Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Joy Waller's 'Pause :: Heartbeat' tackles intimacy and solitude in Tokyo

by Rebecca Saunders

Contributing Writer

The solitude of losing yourself in techno, pink-tiled facades and rooftops as far as the eye can see, nocturnal intimacy and secret pockets of drug use — this is the lonely underbelly of Tokyo that Joy Waller puts into words in “Pause :: Hearbeat.”

It’s the writer’s first book, a printed collection of 41 poems written over the past five years. Each one is an exploration into life lived in the moments that exist between the isolation felt when you’re alone in your apartment or intimate moments with other lonely souls, all within the context of city life.

The “new to Japan” angle makes for an interesting element in Waller’s work, which features such uniquely Japanese images of a love hotel during an earthquake or eating sushi off a chipped blue plate to name a few. These are embedded in more universal themes of addiction, polarization and nothingness.

“I find that moment of pausing in between something felt and before you feel the next thing,” Waller says of her work. “There’s a feeling, and there’s a feeling … and there’s a pause in the middle. I like that moment.”

She may be drawn to the spaces in between, but a good deal of Waller’s poetry also focuses on the closeness we have with other human beings, even to the extent of being suffocatingly close.

“The duality of connection and solitude really interests me. I wish I could choose one … I’m never fully inhabiting one extreme, although I wish I could,” she says.

Growing up on a remote mountain in British Columbia, the Canadian wilderness left a haunting imprint on Waller’s life. It was this isolated upbringing that stirred her attraction to Tokyo, one of the most crowded cities on Earth. The capital’s concrete slabs and the arteries of railway networks that flow in between them provide her with grounding elements to return to after interactions with her male muses. In the end, the real love affair she seems to be having is one with the metropolis.

“I grew up in isolation and I loathed it,” Waller says. “I love nature but I like to be surrounded by souls. There were no souls on that mountain.”

In a poem titled “Neuro Blitz,” Waller hints at an urgency to pin down her urban reality:

a bento

orgasms

arguments

techno song

“I’m searching to anchor to something real, a permanence,” she says.

When it comes to writing, I point out to her that I don’t think poetry is a particularly accessible way to connect with a wider audience, implying that her chosen genre almost feels like an extension of her isolated past. However, while she admits that poetry can be trickier, she believes that, unlike fiction, a poem takes time to pick apart and understand. Waller’s writing style isn’t lofty or aloof, but she understands there are limitations in using it as a form of expression.

“When you’re writing poetry it’s extremely solo,” she says. “It can be very solitary being a human being and we all crave attention and a lot of us also crave disconnection — I do, certainly. I need solitude.

“But I also need connection and I think that writing poetry is a way to share experiences while not necessarily interacting with people.”

And Waller shares some extremely personal moments through her poetry, including her younger brother’s illness, her addictions and sexual encounters.

“I get pretty bored of things, so if I find something unusual or interesting or underground then that is immediately where my attention goes,” she says. “I find that certain topics interest me and one of them is sex and so that is prevalent.”

Waller writes about sex, not in classic or saccharin romantic terms, but in the often bleak, body-jerking, morning-after grossness of it all. That’s not to say her poems are devoid of humanity, but they narrate her real experiences as a 37-year-old woman honestly. Moving away from traditional norms, she also pushes against the confines of what it means to be a certain gender.

“I think having a sexual connection with a male counterpart … that’s really beautiful for me,” she says. “It’s the original androgyny, the mixture of male and female is something that I find so exciting. Maybe in three or four generations from now we won’t have to talk about the female sexual experience or the male sexual experience.”

As a white woman in Tokyo, Waller’s experiences in the city are informed by her identity. With her poems so openly infused with details of sex with Japanese men and imagery of taking drugs, I ask her if she thinks that her life in the city differs from that of the Japanese women she shares this space with.

“I recognize the difference between how I am treated and how a Japanese woman might be treated, and I think I have a lot more freedom to express my disdain for this practice or that,” she answers. “There aren’t all of those cultural expectations of me.”

And cultural expectations definitely come into focus when we look at forms of art. For example, if a white guy from rural Canada were writing graphic poems about sex with Japanese women in love hotels, his work might be seen as obscene. Hearing about the same kinds of trysts from a woman, however, is almost refreshing — as readers we get to hear what it’s like for a woman to feel the highs of a one-night encounter and the lows of being starved of connection.

“The idea of women writing graphically about sex might be considered revolutionary, but I’m just writing about my own experience,” Waller says. “It’s more like a personal sexual revolution.”

She says “Pause :: Heartbeat” was never intended to be some form of social commentary, and that it’s secondary to what she is aiming for in her entire body of work. Her poems are personal, a crack from which to peer into another life, somebody else who is experiencing the city with foreign eyes and all those painful, joyful and jarring moments.

“It’s like publishing a hidden side of yourself,” she says.

The release party for “Pause :: Heartbeat” takes place at ØL Shibuya (37-10 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya Ward) on April 6 (doors open at 6 p.m.). Entry is ¥3,000 and includes a book and a drink. For more information, visit www.topojo.com/excursions.