Tokyo has always had a thriving expat writing community, but often the diverse array of voices that populate this artistic limbo get lost in translation, or more likely don’t even make it to the printed page to begin with. Not Japanese enough to be picked up by the domestic audience yet too foreign for the English-language presses back home, there is a danger that a lot of Tokyo’s expat literary talent will just slip through the cracks.
Then, just when you would least expect it, poetry, already somewhat of an outlier in the writing world, throws out a safety net: the spoken word. Leading a revival in spoken-word performance is Drunk Poets See God, a monthly open-mic event held at Bar Gari Gari in Ikenoue, Setagaya Ward. Drunk Poets provides a much-needed stage — along with a shot or three of vodka — to help Tokyo’s English-language poets get their voices heard.
Established in early 2013, Drunk Poets takes place on the last Friday of the month, and each event is loosely based around a theme. The night is co-hosted by Australian singer/songwriter Sorcha Chisholm, whose husband Tomio Watanabe has been running Bar Gari Gari since 1993, and Tokyo-based musician Samm Bennett.
Chisholm says the event was born out a desire to “provide a space for the English-speaking community to come together and share their original compositions and to express their language in its natural state.”
“It’s become a real family of sorts,” she says. “I’m very proud to see how much people have blossomed over the years.”
The format is very flexible, and Chisholm and Bennett jointly emcee the show and also sometimes perform songs. Organ virtuoso Morgan Fisher, former keyboardist for legendary English band Mott the Hoople, regularly performs at Drunk Poets and, alongside Bennett, provides atmospheric backup sounds for poets who want musical accompaniment.
American Taylor Mignon has been involved in the poetry scene in Japan for 25 years as a writer, performer, editor, translator and poetry columnist. He says these kinds of freestyle collaborations between poets and musicians are something of a new development for Japan.
“What to me is especially unique about current poetic events is musical improvisation combined with poetry,” he says. Mignon adds that some musicians have a “strong sensitivity to performing with poets.”
“They’re amazing at composing off the cuff,” he says. “This challenges the poet so that the next step must be for her or him to improvise. I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to stretch my abilities further and wider.”
Mignon’s writing technique and philosophy of poetics seem a natural match for freestyle musical improvisation. Rather than treating a poem as a vehicle for conveying a fixed idea, Mignon sees it more as an open space where meaning is fluid and free.
“Though I’d like to uphold to the surrealistic principle that one’s best poesy is composed without a particular previous thought in mind, sense happens, like when a friend inspires you to a different way of thinking, and you surprise yourself,” he explains. “But my standout writing is based on my individual free flow of words, creating at times unintended rhyme, described by someone as ‘sound poetry with meaning.’ To me, mystery is essential — the anti-rational — because it’s rationalism that can kill our creativity.”
At last month’s event, “Drunk Poets See God Vol. 39: Satisfaction,” Mignon performed one of his recent poems titled “Do Dos & Don’t Don’ts: Narrative Prose Against Narrative Prose” supported by the improvised sounds of Bennett, Fisher and guitarist Ken Shima.
In it he expresses this need to guard against an overly rational approach to art, by calling out to his fellow poets:
Engrained systems of rational thought are our enemy
as are plastic fruits & veggies & bad beer
Panta Rei posits that nothing can be explained because
Beware of the marathon person taking a spring walk in a straight line
This is not a poem, but narrative prose against narrative prose
All styles & methods are open, the above broken,
but if the spoken is prose, it aint poeetryyy
Mignon lays out his philosophy of poetics in an oxymoronic and self-referential rollick through word-plays and sound games that turn the poem in on itself. He calls on his fellow spoken-word artists and poets to open their minds to the creative possibilities of the language:
Yo spoken word artists! Higher decibel digits don’t qualify as quality poesie
tho yr passion may shrine
At the eucalyptus steam sauna, manic depression unwinds
Savor tacets, dig non sequitur, float on ellipsis, eye deep images
No meaning but in things, it is what it is ism or it it’s what
it it’s ism, unwrap yr head
Midnight desert deserts its sand for artificial turf
Mignon, whose book “Bearded Cones & Pleasure Blades” was the first English translation of the works of Japanese surrealist poet Shozo Torii, is also editor-in-chief of the Tokyo Poetry Journal, or ToPoJo, a biannual print-only publication that launched its inaugural edition in November last year. The second volume of the journal will be launched at a party later this month at Tokyo Salon.
One of the poets performing at the upcoming event is Joy Waller, who is also a regular at Drunk Poets. Waller, 34, has had her poetry and fiction published in a number of literary journals in her native Canada, and also in Vol. 1 of ToPoJo.
Waller says she began writing when she was only 4 years old and that she experienced a lot of isolation as a child, which she believes influenced her as a writer.
“I was home-schooled for many years on a mountain in the interior of British Columbia, which made me unhappy because I wanted to be hosting salons in Paris, and I was over-protected to a rather unusual degree by charismatic Christian parents,” she says.
These experiences are why Waller finds herself constantly returning to themes of loneliness, desolation, drug addiction, sex and ascension in her work.
“I’ve always been interested in individuals who inhabit spaces outside of the mainstream — drifters, loners, the alienated, the sex-crazed, the aloof,” she says.
This alienation Waller experienced as a child has in a way mirrored her life as an expat in Japan, where foreigners are always on the periphery, she says, and this drives her writing.
“The expat life is well-suited to a writer, certainly, because you have that neat dual perspective of being an outsider, of being alienated to some extent, while at the same time, you have the opportunity to actively participate in a culture that’s completely new to you, that’s fresh,” says Waller. “It’s complex, it’s intriguing and very much inspiring: Japanese techno, train stations at 5 a.m., pristine tatami-mat rooms lined with sake bottles, hitchhiking in Okinawa, love hotels, convenience stores, bicycles with baskets on the front, Nezu Shrine, hidden inner-city portals — these are all gifts from Japan and from the people here; these are all loving details that make their way into my written work.”
In “Hope In 17 Parts,” which she will be reading at the ToPoJo party, Waller presents the relationship between two women through a sequence of vignettes, where the narrator presents vivid snapshots of her interactions with her eccentric friend Estelle, a new-age party girl permanently on the verge of a nervous breakdown:
Estelle sits there on the pink leather bar stool with her destroyed blue eyes brittle as dried-out bones eyeliner smeared like a sneer coughing into a handkerchief and signaling the waiter for another Singapore Sling, “No ice,” she says, “no goddamn ice.” Lipstick on her fingers, on her cup, on the collar of her man.
There is a nihilistic edginess in Waller’s style that gives her characters a tragi-comic quality, resulting in a bittersweet kind of transcendent humor:
“I read an advertisement in a magazine about a place where you can pick your own apples,” Estelle writes me in an e-mail marked Help. “They give you a bamboo basket and let you loose in the orchard for an hour. It sounds like some kind of war game or corporate retreat team building bullshit but actually it isn’t — it’s literally just picking apples. I feel we should go. Fresh air and all. And we could make applesauce after, or pies. I heard that in the Northwest Territories certain of the First Nations peoples smoke apples, in the winter, to get high; I’d be up for that as well.”
Sendai resident Scott Watson is an established figure in the English-language poetry scene in Japan. He arrived in the country in 1980 and has published over 20 books of poetry and translations of poetry.
Watson says he can’t intentionally make a poem for a particular occasion or on a particular theme if asked to.
“Poetry is something that comes to me,” he says. “That’s the way it’s been for me since the beginning. It’s a mystery and I prefer to let it be that way.”
That said, when a call came in for poems about the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Watson was eager to get involved. “I could offer them something because poems had already come to me naturally or without any conscious intent,” he says.
Watson and his wife were living in Sendai when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, so they experienced the devastating sequence of events first-hand. It was a very traumatic time, especially for his wife, who had undergone breast cancer and lost her elder brother just before the disaster struck.
The experience inspired three works. The first, “Quake Notes,” was made up of diary entries he emailed out to people in the immediate aftermath of the disaster:
We sleep, but it is a very light sleep and we are startled throughout by more rumbling and shaking. We have socks on too and are ready to run out of our house should the shaking get too violent. How does one tell? How does one know when to ride it out or when to get out?
The experience also led to an outpouring of poems relating to the tsunami and nuclear disaster, some of which were later published in the anthologies “Shakin’ It Back” and “Words Fly Away.”
See how once community was:
spirit roots here, sprouts, grows.
farm houses serenely nestled in hills.
That love held in hills slowly works
its way to soil. No one tends
that place now. Human life is gone.
“My poems are born of things that need tending to at a particular time,” says Watson. “Those nuke poems are what the poetry of me, in me, needed to do at the time, as a response. We didn’t know how much radiation was being dumped on us,” he explains.
Watson says his poems contain no particular message, but that he hopes they will “offer readers another way to appreciate being alive and dying.”
These lines from his poem “Prayer,” which will appear in ToPoJo Vol. 2, convey this sentiment perfectly:
Too old to breathe,
hook me up to
a poem. No
please. Let me breathe
poems, let poems
ToPoJo launch party
To celebrate the launch of the second volume of the Tokyo Poetry Journal, a party will be held at Tokyo Salon in Omotesando later this month.
The event will involve readings and spoken-word performances by poets appearing in the journal and also live music, including a performance by internationally renowned lyricist and poet Chris Mosdell and spoken-word performer Latasha Diggs, aka La Digga. Poets who will read at the event include Wayne Pounds, Taylor Mignon, Caroline Ross, Scott Watson, Eric Selland, Jordan Smith, Andy Boerger and Joy Waller.
On the music front, singer extraordinaire Marilya will be performing, as well as house band The ToPoJo Toasters, including keyboard wizard Morgan Fisher and modern/blues/roots duo Medicine Bone, with Samm Bennett and Ken Shima. Sales from the event go toward printing Vol. 3.
Where: Tokyo Salon, 5-47-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. When: Friday, May 27; show runs 7-10 p.m. (doors open 6:30). Cost: ¥3,000 (includes a drink and a copy of ToPoJo Vol. 2)
Feeling the need to ponder, pen or perform some poetry?
Here are some other groups catering to aspiring poets across Japan:
• Poetry Kanto is Japan’s longest- running bilingual poetry journal, and has been publishing for 30 years with the support of Kanto Gakuin University’s Kanto Poetry Center. The journal was founded by William I. Elliott and Shuntaro Tanikawa. www.poetrykanto.com
• Tokyo Writers Workshop has been meeting for over 30 years, usually on the third Sunday of the month. Those who wish to have their work — mostly poetry and fiction — critiqued may post manuscripts to the group’s site for review before the next meeting. www.meetup.com/Tokyo-Writers-Workshop
• Writers’ Bloc, Tokyo, is inactive at the moment, as it seeks a new venue for spoken word performances, but people can still reach the group via their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/writersbloctokyo/) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
• Hailstone Haiku Circle is a Kansai-based group founded by Stephen Henry Gill (based in Kyoto) with about 50 members, both foreign and Japanese nationals, who compose, critique and publish haiku in English (and related forms). The circle holds regular seminars and workshops, as well as occasional walks, readings and other events. Email: Tito at email@example.com. The circle’s Icebox: www.hailhaiku.wordpress.com
• Kyoto Journal has a fiction and poetry section, the latter of which is edited by Lois P. Jones. KJ showcases poetry that is Asia-related and “out of the ordinary.” Submission guidelines are available here: www.kyotojournal.org/submit-to-kj. www.kyotojournal.org/fiction-poetry
• Kamihikouki Magazine is an artist-run bilingual publication based in Kansai. Each issue of Kamihikouki has a uniting theme and features a variety of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. www.meetup.com/kamihikoukimag
• Nagoya Writes is a literary circle that provides writers both aspiring and seasoned the opportunity to participate in open readings, which are held about once a month. www.nagoyawrites.wordpress.com
• Kenji Miyazawa Lovers is, unsurprisingly, a fan club dedicated to the eponymous poet. The group is based in Takamatsu. Web: www.meetup.com/Kenji-Miyazawa-Lovers
• Creators’ Meetup is a recently formed group in central Okinawa that seeks to link together artistically inclined individuals. www.meetup.com/Creators-Meetup