tanka, and other forms of poetry to his name. He is also one of the most thoroughly translated contemporary Japanese poets, with four volumes of his poetry available in English. A translation of his memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance, translated by Jeffrey Angles,was published in 2012 by University of Minnesota Press.
Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art
Exhibition at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts
June 22 - Sept 15, 2013
From the museum website:
Modern Twist explores the innovative shape that bamboo art has taken since the mid-twentieth century, highlighting the creativity of 17 contemporary artists through a stunning collection of 37 works. These artists have challenged previous aesthetic conventions of bamboo art by experimenting with nonfunctional, sculptural forms, and have pushed their medium to new levels of concept and technique.
The pieces in the exhibition range from the mid-1960s to 2010, with most made during the last ten years. All but one of the artists still actively design and create new artworks, and many of the pieces have never been seen before in the United States.
Bamboo art is a unique Japanese phenomenon. As early as the eighth and ninth centuries, bamboo objects were used in Buddhist rituals, tea ceremonies, and ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), and became important features of these traditions. Bamboo art has been less widely recognized than other Japanese decorative arts such as ceramics and lacquer, but it is actually a highly demanding medium that requires years of study under the tutelage of a bamboo master. Modern Twist brings the creativity, innovation, and expertise of these artists to the forefront of the international art world.
Photo above: UEMATSU Chikuyu, Moon Rise on Autumn Fields, 2007. Bamboo (nemagaridake), rattan, lacquer, Japanese washi paper, hemp.
Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints
Exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art
Oct. 4, 2013–Jan. 1, 2014
From the museum website:
During the 1930s the Toledo Museum of Art introduced modern Japanese prints to American audiences with two landmark exhibitions. These seminal shows featured the works of 15 contemporary Japanese artists who had revived the traditional art of the woodblock print for a new era. Fresh Impressions: Early Modern Japanese Prints reassembles and reinterprets the 1930 show and adds companion objects depicted in the prints such as kimonos, Kabuki costumes, and samurai swords.
The Museum owns all but five of the 343 prints displayed in the exhibition, due to the generosity of local business leader H.D. Bennett. Another section of the show covers the period from 1936 to the present and explores the global influence of these Japanese printmakers. Fresh Impressions stresses the importance of the early 20th-century resurgence of woodblock printmaking in Japan—a phenomenon known as the shin hanga (“new print”) movement that combined traditional technique with Western inspiration—and showcases the Museum’s role in popularizing the genre in the United States and Japan. Free admission.
New English translations of Tawada Yōko
Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Translation, published by the English Department of Stanford University, has released its eleventh volume. In this issue is my translation of a series of poems by TAWADA Yōko 多和田葉子 (a writer who is nothing short of a genius in my book) called “People Born of Lines” 「線から生まれた人々」 . As I explain in an interview also included in this issue, these poems were inspired by the shapes of particular kanji (Chinese characters). For instance, she writes about the character 人 meaning “person,”
The character for ‘person’ look so sparse
No brain, no shoes to wear
If it just had hands, it could light a fire
But it cannot create light or warmth on its own
Then, in the next poem, she writes about the character 木, which means “tree” and is only a couple of strokes away from the character 人. In this playful and creative way, she works her way through a series of similar-looking characters with different meanings, thus producing a cleverly linked series of poems.
In 2011, Tawada and I read these poems together at the Worlds writer’s conference in Norwich, England, she holding up a big sign with the character being described, and me reading the English. (Martin Figura took the photograph above of me reading the poem inspired by the character for “rice.” This photograph is especially hilarious because the character for “rice” also means “America,” so it looks as if Tawada is using semaphore to telegraph my nationality from the sidelines.) Tawada and I look forward to reading this piece again when she visits Western Michigan University for a reading in April 2014.
The most recent issue of Monkey Business, is out, and it features some of the most dazzling literary voices from Japan. This is the third issue of a transpacific effort spearheaded by SHIBATA Motoyuki 柴田元幸, an extremely well known writer known for his superb translations of American novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon, Stuart Dybek, Rebecca Brown, and many others. In each of the issues of Monkey Business, Shibata, whose tastes in American literature are proof enough that he knows good writing when he sees it, has chosen some of the most provocative young writers and worked with excellent translators to bring them into English so they can co-exist in the same space with some of the great Anglophone writers.
Among the treasures in this issue are new translations of pieces by the early twentieth-century experimenters AKUTAGAWA Ryūnosuke 芥川龍之介 and YOKOMITSU Riichi 横光利一, all the way through new pieces by postmodern writers TAKAHASHI Gen’ichirō 高橋源一郎 and FURUKAWA Hideo 古川日出男. The issue even contains a manga of Kafka’s Metamorphosis by the NISHIOKA 西岡 siblings, known for their unusual, artsy style. Also inside is a small contribution from me, a translation of a short story by the brilliant writer KURITA Yuki 栗田有起, a surreal and incisive depiction of one woman’s experience with psychoanalysis. This issue also includes new work by Paul Auster, Charles Simic, Barry Yourgrau, and other leading English-language writers.
The March 11, 2011 earthquake that shook northeastern Japan also reverberated throughout Japanese society, forcing it to reconsider many of things things that it had taken for granted—its usage of energy, its relationship to the natural environment, its relationship with the government, and its modes of organizing at the grass-roots level. Almost immediately, writers took action. Many figures known for their involvement in social issues, writers such as Ōe Kenzaburō, Tsushima Yūko, and Ishimure Michiko, began respond and publish statements to the press, helping to use their influence to help shape reconstruction efforts and talk about new directions for the Japanese nation.
Perhaps the segment of the Japanese literary world where the seismic forces of 3/11 were felt most strongly, however, was the poetic world. Many Japanese newspapers include regular columns that include free verse (shi), tanka, or haiku poems, but in just the few days after 3/11, poetry began to emerge from those small columns and take a more prominent place in the news, eventually finding its way into a central position in the discourse that had started unfolding across the nation. Poetry exploded into the mainstream, serving as one of the ways that the nation thought about and processed its own complicated feelings about the disasters.
Because I was in Japan at the time and experienced the quakes, numerous aftershocks, and anxiety personally, I have been unable to forget it. After a few weeks of uncertainty and great worry, everything I had come to Japan to do was cancelled, and so I cut my stay short and returned to the United States ahead of schedule. As one way of working through the experience and my complicated feelings about returning to America, I began translating a number of poems about the quake and the resulting disasters, mostly poems written by poets whom I admire. Most of those translations have been published in various journals, mostly online.
Here is a collection of links to some of those translations. Some appear with the original Japanese. Most of the poems first appeared in the May 2011 special issue of Handbook of Contemporary Poetry 『現代詩手帖』dedicated to the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Some were also published in a special section in the daily newspaper Asahi shinbun published in commemoration of the first anniversary of the quake. Others were published in various magazines or newspapers, but still, these poems are only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. There are thousands upon thousands more poems out there.
TANIKAWA Shuntarō: “Words”
ITŌ Hiromi: “Cooking, Writing Poetry”
TANAKA Yōsuke: “Screaming Potato Field”
OHSAKI Sayaka: “Noisy Animal”
Jeffrey ANGLES: “Return After Earthquake”
David Burleigh at The Japan Times, just published this review of my translation of Takahashi Mutsuo’s memoirs Twelve Views from the Distance 高橋睦郎『十二の遠景』. He describes how the book describes the grinding poverty and difficulty of Takahashi’s early life, then states,
Takahashi invokes a world that has now mostly disappeared, along with its bitterness and hunger. Yet it was also a rich world, for those who managed to survive it.
And what was the secret of survival? Undoubtedly to some extent it was the poet’s imagination. Near the end he writes: “My undeveloped, youthful soul felt a strong affinity for what was outside my world in the realm of the other.”
With photographs and a retrospective afterword by the author, this is an excellent translation of an absorbing and necessary book.
Because I worked on this translation a little at a time, often working in half-hour increments pilfered from other projects, this translation took me a number of years from start to publication, beginning in 2006 until around 2010. It was then another couple of years before it found its way into print in late 2012 with University of Minnesota Press, which took quite a chance on deciding publish this rather unusual, but profoundly beautiful book. This project was a long labor of love, and so it means an enormous deal to me that this book review—the first to be published—is so enthusiastic.
University of Minnesota Press just published my translation of this study by the Japanese Lacanian psychiatrist Saitō Tamaki 斎藤環. When this book was first published in Japan in 1998, it struck a nerve and became a bestseller, making the Japanese public aware of the epidemic of long-term withdrawal within its own national borders. Now, for the first time, this important work is available in English.
I just read Peter Minter’s essay about Japan, poetry, translation, and the productive power of forgetting in Southern Review. From it comes this haunting passage. Check out the entire essay by clicking here.
Against the sheer existential horror of all we forget, each poem in a life becomes a fugitive, delicately precise machine for remembering an event and its organic dislocations. A poem is like an ark for a moment or series of moments, a small vessel amidst a sea of epic or reflexive forgetfulness that we glide off headlong toward our friends and readers or indeed future selves. Perhaps that is what our species has been doing for thousands of years, making poems to send information forward and outward so others can see and remember. Madeleines for the survivors. Holographs of the forgotten. Genealogies of invisibility.
Since its founding decades ago, Poetry Kanto has been instrumental in introducing many Japanese poets to the English-speaking world. Recently, the editors of Poetry Kanto placed all of its annual issues since 2005 online. This means that a small treasure trove of Japanese poetry is suddenly accessible to anyone with a computer.
I have published a number of poems in Poetry Kanto over the years, including translations of Tada Chimako 多田智満子 (2007), Itō Hiromi 伊藤比呂美 (2012 and 2011), Arai Takako 新井高子 (2012), Minashita Kiriu 水無田気流 (2007),and my own poetry (2011). Click the links above to go directly to the pages for each of these writers.
The Japan Times obituary of Donald Richie, an inspiration to an entire of generation of Japanologists , contained this observation.
Widely considered the foremost foreign writer and cultural commentator on Japan, his physical energy may have failed him at times, but his creative energy was boundless. His death, like the felling of a great tree in a forest, has changed the inner landscape of literature on Japan. It is likely, however, that his work will remain unrivaled, not simply because of its quality and dimension, but because the time he inhabited can never be re-experienced.
Indeed, Richie saw a time and era in Japanese history that can never be recaptured. Perhaps better than anyone writing in English, he taught us what it was to feel their way through the historical changes that have descended over the nation. I will never forget my long conversations with him in Ueno as he told me about the years and decades gone by.
Rest in peace, Donald. I and many other people will miss you.