‘Poet to Poet’ finds an English voice for Japan’s female poets

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Translating poetry depends as much on artistic ability as linguistic talent, where understanding often hinges on punctuation and line break, sound and omission, or multiple layers of meaning.

Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan, Edited by Rina Kikuchi and Jen Crawford.
272 pages
RECENT WORK PRESS, Poetry.

A new bilingual publication, “Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan,” tackled this challenge by striving, not for direct translation, but for “transformation,” a cross-cultural creative experiment that grew into a full collection of poetry. In doing so, it presents a range of fresh, female voices and satisfies the art of the genre in both languages.

Translated into English by Australian poets with little to no experience of the Japanese language, the anthology started as a project for the University of Canberra’s Centre for Creative and Cultural Research as part of the September 2017 international poetry festival, Poetry on the Move: Boundary Crossing.

In keeping with the theme, bilingual editor and associate professor Rina Kikuchi and poet Jen Crawford planned a short chapbook celebrating the translated work of some of the poets invited from Japan. The project grew and, eventually, nine English-language poets were paired with 10 Japanese women poets, with each collaboration facilitated by Kikuchi. The resulting work vividly renders the original poems into expressive English poetry.

Kikuchi’s aim from the beginning was clear: to break down stereotypes about women and poetry in Japan. As Kikuchi explains: “Because we were translating for an English audience, I was conscious that many English readers have very stereotypical images of Japanese women and Japanese poetry — women are submissive and obedient, and the poetry follows strict, short structures with ideals of wabi-sabi philosophy embedded within the poems. But these ideas are completely contradicted in current Japanese poetry. Long, narrative poems that celebrate a woman’s self-confidence and assertiveness are the trend, so I really wanted to choose poems that accurately revealed what is happening now in contemporary Japanese poetry. Women talk about sexuality, their bodies, children — all of that is authentic, but women can talk about other things too, ranging from political to societal issues.”

The poems chosen explode with emotional sagacity across a wide variety of topics. There is black humor, sarcasm, pragmatic wit and lucent intelligence, and the poems cover topics ranging from wartime “comfort women” to kamikaze pilots and connections between strangers to cross-cultural alienation, including feelings of isolation within families or within your own country after living abroad.

Kikuchi deliberately chose a range of poets, from established voices such as Hiromi Ito, Toshiko Hirata, Harumi Kawaguchi and Takako Misaki, to the young, acclaimed performers Mizuki Misumi and Satoko Kono, who are breaking the boundaries of their art. Kayoko Yamasaki is a Japanese-Serbian poet and translator living in Belgrade; two poets are connected to the Tohoku region, Takako Arai and Sachiko Nakamura; while Itsuko Ishikawa, who was 12 years old when World War II ended, is a committed anti-war and anti-nuclear activist.

As poet Takako Arai points out: “Rina (Kikuchi) has such a good sense of what poetry will have universality for an English audience, even finding poets who aren’t being chosen in Japan for anthologies because it is mostly Japanese men who choose what goes into Japanese anthologies, and they avoid any poetry that is political or controversial.”

Crawford, poet and editor alongside Kikuchi for the project, adds: “Rina became this bodily conduit that the poems were passing through. Editorially, I helped on the English side and it led to these incredibly stimulating conversations. We would engage for hours in translation meetings — she was consulting with the Japanese poets, bringing back their ideas. Together we would come to the limits of what we understood of the poem and then Rina would go back to the Japanese poet with more questions or clarifications. It became a very layered process.”

“In English, the poets approached the entire process as creating their own poems using the original poem as source materials,” Kikuchi says. “It was not only the content of the poems; they were also very concerned with the sounds of the words, and all the poets wanted to listen to the poems in Japanese to gain a sense of the music of the originals as well.”

With only a year to complete the project in time for the 2017 festival, the collaborations progressed rapidly through email or remote conversations, culminating in several of the Japanese poets joining the poetry festival for a bilingual reading of their work.

The experience enriched poetry on both sides of the Pacific. “Sometimes it is difficult to work with someone else in a creative process because you have to give up on your own idea or compromise,” says Kikuchi, “But I never felt I had to give up with these collaborations. I was really lucky to be a part of these collaborations, to be a bridge between artists in both Australia and Japan.”

As Crawford concludes, “It was profound contact with another culture, with the specific material, and with the poets themselves.”