Last night I went to an excellent panel and reading at Poets House in New York City: "Crossing Currents, Panel Discussion on Contemporary Poetry in Japan". In this panel, four women from Japan and their translator, Sawako Nakayasu, talked about poetry, gender, innovation, translation, and the history of the Japanese language.
I will be posting a full transcript of the panel on Composite within the next few days, but for now, here's a short version.
Throughout the panel and readings, Sawako provided excellent near-simultaneous translation! It was quite impressive.
Takako Arai talked about her identity as someone with deep ties to a textile manufacturing town near Tokyo. Kiriu Minashita explained the etymology of her pseudonym: "air current" or "jet stream". After the reading she gave me further detail; also, she has many, many pseudonyms and is a very bloggity internetty person with multiple identities. I can relate! Kyong-Mi Park talked about being of Korean/Japanese heritage and living in Tokyo being a 21st century woman poet. Ryoko Sekiguchi gave a brief introduction to her own identity as a Japanese poet writing in French, living in France, and translating French to Japanese and vice versa. The 5th panel participant lives in NYC and unfortunately I didn't catch her name; she was helping with translation and she's also a poet.
The panelists discussed gender, feminism, identity, sexuality, and concepts of women's language. Ryoko maintained that her identity changes and shifts with each new project. Kyong-Mi pointed out the problems with how, from the minute she began to write, other people told her to write from her position as Korean/Japanese. So that condition, that view, was imposed on her from outside. The process of dealing with that breaks down her identity in a way that leads to poetry. Takao described the history of her hometown and its disappearing economic base and how that affects her writing; her "home" in the process of disappearance. Kiriu talked about changing immigration laws in Japan, and Japan's history of attitudes towards "minorities" and the global history of monoculture and minority in a consumer society.
Rachel, the panel moderator, asked if resistance to monoculture drove poetic innovation and if the monoculture attitude made it difficult to be innovative or resistant as a woman?
In a word: Yes...
Kiriu and Takako talked at length about the history of Japan, and the ideal of monocultural, unified Japan and the Japanese language. Linguistic expections to that. Between the 17th century isolationism and around 100 years ago there were regional differences in Japanese. Takako uses those differences and digs up old words. Ryoko continued to describe the parts of her identity that don't change with different projects; that unchanging part is in resistance. One way to resist a monocultural language is to go backwards in time. Another is to focus on regional differences. Another is to be engaged with foreign languages.
Kyong-Mi then brought up the Pillow Book and the Tale of Genji, the Heiian era and women's language, women writers. For men to express particular poetic concepts they had to write in women's language and write as women. Japanese also has the richness of Rykyu (Okinawa) and Ainu heritages.
Ryoko said that breaking down and resisting monoculture was not always directed at a Japanese audience. People wonder why she writes in French when Japan was not a colony of France. She is deliberate in her choice to commit to an ahistorical connection to the language and the country. It is possible to work with a language without a personal or historical context of connection to it.
Kiriu brought up the "Beautiful Japanese Language" boom and the ways it's disturbing. Older poets, especially men, disapprove of poetic innovation and of changes in language. Women's universities are cutting gender studies classes and substituting "Beautiful Language" courses instead to teach "proper" Japaese, which she describes as teaching young women to speak like flight attendants on Japan Air; to cater to and please older men. Young people's use of language is a point of resistance to an attempt to close the doors to globalization. Japan has no military; when the economic situation deteriorates, those in power target the weak inside the country.
Rachel asked about "female language" or women's language and inhabiting different subject positions.
Ryoko and Kyong-Mi brought up Gertrude Stein and then Chika Sagawa and junzaburo Nishiwaki's descriptions of Sagawa. Kyong-Mi is a translator of Stein. All the panelists contributed to further discussion of shifting identities and the breakdown of language in relation to identity. "I am me because my reader knows me." [A re-work of Stein's "I am me because my little dog knows me." ) Taking that suspended state of being and language, often treated as a pretty or optimistic place, yet it is a dangerous, tenuous place. [Then, I think it was Ryoko who said that now their work in English in this context opens that place to a new set of readers, which changes the poetic identity of the authors and influences them. And this is part of being a 21st century poet, open to other poetries. ]
Kiriu made three points: "Instinct" and her experience of 9/11.To people in Japan, New York City is the city always demolished in Hollywood movies, just as in the U.S. people think of Tokyo as the city demolished by Godzilla. So the actual destruction of the WTC was a shock of reality overtaking the imaginary. 2nd: Her identity growing up in a stereotypical affluent suburb. "I feel like I'm a mass produced product, a part made in a Toyota factory. When I see Agent Smith in The Matrix, it reminds me of myself. The fact that I don't have a locality is my identity". 3rd: Further explanations of her pen names. Her identities in other genres, where people have no idea she is also a poet. The pleasure of disguise.
Then each poet read from the book, which has poems in Japanese, translations, and some very interesting essays on poetry. (Though I'm sad that the book doesn't have Kyong-Mi Park's amazing poem "The cat comes with a baby cat in its mouth" with its memorable images of the disturbing brocaded caterpillar, fat-veined leaf, sound of peeing, and muslin nightgowns.) I highly recommend this books, even if you don't know Japanese (as I don't): Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry & Essays by Women -- available from Small Press Distribution.
I also recommend anyone who's in NYC try to catch the readings and book release party tonight, Thursday Nov. 16, at the Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, 7pm, or the reading and discussion tomorrow night, Friday Nov. 17 at 7pm at Poets House: "Blurring Boundaries: A Conversation on the Art of Translation with Rosa Alcalá, Ryoko Sekiguchi, and Cole Swenson. I'll be at the Friday event but not Thursday: Thursday I'm going to Words Without Borders "Axis of Evil" reading at Labyrinth Books!
Thanks to Poets House and Belladonna for this amazing discussion and reading!
My "summary" is very long! I hope it's interesting to you all.