The interview below, proposed by Jane upon the publication of Eric’s Still Lifes, took place via email in 2012.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: Congratulations on the publication of Still Lifes this year, in which you list numerous source materials for your book of poems, so perhaps we could start with your thoughts about “appropriation” in poetry?
Eric Selland: Indeed, my work has been largely text-generated, but in Still Lifes I began with the premise that I would do something different and start with the things themselves. There are some lines from Oppen which have always stayed with me—“There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves’.”
So the idea was to paint still lifes of the objects on my desk—stones which I had collected on the beaches of California over the years, driftwood, little knick-knacks, and so on. And this gradually expanded to other objects and other sites, then finally, back to the texts.
I was just pondering recently on how much of my adult life has been spent in reading and interpreting texts, both as a professional translator and as a poet and writer—texts which are, inevitably, rewritten in another language. It seems inescapable. But it is also the sense of a poet being a reader, not only of texts but of the world, and of being one who discovers new meanings in things, rather than being one who is somehow able to provide readers with ready-made meanings arising spontaneously out of the Romantic Self. The self is nothing. (Though admittedly, this thing called “the Self” has also been an obsession of mine.)
When I think of the role and function of appropriation, I think of Duncan’s sense of “The Real,” which is an all-inclusive or all-embracing sense of experience deriving from memory, dream, fantasy, and myth, and from all that one has read. Duncan includes the experience of the day-to-day as well—the domestic world, the life of the house. Duncan’s poetics of influence is very much a reflection of this.
For me, reading, writing, and translation are inextricably mixed, so much so that they are nearly one and the same thing. Understanding itself is a form of translation.
JJN: Since you are both a poet and a translator. . .I’d like to ask you how your relationship with Japanese language, culture and literature originally began? And please also talk about how that relationship with Japan impacts your own English language poetry now. . .
ES: I’m told by some people that the “sound” of my work, its rhythm and flow, seems somehow like Japanese—it’s a certain undercurrent. And now in the situation where I am again living in Japan, there is of course the question of writing in a language which is not the language of daily life, not the language one hears around one. But it’s a difficult question to answer because I began studying Japanese at such an early age (when I was fourteen) and spent my first year in Japan at age eighteen long before experiencing anything which could be described as a “coming of age.” So it’s really something that provides a kind of backdrop to everything else since its origin is really in childhood experience. I think the significance of the two together is that by the time I had begun a serious pursuit of writing, I was finding that both the Japanese language and the language of poetry provided me with a means of speaking outside established boundaries. Though I have occasionally made use of syllable counts and various other elements of traditional Japanese forms, I think the influence of Japanese language and literature on my work is less these more obvious things than the fact of passing back and forth between different masks—the experiencing of the very different cultural constructs and personae provided by these languages.
JJN: It’s an interesting point, about personae and boundaries. I think I wrote very consciously about that in many parts of my 2011 book notational and there was also a Tamura Ryūichi thing going on, in my own mind, something about the tone of his work, in there also, and, at times, style and concerns. Having lived in Japan for a while now I feel that a lot of the Japan linguistic/cultural influence is there though not always consciously placed there by me in my work, and of course even when I consciously incorporate something specifically Japanese (a symbol, a form, a translation, syntax, etc.) though often in a deliberately distorted way, possibly few people will recognize it as Japanese! It is jarring for me too to write in English given my Japanese surroundings. On the other hand, I am in communication with a lot of poets recently via email who feel a disconnect with their surroundings, as a basis/impetus for their writing in the first place, though they are living in their native countries. There is something foreign just about poetry in the first place of course, outside conventional boundaries that many of us would like to see disappear (the boundaries that is) however impossible that may be.
Here are two lines from Still Lifes:
I cannot remember anything but those most distinct moments
in the distant past.
We are all prisoners of where we have been.
Of course you know these lines follow each other, though on subsequent pages as the ending and beginning of their respective sections.
Comments on these? And also may I ask what prompted your study of Japanese at the age of 14? (For me, that study began much later. . .) Can you address both questions? Though I have yet another question—you mention your obsession with the “self” above and maybe this ties in as well. . .
ES: I think your mention of poetry itself being a kind of foreign language is significant. Edmond Jabès notes in one of his works how the writer is an exile in his own country. This sense of the writer’s place has always been important to me. And I suppose that by going away, by living in a different country, one hopes to find one’s true home, but inevitably one ends up feeling like an exile there too. It’s inescapable. Ultimately we have only one “home”—in the work. . .in the process of making art.
As to your question about the two lines regarding memory and personal past, I find it a bit difficult to go back now and restate whatever was on my mind at the time, but the concept and experience of memory has been important to me in my work, especially at the time I was still developing a poetics. For Augustine, memory is the location of consciousness and makes knowledge, faith, and even self and identity possible. And perhaps for me this melds into Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of narrative identity. Of course we’re “prisoners of where we have been” in the sense that our perceptions and understanding of the world is based on our own limited experience, though I don’t think this is impossible to overcome. I have had a changing relationship to my own past and personal memory over the years. It used to be that there were certain cardinal points in my own past that remained important to me and to which I would always return (going back and rereading certain poets that were important to me as a young poet is of course part of this), but once I got to be over fifty it seems almost as if a kind of “emptying-out” has been occurring. Almost like starting over with a blank slate.
But back to your question about why I began studying Japanese at such a young age: I was first exposed to Chinese characters looking at my mother’s Chinese language textbook while she was doing her M.A. in Chinese and Southeast Asian history. I decided I just had to learn how to read those characters, but as it turned out, there weren’t any opportunities available for a young person to study Chinese in Fresno at that time. So instead I studied Japanese. Because of my mother’s activities I was exposed to a lot of Asian culture at a young age, and my father’s interests in Japanese gardens and traditional architecture meant that I actually grew up in a house with a Japanese garden and Asian artworks. I began studying Japanese at Fresno’s Buddhist temple built by Japanese-American immigrants in 1910. I also took an interest in Zen Buddhism during this time and read most of the better-known Japanese novels of the modern period then available in English translation. I was of course exposed to haiku as well, and would soon experience how this influence was taken up by various American poets.
And the obsession with “self”. . .basically a philosophical interest—the ontological obsession—originating no doubt in a self-conscious childhood. . .something I suppose I’ve had since my introduction to Zen Buddhism. My interest turned to the existentialist philosophers by my mid-twenties, especially Heidegger because of the importance he placed on language and poetry (I was not aware at the time of Heidegger’s National Socialist past). Heidegger also has an interesting connection with the Japanese philosophers, so this too is something that has had continued interest for me. And then the relationship with Paul Celan, a poet who was extremely important to me during my early development as a writer, though this is not really visible on the surface. And as is well-known, George Oppen was also fascinated with Heidegger’s thought. So here again, a poet of great importance to me. But at the same time, I was also very interested in Wittgenstein. Reading the Tractatus was kind of the “in thing” for anyone who had had any exposure to the Language poets during the late 70s and early 80s, and then later on, when I read the entire text of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein’s thought became important to me in my profession as a translator. Wittgenstein is also an endlessly fascinating figure as a personality, and his status as an exile has become even more important to me in recent months.
Of course, Wittgenstein’s thought is completely anti-ontology, so it may seem like a contradiction, but if one has the interest and follows European philosophy from Kant right on through to the present one finds that each new era has philosophers chipping away at the Western metaphysical assumptions (including the nature of “the self”) until one comes full circle to something that begins to look more like a kind of European Zen.
I suppose one could say the same thing about poetry in English—each era of poetic experiment since the Romantics has questioned certain basic cultural assumptions, so that the real beauty of experimental poetry, especially since Modernism, carries within it certain new intellectual and spiritual awarenesses which are just so extremely important to Western culture. There’s a certain “intellectual enlightenment” to be gained from the reading of each of these various stages in poetry. So I don’t think that the rise in advanced technology, electronic publishing and so on is something that therefore makes poetry irrelevant, despite the extent to which we’ve been driven even further underground in recent years.
JJN: Wittgenstein’s “exile” status has become even more important to you in recent months, as you have recently relocated to Japan you mean, or for another reason? What is the next “stage” in “intellectual enlightenment” that poetry will bring do you think? Your “emptying out” comment is also of great interest to me. . .
So we poets are living “underground”—in our true, bargain basement poetic homes! Poetry is more relevant, more necessary than ever—or as necessary as always I would say (“more necessary than ever” = a poet’s self flattery). At least technologies have helped us find each other in our dark underground tunnels, though the “massed” (to use Bernstein’s term) media may generally choose to ignore us to focus on best selling novelists instead. (The literature on reentry shock says you can never go “home” again; though I’ve not tried! indeed, I’m living in the blank spaces between lines. . .I didn’t come to Japan to find a home I don’t think, though perhaps I did; I know I came to try to expand my thinking in a general way. . .and now I feel like I am living in the “cracks” like you know that animation The Warau Salesman. . .who comes forth from the “sukima”—but you are of course right about the home that poetry creates for us).
A friend recently alerted me to Ahsahta Press’s new book of “pastoral” poetry, entitled The Arcadia Project [published during the course of this interview]; on its website was posted an interview with contributor Dan Beachy-Quick, who says he finds “terror in beauty” (what about beauty in terror? and I don’t mean terrorism) and mentions that for him too (for me also, and you!) that Celan is “one of the central poets,” that he has “never recovered from reading his work for the first time, a wound that deepens with every return.” I would say the same is true for me also for many other poets however, including for example Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Emily Dickinson, and some other (especially for me female) poets who write in languages other than English whom I’ve read in translation. I ended up revisiting Plath and Sexton’s work this summer because I wrote a paper about them; their influence on me is quite profound I believe—as is true also of a great many African American, particularly female, poets, plus many Japanese poets of course and poets from other countries, too numerous to name (Dickinson BTW seems to be particularly well-received by my Japanese university students, her poems that seem to them meditations on life; a student wrote, to my joy, that poetry’s lack of popularity was a valid reason for my teaching/their studying it! e.g. as cultural preservation) and as poets and intellectuals I think we are relatively more respected in Japan than in the U.S., where being a poet and an intellectual has more negative connotations than it does here. Related to North American pastorals: I also just learned of a book out a few years already, called Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Thanks to Paul Hoover for telling me about it; I hereby invite poet readers to contact me about any interesting projects that I am unlikely to know about otherwise! About various thinkers, since you are mentioning them, starting with me at a young age first with Sartre, then Blanchot, then others I scarcely can recall the works of any more, subsequently Kierkegaard, Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari. . .but I have to quickly also mention Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous. I read Wittgenstein after moving to Japan. My reading choices remain uninfluenced by trends since I’m (still, if not always) mostly rather cut off out here from what trends may exist as far as reading outside of Japan. Beachy-Quick states that Celan’s belief is the “poem is in search of an other who exists, one who is, as he is, stricken by the reality that he strives after.” Interesting “the poem” being in search versus the “poet”; someone (who?) wrote our ideal (if imaginary) reader is the person who understands us and our work better than we do. Maybe (?) Susan Schultz wrote something similar about what a “muse” is. . .
Looking at Still Lifes, as well as your earlier work and what I have seen so far of your newest (forthcoming) work, it seems to me you balance the abstract and the concrete quite expertly in the space of a poem. I’m wondering: where in your work does the ontological become (or dialogue with) the sociopolitical, or how do you view the sociocultural informing your work, whether in light of current “trends” such as ecopoetics (since I’ve mentioned it!) or something else? And what “trends” do you feel may have emerged in your poetry up until now?
ES: The move to Japan, and before that leaving the house where my wife and I had lived for the past ten years, are of course a large part of this, but there’s more to the sense of exile than merely physical displacement—even more so than this, the image of exile represents a certain existential condition and something that I have felt to varying degrees no matter where I have lived. This same sense of exile was something deeply spiritual, even necessary for Simone Weil, who writes in Gravity and Grace, “The city gives us a feeling of being at home. We must take the feeling of being at home into exile. We must be rooted in the absence of a place.”
Where poetry goes from here—well, I of course can’t tell the future, but I think we already see it all around us as poetry begins to overflow or exceed its own boundaries, whether by moving into performance or through the disappearance of any real separation between genres. But I also feel that in order to move on to a truly significant new stage poetry has to, in a sense, reinvent itself by going back and beginning with the simplest, most basic elements.
The emptying-out effect—letting go. . .I also like the Japanese word for this, “dappi,” which means literally to shed one’s skin. I remember reading somewhere that the cells making up the human body are continually dying and then replaced by new cells, so that every seven years the cells in our bodies have been completely replaced. So in a sense one becomes a completely new person according to these seven-year cycles. I like your description of living in the gap (“sukima”) between worlds or times. But despite these consecutive “rebirths” there are certain seminal texts which remain important to me. Celan of course, and like you, Blanchot has also been very important to me. I read The Space of Literature when I was still in my twenties and living in Tokyo, and then more recently read The Writing of the Disaster. I don’t know why it took me so long to discover this text. I was actually pointed in its direction by Japanese poet Takashi Hiraide when I was writing an essay on his work. Hiraide mentions it in some of his critical writings of the late 80s; it was an important text for him as well.
Perhaps the poem is in search of a form, or in search of its own language. I find myself having to reinvent poetry (or allow it to reinvent itself?) each time I begin a new work. It’s like learning to write all over again. It can sometimes take quite awhile before the poem which needs to be born begins to show itself—to intimate exactly the form it needs to take. The way I keep going between these times is to keep a notebook. I try to write daily, or at least regularly. The notebook contains fragments, quotes, and images. For some reason I allow only abstract images in the notebook.
It’s interesting that you mention the balance between the abstract and the concrete in my work. It’s certainly an ongoing concern, and something that always seems an impossibility. First there is Spicer’s desire in his letters to Lorca to have a real lemon in the poem. The poem should not be a description or even an expression, but should be the very event of Being as such. And then there is the thingness of language itself. What continues to interest me in haiku is on the one hand the objective manifestation of a landscape or an object and on the other, the very density of the language in certain modern haikuists, where there is a weight or physicality to the written character itself, such that one could almost pick the poem up in one’s hand and role it around in one’s fingers like a polished stone.
And perhaps this answers your question about how the political or the social might meet with the ontological in the poem. My basic feelings about the poem as an event or process means that essentially anything at all can find its way into the poem. I’m interested in accident (not randomness), meaning that the unexpected is both welcome and important. But on the other hand, I don’t like imposing anything on the poem. So in other words, I’m not going to attempt to force a political theme or subject onto the poem because I or someone else might find that to be something meaningful for a poem to deal with. It’s very difficult to write overtly political poetry and still write well. Joseph Lease does this quite artfully and I don’t feel the desire to attempt to repeat that performance.
JJN: I interviewed Joel Chace last summer; interesting that all of us say we have an obsessive need as poets to return to “simple elements.”
I think Bernstein wrote that the difference between conventional and experimental poetry is that in the first case you set out to write about something and in the second case you write and then see what happens (the writing leads you to some unplanned discoveries, and the poem of course gets its own life apart from us. . .). I believe many conventional and non-conventional poems and poets handle politics well, as in the O Books (Scalapino was and is a huge influence on me) War and Peace anthologies, ecopoetics anthologies like The Ground Aslant, poems in Black Nature and so on); sometimes the political may appear more overt but covertly politics are there in every poem of course, even “non-political” being political, and the sociopolitical can come out in our work even if it just “happens” in the work without foresight, as you said, the way anything that may interest us or be influencing us can arise in a poem. And there seems to be something very political about being a poet and being interested in poetry at the outset. . .
I may have always had the feeling of “exile” you refer to, but became much more aware of it after moving to Japan. As a hardcore feminist (and my feminism makes me feel like an exile in the conventional community I currently live in), I embraced the “personal is political” idea (maybe you know Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay of that title and many works that have continued with the idea ever since) so that, although for example Plath was called “confessional” and her work described as personal, her work is much more than personal but sociopolitical, if you think of how many other women (men?) relate even now to poems like “Morning Song” or “Purdah” or “Daddy” and so on and the breadth of these poems. I’ve always wondered how her life may have been different if she had lived in a later, relatively more female-friendly era (not that gender discrimination has been eradicated but living as a woman could be easier now than in the 1950s, or so I wish to hope). The choice to be contemplative and hermetic (the latter our Celan felt, if used to describe his poetry, to be an insult!) even has political ramifications wouldn’t you say? Having many years experience in activism, I fortunately came to the thinking fairly quickly that “policing” one’s own conduct could be better or more “moral” than trying to police or influence others, that changing oneself might be the key to social change etc. Isolating oneself in the mountains as I sometimes do is political (maybe a lot of “emptying out” occurs there for me!) as is returning to the city (it’s not a flight from people exactly that brings me to the mountains but a flight from the commodification of cities I suppose though I need space to think) for me. The absurd is political (and the reverse!). The ontological: what exists exists in relation to something else, so what should or could those relations be, or what are those relations? In Still Lifes there is a “we,” as in your line “We do not understand speech,” and an “I” who asserts “I will speak only of objects.” One could view those lines as intensely political, any thoughts?
ES: Well, of course to speak or not to speak, and whether it is a “we” or an “I” who speaks, can be seen as being essentially political. And the impossibility of understanding—not only each other, our positions (or positionality), but language itself in its ultimate mystery. And as you mentioned, even the absurd can be political, in that it disturbs the accepted (i.e. “official”) reality. Poetry both reaches toward the unsayable, toward an originary sense of language and what it means to be human (something residing in an area untouched by all the media noise and the current day political absurdities), and manifests a kind of radical democracy in which different voices are allowed to speak. Perhaps it is this double gesture, especially where multiple voices find their way into the poem, which opens onto the region of the political.
Recent poetry books of Jane Joritz-Nakagawa include incidental music (BlazeVOX, 2010), notational (Otoliths, 2011) and Invisible City (White Sky Ebooks, 2012). A broadside, blank notes, is available from Country Valley Press (2012). Forthcoming works in 2013 include the chapbooks Season of Flux (quarter after press, with photographer Alexis Alvarez) and absentia (Mid-June, Dead Man Publishing). Jane lives in central Japan and can be reached at janenakagawa AT yahoo dot com.
Eric Selland divides his time between Tokyo and San Francisco. His translations of modernist and contemporary Japanese poets have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. He is the author of The Condition of Music (Sink Press, 2000), Inventions (Seeing Eye Books, 2007), and Still Lifes (Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2012). Eric is currently editing an anthology of 20th century Japanese modernist and avant-garde poetry with poet/translator Sawako Nakayasu.