Of the poems published in the fall 2019 issue of Colorado Review, editorial assistant Jordan Osborne was most struck by Sawako Nakayasu’s “Ten Girls Stepping Into and Out of the Light.” Jordan was immediately curious about the world and mind in which the poem was created, drawn into a conversation with the piece about identity and Girlhood to the point of wanting to hear more about it from the poet herself. Here is the interview that followed.
Jordan Osborne: Your poem “Ten Girls Stepping Into and Out of the Light” appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Colorado Review; it feels to me to be part of a larger, perhaps realized and perhaps emerging, project (I’m thinking, here, of your poem “Girl Soup” and how it deals with Girlhood as an overarching way of being that links individuals into a multitude). What was the process of writing this poem, in particular, and how do you see it embodying the concerns of this larger endeavor?
Sawako Nakayasu: There is indeed a larger project—a book—it’s forthcoming in 2021 from Wave Books, titled Some Girls Walk Into the Country They Are From. In shorthand I refer to them as “the girl poems,” and I am aware of that strange way they draw attention to the word, girl—partly, or exactly, because of the ways in which these texts are very much about girls, and very much not about girls at the same time. It’s slightly similar to the way that I wrote my ant book (The Ants)—those poems, too, are not at all about ants, even though there are many, many ants that populate the book. Both the ants and the girls act as a kind of foil. A foil, and also a form, perhaps better thought of as a conceptual poetic form, one that works on the writing mind to coax the poem forward. I imagine it’s a bit akin to the way some people write Shakespearean sonnets over and over—by having a set of fixed parameters, a certain freedom emerges. My parameters happened to be ants earlier, and then girls (and earlier, texture)—whereas others had ABAB, CDCD. There is nothing as liberating as a good constraint.
JO: I’m continually struck by how naming functions in this poem—designators failing to do the work of identity and an individual’s actions taking the place of that language. The way that it happens, too, is so delicately mirrored by the poem’s form, with each Girl rising, in turn, from a substantial block of text and receding into it again—into light and back to shadow. I’m curious as to how this form arrived for the poem. Was it something that just happened during the writing process, or did you find the poem demanding that it take this precise shape?
SN: I think there are multiple questions embedded in this one—about names and identity, mirroring, and the materiality of light. I couldn’t recall immediately, but I took a quick look at some of my notes from around the time I wrote this poem, and it looks like I was thinking about the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who shot many of the excellent films by Wong Kar-Wai. I’ve always been thrilled by artists like James Turrell and Odilon Redon, who seem to traffic in the material of light, and cinematographers are very much these kinds of traffickers, moving and shaping light in interaction with humans. In that poem I was thinking about the various sources and textures of light, and the way humans and light are always in a dance with each other—in present tense but also in every moment that is always instantaneously converting into the past. I’m now recalling a moment where I once saw someone’s face in a particular cast of light, and in that single instant I could see numerous layers of their beauty—from their younger, more conventionally beautiful days, to the present moment of middle-aged beauty—brought together by a particular glance of light. At the same time, I am thinking about Girlhood, femininity, and gender to be in fluid relation to light, or visibility, or presence—in relation also to those normative types of identification itself. The poem, the book, writing, translation, art—all are spaces for me to try things on, imagine into a world that might exist more fully in the future. Translation, too, in the beginning felt like I was imagining into something: I wonder how it feels to have written this text . . .
In part, this book is an act of opening up certain kinds of porousness. Overtly, the binary being challenged is the one between translations and their originals, which shares a problem with the gender binary: one party is presumed to be superior to the other. But to return to your question about naming and identity, I started writing these poems featuring lettered girls that correspond to specific people, like characters in a fictionalized novel, sometimes as sewn-together assemblages of real-life people. The letters-as-names gave me just the right degree of specificity and anonymity, allowing me flexibility to work with these characters as having unfixed, shifting identities.
JO: So much of the emotional tenor of the poem, for me, resides in the small moments of tender aliveness, such as in the lines “Girl C uses her right elbow to turn off the light . . . ” and “as Girl A, always Girl A, scooting over to make room for the delicate frame of Girl E, who never takes her shoes off . . . ” There is so much specificity in the way these Girls are gentle with each other and the world around them, and it’s handled in a way that insists, to my ear, on kindness as a form of redemption or salvation. What is your relationship as a poet to this sort of kindness? How would you define it? Do you find it emerging in your work often and if so, in what other ways does it happen for you?
SN: This question speaks to your relationship to kindness as well! And yes, kindness very much in relation to specificity. I think about the trouble with demographics and the way our culture is so toxic because of our refusal or inability to see people as specific individuals. Last summer, we took care of three Japanese rice fish—named so because they are quite small, like grains of rice. More commonly, people would keep ten or twenty in their tank, but we happened to have a little clear vessel (an insect cage, actually) that housed only three rice fish, and they lived on our kitchen table. In numbers they would have been a nondescript group of tiny fish swimming around, but this small grouping allowed us to see them as individual fish with their own quirks, tendencies, and relationships with each other.
I am also aware that there is plenty of unkind behavior in various aspects of lived life. I think my work—sometimes at the poem level, sometimes elsewhere—is often staged in a kind of protest, however small it may be. The title of this book is in part a response to that notion of “going back to where you came from”—whereas so many of “us” are “from” “here”—contrary to instant, surface-level assumptions. (It was also written at a time when I was in the midst of returning to the US, which is more or less where I am “from.”)
JO: You also work in translation. What has your experience been of the differences between the languages you work with? From a philosophical standpoint, how do you see the relationship between poetry and translation?
SN: Since you mention it, I refer often to this Paul Valéry quote:
Writing anything at all, as soon as the act of writing requires a certain amount of thought and is not a mechanical and unbroken inscribing of spontaneous inner speech, is a work of translation exactly comparable to that of transmuting a text from one language into another.
And, when you see my new book in its entirety, it might give a better sense of what I am thinking about regarding the relationship between poetry and translation. I started this line of inquiry in a book called Mouth: Eats Color, but essentially I see poetry and translation (and performance, too, actually) as having a fluid, interconnected relationship to each other—they’re on a continuum. In a very real sense they have been merging in my work. In the Girls book, there are both poems and translations of some of those poems. Some of those translations occupy the very edges of what might be called translations, at which point they return to the category of “poem,” except that they are poems that have their origin in translation. But poetry was translation in the first place, as in Valéry. Some pieces in this book are translations that started with one of the poems, but in the course of editing the manuscript as a whole, the original got edited out, while the translation remained. Some are all process. I’ve invited a few poets to participate. I’m also thinking about how the whole history of Japanese (and much of East Asian) literature has its roots in translation because of the fact that the written language originated in China and traveled east, undergoing a wild process of superimposing written language (with its own set of sounds) upon a preexisting oral language.
JO: Who are the writers/thinkers/readers/human beings who inspire or have inspired you and your writing the most?
SN: I became a writer under the teachings of my fifth-grade teacher, Cora Five. George Lewis helped me gain a deep understanding of improvisation and art practice. Will Alexander and Amiri Baraka exemplified two very different examples of fearlessness. Lyn Hejinian’s “Rejection of Closure” kept the door opening and opening, and Carla Harryman and Violet Ace Harlo introduced me to the performance-text intersection. Keith Waldrop and Rosmarie Waldrop, exemplary humans. I have never loved a venue more than Sushi Performance & Visual Art in San Diego—they no longer exist, but at the time I was there, a bastion of experimental performance art flourished in what was otherwise a very conservative San Diego. Sushi raised me. My mom taught kindness, my dad ambition. Having an older brother gave me some moxie. John Granger gave me ants, and more importantly, a sense of the “it” in keeping it real. I do think “most” is an impossible term here. I love Lee Bontecou’s work but unfortunately have never seen any in real life. These types of questions are impossible too, because once you get started it is hard to stop—I’m not finished, but will pause for now, for now.
JO: I’m continually fascinated and pleasantly surprised by what it is about poetry that draws people in, so I have to ask: Why poetry?
SN: It was a party or an ocean and I was just walking by (on my way to chemistry, to music, etc.) and it reached out its sinewy arms and grabbed me and pulled me in, and I’m still dizzying its edges . . .
Sawako Nakayasu is an artist working with language, performance, and translation—separately and in various combinations. She has lived mostly in the US and Japan, briefly in France and China, and translates from Japanese. Her books include Pink Waves (forthcoming, Omnidawn), Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From (forthcoming, Wave Books), The Ants (Les Figues Press), Texture Notes (Letter Machine Editions), and the translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa (Canarium Books), as well as Mouth: Eats Color—Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations & Originals (reprint forthcoming, Wave Books), a multilingual work of both original and translated poetry. She is coeditor, with Eric Selland, of an anthology of twentieth century Japanese poetry (forthcoming, New Directions). She teaches at Brown University. You can find her at: sawakonakayasu.net/