Photo by Naoto Kurosawa

Building the Space of Poetry: A Conversation with Arai Takako, Winner of the Oguma Hideo Prize for Poetry


Jeffrey Angles

Winner of the Oguma Hideo Prize for Poetry and co-organizer of the 2008 Tokyo Poetry Festival, Arai Takako 新井高子 is a young and immensely talented writer from Gunma 群馬, Japan, whose poetry is just beginning to find its way into English, first in Four from Japan, a portmanteau collection from Litmus/Belladonna Books (2006), and more recently Soul Dance (Mi'Te Press, 2008), which contains selections from Arai's prize-winning volume Tamashii dansu 『タマシイ・ダンス』 (Michitani, 2007). In this interview conducted late last spring, Arai discusses (among other things) how poetry can channel ghosts and why the Japanese do not consider Basho to be a “poet.”

How did the Tokyo Poetry Festival go last fall?
It was an epoch-making event for two reasons. First, there has never been a festival in Japan that has brought so many poets together. It was a pretty amazing line up. We had twenty international poets from around the world and twenty-one poets from Japan. Each of the readers had their own unique ability to reach out and convey something to the listener. Moreover, it was first time in Japan that Japanese poets performed in such a big venue with haiku and tanka writers.

I think readers may need for you to explain that because, back home, in the United States, everyone thinks haiku 俳句 and tanka 短歌 are poetry.
In Japan, the term poet (shijin 詩人) is reserved for those who write shi 詩, which is free verse in the international style. Those who write tanka and haiku are referred to as “songsters” (kajin 歌人) and “haiku-ers” (haijin 俳人). When I asked some of the foreign poets at the Festival if there were any Japanese poets they really respected, I was surprised. I was trying to asking them about shijin, but a lot of them answered, “Bashō”!” I was really surprised. We would never call Matsuo Bashō 松尾芭蕉 a shijin because he wrote haiku.

You would probably have gotten the same answer in the United States.
I suppose this sort of understanding is inevitable as free verse, haiku, and tanka are all major verse traditions here in Japan. But, to be honest, it is quite rare that poets working in these three major verse traditions ever have the opportunity to interact with one another. At the festival, there was even a poet, Toni Piccini, who writes haiku in Italian. My work, however, is in the genre of shi—what you might call “long Japanese poetry.” [Laughter] But while we don't think of shi and haiku or tanka as related, historically, the shi form was built on these shorter forms. In early examples of shi poetry from the nineteenth century, the individual verse lines show the influence of the kinds of rhythms that you have in haiku and tanka. I became very conscious of these lingering rhythms during the festival readings.

I saw videos of some of those on YouTube. It must have been fun.
It sure was! It was extraordinary we could pack so much into such a short time.

Any plans to hold another poetry festival in Tokyo in the near future?
Nothing concrete, but we are talking about it. I would like to do it again if possible. Still, there is so much work involved, it'll probably be another few years before we are able to host it again.

Speaking of poetry readings, how was the reading tour for the anthology Four from Japan, which Sawako Nakayasu edited and translated?
It was fun, I mean really fun! When Japanese listen to poetry readings—I mean, I do this too—we are . . . How shall I put this? We are just too polite. When we listen to poets reading, it's like we're studying them or something. When Americans listen to poetry, they will chuckle at things that tickle them, will move their bodies along with the rhythm, and other things we would never do at a poetry reading. American reactions are more dramatic. Reading in New York City felt more like a concert to me than a poetry reading.

What's more, in New York there were critics who were actually transcribing our comments in shorthand and even artists making sketches of us . . . . It was as if the poets and the audience had really come together to perform in a space of poetry. I was really surprised by that, and it really spurred me on.

It sounds like you are saying poetry is not just about the poet.
Exactly. Poetry also has to do with the people who plan the meetings, who have conversations about poetry, who edit and publish the books, who get the audience members together—that's all the work of poetry. That experience inspired me to become part of the planning committee for the Tokyo Poetry Festival. In America, I learned a little about how to share the work of poetry, and I wanted to try my own hand at it.

In your introduction to Soul Dance, you mention that you were inspired to write some of the poems when you visited the wreckage at the 9/11 site in New York. Was that during your New York reading tour?
Actually, it was during my first trip to America in the spring of 2002, which was half a year or so after 9/11. My husband wanted to visit the site, and I tagged along. I remember a tall crane was hoisting twisted steel beams from the middle of the colossal wreckage. The sounds of metal clanging together echoed heavily across the distance. The sky looked immense as it hung over us. I couldn't help thinking, “Gosh, this is just like back home.”

“Back Home”?
Yes. Some years ago, my father's textile factory fell upon hard times and most of the family land had to be auctioned off. The bulldozers and cranes showed up. In no time at all, they demolished the buildings and gardens in one clean sweep, leaving nothing behind but a giant vacant lot.

Your father ran a textile company, eh?
That's right. My father has managed to pull through somehow, but these last several years have seen the textile industry in Japan has fallen into a chronic state of economic distress. Many factories have gone bankrupt or out of business in my hometown of Kiryū 桐生 in Gunma Prefecture, even though the town is famous for its textiles.

Of course, the scale and reasons behind this event and the bombing of the World Trade Center are entirely different, but there in New York, I felt the same inexpressible sense of anguish that things had gone terribly awry. That feeling has been one source of poetry for me.

Interesting. Some of the poets of the 1940s and 1950s who had lived through the bombing of Tokyo such as Ayukawa Nobuo 鮎川信夫 viewed the ruined landscapes and burnt-out rubble as a symbol that the world was out of balance. In your poetry, however, the abandoned, empty factories of Gunma and such places seem to have a different significance.
I suppose Ayukawa's poetry arises out of the idea of the “wasteland,” but in my case, it is the “vacant lot.” I feel that in today's society, after such acts of extreme destruction, we are not permitted to dwell upon the ruins left behind. Such places are quickly rehabilitated, all for purely economic reasons, no? And as a result of that terrifying “speed,” we—the humans who survive—as well as the dead creatures and shattered things are simply left behind . . . We are all abandoned . . . I sometimes suspect the ones that feel this the most poignantly—even more than we humans who are allowed to go on with our lives—are the ghosts and spirits left behind.

In your poem “When the Moon Rises,” there is a scene in which a person who used to work in a long-abandoned factory rehearses the dance-like movements they had performed when they worked in the factories. In the poem “Wheels,” there is also a scene in which the ghost of a factory worker comes back to haunt the factory. In both of these poems, the past exists just below the surface of our present moment, and it continues to affect us even now.
That's right. Ghosts and spirits have the power to teach us the past. There is a part of me that believes that. We tend to forget everything so quickly, don't we? We humans go through life in such an irresponsible way. That's especially true now, when our societies and economic systems speed forward at full tilt leaving us to chase after them. Our amnesia extends even to our worst tragedies. That's why I want ghosts and spirits to remain close, so they can be our teachers.

In your poetry, you often comment on contemporary social issues. I am thinking in particular of “Give Us Morning,” which I think is one of your finest poems. What inspired you to write that?
I wrote “Give Us Morning” as the Iraq War was turning into a quagmire and that terrible tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed so many people. Every morning, I would wake up, turn on the TV or open the newspaper only to find reports of the numbers of the dead. (Everyone remembers reading these endless reports, don't they?) It seems so ironic to see such terrible tragedies and cruelty transposed into numbers. At the same time, I wanted to try to depict the mornings that surrounded those huge and weighty numbers. In a sense, “Give Us Morning” was also written between the world of the living and the world of ghosts.

In other poems you play with the language in very interesting ways, such as “For Amenouzume-san,” where you repeat the name of the deity Amenouzume あめのうずめ, but each time you write it with a different set of characters that have the same sound but different meanings, the result being that the meaning slips off in new and unexpected directions.
I think that digging down into a poem and giving it hidden depths is the most important thing a poet can do. But sometimes I want to break free of that. I also like expanding the possibilities of poetry by looking at words from strange angles and treating them as “things.”

You teach Japanese to students who have come from around the world to learn the language and have remarked that the mistakes they make have sometimes influenced the way you write poetry.
Yes. The international students sometimes suggest interesting ways of playing with the language. Native Japanese speakers never think about the special characteristics of Japanese vis-à-vis other languages, but my students immediately locate the interesting and strange places within the Japanese language, and they fearlessly make errors native speakers would never dream of making. When that happens, I sometimes think, “Hmm, maybe I can use this somehow . . . ”

What poets have influenced you most?
The poet I've been pursuing as my “lifework” is Hagiwara Sakutarō 萩原朔太郎. I was addicted to his poetry in high school. He was like an idol to me, in part because of his use of colloquial language to create Japanese free verse, but also because he was from Gunma Prefecture and, like me, absolutely hated the place. I suspect that, in some way, through Sakutarō, I am questioning my own existence.

I am also crazy about the plays of Kara Jūrō 唐十郎. He is not a poet in the ordinary sense, but it would not be incorrect to regard his plays as long poems overflowing with energy. His words are pure magic. I understand that some of his plays have been translated in the collection Alternative Japanese Drama.

You are very young, but I know that you're quite close to a lot of older, prominent Japanese poets, such as Abe Hinako 阿部日奈子 and Hirata Toshiko 平田俊子. Are there others to whom you feel especially indebted?
When I was in my first year of graduate school, I got to know the poet Yoshimasu Gōzō 吉増剛造 at a lecture. Later on, after I published my first anthology of poetry and founded the poetry magazine Mi'Te 『ミて』, I got to know some of the contributors, such as Matsui Shigeru 松井茂, who introduced me to the poet Fujii Sadakazu 藤井貞和 and the musician Takahashi Yūji 高橋悠治, and, through Mr. Takahashi's connections, I had the good fortunate to become close to the shamisen 三味線 performer Takada Kazuko 高田和子.

Sketch by Mimi Gross, Bowery
Poetry Club, Nov 16, 2006
How nice!
Indeed! Looking back, I am deeply grateful for their spending so much time with a fledgling author, for I realize all of them must have been terribly busy. They inspired me in many ways, but if I were to name one way in particular, I guess it would be showing me what it means to really stick to the path one has chosen, which in my case, was and is poetry.

To tell the truth, the first person who recommended to me that I try translating your poetry was Itō Hiromi, the poet who served as the pioneering voice of the boom of women's poetry in the 1980s. I had just finished translating the poems of hers I collected in Killing Kanoko (Action Books, 2009), and I asked Itō, “So who should I read next?” And she said, “Arataka!”—her nickname for you.
I am really glad she'd recommend someone like me! [Laughter] Jeffrey-san, thank you for taking up the challenge! Actually, I got to know Itō-san through my magazine. My husband, who is an editor and an old friend of hers, introduced me to her. I'd been a fan of hers for years, and so when I went to meet her, my heart was pounding. I handed her a copy of my journal Mi'Te, and when she said, “What an interesting little magazine,” I virtually pounced on her, saying she must write something for it. I just charged ahead! Her submission to the magazine caused quite a stir—it became an “event” really—and this gave me lots of confidence as an editor. I later heard that this was one of the factors that led her to return to poetry after writing novellas for years.

Through your travels and involvement in the Tokyo Poetry Festival, you have gotten to know quite a few Western poets such as Rachel Levitsky, who co-founded Belladonna Books, which published the Four from Japan anthology.
Rachel lives in New York and is of the same generation as I am. She has her own poetic voice, is deeply involved with feminist issues and, through Belladonna, has worked hard to promote the work of experimental women poets regardless of their nationality, race, class, or age. They have published many, many books and chapbooks, and produced over a hundred events. An unbelievable amount of work . . . I think it's fair to say that she's trying to create a network of female poets that will eventually span the globe.

It was thanks to her that I realized it wasn't necessary to first earn a big reputation in one's own country, win prizes, then travel overseas as a “representative of Japan” the way they do at the Olympics. At Belladonna, they simply say, “Write interesting poetry . . . Engage in a dialogue with us . . . If you can do those things, then we'll respond to you.” And sure enough, they published that anthology of young female poets from Japan that includes Kiriu Minashita, Kyong-Mi Park, Ryoko Sekiguchi and myself, and they even brought us to New York to read.

What I am trying to say is that we need to stop thinking of poets as someone who must represent “countries” or “national languages” via individual competitions. We should connect with one another in ways that are more to our individual liking, ways that are freer and more anarchic, and in the process, build a multi-dimensional place of poetry, building from our various different directions—that must be the place of poetry.

Poetry reading in New York. From left to right are Sawako Nakayasu 中保佐和子, Minashita Kiriu 水無田気流, Park Kyong-Mi ぱくきょんみ, a translator for the event, Sekiguchi Ryōko 関口涼子, Arai Takako and an enthusiastic fan.
Two from Soul Dance    

When the Moon Rises   月が昇ると  

It is the night shift in an abandoned spinning factory
There is only a single light bulb here
The spools of thread turn by themselves
Click goes the bobbins
Changed by the machines
It has already been a decade
Since this place shut down
But when the moon rises, it begins to work
Its strange automation
They say soon after the war
A factory worker's hair got tangled
In the machines, killing her
There are things that float here
But this is not the work of ghosts
In the factory
There are peculiar habits
That is what I mean
Peculiar habits remain here
An old lady who spun thread
For forty-four years here
Still licks her index finger and twists
Even on her deathbed
She cannot escape that gesture
That must be true in the netherworld too
Since threads are so infinitely thin
The gestures sink into the bodies
Of those who manipulate the machines
They possess them
How the raw silk thread
Is pulled smoothly
From the factory woman's fingers
Then dances endlessly
The factory is that way too
The axle of the spinning wheel
The molecules of steel
Hang their heads in the
Direction in which they spin
Then get caught up
Clanging emptily
When the moonlight pours in
It is not just the tide that is full

The spinning wheels spin
The threads swim
Through the abandoned factory

        translated by Jeffrey Angles

Give Us Morning   朝をください  

Morning is the time we count the dead
In the newspapers, in the hospitals, on the roads, on the seashores
In the rubble that was once our homes
Possess us all the more, Amenouzume-san
The morning is still not enough
We still cannot count them all
We still cannot carry them all
Dance more for us, Amenouzume-san
Put a green twig in your hair
And call out to them
Give the dead
To morning
Possess them, call out to them

  It's me, the girl floating here this whole time
  it's me, Mama's boy crouched down
  It's me, the boy with the right arm wrenched off
  I want to see you again, I want to see you again
  A bullet to the temple
  I scratch my throat, it hurts
  Now I'm sinking as far as I can go
  Why? Why was I the boy
  Blown aside by the bomb blast?
  The fingers of flame came in no time
  I struggle but there's only sand, I struggle but there's only sand
  One lung was crushed by the ceiling
  Left alone like this, where will I float?
  I wait for an extended hand
  Here I am, here I am
  I want to escape this blood-bathed school
  With my girlish eyes still open wide
  I know this is my last breath
  I am fed up with the roar of the bombs
  The sea has raised its clenched fist

Morning is the time we count the dead
On the TV news, in the embassies, in the community centers
In the rubble that was once our buildings and our mosques
Possess us all the more, Amenouzume-san
The morning is still not enough
The morning is still not enough
The morning is still not enough
Dance for us all the more, Amenouzume-san
Claw the milk from your breast, shake your hair wildly
Pound your feet on the ground
And dance
Spin your arms round, shake off your sweat
Bend back your neck
And dance, dance
Sway your spine, lift your legs
Shake your hips
Set your womanly shadow on fire
Open your womanly shadow
And call for them
And dance for them
And possess them
And gather
The dead
To the shadow

Give them to morning
Give us morning
The time we count the corpses

        translated by Jeffrey Angles
Translator's note:    
Amenouzume is a mythical Japanese goddess associated with dance and performance. Through her dance, she is said to have lured the Sun Goddess Amaterasu out of a rock cave where she had secluded herself, thus plunging the world into darkness. The suffix san appended to Amenouzume's name is a polite expression that shows respect, roughly equivalent to “Missus” in English or “Madame” in French. The words “womanly shadow” that appear toward the end of the poem is a euphemism for the vagina.
All translations copyright © 2008 by Jeffrey Angles
Arai Takako and Jeffrey Angles in Tokyo, June 8th, 2009