An interview with Sawako Nakayasu

Lindsey Webb

At this year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, as part of a panel called “Translation as Animation: New Poetry from Japan,” Forrest Gander called Sawako Nakayasu “the Rosmarie Waldrop of Japan.” Both Sawako and Waldrop, who happen to be dear friends, are poet-translators explicitly invested in disrupting a largely male avant-garde. Waldrop has constructed a veritable empire of translation from the German and the French. Nakayasu, even at her relatively young age, has achieved a comparably wide reach. One seems to find her fingerprints wherever there is innovative Japanese poetry being published in English.

Nakayasu’s translations have brought some of the most exciting voices of Japanese Modernism to English-speaking audiences—Sagawa Chika, Tatsumi Hijikata, Itō Hiromi, and Takashi Hiraide among them. Her translation of Takashi’s
For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut received Three Percent’s 2009 Best Translated Book Award. She earned this year’s PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for The Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika, excerpted by Asymptote in our July 2011 issue. 

Born in Hokkaido in 1911, Sagawa Chika died from stomach cancer at the age of twenty-four. But “even with such a brief career,” as Adrienne Raphel wrote for
The New Yorker in her profile of Nakayasu’s translation, “she was one of the most innovative and prominent avant-garde poets in early-twentieth-century Japan.” Still, Sagawa and her Japanese Modernist contemporaries were largely forgotten, both within Japan and beyond, until Nakayasu’s Collected Poems revived attention to the broader artistic community of their time.

For all the comparison to writer-translators like Waldrop, Lydia Davis, and Caroline Bergvall, Nakayasu is an artist very much of her own making. Born in Japan and raised in the United States from the age of six, she studied music composition at the University of California San Diego, before earning her MFA in poetry at Brown University, where she studied under Gander. As part of a memorial project for Brown’s Rockefeller Library, Gander reflected on a presentation Nakayasu once gave for one of his poetry courses: “When I opened the door to the room—the class in file behind me in the dark—we saw, by the skanky light of the big basement window, Sawako Nakayasu, completely immobile, cellophane face-up on the middle of the table in the center of the room like the victim in a horror movie . . . A little hole had been punctured in the cellophane over her lips and through that hole, she began her presentation.”

Her poetry, as her presentation style might suggest, is often playful and uncanny, fusing humor, keen intellect, and performance, with acute attention to sound and sensory distortion on the level of texture and scale. In the space of one book—sometimes even one poem—she navigates vastly varied genres, approaches, and tones. Consider, for example, the versatility on display in her 2010 collection
Texture Notes. She toggles with ease between lines like “one word at each moment everywhere, thicker than it is true,” to ones in disparate registers, as with, “I call out, distressed and damselled to the hilt: Hamburger! Hamburger! Hamburger!” When you read Nakayasu’s work, as John Yau suggests, “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 collapsing and collaging of disciplines and styles is nowhere more pronounced than in the experimental translation project
Mouth: Eats Color—Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, and Originals. “I was really interested in taking certain established ideas about translation,” she says, “and seeing how far I could abstract myself away from them.” Nakayasu gives the reader privileged access to the mind of the translator as it crosses languages, cultures, and (in Sagawa Chika’s case) time. Comprising poems in five languages, several alternate translations of Sagawa’s short poem “Promenade,” and even re-translated pieces from other authors (some of whom, like Harry Crosby and Mina Loy, Sagawa Chika translated into Japanese herself), Mouth: Eats Color is a remarkable compression of Nakayasu’s broader artistic inquiry.

It was fitting that I first met Nakayasu at Rosmarie Waldrop’s home in Providence, Rhode Island, where we had tea and chatted briefly about translation. Nakayasu was giving a reading in western Massachusetts, and my friends and I had offered to pick her up and take her north. During the two-hour drive between Providence and Northampton, we discussed Sagawa Chika, Japanese Modernism, and the pursuit of experimental translation.

Congratulations on winning this year’s PEN Translation Prize for The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa! How did you discover and decide to translate Sagawa Chika?

Thank you! I’m so very delighted and honored.

I first found her in a book written by John Solt called Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katsue, about Kitasono Katsue and the incredible avant-garde community of writers that he was a part of. In the first few pages of that book he wrote, “I could have focused on any of a dozen fine poets active before the war—such as Takiguchi Shuzo, Nishiwaki Junzaburo, Haruyama Yukio . . . and Sagawa Chika (1911-36).” I picked up on that because she was a woman among all these men he listed, some of whom were already quite well known, and I wondered who she was. At the time Sagawa’s work was out of print and there was nothing I could have purchased without spending about $600. But somehow I found her poetry thanks to this sixteen-year-old girl who had typed up all of her poems and posted them on her blog. They blew me away—I had to investigate!

This all happened in 2002, after I’d finished grad school and ended up in Japan on a six-month fellowship from the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. Luckily at the same time Tracy Grinnell, the editor of a journal called Aufgabe that always featured literature from another country, asked me if I wanted to do a Japan feature. That feature gave me my mission.

When I went to Japan, I knew nothing about Japanese poetry. It felt so good to have a blank slate, where I didn’t know anything about anybody. In the U.S. poetry world, there were camps and hierarchies and famous people you’re supposed to know. There was all this information I had about poetry that wasn’t the actual poetry. In Japan I had none of that. I walked into the biggest poetry store in Tokyo and started reading off the shelves because I literally didn’t know who anybody was. It was such a pure experience, just looking for something that seemed interesting. I was doing that at the same time that I found Sagawa. So for the Aufgabe feature I ended up including about 25 poems by Sagawa and a good selection of other contemporary poets. That’s how I started becoming a translator.

How was Sagawa Chika different from the men who were writing around her?

Well, what I want to say first is how her poems were different from those of other women poets at the time—that they were not at all defined by content specific to the lived female experience, which means that they engage a very different conversation about what exactly constitutes women’s poetry, beyond the fact that it was written by a woman.

Even among her female peers, the content of Sagawa’s poems seemed somehow less feminine. She has fewer flowers, tea parties, less of the moon and the stars, but then again, I feel like there is kind of a feminist critique she activates through her use of “flowers.” If I were to go get a Ph.D., maybe this is something I would delve deeper into.

But more importantly, I guess, her poems were unlike those of any other writer of any gender. She was writing in such an exciting moment of exploration and experimentation, and there was a lot of enthusiastic and exuberant poetic activity in many directions. Poets were writing manifestos every other month, or experimenting with graphics, or really seeing what they could do to move beyond—or abandon—poetic conventions of the past. Kitasono Katsue was among these poets. What I think is interesting about Sagawa in this context is the way she takes in so many of these varying influences, while sticking to her own sense of craft and composition, which is apparently quite painterly, and deeply connected to the visual arts. She is actually quite critical of many of her peers for being too interested or caught up in trends. I didn’t realize this until I read her prose pieces, where you can start to get a sense of her poetics, even though they are often couched in metaphor.

In a prose piece called “Had They Been the Eyes of Fish,” she wrote, “I suspect that most poems are written with whatever random thought occurs to the poet. In some cases that’s fine, although poems like that are already ruined. They are banal and have a short life span.” All the more interesting to see that her own work has had a long life span, after all!

I also want to talk about Sagawa’s place as a Japanese Modernist working with Western-influenced styles. In your introduction to The Collected Poems, you talk about Sagawa as being worthy of consideration in terms of European Modernism, Japanese literary history, and also on her own terms. Because she’s doing interesting things on all three of these fronts, she seems to complicate the Western narrative of Modernism much more than I think most Western audiences are sometimes comfortable with—and in the best way.

I know! I don’t know why it has to be uncomfortable. We don't know as much about the non-Western Modernisms, at least in part because of the dearth of translations. The translator Eric Selland and I have compiled an anthology of Modernist Japanese poetry. It's a big project that we're still hoping to put out into the world. As you’re talking about lesser-known Modernisms I feel this terrible guilt because I know this unpublished anthology would do so much to speak to that discomfort you’re referring to. I’ve presented Sagawa in that historical context, so I speak about it, but it’s not just her. There was a whole community and a whole incredible literary movement that happened that many people know very little about.

Their community was interesting in terms of our conversation now about translation because they were translating like crazy. They nourished this interest and longing to read other literatures and engage with them. Their engagement with translation was fascinating, especially because Sagawa herself was critical of that engagement even as it was happening. She was really aware of the weirdness of that moment, and based on her prose pieces I would guess that she thought a lot of people were just posers. But there were so many weirdnesses happening in that moment anyway, because the culture as a whole was changing so much. Even the fact that this community suddenly had accessible means of printing changed their own poetry culture—they had the ability to create and publish and distribute on their own terms. They had this monthly journal, Shi to Shiron (Poetry and Poetics), which was a really solid, big book of material, almost a little anthology. It was full of so much content—the sheer amount of production is incredible. They were very interested in French Modernism, and there was a lot of surrealism and other movements they translated from too. They were translating works from all over the world. They had their tentacles out and their antennae were going crazy.

Sagawa worked with English. She was very smart, licensed to be an English teacher, and connected to these men—her brother and his friend Ito Sei, with whom she had a relationship. Ito Sei was translating Ulysses. He was part of a trio of writer-translators who collaboratively translated the first Japanese rendition of Ulysses. That’s most likely how Sagawa got into translating Joyce, too. But she was also translating Virginia Woolf and Charles Reznikoff and Harry Crosby and Mina Loy, among others. She got the translation bug from that whole community.

In the English-speaking world so much of what experimental poetry or avant-garde poetics is—or what it should be—relies on Western ideas and Western tradition. But in reality, there are many avant-gardes working in different traditions all over the world.

Right. And theirs was very peculiar because of their own Japanese background, not to mention that it was a particular moment when the Japanese language itself was changing so much. Until the Meiji Era, the Japanese language was not unified and did not have much of a Western influence. It was just before Sagawa’s time that Japanese coalesced into a standardized language. But the idea of a standardized language was new, which meant it was still unstable, and the idea of poetic language was also new. There were whole other strains of Japanese poetry—people were still writing traditional forms and other people were writing free verse poems, which was kind of new and revolutionary too. But here was Sagawa Chika’s little avant-garde community that was taking it one step further. They had their free verse going on, but now they had also gotten an influx of language and pure vocabulary. Their lexicon was changing. Then there was the layer of the writing system itself—these writers played a lot with how one word could be notated differently on the page, depending on what script you use (hiragana, kanji, katakana). They were negotiating new ways of incorporating foreign language. And then there was all this surreal, dream-based Freudian thinking coming in, and yet without the same degree of Freudianism attributed to Western Modernism. All of these influences created a different kind of surrealism. Their writing had its own avenue that was responding to its own Japanese tradition along with many other influences from around the world.

It was a really interesting moment, one that I think must have been very liberating, because they were working in a new territory that had no right answers and they knew it. They were really doing strange things. For example, while Sagawa’s poems look more like traditional poems, Kitazono Katsue did a lot more visual work. Hagiwara Kyojiro, who was Dada-inspired, created these ideograms using symbols and diagrams of language that were like little posters. They all took their art in a variety of directions. So in that sense Sagawa Chika’s poems look very conventional, and yet the content of what she’s doing was so intensely focused and refracted and painterly.

There’s a bad kind of territorialism that translators sometimes have about their translations—because I set out to publish all these poems, it makes it look like Sagawa belongs to me. But I dearly want other people to translate her too. A couple of people have translated some work by her, and I hope that what I do doesn’t prevent other people from translating her because her poems belong to everybody. I say this also because her poetry is so interesting. There are so many other ways that a translation could be done that would only add to how we understand it. At the same time, though, there’s so much literature that hasn’t been translated yet . . .

But you think about poets like Rimbaud or Rilke who have been translated half a dozen times in as many years . . .

Yes! Everyone should translate Sagawa Chika. I’m kind of brewing up a project along those lines, so stay tuned!

I’m interested in Sagawa’s multilingualism, especially in how she plays with character differences and words from other languages. That presents a problem for you as a translator. I’m curious how you handle this in the Collected Poems, especially because this is an issue that seems to be at the heart of your other book of Sagawa Chika translations, Mouth: Eats Color—Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals.

You only have so many choices, right? Even though this multilingualism was a very interesting aspect of the work, I think those are some of the things I had to let go of in the Collected Poems. I mention it but I don’t think I do anything in particular to solve the multilingual problem. There are some poems whose titles—“The mad house,” “The street fair,”—were written in English in the first place. Or the poem “Promenade”—that title was written in katakana (the phonetic script for foreign words), but it was clearly based on the French pronunciation of that word, not the English. What am I to do, add a footnote for every instance? Art, and the literary art that is translation, is not about saying or doing or explaining it all, or all at the same time. I figure there is plenty of space in academic publications for that sort of discourse.

On the other hand, these are probably the issues that led me to Mouth: Eats Color. In that book, I took this multilingualism idea and blew it up, because I’m interested in multiple versions of translations. In Mouth: Eats Color I was really interested in taking certain established ideas about translation and seeing how far I could abstract myself away from them. In that book I was trying to recreate, in my own time and space, whatever I felt might be the equivalent, or parallel, to the time and space that Sagawa worked in. On one level, Mouth: Eats Color was a response to my current moment and the state of poetry production as it existed at the moment. For example, she lived in a time where mass printing was suddenly possible to do yourself. In my case, because print on demand publishing was so much less expensive than traditional book production, I had the means to produce Mouth: Eats Color, and I decided that I didn’t want to look for somebody else to publish it because I wanted to control it all myself. I started Rogue Factorial Press to publish this one book, and I guess I was feeling very roguish. I had a lot of issues with circumstances around poetry—not really the poetry itself—that I wanted to push back against. There was this big scandal in poetryland, where someone had gotten their manuscript accepted and the publisher asked them for some money to contribute towards paying for publication. This guy was like, WTF? Everyone was really up in arms about it. This whole thing around the economy of poetry blew up. Meanwhile, I’m in Japan and have learned that most people pay around $30,000 to get their first book published. When I first heard that, I asked a lot of people: You’re paying the price of a new car to get your first book published? These books are quite beautiful, with letterpressed hardcover and really high quality production. But you, the poet, had to pay for it yourself because you’re unknown! So anyway, I could understand that you would feel betrayed, if that was not what you understood going into it—but I just wanted to do something where I was not involved in any part of that economy.

So I decided, I’m going rogue (and thus the book is dedicated to the first “rogue” artist I encountered in my life, Stephanie Heyl, now Violet Juno). I wanted to see how many ways I could not play the game by the rules. There are so many established ways that poetry gets put out to the world. I was like, I’m not going to have an editor, I’m not going to have a publisher, and I’m not even going to polish the stone. I’m going to do it in a month. At the time I had one child and a full-time job, which meant I hadn’t had any time to write poetry. But I was on an academic calendar so I suddenly had a month where I had free time and my child was in daycare. I said, I’m going to perform being a poet for a month. A month from start to finish, from conception to printed product. So it had a weird speed, and there was also a kind of improvisational and performative aspect of going through all the motions that constitute being a poet and making a book. I wrote it really fast—I knew that it wasn’t anything like the other translation book, the Collected, but it was really important to me to make a book that held everything else that the Collected could not. So Mouth: Eats Color was about the exuberance of multiple languages, an endless devouring, of letting the new language enter yours and change it. It’s as if translation in this case was an action and I was performing a kind of writing that results in something that’s not parallel in words, but parallel in spirit. I had a lot of fun doing that.

Did doing that project change the way you approached translating her after that?

The two books always remained very different. It’s possible that I needed to do Mouth: Eats Color in the midst of the longer work I was doing on the Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, as if I were letting off steam. I don’t think it ultimately changed the way the Collected came out, but I think it gave me new ways to read her work by having played around in it so much. I sometimes felt a little twinge of guilt—Am I going too far? Is this too weird?

And so Mouth: Eats Color consists of Chika’s poems, my re-workings of her poems, my poems, and also other people’s poems, some of them English poets Sagawa translated. In the poetry world, we have so many set categories—we have books by individual authors, we have anthologies, and we have journals. They’re very defined. And I thought, Why? I remember I went to see a gallery show by the painter Chris Martin in Brooklyn. He put up all of his paintings and then all of these other people’s paintings and they were there to show a conversation. It wasn’t just about showing his own work. By including all of these works by other people who had some relationship to his own work, we as audience members got to see that conversation laid out for us. That made a lot of sense to me. It made me think about this lost space between somebody’s body of work and a collection of many people’s work, and how those boundaries can intersect.

When you were contributing to Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, you wrote that there are “some radical or experimental translations that behave or pass as normal traditional translations, and ones that clearly break the mold.” I’m excited by this suggestion that a traditional-looking translation may be an experimental translation in disguise. This was in the context of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa and Mouth: Eats Color—you said in the same post that you “deliberately kept them very separate.” Thinking about these books then, but also in general—what in your mind constitutes an experimental translation?

What constitutes experimental writing? I mean this in the way Sagawa talks about it too, about that difficulty of knowing where the answer is. It’s not a fixed, stable answer.

With translation, and with this kind of work, I guess it’s bound to be experimental in some way. As I’m translating, I can see many possible avenues, which creates a very strange wrangling and decision-making process. If I’m making conventional-looking translations, it’s a practice of limiting my choices. As a translator, I can see that all these choices exist, but I’m choosing one thing over another. Whereas with something like Mouth: Eats Color, it’s more expansive.

What it really comes down to, though, is that translation is an act of reading. If you try to follow your mind as you read, it goes to all kinds of places. For example, when you’re sitting at a poetry reading, your mind isn’t just focused on those words in the room. That’s always an experiment and experience for the reader. That’s the moment when the work is becoming, because it’s being read and received and becoming actualized. Translation too, I think, works equally interestingly on both ends of that spectrum between possibility and actualization. I can be creating a translation that looks like it’s a one-to-one of some kind—same quantity of stuff in the original and the translated version—but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t worked its way through all those choices and possibilities.

In a way I think it must be torture to be a scholar and a translator, because you become so good at unpacking the poem, and you really want to—or maybe even need to—communicate it all, in its unpacked state. But then to present the thing as a translation, you have to repack it again in the new language and leave the reader to unpack it all over again for themselves. But as a translator, or anyone who has engaged deeply with a poem, it’s fun to leave it unpacked sometimes. Even though it doesn’t look as pretty, even though it’s not a finished product, because it’s an unpacked box. I feel like this approach is only the beginning—there are still so many ways one might approach translation. I have no idea what they’re going to be, but I feel like it’s going to come: new modes and avenues of engaging with work between languages. I’m curious.

You were talking earlier with Rosmarie Waldrop about the intense labor involved in translation. Where is the location of that labor?

The labor is in the desire to share with others some wonderful thing that you have access to. It’s a strange compulsion, some kind of imperative that comes from outside the capitalist universe we live in. It’s easily the most negative-economy activity I do, even more so than straight-up poetry writing. Translating is such a different task from writing in your own language—it involves a lot of patience to be willing to work it and work it and work it until the tunnel opens up. There are all these issues that you’re trying to satisfy all at once. It’s very painful. My own writing is contingent on circumstances surrounding my physical space and mind. I’m not an athlete about writing. So to translate I have to build up a lot of muscles. If I haven’t been translating a lot, I feel the weakness—it really feels muscular.

Could we talk about your experience doing Costume en Face: A Primer of Darkness for Young Boys and Girls? Translation seems to be at the heart of that book across so many different boundaries, not just the boundary of language. After all, you’re not directly translating Tatsumi Hijikata himself. He didn’t write this particular notebook. Moe Yamamoto did. So you’re accessing Hijikata’s dictated instructions through another person, not to mention the fact that this is a transcription of spoken instructions for a dance. It’s language that is intended to be translated into movement by the performer. How did you go about navigating all of these levels of translation?

Moe-san taught me a lot. When I met with him, he said, “See this phrase?” And then he showed me the movement corresponding to that phrase. “This is this, and you do it like this.” There are so many layers—all the language is code for movement. Some of the language indicates an actual movement, while some of the language modifies that movement. It was a whole vocabulary that Hijikata had made.

It was a distinct code?

Yes. It was like—You see this word, you do this movement. But if you attach this other word to it, then you do that movement differently, like this. So it was very semantic, very orchestrated. There’s another layer to it that you don’t see in the book so much—Hijikata had a huge pile of pictures and images that he collected in his notebooks. In the book, there are all these proper nouns. These are paintings that he would bring into rehearsal. He’d say, “Okay, like this. Like Goya. Like Bellmer. Look at these pictures.” He’d create the movement and then modify it. So there were many layers, but they were all very specific and coded. The language would be a consistent set of movements that could be repeated. When we had Moe-san with us, we chose a little passage and watched video of the corresponding point in the performance, and he was noticing differences. As it turns out, that notebook is just a snapshot of one stage in rehearsal in preparation for the final dance, but it wasn’t a document of the final product. Even with all this detail, there were still many more changes that Hijikata made to it before the actual performance. So this book, too, is an unpolished stone. I hear that some people are going to perform it and I would love to see something like that.

Did that code system survive? Is there a dictionary? Maybe not literally, but—

No, literally! I don’t think they ever finished it, but at the Hijikata archive at Keio University Art Center they asked Moe-san to help document the code in a series of videos. They would say, “Rose,” and he would do rose. I don’t know how far he got, but they made that gesture towards documenting the language. You can see it on their website. Dancers do this same thing to different levels—often a dancer will create a whole phrase in his head and call it something. So it actually isn’t that revolutionary, though Hijikata’s use of it was very micro.

What are you working on now? Or what are you not working on now?

Some people may have noticed I haven’t produced “new” work of my own in a while. People solicit work for journals and I have nothing to offer up. The truth is I’m in fact working on something new, but I can’t quite talk about it yet until I feel like it’s really taken hold.

On the other hand, for a few years I was not working on writing because I was working on film, desperately and deeply and passionately wanting to make film. I still have those feelings too, but along the way I bumped into something I really wanted to write, and so now I feel I need to give that a go. But I feel just as new and uncertain as I did when I was twenty—also excited and eager and searching and hopeful—and perhaps with less time on my hands, with two kids and a job. I want it all! I’m forty-one now, and if things go well I’ll have a few more good decades to work with. If this was soccer or football, I’m in the second half of the game now, and anything can happen. If this was sonata form, I’m in B—the development part—and exciting things should be brewing along. Middle age is a fascinating place in life, too. It blows me away, I feel an oceanic force, and I feel like swimming swimming swimming, even though I am a crappy swimmer in real life. Metaphors can get us so much further.