American poet wins Chuya Nakahara Prize

Chuya Nakahara (1907-1937) was a master at using the 7-5 syllabic meter in the nontraditional, free-verse shi style. His birthplace, the city of Yamaguchi, has established the annual Chuya Nakahara Prize and a memorial library where his papers are collected to be preserved and available for research.

American poet Arthur Binard

This year’s Nakahara prize went to poet Arthur Binard for his “published collection of modern Japanese poetry deemed outstanding in its freshness of expression and feeling.”

“Tsuriagete wa (Catch and Release),” published by Shichosha last fall, is already in its fourth printing, an amazing accomplishment for a debut volume of poems — especially for someone who has lived in Japan only 10 years.

The award includes a prize of 1 million yen and the publication of the winning collection in English translation, which this year will be carried out by the recipient himself.

According to Binard, though most of the poems were penned in Japanese, a few, like “Tag,” were initially written in English, yet are more successful works in Japanese translation.

“Tag” is representative of Binard’s narrative voice in the first person. After the speaker has unconsciously torn the tag from a T-shirt (sent as part of a care package from Detroit when he was living in Milan) at his desk in Tokyo, he muses that this “100 percent cotton preshrunk T-shirt originated in Macao. Worn out by passages through customs and countless cycles of washing, it is free, at last from that MADE IN identity.”

Emphasizing the symbolism of the tag as identity, the first-person voice admits, “I’ve been fiddling with my own tag for years — sometimes it feels like it’s about to come off.”

The punch line comes in the last stanza. The T-shirt was sent with something else, something that brings the speaker full circle, that reminds him of his original, American identity — a jar of peanut butter.

Brought up in Michigan, Binard dropped out of college, moved to New York and worked to save the airfare to Italy, where he had an Italian girlfriend. After moving to Milan, Binard soon became fluent in Italian. Learning Italian gave him a new-found objectivity toward his mother tongue: His use of language was refreshed.

Later he studied Tamil and became fascinated with its unfamiliar sound system and prosody. Returning to college, he wrote a thesis on Tamil.

During his research, he discovered Ezra Pound’s theories about ideograms and translations from Chinese, which led in due course to a curiosity about Japanese writing systems, and a desire to come to Japan.

The poet Binard esteems most in any language is Katsumi Sugawara. So far, Binard has translated 200 poems by Sugawara, and is planning to publish a collection in English. There is little aestheticism or intellectualism found in Sugawara’s poems, but there is depth. The process of translating, Binard said, helped him to rid superfluous words and affectations from his own verse.

On translating, Binard commented that it’s like really digging into the language. Rather than dumping fish from one lake to another, he said, you go underground and build a tunnel to have the fish flow to the other side.

This process of engagement results in a depth of understanding beyond words. Binard agrees with Nakahara’s comment that “Art is work in the world before the word.”

Be grateful for Binard’s digging into depths of meaning, and look forward to the publication of his collection in English translation.

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