Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Sawako Nakayasu InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by María José Ferrada’s How to Turn Into a Bird, a novel that beautifully details the life and lessons of an unconventional man and the boy who loves him. Set in Santiago, Chile, the novel follows twelve-year-old Miguel who’s enchanted by his uncle Ramon’s unusual job to take care of a Coca-Cola billboard by the highway and his even more peculiar decision to make the billboard his new home. As he visits his uncle in his perch above it all, Miguel wonders if his uncle has lost his mind as everyone in the neighborhood says, or is Ramon, the only one who can see things as they really are. Says Megan McDowell, “With all the brutal simplicity of a fairy tale, María José Ferrada lays bare the blind and violent intolerance that reigns on the precarious outskirts of an unequal society. A deceptively simple tale in a sensitive translation by Elizabeth Bryer – this book is a gift.” How to Turn Into a Bird is out on December 6th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Before we begin our conversation with poet, performance artist, and translator, Sawako Nakayasu, I wanted to begin with a brief preface or orientation that if you know Sawako’s work or if you’re a lover of or curious about translation, you probably don’t need to hear, but if you aren’t familiar with Sawako’s work and are mainly coming to this episode wanting to hear her discuss her latest collection of poetry and wondering why, for the first third of the discussion for the first hour, we talk mainly about her work in translation, her work as a “rogue” translator the way she is really deeply reimagining what translation is or perhaps showing us more clearly what it has always been. It’s you I want to speak to, if you’re coming to hear Sawako speak about her poetry only to say and simply to say that as you’ll discover when we get to the discussion of Sawako’s poetry for the bulk of the conversation, you’ll realize that you really can’t understand it without understanding her relation to translation and her relation to performance. The more you spend with any of these three in Sawako’s back catalog, the more they inform the other two. The questions that animate her work in all three are also questions that she has in the world, one she’s confronting on the level of language about power between nations, between languages, between cultures, about questions of self and selfhood and identity in relation to authorship and originality, but also in relation to desire, in relation to gender and race. She makes generative and often revelatory connections between queer theory and translation, translation and poetry, poetry and performance, performance and identity to just scratch the surface. In other words, when you look back at the time we were talking about Sawako’s incredibly unique translation practices, you’ll realize from that vantage point that we were also talking about her poems, poetry, time, space, self, and so much more. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the Between the Covers community of listener-supporters. Every supporter gets a resource-rich email with each episode. Today’s is a particularly robust one. Every supporter can join in the collective brainstorm of who to invite in the coming years and there’s a wealth of other potential rewards and benefits from rare collectibles to writing consultations from past guests, from becoming an early reader for Tin House to the bonus audio, which includes bonus material from many of the people mentioned today, from Forrest Gander to Rosmarie Waldrop to Gabrielle Civil as well as translation-focused bonus material from Arthur Sze and many of our most iconic translators including Megan McDowell, Emma Ramadan, and Beverley Bie Brahic. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Sawako Nakayasu.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet, translator, and performance artist, Sawako Nakayasu. Born in Japan, Sawako studied music composition at the University of California San Diego and earned her MFA in poetry at Brown University where she’s now herself on faculty in the Department of Literary Arts. She has co-edited the anthology of Transpacific Poetics and is co-editing a forthcoming anthology of 20th Century Japanese Poetry coming out with New Directions. She also served as editor for Factorial Press and founded their offshoot Rogue Factorial. And while Sawako is one of our foremost translators, the “Rosmary Waldrop” of Japan as Forrest Gander once referred to her, she’s also somewhat of a rogue translator, someone who increasingly explores different ways to be “true” to work, who both expands and explodes notions of faithfulness to a text, who both expands and explodes notions of translation itself, perhaps most notably in her iconic manifesto from Ugly Duckling Presse Say Translation Is Art. Or consider that she was both the translator of the collected poems of Chika Sagawa for which she won the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation but was also the author of Mouth: Eats Color: Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals which includes poems in five languages, several alternate translations of the same poem and re-translated pieces from authors that Chika Sagawa had once herself translated into Japanese. Nakayasu has translated Tatsumi Hijikata’s butoh dance notations published as Costume en Face: A Primer of Darkness for Young Boys and Girls. Takashi Hiraide For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut for which she received a PEN Translation Fund Award and garnered the Best Translated Book Award from Three Percent, as well as the selected works of Yi Sang, a collective effort of Sawako and translators Don Mee Choi, Joyelle McSweeney, and Jack Jung. Sawako has appeared on Japanese television as a poetry judge and her performance pieces are often in conversation with her poetry. For instance, her 2014 poetry collection, a sequence of prose poems called The Ants, and her multiple year project Insect Country, which produced a hundred poems, a collaborative book defacement, an open poetry studio, several chapbooks, and multiple performances, some with dance and poetry and some with improvisational scores and insect orchestras that included performers as dragonflies, dung beetles, crickets, cockroaches, and more. Her 2020 poetry collection from Wave Books, Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, written as a response to her return to the United States in 2017, is a book that invites us to examine our complicity in reinforcing conventions, literary, and otherwise, and again, a poetry collection that also continues to radicalize notions of translation both as process and product. The book has seven collaborator translator women engaging with and transforming Sawako’s book. The book is multilingual: English, Japanese, French, Korean sometimes in the same poem, some of the poems are self-aware of themselves as translations or even diss the quality of previous translations encountered in the book. Sawako Nakayasu is here today to talk about her latest book of poetry Pink Waves from Omnidawn coming this January, a book that brings together her practices of poetry, of performance, of translation, and of collaboration into a single one-of-a-kind project. Fred Moten says of Pink Waves: “In a deliberate lyricism of regathering, tethering, and receding precedence, in a perpetual canon that keeps spilling and sifting and replenishing what feels like dancing, in a series of breaks weaving wave and snap into writing that listens, Sawako Nakayasu takes the measure of the enjoyment we derive from sensing and making sense of this wasteland of bandwidth and access. Pink Waves is a delicate instrument. Its spare beauty picks up everything.” Bhanu Kapil adds, “Nakayasu’s Pink Waves is an experience of questions becoming artifacts. The speaker asks: ‘how will i locate expansiveness in touch’? By ‘dreamlight’, a reader is trained, by this speaker, in a process of listening that’s both a ‘pledge of silence’ and the recognition that ‘we come to a limit and stop where it fits.’ Is this ‘genre trouble’? Nakayasu has written a book a writer could read, orienting to the desk, to the ‘passing moment,’ in turn. This is grounding. This is beautiful.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Sawako Nakayasu.
Sawako Nakayasu: Thank you so much, David. It’s a great pleasure to be here.
DN: It feels like it’s by design that it’s hard to know where the different elements of writing begin and end for you, when is something writing versus translation, translation versus performance, performance versus writing, what you yourself have contributed to a given work versus a collaborator within the same work. In a way, this calls into question many things about, I think, the notion of originality, of what creativity is, of what performativity is, and what is and isn’t translation. Your latest collection, Pink Waves, is I think a great example of this. But I’d like to start before Pink Waves, as I think that if we explore some of what you’ve been asking in your work prior to it, that will really be able to make the discussion of Pink Waves richer and deeper, so let’s start with your award-winning collected poems of Chika Sagawa, which, at least on the surface, is a more normative translation alongside Mouth: Eats Color, which we might call more in line with your notion of Rogue translation, perhaps the best example of it. Could you speak to these two projects, how they’re in conversation with each other for you, and what they might be saying to each other when we hold them next to each other?
SN: Thanks for that question, David. I really enjoy the fact that those two books get to live side by side. I guess one thing I can say to begin with is that they inhabit different scales of time, labor, effort, and production, let’s say. The official book, the collected, the one with a real publisher, that one was a big effort in terms of how much time, energy, drafts, revisions, and agonizing in the traditional way that we translate poetry. It took me something like 10 years, obviously not non-stop, but it took that much time for me to digest and understand the context in which she was writing. The particular moves that she made had to be thought about in the context of what she was doing in relation to Japanese poetry as it was developing in the 1920s when she wrote. It was difficult and challenging for multiple reasons. I can talk about that more but I guess to stay on your question in thinking about how Mouth: Eats Color happened, it was in the middle of translating the longer book, I was holding these questions and components that I felt were difficult to translate. For example, some of her poetry itself is multilingual and it uses words that are English, or otherwise foreign, but if I’m translating it into English, then you have the problem of “I can’t translate into English something that’s already in English.” You either leave it the same or you find some alternative. Just that question opened up a different question of thinking about the different ways I might approach what I personally found interesting about her work. I want to say that but I also don’t want that to be the central thing about what I say about Mouth: Eats Color because there were so many things going on in that particular moment that I wrote that book which was thinking about multiple things, multiple aspects of books, translation, publishing, and even just how long it takes to get from an idea to a product. It tends to be slow. It tends to take years before you have a book from an idea to the product. Whereas if I’m doing performance art, I can have an idea and I can actually do it that day or the next day. There’s a different relationship to you, time, and scale. I had an idea, I’m trying to remember now, I’ve probably written about this somewhere, but I had an idea to do this book and I must have posted it on Facebook and somebody jokingly said, “Hey, can you do that in a month? Because I want to use it in my class next semester.” I thought, “Can I? Maybe.” And I jumped in and I decided I was going to make a book in the course of a month. That idea coming from my interest in and relationship to durational performance art so people like Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano who would do something for a year, do some small action repetitively, repeatedly over the course of a year, I found really moving those aspects of how we engage time, our lived life, and the making of art. We’re all converging in interesting ways in that moment. There’s something about money too about the economy of producing a book. Not that long ago, I had moved to Japan after growing up in the US and when I started meeting Japanese poets and they started telling me—I don’t know why they were telling me this because I don’t think I asked specifically—but they started telling me how much it cost to publish a book and it would be on the scale of you could buy a nice car for that amount of money. The books were beautifully produced. But I was just learning more and more about art in Japan, contemporary art in Japan, and the degree to which it was a pay-to-play culture, and you’d go into a gallery exhibit and there’s somebody sitting there and later on I would realize it was the artist sitting there, and then later I would realize it was the artist who had paid for that time in the gallery and that there’s an economy of the artist having to have the economic resources to produce their work until they were big enough to do otherwise. So I wanted to make a book that didn’t cost money and that was also the Rogue publishing part. I invented Rogue Factorial, I had created Factorial Press out of my youthful exuberance and wanting to publish books and a journal. It was all about collaboration at first and then when I had this project, the Mouth: Eats Color book, I didn’t want to be dependent on a publisher so I said, “Okay, I’m going to publish it myself, and invent this publisher called Rogue Factorial.” I’ve only published two books, mine and another one. So it was invented just to serve the purpose of publishing my own book.
DN: We can think about these two books as being different in time, and perhaps, in effort. Different in the sense that one’s going through traditional publishing venues and one’s ignoring and also creating new opportunities within publishing. But I want to ask another question maybe that’s more specific to translation around the two books too. Because you mentioned, for instance, Sagawa’s poems that are in Japanese that might have an English title, and how do you translate an English title that’s originally in English into English, and how do you indicate that it was in a different language? But there are other even more complicated translated questions for her, like you’ve mentioned that the poem Promenade has a title in Katakana which is the phonetic script used in Japanese for foreign words but that it’s clearly, in this case, based on the French pronunciation of the word, not the English translation. You say in relation to this, “What am I to do, add a footnote for every instance? Art, and the literary art that is translation, is not about saying or doing or explaining it all, or all at the same time. I figure there is plenty of space in academic publications for that sort of discourse.” Then you go on to talk about how you largely had to lose this aspect of her work in the collected poems, a lot of the aspects of her own playing with multilingualisms. I wondered if this loss there is related to the multilingual explosion in Mouth: Eats Color, if Mouth: Eats Color, also among the other things you’ve mentioned, emerges in some ways from what can’t be captured of her in the collected works, that it is a foregrounding, an aspect of her as a poet and those poems that is not in the collected poems.
SN: It is very much so, yeah. Thank you for bringing us back to that. I guess I want to speak to her community at the time too, that there was a lot of translation in the poetic circles that she was engaged with. She herself was translating from English into Japanese, and the language itself, the Japanese language was in a moment of flux. So a couple of decades earlier, there had been a big movement to standardize Japanese-English. The generation of poets preceding her had brought poetry to a vernacular place. There were all these changes that she was influenced by but also moving in her own direction with. The part about her particular use of foreign vocabulary in her poetry was that it was so very jarring to see particular words that also for a contemporary reader, partly because the contemporary Japanese language is full of foreign words but they’re not the same foreign words that were in Sagawa’s poetry because some of them just didn’t stick, some of them had different words, or they just evolved in different ways, so they capture, it’s like a little time capsule of the diction of the moment and then, of course, it’s specific to her. That was one aspect of it. It is also my desire to foreground Sagawa as a translator. That’s partly why I included some of the poems that she had translated into Japanese. They’re interesting discussions around what a good translation is. Sometimes people look at translations that were done around that time when there was so much translation activity. It was just really an explosion of translation and you would look at that now and sometimes be very critical of it because it seems wrong, it seems off, it seems to be missing XYZ. In a way, it wasn’t so much the point because people were consuming literature from foreign cultures and languages in an act, as part of the process of developing their own writing and opening up their horizons in writing. That’s part of it. There’s also something about her stance as a poet, as a translator, and as a writer where it just felt very different from the normative relationships that we today have in terms of poetry, in terms of whether you’re writing your own original work or you’re writing a translation of somebody else. There’s a very large power dynamic that’s inherent to it. Just this summer when I got my hands on a copy of Sagawa’s translation of James Joyce, which was actually the only thing she was able to publish before she died, I looked at the cover and it says, “Chamber Music,” it’s the title of the book, and in tiny letters, it says, “James Joyce,” and then below that in much bigger font says, “Sagawa Chika.” It was like I don’t know who made those decisions, but there’s a certain way in which that inferiority complex almost didn’t exist. Even in that actual translation of Joyce, which was in this rhyming verse, she took that rhyming verse and decided, “Well, that doesn’t work in Japanese and I’m just going to write prose poetry,” and she didn’t call it that but that’s what it was. There’s a way in which there’s a certain freedom and intention around translation that feels different from what we do now. I think Sagawa herself, the way she approached, it feels different from what people were doing then too. Maybe it’s not correct to characterize her as representing the times because I think she, in her moment, was also translating slightly differently as everybody else, which may have had more in common with what we do now.
DN: Well, let me stay with that another minute. Let’s stay one more beat with this juxtaposition of these two books. Because there’s something that I imagine about these two books together and I don’t know if you also feel this way. But I wondered if Mouth: Eats Color as a project is also suggesting that so-called normative translations, like the ones in the collected poems that you translated, and normative translations more generally speaking, if those normative translations are actually far weirder and, in a way, more original than we think, that by foregrounding yourself as a translator in the Rogue book by troubling the relationship between the writer and the translator, that you’re saying that what you are doing more invisibly in the collected poems is actually much more inventive, more generative, or more creative and more mysterious than how translation is typically characterized in the discourse, if the active translation is even in the discourse at all. I came away with that looking at the two books together. But I don’t know if that is something of what you’re doing, if Mouth: Eats Color is actually also saying, among all the other things you suggest, that really if you were to lean into these normative translations, the more you spend time with them, the weirder the choices and the more questions about creativity versus transcription come to the fore.
SN: I like your suggestion of the conventional one perhaps being the weird one. As you were saying that, the thing that it made me think was that Mouth: Eats Color in some way feels more honest to me, it feels more like a document like if you were to go the road of documentary poetics or a documentary film, something where you’re capturing things that are slices of elements that actually happened. For example, in Mouth: Eats Color, there’s one poem translation that’s handwritten and the reason why it’s handwritten is because I was working in my office, but the school, the campus had a fire drill and everybody had to evacuate. But I was in the middle of my month-long race to do this book and so I didn’t want to stop so I had to leave the building and go work on some picnic table. I was away from my computer so I just kept working by hand and it just slid itself in as a document of that moment. It’s a question of what we hold up as the best, the good, the official, or even more sinister, authoritative is one out of many for me. I do that because I participate in normative culture in many ways. I think it’s a counter. It wouldn’t vote for one or the other but I think that when you invert the structure and say, “Okay, maybe that official one is the strange one and this is the one that’s more honest,” it’s more honest in the sense that translation is just one reader transmitting their reading of a poem, and if you expand that notion, you can come around to every moment in time when a poem is being read by a human. Whatever is going on in your mind is so complex and so full of misinterpretation or mistranslation. It’s so incomplete. But it’s very much true. If we were able to just slice into your mind as you read a poem, and that was the translation, that’s something that’s true in a very different definition of true when we think about faithfulness and a translation.
DN: Okay. Thinking about this translation of Sagawa Chika of James Joyce where her name is bigger than James Joyce’s on the cover, I wanted to ask you about your relation to the notion of an original text, and perhaps originality more broadly because it seems like your work often unmoors us from an orientation toward the original. For instance, in Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, we sometimes encounter a poem, let’s say in French, and it indicates it has been translated from an “original” but it’s an original that we haven’t yet encountered in the book in that we will only encounter later after having encountered the translation. Conversely, we encounter poems in English in that book but are told that they were translated into English. Of course, you are only one of many people moving these texts between one language and the other in this book and other books. One question is about originality and original texts and what you’re doing in relationship to so-called original texts. But I also had this, I guess more metaphysical question about it too. In an episode of Crafting with Ursula where the Beowulf translator Maria Dahvana Headly was the guest and we were looking together at Le Guin as a translator, I quote from something that Le Guin wrote in an essay called Reciprocity of Prose and Poetry where she says, “Translation is entirely mysterious. Increasingly I have felt that the art of writing is itself translating, or more like translating than it is like anything else. What is the other text, the original? I have no answer. I suppose it is the source, the deep sea where ideas swim, and one catches them in nets of words and swings them shining into the boat … where in this metaphor they die and get canned and eaten in sandwiches.” I guess I wondered here, we have Le Guin asserting that writing is close to translating for her, the act of writing, like writing without an original text is also somehow translating from a mysterious original text. I wanted to put that alongside my more specific question of what you’re doing with the reader by displacing us from original texts and putting these intermediary or so-called intermediary texts between us and them.
SN: I usually shy away from questions about the audience but because of the way you framed it, I’m interested in this last question you ask of what I’m doing with the reader. I think there are a couple of potential outcomes for the reader, but one of them, one of several is that it releases the reader from a sense of necessarily knowing or understanding all of it if you don’t read and understand all the languages. But I think even I don’t understand all of it per se because some of the processes and the things that I did to land at a particular poem or particular translation, it’s not even legible to me, which is a ridiculous thing to say about my own work, but that’s important. I’m going to try to circle this back around to what you were saying about originality. There’s an experience that I have felt in my own relationship to the Japanese language, which is my first language because I was born in Japan and I lived there until I was six, so until the age of six, that was the only language I had and then I grew up in the US and was educated in English, so my English naturally got stronger. But then when I went back to Japan, this is 2002, I was an adult but just barely educated in Japanese. I could read and write but not that well. I did not receive nearly as much education in Japanese as I did in English. Not only that, there’s a function of the way Chinese characters operate in the Japanese language where you can understand things to like this great gradation of ability, so you can understand things that you can’t say. You might not be able to read everything but you can get the idea and you get the idea to a various degree. I had this experience of having a language and not having it, and knowing a language and not knowing it or not knowing it as well as one might in a different context. I think in a sense, I’m interested in poetry also as a space where you can’t know it all and why should you try to? I think to some degree, I’m thinking about the typical way that poetry is taught in primary education in the US, for example, where here’s a poem, let’s think about what it means, what these are symbols for. We unpack it as if it’s some puzzle to be unlocked and decoded. If I want poetry to be something else, something other than that, and I want it to exist in a space where the goal isn’t to conquer it and to know and understand what it is, but the goal might be so many different possible outcomes besides unlocking its secrets. I think to some degree, my background and experience in dance, improvisation, and music, all of those things play into it too because those are non-verbal arts and so there’s a level of abstraction and distance from concrete semantics when you are working with those arts. I think that bridge between them makes it more comfortable for me to make a book where my general audience is going to be English-speaking but they will pick up a book like this and not be able to read it all. I think if you’re released from the idea that you’re going to read and understand it all, there’s possibly something else that can come of it.
DN: Okay. When translator Kate Briggs won the Windham-Campbell Prize, as part of a celebration of her work, she invited you, Johannes Göransson, and John Keene, three very different translators, and three very different writers, to join her in a really fantastic panel discussion. After Kate prefaces that discussion, you say that you love the way she contextualized the conversation that you were about to have. A conversation where each panelist was going to read another panelist’s text. Each person was choosing, of their own choice, excerpts of the other panelists’ works, that you loved the way Kate Briggs called this a republishing and a writing together the way she has taken both publishing and writing outside the normal framing of it within a book, within a codex. I wondered if you had a story that you tell or you tell yourself about why you are attracted to this lifting of publishing or writing outside of what we would normally consider publishing or writing, or this lifting translation outside of what we would normally call translation, and similarly making your poetry and your poems something that reached far away from poems as we often think of poems.
SN: That reminds me of a part of a question you asked earlier that I didn’t get around to, I don’t remember the question now but I was going to say something about how languages are things we can’t own because they are just there and out there. We learn them to whatever degree we do. There’s a great fluidity in language itself. I think that aspect of language and the fact that poetry is made of language leads me to believe that poetry might also exist in this unowned, unownable state. Then bringing that around to what Kate was saying, suggesting, and exploring with our publishing, republishing, or speaking each other’s texts, I think it’s part of that communal engagement/ownership that we can share these parts of ourselves with each other. The pleasure we get in reading the words of others, to read them out loud, and put them in physical space is something that we experience often. We experience it often in the classroom but we also do it in our private spaces too. If you read something you really enjoy, you want to read it out loud to someone. There’s such a visceral connection to words that are on the page. You read them through your eyes, you put them out again through your mouth, and share it and goes into some other body through their ears. There’s a transference that’s pleasurable.
DN: It sounds so strange when you say it that way but it’s what happens all the time.
SN: [laughs] It does. But if you trace the path, and I think I trace the path often because I think it’s very mysterious to me, that the hands are the places where the language gets materialized and I’m always really interested in process in art-making. Sometimes I’m laying in bed and a poem is happening and then something else is happening in the room and I’m like, “Wait, stop. I’m writing a poem.” It’s like, “You don’t look like you’re writing a poem, you’re just laying there in bed.” It’s floating matter that exists but it only gets captured in written, printed form when we use our hands to put it down. Now that I’ve said that and thinking about the way our bodies process or receive poetry through mostly either ears or hands, not hands, eyes—I guess if it was Braille it would come in through your hands—I think there’s something really great about exploring the somatics of poetry inexperience as if it were dance, as if it were music, as if we might make poetry together as if we were dancing in a club or just improvising music.
DN: Well, maybe as a preface to another question that’s related to that event with Kate Briggs, could we hear the first four pages of your manifesto? I don’t know if you call it a manifesto but I feel like it is one, Say Translation Is Art.
SN: Sure. I don’t care what it’s called. It’s just a little pamphlet called Say Translation Is Art.
[Sawako Nakayasu reads from Say Translation Is Art from Ugly Duckling Presse]
DN: We’ve been listening to Sawako Nakayasu read from Say Translation Is Art from Ugly Duckling Presse. We have a question for you that is about this.
Kate Briggs: Hello, Sawako. Hello, David. This is Kate speaking. It’s such a privilege to be invited to ask you a question. I will just get straight to it. I would love to hear you talk aloud about the function of this ‘say’ in the title of your brilliant pamphlet, Say Translation Is Art, which begins, “Say this. Say not this. Say it again. Like this.” I’d like to hear you expound on this because it seems to me that the ‘say’ holds together at least two of the aspects of your practice, which as your reader have been so precious and vital to me. One is this spirit of inquiry that I find everywhere in your work, speculation, imagination. This sense of what if things were not as they are. And second, this commitment to action say it and there’s a chance that by saying it, you’re also doing it or indeed, I’m also doing it, making something new happen, which I guess opens up to your sense of what poetry can do in the world and what translation can do in the world. Now, I realize that is a lot to ask and I’ve smuggled many questions into one, but really the starting point is to ask you how you feel about and what matters to you in this ‘say.’ Thank you.
SN: Thank you, Kate. That is a beautiful question. I feel a certain pleasure in your having brought Kate into our conversation like she’s here with us now, which is wonderful. The question I think is well, I’ll tell you, the very, very first answer that popped into my head is how ridiculously shy, quiet, and introverted I’ve been for much of my life, and I’ve learned a lot about that. I know that I’m not as quiet as I have been in the past but I know I’m introverted and I know that I’m living in a culture that is kind of run by extroverts, let’s say, and so there’s pressure on the notion to say like when you’re a student, which you are for most of your younger years, there’s so much pressure to speak in class and say the answer, say the right thing. Even if it’s not class, if it’s social, there’s a lot of pressure to speak. So I’ve had a lot of resistance to that. I know that part of what brought me to writing was in fact that it was a space where I could speak more comfortably than I could in real life, let’s say. I know this is not that uncommon for writers. In your question, Kate, I think you do touch on the two most common ways to interpret that ‘say.’ One being the hypothetical. Say we go for a walk today into the abyss. Speculative, what if we do that? And then the imperative ‘say this,’ it’s very tyrannical and I think there’s something about both of that that lives in me, this desire to explore and open up different doors and see what happens, “Say we do this, say we translate like this today and put on this outfit to translate,” whatever kind of creature I’m trying to be, and also a little bit of a mantra like wanting to insist and intervene in my desire to make open different kinds of space for a different way to engage translation. I think that the interest there for me and the interest in saying that line Say Translation Is Art is in opposition to the conventional notion of translation as you’re not the real artist because the real artist is the one who wrote the original work and your thing, whatever you’re doing, translator, is a secondary craft that’s based on the original brilliance of that source text. I do feel like there’s a lot we can unpack in that inherited paradigm.
DN: Let me stay with Kate Briggs’s second notion, the tyrannical ‘say’ or the imperative ‘say.’ Say we think of translation as an act in the world, an action in the world that has consequences. It seems like with the power dynamics between countries and languages, that translation is probably always a political act but probably even more so when we consider how little is translated into the American discourse. But I guess I wanted to ask you about translation as an act or a political act for you. I’m thinking, for instance, when I talked to Hélène Cixous’s translator, Beverley Bie Brahic for the bonus supplemental material for the show, she was comparing and contrasting herself to her friend, the poet-translator Marilyn Hacker, who’s often thinking about who she can bring into the discourse through translating. It’s like she’s thinking of the collective and the service of who she’s going to choose. Whereas more often than not, Beverley says she’s translating based on what she could learn herself as a poet and as a translator, curiosities that she had, not that the other element wasn’t part of it. I actually think Hélène Cixous was an exception in her translating life and more like Marilyn Hacker, but if you think about this ‘say’ as an act, a demand, and I guess I wondered if you could speak for a moment about what considerations you do or don’t have when we’re talking about who to translate or why to translate.
SN: Great question. There’s a very, very primary decision that every translator makes which is who to translate. When I started, I didn’t really know exactly where to start so I started with the only contemporary Japanese poet I had heard of who happened to be Hiromi Itō, who’s now been pretty well translated into English and I’m excited about that. But when I went to Japan in 2002 and I was invited to edit a translation feature for a journal called Aufgabe, edited by Tracy Grinnell, that suddenly gave me an assignment and said, “Okay, I’m going to go to Japan and translate and find Japanese poetry to translate.” I think it was an interesting time in my life because I just finished my MFA and having, if I can recall, being a recently graduated MFA student, I was full of a lot of strong feelings, let’s say, about what mattered and what didn’t matter and what was good and what was bad. I was very interested in drawing lines and finding my place in the world of poetry or literature let’s say. Even as I was looking for who to translate, when I was waving my avant-garde flag really hard at the time and so I wanted to find the experimental poets in Japan. That was one aspect of what I was looking for. Then I really stumbled into Sagawa Chika by accident and what I realized was here was a poet who I only knew through the work because she was not very well known, she wasn’t even well known in Japan, and it came in a secondary way, my realization that I was making a choice to translate someone who was not well known and thus I was not actively reinforcing a Japanese canon as presented by the Japanese canon makers. But I just want to give a shout-out to Keith Waldrop who is the only person I ever formally studied translation with and he was just somebody who wasn’t concerned with those kinds of reaching for fame, ambition and making something of yourself in this context. I’ll say this too, in my translation workshop that I took with Keith Waldrop, you were supposed to get an assignment to translate somebody who had already been translated and you were going to redo it as an exercise. At that moment, my French was better than my Japanese and I translated a couple of pieces from a work called Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute, which is a work that I loved, and I thought it was so great and how amazing it would feel to translate that and write it in my own word. So I did it and then some snarky guy in the class, I had to present it and somebody was like, “It’s very interesting that you chose her,” and I didn’t even understand what he meant when he said interesting but he was implying like, “Why would you attempt to translate this incredibly well-known French writer who has an incredibly well-established and brilliant translator already? You can’t find your way into the world like that.” I was just so put off by that kind of ambition and I thought, “Wow, I did this because I love the work and I wanted to experience it. I was in it for the experience.” I was a student so I’m trying to learn something from the experience and so I felt that I think all along the way in my life as a writer and translator, I’ve so many stories like that where somebody is having some, not direct criticism but some kind of dissonance with my decisions not being career-oriented like, “Why are you doing that? It’s not going to get you anywhere.” Then when I realized that Sagawa was brilliant but unknown, I said, “Great, now everyone can know her.”
DN: [laughter] Right. While this has been a long preface to your upcoming poetry collection Pink Waves, I think it’s been an important preface that’s going to pay a lot of dividends for us as we talk about Pink Waves. I think there are probably a hundred different doorways we could pass through as a way to approach Pink Waves. Maybe the best way to start is to simply hear the opening of the book and then to unpack later the circumstances, constraints, aesthetics, and poetics of the work but within the aura of having actually heard the words in Pink Waves.
[Sawako Nakayasu reads from Pink Waves from Omnidawn]
DN: We’ve been listening to Sawako Nakayasu read from Pink Waves from Omnidawn. Okay, so as an entryway into Pink Waves, we have another question for you. This one from Gabrielle Civil returning the volley after you asked her a question in my conversation with her. Here is a question for you.
Gabrielle Civil: Hi, David. Hi, Sawako. It’s Gabrielle Civil, Sawako’s biggest fan. I just had the pleasure of reading Pink Waves and I’m so excited to learn more about this work. I’m especially thinking of your lines, Sawako, “If time drops, here my function is to bewilder it.” What does it mean in your work to drop and bewilder time? And does it, as I suspect, have anything to do with performance? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts. Sending you lots of love. Gabrielle.
SN: Oh, Gabrielle. Hello and thank you. Thanks, David, for inviting her to join us too. Performance time is bewildered. It’s a kind of being. It’s a special kind of being to be in performance and it is wild and wilder, especially thinking about your work, Gabrielle, there is a certain aspect of performance that creates room for wilderness in which we do things in performance that would absolutely be frightening to others if we did it not in performance. There’s an aspect of being in performance that is not achievable by other means. So I don’t know if this is a time drop but I had this funny experience not that long ago of coming across these VHS tapes, videotapes of my very, very early performances, and they were done in San Diego. I was either still a student or had recently graduated and I was making performance art. I watched these videos of myself and that too was bewildering to see the time warp between myself and my 20s, and at least 20 years later, I’m looking at myself on stage and I don’t even understand what the performance is about. It’s text-based, it’s me on the stage, I’m seeing and doing all these things. But the thing that came across most vividly was this incredible sense of owning, existing, and being in my body and myself in a way that I’m pretty sure I didn’t feel in most other aspects of lived life. I think there was just a very special pleasure, joy, and importance to coming into performance at that particular time in my life. When you’re a young person, there’s a lot of uncertainty about who you are, what you’re doing with your life, where you’re headed, and all these normal questions about identity on top of that. So when I looked at myself performing in my 20s, I could see that I felt completely myself no matter what it was that I was actually doing or saying. I did a lot of performance back then so there are pieces that I can describe with more semantic, more content. But I think in that moment, what I saw was just a state of being, and that state of being has always been very interesting to me. That is something that continues to this day where if I put myself in a performative mode, then for the duration of that performance, I am a little bit more myself than I am in the performance of living a regular life. We all know that we perform in many different ways through the course of our day.
DN: Well, let me read back to you some things that you’ve said.
SN: Okay. [laughter]
DN: Because I’m curious to stay with your attraction to time and duration. You talk about Mouth: Eats Color, your anti-translations of Sagawa Chika, not only as a one-month-long book project but as a one-month-long performance, giving yourself one month to create this book in contrast to the collected poems, which, you said, took a good part of a decade. You’ve talked about this in relation to having played hockey, that there was no other context in your life that would make you move faster than being in the middle of a hockey game, but that the structure of that game needs to exist for you to move this way. You’ve talked about that in relation to your history of improvisational dance where time is also demarcated, and that you viewed Mouth: Eats Color in this way too as a performance in time. Even though this will repeat a little of what you’ve already said, I just love a particular section of your interview at Lit Hub where you say, “So I decided, I’m going rogue. I wanted to see how many ways I could not play the game by the rules. There are so many established ways that poetry gets put out to the world. I was like, I’m not going to have an editor, I’m not going to have a publisher, and I’m not even going to polish the stone. I’m going to do it in a month. At the time I had one child and a full-time job, which meant I hadn’t had any time to write poetry. But I was on an academic calendar so I suddenly had a month where I had free time and my child was in daycare. I said, I’m going to perform being a poet for a month,” which I love. But I want you to speak more to the ways that the constraint of duration is shaping Pink Waves, in particular, a book that you’ve described as a structured improvisation, and what ways does the Pink Waves’ specific constraint make you move that no other context, even hockey, would make you move.
SN: You are so good at crafting questions, David. I just have to appreciate that. I wish I could just transcribe all the thoughts that cross the mind as you’re listening to a very thoughtful question about your work that traverses so much time of having been an artist. Even the fact that you brought up my hockey reference brings me way back. The constraint of time, well, it’s not that uncommon that constraint in itself leads to interesting creative decisions because of the constraint. I spent a lot of time with dance improvisers, and as with many kinds of improvisation, there’s a lot of practice, training, and things that one does outside of the moment of performance. But the moment of performance puts a different pressure on it so that you bring it all, do it, show up, and enter that performance mode. The thing that happened with Pink Waves was that, and again, I was on an academic calendar, and by this time, I had two children and I was teaching and nearing the end of the semester, I started working on this book but I wanted to finish it. But I also knew that summer was coming up and once I finished the academic year and summer kicked in, I was going to more or less transform back into a full-time mom like Cinderella. I’m noticing the calendar and its forces and I wanted to make time to finish this book. It reminds me of a question that a poet friend of mine asked once, the friend is Lynn Xu, who’s also a wonderful poet, and after I had my first child, she said, “Are you going to start writing mommy poems?” and I thought, “Well, I don’t know.” I don’t know what that means in the context of my work. Am I going to write about my kids? I don’t really write about my children per se, but I know that having a domestic life of this nature puts a lot of pressure on time and I know that I’m very interested in time pressure so this is exactly what I loved about hockey is I love the time pressure. Before that, the only other sport I played a little bit was tennis but I never really liked it because I could never really get motivated to chase after the ball when it was already on my court. What I really loved in sports like hockey, soccer, and basketball where you’re jostling for the thing with everybody at the same time, it puts a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of time pressure in every moment and there’s something interesting about time pressure on performance and on art, and it’s not that different I think from the pressure of a deadline when you have to do something by a certain time. Say Translation Is Art is a really great example of time pressure where they gave me two years to write something and I spent two years drafting this and that and trying to come up with whatever I was going to write for this pamphlet and the draft right before it was a whole thing I had said about beauty and I was trying to reject certain conventions around beauty and that didn’t work out. They said, “Oh, Sawako, we’re out of time. This series is going to be published in 2020. You didn’t do it, sorry.” I said, “No, wait. I still want to do this,” and I just wrote it in that moment of the window closing and they were about to give up on me and cross my name off the list and that led to this text that I’m quite pleased to have written now. There’s that notion of time pressure creating a temporal energy that’s activated in that moment. Anyway, Pink Waves was written that week after the semester ended and I said, “Okay, I’m going to extend my semester a little bit longer and spend a whole week in the theater.” So I reserved the theater, I said, “I’m doing a performance,” because if you’re doing a performance on a stage, nobody’s going to call you up in the middle of it and say you have to do X, Y, and Z because you’re on stage. It was my way of self-fashioning a really intense writer’s residency where I just had to do it. I had begun writing it but I wasn’t done, I needed to finish it so I created a structure, I created a performance occasion in order to finish this book. Then something kicks in, just like I did that month-long performance for Mouth: Eats Color, this is now a week-long performance. This one, in particular, wanted to be a performance, not just for that logistical aspect of it but also because of some elements in the work I was writing, and in the particular loss that I had experienced. We’ve spent so much time thinking or talking about form, process, and whatnot and the tendency is to not think so much about the content of the poetry but this work, in particular, happened at a moment when I was processing a particular kind of loss that was not going to be visible to anybody else. So there was not an existing structure for me to deal with it and thus, the work had those two valences. The writing was a way of processing and the performance of the writing was also a way of processing. There were components of the performance where there are some things like objects that were unresolved and I was able to work them into the performance so that I could lay that to rest and have done what I needed to do in that moment in my life.
DN: Well, I do want to ask some questions later that I think are going to speak more to content and to motivation. But I want to ask you yet another translation question first in relation to this poetry because, in the end notes, you talk about how part of this book is what you call microtranslation of the syntax of Black Dada by Adam Pendleton. If I look at your book Say Translation Is Art, you have a line on microtranslation that goes, “Say microtranslation, say for example translate only one component of a poem, translate only the syntax, translate the syntax in its entirety, say translate the entire sonic landscape of the poem, say translate the spirit, the kinetics, the ghost that haunts it,” and also in the Pink Waves endnotes, you say that the form, the sentence, the microtranslation, and the language from various sources, they provided a structure from which to improvise the actual writing. Perhaps these other things: the form, the sentence, the microtranslation, maybe even the constraint of performance, is the scaffolding from which you’re able to hold and explore the loss that you’ve nodded towards in the content of the writing, writing that is partially done on stage with others. I have a three-part question for you about all of this. Talk to us more about microtranslation for one. Two, talk to us about why you wanted to microtranslate the syntax of Black Dada, in particular, what Black Dada means for you, and then tell us about any revision process that happens when you’re not on stage, if the writing is literally a performance. If you’ve rented out the theater and you’re completing the book on stage, how does the revision process look when you’re back at your desk, if there is one, and are there any parameters or constraints that you set for yourself involved in the revision, anything you don’t allow yourself to do with what you’ve produced in an improvisational moment with certain parameters? How much freedom do you give yourself when you’re then back looking at the words static on a white page?
SN: It seems unfair, David, to ask three questions all at once but it also seems generous because I can pick and choose. Maybe that’s your intent. I’ll start with the easy one which is about revision. It’s easy because I did not revise after the end of that performance, but a big part of the performance was revision. I have this experience, I think lots of people have this experience of when you give a poetry reading and you read work that’s new, suddenly when you’re on stage reading it, you go, “Oh, I need to change that line or this word,” or there’s a natural mode of revision that kicks in when you’re presenting your work. I used that in this performance even when there was nobody in the audience because it took place over a long period of time. It wasn’t like people are filling the seats all the time, it’s very sparse. Sometimes I’d be alone in there but I had a mic and the mic was on. I would read what I had written into the mic amplified into this huge theater and it was such a great way to revise. It put me in that revision mode and I would just read it and revise, read it and revise. That was a big part of what was happening in that stage. It’s another aspect of bringing performative contexts or usefulness into the work. The other questions are about microtranslation and why Black Dada by Adam Pendleton, also just about syntax and how very interested I am in syntax itself and the ways in which syntax holds so much while being abstracted from the actual words that they hold. When I started writing, my very first source text was Waveform by Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto. That book was the first book that I was thinking with, being with, and interacting with in my writing. At that point, I had an amorphous pile of language that was accruing without having a form. It was like language matter, poetic matter without a form. That happens to us sometimes, you go, “What do I do with this?” at the same time, I was really interested in books that were being made by Siglio Press which is interesting to me. I like how something about the mission statement of that press says that it’s got a feminist ethos. So the feminist ethos is defined through the wide range of the books they make but it doesn’t mean you have to be female to have that ethos. I borrowed from the library a whole bunch of books from the Press because I was just interested in what they were doing, and one of the books I ended up reading was the one called Becoming Imperceptible by Adam Pendleton. It’s got a whole series of black and white images, some of them are very well-known iconic images of black civil rights leaders and images that are familiar or not, sometimes they’re abstracted, sometimes they’re cropped in different ways but they repeat over the course of the book. Most of the book is non-verbal, it’s just these images and sometimes they’re magnified. I was interested in the syntax of that book and the ways in which it created a certain music through this visual language. Then after coming across all these images, you get to the end of the book and you see the text that he wrote called Black Dada. Immediately, when I started reading it, I was very drawn to the syntax and the pattern, the form which is what I ended up using as my springboard for the form of Pink Waves. It veers off at some point but it was really the initial moment that gave me a form for this work. I know that there’s a politics in his work. That is something I feel, I don’t know if the right word is adjacent, sympathetic, or in coalition with, and the fact that the poem Black Dada, being from Amiri Baraka who is somebody who had been very influential for me as a young poet and just remembering too, I think what Adam Pendleton’s poem did is that it brought me back to some very early formative experiences that I had had in my very beginning moments of becoming a writer which happened when I was an undergrad. When you’re young, you’re just exploring, learning, and poking into all these different threads, and as an Asian-American, I would take some Asian-American literature classes and there’s something about that that I couldn’t connect to, there was something about the stories and narratives being interesting, but there was something formally alienating to me. It was alienating in the sense that it felt like it was inhabiting forms that were dominant mainstream forms of narrative and of narrative poetry. Where I ended up in those explorations was largely in literature written by either the avant-garde or by black writers like Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, or John Edgar Weidman and Toni Morrison. I found an aesthetic opening and, for whatever reason, it was the black writers who made me think that there was space in the field for me to write also. I stumbled into really interesting thinkers like Will Alexander who happened to teach a class. Taking a class with Will Alexander is not that different from inhabiting one of his books but it’s a little bit more embodied, and also, there is a mystical strange sensation of being able to engage literature as a very separate space from the realities of all the muck that we have to find our way through.
DN: Let me link this to something that you say in the end notes. You say in the endnotes, “Pink Waves is my attempt to be true to the thickness as I move through time and space in cross sections of wave upon wave. Some forms of otherness are more specific to my own history, some accrue through the discourse of others. All these spreading differences.” I want to ask you about spreading differences in multiple different ways but I think the first one that you’re already talking about could be considered these other sources that you’ve chosen to allow to crash like waves into your waves in this book. Waveforms and Black Dada being only two of many that wave upon wave change your waveforms and also reappear throughout Pink Waves. But there’s another way I think about spreading differences, all these spreading differences that I want to ask about. Again, it’s a way that I connect it and I don’t know if you connect it this way. In a round table discussion about Don Mee Choi’s book Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode, you talk about Paul Preciado’s idea of naturalized desire, that sexualities can be learned like languages. That we are molded a certain way through the world we are born into but then go on to recognize these as our natural desires when really they could have been different desires if the situation had molded us differently. You connected this to your own work to decolonize yourself and to decolonize your poetry. In a different event called Race & Poetry in America at Brown University, you talk about how you grew up in a very white America within the white experimental poetry scene and that when you look back at older work, you feel like it is feminist work but that it feels like a white feminism of a former self. Lastly, you had this great conversation with C.A. Conrad where you talk about coming out to C.A. And Anne Waldman but also how you feel like your poetry was queer first, then you followed, that your book with Wave Books, Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, that was the book where you thought you were coming out to the world but it doesn’t seem to have been received that way. [laughter] You also say in that conversation that you were writing a book now about changing identity from straight to queer which I wondered if you were referring to Pink Waves or a different book. But even if it isn’t Pink Waves, I’m interested to know if you see this book as a queer book and if the notion of moving through time and space in cross-sections of wave upon wave, wave upon wave of otherness all spreading difference, if that’s one way we could describe a Nakayasu queer poetics.
SN: [laughs] Thank you for that, David. I love talking about my queerness because it’s funny to me that it came as late as it did in terms of my recognizing that. Spreading differences is a tweak of a line from Gertrude Stein’s The Difference is Spreading. I’ve always held that line in my head and heart as whatever it might mean for the difference to spread. I’m really glad you picked up on that Paul Preciado quote which I think is probably somewhere in Say Translation Is Art too where I appreciated so much how he talks about how language is naturalized and we were born into one language, thus it feels natural. Then we learn another language and it turns out that you can have more than one language, and he transfers that idea to sexuality and that we’re often, most of the time, born into what they call compulsory heteronormativity. Is that what they say? Anyway, it’s compulsory because it’s so dominant in the culture and I certainly grew up in it. I was so much older when I realized that didn’t have to be the case. I want to say something about, I’m not sure if this is directly in conversation with the things about performance we were talking about but there’s something about even when it’s not a performative, like allegedly performative act of it, there’s something about art making itself, even if it’s completely interior, it’s still performative or if not performative, it’s operating in some different corner of our bodies and it has access to different parts of ourselves. What I wanted to say was that I was pregnant with my second child when I suddenly realized, decided, or had some kind of epiphany and decided I had to make a film. I was going to become a filmmaker, which is the most pragmatically insane thing to decide at that particular moment. It’s not so easy to make a film while having these one-and-a-half small children, so I went to a screenwriting class that happened at night. I took this little path into filmmaking. It was an incredible experience and journey, and I absolutely loved it but one of the weird side effects of trying to make film is that I kept trying to make films about women who were married in a cis heteronormative marriage but decided or realized they were queer. I did that for many, many times before I realized that was me. [laughter] There’s a strangeness in these parallel spaces that artistic minds are ahead of us. I think many of us have some version of that experience but I think that when I’m thinking about Pink Waves, Paul Preciado, and all the things that are naturalized. Again, I point to that shift of my consciousness in my own queerness. By the way, I’ll say too, that even though I say I’m queer, I’m also married, I’m cis, it’s heteronormative, I carry all that heteronormative privilege and I’ve had infinite conversations about what it means to be queer within that, and we landed on this, I think I came up with this, I said I’m queer like an inactive volcano, [laughter] like the volcano is a volcano, even if it’s not active and I’m not actively queer in my lived relationships, and I want to own the privilege that I have in my relationships. But going back to Pink Waves and all the things that are naturalized, to use Paul Preciado’s language, which I find really useful because once we start identifying everything in our perspectives that are naturalized, going back to anything as basic, something as basic as language, denaturalizing and asking what it might mean to disavow that notion of anything being natural and you can convert that to thinking about what is common sense, and common sense is just a set of agreements that any group of people makes but it tends to be that which is held by a particular dominant group, so in thinking about naturalized language and normalized translations, and maybe I can bring this back to the microtranslation, a microtranslation in my world is talking back to the idea and the anguish around a translator trying to, and failing to bring everything over. That you have a responsibility to the original work to bring every single possible aspect of that work over into the new language which is inherently impossible because you’re changing every single word as you’re writing this translation. I think a microtranslation is a micro intervention in that conversation. I guess also the thing about Pink Waves is that the microtranslation aspect of it is a significant part of the form and process of how I did it but I think after that, it just becomes its own thing and has its own life. It doesn’t really hold as a translation, even in our most wildest definitions of translations. It’s hard to call it a translation but I also did want to give credit to the people whose works led to it. They are sources and I did ask for permission. I wanted to honor Adam Pendleton and also Ron Silliman, whose very influential work Ketjak, is the form that Adam Pendleton was working off of and I wanted to acknowledge Amber DiPietra and Denise Leto. These books gave this work life.
DN: And you’re spreading differences, even in just naming all of those people, that chain of that lineage. This really makes me think of something that you said that I found compelling on Rick Henry’s website about queer theory and translation. I’m going to paraphrase you but you said that queer theory is interested in the ways that it pushes against binary frameworks and that translation is a super binary entity, source, and target where everything in the in-between, more often than not, becomes invisible, so there are aspects of translation that can stand to be renegotiated through the doors that queer theory opens up. It sounds like microtranslation is one way to trouble this idea of erasure that happens when you put translation into this binary mode. You then go on the talk about Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure as a really good book to apply to translation. That while this book is talking about marriage and social institutions, the way it’s talking about them could be applied to translation. But thinking of marriage and binary frameworks, I also think of your thoughts on faithfulness in translation where you’ve said elsewhere, and I love this quote, “One of the difficulties in translating poetry is balancing multiple demands at once—for example, to make it simultaneously faithful and beautiful. Yet it got me to thinking about faithfulness and its opposite, perhaps also in terms of defining what it means to be ‘true.’ (What good is a faithful partner if he or she is not interesting in the first place?).” That’s such a funny and great line. [laughter] But let’s hear a little bit more of Pink Waves, then I want to move to another way that I see spreading differences but if we could hear Section 8.
[Sawako Nakayasu reads from Pink Waves]
DN: We’ve been listening to Sawako Nakayasu read from Pink Waves. To return again, maybe in the spirit of waves, to this question of spreading differences as a poetics, another thing I’m thinking about with regards to that is identity in relationship to collectivity, which might loop us back to questions of originality. But I love how you say in the reading, “Black Dada is not mine but Black Dada made this book. It crashes into my performance.” But thinking about how this crashing wave of otherness makes this book, I want to talk for a minute about ants and about girls. You say the ants in your book The Ants and the girls in your book Some Girls, girls who are often referred to as Girl A or Girl L or Girl P, you say in your interview at Colorado State University that they act as a foil and also as a form. They are, “Perhaps better thought of as a conceptual poetic form, one that works on the writing mind to coax the poem forward.” You refer to these poems as the “girl poems” but the intentional flatness of the girls, the almost cartoonish quality to some of their scenarios with poem titles like A Line of Five Girls with Golf Balls in Their Mouths, Four Girls Pool Their Breasts Together, or Girls Duck into a Dumpling to Escape the Stench of Saturday Night Humanity, the flatness and the fungibility of these characters I think is in stark contrast to the fact that these poems are being translated into or from a variety of languages by seven quite dimensional women translators. That these poems, which are partly about misogyny and the way women are seen, spoken of, interacted with, reduced, that these poems are brought to life again and again in various ways by a collective of women at the same time. I also like what Caroline Bergvall said in PoemTalk about these poems, that because each poem feels like a small fable, the poetics feel communal. That the poems are stories that are meant to be told. That they’re expecting a reader and readers are expected, invited, and hoped for. These all made me think about spreading difference as much about bringing difference into dead-end categories like ant and girl but also about inviting otherness into our own work. I guess I wondered if you had any thoughts about identity and the collective in light of this, this tension between the way you’re using static, and perhaps fable-like characters which are often flat by design or flat notion of insects, one to the next, how this might relate to spreading difference when you then invite this collective of dynamic women to translate and re-translate these strangely labeled undifferentiated girls.
SN: [laughs] I guess there’s something interesting about what you’re bringing up in terms of a fable and flatness. I think in my own choice of language, I might use the word abstraction as opposed to flatness but they’re similar in the way that they’re removed a little bit from specificity and the richness of actual people, events, and whatnot. I guess maybe I can go back to when you said how I think of them, the ants and the girls as a foil and as a form. I think in a way, there are things about identity, and particularly about race and gender for me, that are difficult to speak to directly. Part of why it’s difficult to speak to directly is because there’s a lot of anger, hard feelings, complicated feelings, and nuance that make it hard to say what I’m really thinking in a direct way. But I have found poetry to be a space that has a really rich relationship to abstraction where you can position a poem at any point on the spectrum and it can have the veneer of specificity. Here is a poem. There are ants in it or there are girls in it. There’s something happening. I think there’s something interesting about the way it reads as flat or abstract because I’m saying something that’s underneath the thing that’s actually being said. Whatever I was thinking about when I was writing all those ant poems, I’m not actually thinking about ants much at all. I’m thinking about humans, collectivity, and relationships and the ants just became this door or a portal that if I put an ant on something, I would write something that I was really thinking about. In terms of the girls, it’s a little bit more specific in the sense that I was coming back to the US, this is 2017. I had spent most of the last 15 years in some parts of Asia, mostly Japan. During that time, I had evolved in certain ways where my own thinking about my own identity had shifted. When I first decided to go to Japan in 2002, I remember telling my friends, “I’m moving to a country where I’m not attracted to the men in that country.” [laughs] What a terrible thing to say and to think. I didn’t even blink when I said that. I just thought it was so normal and naturalized to my assimilated whiteness in thinking that this whole continent of Asian men were not going to be attractive. Coming from that to having decided it didn’t even have to be a man to it didn’t have to be a white man, all these things about what we desire were such a huge shift in my consciousness that they infiltrated my work in thinking about where the desire was and what I was trying to get to through the poems. Sometimes, the poems are using or they’re talking about girls, so it gives you the impression it’s a feminist poem. It’s talking about girls and there is a lot of misogyny in the straight-up narratives that I’m telling in the book with the girls but I’m also aware as the writer, and only as the writer, that a lot of those poems came out of an experience of race-related anger and a discomfort with talking about race so directly. It’s not that I want to conflate those modes of difference. There’s so much history and actual experiences that are incredibly different from each other. I don’t want to flatten those differences into one mode but it’s more that I am thinking about my feminism as having come up through whiteness and thinking about the path away from white feminism.
DN: Staying with this question of identity in relationship to Pink Waves, it feels like to me in many of the conversations I’ve watched or listened to, you talk about yourself often in relation to whiteness and more specifically, you bring up complicated questions for you as an Asian-American and as a Japanese-American. For instance, in the Race & Poetry in America conversation, you’re zooming in from Tokyo and you say that you’re speaking from the seat of the former Japanese empire, then go on to acknowledge the history of colonial occupation by Japan of many other Asian countries about sexual slavery as a weapon of war and you say this is part of your identity, and heritage, then speak also about your joy, pride, and solidarity with Asian-Americans and other BIPOC writers in the United States. Obviously, there was a lot of thought that happened for you prior to this event that you wanted to just position yourself in this way but I also think of how your last book isn’t just a book where seven other women are translating within your own poetry collection but seven Asian women. I’m thinking about an analysis of that book in the Columbia Journal by Odelia Lu and Brittany Nguyen where Brittany talks about how, as an Asian American, she often finds herself speaking Chinglish or Vietglish and that because of this, she loves the level of play in the poems in your poems when they’re immersed in more than one language simultaneously. Their discussion of Girl P, the poem and the character Girl P who is born into a Korean family in China yet receives her education in Japanese because she lives in a district that’s under Japanese colonization. I’m curious to hear about Pink Waves in light of this. Are there questions that you’re exploring around race or more generally about identity, about Asian-American politics or not, or whiteness within Pink Waves, which doesn’t feel as immediately obvious to me as it does in Some Girls?
SN: Since you mentioned Girl P, I’ll say too that in Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, there’s a way in which labeling the girls by the letter makes them anonymous and sometimes they feel really interchangeable because they’re lumped together into one group. Yet in the origins of this book and when I first started writing them, Girls A through F, J, I don’t know how far it goes, each of those girls was actually modeled on a very specific Asian woman, one of them being me. As the work evolved, some of the elements blended. Some of the girls retain their characteristics. There’s a way in which there’s collectivity and there’s individuality within those girls. Girl P, that was a poem that was written by a wonderful Korean-Japanese Poet Kyong-Mi Park. She wrote that poem in response to my inviting her to write something, translating something out of the manuscript that I was working with. When I engaged Kyong-Mi Park and others who you noted, they were given some part of my manuscript. I shared either a couple of poems or the whole thing or whatever existed at the moment and they were invited to choose, enter, play, collaborate, and translate, and translate to whatever degree of accuracy or normalized translation. Many of them were familiar with my own work in translation so they knew they could take that permission and run in different directions with it. It was interesting, one of the things that happened as that book has been received by the world and talked about, and sometimes they will point out a poem, like in the case you describe with Girl P, and they’ll talk about that poem as if I had written it or I’m not sure if they as the reviewer knew that I didn’t write it but I translated it or whatever those relationships are, I’m creating a continuum of translation, authorship, collectivity, and individuality. That was part of the interest in that. Another one of the things you bring up and I’m glad you brought up my commenting that I was zooming in from the seat of the Japanese empire which is a weird thing to say but I realized that people often give land acknowledgments and when you think about Japan, there are only certain parts of Japan that had indigenous people, in Okinawa and Hokkaido mostly. The thing that really stuck out to me about Japan in that moment of thinking about race, ethnicity, power, poetry, and all these things, I’m also thinking about the conversation you had with Elaine Castillo, and lots of people have this conversation too, like Jay Caspian Kang on The New York Times talks a lot about how this whole concept of Asian-American really is false because the histories among the countries are, not only are they varied but there’s so much power, destruction, colonialism, and imperialism within Asia. Sometimes I joke, I’ll say the Japanese people are the white people of Asia. It is in the sense that the imperialist moves were modeled after Western forms of imperialism. I partly want to talk about that a lot because it’s so not talked about, especially in Japan where the government actively prevents people from talking about it and ensures that it’s never spoken of in textbooks and history books. It’s very actively covered up as a history and it’s a complicated history because Japan also received two atomic bombs. Japanese-Americans were interned in the US. There’s a way in which you can go either way in terms of what your position is as someone having Japanese heritage. I think about that and I do feel like I am a descendant of Japanese imperialism in the sense that my maternal grandfather worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and he was involved in building the Zero, those Kamikaze planes. On the other hand, my father’s father, including my father too, lived in occupied Korea during that time and they were parts of the colonial machine then too. I’m thinking about how complicated it is to lump us all together as Asian-Americans first of all, especially right now with the Harvard affirmative action case and Asians being used by that lawyer Edward Blum who originally had his case with white plaintiffs, then that didn’t work so he said, “All right, I need some Asians to represent this case,” which is a huge problem, I think it’s partly happening because of our lack of general literacy about Asia and the various histories but I strayed a little bit. I want to go back to your asking about Pink Waves. I think about Pink Waves and Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From as companion books partly because they were written at around the same time. Pink Waves might have come out before Some Girls but it just happened to be this way. There’s even another book that I wrote during the same period and that book is called Settle Her. That book also, all these books, three books written about the complicated transition of returning to the US in 2017, partly a function of that cultural moment in the US but also a function of my having left the country in 2002 and spent so much time in Asia, and spent so much time during that period dealing with or reckoning with all these aspects of my own identity and how strange it is the way we inhabit our identities as if they’re a given, as if they’re totally natural, as if they’re just who we are. It’s a funny thing to unpeel those layers and reveal, evolve, or change into a different version of yourself. When I say that, I’m thinking about my current partner who’s Korean-American, who remembers me when we first met which was the very first summer when I went to Japan. He said, “When I first met you, you were the whitest Asian I had ever met.” I think that’s just such a striking, real, complicated, and interesting thing that I find myself constantly thinking about, is the whiteness in Asian Americans, especially in East Asian Americans. There’s just as much race in Pink Waves as there is in Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From. They manifest very differently. Pink Waves has a lot more pain, sadness, loss, and all these different kinds of loss that were happening at that time. Some of those losses are racially complex, whether they are my losses or those of others. There were so many interlocking parts of what it meant to have an aesthetic project to make a book of poetry in relation to the content or the ineffable thing you might be trying to say. I can make a claim, for example, that every other line is about race in some way but it’s also inhabited in different ways. Sometimes, I could be speaking from my previous whatever racially less aware version of myself. Sometimes, I’m speaking from a more overtly political standpoint. There’s a line I say about the language poets and how they—and this is my love-hate with the language poets and the whiteness of the avant-garde—it’s like they did an incredible thing of taking power. I can’t quote myself very well but about taking power from the institution or putting their politics in the aesthetics and taking power from the institution. They did get that power, yet there’s still a very, very deep whiteness that runs throughout that project in that time. Some of those people were my very best mentors like Carla Harryman who said a really wonderful thing to me when I was young. She said, “It’s great that you’re influenced by us and all but it’s really even more important for you to be critical of the people who are influencing you.” She’s implicating herself in that. Where was I? I talked about how I landed on that form with Pink Waves and Adam Pendleton. It was an interesting thing that happened when I encountered that work through Adam Pendleton. He opened up that door that led me straight back to my very, very early beginnings as a poet. I guess one of the ways in which Adam Pendleton is bringing Amiri Baraka back into the conversation is that he talks about how people don’t allow him the room to be abstract in his work or that he gets typecast as this radical black poet, he’s so incendiary. The poem itself Black Dada Nihilismus is an incendiary poem. I remember Anne Waldman saying that her students walked out of class when she taught it because there are these lines that are very provocative. They say something about raping the white ladies or something horrible. It reminded me also of the very first time I translated something, which was by the Japanese poet Hiromi Itō. That was going to be my first publication but the poem was called Killing Kanoko. Kanoko is the name of her actual daughter. There’s a poem about this maternal anguish and struggle, and it talks graphically about killing one’s own daughter, which is also horrible. I translated it. It was about to get published. The publication was called How To. It was a feminist experimental poetry journal but it was hosted by a university and they wanted to pull it because it was a little bit too extreme. My editor, I think it was Ann Vickery who’s in Australia, she did this wonderful thing of writing a preface saying, “No, we don’t advocate killing your own babies. That’s not what the poem’s about,” and we need to allow for that in poetry. There’s that certain aspect of things being challenging or provocative and where it’s allowable in poetry or in regular speech, and that fuzzy border between the poetic speaker and the shifty poetic speaker. I am really interested in that shiftiness of the poetic speaker where sometimes, those lines, so in Pink Waves, there’s a line that repeats where I say, “I sat with a friend in the loss of her child,” like that is just a completely straightforward, direct autobiographical line. It’s a sentence but then there’s another line that says, I don’t know, like, “I have a nice dick,” or something like that. It’s like, “Well, no, I don’t have a penis.” [laughter] There’s something interesting about inhabiting that space. There are lots of aspects of identity. There are lots of aspects of race and the very kaleidoscopic way that I felt about race in that moment. I was thinking about how people often tell you who they are. I was having this conversation with a friend and I asked them, I’m like, “What do I say about who I am?” and they said, “Well, the thing you tend to say is something along the lines of recovering white feminist or you used to be white.” I think I probably do say that and you probably noticed that too. I am thinking a lot about the ways in which whiteness lives outside of just your skin color and the ways in which Asians have—and maybe light skin colored East Asians for example, or maybe just me—we have a way in which you can blend in and inhabit whiteness, and play those games by those rules and do that or not to. It’s a more or less active choice once we know what’s going on. When we’re young, it’s harder to know.
DN: I want to pick up that comment you said a little while ago about Asians being lumped together and how counterproductive that can be around pretty large differences in terms of representation, in terms of power, or in terms of past history within that word Asian-American. But also it’s interesting around the book Some Girls where you say all these girls have these anonymizing names which are protecting identities perhaps but they’re characterized. But there’s a way in which both the playfulness of that book, then the way it’s hard to keep track of which girl is which girl, who’s translating which poem, and who wrote the poem, it’s dizzying intentionally. It’s easy to skim over, not the poem but to skim over the characterization and hold on to it. I remember when PoemTalk was happening about that book, they don’t get to like the sexual violence until the very end and they even feel guilty. I feel like they feel swept up in these other elements which are partly reenacting this lumping together even though everything else you say is there. I guess this is just an aside. I was listening to Monica Youn on a panel of Asian-American Poetics for The New Yorker and she was talking about the white replacement theory, the fear white people have of being replaced by immigrants. She talked about how Asians, she didn’t say this but I guess you could say Asians were lumped together or certain Asians were lumped together as Asians and were literally and explicitly brought here to replace people, that Asian laborers were brought to keep white working-class laborers from unionizing, then after emancipation, Asians were brought to the South to undercut the wages of freed enslaved peoples, that Asians have been put or some Asians have been put in the position where they are the temporary replacements of American labor but later to be disposed of, then shipped back afterwards. Somehow, that feels connected, I’m not sure you’re engaging with this or not, but it feels connected to the sense of the anonymity or interchangeability of the girls in Some Girls, that maybe that flattening of the naming isn’t just about misogyny but has this racial valence also. But elsewhere, you have talked about Dorothy Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry as a book that showed you that you weren’t as white as you thought you were. [laughter] That’s how you characterize this book. I think people listening would be interested to know what did that book do, what does that book mean to you, and how did that achieve that? How does Thinking Its Presence by Dorothy Wang, how’s that been an important part of your reconception of self for you in this way?
SN: Yeah, that book is such a potent book. I guess it’s been a while since it’s been published but I remember how it’s one of those books that as I’m reading, especially in the introduction, you just put your hand over your mouth and go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she said that,” and in a way, she’s kind of like Amiri Baraka in that sense of just saying it straightforward and sometimes bluntly. Not to say that she’s blunt in her book. She’s very thorough and very passionate about poetry itself. I was listening to your conversation with Elaine Castillo and there’s a moment when she talks about fighting with her family and fighting with her family is, in a way, fighting for her family. I think about that in the sense that poetry is a sort of family for many of us and Dorothy Wang is very much doing that thing of fighting the family in order to fight for the family. In some senses, there’s an aspect, especially in the introduction words kind of combative and she’s very critical of people like Marjorie Perloff for being unwilling to accept writing by writers who she sees as inferior aesthetically and feels like there’s an infiltration of these immigrant writers and their narratives and it’s all about identity and writing about identity is not as literary or it doesn’t have as much literary value as writing that’s focused on aesthetics, which is a false dichotomy that Dorothy then takes apart over the course of her book and along with many other things. It’s also interesting now thinking back on that book and thinking about all the things that have happened since then, and the ways in which I think when she wrote that book, there was not much discussion about race and the avant-garde. Since then, there has been a lot of it. I think much of it is in conversation with what Dorothy was suggesting we talk about. There’s so much to say about that book because it gave me that feeling of when somebody comes along and puts language to things that you’ve been thinking and feeling but you hadn’t had the faculties of your own to articulate it, then somebody comes around and just like, “Oh, I’ve been thinking those things and you’ve said it.” I felt that way about Amiri Baraka when I was young and he would write these, I don’t know if they were editorials, essays, or something that he would publish in The Poetry Project Newsletter. I don’t remember if they were explicitly about race but he would say something, and I remember my reaction to it which was like The Emperor’s New Clothes where everybody’s just going along and doing the right thing, then here comes Amiri Baraka and just lays it all out. I go, “Oh, that’s it.” [laughter] But Dorothy Wang’s book, I think if you had to put it in a nutshell, and I’m sure it’s not the only one who does this but she talks about or I think at this point today, many of us are really familiar with the concept of structural racism in society, in housing, in education, in health care, and all these kinds of inequality and we’re starting to recognize, we collectively are starting to see the ways in which it’s structural. One who might go along thinking that they are not racist because they are not using the N-word is still participating in a structurally racist society. I think what Dorothy’s book did was just give the literary version of that understanding and unpack the ways in which racism was structural, and specifically to talk about it in the context of Asian poets, which I just simply hadn’t read. I hadn’t seen what that discussion looked like. I didn’t know what it would mean. It’s not that the argument is specific to those specific writers that she discussed. She just models it, then you can apply it to everything you read. I think I said somewhere that it changed the way I look at my own writing or no, you just said it. [laughs] You mentioned that I realized I wasn’t that white and that’s really funny. It’s really funny to be like, “Oh, what? I’m not white?” and “I’ve lived in this body all my life.” I remember my teenage years of trying desperately to make myself as white as I could. Whatever that meant, usually it was about bleaching my hair. I did look back, I think one of the most visible examples of it is a very early book of mine called Nothing Fictional But the Accuracy or Arrangement (She. That She is in the title, then never again in the whole book is there a subject, like the whole book consists of these predicate clauses, so every utterance begins with a verb and it’s presuming that she in the title is the subject but I remove it from every single component of the book. I thought, actually, that’s a feature of the Japanese language that you don’t have to have a subject and you can just say, “Went to the store,” or “Had a hamburger,” instead of, “I had a hamburger,” or “You had a hamburger.” Like you don’t have to articulate that. I was enacting that language or that grammatical feature in the course of a whole book. They’re just endless examples of where I can point to. In my book called The Ants, this is not structural but in that book, the very first poem starts out with like, “Going to eat Chinese people.” To think about a poem about eating Chinese people written by a Japanese person is terribly race inflected. The poem ends with the speaker saying something about how the aliens are going to eat all of us anyway and we shouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know if that redeems the poem but it’s like there’s so much race in so many places that I just wasn’t really seeing before.
DN: Well, thinking about Dorothy Wang being able to articulate, being able to say something that you couldn’t yet say and recognizing it was something true for you, I would like to spend the rest of our time with mouths, both mouths as physical things as the place of appetites and also as sites of speech and language. As an entryway, I was hoping you would read us the same selection from Say Translation Is Art that John Keene, who just won the National Book Award in Poetry, chose to read when you both were celebrating Kate Briggs. His choice of reading you was this excerpt.
[Sawako Nakayasu reads from Say Translation Is Art from Ugly Duckling Presse]
DN: Thinking of this reading and that you also have a book called Mouth: Eats Color and that many, many of the Some Girls poems are about eating such as Girl A’s Peanuts And Girl D’s Mouthful, Ten Girls in a Bag of Potato Chips, Some Girls Fight Inside A Bag of Cheetos, and Girl Soup, then in Pink Waves, lines like, “I need a constant morning, a kick in my mouth and coffee, a fullness and mouth for two,” or “I steal Crumbs from your mouth to bake my own bread,” then many variations of being kicked in the mouth in Pink Waves, what’s going on for you about mouths and vomit translation or not even in relation to vomit translation but we return often across books to mouths.
SN: I often seem to have food features in my work. Often, the characters or humans, humanoids are in food or they’re trapped in food or they’re moving inside bodies. There’s something about the way the girls, I don’t know, I guess this is just one reading and my reading, I’m not sure if it’s the best reading but I think there’s some kind of infiltration going on and maybe it’s this kind of idealistic, or not idealistic but groping for the answer when we hate the world and we want to change it and the question is whether you go inside and change it from the inside or just blow it up, take it apart, and start all over. There’s something about like food, eating, consumption, and infiltrating that space of or hiding in the food to get to the bodies of power. [laughs] Maybe this doesn’t make sense but I think there is something about hiding and something about food being a typically domestically female-gendered activity, and the desire to question those internal and external boundaries, spaces, or what have you. Well, to speak to vomit, I started writing the poems in Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From not long after I think it was right around the inauguration in 2017. I did feel nauseous as many did about the president being inaugurated at that time. I felt a distinctly female nausea at that moment. I read a whole bunch of vomit poems and only a handful of them are in the book. [laughs] Some of them are just not great poems and I discarded them. But there is an interest in the mouth as the organ of so many functions including speech but also including intimacy, kissing, connecting, and sensing. The mouth can sense flavor but also temperature and texture. There’s a lot of sensory activity that happens in the mouth and there’s also an interest in consumption or being consumed. I think one or the other, it’s maybe in conversation with those other conversations about the margin and the center. Don Mee Choi has a great line about the margin consumes the center and becomes the center, and that eating or getting eaten I think is a theme. [laughs] In Pink Waves, there’s an eating that’s part of the performance. There’s a little gift card to a local restaurant that got left hanging by a relationship and that needed to be consumed, and I could only consume that actual thing in performance. I don’t know, the mouth is just endlessly fascinating to me because it’s vulnerable, it’s tender, it’s powerful, and it’s got so much potential to be venomous, harsh, and inflict pain through language or through speech acts while also being all these other things that are softer, kinder, and gentle. I think in Pink Waves, when I wrote that, I was feeling kicked or kicked around by some circumstance that I didn’t agree with. I was wanting to write about an injustice that I felt but I didn’t care to address the injustice directly because I just didn’t want to. I think it’s too personal and also maybe too painful because there’s an anticipation of common responses to XYZ. I’m noticing that around grief in general right now that if you’re grieving XYZ, there’s a common formula or algorithm through which people tend to interpret and judge your grief. No matter what their intention is, it just happens. There are certain kinds of loss that are hard to reconcile and there are certain kinds of content that are difficult to speak, so the writing is my mouth for me. It’s a way of talking and talking back in a way that I don’t feel I have access to otherwise.
DN: Well, thinking about a fullness and mouth for two, which you say in Pink Waves, I want to connect that to what you read of Johannes Göransson’s Transgressive Circulation for that event with Kate and also Kate’s response to it. This is roughly what you read with me transcribing from the video, so it may not be perfect. My apologies to Johannes. “Foreign texts are not just threatening because they bring foreign ideas into the target culture. They may in fact ruin the entire system of literature through sheer excess. Translation may make too many texts so that we may not be able to tell the good from the bad and thus we may not be able to sell it. Translation as a battalion engine, translation like poetry creates waste.” I love that quote. When I think of you choosing these lines to highlight about excess and waste, and maybe the system being broken by too many texts, I also think about the multilingualisms in your texts, too many tongues in the mouth, but I think about how your texts also have too many translators and I think how the translators are too present and apparent. I think about Kate Briggs’ comments about how, with any translation, there’s too much in the sense that there are too many bodies between the text and the reader. That the translator’s body, even in the most normative sense, is seen as an intrusion between the reader and the experience rather than as a conduit. Perhaps this is why publishers want to keep the names of translators off the cover, to not remind the reader of the mediation occurring through too many bodies. But I also think of Fred Moten’s blurb that I read at the beginning which nods to excess when he says, “Sawako Nakayasu takes the measure of the enjoyment we derive from sensing and making sense of this wasteland of bandwidth and access.” Definitely, Pink Waves feels like an endless ocean of waves. There’s one point in the poem where you once again return to the mouth saying, [“I fail like a fullness and mouth for two,”] then later in that stanza, you have the phrase, [“Incontinental embodiment.”] [laughter] I love that phrase. Continental, giving the sense of this immenseness but incontinental, an absence of control, a leakage perhaps related to this creating of waste of Johannes’ book. [laughter] But again, thinking back to “Say vomit, say gagging, say choking translation,” then this incontinental embodiment, I don’t know if this brings up anything for you.
SN: [laughs] It brings up Carolee Schneemann. [laughs] Well, we’ve talked about all these bodily fluids let’s say, and things that are spewed out of a physicality. I think about how certain artists you encounter at a young age when you don’t know anything, when you know so little about art in the world, and Carolee Schneemann gave a reading at UCSD and she lay across some benches, wriggled around, and said some things that I can’t recall at this point but that was how I discovered her was horizontally performing herself in a space of a poetry reading, then I came around to see the performance pieces that she was well known for. I forget what it was called, the scroll that comes out of her vagina and Meat Joy, kind of rolling around in these pieces of meat, and a fleshiness that I think has been a major part of my poetics, so much so that when you mention what Kate said about all these bodies that get in the way or that mediate the space between a writer coming up with the words and a reader receiving the words, there are a lot of bodies and there are a lot of bodies that the industry makes invisible. I think this actually could be what I really loved about my amateurish attempt to make film was that making film consists of so many bodies and everything I love about making a poem is made through the actual actions of people in space together. It’s a performance and it’s a documentation of a performance. But moving through all these bodies creates this shared communal sensibility that you have to communicate in order for the whole team to bring it together into that product. In poetry, you’re doing all of those things but inside your mind. It’s a performance inside the mind the way I would characterize it. I think Gabrielle Civil does some of that too in her performance writing and this is part of what really attracted me to some of the things that she does in her texts where she’s inviting you to recreate the performance inside your mind. But I also want to go back to what Johannes was saying about excess and translation making too many, and if there are too many, then the implication is that there’s no longer an authentic, there’s no longer the best, and all of those values that allow for something to be sellable or marketable fall away, then what we’re left with is ourselves, our bodies making, being, and doing art which feels utopian. It feels amateurish. It feels pleasurable and worthy of being on its own in a culture that doesn’t really value people doing things just for pleasure or without a product in mind or even just in terms of heteronormativity and the procreative purpose of being in a relationship or a marriage. That Paul Preciado book we talked about, it’s one giant manifesto for the dildo and that’s really interesting as an artificial organ of sexuality. There’s a way in which a lot of these values that feel normal, naturalized, common, and common sense in terms of translation and in terms of getting it right as if there’s one right answer is all in conversation, and pointing to similar things.
DN: Well, my last question which is a question we’re not going to, I know we have a time constraint, we’re not going to have time to answer but it’s fitting that we’re not going to have an answer to it because my question is about silence and it’s about biting one’s tongue and refusal. Because I think about Caroline Bergvall in the PoemTalk, about you discussing, reading Some Girls in the delight for her and finding herself on the edge of what she knows, of what she can know when she comes across poems and languages that she can’t read. But even then staying with the poem, finding meanings and patterns if she stays with what she doesn’t know. I know not all readers are going to be Caroline Bergvall, of course. In that book, there’s an excessive translation and excessive translators but at any given time, a given reader will be outside of a given page of that book, unable to create meaning. This isn’t so much the case in Pink Waves, though perhaps we could say the wave structure, the excessiveness of the waves, the overabundance of sources, of voices might make it so we’re washed into and out of meaning in this book too. But I also think of Don Mee Choi’s poetics of refusal, of refusing to translate with regards to certain things too. I know we’re going to refuse to talk about this.
SN: But I want to answer.
DN: Do you want to answer? [laughter]
SN: I want to say something. I don’t know if this is directly about silence but I was thinking about how Pink Waves tries to or attempts to make meaning emerge out of its own repetitions and reconfigurations. There are three parts to it. It’s in this ABA format where there are three sections where the second A mirrors the first A, there’s a B section where it’s taking the same materials but moving in a different direction. I’m attempting in that book to, let’s say we enter it without having anything shared, without having a shared background, story, or content but to build something together with the reader in which here come these lines, they come back again, but they’re different because they’re positioned differently. They’re different because they’re recombined over the course of the book. I’m curious about, and I think this goes back to my interest in syntax, and what can syntax hold, so what can I make with this set of content ideas let’s say, these source materials, and the syntax, and how generous or generative is the syntax when you allow that form to dictate how the language comes back and when it’s repeated, it’s not repeated in the same way. Even though it might even be the same words, it has a different resonance because of what’s before or after it, and what that does to an experience of moving through text over time. This is a book where I’m interested in what happens over the course of reading the whole book, front to back, if you were to read it in one sitting, then my hope is that it creates something a little bit akin to something you might more often experience in music where you’re hearing, I’m thinking of like large symphonic pieces, like Mahler or something where you have these motifs and the elements that come back but come back differently with different instrumentation, and what might that look like in language. Maybe I didn’t even talk about silence now. I strayed. [laughs]
DN: In anti-silence, let’s hear another little brief section from Pink Waves to go out.
SN: Okay, so this is Section A Prime.
[Sawako Nakayasu reads from Pink Waves]
DN: Thank you, Sawako. I had a great time spending all this time with you today.
SN: Thank you so much, David. I appreciate it so much.
DN: We are talking today to Sawako Nakayasu about her latest book Pink Waves from Omnidawn. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Sawako’s work at sawakonakayasu.net. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the Between the Covers Community as a supporter. One possible perk is the ever-growing bonus audio archive with supplemental material from Jorie Graham, Dionne Brand, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nikky Finney, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, Arthur Sze, Forrest Gander, and many others. This is just one possible reason to join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Join our brainstorm of future guests, receive the supplementary resources with each conversation, and choose from a wide variety of other potential enticements, whether becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to any number of gifts and collectibles from past guests, from out-of-print chapbooks by Ursula K. Le Guin to writing consultations to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweentheccovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.