Thomas Fink: FLUX (Buffalo, NY: BlazeVox, 2013) is a long poem of close to 90 pages that begins with prose blocks interspersed with brief verse sections in the first two pages and then includes numerous free-verse and strophic arrangements. If, perhaps, the title warns us against the imposition of any centralizing interpretive gesture on the text’s flow, I’d still like to ask what strategies you developed in the process of composition for creating continuities and discontinuities.
Jane Joritz-Nakagawa: That’s a great question, Tom. The book started as separate poems including a serial poem titled “Blank City” and others and a minimalistic fiction piece titled “invisible bodies”. But as I was working on the pieces I was aware of connections even if distant between the individual poems I was writing and publishing separately in journals and anthologies. While working on that book a number of events occurred including the Fukushima nuclear and Tohoku earthquake disasters and the Wall Street crisis/”Lehman shock” as it’s called in Japan. As I was almost finishing the book, I decided at the very end to add the brief preface you find at the beginning. I wanted to remind readers via the preface that I live in Japan, in part because some Japanese and otherwise Asian elements seemed too invisible to some readers abroad (as captured for example in Juliana Spahr’s comment about my earlier book incidental music being related to Western literary history, whereas commentators here found much non-western in that book as well). I wasn’t sure if the “preface” (as I refer myself to the first couple of pages) was a good idea or not but it serves a purpose. The preface also includes a mention of Trayvon Martin, that incident had just occurred as I was almost done with the book. Of course what I could not know at the time was that what happened to Mr. Martin was going to be the beginning of a very long list of other similar incidents publicized in the news since, it almost feels sickeningly prophetic to me now. I know those incidents are not new, it’s rather that their being in the news is and much has come to light since bystanders now routinely film events and police wear cameras and so on. I was looking at Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on?” album lyrics the other day because I use music in the American history course I have been teaching (I am now on official leave of absence due to health reasons) and noticed “trigger happy” police is in one of his songs, that’s the 70s. It all reminds me too of Claude McKay’s earlier poem “The Lynching” and that earlier part of US history which I also taught my students (we begin the course with Columbus and move forward….)
In any case “Blank City” is a series of prose like blocks much of which in my own mind are told in the voice of a young self-medicating white male blond TV newscaster who is a little like the main character of the Hollywood film “Network” but younger and quieter and who looks physically like a white guy whose photo you’d find on a Tokyo subway encouraging young women to take English lessons at the language school where he presumably works (tho of course just a male model).
I reworked a lot of the poetry to fit the book however. For example a lot of “Blank City” is unchanged but rather than continuous blocks there is some interspersion of haiku-esque fragments that are not haiku but where the arrangement is motivated by the concept of haibun, though it is not haibun either.
I did want the book to “fluctuate” in its own way as a unit. I spent a lot of time thinking about the sequence and arranging and editing and visual appearance of each page and so forth.
Some other parts were adapted from two electronic chapbooks that had been written together with visual artwork of photographer Alexis Alvarez, the slightly revised text of a broadside, and other poems that appeared here and there.
Pam Brown wrote a wonderful review of FLUX (published online in Plumwood Mountain). I think she understood very clearly what I was after, what the goals of that book were.
Fink: Among other aspects of political allusiveness in the poem, I’m very interested to detect what I take to be allusions to your native land’s financial crisis of 2008 (56, 63, 64 especially) and more general passages that articulate a push-pull between the rhetoric of scarcity as rationalization for sociopolitical control—that is, deficit rhetoric—and an awareness of what the Occupy movement and Bernie Sanders demystify in their analyses of the 1%/99% relationship (28, 41, 43, 45, 47). Here is a passage that I would connect to the 2008 crisis (or farce):
collective scams leveraged to the
hilt hammer the poor. fake profits put desperation
in the air clouded by large bonuses. we hoped for a
religious apocalypse not an economic one but secret
millionaires brought restless leg syndrome to the skies
creating wage slaves and brand loyalty (56)
The array of ironic tropes, images, and abstractions marshal a critique yet tend toward too much of an ungovernable surreality (i.e. “restless leg syndrome to the skies”) to calcify into anything like a leftist treatise. As you reread such a passage that exemplifies a good portion of the political effects in FLUX, how do you think about the interplay of poeisis (imagination, play, etc.) and grim political actuality?
Joritz-Nakagawa: There is a sense of humor in many of the passages that may offset some of the grimness, of course it is very dark humor, but it’s humor typical of some of my guy pals, perhaps part of why I mostly imagine that particular voice as male, because my guy friends tend to use humor (irony) more with me in sad situations and female friends more use more straightforwardly emphatic modes of expressions, as a general rule but of course with exceptions on all sides. In any case, I guess I do feel a bit cynical about organizations having worked in many, whether those organizations be for profit or not for profit, benefits tend to go mostly to those in power, those who can best grab them. Having been here in Japan during Fukushima, almost nobody I know believed the TV news coverage especially the coverage on NHK! and it all became so bizarre, we were all cynical but in the end we were right. As far as the economic crises, of course all the stories we continue to hear now too of companies that go bankrupt and/or fire staff but the people at the top are not deprived whatsoever and take large bonuses and huge salaries. It’s shocking to me that I never hear proposals recently as far as capping salaries and bonuses or fairer rules to govern organizational behavior. Upper level managers in Japan and some professionals do quite well here but it’s very different from the level of wealth that is possible elsewhere including in the US. Who needs all that money? What is it all for? Why are any of us on the earth? I guess I’ve never been super-materialistic, I am more spiritual but without a religion per se. I believe in chance and luck. The chaos you find in FLUX I think is the chaos that I see in the world (but there is also beauty or an attempt to create some to offset what’s ugly! just as humor can offset sadness somewhat). FLUX is also aware of the troubled relationship of art and philosophy to politics I think but the book is no wiser than I am! I think there are characters populating the book who are watching what is going on but aren’t convinced that they can do much more than watch. Can I myself, the author, do much more than watch? I’m not sure, but I can do a little bit I think. As I’ve said elsewhere maybe I can only or should mostly just try to change myself and my own behavior. To what extent or how I influence others, in any capacity, whether as a teacher writer friend wife etc. I can’t know for certain. Yet since it’s true that others influence me I assume there is at least unidirectionality. As far as “restless leg syndrome” it’s a common symptom of fibromyalgia (I don’t have that syndrome but have fibromyalgia). When I mention “secret” millionaires I am thinking not of course of the kind of “rigging” that Trump prates on about these days but more like about how decisions (such as in corporations or governments) are made privately that affect many people adversely publicly. The idea that Trump is the victim of anything (as he claims) makes me laugh, but darkly. FLUX was written during an interesting historic time frame but it’s still a frame of now, so it’s not, you know, dated, I assume?
Fink: It’s not at all dated. The Fukushima disaster and the crisis of 2008 should be recognized as framing present actualities.
Yes, there is the possibility of changing oneself. But I’m going to push against the global pessimism a tiny bit. Surely, dark humor works to “offset… the grimness” to some extent, but isn’t this humor also pointing to alternative perceptions that could eventually be utilized to effect change? Take these instances:
Administrators have now learned a profound
sense of scarcity and continue to be exempt (28)
… invisible enemies in imaginary
wars keep me from going to work. love becomes
increasingly porous. to screw up politics (43)
not what your computer can
do for you ask what you can do for
your internet provider (47)
amnesia of rogue nations developmentally challenged
budgets bathe in toxic sludge. (62)
Perhaps the first passage above signals that “scarcity” as used by the “administrators” is a rhetorical device, which is not to say that we aren’t running out of particular things (like oil) but that misallocation of resources by those who act as though they’re “exempt” and lack of implementation of research and development (such as the killing of the electric car in the Nixon era) are the causes whose effects are both the illusion of scarcity and a movement toward actual scarcity in various contexts. So instead of a Jeremiad, one could see the passage as a call to refuse the administrators’ rhetorical advice and carve out whatever space for change is possible.
And in the next passage, the naming of both “invisible enemies” and “imaginary/ wars” can help to release one from hegemonic consent to demonizing thought and participation on one side of something structured as a Manichean dualism.
Thirdly, the wonderful Kennedy allusion concisely performs the kind of critique of the hypnotic effects of social media culture made by Sherry Turkle, Evgeny Morozov, Nicholas Carr, and many others. Such a reminder is a prelude toward gaining more control of one’s time for reflection—for slow processing of experience—and thus debunking the notions that people must be slaves to their I-phones, etc.
My favorite passage is the last one because of its remarkable compression of different but related conceptual and imagistic motions; what a stroke of imagination to attach an evaluative/descriptive tag connected with human psychology to “budgets” and to situate “budgets” in the contexts of forgetting (or omission), state terrorism, and pollution! Again, to name this intersection of contexts is perhaps to create a pocket of resistance, if only on a microlevel.
So, Jane, is there anything to my analysis or am I being overly cheerful about all of this?
Joritz-Nakagawa: Yes, I agree with what you have just said and appreciate very much your close reading! There is always the possibility of counter-actions and those counter-actions may even produce a desirable effect, if not right away, later. Looking at the US there is much cause for sadness in terms of looking at violence and poverty and incarceration, the fact that peoples oppressed early in the history of the US are still disadvantaged (for example many native Americans and African Americans, many women and persons with disabilities etc.) but there has always been fighting back too, as there is now (like the Black Lives Matter movement). The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, gay rights movements etc. have led to some successes over time, tho we may intelligently wish for much more. We (everywhere in the world) still have the same or similar struggles, the book is still relevant in that way I believe too. (Incidentally I am at work as editor on an anthology of poetry and essays by women currently living in a country other than that of their birth. It is interesting that the appearance of the book is going to occur during the current so-called “migrant” crisis!) What I hear within US mass media today often scares me, e.g. repeal “Obamacare” (should it even be called that?) or repeal Roe v. Wade etc. Racism seems so much more “medatsu” (something like very obvious, very visible) since Obama’s election. Obama has been a good president and his wife also a great public figure. When I last lived in the US, as a college and grad student, I had a so called pre-existing medical condition that concerned me, I was worried about whether insurance would actually cover me, I was not a person of means, a poor college student, and it was certainly not my “fault” that I was born with a health problem; why should a sick person who may even have trouble working due to illness be punished further economically by such clauses? Japanese health care is not free but it’s affordable for most people and there are no conditions you have to meet. If you want to take out additional private insurance in Japan you can (in which case there are rules that companies set). Michael Moore tried to teach Americans through his film that other countries have free health care. The US I think should be looking more closely at how some countries offer such things as very cheap or free health care, education, and have more gender equality (as in Scandinavia) and smaller rich-poor gaps. The drug companies need to be reined in, tax codes revised etc.
We have gotten off the topic of poetry! except for of course the fact that FLUX is highly political! As far as the Japanese side, Japan has activists of course but there is also widespread apathy and often very poor voter turnout.
As far as analyzing language as part of what you call “slow processing of experience” and the role of poetry in this as well (requiring the same thing), it’s a very key part of the book as you note. So in this sense and even in other senses I don’t hold the negative view of poetry as being useless or unable to change the world; it can change you (the writer and/or reader) [as I’ve said elsewhere] which could change the world. Referring again to my US history course, I was incorporating a lot of songs and poems and in doing so, reading them with students, see how for example poems are important documents of experience, are important ways of understanding how people see events or how they feel about them. Many poems we read together for example capture the points of view of native Americans about the loss of their culture, or of African Americans or women or LGBTQ issues, etc. about specific events in history or general injustices, etc. in both subtle and less subtle ways. I interviewed Bill Berkson about his book Expect Delays in which he told me the title was a reference to the need for people to slow down, even to slow down to read and analyze the poems in his book versus look for quick fixes! Any work of art, visual or linguistic, kinesthetic, etc. can put a spotlight on issues. The fact that fewer people read poetry than watch CNN doesn’t really matter. Any conversation can potentially lead to a positive outcome. As you note issues are complicated and sound bites aren’t necessarily helpful in solving them.
Fink: I want to raise an issue pertinent to your earlier discussion of the “Blank City” section of FLUX regarding the persona being “a young self-medicating white male blond TV newscaster.” In both FLUX and Distant Landscapes (Palmyra, NY: theenk, 2015), how might the diverse formal patterns—different verse stanzas, irregular strophes, prose blocks, stepped lines (or “composition by field”)—be considered to reflect thematic, tonal, or other distinctions between the sections?
Joritz-Nakagawa: I’m nervous about what I am going to say next because it could very easily be misunderstood. The young male newscaster voice is almost like what I think of as a younger masculine side of myself, or I should say “masculine” (in terms of how I was socialized, rightly or wrongly!), but also for me a distinct character who is not me exactly, but like some people I know (guys I know) but then made into the poster boy stereotype that I explained earlier! Perhaps created in my mind in order to keep “his” dialogue/monologue going…. I feel more like the quieter voices that are interspersed or the fragments below the prose blocks are in a more “feminine” (soft and tentative) voice (v. the wisecracking voice! who gets to speak because he has a job on tv) and the more tentative-sounding prose blocks, the more spiritual and less material. In any case I don’t see a strict dualism or separation (there are flows, intertwinings….) but I do feel like I’ve integrated more than one voice/character into the Blank City parts and then further characters into other parts of the book. Overall I do think a lot of my poems come to me like in the voices of characters who aren’t really me yet they perhaps have some close relation to me (I know nothing about acting but now I’m thinking of actors who say they can only play characters that they have within themselves! But as I said I also base characters on people I know well who aren’t me). There is a young female character who appears on pages 75-84; she is in part based on a younger version of myself but is not me or even the younger me entirely. The poem on page 94 seems to me to be an older (than me) male voice, perhaps European, yet strangely at the same time I wrote it on the day of my father in law’s funeral and it’s deeply personal to me even though I think it’s not my own voice or even American! In fact it is very hard for me to read that poem without tears welling up because it makes me vividly recall that day, specific things that happened on that day. So, in any case, I see FLUX in large part as a book of characters trying to navigate difficult things (economic personal and sociopolitical uncertainty and trauma, untrustworthy organizations, natural disasters, etc.). Whereas FLUX is perhaps primarily about “the material world” Distant Landscapes is a more personal book about a character who is similar to me living in a forest versus the larger cityscapes and more numerous types you find in FLUX, both urbanscapes and mental landscapes which emphasize a kind of escape or wish to transcend the world. Both books dispensed with poem titles and are weavings of disparate elements that I try to make harmonize / cooperate with each other; there is a fair amount of formal and stylistic and tonal diversity etc. But Distant Landscapes is I think a quieter or more introspective and more nature-oriented book and is much more me or the me that was writing the book, a character very close to myself (my actual self v. a social self). After FLUX I wrote a chapbook titled wildblacklake and Distant Landscapes continued some of what I was experimenting with in that chapbook, a kind of minimalism that owes much to haikuesque poetics, much moreso than FLUX does.
Ron Silliman wrote concerning Distant Landscapes that I am more of a descriptive than metaphoric poet. I used descriptive techniques influenced especially by Japanese poets’ work but in many cases I was trying to explore rather simple metaphors or concepts such as “becoming one with nature” and so on. A lot of Distant Landscapes was written in a forest (in Nagano, Japan) tho not all of it. When I wrote FLUX I was living primarily in Aichi and when I was still a full time tenured faculty member. So it’s not so mountainous, it’s more city. As Ron wrote from my book notational (FLUX’s immediate predecessor) forward, “the territory between poem and book have blurred.” That’s absolutely correct even tho I tried to fashion each piece carefully as a piece — the parts seemingly stand on their own well as I placed pretty much all of the pieces in journals separately prior to any of those books’ publication as books.
Fink: What you are saying about Distant Landscapes representing “a wish to transcend the world” resonates with what I sift from the “flux” of the poem. In the line “world’s mystery signifying oblivion” (42), what the speaker would “transcend” is the impossibility of understanding the world’s natural processes, including its eventual dying—“collapsing universe” (49). And perhaps transcendence in this case entails acceptance of what one cannot know and movement of one’s focus to the pursuit, however difficult, of a “oneness with nature”: “to grasp a feeling of home/ of a secret reverberating self” (9); “I become the tree tho it does not become me” (10); “I marry the tree but have sex with the river” (11). What blocks union with nature is frequently poignantly evident:
one cannot enter the mind of the forest
as in a film where it’s always night and wet
if i act in a manner of which the forest approves
it could make me pathetically happy (21)
In addition, I might take “the world” to signify the collection of sociopolitical exigencies—“politics of trauma” (43) involving race, class, gender, nationality, etc.— and so “transcendence” of it through oneness with nature constitutes fulfillment. Even though political misery is not about to dissipate in the near future and even though one may continue to be active in combatting injustice, this deep satisfaction is possible, and in many cases, this actually encourages ecological meliorism. The pursuit of an enduring human love (i.e. 47-8, 51) is another avenue of transcendence.
In a poem such as this, the effort to achieve transcendence is mediated through (what else?) language, and you spotlight frequently how words are an imperfect medium for this. For example, you speak of “an operatic grammar to be found among birds and insects, but language cannot stop to find it” (10). To find this structural “truth,” words must be set aside for some unknown, and the “forest” that serves as the setting for much of the poem is later described as “encrypted” (21). A long passage from page 26 to 29 explores “gaps in our awareness” (26) due to “words” becoming “separated from meaning” (27). Thogh the speaker can insist that “words are [her] companions,” yet they are paradoxically “hidden behind/ a linguistic barrier” (29). Could you discuss, please, your emphasis on how the “alphabet” turns out to be “damaged” (28) in relation to the quest for transcendence and what informs the passages about this in Distant Landscapes?
Joritz-Nakagawa: Well, Tom, there may be little left for me to explain because you’ve already analyzed it so well, better than I could myself:-) Yes, language including my own writing of course as imperfect, as far as trying to capture the world and one’s thoughts and feelings about it in words so that generates the next poem, or thought in language (sometimes gestures seem to work better or music, etc.) where one tries again but only succeeding at best partially:-), an ongoing process that needs to be repeated! As you said the alphabet (or other orthography) can’t help us “merge” with the natural world, a desire some of us including myself often has, or at least it doesn’t work for me that way. Especially for me as far as “thought” (v. “feeling”) poetry is closer to me, more “real” or “truth-full” than “linear” prose which tends to feel much more artificial and divorced from my actual “thinking”. But even so, there is some lack, a kind of grasping/gasping/gaping…gaps! The “music” of poetry is important because it helps make up for some of the lack, but the lack continues….
In the wooded setting where much of Distant Landscapes was written and occurs I can notice personally how much pleasure and excitement seeing animals in the wild offers, but ironically and importantly the animals may not feel pleasure when they see us. The wolf population was decimated long ago so deer have proliferated there (in Yatsugatake, Minami maki mura, Nagano). Residents often see the deer as pests because they might destroy crops or kill trees by eating bark, but nobody seems to mind cute little bunnies as far as I am aware. So of course the problems between humans and the natural world are complicated. As I’ve discussed elsewhere I became a vegan maybe 7 or 8 years ago and I’m not sure whether keeping pets is a good idea (Junichiro and I currently keep none ourselves), I am certainly against using animals for sport etc. and feel pity for animals kept in horrific conditions in factory farms etc. Having said that, I am no more innocent than anybody. I’m implicated in all kinds of crimes against humanity and the non-human world I am sure by my consumer habits etc. even if I wish it were otherwise.
There is definitely for me a kind of peacefulness I experience in Nagano that I don’t experience in the city but at the same time as Susan Schultz wrote the book describes a swinging pendulum of longing to be in the society of humans at times but also to be immersed in the non-human world at other times.
I wonder at the world, I’ll never live long enough to understand it. Having recently learned I have cancer makes me hope I’ll live a lot longer the goddess willing, there is so much for me to learn yet! In my books I am trying to record something that I notice. That’s the best I can do.
Fink: I fervently hope, of course, that you receive the most effective treatment and that the cancer goes into long-term remission or is cured.
One thing I glean from your response is that the “problematization” of language is not particularly a poetic staging of poststructuralist (i.e. deconstructive) philosophical thinking but a recognition of the complexity of nature outstripping the capacity (and subjectivity) of human thought.
Turning to diurnal (Grey Books Press, 2016), we find a poem of 24 sections each consisting of seven, mostly short-lined couplets. What anchor might the title provide you as the writer and the rest of us as readers?
Joritz-Nakagawa: Tom, that’s exactly right in terms of how I see it. As far as diurnal it is a chapbook of 24 sonnets which some readers have told me feel should be read as one poem and read in order. Although that may be I did a brief reading from it in July in conjunction with some other poets (including visiting poet Steve Seidenberg who generously has donated art for the migrant women’s anthology cover!) where I jumped around a bit, selecting some of the poems but not others as there was not time to read them all, though in fact without altering their order of appearance in the book; there does seem to be something important or “inevitable” about the ordering of the works, that they form some kind of chronology.
I like the sound and appearance of the word but also chose it due to its semantics, e.g. its more archaic meaning of “daily” as a noun as in a diary or newspaper (something reported chronologically), its meaning as connected to prayer books (I’m fond of some aspects of religion and the religious e.g. morality, some paintings, philosophers such as Kierkegaard), an adjective as opposed to (opposite in meaning to) “nocturnal”; also the word I believe dates back to the Middle English period as do sonnets, the form I chose for each poem, so it seemed appropriate (as well as aesthetically appealing) to me in many ways. Furthermore, when choosing the word in the sense of “awake during the day” I was thinking of William Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”! I’m also aware that Wordsworth used the word “diurnal” (“rolled round in earth’s diurnal course”) and as I love that line and that poem, this was part of my attraction to the word too. For me there is something extremely spiritual about the chapbook but it’s difficult for me to explain and in any case that task may be better left to someone elseJ.
In Galatea Resurrects Eileen Tabios commented “Joritz-Nakagawa’s poem . . . reveals that ‘of the day’ is also actually ‘of the night’ and in-between” whereas in Cordite Keri Glastonbury wrote: “Dis-ease is at the heart of the poetry and this is a book of desolate aesthetics and daily repetitions, like ‘sweeping the sidewalk endlessly’ (23). At one point I thought that this collection might span a single day, but it is more likely a much vaster time period, a ‘system of time/with hollow doors’ (24). This is a very seasonal book, a book of Winter” (Eileen commented on the wintry cover, in terms of its color (though actually printed in three colors, silver metallic, dark grey and moss green, the first two are more wintry; Eileen may not have seen the green one), and the spindly bare branch (wintry) cover image by poet Trane DeVore; Grey Book Press’ Scott Sweeney selected this image from among others I sent him as best fitting the book). So in both reviews the reviewers picked up on the meaning of “diurnal” as being daily/of the day. I began writing the book in either a spring or summer, I think spring, and finished it in winter of the same year. Being only 24 sonnets obviously I wrote much fewer than one a day!, but I also felt while writing it that it had something very much to do with “daily repetitions” like Keri writes. I probably did not do a ton of editing on the book but I did some of course and I still tend to work in the same way I always have of letting works sit after I write them, giving myself time to go back to them later to see if I missed something that could be improved upon a bit that I might only notice after having taken a substantial break from the early draft or drafts. In addition to some editing throughout the year there was some last minute editing in part prompted by some feedback from Scott Sweeney, who is very lovely to work withJ.
Fink: Rather than any specific concatenation of thematic elements, I’m sensing that the new sonnet form—14 lines but unrhymed couplets as the pattern—as well as the sense of dailiness and tonal qualities noticed by the reviewers, make Diurnal a single long poem or at least a sonnet sequence. If I were to give the following sonnet to my students in Introduction to Poetry at LaGuardia Community College of City University of New York in Long Island City, New York, and if they had direct access to its author, they might be piqued by the sexual imagery or stunned by the reference to rape and then confused by the ecological allusions, so one of them would likely ask you to provide clues so that they could follow the movement from one line or couplet to another:
bird’s furniture wires
my eyes maybe on backwards
i’d like it maybe up the ass
scent of the dead
in the public of poetry
raping me blind
forgetting sparse oceans
in lackluster fields
moldy hospitals for souls
a botany of law
these visions such slippage (5)
How would you reply to their request?
Joritz-Nakagawa: That’s an interesting idea, to provide clues. First I’d want to know what they do see in it. I don’t usually give my own impressions of a poem used in class, if at all, until after students have given theirs. I also always tell students there is no wrong or right impression, as impressions are just that. What I do hope is that students will, if they don’t already, begin to trust their impressions and analytical abilities regarding poetry. Some students might panic and just try to find out what other people think, without even reading carefully the words of a poem, or start guessing wildly based on things outside the poem that they know about the author, or try to find an article written by somebody about a work v. trust that they might be able to read and analyze a poem themselves.
You just mentioned sex, ecology, and rape. If those were a student’s observations she or he might want to reread and see if she/he can find any possible connection between those three items, in the poem or even not directly in the poem but inferable based on something like logic, sense, or the reader’s own knowledge of the world etc. Depending on the poem and student(s) I might even suggest to some that they analyze the words in groups like analyze the adjectives (all of them) for tone etc, the nouns together etc. and then create their own patterns of association. I might stress the non-linearity of much poetry, they could even rearrange the lines and see what they come up with as far as meanings.
In Japan I frequently have students work in pairs and/or small groups to share their impressions of a poem, for them to work out what they think. Sometimes that’s a very non-threatening way, before they say anything in front of the whole class for example. There may be some differences of course with your students.
Some students might prefer rather than in words to respond with their impressions by using their body or drawing etc.
Because I love teaching I might ask you what you’d do! And incidentally I’d be happy to chat with your students I’m sure, I’m typically very accessibleJ.
Fink: I, too, use group work regularly in literature and composition courses. In my experience, with the most challenging texts (like yours and, for example, Harryette Mullen, Sheila E. Murphy, or John Ashbery’s)), students have often used the group work to throw up their hands and say uncle, though your adjective and noun exercise could prove fruitful. So, lately, with such poems, I ask the class as a whole to entertain the kinds of thoughts about connections among topoi that you’re referring to, and only after some breakthrough has been achieved—and sometimes I have to do a little tentative interpreting to break the ice—will I put them in groups.
Could you please return to the hour(s) of composition of Sonnet 5 to chart for us how the associative chains, links, or leaps of the text developed from one part to the next or, if you reordered clauses or lines, how that transpired? Of course, this is an unreasonable, unseasonable request: most poets wouldn’t often remember a process that didn’t occur recently. But I’d find it just as illuminating if you don’t remember and make everything up. Who knows: maybe the fictional version will ring truer than the actual one would.
Joritz-Nakagawa: All the poets you have mentioned have been hugely influential. But then there are so many hugely influential writers….Muse & Drudge however is in particular one of the most influential books for me, by Mullen. Ashbery was more important to me during my college years but I am sure he is still important for me. Everything and everybody is important in some way.
I like to have students first think alone before they get into groups. Because otherwise they could avoid thinking and let other group members do that for them. The important thing is, once again, to quote Bill Berkson “Expect delays.” Complicated things aren’t by nature bad things.
I did very minimal reordering of lines or overall editing (I edit less and less the longer I write because I think I write better now) during the writing of diurnal but it sometimes occurred. I only suggested that as an exercise because my work tends to be disjunctive, but this is very “natural” for me, not artificial or forced. Students might find different meanings that way. They also could try to imitate this poem themselves in a work of their own. Tho it may seem impossible to do if they think they do not understand the poem, maybe if they look at the poem from a structural point of view first, from the perspective of craft or technique, it could help some students with “difficult” poems. My work does not seem difficult to me, though it is often called that by others, incidentally.
I sometimes tell student that poetry is like music in that there are different styles and that a poet’s style might develop over time, become more complex (like Radiohead albums). And that experienced poets may be able to produce good works more quickly over time, just like jazz pianist Keith Jarrett can improvise and it will sound good (as opposed to for example if I personally started hitting piano keys at random). Whatever students are relatively more familiar with can be used to create parallels. One could also look at samples of a well known visual artist’s work over time together etc. and find progressions. Pairing art with words too of course can be of great utility in the classroom.
One poet who interviewed me said she thinks I am much more conscious of my writing process than most poets including herself, that I can recall better what was in my head as a composer during composition. I am not blessed with a great memory generally speaking however, I’m probably average. But I can remember the writing of diurnal pretty well as it is my most recent finished book. Also because it’s a sonnet sequence for me, its sequentiality may make it easier for me to remember.
It feels “wrong” to me for the author to “explain” her work in that it may encourage some idea that the author’s opinion is important. I don’t think it is.
What I see at this moment is death, sex, decay, violence (to humans and the natural world) equated with “slippage” in poetry and beyond: described as lackluster, sorry, moldy, dismissive, forgetful, stuporous, “shiny” — but I don’t (or the speaker doesn’t) trust (line 2) what my eyes see, it might only be my “visions” (last line) and of course there is also the word “blind” not to mention “stupor”! The soul is sick and thus hospitalized, but the hospitals aren’t nice (in my experience they aren’t always, and I’m not only referring to the decor but the treatment of people! And in fact they may kill you, some molds can after all even if the intent is otherwise). The poor birds are on wires reminiscent of household wires versus branches. There is a tension between “law” and “botany” or otherwise perhaps “botany” has its own laws that humans haven’t figured out yet. There is a heavy film of irony in the choice of some of the adjectives and nouns (e.g. lackluster but shiny) or other things like smelling the dead.
I understand your point about students, but I also feel teachers should not think for them but provide scaffolding if anything. Feminist students may not find it difficult to find links between sex, ecology and rape. A teacher could also provide readings outside literary history e.g. in ecofeminism, or pair this poem with something else by me or by somebody else. It’s not a secret that I have an ecofeminist perspective. Ecofeminism often links together destruction of the environment with patriarchy, masculinities theory, racism, ableism, animal rights etc., as I do. If it matters I am also the survivor of physical assault. This does not make me special, there are many such women in the world. Rape occurs in numerous of my works, both the attempted rapes I experienced as well as the actual rapes of friends and acquaintances or rapes I have heard about in the news. Sex occurs because sex occurs. Environment appears because I care about it. Anything that takes a poet’s attention can be in a poem.
Students should write their own poems revealing what takes their attention and/or matters to them. That’s more important than thinking too much about what I’ve written I believe. Though it’s nice for me if anybody bothers to read my work because poetry is a form of communication we always hope for some readers even a few. When I was teaching courses that comprised introductions to such things as American poetry, English language poetry (beyond the USA also), or comparative poetry, I always had students write poems even tho these were not creative writing courses per se. I think they may learn a lot by doing so versus just reading. I also think that I the teacher can understand a lot about what they are learning by reading their writing attempts.
Fink: I really appreciate your elaborate, cogent, often moving responses to all my questions.
Joritz-Nakagawa: Tom, I appreciate so much this opportunity!
Long-time Japan resident JANE JORITZ-NAKAGAWA is currently working on, as editor, an anthology of innovative poetry and essays by women currently living in countries other than that of their birth titled women : poetry : migration [an anthology] forthcoming in late 2016 with Theenk Books, as well as her ninth full-length volume of poetry titled <<terrain grammar>> also forthcoming, in 2017, with Theenk. Her most recent books are the chapbook diurnal published with Grey Book Press, ( http://greybookpress.com/) in early 2016, Distant Landscapes published by Theenk in 2015, the chapbook wildblacklake published in 2014 with Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press and the book FLUX published by BlazeVOX in 2013. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.
Thomas Fink has authored two books of criticism, including “A Different Sense of Power”: Problems of Community in Late-Twentieth Century U.S. Poetrry (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2001), and has co-edited two collections of criticism, including Reading the Difficulties: Dialogues with Contemporary American Innovative Poetry (U of Alabama P, 2014). The most recent of his nine books of poetry are Selected Poems & Poetic Series (Marsh Hawk P, 2016) and Joyride (Marsh Hawk, 2013). His poem, “Yinglish Strophes 9,” was selected for The Best American Poetry 2007 (Scribner’s) by Heather McHugh and David Lehman. His paintings hang in various collections. Fink is Professor of English at City University of New York—LaGuardia.