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Interest in Japanese literature, verse sets American on voyage of discovery around Orient

Poet draws on senses to give words life

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

American poet Arthur Binard is alert to the world around him. His interests range from trees and insects to bicycles, kotatsu (heater tables) and nuclear energy.

Binard writes poems in Japanese — which is not his mother tongue — as well as in English, translates poems from Japanese into English, and even writes haiku and tanka, always trying to sharpen his five senses.

After living and working in Japan for over two decades, he is entirely bilingual. He says it is still challenging for him to express his thoughts through poems — whether it be in English or in Japanese.

Binard says that he tries to bring some discovery to the reader through his poems — a discovery about himself or about the world that he feels is new or important.

He takes something that is not language — some discovery that is out there in the world — “a plant or an animal or some event, or a feeling or maybe a smell” — and tries to convey it through language.

“I don’t want to start with language and finish with language. I want language to be a vehicle. When reading the poem, the reader goes from the language into his or her own imagination. Each reader imagines and discovers something on his or her own,” he said.

Binard arrived in Japan on the day of his graduation from university in 1990. At the beginning, he managed to get by with a little bit of Japanese. Anywhere he went, he would find someone who would help him out. “I was fortunate to have met kind, caring people,” he said.

For example, on the way from Narita International Airport to Tokyo on his first day, he happened to sit next to a Japanese lady, who offered him a job as a tutor. She then became his guarantor for his first apartment in Tokyo.

About a week after his arrival, he met a man at a park in the Ikebukuro area who was a landlord and who later rented him an apartment in Itabashi Ward where he and his Japanese wife — who is also a poet — live now.

Born and raised in Michigan until he was 15, Binard moved with his family to Ohio and later graduated from high school there.

He went on to study English literature at Colgate University in New York, but left the university to study in Milan, Italy. Later, he returned to Colgate. However, after just one semester, he took off again and headed to Madras, in southeast India, to study the Tamil language. “I still hope to become fluent in Tamil someday,” he said.

His interest in languages extended to Chinese and Japanese. When he was writing his thesis at university, he came across poems written by American poet Ezra Pound. Binard read a series of Pound’s poems called “The Cantos,” which include Chinese characters. He became interested in kanji, and learned more about them. “The more I tried to understand kanji, they came alive for me, and I knew I would have to make them part of my life,” he said.

“With kanji, you can go back and figure out how they were made. For example, sound enveloped in a gate means darkness (“yami” in Japanese). It’s amazing when you think about how much meaning and how much possibility there is in one kanji or a single hiragana or katakana character. It’s almost like each one is a poem in itself,” he noted.

He compared the Chinese and Japanese languages, and settled on learning Japanese, as he thought that Japanese, with its three different writing systems — hiragana, katakana and kanji — would be more challenging.

Binard sat in on Japanese classes at university, and upon graduation, instead of getting a job or applying for graduate school, he bought a plane ticket to Japan.

“I decided that this was what I wanted to do. I didn’t worry about how difficult learning Japanese would be. I thought ‘If I’m gonna do it, now’s the time,’ ” he said.

Shortly after arriving in Japan, he taught English privately and also at a language school, all the while learning Japanese. “I studied Japanese all day every day. I went to the library and read mostly picture books at first,” Binard said. He read Japanese folk tales such as “Kachi-Kachi Yama,” “Kobutori Jiisan” and “Warashibe Choja.”

While he was studying at a Japanese language school, he encountered literature. “Maybe some people would call it fate,” he recalls.

One day in class, his teacher read a book titled “The Grilled Fish (“Yakareta Sakana” in Japanese)” written by Hideo Oguma. It was the first work of literature that Binard read in Japanese, and he thought it was a great story — “even better than Oscar Wilde.” He translated it into English, which was later published as his first work of translation.

Binard’s interest in Japanese literature did not end with translation. Soon he was writing his own poems in Japanese. He received several awards for his poetry, including the Nakahara Chuya Award, becoming the first foreigner ever to receive it.

His next project is to publish a translation of a series of poems written by Jotaro Wakamatsu, a poet from Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture,a town devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and also affected by the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.

The English translation of the poems — with a theme related to nuclear power — is scheduled to be published this summer.

“Nearly 20 years ago, Wakamatsu described Chernobyl and talked about what would happen to Fukushima. The poems are prophetic,” Binard said.

“Wakamatsu also documented years of false statements and hidden radiation pollution from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s nuclear power plants. The problem didn’t start on March 11 — it started in the 1960s, ever since they began using nuclear power. He wrote about all these different lies and turned the material into literature. They’re great poems and they tell the truth,” he added.

Binard stresses that poets need to be “true to some positive reality.”

“A good poem doesn’t have to be 100 percent factually accurate. It could be fiction or fantasy or even nonsense, but it needs to be true to some human or psychological reality,” he said.

“In my opinion, you can’t be a poet and a liar at the same time. You can write a poem that contains something impossible, but if you write a poem that tricks your readers into believing something false, then you’re just a con artist.”

Arthur Binard’s award-winning “Tsuriagetewa” (whose English title is “Catch and Release”) is available on iTunes as a bilingual audio book in three parts from Shogakukan.