Brandon Shimoda with Andy Fitch

photo of brandon shimoda
Brandon Shimoda

Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Shimoda’s book O Bon (Litmus Press). Recorded May 25. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.

Andy Fitch: In O Bon’s author statement (itself perhaps more poem than transparent autobiographical record) you mention, as poets often do, the desire to create a ritual space through or within the text. Yet your book, unlike many, points toward a quite specific ritual space, one associated with both the Obon holiday and Bon Odori dance. Can you provide some sense of how these particular cultural practices work their way into the idiom, thematics, and/or architecture of the book—especially in terms of its emphases upon honoring one’s ancestors while enacting a dance or procession?

Brandon Shimoda: I’m still trying to figure that all out. This goes back to 1988, when I first experienced the Obon festival and dance as a 10-year-old, standing with my family on a bridge in Kyoto. A lot of this book comes from trying to piece together what happened on that beautiful and terrifying night. It felt like a million people stood on the bridge, which seemed to sway over the Kamo River. So I remember the festival, people dancing, and I carried those two scenes subconsciously until I started writing this book. First I’d begun thinking about my grandfather’s life. I hoped to write something relatively simple and straightforward. Then as I started to…I don’t know, maybe some rhythm from that night came back. I sensed the festival calling me back. Or I sensed that he, my grandfather, had returned in the form of that festival. This early writing raised basic questions like: what am I even doing? Why does it seem important to address this person’s memory? How can I do so without feeling sick? But soon more of the festival’s various aspects came back. A lot of this work involved just imagining it, while sifting through conflicts I had about the idea of ancestor worship. Also I’d lived in Oaxaca six months. I’d been there in November for their Festival of the Dead. That had an enormous impact. I probably overlaid that onto the Japan experience. I’d found all these ornate, baroque rituals happening down in Mexico, and wondered how they related to my own thoughts about death, as embodied by my grandfather. Still, ultimately, I don’t know. This book seemed the first attempt at something I’m trying to articulate to myself, which remains difficult and hazy, as if I’ve constantly misunderstood my own ideas.

AF: I’m curious why your grandfather, specifically, prompted these reflections, From what I remember the Obon holiday has to do with ancestors, right? Does it welcome the spirits of ancestors?

BS: It’s the time of year when they come back. Their family prepares food and participates in rites and rituals. I think it’s actually, of course, for the families, for the living. As to your question of why this dude, my grandfather: that’s my main frustration. I don’t know. I’m working now on a simple and straightforward prose book about him. My other grandparents are still alive, but he passed away when I was 18. He’d had Alzheimer’s for over two decades. Even when we spent time together, he’d always seemed a mythic figure. He was an artist, a photographer, and, at least for me as a kid, a brilliant storyteller. Although I didn’t understand then that he wasn’t telling stories. He just lived in another world. He’d transpose some other location with where we sat at the time, which I found fantastic. Then he passed away and all these serendipitous events started to happen. I was oblivious and irresponsible and didn’t have much of a vision for life. But I started to write about him. The first piece I wrote, the first I ever published, was a story about him taking pictures. This became the focus of what became my poetry, to the extent that now it seems I’m creating ritual spaces for an exorcism. I love him, and remain fascinated with his life, but want to stop thinking about him this way (which has been this desperate love). So the book begins to formalize some of those ideas. When I think about the Bon Odori dance, the Obon festival, this book feels like the first notes of a song. As you listen to sounds of bells, the sound of the breeze, this book floats in. Though I don’t yet know where it’s going.

AF: Well I’d guess if we looked at the Obon festival itself, we couldn’t really say where it’s going, either, as this ritualistic enactment that both provokes and consumes memory. And if we think of the Obon as tracing concrete or tangible memory, our physical continuity with the past, what happens now when you return to this festival? Can you still access that night in 1988? Do you gain new perspectives each time on your grandfather? Or does it become an event in which to participate, but not the same immersion experience? Would it just provide a spectacle?

BS: I don’t know. The experience I mentioned felt really terrifying. I thought I would die. I can return to that moment on the bridge, with so many people that if you fell you wouldn’t fall—you’d remain standing, right over this ink black river. I remember pieces of white paper floating down the river. It was scary and I lost my breath. I’m sure I cried. At a certain point the festival kind of shattered, or fractured and became something else. Of course many people attend for whom the Obon Festival is ceremonial, formal, a way for families to come together, as with any holiday. Japanese culture relates to death differently than here in the States. Those elements get tended to responsibly, both within a familial and a ritual space. Though what I’ve obsessed about, contrary to ritual space, is burial space. I’ve tried to chase down a body so to speak, chase my grandfather’s ashes to their burial space. The ritual space is what remains accessible. Descendents can congregate there. But the burial space provides a kind of last laugh for the deceased. They bury themselves, or have family bury them in some remote spot, unmarked, so that years later nobody can find them and they can live out their next incarnation in peace. I guess I’ve wanted to dig this guy up, and eke out a few more minutes before he has to go back. Still something happened in Japan last year. First, for the final part of Obon, the Daimonji Festival, they light five fires on five mountains overlooking the city (each fire takes the shape of a character). So in 2011 we got to Kyoto and found Mount Daimonji. We decided to climb it, which is not too far. But the sun already had started dropping. We reached the top and looked down at this bridge I’d stood on as a 10-year-old. You could see the entire beautiful city down to the sea. Then we started descending and got lost. At this point the sky turned black.

AF: I just got lost dropping down a mountain in Kyoto on Sunday.

BS: Really? So it’s darkness, night. We wandered through thick woods. And this is July, with huge firewood stacks covered in white cloth. These stacks had been prepared for the festival. The bonfires get absolutely enormous. So we’re standing completely lost on the mountain slope, in this thick wood, and the sky goes black and we can’t see anything. I say, oh, the trail’s over there. And Lisa says, the trail’s over here. We start to panic. We get really scared.

AF: The hills have those rustic, minimally marked trails (with hidden canyons).

BS: But we’re not even on a trail. At a certain point I say, let’s just move toward the lights of the city. But the city’s lights look far away, with pitch-black forest between us. We get further lost and decide to climb back up the mountain to regroup, reassess. We arrive back on the mountaintop to find two young guys sitting, having a drink. And this mountain is steep. It’s a chore just to lift your legs to climb this mountain. So we explain to the guys—we don’t speak Japanese well—that we’re lost. Clearly they don’t seem concerned. They don’t have flashlights. I don’t know how they got there. They agree to lead us down. This takes about an hour. And we’d been way off. We’d gone in the complete opposite direction. Those two Kyoto University students saved our lives. Then they just take off on their bicycles. There’s been a lot of that, where I go to cites or places I’d experienced before and get completely lost. It feels like finding a burial site, as if somebody forces me to ascend or descend into darkness, and they’re laughing and having a great time at my expense. I’ve been pursuing absurd pilgrimages for which I feel ill-prepared and utterly irresponsible. That’s part of the frustration.

AF: Can we consider the reader’s role in this? On the topic of ritual spaces, for example, I’ll often wonder, when encountering books that seek to construct ritualistic space, how does or could a reader help to construct that space? Should he or she passively observe the ritual? Should he or she identify with its participants? Would such supposed identification potentially produce reductive generalizations, in some cases primitivist stereotypes? But for your book I can ask a focused question. O Bon presents such elegantly rendered diction that it seems pitched specifically to an English-speaking audience. But that very audience seems unlikely to have any proper means for gauging how the book relates to Obon, or to Bon Odori, or even, one could argue, to the lived experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb victims—which get evoked. So here’s the question: does that dissonance between how adept your self-selecting audience can be at appreciating the project’s intercultural registers feel problematic? Or do you deliberately stage and probe this tension?

BS: In no way to be disingenuous, but I imagine a reader’s experience resembles my own, in that I come at this book with lots of holes in my understanding of what actually happens. Of course very specific things get referenced, as you said, such as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the Bon Odori dance. But they’re not the real thing. I don’t what they are. There’s an energy I wish to transfer through the writing process, of having my own incomplete relationship to these topics, and aiming to form a fuller expression through the writing. What you asked in relation to subject matter: that’s hard. Again, I should emphasize the really valuable experience (not to harp on this) of being young and encountering something decontextualized, in a foreign country, through a language not my own, at night, surrounded by thousands of strangers. That was formative. I feel that was a writerly moment. What I’ll imagine recreating, in a book like this, is an analogous moment in which some other youthful presence can wander and sense a similar terror, and maybe that somehow can translate the experience across the ages. That sounds pretty grandiose. But to let that nighttime experience take over and let my body be contained in other people’s bodies who have come before and made these poems possible…I don’t know why I keep returning to that moment, but it could be in what I’m saying right now.

AF: It interests me that the Obon festival actually worked for you. That’s what’s supposed to happen, right? We’re supposed to feel undone by such an event and gain access to something beyond our normal day-to-day experience. So I’m still curious how that process can be embodied for the reader. For example, O Bon often provides a flickering evocation of presence and absence as inseparable sites of inquiry. The book’s opening statement, When I close my eyes I think about the breakaway, seems to reflect this indeterminate status. This piece gets italicized, as if an epigraph, though then runs significantly longer. It offers the tone of a dream, an invocation, and elegy all at once. References to the Hiroshima bomb appear. But first a world of substance gets described, of creaturely human life contrasted to (or at least placed beside) the void of the impending bomb. That bomb itself only can come into existence by eclipsing this substantial world. Here again, a relationship between presence and absence first gets thematized then formally registered. There’s this flash—and the flash could yield a subjective insight, a camera’s objective record, or a destructive force unparalleled in human history. That ambiguous flash serves as hinge between the two worlds you describe. That’s my single-minded summary of what occurs in O Bon’s first section. So how does this dualistic investigation of presence/absence play out through the rest of the book, and how does it relate to broader concerns that interest you in contemporary poetry?

BS: The flash is another event that…I have a set of obsessions or perhaps possessions, things I’ve been possessed with. That flash, of course, suggests all those topics you mentioned, and relates to a couple photographs of my grandfather which I have been possessed by for the last seven years. There’s this one photo taken during the war, at a Department of Justice camp in western Montana, of him wearing a bra and a slip. I’ve written, I don’t know, a hundred thousand words about this photograph (all garbage). I’m trying to reach the moment of this flash, and I’ve read so much about the flash of the bomb itself, the imprinted silhouettes on stone steps and walls. There’s some equivalence, however difficult to make, between those two flashes. And in terms of a balance, or correspondence between presence and absence across this whole book: in one foundational way, I guess, O Bon’s a ghost story. The author’s note begins with a ghost story. I’ll need to think about that more.

AF: Do you want to do so now?

BS: Challenging that presence/absence dichotomy seems true and necessary, especially with poetry—poetry as a process through which we can engage speculative space in order to reevaluate or reimagine past events, or even present events (something overlooked in its own moment). I have the sense that nothing that happens happens completely. No true moment exists. When we try to deal with an historical event, this event itself remains incomplete. So poetry, for me, can enter a speculative or subterranean or ethereal space, can begin to understand what happened or what’s happening. I’ll need to think through the relation here between presence and absence. I wrote these poems at night in bed, with my glasses off, with nothing on my mind. I tried to force out any thoughts. I’d begun writing them in Missoula Montana, where my imprisoned grandfather wore that bra. But I had no plan. I just wanted to sink into bed, to sink toward sleep, to hover at the edge of preconsciousness and see what would happen. What happened was I felt I’d started to translate his voice or his incomplete experience. For him, for any number of reasons, he didn’t have full access to his voice. There seemed to be something even he didn’t know, even he didn’t have access to, in the same sense that, as we’ve discussed, we don’t have full ownership over this moment. Then that translation experience would disappear and I couldn’t recover it in any way.

AF: Many localized arrangements in the book seem to channel your grandfather’s voice. Some suggest a choral or double-voiced lyric. Examples appear on pages 8 and 10, with their double columns, which could be read horizontally, vertically, simultaneously both ways. How do these diptych structures relate to recurring themes of history, ancestry, cannibalism even?

BS: Yeah, cannibalism. I would love to find instances of cannibalism in my ancestry.

AF: I mean reflection on ancestry as its own form of cannibalism.

BS: Just as a side note: I had this dream a couple weeks back of standing before a class, and a moment of silence occurred between topics, and I said aloud, when a woman eats another woman, is this the same as when a man eats a man?

AF: That’s a good question.

BS: The students stared quizzically and I felt the need to give a disclaimer. I said, is that a really misogynistic question? Then I woke up. I don’t know what it meant. Those poems you mentioned happen in relation to the Daimonji festival’s five fires. That’s why I use numbers. Some of the language, like page 12, I took from my grandfather’s FBI file. How these voices relate, I don’t know. In my first book a few pages contained just bunches of letters scattered across…there’s no strict way to read them.

AF: This is the Flim Forum book?

BS: Yes, called The Alps. I wrote it at the same time as this one. That book addressed my parent’s wedding. They got married in the Alps in 1972. Toward the book’s end its words and letters start dissociating, scattered across the page. Then they regroup and the book closes. I came to poetry through drawing. I studied visual arts up until age 23. I still retain a desire to draw, but that muscle kind of vanished, or got parlayed into writing poetry, into picturing the Daimonji Festival and feeling myself (as a child) turning in a circle and regarding these bonfires burning on the hillside—how each represents a different idea, or a different aspect, or different emergence of some historical theme. Ultimately they all blur into one. All the fires become this cloud of hovering smoke. Into that cloud I insert my own communication with my grandfather, or records from his FBI file, or on page 8, which you mentioned, that language comes from the story of Hoichi the Earless, the blind monk who plays the history of the Dan-no-ura battle on his biwa. The movie Kwaidan which Kobayashi made…I think it’s the first film in that series, beautiful. He’s a monk, blind, and enters a cemetery every night to recreate this epic battle from the Samurai era’s beginning. He basically sits alone but creates an entire world. He does so as a memorial. He reconstitutes the lives of his clan. That’s something else with which I became obsessed, through the movie, from the great Lafcadio Hearn story.

AF: Can you keep describing how source texts get ingested into your book? You’d mentioned your grandfather’s FBI file. You run a Tumblr site devoted to Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb victims. You’ll excerpt passages from Yasunari Kawabata’s palm-of the-hand stories, yet you’ve streamlined these and removed punctuation.

BS: I also did that on…there’s something from the Kojiki or the Nihongi, where I not only cut punctuation but took away words and put in long dashes.

AF: If you could discuss the significance of such transformations as they’ll get integrated into O Bon.

BS: I have this love for source material, as paper. This hopefully is a really short story. After I graduated high school I got a job cleaning houses in Connecticut. One house belonged to a New Yorker cartoonist. She’d illustrated for the New Yorker for decades. Her husband was a writer who published one book, but otherwise operates as sort of a house dad. I’d been assigned to clean their master bedroom, which included his office. She had this beautiful studio and he had this tiny cramped corner of the bedroom for eking out stories. But what I loved was that in his bedroom corner hung hundreds and hundreds of index cards and notes and pictures taped to the walls—story and character ideas, and sentences. I referred to that corner as the Paper Cockpit. To me this seemed so much cooler than anything he could have published. I read his book and liked it, but it lacked the energy of his Paper Cockpit. I thought, why can’t we just exist in this space, surrounded by our notes and ideas and jottings? I worship that space. But then of course comes the other compulsion to turn all that stuff into a book.

AF: Do you mean why can’t we exist for readers in that space? Or why can’t we just comfortably remain by ourselves in that space?

BS: What was the first part?

AF: Why haven’t we learned to communicate with readers while remaining in this cocoon-like space, never needing to extract ourselves from it? Or why can’t we abandon the idea that something of greater value exists beyond this space?

BS: Well certainly something of value exists beyond that space. Though I’ll often wonder what it is I do, or any of us do. Where is that thing? Where is the creative moment and what happens on its other side? I spoke to a photographer here in Tucson who takes thousands of pictures each week. He said his true creative moment comes when shooting the photos, which sounds common, but I don’t know at what point his audience enters that moment. Or back to the Paper Cockpit: I’m probably as much of a reader as this guy’s ever had. I made his bed once a week for months and months, and tended to that space religiously. It was my favorite house and I didn’t give a shit about the New Yorker cartoonist, despite the fact that I’d steal cartoons from her garbage can. I don’t know. I think I constantly try to figure out, where is it and what is it? I do have a deep love for the object, and want to integrate diverse elements into the book. But sometimes I want the book just to be composed completely of external elements, and to make that process visible, because that could be how I feel most myself as a poet. Then I’ll start to write a poem, and feel I’ve done grave disservice to the moment.

AF: As you further describe the Paper Cockpit metaphor, I think of O Bon’s section, “The Inland Sea,” which includes your parents’ description of the day of your birth, and which ends with the line “I don’t even remember when I first saw you.” This seems to conclude a sequence of poetic reflexivity, in which you write the poem as the poem writes you. That reminds me of the Paper Cockpit moment, which embodies a threshold of thinking or speech. Could you connect “The Inland Sea” to the Paper Cockpit, or just address this concept of an inland sea? Is there an inland sea of introspection we need to cross as writers?

BS: It’s funny. I didn’t realize at the time, but I did the same thing with The Alps, in that I’d asked both my parents for the journals they kept in ’72, when they got married. They’d traveled around Europe and got married in a small Swiss town. So this other book, this long poem, also ends with words from my mother’s journal. I guess I’m basically saying I turn to my mom to finish all my writing. But for the Inland Sea—have you gone down there?

AF: We just went. Both Miyajima island and Hiroshima.

BS: Miyajima, where wild deer roam? Did you climb to the top of Mount Misen? You get this pretty incomprehensible view of the Inland Sea. And that’s only a small part, its southwestern edge.

AF: I remember oceans, plural, and mountain ranges in every direction extending to infinity.

BS: Right. And then closer down you spot oyster traps, or whatever those long white bone-things are. We went up there. I kept thinking about the inexpressible. I thought of the Inland Sea as a language I wish I had the capacity to speak. That doesn’t mean necessarily the view. I don’t know what it means. It came to my head as I stood up there. My grandfather was born…as you stand atop that mountain, if you look relatively east, you’ll see the island on which he was born, in a small town called Oko, on Kurahashi Island. Though again, I don’t know the where or why of this writing. I don’t know what I’m after really. I can’t reach even the surface of things I get carried away with. I constantly try to find, then quickly fall in love with these moments. There’s Borges’ story, “The Aleph,” with that amazing description of the moment in which everything can be seen and comprehended at once. I constantly look for such instances in a much smaller way. I can’t even say I look for them. I’ll partly write into and out of them, and feel consistently dissatisfied with the whole process, which could be a life problem, or mental problem. I don’t know if that’s a poetic problem, or a labor problem.

Brandon Shimoda’s books include O Bon (Litmus Press, 2011) and Portuguese (forthcoming jointly from Tin House & Octopus Books, 2013), both featuring women dancing, men taking their clothes off, and cabbages. Born in California, he has lived most recently in Maine, Taiwan and Arizona.

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