An interview with Yuko Otomo

Greg Nissan

Photograph by Donald Martineaw-Vega

Yuko Otomo (b. 1950, Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan), a Japanese native who writes in English, has generated a largely ekphrastic oeuvre, one that finds drama in the phenomenology of art rather than its history: the strange play of light on a canvas in a museum, a found poem on the way to a Bruce Nauman retrospective, or her own transience in a world of English speakers. Her unique position allows her to capture art as it is lived and not as it is studied. Her written work defies category and displays a humble recognition of subjectivity, daring to be small and quiet in the presence of mammoth artworks and cities, as well as an uncommon creative confidence in dwelling at the border between language and the visual, while never shying away from their tensions. Her family's literary history and her own rigorous self-education serve as bedrock to her curious artistic spirit, and her poetry remains distinctly her own even when responding to artists as diverse as Michelangelo and Duchamp. Otomo's most recent work is STUDY & Other Poems on Art (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), which collects her writing on art from the 1980's to the present. Her visual work, decidedly abstract, has been shown in such spaces as Tribes Gallery, Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Gallery, Vision Festival, and the Brecht Forum. Otomo, though best known as a poet, has an equal devotion to visual art, criticism, and translation that reveals an unbordered spirit, called to art.

—Greg Nissan

Could you tell me about your beginnings as a writer? Were you always drawn to writing in response to other forms?

My father wrote haiku and my mother painted. His father also wrote haiku and her father also painted. I come from the kind of family in which art and writing were always a part of life. My paternal grandparents were part of the Taishō Democracy and my father was deeply involved with the post-war Modern Haiku Movement.

Hagiwara Sakutaro, the father of modern colloquial Japanese poetry, was my maternal grandfather's second cousin. My mother knew the daughter of Onchi Koshiro, a modernist artist and a print maker. My aunt was married to a son of a painter, Kojima Zenzaburo. So, I grew up hearing names of certain poets and artists. I started to paint very early, but my writing didn't start till late. One of my first poems was an ekphrastic poem on Braques' painting I did at twelve or thirteen. But that was just a coincidence. I didn't write about art till I moved to New York City in 1979, when I was twenty-nine.

Although I was aware of my vocation at a young age, the identity wasn't solidified till I was in my twenties. I started as a reader rather than a writer. Being a rebellious and critically minded child, I opted not to "follow the program." I failed a college entrance exam at eighteen and gave up taking it again as I encountered what I call "The Holy Trinity": the Marquis de Sade, D.H. Lawrence, and Dazai Osamu, who changed my life. I used to call Sade my grandfather, Lawrence my father, and Dazai my lover. Instead of going to college, I delved into their work and other literature.

I loved studying but I hated the idea of schools, being inside a building thinking of curriculums and credits. Degrees were the last thing I cared about. If some place like Black Mountain College had existed, I would have happily been part of it. But that was not the case. We were all expected to go to a good school, to be a good member of the society that I was already critical of. My parents were courageous and radical enough not to force anything on me. Being deeply involved with these three thinkers/writers and others at such a young age made me an "abnormality" who did not fit into society. In my early twenties, I became ill and had a major breakdown that almost killed me.

In the midst of the breakdown, I started to paint and write seriously and felt that it was my fate to pursue an artistic vocation. I had an intense, almost uncontrollable urge to paint. It was totally therapeutic in the most serious sense. The manifestation poured out of me as cosmic and personal surrealistic images. Writing didn't really happen till I regained myself more firmly. I did some writing, but not much. Both aspects of my life started to become balanced when I moved to New York City, as I felt more comfortable, natural and happier in the air of the surroundings shared by the kindred creative spirits.

Although I did not go to schools, I was blessed to be surrounded by a group of open-minded creative intellectuals who published the haiku periodical for their group Eikaku (Sharp Angle) with my father. Sakaguchi Gaishi, the leader of the group, a poet/doctor, became my good friend and a supporter of my art and writing. I got invited to their haiku salon as an observer although I had no knowledge of the field. I received the foundation of my poetic education there. Through them, I learned the concept of weight, coloration, music and economy of words, freedom of experimentation, history of Japanese poetics and the what/how of poetry in general. Theirs was the last generation well-educated in both Eastern and Western ideas. They knew how to talk of Basho and Dostoevsky in one breath. As a matter of fact, in 1977 my first published work appeared in their journal. It was critical writing on some of Gaishi's work, including his wartime haiku collection, "Kitakaze-Ressha" (North Wind Train), which he wrote in Manchuria when he was stationed there during World War II.

Then, I had a chance to come to New York City. The city, and life with a poet, Steve Dalachinsky, further encouraged me to solidify my identity as an artist and a writer. This multiracial/multicultural/multilingual city is like a big open school for me, coming from a monoracial/monocultural/monolingual environment, so I can learn about humanity in a wider scope.

In the introduction to your collection STUDY, you comment that writing in an adopted language is like "digesting things with a different DNA filter." I wonder if you could talk about your experience writing in an adopted language and to what extent you feel that exophony comes across to English readers. Are there any contemporary exophonic writers who influenced this approach?

It was out of pure necessity that I started to write poems in English. Fate took me out of the mother-tongue zone and I found myself in English when I moved to New York City. I knew English well enough to get by, but I was still in the Japanese language as far as my literary thought-process was concerned. It felt like being thrown into a black hole. Like transplanting a tree into a different soil: if the tree is young, it will adjust better. In my case, the tree was already fully grown. So it was not easy. But my desire to share my poetic world with others was stronger than my fear or hesitation.

Unlike music, art, or dance, literature is based on language, a public property with many rules to follow. In speech, mistakes can be forgiven, but not in writing. The first "negative" impact was the uncertainty of the grammar: rules. Another was not having a big reservoir of vocabularies. So, instead of fighting against them, I decided to start afresh from "zero," accepting my limitations. Soon, I realized that I was thinking and writing directly. When I was writing in Japanese, I had a tendency to be dense and complicated since I had good language skills and knowledge. I found myself on the path to achieving one of my poetic goals: to be less dense as an exophonic writer.

To me, English seems much simpler and more logical compared to Japanese. I love the fact that English does not have hierarchical elements that Japanese weighs on and is very clear-cut. I am elated to address a professor and a dog with the same pronoun "you." It was such a revelation when I realized this type of equality and logic was available in English. As for the difficulties, articles, particles, and tenses are problematic. To get a correct "a/an" or "the" is still too puzzling for me, since I don't carry the DNA of this language. It's as if some mechanical part of the mind is structurally missing.

Although disadvantages look more evident, exophonic writers have certain advantages. We are given a rare opportunity to mirror ourselves in a multi-language identity. As we experience similarities and differences between languages, we learn how to "break," "alter," or "invent" rules for our own new reality. Japanese teaches me to condense thoughts into words instead of explaining thoughts with words, and I use this approach in my English writing. Since I have no reason to show off sophisticated maneuverings of the language, I enjoy the freedom of expressing my crude poetic emotions in words without "working too hard." All I try to do is to give my "unshaped" poetic feelings some shape with the most honest and accurate language I can. I write mostly in English these days, but when I write haiku, I only do it in Japanese. Haiku is so bare to the bone of the language's core elements, and I enjoy dealing with the language at this level of depth. I love and respect my mother tongue and I am grateful that I was born Japanese, carrying its language DNA. I've never stopped associating with it through reading and writing over the years. I occasionally turn pages of Kokugo-Jiten [the Japanese dictionary] for no reason but just to enjoy the richness of the heritage.

No particular exophonic writer influenced me, but I think of Samuel Beckett the most. I also think of Jack Kerouac who had a drastic childhood language shift from his mother tongue: French to English. As for my contemporary peers, Pierre Joris, Nicole Peyrafetti, Vyt Bakaitis, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Valery Oisteanu, and Anne Tardos; fellow Ugly Duckling Presse authors such as Matvei Yankelevich, Eugene Ostavshevsky, and Ilya Bernstein; Phong Bui of the Brooklyn Rail, and also Nina Zivancevic and Ryoko Sekiguchi in Paris come to my mind. They are all amazing, brilliant exophonic writers.

How has your career as a painter progressed differently from your career as a writer?

I started very young in pre-kindergarten. My mother studied Yo-Ga (Western-style "tableaux" painting) when she was young. Her father also painted, and her uncle too. Instead of giving me toys and dolls, my mother gave me tools and materials for painting, but she never "coached" me. Instead, she showed me the essence of "what it means to be an artist" and the joy of painting through her own painting. She used to set up, à la Cezanne, a still life on the table for us to do a painting session. Observing her, I learned the alchemy of color-mixing, the body/mind relationship in the process of making marks and coating paints.

Through her, I first learned the word "dessin"; the difference between HB and 4B graphite; names of some artists such as Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin, and Modigliani. I started with crayons, then moved on to oil pastel, then to watercolor, graphite, and eventually to oil. I did some woodcut prints too. In New York I haven't done much oil because of the lack of space and resources except for the period when I was squatting in a studio space in the late eighties. To cope with my perpetual "studio-less" condition, I mainly work on paper with different mediums since it is affordable and available.

My first and last (so far) one-person show took place at Courthouse Gallery, at Anthology Film Archives in 2003, because of good friends who worked there. In a month-long show, called "Unframed," I presented work on paper, mostly graphite drawings and some acrylic on paper. Other than that, I have not shown my work too often except occasional involvements in various group shows, mostly in non-profit or community-based places.

Naturally, at one point, I tried to get involved in the marketplace, but soon realized that I didn't have the personality for that. Since poetry has less to do with money generally, its scene is more democratic over all. The art world is so heavily tied with money, as we all know, that it has created an extremely conservative, closed, and exclusionary environment of its own, inevitably. Over the years, I've become a sort of a fatalist in order to concentrate on my work alone. Despite the lack of exposure, I try my best to keep track of a personal creative history, archiving finished works in order.

You wrote, "Some art invites me to the poetic world alone, some to the critical world alone and some to both." What leads you to poetry as opposed to criticism?

What I don't do is will to create, whether it is a poem, piece of criticism, or a painting. I like to wait for the moment when a creation and a creator become in tune, one, feeling each other to erase the positions they both held. Especially with a poem, which is one of the most fragile forms of art, I never force my way. When the moment arrives, I accept an invitation appropriately.

Poetry is more like a gift from nowhere. For criticism, I like to dig deep into the subject to "figure things out." I still don't will my way, but I enjoy a solid energy going through me when I analyze and dissect the subject. It gives me such a different kind of sensation compared to the poetic process. Critical writing is much more aggressive.

It is never the content of art alone that ignites the creation process in either case. It is a kind of phenomenology of the moment. It could be my personal state of mind that has little to do with the art itself I'm looking at or could be the visual impact the art is exuding, or a poetic suggestion by the title of the work. I'll never know the exact answer.

Although I am involved in the art of painting personally, I am clearly aware of the wider meanings of what art is. Conceptual art and anti-art were not too hard to decipher, but the art of Bruce Nauman had been hovering over me as a big question mark, a big mystery for a long time since I first encountered it. Not flat art; not sculpture; not conceptual art; not anti-art; not video art; not installation art. I had a few chances to see his art, but some unsolved "I got it, but I don't 'get' what I got" feeling had never left me. So, when the MoMA retrospective opened, I was so ready to tackle the subject that had been intriguing me with such a threatening intensity for a long time. Then, as I stepped into the retrospective, all I could do was take poetic notes, rather than investigative notes. When I got home, I wrote poems in one shot out of the notes. Through them, I finally understood him and his art so clearly that I never felt a need to go into critical writing. In this case, poetry showed me more critical thought on the secrets of his art than criticism itself could have. Another example is James Castle. I have no need or desire to go into criticism of his art although I can do it if I want to. His art is pure poetry from the beginning to the end in my world. I only wrote one poem for him and that was totally sufficient. Matisse is another case, opposite to Castle; I can only go for a critical approach. The same with Pollock and Reinhardt. I don't know why. Then, again, as I wrote in my preface, Louise Bourgeois is the kind of artist who opens the door for both worlds and I still don't know why this happens.

In many of your poems there is what I would call a narrative sense of a female who has no words. This wordlessness or refusal to put into words some essential idea of art is central to your approach. Can you elaborate on the role of gender in your poetry?

The Japanese culture embraces its feminine qualities unusually well, compared to most other cultures in the world. The sun was a woman in our Genesis tale. The Japanese literature that flourished in the classical era with feminine language carries its tradition to now. The tea ceremony and flower arrangement are considered human acts, not just for women, with grand masters usually being men. I come from a society with a unique gender consciousness, so I never felt uneasy about my sexuality. But I try not to be too conscious of it since I see myself as a woman/human, instead of just a woman.

As I became the disciple of the three writers I call "the Holy Trinity," Sade, D.H. Lawrence, and Dazai, I learned how to read their writings from an androgynous point of view. What I wanted to know was about being human, not about being a man or a woman. I enjoy being androgynous in my thought process since it gives me an open space in the way English gives me an open space with no hierarchy in the usage of language.

In a poem about Lucian Freud, I wrote of "a female who has no words." The "I" is not me. It's the voice of a woman in his painting. I became the woman the artist was painting. My basic attitude on gender in writing is to be as empathetic as possible toward the subject I am dealing with, whether it's a man or a woman. I'm overlapping myself with a woman who is exposed totally naked to the artist's eyes in silence. In Nude Study (for Germaine Krull), I talk of gender through the art-historical point of view. In a sweet poem in Cornell Box Poems: Soap Bubble Set, I talk of a young girl wishing to be born as a man. This genuine sense of empathy allows me to cross boundaries in the poetic field. I enjoy the crossover because I believe that a sense of humanness goes beyond our general sense of gender and sexuality.

In a piece about Duchamp, you wrote, "Speak less / or talk less / (to say more) / (to say less)." This indeterminacy and impenetrability stand in contrast to formal analysis of art. You withhold so much—most obviously, any visual description of Duchamp's work. In what ways does a lack of disclosure help communicate or depict a variety of experience?

I love and respect Duchamp, although I have some disagreements with him naturally since I love "the art of painting." He abandoned it and found a different direction that fit him better. Most interpretations on Duchamp fall into the trap of intellectually dissecting and analyzing his "personal" work. To me, his work is an end result of "his" amusement, not ours to become fetishistic about. He said, "I would have wanted to work, but deep down I'm enormously lazy. I like living, breathing better than working . . . my art would be that of living: each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral. It's a sort of constant euphoria."

Last September in Paris I saw a fascinating show at the Centre Pompidou with the curatorial purpose of "correcting" the myth of Duchamp as "a painting killer." I agree with the concept of the show. I respect anyone who knows how to be an individual. He never followed any programs but his own intuitive sense of "being amused" to do whatever he wanted to do.

For me, he is very Tao and very Zen. But very, very French. His rationality over the illogical and irrational is so French that it makes me smile. His spirit was never affected by others' thinking or judgments. I love his elegant "dandyism." In Japanese culture, we are taught something truly essential cannot be explained with "words." It's called Furyu-Monji. It comes from the Buddhist teaching. That's what he did, creating something essential to him that could not be explained with reason or words. So, it's not that I withheld. I had no need to talk about his work since his art was about how to live life, rather than how to make art.

Often your literary rendering of the visual leads into other art forms, for instance with your poem "For a Painter," which concludes: "Paint / Like / No other can / Do / & / Then / I will call / Myself / A / Dancer." Do you intentionally write across forms?

I am open to every art form, although I am just an observing participant for some. I never intentionally cross over the fields. Most crossovers happen as a natural process. I wrote "FOR A PAINTER 1-6" out of my everyday practice of being a painter. I work in a studio-less situation. Working in a small space is very difficult, especially for a painter. I once wrote on "Have-Not" artists. Matthew Shipp, my long-time good friend, a great free jazz pianist, does not own a piano; my husband-partner, Steve, has no study and I have no studio. Some artists have good work situations and some don't. But the difficulties do not make me stop what I do. I always remember that many great creative beings survived in the worst conditions throughout history. It is definitely very political to keep on doing what we do no matter what the situations are.

The lines you quoted from segment #6 conclude the poem. I keep envisioning a studio of my own. With more physical space available to spread my wings, I'll dance physically and metaphysically in the act of painting. It's a kind of an inside joke I wrote to cheer myself up.

Your poems insist on the material aspects of language, offering us "Words as decorative, not thoughts." This idea grounds much of how I read the elements of punctuation or other marks you use, most strongly in this passage:
+ & - lie on
their stomachs
How does this insistence on the decorative nature of language, calling attention to the shape of symbols, help refract the visual into literature?

A few things lead me to this particular tendency. Firstly, Japanese is a pictographic language in essence to begin with, so the foundation of my mind is structured with these inborn elements of the language. Also, the art of calligraphy teaches me how to appreciate written words visually as a physically materialized autonomous existence. In haiku, there is Jikubari: the visual balance of words in space. How they are placed and how they look, not just their meanings and sounds, is an integral part of its aesthetic. Because of this cultural heritage, I am keenly aware of the visual quality of language in general. I see language, not just write and read it. Also, my double identity as an artist and a writer helps me for having my occasional visual elements in writing.

Here, in this Beuys poem, I used symbols instead of words. I did not do it as a writing technique. I chose symbols only because they conveyed my poetic feelings much clearer than the words "plus and minus." The impact was more direct, immediate and urgent this way. In one of the Louise Bourgeois poems, I even hand-drew a sign signifying "concave" instead of using the word "concave" when I wanted to say, "there is a concave mirror." I did the same thing with For A Girl Who Cries ("Tears" by Man Ray). I hand-drew an eye, instead of using the word "eye" in the poem. In both cases, a visual element gave the right kind of spirit and tone for the poem. Some poetic feelings are so crude and almost pre-language that they reside outside the territory of words.

In one of your poems after August Sander's People of the 20th Century: A photographic Portrait of Germany, you write: "Gypsies and transients / I feel personally / the closest to these traveling people / and their open and dead-end melancholy." You offer two seemingly contradictory descriptions, the "open" and "dead-end melancholy," as if subverting a unique identity. Is this a position you only take up in writing, or one you feel drawn to in your day-to-day life as well?

I love the Met where I can be a flaneur in the maze of art history and art objects. I can disappear into the crowd. I love the feeling of being lost and forgotten. I gave this poem cycle a title after Seurat's painting because the whole museum scene on a Sunday afternoon reminded me of his Sunday afternoon. I did a so-called "list-writing" of my reaction to each portrait [August] Sander did, categorized by the type of occupation. Out of all the different types, I felt closest to the "gypsies & transients."

I prefer a non-static identity to a rigidly categorized one. It helps me when I write in English or in translation since it prevents me from being trapped in any particularities of the languages too strictly. Being aware of life's impermanency and being outside of the static identity, everything I see/hear, eat/taste, hear/listen to, smell, touch, every breath of life, every moment of every day becomes an inspiration for my writing.