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An Interview With Sawako Nakayasu by David F. Hoenigman | Word Riot

March 15, 2010      

An Interview With Sawako Nakayasu by David F. Hoenigman

Sawako Nakayasu

Sawako Nakayasu’s most recent books are Texture Notes (Letter Machine, 2010), Hurry Home Honey (Burning Deck, 2009), and a translation of Kawata Ayane’s poetry, Time of Sky//Castles in the Air (Litmus Press, forthcoming 2010). Her translation of Takashi Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut (New Directions, 2008) received the 2009 Best Translated Book Award from Three Percent. More information can be found here:

David F. Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?

Sawako Nakayasu: The current project is figuring out how to do that balancing thing – 4-month-old baby, full time job (beginning in April), making and consuming art, eating real food, sleep…it’s not very easy, and I haven’t even started working yet. The writing projects that are jostling for my time include co-editing with Eric Selland an anthology of avant-garde Modernist & Contemporary Japanese poetry in English translation. He works more on the Modernism volume and I am more focused on the contemporary, and it’s been a wonderful, giant project so far – I’m hoping to make some more time to work on it, as I can. And speaking of translations, my book of Ayane Kawata translations just went to the printer last Friday – so that’s coming very soon from Litmus Press. I would also like to finish translating the collected poems of Chika Sagawa, my favorite Japanese modernist. (This is starting to sound more like a wish list rather than a list of current projects…or perhaps more like a list of projects I’m currently trying to find the time to work on…) I would also like to get back to a book project I began in Shanghai, one in which each chapter of poetry deals with a different intersection of language – whether it’s in between two different languages, or at the borders of language and another medium altogether. I also have a “Post-baby Facebook Book Project” that I need to complete – shortly after I had Marina, I started posting “prompts” as a status update on my Facebook page, each night during one of our night feeding sessions. It seems that I could go on and on with this list of unfinished projects – but these are some of the more recent ones.

David F. Hoenigman: Who are some of the writers you’ll include in the anthology of avant-garde Japanese poetry?

Sawako Nakayasu: For the Modernist volume, one of the things we’re very excited about is the inclusion of the female poets who published in the journal called Madame Blanche, the women who were associated with Kitasono Katsue in the 1920s and 30s – Chika Sagawa and Shoko Ema among them. Many people, even well-read people, have trouble recalling the existence of any female modernist poets, because they were hardly canonized at all in the time during and after the war. But of course they were there, and they wrote some amazing poetry. Chika Sagawa has been gaining recognition recently, well after her death. For the contemporary volume, there are many poets who are experimenting in quite a variety of ways. Younger poets like Kiriu Minashita are heavily influenced by the time and place they grew up in, like Japanese suburbia during the high-growth period of the Japanese economy, along with anime, manga, and video-game related subculture. Or in the case of Chorui Ogasawara, his work might be traced back to Yoshioka Minoru, though Ogasawara’s work is deeply infused with a relationship to the natural world.

David F. Hoenigman: Do you think Japan is special when it comes to avant-garde art?

Sawako Nakayasu: I’ll try not to generalize too much, but I do think that Japan is very good at being open to influences from abroad. One of the interesting themes running through the Modernist volume of the anthology is a re-evaluation of how surrealism was taken up and developed in Japan – the tendency is for it to be regarded as some kind of imitation of French surrealism. While it’s true that this was definitely a major influence, I think that what’s really interesting is to see how outside influences combine with internal forces to create something unique.

David F. Hoenigman: When and why did you begin writing?

Sawako Nakayasu: The obnoxious answer would be something like, in school, because they taught me, right? It’s not that I want to be obnoxious, but what I mean is that it was something of a continuum – between functional writing and artistic writing. I liked to write essays and stories in elementary school because often we were encouraged to be creative in our pursuits. In high school, I enjoyed writing the introduction part of my 5-paragraph essay because it was the place where you could be the most creative. I also wrote for my high school newspaper – I loved the thrill (if you could call it that) of writing under real deadlines, but I didn’t really like writing in the journalistic style – and had more fun writing my own column. And then in college I started taking writing classes (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, experimental writing) – and then after graduating, I was still writing, and I guess the point is that I never really stopped.

David F. Hoenigman: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Sawako Nakayasu: A few days ago I got a really nice e-mail from an old student of mine, in which he recounted various experiences he had had while he was a student – including the time I selected him to read in the student reading event for the New Writing Series at UCSD. He said that that was one of the moments when he knew he was a writer. The fact that the validation and encouragement I gave this student had the power to make writing a real vocation for him was kind of inspiring – it makes me want to go back to teaching poetry. As for me, I can’t point to a certain moment in time like that, though I’m certainly very fortunate in the number of amazing writers and teachers I’ve been exposed to in my life. Around 1995 or so, I staged a big performance event – the premise of which was that I was getting “married” to art and hockey. By marriage I simply meant, “lifetime commitment” – but you’ll notice that even then, my commitment was to “art.” Of course this includes writing, but I also felt deeply engaged in music, dance, and performance – so it could have gone in any direction – and in a way I still think it could. Perhaps it was just that writing was the most compatible with my nomadic lifestyle, but life is long – and maybe I’ll become some other kind of artist later on.

David F. Hoenigman: Are you a hockey fan?

Sawako Nakayasu: I’m not sure if “fan” is the right word – I don’t follow NHL hockey or anything – though I did enjoy watching some ice hockey in the Olympics recently. As an undergrad at UCSD I started playing floor hockey (in the gym, with sneakers, and a round orange ball), and somehow fell in love. I’m really not an athletic person at all, so it was strange, but I loved to play hockey more than anything else – at certain points in my life, I was playing 4, 5 times a week. Right now, it’s one of the things I miss the most about my current state of life. Anyway, it’s one of those questions that has a short answer and a long answer, but I’ll leave it on the short side. I do remember that when I was choosing where to go to grad school for my MFA, I had a hard time deciding between Brown and Bard. Bard had an amazing interdisciplinary program that I was very drawn to, but one of my friends wrote, “Bard=no hockey. Brown= hockey.” And so I went to Brown, and joined a local women’s ice hockey league (for beginners), learned how to skate, and played hockey through most of my MFA when I should have been reading books. Some days, it was so cold in Providence, RI that it actually felt warmer to walk into the ice rink.

David F. Hoenigman: What book are you reading now?

Sawako Nakayasu: I’m reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved again, which I first read when I was in college. It’s quite interesting to re-read certain books now that I’ve become a mother – it makes me so aware of how much my perspective has changed since having a child. A sillier example of this was when I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and found myself feeling deep sympathy for the cow who gets separated from her calf early, who sulks and bellows, sad to be unable to nurse her calf.

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