Who was your “hero” when you started writing poetry? Who is your "hero" now?
When I began writing poetry, I was around five years old, so there were a lot of words and music that I just heard and picked up. The musician Asai Ken’ichi (b. 1964). The film director and poet Sono Shion (b. 1961). Once I passed the age of twenty, I finally encountered poets in a real sense. Shimizu Akira (1940-2011), Fukuma Kenji (b. 1949), Ishigaki Rin (1920-2004), Koike Masayo (b. 1959), Matsumoto Keiji (b. 1965). Now, I am thinking of rereading Ishihara Yoshirô (1915-1977).
What is your view of the current Japanese poetry scene?
From around 2002, there has been an increase in spaces where young people can speak, I think. And there are young poets creating their own projects. For example, I currently help run the judging and selection for a number of poetry contribution forums. One of them, which just finished accepting submissions, is doing something a little different: having voice actors perform the poems onstage.
Would you talk about your creative process?
I write up an original draft in a single sitting, but the revision time is long: before my debut collection [Sparktime, 2002], back when I was sending out submissions of my poetry, a single poem would take at least a month. People are surprised when I say this, so it must be quite long. If I took that much time now, I would never keep up with my work, but even so, the rigor with which I approach revision has not changed. When something is going to be included in a book, as a matter of course, I look over it until I feel I can accept it. Before, it would happen that I would over-revise, and only end up cutting a single character. That was the kind of pain that comes from looking into the silence of “death.” [Translator’s note: In Japanese, the word for “death” and the word for “poetry” are homophones; both are pronounced “shi.” Sugimoto’s “silence of ‘death’” may also mean the “silence of ‘poetry.’”] When I look back on that now, it was a valuable experience. Those poems are included in Shirt Cuff Animals.
Why are there unclosed parentheses in your poetry? For example, in “sign of the cross,” there is the striking line, “(Therefore/it is imperative not to speak.” With the parenthesis left open, it feels as if the words that “it is imperative not to speak” echo on and on without closure. What are these words that “it is imperative not to speak” in your poetry?
With closed parentheses, that part alone stands independently, and that produced a sense of resistance. By leaving them open, I wanted to create a poetic form that would let those words melt into the poetic line as it moved forward, into the white space of silence above and below.
As for the line “it is imperative not to speak,” at the base of it there lies the strength of a belief in the spirit of words, as well as a dread of words. For I think that poetry is a thing that emerges upwards out of silence. It lies not in writing what one wants to say, but rather in writing as if wrenching open the deep inside of the self.
In your poetry, is the metamorphosis of human into animal an important image? In “Shirt Cuff Animal,” to write and to become an animal are both experiences of transformation. There is also the memorable image of the “albino snake” in “Smile.” Why is there this interest in animals in your work?
It’s because I have a desire to touch the “silence” of things that have no language. Animals have no language, yet they understand one another with something that is not language; moreover, they have the same aliveness that we do. The difference between them and me feels as if it lies only in this issue related to language. In the line “humans have no words” (“Tower of Light”), something that exceeds meaning, something that now still does not shake within me, something that I, a human being, seek the possibility of approaching: until I reach their silence, it is almost a personal practice to search for it.
The second person “you” only appears rarely in your work, but when it does appear, it has a strong impact. For example, the “you” in “Tower of Light” or the “you” in “Shirt Cuff Animal.” When you use the word “you,” what kind of addressee do you have in mind?
I just noticed for the first time that the second person is rare in my poetry from your question. I think it appears at times when a strong love for the addressee is expressed. In the poem “Wife” by the major postwar Japanese poet Ishigaki Rin, there are the words, “Love is a thing/its ugliness defies comparison.” That poem shocked me, as a twenty year old who just vainly believed with absolute faith that love is beautiful. A shadow fell behind love, a silhouette was born: I saw it float up formed into a rich, full sphere. For me, love is supported and strengthened by hate and other unbeautiful things: within a paradox, it takes its beautiful, spherical form.
Tower of Light
Translated by Rachel Carden
I, for whose sake
have on the forehead of this
washed body in green magic marker
numbers written out
Having waited just to be killed in their turn
humans have no words
just an arm that does not waver
weighs on me, breaks my swift stride
I wait for spasms
of the sound of brushing water,
concrete cools my backside
in the fog
high in the sky only garments
(because I saw a dazzling tower
drawing near like waves of light
that tower appeared so many times
broad spread body heat sweet and musty
sometime, on someone's dark tongue melted
you who cut your fingertip, in front of your face
like blood encountering
Translated by Rachel Carden
About the bandage of the darkness
that flowed like an albino snake
like the scrape of a silver spatula
thin, a pure evil heart
smoothed out, as if chaotic
from the wrist plainly falling silent
just like that, now no one, nothing
reflecting back at me
imprisoned in drops of rain
reading on only inverted letters
sometime, like a gateway breaking into being
why are the fragments, like human garbage
chased away by the morning light
stooping over our dark backs devotedly
carefully line up the scattered faces and smile
sign of the cross
Translated by Marianne Tarcov
Across each other at a table
as, if our secrets
have no wings
wiping right beside
the gaps between closed teeth
pure white down still
about to take flight going mad
it is imperative not to speak
a man resting on a sofa
began to sing a song whose meaning is unknown
I sway my body
when I have forgotten the drain
always calls out rumbling
everything is returned
to the way it was
A transparent beast fleeing to the other side
A man turning his face down to the hunt
With cries whose meaning is known
Shirt Cuff Animal
Translated by Marianne Tarcov
It exists just in my hand shadow’s
an animal, I bring back
to let it drink water
to give it food,
to have given it a name at last, days later, to whisper
in its ear there is no need to steel myself to become a mother
to have raised it with only sickening love,
yet the house disappeared when I let the animal go
(weeping though it’s too late, ears break
when it becomes spring
to split the earth of debris
to bring to an unraveled
shirt cuff, “Selfishly,
selfishly, I was loved
now all I have is earth to lick.”
To sometimes mimic written characters
so you can misread them,
it lives for nothing else,
the animal I become