Creative non-fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Of Phenomeno/graphy of Poetry of Tokyo

by Jordan A. Y. Smith

I don't know how many "mountaineers" risk their lives climbing the most inaccessible peaks of the Himalayas each year, I only recall that more than half of them are Japanese.

-Felix Guattari, "Tokyo, the Proud" in Machinic Eros


What is poetry in Tokyo? Is that different from asking what is poetry of Tokyo? Can we ask questions like this without agreement as to what constitutes poetry, what constitutes Tokyo? Just as such questions invite me to struggle to find ways to characterise my sense of the Tokyo poetry world/phenomenon/scene/culture/polysystem thing—and savouring the merits but obsessing over the ill-fitting seams and aporia (?) of words like "phenomenology" and "ethnography"—a Facebook post pops up on my phone. It's Suga Keijirō, the poet, media philosopher, translator, professor, friend to many and yet-still-enviably-prolific social media denizen—suggesting a portmanteau of phenomenology + ethnography: phenomenography. The term certainly is free to mean as needed, but I'm going to employ it here to address the Tokyo of poets, the poets of Tokyo, the Tokyo of poetry and the poetry of Tokyo.

Felix Guattari wrote of Tokyo both in terms of heights and ambitions, as in the epigraph above. He wrote of it in terms of "energetico-spatio-temporal components of the urban fabric." Such a fabric only unravels when treated through linear text—the form of this essay. I hope that the threads I trace will mesh, forming a fabricated outline of a poetic territory as organic as it is complex. The Tokyo sprawl counts about thirty million inhabitants—were it a nation, it would rank 37th in the world, comfortably leading Canada, Malaysia or Peru. Its wards have like states in the U.S., and its neighbourhoods are simply cities that have lost their skins, infrastructural bones and arteries, gradually interlinked over the decades. Tokyo blurs the distinction between singular and plural, so that one may speak of its territory or its territories, its art scene or its art scenes, its literature or its literatures with equal inaccuracy, equal inadequacy—

But the city remains uncharmed.

Analysis chances in the NASDAQian tide,

Whirled into thirsting exponents, exhales vapour, disappears into a vague interior.

Nothing sinks in, taken up in the faint Yamanote Line announcement

Is the same old beginning.

So writes the brilliant Nagae Yūki in her poem, "Reboot and Upload" (「再起動およびアップロード」, 2016), in a remix of the multiple scripts of Japanese—kanji, hiragana, katakana, Roman alphabet, mathematical symbols—according to algorithms derived from trigonometry.

Train line announcements are remixed into the Japanese poetry of visiting scholar Andrew Campana. Andrew will be packing his bags by the time this essay comes out, and those train line announcements, within his poetry, and his many translations will be spun into academic research on the other side of the Pacific. One recent afternoon, he sat at the horseshoe bar of an oyster restaurant in the backstreets of Shōin-jinja Mae neighbourhood while Moriya Mayumi, the actress whose voice keeps riders informed in PA announcements for Tokyo Metro, read in her best train-station-official tone the poetry of Michiyama Rain 道山れいん. Raised in the coal mining town of Omuta, in Kyūshū, who transfuses local tankōbushi folk-song style through writing jingles and lines for the television commercials that he directs, Michiyama's poetry is accessible and touching, sometimes written in local dialect. I stand beside Michiyama and recite my super-loose translation of his work into super-vernacular Californian English for an audience flooding out the door on an early spring Saturday.

I'm standing there after a long chain of poetic events last Fall—connections from Poeket (Poetry + Market = Poeket) held at ground-level under the Edo-Tokyo Museum, where the entire history of the city formerly-known-as Edo threatens to fly away in the spaceship of its own architecture; connections from Chiba—the true home of so-called "Tokyo" Disneyland—with its thriving poetry open-mic outpost oases; connections from Shibuya's famed poetry nightclub soiree, Spirit, hosted by poet and nature guide, Oshima Takeo 大島健夫, and hip hop-kei poet, URA OCB.

Several 朗読会 later, Winter brings the third annual Poetry Slam Japan, with rounds held in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo, where Ishiwata Kimi 石渡紀美 thrills and horrifies with the verbal spectacle of (literally) flaming mothers bidding sayonara to gender roles and with them perhaps life itself; Oshima recites a tale of crabs who work at a crab-canning factory and Asaba Sayaka 浅葉爽香 pants, purrs and rails loud in conjuring the spaces where modern sex must go to exist. I do my poems written between Japanese and English, with opening lines of two parallel verses being rough translations of each other, and the verses following rhyme, rhythm, feeling and meaning on their own routs to a fixed final line. I lose in the very last performance to the poet I intuit will win from the very moment I hear his first poem about a film-buff friend who prattles passionately of film scenes that don't exist, but which he urges his friends to watch and absorb as life lessons.

The eventual Slam champ of 2017, Nakauchi Komoru, is not a poet, but a professional actor and comedian from Nagoya. His non-poetic style infuses Tokyo with the owarai comedy style that has become a cultural synonym for the Kansai region several hundred kilometres to the southeast. The kin of traditional storytelling arts, the comedic rakugo and the poignant kōdan (now carried on by breath-taking performances by Kanda Kyoko 神田京子), Nakauchi's free indirect discourse comes to life on the stage, with voices of characters taking over his tone and demeanour in turn. Nagoya is known for its noh theatre, and Nakauchi gets down noh-actor style, absorbed into his characters. Somehow his material breathes freedom and cadences of the Osaka television culture that he inhabits professionally.

And yet it's all in Shinjuku, a brief walk from those old-school alleys of dive bars, the Golden-gai neighbourhood, rumoured to be slated for destruction to make room for another high-rise hotel for the Olympics—that "other" competition with its own poetry of overcoming, self-improvement and the glorious spectacle of physical human limits overcome. The Paralympics—does anything get destroyed to make hotels for them…, I wonder—had the best closing ceremony of Summer 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. The ceremony featured a poem co-written by poet Misumi Mizuki and singer Sheena Ringo, who worked with Hiyama Akira, an activist and blind tour guide who takes Tokyoites and visitors on blind walks through the city, narrating his non-visual experience as they go. Their poem is spun from famous lines of the eleventh-century classic, The Pillow Book, by Sei Shōnagon, embedding seasons with timeless and contemporary feelings. The lines float above the stadium in Rio, beckoning the globe to Tokyo for the 2020 Paralympics, as dancers from the Slow Movement group breakdance in wheelchairs, strut stuff in sexy metallic suits and leap sometimes with the aid of prosthetic limbs. (Infinitely cooler than that progenitor of Abenomics in a Mario suit …).

When the crowds arrive in Tokyo, most will seek guidebooks and machine translation through cell phones. But new reference guides reinterpreting the poetic metropolis in Japanese also come out weekly. The wellspring of all things Tokyopoetic is Gendai-shi Techō (Modern Poetry Handbook), bringing together voices from the creative and academic forefronts. A bevy of lively and divergent coterie journals add their own international and local nodes. Among them are standouts like Arai Takako's long-running Mi'te, which features serial style thematic explorations, seldom-travelled routes of translation such as Inan Oener's work on Turkish poetry and Maeda Kimie's 前田君江 on Persian and original poems by Japan-born Goro Takano 高野吾朗, who writes primarily in English, and Jeffrey Angles ジェフリー・アングルス, whose Japanese poetry recently earned him the prestigious Yomiuri Prize for Literature (2017). Mizuta Noriko's 水田宗子 Carillon Street features renshi collaborative poetry, and newcomer Yamaguchi Isao 山口勲 publishes Te, wata shi, built on linkages of Poetry Slam Japan with the World Cup Poetry Slam in Paris.

Despite rumblings of MEXT's plan to obliviate the humanities and arts, universities too (still, as yet) share space with poetry. Tokyo University: recent years have found them hosting long-term Jamaican-in-Tokyo poet, Dave Collymore; convening with Marianne Simon-Oikawa and collaborating with Japan Foundation for intimate exchanges like the round table with visiting Chinese poets, Sang Ke 桑, Zhou Zan 周瓉, Leng Shuang 冷霜 and Zheng Xiaoqiong 鄭小瓊, with Abe Masahiko  阿部公彦 (of Tokyo U), Koike Masayo 小池昌代, Nomura Kiwao 野村喜和夫, Hara Shigeyoshi 原成吉, Fujii Shōzō 藤井省三, Tian Yuan 田原 and myself. At Meiji University, professor-poets Suga Keijirō 管啓次郎 and Nakamura Kazue 中村和恵 host returnee Jane Joritz-Nakagawa and visitor Steven J. Seidenberg.

Most active in recent years has been newcomer Josai International University's Poetry Centre, headed by Mizuta and Tian Yuan, with guidance from the world's own comrade in poetry Forrest Gander, "full-body poet" Yoshimasu Gōzō and Moroccan modernist Mohammed Bennis, as well as regular appearances by Nomura Kiwao and many more. Highlights at Josai breeze in like:

* Tawada Yoko 多和田葉子 standing on stage with a picture of a fish, maybe it's a hieroglyph. She recites her poem, incorporating Japanese fish nomenclature into each line, holding up the image each time a syllabic combination encloses a fish name, often enjambed or stretched across multiple words. Other poems weave sound and meaning between German and Japanese, another jagged suture of languages that unites and keeps at bay those unable to swing with the zigzag of the stitches.

* A five-year memorial for the 3/11 disasters, which jolted the world of poetry out of hermetic self-referentiality and into action, a shift noted in Jeffrey Angles' volume These Things Here and Now: Poetic Responses to the Disasters of March 11, 2011. The readings and discussions bring tears of memories surrounding the unprecedented cataclysm, and poetry goddess Shiraishi Kazuko 白石かずこ booms the voice of the tsunami into the hall.

* Annual symposia mark the awarding of the Swedish Cikada Prize for Poetry, inspired by Nobel Laureate Harry Martinson and curated by former ambassador, haiku poet and translator, Lars Vargö, and the bringing in of international East Asian heavyweights like Bei Dao 北島, Tanikawa Shuntarō 谷川俊太郎 and Moon Chung-hee 문정희 for readings and round-table discussions on issues in the humanistic tradition of respecting life in all forms.

* A poetry contest for foreign students in Japan, from high school through grad school, writing in Japanese. A full-dozen poets from China, Hungary, Norway, Ukraine and Canada receive prizes and gather to give fluent, powerful readings in beautiful Japanese. Whether describing a physics-defying Klein bottle (Jonas Engesvik), taking us through the technological past of film through "CinePoetry" (Andrew Campana), transforming haiku into concrete poetry (Nemeth Vivien) or helping us fall through the sky (Liu Mu Yang 劉沐暘), the student works impressed a panel of veteran judges headed by Takahashi Mutsuo 高橋睦郎.

And universities team up with venerable institutions founded in league with internationalisation and cultural diplomacy. To name a few—Japan Foundation, I-House and the Maison franco-japonaise, the last recently playing temporary home to poet Jean-Luc Steinmetz en dialogue avec Tokyo University professor and translator Nakaji Yoshikazu 中地義和.

After the daily symposia have filled minds and notebooks, poetry slips into its party dress in Shibuya, Ikenoue, Kichijōji and Ogikubo. The Japanese scene parades monthly in the aforementioned Spirit reading at the Ruby Room on the first Monday of each month, and as though in Gregorian syncopation, every last Friday of the month Bar Gari Gari hosts the flying circus of poetry, Drunk Poets See God or "DPSG" (recently notching up its fiftieth session), hosted by musicians and lyricists Samm Bennett and Sorcha Chisholm and featuring mostly gaijin poets, musicians, comedians and actors in a basement joint plastered with 1970s pro-wrestling and pinup girl photos. These two open mics also mirror each other in reaching beyond their base languages of Japanese and English to include poetry that pushes the core audiences' abilities and familiarities, introducing new rhythms and honing distinct sensibility apparatuses through poems in unfamiliar tongues.

And elsewheres … A nightclub atmosphere conjured on Yokosuka Air Base for monthly open mics, inviting guest performers out from the Tokyo scene. A Jamaica-centred group of poets, Writers' Bloc, with Biankah Bailey traversing poetry's spaces with her powerful readings both "there" and at DPSG. A soiree to open the new Poetry and Dance Museum, founded within the home of poet Nomura Kiwao and dancer Nomura Mariko 野村眞里子. Tokyo Poetry Festival, Tokyo Sound Poetry Festival, Poetry Boxing events—the city's legacy of recent and discontinued/refigured/remixed events speaks of a turnover in the community, but Tokyo retains long-standing core of advocates, vocalisers and activists infused regularly with the flow of foreign human resources into the world's biggest metropolitan workforce.

Social media adds another dimension to nodes of Tokyo poetry's reality. This dimension means that even out-of-towners are present, with Roppongi poets counting occasional visitors to the city among their ranks:

Wagō Ryōichi 和合亮一, whose popularity exploded after writing out his experience in the aftermath of the 3/11 disasters on the ground in Sendai, now tweets poems to over 28k Twitter followers. Hot on his tail with over 20k followers is Saihate Tahi, a young poet who also transforms her works into interactive digital forms (you can now destroy her poetry in a parody of Space Invaders, or collaborate on a poem with her AI-bot via the popular app Line)—though by the time this essay is out, she may well have overtaken Wagō, thanks to the theatrical debut of The Night Sky Is Always the Highest-Density Blue (Yozora wa itsudemo saikoumitsudo-no aoiro-da), the first feature film in Japan to be made from a modern poetry collection (May 2017, directed by Japanese Academy Award winner, Ishii Yūya 石井裕也).

Constituting his own dimensionality, poet/artist/photographer/ritualist, Yoshimasu Gōzō, appears live only rarely in the Tokyo metropolis (officially: "never"; unofficially: he can sometimes be conned into a reading if his soul-brother Forrest Gander is in town). Yoshimasu's increasingly hybrid works wend their ways into museum exhibitions—the grandest being that labyrinth of beautiful detail in The Voice Between at MoMAT during summer 2016.

Anglophone folk access this world, and its worlds, through the home-away-from-homegrown Tokyo Poetry Journal (a.k.a., ToPoJo), founded by long-time Tokyo transplants Barbara Summerhawk, Jeffrey Johnson and Taylor Mignon in 2015. The journal tends to focus on poems rather than their mediation, curating poetry in movements between the English-speaking and Japanese scenes—as long as the poetry has at least one foot, even a digit, even a hair, in Tokyo, its voice is welcome. Travellers and artists-in-residence, such as LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs (whose Tokyoing culminated in a multilingual pastiche wrapped around pottery like earthen eardrums in an artsy West Tokyo joint, teaming up with currently-local Sawako Nakayasu 中保佐和子, crying through older poems read in a newer, more bitter world of the 2016 elections in her once-and-future homeland East of the Pacific), or Michelle Naka Pierce at the good ol' leftist bastion, Café Lavanderia.

ToPoJo stays grounded in previous eras and generations, from the early modernism of Sagawa Chika 佐川ちか, through the VOU, then Arechi poets, freely writing direct responses to Fluxus works, today's cutting-edge TOLTA art unit, and—scheduled for vol. 5 (Fall 2017)—back with a retrospective of the transpacific Beat poetry movement. Each volume launches via lively parties to improvised tunes from resident souls of music, Samm Bennett, Morgan Fisher, Masahico Shimaji and Huw Lloyd, punctuated with a technoerotic piece from songwriter poet Chris Mosdell, a video feed of Barbara Summerhawk reciting poetry while skydiving, or the spiritual, political, ecstatic freestyles of Marcellus Nealy.

Through all volumes, but especially in their issue dedicated to music+poetry (vol. 3, Fall 2016, guest edited by Jeffrey Johnson), ToPoJo hears poetry as part of our soundscape. As haiku poet Kit Nagamura hints, that relationship between semiotic levels of print and sound may be inherent in our city:

Tokyo summer

a boogie-woogie

of glass clouds

Like Guattari, she looks up—and her gaze is refracted. The heavens bounce in through the architecture. Somewhere beyond them, Japanese mountain climbers etch lines up the faces of Everest.

Our friends at Isobar press, who, under the editorial leadership of the indomitable Paul Rossiter, publish poetry from expat and Japanese poets writing in English, seem to agree. Many of their books feature a blend of the musical and the poetic, whether Yoko Danno's retelling of the songs and tales from Japan's ancient classic, the Kojiki, or Eric Selland's musically inclined writings in Beethoven's Dream and The Condition of Music.

Tokyo cannot claim parentage for all poetry written, sung, rapped and published here. And poetry has its own map of Tokyo. Buried treasures flitting into cyclical existence, eddying off in a whirl of paper, fractals of digital photos. Poets have their own routes and ports of call. And of course, any map of Tokyo becomes a poetry—names with history and semantic resonance, train lines in colours like a Yoshimasu Gōzō "naked memo," typeset by quantum textualist Andrew Topel or Susan Howe on LSD. In Arc Tangent (Isobar, 2013), Selland writes, "The grasping hand comes to be itself. Grasped. In the process of making. It comes to resemble itself. The shadow of a hand." Take that Escherian image simultaneously as an ethnographic and phenomenological statement, and you will have grasped and been grasped by the Tokyo of poetry of Tokyo of poetry of Tokyo poetry.

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