The Argotist Online
A brief excerpt from
this conversation was published in Horse
Less Review in 2016.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of over a dozen poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Poems: New and Selected (Isobar, 2018), <<terrain grammar>> (theenk Books, 2019), and, as editor, women : poetry : migration [an anthology], also with theenk, 2017, which includes the work of 50 female poets currently living in a country other than that of their birth. She is particularly interested in poetry and essays by ex-pat writers, as well as feminist avant-garde poetries, disability poetics and ecopoetics. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.
poems have appeared in Illuminati Girl Gang, The Feminist
Wire, and most recently, Touch the Donkey. She has an essay
forthcoming in Electric Gurlesque, the second edition of the
Gurlesque poetry and poetics anthology. Her newest chapbook, You're Just
an Object To Me, is available online via Our Teeth Press. She helps
teach kids about their local ecosystems and gets paid to inspire wonder and
stewardship at gorgeecology.org.
I saw that Horse Less Press is (from late October 2015) accepting chapbook
submissions only from writers of color, and another series is for "no white
guys.” I'm learning a lot about this issue through posts from people like Amy
King on the (all female) HemPo elist, about white (male and perhaps some would
add also straight and abled-bodied, etc.) domination of the poetry world. I'm
also aware there is still the issue of "separate" anthologies,
separate in terms of race, such as in the U.S., for example, What
I Say and Black Nature, or separate in terms of gender, sexual orientation,
region, poets living with disability (Beauty
is a Verb) and others.
Some of those articles on HemPo have been so useful to me as well! Like King's post
on Literary Activism, but then *especially* the response
from Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, et al., which blew my mind and heart right open. I
felt like they were putting into words something that I've been struggling to
think through lately. Right now, I earn my income as a care-worker for adults
with developmental disabilities, and for most of the clients I've worked with
that includes physical disabilities as well. I've done this for over a year now
and it's complex and challenging and incredible work. But I'm also a poet, a
writer, a student again. I've been struggling to think through what it means to
be these two different (different?) things, how and where and when they
intersect, what my responsibilities are, how to be an advocate not just in my
job but when I'm writing, etc. These conversations on activism and how it exists
in addition to, not just within, literary work have been really helpful.
I wonder if you have a
sense of activist communities that exist right now in Japan: what might be
comparable to, say, our Occupy movements, our discussions of the 1%... have you
been aware of any reception in Japan regarding these things, and/or the
increasing concerns regarding police brutality and race politics? This is a big
thing I'm asking you to comment on, I know. And I realize that in my asking,
I’m lumping together wildly different issues…
Violence against and the killing of, especially, African American youth by US
police officers has certainly been in the news here. We don't hear of such
things happening in Japan. Japanese police don't use their guns very much.
Legally, ordinary people can't own guns for self-defense purposes in Japan.
Violent crime is much less common here compared to the U.S. although it occurs.
Gun crime is almost non-existent. There was an article
in The Atlantic in 2012
that can be found online on the latter topic if of interest. I think the article is still relevant now. Feminist, LGBTQ and persons
with disabilities activists exist in Japan of course, and though many of their
activities may be somewhat more below the mass media radar, relatively speaking
they are not entirely invisible; good news is that two wards in Tokyo will as of
Nov. 2015 issue certificates to same sex couple ward residents—these are not
legally binding but are intended to help combat discrimination in such areas as
hospital visitation rights and apartment renting—many here are closeted to
avoid discrimination in workplaces and elsewhere.
I want to bring up the incredible anthology you mentioned, Beauty is a Verb, which I'm embarrassed to say I had not heard of.
How is your conception of being a poet shaped or not shaped by physical
obstacles? Are you much interested in an identity shaped by these things, or do
you see them as having very little to do with the way you write? Part of what I
want to ask, if this makes sense, is: what is at stake for you, in terms of
thinking about the poetry world(s) you inhabit and these intersections of gender
and ability; what is at stake in terms of these kinds of anthologies that bring
together poets under a particular (marginalized) heading?
I am not myself a contributor to Beauty is
a Verb, but I learned of it through some or another elist of poets/poetries.
I was (am) very excited by it. I sought out one of its editors, Jennifer
Bartlett, because I like her poetry and the anthology—we had a conversation
that was published in 2014 in Jacket2. I
share a condition with one of the anthology contributors, though based only on
her contribution I'd say our experience of the condition is very different. But
of course I find a sense of affinity too, and with other contributors via their
essays/poetry in the anthology. Mainly I would say that being a chronic pain
sufferer causes me to refrain from doing certain activities as well as causes me
to choose to do others (both in order to reduce the amount of pain I am in).
There are some references in poems I've written to my own health or that of
other people's. It's just a part of who I am of course, just as being a poet is
a part of who I am—but of course big parts in both cases. Jennifer said to me
she is a person with a disability first, secondarily female or feminist; her
identity as or experience of being a mother she also cited as a big influence. Beauty
is a Verb contributor Kenny Fries wrote somewhere that when visiting Japan
he liked being seen as a foreigner first and a person with a disability second.
In Japan I feel I am a feminist first, and an immigrant second, or that
my being a woman is more limiting in a way because of the society being great in
many respects (I like it here in Japan!) but still male-dominated.
We all have complicated
identities. I feel that I am Japanese most of the time. When speaking English
with other expats from the US however I may feel like an expat, somewhat, at
those times, but with the caveat being an expat who has been here a long time
which would describe the expat friends I have, I mean we are Japanized expats,
long-time residents. My identity doesn't trouble me so much however. Of course,
I am an immigrant. Though the phrase "Japanese American" or
"Asian American" exists in English, the expression, "American
Japanese" (which would be Amerika kei nihonjin) is not used here in Japan,
so you are either a foreigner or you are a Japanese person as far as the local
language is concerned. Many people would not agree however on what those mean,
in terms of what makes a person Japanese or a foreigner here. As far as minority
poets and minority poetries, I am aware mostly that as a so called avant garde
or experimental poet, I am a minority among minorities (I think of experimental
poetry as a non-mainstream form of poetry which is itself not very mainstream),
and also as a poet who writes in English but lives in a country like Japan where
English is a foreign language. I'm not part of the Japanese poetry scene because
I am writing in English, and you would find more of that based in Tokyo, where I
You mentioned that most of your friends in Japan are not interested in poetry,
so I'm curious how you satisfy a need for a poetic community where you're
currently living, or if that's a need that has subsided since living in Japan,
or that you ever even felt to begin with? Do you feel plugged in to any
particular communities of writers here in America, or elsewhere? What about
poetry readings you've attended or participated in abroad?
Not particularly or exclusively the U.S. My contact is mostly through email. I
do know some poets living in Japan but not many in my immediate community or
communities (I divide my time between a small city and a remote mountain region,
both in central Japan). Most of my close friends like neither English nor
poetry, I mean the people I interact with frequently face to face in my daily
life. I live in the sticks (that describes all of central Japan! Though some
parts more so than others—some would describe all of Japan other than Tokyo
about you? About your own poetry community?
My experiences of poetry communities have largely been shaped by academia.
Insular, prescriptive, competitive. I feel like "academic community"
doesn't count as Community (is an oxymoron, even) and yet I know that's not
necessarily everyone's experiences of academia and/or their main framework for
thinking about community.
I guess as an undergrad
at a small liberal arts college, I did feel more of a sense of community between
myself and other writers/poets, and there were many events and activities that
happened outside the classroom space, and some sense of interaction/dialogue
between those of us on campus and those of us who weren't.
As a grad student, I
thought I'd find even more of a sense of belonging and community, given that I
was entering a space even more wholly invested in and dedicated to writing and
books and poetry; how could it not be a space in which I'd feel greater senses
of belonging? Instead, I found that the divide between any sense of local
community and what was going on on campus was so large. Local writers and
artists never seemed to be a part of readings on campus, for example. And I
don't mean they weren't interested, I mean they weren't invited. Campus, and the
classroom itself, felt cut off from any sense of real life, any dynamic sense of
what it means to exist in the world outside an English department.
Perhaps communities, in
the best sense of that word, can't just revolve around one particular
thing—one interest or way of being or skill/calling. And so to seek out
community is necessarily to seek out more than just people who share my
interests. Maybe community can't be qualified—e.g. poetry community—or else
you're already moving away from the thing itself?
I might be making too
many generalizations, not just in terms of what other people experience but even
for myself: maybe tomorrow, in a real good mood, I'll say something more
hopeful. But these impulsive responses do exist in me, and I do think about them
at length. I mean, AWP—perhaps the one opportunity I encountered throughout
higher ed. that felt like a chance for greater and more "diverse"
socializing—is one big non-community embarrassment, it’s entirely
disappointing and yucky. You get all these people with these shared interests in
the same space, but it still revolves around who has the money to even be there
in the first place, who's being published and with what big, bigger, biggest
presses, who has an agenda that AWP approves of, etc.
I think, with some of my
recent luck in landing better jobs, and getting closer to living in the city in
which my partner and I want to be in, I do have a lovely growing sense of
community. But it's not a poetry one.
Two American poets recently said to me that I may be lucky to be far away from
the fighting and factionalism that goes on in the US sometimes! I think there
may be both advantages and disadvantages certainly. Especially maybe in the
artistic freedom I have and the access to many kinds of poetry—
One American poet in a
conversation published online recently talked about publishers seemingly trying
to size poets up based on the # of copies of books they think they could sell v.
the quality of the work. It’s certainly true. I’ve had books accepted for
publication or considered for publication from overseas publishers who did not
realize I live in Japan. Once they learned this they backed out saying they
feared they would not be able to move the books. Even though they could let me
do that here myself for example but—you know, nobody does this for money and I
think publishers should focus on publishing the best work, period. I
think I’ve done OK moving books even while being here. My most recent chapbook sold out quickly and went into a 2nd
printing already, for example, though I did not go abroad personally to promote
it. Due to social media where you live matters less and less I
Even so, perhaps finding people to work with can be difficult. Doing your own thing, making a publisher or a conference or organizing a reading yourself, sometimes that’s the best way or even the only way maybe. Most of the people I’ve worked with have been great of course, including poets in the U.S. who run presses, journals or share information with me. The process should be fun, I mean we aren’t being paid for it!
You mentioned that, stylistically, you were finding some similarities between
your work and that of some Asian American female poets. Can you say more about
this, and perhaps how it does or does not surprise you?
Part of it came out of comparisons other people were making. I've been compared
to poets whose work I'd not actually read, though after hearing the comment I
went and checked out the work. There seems to be some similarities aesthetically
speaking between some aspects of Japanese and Korean cultures including pop
culture and contemporary poetry. I think these things make their way into my
work. It's not necessarily a conscious process. I've also been compared to
British poets. I've never lived in the UK, however. But I do read widely, I mean
as far as poetry is concerned. I suppose writers whose work has a connection to
Asia may feel close to me, but it would not only be that. It has a lot to do
with style and outlook. When I think about the poets whose work has influenced
me, that's such a large group that naming names seems silly.
But there is a kind of
eclecticism in my work. To give a
really simple example, Eileen Tabios wrote a brief review of diurnal
in which she quotes lines like “bullets in shopping malls” (from an incident
in the US, not here in Japan where people don’t have guns!) as well as
“empty shrine” (Japan is dotted with Shinto shrines of course). Japanese
resident, poet and poetry translator Taylor Mignon wrote a review of wildblacklake in which he notes Japanese references like “festival
of dolls” and “wisteria calligraphy” as well as how overall the discrete
elements that make up that chapbook-length poem are influenced by haiku
aesthetics but instead of syllables I use words for the meter.
SC: What prompted you to move to Japan?
I moved to Japan for many reasons but one reason was over-riding: I was not
satisfied with my thinking. I wanted to broaden it.
That’s beautiful! How long have you been in Japan and what has that process
looked like for you, this expansion of your thinking? Why Japan
specifically—you mentioned (in a private email) being generally interested in
diverse neighborhoods of Chicago while you were still living in the US; was it a
long process to decide where you wanted to go abroad? Did you know you wanted to
leave the US before you knew Japan was your destination? And do you ever
consider moving elsewhere, whether abroad or returning home? Wait: what is your
relationship to "home"?
These are such great questions, Sarah! I moved to Japan in the fall of 1989. I
had grown up in a white middle class suburb of Chicago but as soon as I
graduated from high school fled to Chicago (alone at the age of seventeen)
because I did not want to be surrounded only by white middle class people. I was
aware of racism sexism and homophobia in the community and wanted to get away
from that as well. I couldn't wait to leave. I chose to live in neighborhoods in
Chicago where I would be a minority—for example, neighborhoods which were
chiefly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking (I had studied French in school, not
Spanish!); an African American neighborhood; an LGBTQ neighborhood (at the time
I assumed I was straight in any case); a neighborhood of recent European
immigrants who brought "old country" languages, ways and foods with
them; and so on. There were other communities too which probably developed
further after I left, like where people from Vietnam or India were congregating,
and of course long standing neighborhoods too like Chinatown, Greek town, Little
Italy, etc. I visited a Chinese herbal medicine doctor in Chinatown recommended
by an ESL teacher. He spoke no English so his daughter would translate. I
thought that was so cool. In grad school I met lots of xenophiles in the form of
ESL teachers who were studying to improve their job qualifications.
As an undergraduate I
hung out with foreign students, and one of my favorite professors was from
India; he taught Asian history and it was clear to me his perspective was quite
different from my other professors (less pro-US!). I also got a chance to teach
ESL, both as an undergrad and as a graduate student TA. It was exciting for me
to have foreign students be my pupils; I could learn many things from them, it
was fascinating. I loved it actually. And I brought my love of literature to
them. You hear talk about “exoticism” of foreigners and while that is a
problem for sure, xenophilia may start with curiosity and interest but perhaps
can move beyond exoticism by getting to know people intimately.
I decided midway thru
grad school to move to Japan. Many factors converged. I had done some reading
(in the field of sociolinguistics primarily) about Japanese communication
behaviors and was quite intrigued as I got the idea that Japanese followed very
different rules in verbal/social interactions. I thought I would learn so much
from this. I figured I would study this more once I got to Japan. Also, I had
students from Japan, not many but a few—a grad student at Univ. of Illinois
Chicago, and some more at Harvard where I interned as a TESOL teacher, and a
fellow grad student in the Univ. of IL Linguistics program had returned from a
teaching stint in Japan and had loved it, and so on.
My life after arriving
in Japan was different than I expected. Not better nor worse, just different.
Interestingly, other than the sociolinguistic research which was accurate, most
of what I had read about Japan turned out to be wrong! I currently have no plans
to leave Japan. I'm quite content here and I have a Japanese husband,
mother-in-law and sister-in-law (we lost father-in-law a few years ago).
Can you talk a little about your interest in ecopoetics? I'm curious too if that
interest developed more or differently after moving to Japan, or if it was
something you largely brought with you, so to say.
I think Alice Notley said her interest in environmentalism happened as she was
on a plane leaving the USA about to live in another country. Mine occurred after
moving to Japan. I am very happy to know that ecopoetics is of interest to a lot
of poets currently in various countries. I can't explain why it happened except
that Japan is a beautiful mountainous country, and living in a foreign country
throws many different things into relief, and Junichiro (who I met here) must
have played a role in introducing me to various mountain places that he liked as
well as to some more frugal lifestyle habits. For example, electricity is
expensive in Japan so people are careful with it. Most people don’t have
central heat and central A/C in their homes; I realize many people don’t in
the US too but even middle class and well off people may not have this in Japan.
People almost always hang their clothes outside to dry versus using electric
dryers. We use the backside of calendar paper and advertising flyers as memo
paper. We are required by city and town ordinances to separate garbage carefully
for recycling. And so on. But when I first moved here I noticed destructive and
ugly things too, like concrete-walled rivers. I'm lucky now that I can spend
part of the year in a relatively unspoiled mountain area. But even here in the
city (a small city) I try to enjoy what nature there is.
I was interested in
animal rights before I moved to Japan. Fortunately, health concerns pushed me
towards veganism, something I had always wanted to be/try—I was a lacto ovo
vegetarian pretty much from the time I left home at 17 years old or not long
after, and have been a vegan for the past seven years or more, approximately.
Vegetarianism and veganism are not popular in Japan, however. Veganism was good
for my physical health and I had always wanted to do it for sociopolitical
reasons. The first year was hard though. Now I’m used to it and like being
vegan quite a lot.
And to step back a bit: if somebody without any poetic background asked you what
ecopoetics is, how would you define it for or explain it to them? What would you
find meaningful to say to them, given a lack of context?
That’s a fabulous question, and I am going to begin by complaining a little
that most of the recent wonderful ecopoetry and ecopoetics anthologies in
English that I am aware of also appear to be regional / national (and one,
titled Black Nature, I’ve assumed
was a response to their relative whiteness). But why? We share a globe. One I
contributed poetry to myself, non-regional because published in the UK but
allowing me in Japan to contribute work to it, is Entanglements: New Ecopoetry (Two Ravens Press, 2012). This
anthology received a brief review
and I might refer somebody without any poetic background to this review and some
other wonderful things on the Plumwood Mountain website. The review mentions
that Entanglements’ contributors are white and euro-western; tho I am white I
reject the latter label because I don’t see myself as euro-western. I live in
the East and have for some time. I’m not simply “passing through.” My
contribution, two poems, are set in Japan. Here we have a problem with many
people including myself, tho I am hardly the only one!, who might be both
western and eastern. Again, the binary systems rarely work out well—they seem
good because they relieve you of difficult thinking, but there’s the law of
excluded middle, there’s the fact that identities can be fluid messy shifting
and hybrid / doubled / tripled etc. for many of us. It also quotes somebody
saying that ecopoetry is primarily a Western movement. I don’t agree with that
either. A world ecopoetics anthology would be a great thing to have. I think the
anthology I am editing now will have some connection to this idea of world
ecopoetics because the submitters are coming from a variety of places
geographically and cross-culturally.
As far as the definition
of ecopoetry/ecopoetics, there are various competing ones of course and some
ideas are contained in the aforementioned review. One interesting definition is
Marcella Durand’s, in The Ecolanguage
Reader, where she writes:
poetry is much like ecological living—it recycles materials, functions with an
intense awareness of space, seeks an equality of value between all living and
unliving things, explores multiple perspectives as an attempt to subvert the
dominant paradigms of mono-perception, consumption and hierarchy, and utilizes
powers of concentration to increase lucidity and attain a more transparent, less
anthropocentric mode of existence.
That’s a very tall
order! I think ecopoetry/ecopoetics ponders the relationship between (and I wish
among) humans and nonhumans on our planet and perhaps other planets. Durand
mentions “multiple perspectives”—I feel this is a very crucial issue,
including imagined and imaginary perspectives. There are some good recent books
about ecofeminism, defining what ecofeminism might mean, that I think could also
shed light on the kind of ecopoetics that interests me because I think
ecopoetics and ecopoetry cannot ignore patriarchy’s role in ecological
destruction and oppression (of the living and nonliving) and still be meaningful
or useful. Because I see the current important issues not just as
anthropocentric but as anthrophallocentric and racist/ethnocentric/ableist/heteronormative
(and I’m leaving out stuff too, of course, such as religious intolerance,
though it’s related to phallocentrism). I am also essentially a Marxist. So
part of taking different perspectives is obviously cultural among humans, though
going beyond that.
I was just about to ask more about the anthology you’re editing. Can you talk
a little about the logistics of this project: where the impetus came from, how
long it's been in the making? Are there other editors you are collaborating with
or is it still mostly a solo project (besides the contributors, of course, and
those whom you're seeking recommendations or advice from)?
Thanks for asking! I have had the idea for a while, now, of trying to put
together an anthology by poets who are living in a country that is not the place
where they were born or grew up. I mentioned it to a few people who strongly
encouraged me to do it. I decided to expand it to not just poets who chose to
live someplace else but to any accomplished and innovative woman poet who is
living somewhere other than where she was born. Whether this occurred because
she chose it or not (for example, she could have been born abroad but moved
elsewhere as a baby or child due to parental decisions, including via adoption)
I decided did not matter. In fact, I came to think that the diversity of how
each of us came to be living in a country other than that of our birth could be
an interesting part of the overall diversity of the anthology. So I ended up
making three criteria for submission: a very good female poet; the work can be
called innovative / avant garde / experimental / adventurous; and she is living
in a country other than her birth country or at least at the time of submitting
work to me (realizing that people are mobile!). As far as the "writing in
English" part, I decided this could be flexible, that translations could be
submitted so long as the translator and poet were interested of course. I began
the work in summer of 2015. I’m the sole editor but the publisher is going to
give input also, which is of course very important.
I’ve consulted with many people however in the past year, many poets
who are experienced with this sort of thing who gave me valuable advice.
Many of the contributors also gave me ideas or let me hash out things
with them. So you know it will be the result of many heads together in the end.
In any case the diversity is so intricate because of the contributors
being different ages, coming from different birth countries with different
literary perspectives, other kinds of overlapping identities not directly
related to migration, and so forth. It’s
quite exciting! Theenk and I can’t wait to share it.
Sarah, change I switch
topics by asking you: how did you
come to study the Japanese language? I want to know how you see yourself as a
poet-activist, including as related perhaps to the work you do as a CSP, and
other identities. I'd very much like to hear your thoughts on the identity issue
vis-à-vis poetry as well as learn more about your connection to Japan.
I watched one of my close friends study the language to fluency, and through the
process of hearing him speak it and seeing his progress, I just became so
mesmerized by the sounds of the language that I decided to study it, too. At
this point I have about 3 and a half years of college-level study behind me,
plus solo studying I’ve done outside school. I was lucky enough to visit Japan
once in 2010―just for two weeks, but it was enough to make it really clear
that I want to go back in some capacity. I’m the kind of person who falls into
this bad habit, though, of feeling like my different interests are competing for
my time, and so I have a hard time balancing language-study (which takes so much
consistent dedication) with writing and all my other projects and activities.
In terms of work,
activism and writing, this navigation has been on my mind a lot lately: I
literally advocate for my clients in my current job, and then I go home and
change my work clothes and find myself wondering about the compartmentalizing
that happens, wondering about the work I'm accomplishing when I’m just at
home, reading and writing poems. I mean, do I take off my Advocate hat in order
to put on my Poet one? I’m honestly not sure. I think it’s useful―and
those Poetry Foundation articles have really helped my thinking here―to
remember that advocacy work is work,
not just poem-making—a different kind of work— but that this doesn’t mean
both aren't necessary and important. I recently revisited this interview
with Maggie Nelson (from The Believer) where she
words “hope” and “despair” are words that are often associated with the
poetic enterprise, but I don’t think the hope/despair dichotomy is a fruitful
one for me at the moment. The people who I like reading make me feel okay about
being in a different spot from that―they make me feel like it’s good to
be alive, and to stay committed to charting what comes down the river, and
bearing witness to all this, and to imagining other spaces, and finding psychic
openings that make life seem bigger than the smallness it can get boiled down
into by various forces.
I found so much relief
in that. Like, OK, I’m not a bad person if I sometimes need to just write the
things that help me feel some semblance of ability and focus and self-worth,
that allow me to be the person I am so that I can get up in the morning and go
do hard, emotionally-challenging advocacy work. Maybe it’s only
compartmentalizing on the surface of things, and deep down, reading Barthes in
bed at night and snuggling with my cats, or publishing poems in small journals,
has everything to do with what I can go out into the world and accomplish the
I do identify first and
foremost as a poet, though one thing that I find so funny is navigating a sense
of embarrassment that comes with that. Especially outside academia/poetry
communities. It feels like it’s a much different risk to tell someone, for
example, that I’m a poet, versus to just say that I’m a writer. Or even that
“I write.” And perhaps that’s a risk that’s only born of
privilege―I get to think of myself mostly as "unmarked,” and find
myself with the luxury of such privileged embarrassments to begin with. I think
it’s crucial to think about how to push back against those systems of marking,
and I really do think, for me, the poem is a place for thinking through such
stuff. Whether the poem “does” activist work or just allows a particular
kind of space in which I can make sense of such work a tiny bit more, to ask
questions and hopefully generate even better questions in the process. That was
a huge thing for me to realize about my own writing, and it happened sometime
during grad school: that poems for me are spaces for thinking through, for
circling back around things, for grappling.
JJN: I understand and it’s important we consider poetry as important regardless of what others may think about it. And I think everybody I know has a problem of too many things competing for their time and finding a sort of balance difficult. Mairead Byrne has a great poem (see my short essay in The Argotist Online about her collected poems) called “The Russian Week” in which weeks are contained within other weeks in order to give her enough time to do everything she needs to do.
Moving to Japan
re-awakened or intensified my feminism because it helped me begin to see more
clearly how global the oppression of women is, starting with my experiences in
the US, then in Japan (my own and that of women here) and then via reading and
so on in other countries. I have come to think of poetry as academics, as art,
and as advocacy. Poetry is a type of communication. It could even be a form of
love. A form of thinking? Sure, why not. It is for me. Juliana Spahr wrote that
poetry helps her think. Sure, me too.
My mom was a full time
homemaker like the other moms were back in the 70s where I grew up.
My mom’s era was Plath’s era, one of the many reasons why maybe Plath
resonates with me and why I ended up doing some speeches in Japan on Plath and
then writing a monograph focusing on that era,
Plath and others in connection with the Hollywood film Black Swan which recalls the era for me.
Looking at your recent
poetry, do you easily identify sociopolitical concerns in it or other types of
connections with the rest of your life? Perhaps that is part of the
"wholeness" of being both a CSP and a poet? Even if being a poet may
seem "selfish," if you share the work with other people it's not just
for you. If everybody decided to stop writing poetry because it's
"selfish" then there wouldn't be any to read. That would be grim.
Bowie, RIP, said, I think, "Life without art would be intolerable." It
may seem luxurious in a sense to crave the next poem, after hearing a news
report that people in South Sudan are eating grass as they have nothing else to
eat (recently in the news). We must care about this, and perhaps it is difficult
to now shift back to poetry. But since this is an interview about poetry I will
now quote Megan Simpson who wrote:
is neither a luxurious entertainment or pastime, nor a wholly subjective
self-expression valuable only to the writer; poetry is a mode of knowing and of
exploring cultural and ideological processes of knowing.
I am enjoying getting to
know your poetry. It's a gift—it's volunteer work—I mean we are not being
paid to write poems!
That means a lot to me, Jane. I’d like to ask a question about one of your
recent chapbooks, Wild Black Lake (Hank’s
Original Loose Gravel Press, 2014). In it, there is a lingering and haunting
sense of loneliness, of emptiness, with references to stillness, silence, a void
that is (trying to be) filled. But there's not necessarily a lack of
interactions, both with people and nature. I wondered if you could speak a
little to this notion of the "cancelled self," and how erasure or lack
or emptiness relates to your writing process. I have this sense of a loneliness
without necessarily being alone when I read this chapbook, and I'm interested in
how this relates to one's writing identity. Maybe I am curious about the
intersection between a lack of self and a lonely self, and how that’s
navigated in these poems. You write, "in rooms we exchange air for
air," and I'm aware simultaneously of the intensity of sharing intimate
space with others as well as an inscrutable distance.
Thanks for these great observations. I was thinking of breath, but Pam Brown
mentions air conditioning which was also an idea (in her review: https://plumwoodmountain.com/pam-brown-reviews-flux-and-wild-black-lake-by-jane-joritz-nakagawa/)
There does appear to be a kind of stillness to the book and I think, as you
note, the "emptiness" is variegated, can be construed as both or as
alternately sad, lonely, though a solitary state is of course conducive to
writing and thought but also in a more Buddhist sense of emptiness would have
more positive connotations. I think I had all this in mind, as well as other
things. The spaces between words, the white space of a poem on a page, the white
space of a painting, pauses in a conversation, these as meaningful too of
course, of what arises from emptiness or emptied space, etc. A conversation I had with Eric Selland, in The
Conversant, touches on "emptying.”
Eileen mentioned in her review of diurnal
that the poetry has a “twilight sensibility”
and that "’of the day’ is also actually ‘of the night’ and
maybe there is a similar dark-and-light feel to wildblacklake though there are many differences of course between
these two chapbook length poems. As far as 田ancelled
maybe comes from my feeling of being a woman in the patriarchal world,
especially, I think less so as an exile, or I feel more exiled due to my gender
as I’ve said I mean, though it’s part of my daily life to overcome that or
strategize around it I think.
My friend Marcus, whose
artwork is on the cover of Distant
Landscapes as well as appears in two other projects I've done recently,
noted that the book began for him with imagining death (Pam notes this too when
she mentions “giving up”)—a sinking into a murky ocean where you cannot
quite see through to the bottom, and later there are references to such things
as spiritual death in the book. "Wild black lake" appears as
"wide black ocean" on page one, "wild black lack" on page
nine and "weird black lake" on page 19. "Black" of course is
the color of funeral attire in both the US and Japan, associated with
"dirt" versus the alleged purity of "white" and so on, with
"night" as opposed to "day," etc. Since we began this
discussion with a mention of white privilege in the poetry world, I want to
emphasize that I am sensitive to the issue of color, including my use of words
like "black" or "dark" in poems, a complicated and troubling
issue. I want to examine stereotypes without supporting them—they are worth
examining, they are still out there. But when I used "black" I meant
in the sense of night, like Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good
Night", in the sense of reduced visibility (at night), like looking at a
lake in the dark, as the limitations of human intelligence and perception is a
theme of the chapbook. No one has really asked me about the title very much, but
I did and do want to "problematize" the use of "black."
I've veered off your
question a bit!, because I feel I need to explain the title of the chapbook. I don't want to be mistaken for a stupid white woman who
knows nothing, a white imperialist, etc. I have a lot to learn of course. I want
to keep learning (and unlearning). We are all flawed human beings. None of us
has a perfect body or brain. A
feminist LGBTQ activist I met some years back told me she found it hard to
criticize anybody because she has so many flaws herself. I feel this way too.
I'd like to criticize racism and sexism, for example, but I suffer from these
too, I mean we can only try to deal with these things. Trying is a beginning.
It's better than denying these things exist, or denying that they exist within
us, or saying they don't matter. I want to criticize racism, sexism and ableism
but without really criticizing people if I can. Because I’m as flawed as the
next person. But I want to be better, I want to fight against rigidity in
myself, and I want to continue to learn and to make friendships with many
copyright © Jane Joritz-Nakagawa & Sarah Cook