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Hillel Wright: poet, writer and catalyst for Tokyo’s literary community

by

Special To The Japan Times

Hillel Wright died of a heart attack during his sleep in Campbell River, British Columbia, on Aug. 1. He was 73. He spent half of every year in Canada and the other half in Naha, Okinawa, having moved south from Kawasaki with his wife, Shiori Tsuchiya, after the Tohoku triple disaster of March 2011.

Hillel was born in Denver in 1943 and received an M.A. from Southern Illinois University, where he studied under Irish poet Thomas Kinsella and American novelist John Gardner. After quitting the Ph.D. program, he moved to Hawaii to begin a career as a fisherman. He later moved to Canada, working in fishing, forestry and writing while raising a family of four children, including 16 years as single parent. He moved to Japan in 1997, where he lectured at universities and continued writing, including for The Japan Times.

Hillel first contacted me when I was writing a poetry column for The Japan Times in 2000. He sent me some of his work, including a volume of poetry, “Single Dad.” We became friends and collaborated on an anthology and readings.

He was more prolific as a fiction writer, and I admired his on-the-road psychedelic novel “All Worldly Pursuits,” which evoked the Beat excitement of adventure. W. P. Kinsella, author of “Shoeless Joe,” wrote about Hillel’s book: “With luminous and articulate writing, Wright tells the story of Wiley Moon. … He has a lust for life and a passion that involves the reader in his story.”

When there was a vacuum in publishing among Tokyo’s expats, Hillel cleverly assembled anthologies that united groups of disparate writers around Kanto. The first anthology he solo-edited was “Faces in the Crowds: A Tokyo International Anthology” in 2002, which proved to be fairly lucrative for Printed Matter Press, Japan’s longest-running publisher of English literature, founded in 1976.

The title of the anthology references a short poem by Ezra Pound. The headings of the sections of the volume included “What the Dickens,” “Tokyo Writers Group” and “Temple University Japan Poets,” bringing the best writing from chiefly the Tokyo area together in one place, offering a window into a lively time for writers of English. Donald Richie wrote in his foreword: “It is, indeed, the Beat take on Japan (Dharma Bums) that informs a major … theme and is responsible for the major connection with Tokyo, the chosen focus of ‘Faces in the Crowds.’ It is not Kyoto, the old capital, nor the gentle countryside but competitively in-your-face Tokyo which mainly inspired the contributors.”

Among Hillel’s accomplishments was supporting and publishing a wealth of writing by women. Suzanne Kamata would go on to pen the foreword to Hillel’s next anthology, “Jungle Crows”; he kept an even ratio between the sexes in spite of the demographic imbalance toward foreign men.

Until just before his death, he was in contact with Kamata about editing another anthology; this one was to have an international focus, a compilation of writing from the Canadian journal “Minus Tides,” which he co-edited. He was also in the process of editing his own book of stories inspired by singer-songwriter Neil Young.

Japanologist John Solt called his passing the loss of a “Tokyo literary giant.” He brought an exuberance to the process of editing and engaging with writers, bringing together a broad range of wordsmiths and fomenting a literary community at a ripe creative moment.

Writer Elaine Lies remarked upon hearing of his passing that he could be a rogue, and that’s what made him provocative. He could test one’s patience by self-promoting, but in hindsight, dedicated writers need to promote themselves.

Hillel, you are missed, but you leave tomes that enrich our writing community and which will be remembered, as well as your generous receptivity and kindness to authors and artists.

The event “Hillel Wright Remembrance” will be held at the Japan Writers Conference at the Ekoda Campus of Nihon University College of Art, Nerima Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 9. It is free and open to the public. For details, visit www.japanwritersconference.org. Wright’s contributions to The Japan Times can be found at www.japantimes.co.jp/author/int-hillel_wright. Taylor Mignon, chief editor of Tokyo Poetry Journal, is currently editing an issue on “Japan and the Beats.”
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Excerpts from post-3/11 work ‘Tsunami’

Selections from “Tsunami,” a poem written by Hillel Wright after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011:

1. Recovery (September 11, 2011)


Where is the debris —
  the garbage & wreckage
  of the earthquake
  the flotsam & jetsam
  of the killer wave?

I know the answer —
  I’ve seen the trash mountain
  rising out of a rice field
  from the railway platform
  the last stop before the end of the line
here in Oarai

This mountain is the harbor
  and the waterfront
  of Oarai — forty fishing boats
  bent & twisted car doors
  fractured windshields
  houses deconstructed into muddy junk

2. Fear & Rumor (June 11, 2011)

We’ve been waiting for three days
  here on Tokashiki Island
  in the Ryukyus

“We’re in the East China Sea, for God’s sake”
  says Captain Tamaki, “Over a thousand miles
  from Fukushima — and still
  they won’t buy our fish”

3. Recourse (March 11, 2011)

March 11, 2011 and three fishermen
are out at sea
off the northeast coast of Japan

“We must meet the wave head-on,”
  he tells them.
  “It’s our only recourse —
  there’s nowhere else to go”

Half an hour later
  they see the wave
  a rolling mountain
  on the far horizon
  or rather, obliterating
  the horizon altogether

Head-on, head-on, Kikuchi meets the wave
  and climbs, the boat
  bends over backward
  rises like a rocket
  to the celestial crest
  then — over the top —
  and the long slide down
  the back of this brontosaurus
  of the sea