“‘I keep finding poetry outside its ordinary territories’: A Conversation with Japanese Poet Yasuhiro Yotsumoto” by Ming Di

yasuhiro-yotsumotoBorn in Osaka, Japan in 1959 and growing up mostly in Hiroshima, Yasuhiro published his first book of poetry A Laughing Bug in 1991, followed by 10 more collections including Modern Japan Poetry Diary (現代ニッポン詩日記)(2015), Prisoner of Japanese (日本語の虜囚) (2012 Ayukawa Nobuo Award), “Hijacking Logos (言語ジャック) (2010), Muddy Calendar: poetry dialogue with Inuo Taguchi (対詩・泥の暦) (2006), and Afternoon of Forbidden Words (噤みの午後) (2003 Hagiwara Sakutaro Award).

Ming Di: As a Japanese poet living in Germany, do you ever feel like an “outsider” in the home country as well as in the adopted country (an outsider everywhere as many diaspora poets feel)? Who do you regard as your literary family and friends?

Yasuhiro Yotsumoto: On the practical level, I have been able to keep a small but exceptional company of editors and fellow writers in Japan so I have never felt completely alienated. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have managed to keep writing in Japanese while living outside the country over the past three decades (well, almost)! But on another, deeper, level, I have always wanted to be an outsider: not so much from Japan as a nation or Japanese poets as a social circle, but from the very concept of ‘poetry’ in the Japanese literature. I wanted to be a new, foreign element, however trivial and peripheral, in our 1500 years tradition, stretching the very concept of poetry. The title of my first book (1991), A Laughing Bug, symbolized this self-image of myself, as a computer bug who wanders about inside the system, causing infection and mutation. Overall, writing outside Japan and away from the social circles helps me in this regard. I am quite happy the way I am now.

As for my literary family and friends, they tend to be ‘exile’ poets, such as Dante and Kino Tsurayuki (866 or 872 to 945), and the poets who are not shy about bringing banal, everyday-life elements into poetry such as Wislawa Szymborska and Philip Larkin.

MD: A “new element” of the “1500 years tradition” of Japanese poetry. Interesting. Do you think one has to be outside the home country and outside poetry to achieve that? You left Japan in 1986, first came to the US to attend the Wharton for an MBA and then settled in Munich, Germany in 1994. As a Japanese businessman in Germany, what makes you so devoted to poetry and so productive in writing?

YY: Distance, if it is not too far, would always help passion last long as in any romantic relationship. In my case, the distance or barriers between me and the Japanese poetry are, as you pointed out, both in geography and the way of living. Of the two kinds of distance, I think the latter is more fundamental: that I am living the mundane life as a businessman and a family man rather than a typically bohemian poet’s life. That keeps poetry fresh to me and I keep finding poetry outside its ordinary territories.

MD: I met Shim Bo-Seon in Paris last summer, a Korean poet who graduated from Columbia University with a PhD in sociology. He considers himself “an outsider” because he doesn’t have a background in Korean Literature nor literature in general. His poetry is very original, not much influenced by Western Modernism and in this way unlike many other Asian poets. You seem to be influenced by Shuntaro (in terms of tone and style, not necessarily in subject matters). Who else have influenced you as a poet?

YY: Chuya Nakahara (1907-1937), whom I found when I was 12, dragged me into poetry. Shuntaro Tanikawa (1931- ), whom I found when I was 16, set the course for me as a poet (may be even as a person).

MD: Your poem “Fish Variations”, translated by Angus Turvill (published by Words Without Borders), is full of linguistic plays. Is it something unusual in contemporary Japanese poetry? What do you try to achieve in this poem?

YY: Linguistic poems are not so popular in contemporary Japanese poetry, though not entirely unheard of, either. In this poem, I think I was trying to set my poetry free from my ‘self’ by letting the Japanese language itself drive the poetic discourse. We just talked about the distance between me and Japanese poetry, but the relationship between my ‘self’ and my poetry has always been ambivalent: sometimes I have this urge to eliminate my ‘self’ completely out of my poems, in the sense of John Keats’ ‘negative capability’ and ‘chameleon poet’. Other times, I try to reach the depth of my ‘self’ by the very act of writing poems.

MD: How does your life experience in a foreign country inspire you as a poet? Do you think you’re different from your fellow poets inside Japan? If so, in what way?

YY: Sometimes I am told that I am too extroverted and friendly for a typical Japanese poet. I am afraid that is not entirely a compliment but a bit of a warning as well. Traditionally, great poets are expected to be practically useless and asocial, or just crazy. I admit that there is some truth in it, but I do not belong to those poets.

MD: What do you think is the most important part of Japanese tradition (of poetry)? I have not read enough of Japanese poetry. My impression is very much of stereotypes, from the Haiku by Bashō to the modern free verse by Shuntaro. I was surprised when I read Kiwao Nomura’s Spectacle & Pigsty, co-translated by Forrest Gander. It’s very different from my general impression of Japanese poetry. Is there anything else based on your observation that’s very special and unique of contemporary Japanese poetry that you would like to share with us?

YY: Speaking in a crude and over-simplified way, Japanese poetry has three layers: (1) the heritage of Chinese Style poetry (漢詩) which was the ‘public’ poetry style in the male-dominated aristocratic society until around the 10th century, (2) the Tanka (短歌) or Waka (和歌) tradition, which boomed during the 11th and 18th centuries as the national or even the ‘royal’ (in the sense that Emperors themselves were composing Tanka) cultural movement, and (3) the modern Western literature influence that came after the Meiji revolution in the mid-18th century. The Chinese Style poetry gave us the ability to narrate epic stories and present arguments or criticism in a logical way. The Tanka tradition developed a lyrical and sentimental poetic sensitivity coupled with the animistic affinity for the Nature. And finally the Western literature influence encouraged us to be ‘free’ both in spirit and expression. The unique quality about Japanese poetry is that any poet writing in Japanese has these three layers in him or her, and his / her poetic characteristics are determined, among other things, by the mixing ratio of those three elements.

MD: You are the national editor of Japan for Poetry International Rotterdam since 2006. What’s your motivation to introduce and translate your fellow poets?

YY: Originally, I was frustrated by the fact that Japanese contemporary poetry was not so well known outside the country and many foreigners would only think of Haiku / Basho when asked about Japanese poetry. I wanted to change that perception and ‘show off’ to the poetry readers around the world the high quality and diversity of Japanese contemporary poets. Over the years, though, the motivation has changed: I started to feel at home whenever I visit them in Rotterdam and emotionally attached to this network of the international poetry. In a sense, Poetry International Web in Rotterdam is the closest thing I would call as ‘homeland’ to me. By the way, I do not dare translate Japanese poems into English myself. I only arrange it and am very proud of the excellent translators who are willing to work on a voluntary basis.

MD: You translate poetry into Japanese and publish in Japan. Kenneth Rexroth says in his lecture of “The Poet as Translator” (1959) that “[T]ranslation saves you from your contemporaries.” What drives you into translation?

YY: Translation, for me, is another opportunity to stay away from my ‘self’ while flirting with poetry. In that context, I take the word ‘translation’ in a rather broad sense: anything I read and then re-write in my own way yet not compromising the original meaning and texture would be an act of translation to me. Accordingly, I should be able to translate even a Japanese poem, which I actually did sometimes.

MD: You have translated your own poems into English. What’s the motivation for doing so? Do you also do it in German? Do you share your poems with German friends? (I ask you this question because my American neighbors don’t know I write poetry at all.) Which German contemporary poets do you like most? What’s the fundamental difference between Japanese and German poetry (if we take the risk of being too generalized today)? What’s your general impression of American poetry?

YY: No, I can not translate my poems into German and I do not share my poems with German friends so much. I don’t even read German poetry. German, for some reason, remains to me as the language of everyday life. I don’t read American poetry so much either, but recently the poetry of Don Mee Choi, a Korean-American poet and translator of Kim Hyesoon, blew me away. Here I’m talking about The Morning News is Exciting (Action Books, 2010) and Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016).

MD: I love Don Mee’s work and her translation of Kim Hyesoon’s poetry. I enjoyed so much working with them and you on the Trilingual Renshi that you initiated and facilitated (Vagabund Press, 2015). It was exiting to write together in a sequence and translate each other. Lianshi (Linking poetry) started in China in West Han dynasty (200 BCE), developed in Nan Chao (400 CE), and became popular and then died out in Tang dynasty (600-900 CE). It was very popular in Japan as “Renshi” in the 16th Century. What’s amazing about it is that Japanese poets developed it into an international form of linking poetry. Can you elaborate on the tradition of this form of poetry writing?

YY: The modern version of Renshi (連詩) is something that Makoto Oooka developed based on the traditional Renga (連歌) through the trial and error practices in the 70’s and 80’s within the poetry group ‘Kai (meaning ‘Oar’), whose member also included Shuntaro Tanikawa. There is something liberating about it by working in collaboration and writing in improvisation in front of other poets. I guess it is somewhat similar to a jazz session. You let your ‘ego’ go and be taken over by the flow and dynamics of the group session. But, then, that is precisely what the post-war poets criticized about the traditional Japanese poetic sensitivity as being too much ‘collective’ and ‘emotional’ while too little ‘individualistic’, lacking the independent spirit of criticism against the authority, which turned out to be disastrously prone to the militarism and totalitarianism during the war time. In that sense, their attempt to ‘rediscover’ Renshi might have been considered a bit of revisionism back in those days. But Oooka’s genius as a literature theorist was that he pointed out the paradox that one’s ‘self’ or uniqueness expresses itself most strongly in the restriction of a team work. On the other hand, if you are to excel in Renshi or Renga session, you really have to go deep down to the bottom of your ‘self’ in solitude. The phrase he used for this paradox is ‘宴と孤心’ or ‘Party and Solitude’.

For me, Renshi is fascinating because it presents the capacity of story-telling in poetry. I often compare poetry to a still photo and novels or stories to a video work. Renshi is the combination of the two and somewhat equivalent of a slide show, in which a series of still photos is presented in a sequence to tell a story. In that regard, Renshi is reminiscent of another Japanese poetic tradition called ‘歌物語’ or ‘Poem-Story’, in which verses and prose appear in turn, depicting a certain story. I sometimes dream of writing a long epic SF story either by Renshi with other poets or by writing a Poem–Story alone.

A Poem by Yasuhiro Yotsumoto

The Butter Woman

She turns back
With the pattern of a snow flake carved
On her infinitely smooth back.

Lightly sweating,
The edge of her carving
Is dull as if in resignation.

You have to finish the affair
With the Butter Woman quickly,
With the door of the fridge kept open
In the dark kitchen while your wife and children are asleep.

It’s a hot humid summer night with no stars.

Let me melt.
Let me melt away, she whispered
As she took off her own silver wrapping paper
And released a faint beastly scent.

He was an over toasted slice of bread.
When he moved, she was covered with dark brown crusts.
But he was not brave enough
To scratch himself off his own body.

After a hasty love making,
Lying next to the pickled plums,
She dreamed of the wilderness with heavy snow.

He listened, with his ears sticking out
From the edge of a plate, to the ocean waves of golden wheats
Under the full moon.

(Translated from the Japanese by the author)











Chinese version:










(明迪 译 Translated from the English by Ming Di)