I am drawn to the simplicity of your poems, which is not to say these are simple poems or that these poems were simple to write. On the contrary, I believe, as Ian McGilchrist states in an interview with Ange Mlinko in the October 2010 issue of Poetry, “In poetry, being simple takes more skill than being difficult.” How are you able to achieve such simplicity and clarity in your work? (Is it at all connected with what you write in “Zin Zen” about not “...thinking / or wanting too much”? Can such a philosophy really apply to poetry writing?) From which writers or written traditions do you take cues?
I’m particularly attracted to poets with an interest in Eastern thought and traditions. I was born in Japan, and lived there until I was five years old. When I was in seventh grade, my family spent a year in India. As a young adult, I studied with poets Ron Bayes and Howard McCord, who had traveled in Asia and understood my perspective. The late Agha Shahid Ali is a favorite poet of mine because his work fuses Eastern and Western themes and sensibilities, a hybrid culture I attempt to create in my work, too.
For me, the most difficult thing about writing is keeping myself out of the poem. As I’m writing, I’m often tempted to take control of the poem, to make it go where I think it should go. If I can remove myself from the process and let the poem find its own direction, the results are better. I write difficult poems, too, but the simpler ones come from a deeper place because they emerge without as much premeditation.
All four of the poems were written after I was invited by poet James Autio to join The Grind, an online writing group started in 2007 by poets Ross White, Matthew Olzmann, Dilruba Ahmed, and Zena Cardmon. Poets participating in The Grind are supposed to write a poem every day and submit it by email to other members of the group. I joined with trepidation because I was accustomed to working at a slug’s pace, mentally plotting poems before attempting to draft them and meticulously revising each line before plodding on to the next line.
“Zin Zen,” “After the Typhoon,” and “Buddhist Scroll” were written to meet The Grind’s daily deadline. I didn’t have time to polish each line or tamper with the words and images much. Pushing through to the end without stopping prevented me from making the poems more complicated than they needed to be.
Although I’d taken a month off from The Grind when I wrote “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” the discipline developed while “grinding” helped me draft the poem without becoming discouraged or second-guessing my work.
Each one of the four poems appearing with Connotation Press this month looks different from the other. “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” and “Zin Zen” are similarly stanzaic, but the former is composed of five quatrains while the later is composed of two sets of haiku-like tercets hinged by the single line, “on the mirror,” in the middle of the poem. In “After the Typhoon” you make use of longer lines, and the poem is one two-sentence stanza, and in “Buddhist Scroll” you employ short, often single-word lines that create three pillars of language certainly reminiscent of the way language appears on a Buddhist scroll. Can you elaborate on the formal choices you’ve made here? Are the form and subject of a poem already married in your mind before you begin to write, or do they come together as you work?
Sometimes I sit down with the intention of working within a particular form, such as a sestina or pantoum, but with these poems, I didn’t have a form in mind before I started writing. “Zin Zen” started as a series of tercets, but when I reached the end I had one line too many. I decided to make “on the mirror” the odd line or hinge because it separates a set of images from a reflective passage, just as a mirror separates an object from its reflected image.
“After the Typhoon” came out as a chunk of text, and I left it that way, making only minor revisions with line breaks. When I was an infant in Japan, the roof of the house we lived in blew off during a typhoon. Of course, I don’t remember that event, but I think there may be a fragment of it embedded somewhere in my consciousness.
At first, “Buddhist Scroll” was written as one long column, but I broke it into three columns to resemble the rows of vertical calligraphy on a scroll.
I wrote “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” in response to the tsunami. I wanted to address the tragedy in Japan without addressing it directly, fearing that my emotions would overwhelm the poem. Using Hokusai’s woodblock print as a focal point helped channel my feelings with the requisite restraint. The wave in the print isn’t a tsunami; it’s an okinami or “wave of the open sea,” but the fact that it’s a smaller wave also helped contain the subject in a form that was manageable for me. The first stanza emerged as a quatrain, so I decided to continue that pattern for the other four stanzas. While writing the poem, I did some research, discovering that in Hokusai’s time fishermen sold their catch near a wooden bridge in Tokyo. A stone bridge replaced the wooden bridge in the early 1900s; I prefer the reference to the wooden bridge because it’s more fragile than a stone one, and the poem is about the transience of life.
In “Buddhist Scroll” you write, “language / is more / than / meaning: / it’s the image / of a woman’s / hand / moving / down / the page / as if / words / could / mean / something / without / meaning / something / more / than rain / on a gray / window / pane.” Can you expound on the “something” you refer to here?
In 2005, I traveled to Japan with my sister, Rebecca, who is a professor of Japanese literature at Washington University. We were shopping at a flea market held at a temple in Kyoto, and I saw a very plain scroll that interested me. I asked my sister to translate the writing on the scroll, but it was too stylized for her to read. She asked the merchant what the calligraphy meant, but he couldn’t read it, either. It’s written in sousho, or “grass writing,” an elegant cursive that only those trained in the art can read. The merchant said it was probably poetry written in a woman’s hand. That was enough for me!
That scroll hangs in a hallway in my home. I still don’t know what the writing means, but it doesn’t matter. As a child growing up in foreign countries, I became accustomed to hearing languages that I didn’t understand. I focused on the sound of words rather than on their meanings, on rhythm, inflection, and breath. Traveling in Japan as an adult, I listened to the language I had lost, a language I had spoken fluently as a child. Everything sounded familiar, but I couldn’t connect meaning to sound. Yet the sound itself was comforting, like a lullaby, or a story my Japanese nanny read to me as I sat on her lap, or the rhythm of a train trundling through a tunnel beneath the sea.
Poetry is more than denotations and connotations of words. Its rhythm is music. Its visual arrangement of words on the page is art. If we limit ourselves to asking what a poem means, we’re missing its message as a whole. The “something” I refer to in “Buddhist Scroll” is both sensory and extra-sensory experience, a koan that surpasses the literal with a more profound metaphorical meaning. Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, it’s okay. Not everything has to make sense to be true.