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.
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.
Jane Nakagawa 中川ジェーン
falling short of useful questions
a tsunami for my ripped up heart
the earthquake creates a lapse
in crude town feelings
a tsunami for my ripped up heart
and value-free science
in crude town feelings
as if by an invisible hand
and value-free science
still paying the rent
as if by an invisible hand
moving capital around the globe
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s sixth poetry book, notational, was recently published from Otoliths in 2011. She lives in central Japan. Email is welcome at janenakagawa at yahoo dot com.
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.
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 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.
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.
I recently stumbled upon this dialogue between the poet Takahashi Mutsuo 高橋睦郎 and the designer Hara Ken’ya 原研哉, in which they explore a number of topics having to do with art, language, and the power of words. One of the several things that struck me in this dialogue, were Takahashi’s comments on his attempts to move away from “individuality.” Considering that these come from one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Japanese letters (and an author on whom I’ve done a lot of critical work), these comments struck me as somewhat surprising.
I have never believed in the concept of “individuality” at all…Imagine that there is an apple and a peach, and that I am to paint a picture of them. At this time, my individuality is not necessary. What is necessary is the individuality of the peach and the apple. I should express and return that individuality as accurately as possible. I should return a peach and an apple. At that time, I require only the individuality of the peach and the apple. Perhaps my own individuality can be of use in accomplishing this, however revealing my own individuality is not the ultimate goal.
Speaking from my perspective, the more I express my own individuality, the deeper I fall into a hell from which I may not be able to rescue myself. I think that the modern hell is a hell created when everyone asserts themselves all the time.
So what is the purpose of expression? In the end, it is to redeem oneself from the hell of one’s own individuality through those subjects a person wants to express.
Whereas most people tend to think of language as a tool to assert individuality, Takahashi suggests that instead, it ought to more properly represent a tool to overcome individuality, to allow the outside world to travel through the self. In his other work, he has suggested that the image of a unified self is always predicated on a sort of lack or absence—a knowledge that the self is not total but, rather, cut off from the outside world through the prison of the body. Perhaps language is not a tool for conveying individuality after all, but merely a means to allow the outside world to flow through us and, in the process, to assuage the pain of being formulated through absence.
University of Minnesota Press just published my translation of Twelve Views from the Distance, the memoirs of TAKAHASHI Mutsuo, originally published in Japan in 1970. The book is a beautiful object: the cover is embossed, and the design shows a small boat floating on a distant sea. In many ways, this captures the right mood for this memoir, in which one of Japan’s most important poets looks across the distance of the years and remembers his poverty-stricken youth in Kyushu during World War II.
On the back of the book are two blurbs. The first is by Edmund White, the great American known for his bold, homoerotic memoirs. (I was thrilled that White, whom I read with such interest during my own adolescence and coming out, agreed to write the blurb for my translation.)
Twelve Views from the Distance is a wrenching memoir about growing up in southern Japan during the war and just afterward in an extremely poor family of day laborers. Utterly dependent on his hard-bitten grandmother and his often absent mother, Mutsuo Takahashi withdraws into himself and lives in his very rich imagination. That he was destined to become Japan’s leading gay poet may or may not be obvious from these painful but lyrical memories.
The other is from MISHIMA Yukio, who wrote the following in 1970, just a few months before his dramatic suicide.
Mutsuo Takahashi has managed to achieve firm prose that, while unmistakably the work of a poet, shines with a black luster much like a set of drawers crafted by a master of old. This book is a magnificent collection of sensations and of memories, much like the toys we might find in a dark closet. The part toward the end in which the theme of his ‘search for a father’ crystallizes in a copy of an erotic book radiates a certain tragic beauty.
My translation of this book was supported through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the PEN Translation Fund. Thank you for believing in this project.
The always fantastic online literary journal Guernica published my translations of the poem “at the side (côtés) of poetry” by the avant-garde Japanese poet YOSHIMASU Gōzō 吉増剛造. This poem is his response to a request byAsahi shinbun for a work about life in the post 3/11 world, and it appeared in an online collection of poets by major contemporary poets, as well as in the leading Japanese poetry journal Handbook of Contemporary Poetry 『現代詩手帖』. This translation will also appear in a collection of Gōzō’s work currently being edited by Forrest Gander.
Translating Gōzō’s work is not easy, considering how often it employs word play, sound associations, play across multiple languages, and even random-seeming personal asides; however, the results, I think contain many of the same playfully messy, challenging, and brilliant turns of the original. Check it out by clicking here.
Poetry Reading by Jeffrey Angles (in Japanese)
"La voix des poètes" series (Organized by Tendō Taijin)
The new October 2010 issue of Gendaishi techō 現代詩手帖 [Handbook of Contemporary Poetry] is a special issue dedicated to the translation of poetry, and it contains a number of articles about translation, roundtable discussions, original works of poetry, and some translations themselves.
Among them, is my own poem called 「同居人」 (The Co-habitant) in which I use the image of a stalker outside a house, rather like one might see in a horror/suspense film, as a metaphor for the work of a translator. Also in the same issue is a transcript of a talk that I did last year in Tokyo with the talented poet Tanaka Yōsuke 田中庸介 and the haikuist and translator Miyashita Emiko 宮下惠美子.
朗読会＋トーク：ジェフリー・アングルス、関 悦史、田中 庸介 2012.11.10 （土）
Today I received copies of the poster for one of the reading/talk events I will be doing during my whirlwind trip to Tokyo in November. (Right now, there are five readings and talks planned at different universities and venues.) This one, entitled “Nanopoetry and Macropoetry,” will be with the wonderful poet Tanaka Yōsuke and the haikuist Seki Etsushi, and it will be a poetry reading intermingled with lots of discussion. Hope to see my Tokyo friends there!