Found language and fragmented identity

Yuriya Julia Kumagai’s first volume of poetry, “Her Space-Time Continuum,” originally written in English and published in 1994, used text layout, language “found” in everyday life, as well as literary theory and language poetry techniques to shape her own idiom. This hybrid approach reflected the speaker’s fragmented identity evident in the poems. Though the poems in her just-published companion volume “Double Helix Into Eternity” follow a less experimental mode, with stanzas lined on the left of the page, her new verse gains in lyricism as well as accessibility. Kumagai’s poetry is projective in the sense that it is best experienced through her dramatic readings.

Writing poetry initially as course work for an M.A. in Sydney, Australia, she studied poetry recitation and performance under a British theater actress, in order to correct the American English she had learned at elementary school in Long Beach, Calif.

Much performance poetry today relies on striking poses, exaggerated vocalizations, or gimmicks such as dubbing words over music rather than on a grounding of poetry of substance. More expansive than self-indulgent, Kumagai’s idiom reaches from quirky in a crosscultural context to grandiose in a crosscosmic context. Double Helix is an allegory of the narrator’s search for establishing an identity, problematic because language or signs “have meaning only through difference” (Derrida).

Since the Japanese language volume “Nejirenagara Hateshinai” (1998) preceded the English version (“Double Helix”), presumably the poems were originally written in Japanese, which partially explains why this latest volume may not have ventured into postmodern techniques (not as respected in Japan as in other countries). Or perhaps the speaker, an individual undergoing transmigration, has managed to gain a solid identity rather than being a persona leaning towards deconstruction.

A veteran performer, Kumagai was winner of the 1997 Ginyu Shijin Taisho (Wandering Minstrel Prize) and first prize winner of the Rodoku no Tame no Shisaku contest. Both contests are based in Hokkaido (more information on contests in a future column). She is a member of the Japan Poets Club, the Japan Contemporary Anglo-American Poetry Society and other poetry societies in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. Kumagai’s latest project is a spoken word CD (upcoming).

“Power of the Spoken Word,” Yuriya Julia Kumagai at 7 p.m. April 23 at Ben’s Cafe, (03) 3202-2445.

In addition to Kumagai’s “Double Helix Into Eternity,” several new releases this year include a bilingual Internet journal of art, fiction and poetry; volumes of bilingual haiku with calligraphy; and spoken word CDs. Below is a mini-guide to some of these offerings.

The Plaza, a quarterly bilingual journal in English and Japanese, is “devoted to preserving global and intercultural relations.” The journal, published since 1985, has this year gone online, with No. 36 the first virtual issue. Publisher and editor Leo Shunji Nishida states, “In online publication, we will return to the ancient age when culture was transferred through the word alone without paper. It is the hope . . . of The Plaza to continue to provide this virtual forum for future generations.”

In the current online issue (to be followed by a spring issue later this month), we have fiction by Michael Hoffman, book reviewer for the Asahi Evening News; the story “Book of Changes” by Michael McCormick; and poetry from R. L. Cook and Giovanni Malito, both from Ireland. (Malito edits the poetry broadsheet The Brobdingnagian Times and is a consultant for Slugfest Ltd., a literary journal based in the U.S.) There’s also poetry and art by Al Beck.

Another feature of The Plaza is its selected works section, which offers the best art, fiction and poetry published in the journal since its inception. Click under selected poetry to find verse by Antler, Cid Corman (“The Pleasures” [Kinkakuji-mae]), Tom Dow (“Visit to Kikawa Jinja”), Peter Dowling (“Omiya”), Stephen Forster (“The Foreigner’s Cemetery in Yokohama”), Morgan Gibson, Kiyoko Ogawa, Jeff Poniewaz, Sherry Reniker and D. M. Stroud, to mention just a few. Quite an impressive list of many former or current Japan-based poets.

Artwork such as woodcuts and watercolors are finely presented as well in a virtual gallery of the works of former house artist Kazuo Omori (1889-1995). Visit the Web site at

“A Dream Like This World: One Hundred Haiku” by Koi Nagata, translated by Nana Naruto and Margaret Mitsutani (Todosha, 2 yen,400) is graced by the poet’s own calligraphy and ink paintings presented here in color.

Assonance and alliteration glide in this haiku: the butterbur leans / as I weed around it / the spring moon looms behind.

Other gems in this publication are the aphorisms and prosey musings, presented in both English and Japanese, such as: “A true writer is a writer from hell.” “Inch by Inch: 45 Haiku by Issa” (Kobayashi) is printed in Sakaki’s calligraphy, with Japanese, English and romanized transliteration. It also includes “Cup of Tea, Plate of Fish: an Interview with Nanao Sakaki,” conducted by John Brandi and Jeff Bryan. Available for 2,000 yen from Studio Reaf at 636-3 Kekurano, Minami-Izu-cho, Shizuoka-ken 415-0321.

Also available from Studio Reaf is the activist monthly Ningen Kazoku, which regularly publishes Nanao’s newest poetry, often bilingually. In February’s edition is Sakaki’s poem “What Shall I Do” and Maggie Sakaki’s article simply titled “Nanao.”

Indie label Little El Nino has published its aptly titled CD “Poetasters’ Park.” In actual fact it is professionally produced, with musicians playing a variety of styles as the backing track. The CD is an indicator of the interest in spoken word, not necessarily high-brow poetry and certainly not the traditional 5, 7, 5 syllabic form. Highlights include poetry by Takeboo!, a twentysomething unofficial spokesperson for his generation; Masa Hoshino Hal, an original gutteral performer emitting poetic contact buzzes; and the beautiful poetry of Inko Saito’s voice.

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