Cristiana Baik with Sawako Nakayasu

Sawako Nakayasu
Photo of Sawako Nakayasu courtesy of Mitsuo Okamoto

Along with Andy Fitch, Cristiana Baik is assembling the Letter Machine Editions Book of Interviews, which also includes interviews conducted by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. This talk will be published in that collection, due for late 2014 release.

Cristiana Baik: In Hurry Home Honey and Texture Notes, objects, situations, circumstances are always changing directions, shifting, in transit, “ru[ning] off and towards…” Do the poems’ constant movements reflect ways you experience place and time?

Sawako Nakayasu: It’s possible that I move around a lot in my life. In general there’s been a lot of changes in terms of geography, from Japan to New York to Cupertino (California) to San Diego to France/Europe to Providence to Tokyo, back to various parts of the U.S., then to China and Japan.

It’s also possible that many moments of change and transition and the attending sense of displacement are particularly fertile places for me to write from. In Hurry Home Honey, an entire section, “Clutch,” is all about hockey, a sport of constant movement. The section, “Balconic,” was also written while roaming the streets of Paris.

Also, it’s possible that I am simply interested in motion, movement, transit—I am interested in the bodies of people moving—in dance, sports and experimental performance, but also in daily life. I have very bad vision but can recognize people from a distance if I can see their gait. Some people blink more frequently than others. Some have a very hard time sitting still. When I worked in a fancy retail shop in Paris, I discovered that Korean women walked into the store like they owned the place, while Japanese women entered apologetically. Some hockey players I’ve watched reminded me of excellent improvisational dancers. It’s just also an interesting state of perception, when I myself am in the midst of a very physical activity like dance or hockey. When I wrote the poems in “Clutch,” I was trying to articulate that experience of perception, right in the midst of hockey (which is almost antithetical to that intention, because of the very slowness of the act of reading poetry, as opposed to the speed at which things happen in hockey).

CB: As well as writing poems, you’re an active translator. What are the bridges/ intersections between your poetry and the process of translation? Has the latter shaped the way you approach the writing of your poems?

SN: It’s less a matter of one thing (translation) influencing another thing (the writing of poems), and more like the bridge becoming the thing: so now there is a new (or growing) body of work that is both and neither translation and/nor “original” writing. I wrote a book this way via my translations of Chika Sagawa, called Mouth: Eats ColorSagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals, and this book is very much an example of my explorations of the very questions you ask about. The contents include various things, such as translations, original poems and many things that lie in between, like poems in the process of translations, back translations of poems that Sagawa had translated from English to Japanese, translations combining two original poems into one, poems by other people, a translation of a poem by an invented Japanese poet.

One of the difficulties in translating poetry is balancing multiple demands at once—for example, to make it simultaneously faithful and beautiful. Yet it got me to thinking about faithfulness and its opposite, perhaps also in terms of defining what it means to be “true.” (What good is a faithful partner if he or she is not interesting in the first place?) At some point I started experimenting with unfaithful or less faithful, roguish translations. I wanted to find different ways of being “true” to the work I was translating, by exploring and extrapolating various habits and tendencies of Sagawa’s work or re-imagining her artistic milieu and transposing it to present day. Sagawa wrote mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s, but I like to imagine what kinds of things she would be doing, if she were alive today.

I’ve also always wanted to make a book out of my translation of Hiraide’s For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut. Sometimes I would ask Hiraide for help in comprehending a poem, and the reply would come in the form of a poem.

CB: In Hurry Home Honey and Texture Notes, many poems include an ongoing dialectic between the internal and external: “Start from the outside of a peephole, and how much time it takes” (“10.9.2003”); the writer is instructed to “leave the window cracked” (“11.15.2003”); and the partner envelopes, encloses the lover and “acts as glove” (“Before the hand furthers”). Can you talk a bit about this relationship throughout your work?

SN: I would guess that it might be related to what I mentioned above regarding geographies and transit: that I live in a porous state where my nationality, culture and, consequently, identity are always in flux. So the “betweenness” that takes place (including that between translations and originals) is always a matter of interest. I’m also thinking here about Pierre Joris’ Nomad Poetics and Lyn Hejinian’s idea of border writing.

I love thinking about this relationship in various manifestations. For example, with the human body, I’m interested in the occasions that subvert the basic modes or boundaries of the internal/external sex, surgery, vomit, etc. I love amoebas and other single-cell organisms. Balconies, also, for their state of being external, but also kind of internal, to a structure. In The Ants they are all over the place in that respect, inside and outside of the human body, trying to get “inside” of “it,” whether it is something as small and intangible as the decay of a sound, or an ant trying to hang on to its spot inside Madonna’s mouth.

CB: Can you describe the reordering, rearrangement of the poems, which are not chronological but dated, in Texture Notes? What was the impetus behind the project, and how did journal writing transform into a book project?

SN: I arrived at this particular arrangement after trying various configurations, trying to find the best fit. Chronological order would have been true to what it was initially, which was a blog by the same name. But by the time I was thinking of it as a book, I was looking for something that made it read more like a book and less a collection of blog entries. So they are in ascending order of the dates, disregarding the months. There’s actually no big meaning behind it. I just felt that it worked best for the book.

CB: In “11.16.2003” of Texture Notes, the first line states: “The pain of seeing something beautiful.” I thought this very aptly connected to the rest of the poems in Texture Notes, where textures are not described vis-à-vis the lens of beauty, yet many trigger a sense of the sublime. Was there a kind of aesthetics (related to the poetic, visual, etc.) that influenced you while writing Texture Notes?

SN: No particular aesthetics that I can think of influenced the writing, but when I look back at that book, I see a lot of Japan, a lot of tenuous relationships surfacing to various degrees. The one you mention, that starts “The pain of seeing something beautiful”—I can still recall the first time I felt that particular sensation, way back in my twenties, looking out of a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at night, after the loss of someone very dear to me. OK, not literally the middle of that ocean, but it may as well have been. And so what this reveals, perhaps, is that many of the pieces in Texture Notes are very much based on real lived experience: these are all textures that I have felt at some point.

CB: Who are writers who have significantly impacted your work?

There are writers known for their prose whose poetic sensibilities really resonated with me, including Nathalie Sarraute and Lydia Davis, and then writers who are all over genre like Carla Harryman, Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein, experimental writers like Will Alexander, Fiona Templeton…but just as equally I am influenced by many, many dancers, composers, performers (as an aside, this question led me to post this on Facebook: “In answering an interview question about my influences, my mind suddenly turned to Philip-Dimitri Galás: does anyone remember him? Have any of his works been published or otherwise documented? Violet Vixa Juno, you must have been the conduit for me. Yelena Gluzman, ask around to people at UCSD, including John. He died in 1986, so he was there before I got there, but I think his work would make an excellent UDP Playscript book. If you don’t want to do it, I would be happy to publish it as a Rogue Factorial, with a little help from some peeps”).

CB: You once noted in an interview that you work “mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor non-fiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.” For you, what about this “gap” is particularly useful, attractive?

SN: It’s interesting that people keep mentioning this quote, because I feel like I said that so many years ago. Somehow it must come up high in Google searches? (OK, I looked it up: it was the year 2000—14 years ago! I used to love that black velour shirt I always wore, but I can’t possibly imagine wearing that now.)

To answer your question: this gap is, to me, a relatively honest way to reckon with the tenuousness of reality, truth and perception. Even though it turns out that all language, including literature, writing and spoken utterances, has a slippery relationship to what is true and real. I will also add that I initially landed in the poetry basket, because the things I was writing were hard to classify as anything else, and the poetry community has been a wonderful place for me to develop as a writer.

I was just thinking this at AWP this year, seeing many old faces—friends, peers, mentors, teachers—and how this community has been something like family to me. Although the love is somewhat conditional, this still feels like the place where I “grew up” as a writer, amidst and among all these interesting people. For a long time (and to this day) I’ve had mixed feelings about being identified as a “poet,” and yet it’s very much the poets who have been so supportive and nourishing to me all these years, and for that I feel really really grateful.

CB: Could you talk about your most recent projects, as well as current projects that you’re developing?

SN: A few things I’m trying to finish right now: The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, a big translation project that has been years in the making, and The Kitchen Sink, a book that includes a collection of poems alongside many other kinds of things I’ve written over the years. Beyond that, a complete reorganization of my daily life…more on that later!


Sawako Nakayasu writes and translates poetry, and also occasionally creates performances and short films. Her most recent books are The Ants and a translation of The Collected Poems of Sagawa Chika (Canarium Books, forthcoming 2014). Other books include Texture Notes, Hurry Home Honey and Mouth: Eats Color–Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals, which is a multilingual work of both original and translated poetry. She has received fellowships from the NEA and PEN, and her poems have been translated into Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, Arabic, Chinese and Vietnamese.