Sarah Cook to Jane Joritz-Nakagawa
Poetry is a type of communication. It could even be a form of love.
A conversation with Jane Joritz-Nakagawa
The following conversation took place between Jane and Sarah via email, from October 2015 through March 2016, leading up to the release of diurnal, Jane’s newest chapbook (Grey Book Press), and the announcement of an upcoming anthology that Jane is currently editing: women : poetry : migration [an anthology] will be published by Theenk Books, and is due out this summer. The conversation below is an excerpt from a much longer one, condensed and edited for publishing purposes.
SC: I want to bring up the incredible anthology you mentioned [in a private mail], 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 interested in an identity shaped by such, or do you see one’s physical movement through space as having very little to do with the way one writes? 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?
JJN: 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. One of the anthology contributors has a physical condition that I have too, 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.
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 don’t live.
SC: 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?
JJN: 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 this way).
What about you? About your own poetry community?
SC: 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.
JJN: 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.
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.
SC: 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?
JJN: 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.
SC: And what prompted you to move to Japan?
JJN: 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.
SC: 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”?
JJN: 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, mothe-in-law and sister-in-law (we lost father-in-law a few years ago).
SC: 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.
JJN: 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, my health issues 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.
SC: 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?
JJN: 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 in Plumwood Mountain, 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:
Ecological 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.
Originally from Illinois, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa has resided in Japan for some time. Her ninth poetry book, <<terrain grammar>>, will be published in 2017. An anthology of innovative transcultural poetry, with brief accompanying essays, titled women : poetry : migration [an anthology], which Jane is currently editing, is forthcoming in September from Theenk Books. Her recent work includes Distant Landscapes (Theenk, 2015) and the chapbook, diurnal (Grey Book Press, 2016). She can be reached via email@example.com.
Sarah Cook has experienced a lot of productive change since this conversation began.