Books | POETRY MIGNETTE

Avant-garde poet tosses Japan a luscious bouquet

by Taylor Mignon

The end of last year and the beginning of this one has produced a fine crop of poetry publications. Though each of these volumes deserves its own separate review, happily I’m able to give these works exposure here.

In May’s installment last year, I wrote about Irving Stettner’s small publication house Stroker. Stettner’s gifts as an artist are many: He’s edited the avant-garde review Stroker since 1974, and is a watercolorist, prose writer and poet.

When Henry Miller was 85, Stettner met him at his house in Big Sur several times. In his essay “Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Me,” Stettner writes how Miller was generous not only with his time and finances (he bought two of Irving’s watercolors), but that “Henry had passed on to me the creative flame.” In the context of Miller’s work, he writes that the artist’s job is “To awaken, even jolt us awake, to life and its miracle, infinite possibilities. To awaken us to ecstasy, yes!” Stettner could easily be talking about his own work, because, like Whitman, he’s a spreader of joy, expansive in his enthusiasm.

Stettner’s one-man shows were held last year at Vive la Vie in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo; the Henry Miller Museum of Art in Omachi, Nagano Prefecture; and at Cape Sup Gallery in Lyon, France. Miller said of his watercolors, with a touch of hyperbole, “You are far more interesting than a Braque or Picasso, believe me!”

His prose works include “Thumbing Down to the Riviera,” “Adventures of 2nd Avenue Patroller” and, my favorite, “Beggars in Paradise.” In “Beggars . . . ,” he writes about being down and financially out in Paris, but the Parisian joie de vivre brought watercolors and friendships. He writes about meeting Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton and Fernand Leger. Because he was enamored with a young woman he forgot to arrange an appointment with Marc Chagall!

His newest work, “Nippon Bouquet,” includes 29 poems and two open letters, all written from March 1998 — after the author moved to Japan — to the end of last year. Also included here is a reprint of “Self-Portrait: 12 Poems for the Road (1989-1991).” Miller, after reading a poem in “Self-Portrait,” wrote “Irv, you certainly have something most of your colleagues don’t have — ART — LIFE — JOY — SUN — STARS — LOVE . . . You’re just a bundle of never-ending enthusiasm. I could read you all day . . .”

Many of the poems are prose-like first-person works. The best poems here unashamedly cry out in luscious, joyful riffs while belting out some provocative images and rhymes. Take a few from “Kaleidoscopique”:

O poet now is the time Put a May cameo cloud in your breast pocket And sing Out on a limb Out of the navel out Of the galactic star stable . . . O contraband angels with silver larynxes And fat lapis lazuli lips Shower me with kisses Love=bliss=sun-eternity . . . A group of drunken platypi Are an exotic ballet troupe in Bombay Wiggling their ears Surrealist-dadaistically yours

For an order form for a limited first edition of “Nippon Bouquet,” as well as the other Stroker publications, write to Irving Stettner at Stroker Press, 4-2-6 Chiyoda, Honjo City, Saitama Prefecture 367-0054.

Asian-American poet Alan Chong Lau has received a Creative Artist Fellowship administered by Japan’s Cultural Affairs Agency as well as an endowment from the Japan/U.S. Friendship Commission. Also a visual artist, his work has been on display in Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. He currently works in an Asian produce department in Seattle’s International District. His poetic memoir with paintings, “Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal,” 20 years in the making, was written in a notebook in his shirt pocket while he worked. Lau’s synesthetic verse evokes sharp images and engages all of the senses. Here are two shorter poems. “Melons” is a clear example of sense used in a short space:

In the bin The sweet musk Of one sings in the nose

Or see “Bitter Melon” for full graphic effect:

I like mine overripe Seeds of blood Gleaming under collapsed Yellow

Fused into the text, as Lau notes, are “brief snatches of description in a call-and-response dialogue using slogans that had been dutifully posted by each cash register and titled ‘Ten Commandments of Good Business.’ I wove these sayings like a frame throughout the poem, along with bits of intercom announcements, customer conversations . . .”

“Blues and Greens” is published by University of Hawaii Press (www.uhpress.hawaii.edu).

The American poet known as Antler has published a new volume, “Antler: The Selected Poems,” and the acknowledgments read like a who’s who of the small press. He has had Japanese translations in Blue Jacket and The Plaza, and his original works have appeared in a variety of Japan-based journals.

Though the subject is different, Antler’s style and meter ring like Walt Whitman’s “This Compost in Enskyment.” It’s incantatory stuff. Here’s the last stanza:

What exquisite decay! All the warmth the sun gives as it melts you! All those tons of cirrus, stra-tus, cumulonimbus! Skyquakes of lightning! Your flesh unpetalling in downpours! Your body become all sunset and ozone, Delicate rumbles of vanishing thunder! Till the aroma of sky af-ter rain And earth after rain Is all that’s left of your corpse!

Certainly the connection with the author of “Leaves of Grass” isn’t coincidental: Antler received the 1985 Whitman Prize from the Walt Whitman Association because his “contribution best reveals the continuing presence of W.W. in American poetry.” Gary Snyder wrote of Antler, “He’s one of the half-dozen or so truly committed wilderness poets in American letters.”

The book includes an intro by Jeff Poniewaz, the famous Factory poem and others from “Last Words,” works from “Reworking Work,” “Catching the Sunrise” and the previously unpublished “Ever-Expanding Wilderness.”

“Antler: The Selected Poems” is available from Soft Skull Press in Canada (www.softskull.com).

A quick mention for the video “Gary Snyder: Sing the Mother Earth Poetry Reading in Kyushu ’91.” Released last year, this is a bilingual reading of Snyder’s poems from “Turtle Island” and “Axe Handles.” Prefaced by Snyder’s speech on Kame no Shima (Turtle Island), the poems are followed by Nanao Sakaki’s translations. After the reading is dance and music from guitarist Bob Uchida and friends.

The one-hour video is available for 3,000 yen from Studio Reaf. To order, call (0558) 62-4533, fax (0558) 62-4354, or e-mail ningenkz@mail.wbs.ne.jp

A poetry reading at Temple University Japan will feature Melanie Drane. A graduate of the creative writing programs at Interlochen Arts Academy and Princeton University, she received a commendation in the Poetry Society’s 1997 National Poetry Competition in the U.K. She was also a finalist for the 2000 Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and won the silver prize at the Atlanta Review’s Poetry 2000 Competition.