Organizer of annual writers’ workshop helps others find artistic way

Poet John Gribble aims to spend a part of each day doing something creative

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

John Gribble gives a part of every day to creating. Whether it’s pinpointing the perfect word for a poem or plucking out a ditty on a guitar, his life and livelihood in some way proves creative. As a poet and teacher, Gribble has spent the last 20 years in Japan organizing others to find their artistic way.

An active member of the Tokyo Writer’s Workshop, Gribble took over as organizer in 2009. He also currently organizes the Japan Writer’s Conference.

As a teacher at both Tokyo University of Fine Arts and the National Police Academy, Gribble also finds his imagination tested: “Teaching is such a creative occupation. You write and think to prepare, and then you must respond to whatever is put in front of you. It’s a form of performance.”

And Gribble, who had spent 25 years in California working with musical promotion and therapy, recently returned to music, “playing guitar mostly for my own amusement and my neighbors’ annoyance,” he says jokingly.

All joking aside, Gribble finds that being an outsider in a foreign country actually has advantages for creativity: “In Japan, I’m less involved with the scene, so to speak, and less affected by the fashion than if I were involved in the arts in America. Here, you are somewhat on your own — which can be very liberating. One isn’t as tempted to ‘follow the herd,’ the way I often see when I visit the United States. It’s a balance, of course, because community for creativity is also important.”

Building those communities in Japan has become an important part of Gribble’s work here. His efforts have sustained the Japan Writer’s Conference, an annual weekend symposium of writers in English who share their knowledge in free lecture sessions.

Now in its seventh year, the event was founded by poet Jane Joritz-Nakagawa and a team of women writers. The founders started the conference with the intent that another writer would continue the event on an annual basis, and Gribble eventually did.

“A group of us who had attended the first conference thought it was so good, we didn’t want it to die. By default, I ended up being the lead dog on this,” he says. “Apparently it meets a need and people have responded to it. There are a lot of people in Japan writing in English, closet writers or wanna-be writers or those already working in publishing, and this is a wonderful way to validate their efforts, to come and hang out with other people on the same page. A chance to promote a sense of community.”

By the third year, Gribble took over as organizer, and has watched the conference grow to include international writers and more Japanese writers working in English: “Our participants really understand what we want to do: to provide a conference that will be useful for writers, translators and editors, rather than a literary gathering or language teaching gathering. Those things happen also in Japan, but we are focused in what we want to do. This year in Okinawa (on Nov. 2 and 3) we have presenters from Singapore and Australia and Canada, plus writers from all over Japan.

“Putting together an event is a creative act, too,” he continues, “and you have to learn when to force issues and when to let it go. Usually at the conference itself, I don’t do much. I just walk around and see how things are going.”

Gribble learned how to organize big events from the music industry in California back in the 1970s and 1980s. He graduated from California State University at Los Angeles in 1971 with a BA in English literature, but he had also taught guitar while still an undergraduate. “Back in the early and mid-’60s, there was a guitar craze. Anyone who could play a bit and explain things could be a guitar teacher.”

Giving others a musical outlet fascinated Gribble, and he eventually went on to study music therapy at California State University, Long Beach. He worked extensively in hospitals, schools and prisons. An inmate of the California State penitentiary system helped Gribble to revise his own guitar instruction textbook: “At that time, I was doing a lot of group lessons, at music therapy conferences or for people with special interests in learning guitar, so I developed an approach for teaching large groups how to get basic guitar skills down in a quick and relatively painless way. An inmate in the California State system was teaching himself from my manuscript, and we started a correspondence; if he had a question, I would straighten it out for him and then straighten it out for myself, on the manuscript. He really helped me to make things clearer.”

In addition to his work with lessons and in music therapy, Gribble helped to organize performances, learning from “organizational geniuses” in the musical industry of Los Angeles. Yet after 25 years feeding his muse with song, he was ready for a change.

Long divorced, with two nearly grown-up children, Gribble met his future wife, Miwako Kashiwagi, a Japanese social worker who had come to Los Angeles in the 1970s to learn about geriatric care. While in America, she took guitar lessons from Gribble. A long-term friendship turned into a relationship and, in 1993, the two married and moved to Japan.

Soon after arriving in Tokyo, Gribble connected with the local expat writer’s group, the Tokyo Writer’s Workshop. Working on his MFA in poetry through Warren Wilson University’s limited residency program, Gribble published two books of poetry and became active in the English writer’s scene with frequent poetry readings. He is currently working on a new book of poems, and a translation of the works of haiku poet Hashi Kenseki with a colleague, Masaya Saito.

One of his most important boosts of creativity in Japan, however, came from a most unlikely source: the police academy.

“A friend of mine from the Tokyo Writer’s Workshop introduced me, and I started teaching English at the National Police Academy. It’s been a very rich, very full experience, and they’ve taught me more about Japan than anything else,” he says. “In the past, I’ve acted as a suspect for part of interpreting practice. I’ve given lectures on law enforcement culture in different countries and why somebody from one country responds differently to a police encounter than another country. Right now, it is more of a presentation class, where the officers go out and find a newspaper article and present about that topic in English.”

Whatever Gribble is working on, he finds a way to engage his imagination: “Finding creative outlets is really important for our own health. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of public success. Those successes are fun, but I don’t live for them. If I can spend an hour a day making music or revising a poem, or doing some editing work for someone, it really helps with all the rest. Life should be creative.”

For more information, see the Japan Writer’s Conference website www.japanwritersconference.org or the Tokyo Writer’s Workshop Meetup www.meetup.com/Tokyo-Writers-Workshop/.