“Translate & Transport”: A Conversation with Naoko Fujimoto & A Graphic Poem – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Naoko Fujimoto was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in POETRY, the Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Seattle Review, Quarterly West, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Diode Poetry Journal, and PANK. She is the author of Glyph:Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory (Tupelo Press, 2021), Where I Was Born (Willow Publishing, 2019), and three chapbooks. She is an associate editor & outreach translation editor at RHINO Poetry.

Kristina Marie Darling: Tell me about your beautiful new collection of graphic poetry. What is the meaning of the title?

Naoko Fujimoto: My book is entitled “GLYPH: Graphic Poetry = Trans. Sensory”. The title explains how I see art enhancing traditional, written poetry when the two are properly combined.

GLYPH’s meaning has history with Egyptian hieroglyphic characters. Growing up in Nagoya, Japan, I was an awkward child who loved antient Egyptian culture. My family visited the British Museum in London when I was eleven years old. For a souvenir, my father bought me a coffin replica with hieroglyphic characters on it. It took me a long time to figure out what was written—it was “the British Museum” or something similar—but there was no internet, so I used all the scholarly resources around me. My grandfather’s friend was a linguist who helped me research the meanings. This process really inspired me to tie words, images, and phonetic expressions together.

TRANS. SENSORY is my project title. Trans has two meanings—translate & transport—I translated my written poems in English to graphic poems. I wanted my audience to transport their senses from the flat paper and bridge the gap between words and images that will connect with their physical counterparts. Like a historical Japanese Emaki (picture scroll), there are side stories hidden behind some of the main graphic narratives—be they comedic or serious—for audiences to interpret. All of the details (choice of words, origami paper, or styles) have a specific meaning to contribute to the whole.

I consider my works as graphic poems because like graphic novels, my project was to achieve narratives and poetic compositions. There is an ambiguous definition between visual and graphic poetry. When I started this project, my understanding was that ‘graphic’ has more story focused than ‘visual’. I wanted to create my collection as Graphic Poems equal Trans. Sensory.

KMD: How were these gorgeous visual texts created? What is your artistic process like?

NF: Creating and constricting visual texts are the most fun part along with selecting papers and materials. All images—textures, colors, and patterns—have particular meanings in the graphic poems. However, it is time consuming to write poems. They took about three to five years to be matured after editing. My earlier graphic poems only consisted of written poems which were previously published in magazines and journals because I was not certain they would be well received and wanted to use proven source material. Basically, I was not sure that my graphic poems were acceptable as a poetic form. Once I refined my formula—balancing words and images—I became more comfortable showing my works. The graphic poems then became freer from my closed mindset.

KMD: What drew you to graphic poetry as an art form? For you as a poet, what is possible in a visual text that might not be easily achieved in a more traditional form?

NF: This is a good question, and I think about it all the time.

One significant poetic form is line-breaks. The line-breaks create an awareness of emptiness on the page, which leads to a unique balance between the white space and words. By utilizing line-breaks, the poet can highlight a particular word, like popping an image into one’s brain. The word may trigger a reader’s old memory, or resurrect feelings of warmth, light, or even dejection. It is Trans. Sensory, isn’t it?

The awareness of space is an important poetic element. Historically, many poets, artists, or architects testing out how to express the void. I think that graphic poems have an advance theory of line-breaks—how to navigate the reader’s eyes through poetic lines with static materials. I consider this line-break hyperawareness.

For example, my graphic poem, Natane Rain Is (#21 GLYPH), many readers start reading from the top right, “careful to”.

But the actual narrative line starts from the top left. Even though the title is in the left corner, the majority of audiences start reading from the wrong side because I intentionally composed it that way. I purposely pop “careful to” in the page like a surprise line-break.

Natane Rain Is is a poem about a heart-broken, young one-season love. Often one’s first love can have a frustrated feeling because they cannot control their partner’s emotion. I wanted to express this frustration in the poem—the reader’s eyes move back and forth to figure out the narrative—in strips cut out of flower pictures.

This sort of spatial awareness may be a more significant development for graphic poems than traditional forms. I constantly think of how I guide readers’ eyes.

KMD: Relatedly, what is the relationship between innovation — in form, style, and medium — and activism for you as a poet?

NF: Graphic and visual poems are not new ideas—like Japanese Emaki—story telling methods with words and images have been handed down for centuries. Having said that, my graphic poems may be innovative because it is beyond languages and cultural boundaries.

I was born and raised in a common Japanese household. English is my second language, so I always need proof readers for my writings. But I can achieve much as a poet because I was born at a fortuitous time—not before or during World War II—and I could receive both Japanese and American college educations with fantastic, international fellow-writers and artists. That is an amazing thing.

Globalization and the internet enable me to be successful here. My audiences get excited about my Japanese story-telling, origami, and washi-papers...and I enjoy seeing people connect with styles potentially outside their comfort zones. Graphic poems may be a useful tool to view and experience culturally broad themes. For example, Asian poets seem to have a lot of foods in their poems. Have you tried them? They are all delicious. Thank you for the online recipes, we can now cook that at home, too.

KMD: What are you working on? What can readers look forward to?

NF: I am searching for a definition of graphic & visual poetry. I think that there are so many branches out there. Therefore, I personally started collecting craft essays from poets, writers, editors, and translators who also work with art elements for my online gallery, “Working On Gallery”. (https://www.naokofujimoto.com/working-on) With the essays, I hope to familiarize a variety of works and learn different processes and approaches from the authors.

2020 – 2021 is a blooming time for hybrid publications, such as Rodney Gomez, Geographic Tongue (2020, Pleiades Press), Sarah J. Sloat, Hotel Almighty (2020, Sarabande Books), Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry by 36 women in 21 countries, Edited by Amanda Earl (2021, Timglaset, Sweden), Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, Her Read: A Graphic Poem (2021, Texas A&M University Press​), Meg Reynold, A Comic Year and Kylie Gellalty, The Fever Poems (Both Forthcoming, Finishing Line Press). Interestingly, each book has its own charm and strong adaptation of what graphic / visual poetry is for the authors.

During the pandemic, I finished my full-length and chapbook-length long poem. Thankfully, I had enough time to meditate with them and tweak grammatical issues and unclear sentences with my proof readers.

And of course, piano. Piano is medicine for my soul (not so much for my cat, a true critic). I am practicing Brahms’ Rhapsody in b minor Op. 79 No. 1, Chopin’s Etude (Op. 10 No. 12), and Debussy’s La Fille aux cheveux de lin. They are all my favorite piano scores.

A Graphic Poem by Naoko Fujimoto