Pic 1: Yuko Otomo, Ryoko Sekiguchi, Kyung Mi Park, Sawako Nakayasu
Pic 2: Kyung Mi Park, Sawako Nakayasu, Kiriu Minashita, Takako Arai, Rachel Levitsky

Last Wednesday I went to hear four Japanese women poets participate in a panel discussion and read poems at Poets’ House as part of the festival put on jointly by Belladonna, Poets’ House, The Japan Foundation, and Factorial. The participants were Takako Arai, who hails from a small textile village in beautiful Gunma; Kiriu Minashita, whose name, she informed us, means “energy stream”; Kyung Mi Park, a second-generation Korean-Japanese who translates Gertrude Stein and participates in traditional musical and dance performances; and Ryoko Sekiguchi, who has lived for ten years in Paris and writes in both French and Japanese (her English had a strong hint of a French accent). The panel discussion was facilitated by Rachel Levitsky, and expertly translated by Yuko Otomo (visual artist and haikuist) and Sawako Nakayasu (writer, editor, and translator extraordinaire).

I reconstruct my notes below – please forgive any choppiness or inaccuracies (if you spot them, let me know and I will happily correct this). All of the poets spoke in Japanese – Sawako interpreted into English and Yuko interpreted the questions from Rachel and the audience to the poets:

Rachel began by asking about the notion of representation that appeared in Sawako’s introduction to the book (published by E. Tracey Grinell of Litmus Press) the event was celebrating – did the participants agree that they can invent themselves rather than represent their nation?

Kiryu said that she was interested in considering concepts of GENDER & FEMINISM – how sexuality might be applied to these as well as to consumerism, a huge problem. SHe said she would like to discuss common elements as well as differences, although speaking as a woman poet living in Tokyo in the 21st century.

Ryoko said that her present environment and situation influences her poems, but that within the given circumstances there are choices. She felt that the influence of locale shifts with each book, each project. In “Two markets” she chose to speak from the position of the sexual minority, regardless of her actual sexual preference.

Kyung Mi said that people always tell her that if she writes from a Japanese/Korean standpoint she will get more attention. She said issues can be imposed from the outside, but asking questions about identity breaks down what her identity might be.

Takako said that she sees herself changing along with the poetry. She said that she’s most interested in the Japanese economic system and the forgotten textile industry. Ten years ago she wasn’t thinking about it, but now she is incorporating these issues into her work.

Kiriu said that in 1990 the immigration laws in Japan changed to allow Japanese-Brazilians to immigrate to Japan – but before that only Koreans came to mind with the word “immigrant.”

Rachel then said that all the poets were understood to be innovators poetically, indicating a resistance to the monoculture in Japan, and asked if that monoculture makes it more difficult to be innovators in poetry as well.

Kiriu replied that Japan is actually composed of five main cultures – Mongols, Koreans, Pacific (and I believe the other two were the Ainu and the Ryukyu) – at least until the 17th century when the Europeans came. She said that Japan is more of a monoculture than other cultures, but is not “pure.”

Takako agreed with Kiriu and said that now she is more interested in the Japanese language that existed before the 17th century – she says it’s interesting to go back 150 years and compare literature of different parts of Japan – she wants to recycle that older Japanese.

Ryoko said that “monoculture” is an imaginary idea. Identity can change in the work, but some elements are constant – she has a resistance to fixity and is interestd in different angles of approach in others’ work in terms of time, regions, and engagement with foreign languages – otherwise there is a risk of myopia.

Kyung Mi said that instead of thinking of Japanese literature just as Genji and The Pillow Book, it’s important to understand the difference between the written (male) language – MASURA OBURI, which was based on Chinese – and the feminine TAOYAME BURI. She said that in the 12th century, men would pretend to be women and use women’s language when they wanted to write about feminine subjects. In the 18th century, there was a discussion about the future of the Japanese language, whether to use kanji, etc.

Ryoko asked, why not engage with other languages? She said that the French assume that she must write in Japanese, and sometimes ask her why she writes in French since Japan was never colonized by France.

Kiriu then talked about the recent UTSUKUSHII NIHONGO (“beautiful Japanese”) movement – young people’s slang much despised, as are experimental writers, by those who promulgate this movement. She said she gave herself a gender-neutral name and that in women’s universities they are taking away gender & literature classes and instead giving “kirei-na nihongo” classes that train young women to talk like Japan Airlines flight attendants. She said that the gender backlash had been HIDOI (terrible) in recent years, and that gender ws the biggest target of Japan’s postwar insecurity and “emasculation.” [my word here, but I thought it fit her concept]

Rachel then asked, how are poetic identities steady, or how do they shift?

Kiriu mentioned an editor’s response to first reading Sagawa Chika – he remarked that he had seen a “big identity” there – she felt that what he really meant was talent [sorry, I don’t think I have this one quite right]

Kyung Mi said that in her teens and 20s she first fell in love with Stein’s work – particularly because Stein had studied psychology and was interested particularly in immigrants and people with psychological disorders.

Ryoko said” I am me because my reader knows me” – not that her identity exist first, and turns into work, but she’s standing in the background of her own work “what’s at satke is how far you can take that suspended state of language” – a tenuous place rather than optimistic and pretty

Takako said that in Japanese you can separate your gender as a person from your gender as a writer and that sometimes she will insert male language into her works.

The poets then each read from the newly-published book. Takako read a ghostly piece about an abandoned textile factory. Kyung Mi read a piece full of shifts and voices that reminded me a great deal of Ponge – it kept swinging from refinement to vulgarity in very interesting ways. Ryoko read a piece that seemed like a kind of vocal lettrism, highly Mallarme-ish and textual. Kiriu read a poem full of anime and sci-fi futuristic moments in a breathy dramatic style she later said was influenced by Hiromi Itoh. These were all beautifully interpreted by Sawako, except that Ryoko read her own piece in English translation as well (if memory serves me correctly) – sometimes Sawako and the poet would read alternating lines, or simultaneously, and sometimes they would read the poems first in Japanese completely and then in English completely.

A discussion followed in which I no longer took notes – my arm was hurting terribly at this point. General impressions: Kiriu is egotistical but in a very interesting way, in a grand tradition of literary egoists. I didn’t find her to be like that one-on-one at all, but on stage, she spoke first and always spoke longest, she managed to tell us that she had seven different pen names, that she was a science-fiction writer as well as a poet, that she has won prestigious prizes, and that she came from a suburb of Tokyo whose aspiration, when she was growing up, was to be utterly interchangeable with any other suburb, like the one in “Bewitched,” and that she therefore considers herself to have come from a kind of factory. With her severe “literary” bob and kakko-ii men’s suit, I was really interested in how she was playing the role of herselves and also how she was breaking the rule of modesty for Japanese women in her discourse style. She certainly fits a kind of market niche of a new hipster perception of what’s cool about Japan – sort of a woman-poet version of Takashi Murakami but with serious gender smarts and a helluva lotta moxie.

Takako seemed quite different, all smiles and deep politeness– maybe her honobono country upbringing? For me her Japanese was easiest to understand (she’s a Japanese language teacher), and I loved how the poem she read engaged with the social realities around her.

Kyung Mi’s poem was the most interesting to me – it kept going places that were entirely unexpected and added up to something very complex and intriguing.

And as a former expat myself, I really identified with Ryoko writing in and through French language and culture. I loved hearing her read in French in particular – there were so many layers to her beautiful accent and I noticed that indeed French is as smoky as Japanese is delicate and polysyllabic.

I wasn’t able to attend the other two events in the festival – I’m hopelessly worn out these days – but it was so good to meet these fascinating writers from my archipelago of choice…

Sally Silvers writes in with the following urgent message:

Bruce Andrews on Bill O’Reilly’s Show 8 pm TONIGHT!

Bruce has agreed to be ‘terrorist baited’ on right-wing pundit Bill O’Reilly’s show tonight on Fox News (Channel 46 in NYC area) from 8-9pm EST (repeated at 11).

He’ll be on O’Reilly’s feature “Outrage of the Week” for having assigned R. Sheer’s book The 5 Biggest Lies Bush Told Us about Iraq”  in one of his poli-sci courses at Fordham U.  Let’s hope he gets to call the Iraq war America’s Outrage of the Century instead.

He thought he might be on in the last 15 minutes but wasn’t sure (just trying to reduce the disgust factor of having to watch the whole show; I recommend taping it if you can).