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Since the beginning of this century a number of poets of Asian descent have published books that have helped redefine the field of study known as Asian American poetry, while challenging the various received definitions of what constitutes avant-garde or innovative writing.
Predictably, the gatekeepers of the avant-garde have overlooked these poets, partly because they believe that identity and language are separate domains. Based on the assumption that one should aspire to be a post-identity writer, this oversight is further proof of how invested certain authorities are in maintaining a problematic narrative populated almost solely by white writers.
Those who argue for post-identity writing are advancing that English is colorless and even neutral, which may be true if words remain unused. But use and context are another matter. Moreover, the old binary opposition between voice (or what Robert Grenier disparaged as SPEECH) and text (existing printed material, which, at the very least, implies some kind of approval and stability) is no longer viable. It might have been true in the 1970s, when the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, who were calling attention to the materiality of language, were rising into prominence, but globalism and immigration (or migration) has changed the situation. By introducing varieties of pidgin, slippage, sonic confusion, mispronunciations, misspellings, malapropisms, graffiti, and unknowing false signs into English, globalism has upended the rules defining areas of fixed vocabulary, grammar and spelling. We are living in a cauldron of relentless collisions.
This is what the poet and translator Don Mee Choi said in an interview that appeared on the Lantern Review blog (December 5, 2012):
My English was strange for a long time. I’m sure it still is. When my younger brother was growing up in Hong Kong, he spoke Korean, English, Cantonese, and Japanese all mixed up together. He and his Japanese friends communicated perfectly in this mixed-up language. They were too young to censor themselves. The same thing was going on in my head except that I was older and knew how to censor myself. I only freely talked funny with my sister and a Chinese friend who also knew how to talk funny. At school, I wore my uniform and memorized and recited things perfectly that I didn’t understand at all. I always failed because that funny voice inside me always butchered my English. So translating and writing is like this for me. I wear my school uniform and try to memorize and recite poems perfectly, but I always end up butchering them. My primary technique for translation and my own poetry is failure.
In addition to Don Mee Choi, the poets and writers of Asian descent who have altered the literary landscape include: Linh Dinh, Sesshu Fosster, Shirley Lim, Tan Lin, Sawako Nakayasu, Cathy Park Hong, Brandon Shimoda, Brian Kim Stefans, Monica Youn. Many of them write across genres. Beyond being of Asian descent and writing in English, what they share is an engagement with the materiality of language. I see their engagement with language as signaling a paradigm shift away from the lyric poetry of the generation that emerged in the 1970s and ’80s. Such a shift suggests that an anthology of these and other writers should be put together, focusing on their openness to experimentation, while establishing a distance between them and the writers collected in Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (1974), which was edited by Frank Chin, Jeffrey Chan and Lawson Fusao Inada, and The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (1993), edited by Garret Hongo, which includes some of my poems.
Among the poets I have mentioned, all of who deserve further attention, I want — in this essay — to single out one, Sawako Nakayasu, whose books of poetry and translations constitute an impressive body of work. In the last month, I have gotten her two most recent books: The Ants (Les Figues, 2014), a series of prose poems, and The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (Canarium Books, 2015), which she translated from the Japanese. Ugly Duckling Presse is about to release her translation of Costume en Face: A Primer of Darkness for Young Boys and Girls by Tatsumi Hijikata. An innovative Japanese choreographer, Hijikata (1928–1986) founded the extreme dance performance art called Butoh.
While I have not read all the books and translations that Nakayasu has published, I have read enough to know that I will be reading be the rest. In addition to these two books, I would recommend you read Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009) and Texture Notes (Letter Machine Editions, 2010), as well as her translation, For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide (New Directions, 2008). In these five books you get a sense of the breadth of her investigation into the possibilities of different forms and language itself, whether writing in English or translating from the Japanese.
This is what Nakayasu has said about poetry:
I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor non-fiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it. Is the woman really in a box? It depends on who you ask, how they see it, or what constitutes a box. I like to claim that all of my poems are “true.”
This is what she has said about translating:
One of the difficulties in translating poetry is balancing multiple demands at once — for example, to make it simultaneously faithful and beautiful. Yet it got me to thinking about faithfulness and its opposite, perhaps also in terms of defining what it means to be ‘true.’ (What good is a faithful partner if he or she is not interesting in the first place?) At some point I started experimenting with unfaithful or less faithful, roguish translations. I wanted to find different ways of being “true” to the work I was translating.
In these two statements I sense a feeling of inexplicable distance. It is apparent to me that Nakasayu recognizes that she lives both inside and outside two languages (English and Japanese) and is never completely grounded in either one. As she states, “it depends on who you ask” or, as I hear it, it depends on which Nakasayu you ask. I don’t mean the one who is conversant in English and the one who is conversant in Japanese. I am not being reductive, and it is not that simple. Nakasayu uses words to construct a space, often an intimate one between the writer and reader, the lover and the beloved, friends. This space is distinguished by its instability, and the slippages that arise.
Nakayasu’s poetics probably share something with this section from the 111 prose poems that make up For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut:
Entering the room, a pulse is taken right when the heart is crushed upon a color-printed newspaper. And so it is today, too, a line of poetry goes without shooting you, and is nothing more than a soundless watery segment floating up for the first time, finally, enfolded in the gathering dusk of a long detour.
You cannot reduce this to a theme or a story, nor can you decipher it, and yet the language is hardly difficult. There are no obscure words, but persistent questions do arise: whose pulse is being taken when the heart is crushed? Here, heart hardly seems a metaphor. Or is it? In this poetry about poetry the body is central, which locates both Nakayasu and Hiraide’s work in a very different province than the one explored by Stéphane Mallarmé.
According to Nakayasu:
Sagawa Chika is Japan’s first female Modernist poet, whose work resonated deeply with, ad helped shape, the most dynamic shifts and developments in the poetry of that era. She was a singular and remarkably inventive poet who had developed a poetics influenced by French literary movements as they were imported to Japan, English and American Modernist writers whose work she translated, and contrasts between her nature-filled upbringing and cosmopolitan Tokyo. Despite her death in 1936 at the young age of 24, it is impossible to overstate the importance of her remarkable oeuvre, which was created in less than six years of poetic production during one of the greatest social and cultural shifts of her nation’s history.
While reading both the “Introduction” to The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa and the translations, it occurred to me that Nakayasu is changing what Americans know of both the history of Modernism in Japan and contemporary Japanese writers. Sagawa absorbed Dada, Surrealism and Futurism, both the literature and the visual art. Her writing shows the influence of Cubism, the “collapsing of foreground and background.” Her translations include James Joyce’s Chamber Music and poems by Charles Reznikoff.
As Nakayasu astutely points out in her “Introduction”:
[…] Sagawa’ poetics allow us to read her poems not as fixed, stable objects, but something more architecturally complex, inviting us to read (or see) the poem from various angles.
Here is the poem “In White”:
Flickering above the grass like a flame
An amethyst button sparkles
And you descend slowly
The turtle dove lends its ear to a lost voice,
A mesh of sunbeams cuts through the treetops.
Green terrace and dried flower petals.
I remember to wind my clock.
In translating Hiraide, Nakayasu chose a writer who works in various genres and unclassifiable forms, and cannot be conveniently labeled a novelist or a poet. Hiraide’s novel, The Guest Cat, which was translated by Eric Selland, was a surprise bestseller. In the “Preface” to For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut, Nakayasu writes:
[…] For the Fighting Spirit Of The Walnut […] once again commanded great attention, as it marked a crucial, albeit early, turn in Hiriade’s career, in which he begins his lifelong explorations of prose as the Idea of poetry, extended syntax, and a poetics of the grammatical line.
Of course, this is also true of Nakayasu. It is not hard to figure out why Nakayasu translated poems and prose by Sagawa and Hiraide into English. In Hiraide, one also reads (sees) him collapsing foreground and background:
The sound of bursting flesh of fruit scatters between your ears. The
forefront of this spray beckons to those outside of sorrow.
The writings of Sagawa and Hiraide are crucial to Nakayasu’s own work, meaning that she has developed her poetics without necessarily locating herself within the Western tradition of avant-garde literature. This doesn’t mean that she hasn’t learned from European and American writers, but that she complicates any essentialist reading of lineage.
The Ants is the third book of Nakasayu’s poetry that I have read. Hurry Home Honey is a book of love poems unlike any other. Caryl Pagel has characterized Texture Notes as “a daybook, a pillow book, a journal, and a map.” Each book is distinguished by its grammar and syntax. The Ants is made of more than seventy prose piece, only a few of which are longer than a page. In prose poems such as “Ants in a Japanese Can,” “Chinese Patriot Ants,” and “Korean Ants Too Erudite for their Own Good,” Nakasayu writes about ethnic food (“soup dumplings”), the movement of language from one culture to another (“one of the 13,500 of the traditional, non-simplified Chinese characters”), game shows (“Jeopardy”), and a “Japanese-Greek chorus.”
Nakasayu’s The Ants is a rich, dense mélange of material derived from a breathtaking range of sources, including local customs, mistranslations and science fiction. You get the feeling that she has read everybody, from Gertrude Stein to Andre Breton to Rosmarie Waldrop, and made them her own. A feeling of dislocation, often inflected by a wise humor, spreads throughout the book, starting with the first sentence of the first piece, “We the Heathens”:
We go to have Chinese for dinner and my friend who is visiting
from another planet is horrified (and perhaps a little excited also),
until I explain to her that we are having Chinese food, not Chinese people.
Ants appear in nearly every one of the prose pieces. They are the Other, the self, performance artists, immigrants and so much more. It is difficult to imagine Nakasayu writing in a way that separates language from identity, which is to say her work is neither colorless nor “avant-garde.” She is a masterful writer and translator whose work I consider indispensable.