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Jane Joritz-Nakagawa Interview


A brief excerpt from this conversation was published in Horse Less Review in 2016.  


Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of over a dozen poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Poems: New and Selected (Isobar, 2018), <<terrain grammar>> (theenk Books, 2019), and, as editor, women : poetry : migration [an anthology], also with theenk, 2017, which includes the work of 50 female poets currently living in a country other than that of their birth. She is particularly interested in poetry and essays by ex-pat writers, as well as feminist avant-garde poetries, disability poetics and ecopoetics. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com.  



Sarah Cook's poems have appeared in Illuminati Girl Gang, The Feminist Wire, and most recently, Touch the Donkey. She has an essay forthcoming in Electric Gurlesque, the second edition of the Gurlesque poetry and poetics anthology. Her newest chapbook, You're Just an Object To Me, is available online via Our Teeth Press. She helps teach kids about their local ecosystems and gets paid to inspire wonder and stewardship at




JJN: I saw that Horse Less Press is (from late October 2015) accepting chapbook submissions only from writers of color, and another series is for "no white guys.” I'm learning a lot about this issue through posts from people like Amy King on the (all female) HemPo elist, about white (male and perhaps some would add also straight and abled-bodied, etc.) domination of the poetry world. I'm also aware there is still the issue of "separate" anthologies, separate in terms of race, such as in the U.S., for example, What I Say and Black Nature, or separate in terms of gender, sexual orientation, region, poets living with disability (Beauty is a Verb) and others.


SC: Some of those articles on HemPo have been so useful to me as well! Like King's post on Literary Activism, but then *especially* the response from Wendy Trevino, Juliana Spahr, et al., which blew my mind and heart right open. I felt like they were putting into words something that I've been struggling to think through lately. Right now, I earn my income as a care-worker for adults with developmental disabilities, and for most of the clients I've worked with that includes physical disabilities as well. I've done this for over a year now and it's complex and challenging and incredible work. But I'm also a poet, a writer, a student again. I've been struggling to think through what it means to be these two different (different?) things, how and where and when they intersect, what my responsibilities are, how to be an advocate not just in my job but when I'm writing, etc. These conversations on activism and how it exists in addition to, not just within, literary work have been really helpful.


I wonder if you have a sense of activist communities that exist right now in Japan: what might be comparable to, say, our Occupy movements, our discussions of the 1%... have you been aware of any reception in Japan regarding these things, and/or the increasing concerns regarding police brutality and race politics? This is a big thing I'm asking you to comment on, I know. And I realize that in my asking, I’m lumping together wildly different issues…


JJN: Violence against and the killing of, especially, African American youth by US police officers has certainly been in the news here. We don't hear of such things happening in Japan. Japanese police don't use their guns very much. Legally, ordinary people can't own guns for self-defense purposes in Japan. Violent crime is much less common here compared to the U.S. although it occurs. Gun crime is almost non-existent. There was an article in The Atlantic in 2012  that can be found online on the latter topic if of interest. I think the article is still relevant now. Feminist, LGBTQ and persons with disabilities activists exist in Japan of course, and though many of their activities may be somewhat more below the mass media radar, relatively speaking they are not entirely invisible; good news is that two wards in Tokyo will as of Nov. 2015 issue certificates to same sex couple ward residents—these are not legally binding but are intended to help combat discrimination in such areas as hospital visitation rights and apartment renting—many here are closeted to avoid discrimination in workplaces and elsewhere. 


SC: I want to bring up the incredible anthology you mentioned, Beauty is a Verb, which I'm embarrassed to say I had not heard of. How is your conception of being a poet shaped or not shaped by physical obstacles? Are you much interested in an identity shaped by these things, or do you see them as having very little to do with the way you write? Part of what I want to ask, if this makes sense, is: what is at stake for you, in terms of thinking about the poetry world(s) you inhabit and these intersections of gender and ability; what is at stake in terms of these kinds of anthologies that bring together poets under a particular (marginalized) heading?


JJN: I am not myself a contributor to Beauty is a Verb, but I learned of it through some or another elist of poets/poetries. I was (am) very excited by it. I sought out one of its editors, Jennifer Bartlett, because I like her poetry and the anthology—we had a  conversation that was published in 2014 in Jacket2.  I share a condition with one of the anthology contributors, though based only on her contribution I'd say our experience of the condition is very different. But of course I find a sense of affinity too, and with other contributors via their essays/poetry in the anthology. Mainly I would say that being a chronic pain sufferer causes me to refrain from doing certain activities as well as causes me to choose to do others (both in order to reduce the amount of pain I am in). There are some references in poems I've written to my own health or that of other people's. It's just a part of who I am of course, just as being a poet is a part of who I am—but of course big parts in both cases. Jennifer said to me she is a person with a disability first, secondarily female or feminist; her identity as or experience of being a mother she also cited as a big influence. Beauty is a Verb contributor Kenny Fries wrote somewhere that when visiting Japan he liked being seen as a foreigner first and a person with a disability second.  In Japan I feel I am a feminist first, and an immigrant second, or that my being a woman is more limiting in a way because of the society being great in many respects (I like it here in Japan!) but still male-dominated.


We all have complicated identities. I feel that I am Japanese most of the time. When speaking English with other expats from the US however I may feel like an expat, somewhat, at those times, but with the caveat being an expat who has been here a long time which would describe the expat friends I have, I mean we are Japanized expats, long-time residents. My identity doesn't trouble me so much however. Of course, I am an immigrant. Though the phrase "Japanese American" or "Asian American" exists in English, the expression, "American Japanese" (which would be Amerika kei nihonjin) is not used here in Japan, so you are either a foreigner or you are a Japanese person as far as the local language is concerned. Many people would not agree however on what those mean, in terms of what makes a person Japanese or a foreigner here. As far as minority poets and minority poetries, I am aware mostly that as a so called avant garde or experimental poet, I am a minority among minorities (I think of experimental poetry as a non-mainstream form of poetry which is itself not very mainstream), and also as a poet who writes in English but lives in a country like Japan where English is a foreign language. I'm not part of the Japanese poetry scene because I am writing in English, and you would find more of that based in Tokyo, where I don't live.


SC: You mentioned that most of your friends in Japan are not interested in poetry, so I'm curious how you satisfy a need for a poetic community where you're currently living, or if that's a need that has subsided since living in Japan, or that you ever even felt to begin with? Do you feel plugged in to any particular communities of writers here in America, or elsewhere? What about poetry readings you've attended or participated in abroad?


JJN: Not particularly or exclusively the U.S. My contact is mostly through email. I do know some poets living in Japan but not many in my immediate community or communities (I divide my time between a small city and a remote mountain region, both in central Japan). Most of my close friends like neither English nor poetry, I mean the people I interact with frequently face to face in my daily life. I live in the sticks (that describes all of central Japan! Though some parts more so than others—some would describe all of Japan other than Tokyo this way).


What about you? About your own poetry community?


SC: My experiences of poetry communities have largely been shaped by academia. Insular, prescriptive, competitive. I feel like "academic community" doesn't count as Community (is an oxymoron, even) and yet I know that's not necessarily everyone's experiences of academia and/or their main framework for thinking about community.


I guess as an undergrad at a small liberal arts college, I did feel more of a sense of community between myself and other writers/poets, and there were many events and activities that happened outside the classroom space, and some sense of interaction/dialogue between those of us on campus and those of us who weren't.


As a grad student, I thought I'd find even more of a sense of belonging and community, given that I was entering a space even more wholly invested in and dedicated to writing and books and poetry; how could it not be a space in which I'd feel greater senses of belonging? Instead, I found that the divide between any sense of local community and what was going on on campus was so large. Local writers and artists never seemed to be a part of readings on campus, for example. And I don't mean they weren't interested, I mean they weren't invited. Campus, and the classroom itself, felt cut off from any sense of real life, any dynamic sense of what it means to exist in the world outside an English department.


Perhaps communities, in the best sense of that word, can't just revolve around one particular thing—one interest or way of being or skill/calling. And so to seek out community is necessarily to seek out more than just people who share my interests. Maybe community can't be qualified—e.g. poetry community—or else you're already moving away from the thing itself?


I might be making too many generalizations, not just in terms of what other people experience but even for myself: maybe tomorrow, in a real good mood, I'll say something more hopeful. But these impulsive responses do exist in me, and I do think about them at length. I mean, AWP—perhaps the one opportunity I encountered throughout higher ed. that felt like a chance for greater and more "diverse" socializing—is one big non-community embarrassment, it’s entirely disappointing and yucky. You get all these people with these shared interests in the same space, but it still revolves around who has the money to even be there in the first place, who's being published and with what big, bigger, biggest presses, who has an agenda that AWP approves of, etc.


I think, with some of my recent luck in landing better jobs, and getting closer to living in the city in which my partner and I want to be in, I do have a lovely growing sense of community. But it's not a poetry one.


JJN: Two American poets recently said to me that I may be lucky to be far away from the fighting and factionalism that goes on in the US sometimes! I think there may be both advantages and disadvantages certainly. Especially maybe in the artistic freedom I have and the access to many kinds of poetry—


One American poet in a conversation published online recently talked about publishers seemingly trying to size poets up based on the # of copies of books they think they could sell v. the quality of the work. It’s certainly true. I’ve had books accepted for publication or considered for publication from overseas publishers who did not realize I live in Japan. Once they learned this they backed out saying they feared they would not be able to move the books. Even though they could let me do that here myself for example but—you know, nobody does this for money and I think publishers should focus on publishing the best work, period.  I think I’ve done OK moving books even while being here. My most recent chapbook sold out quickly and went into a 2nd printing already, for example, though I did not go abroad personally to promote it. Due to social media where you live matters less and less I think.


Even so, perhaps finding people to work with can be difficult. Doing your own thing, making a publisher or a conference or organizing a reading yourself, sometimes that’s the best way or even the only way maybe. Most of the people I’ve worked with have been great of course, including poets in the U.S. who run presses, journals or share information with me. The process should be fun, I mean we aren’t being paid for it! 


SC: You mentioned that, stylistically, you were finding some similarities between your work and that of some Asian American female poets. Can you say more about this, and perhaps how it does or does not surprise you?


JJN: Part of it came out of comparisons other people were making. I've been compared to poets whose work I'd not actually read, though after hearing the comment I went and checked out the work. There seems to be some similarities aesthetically speaking between some aspects of Japanese and Korean cultures including pop culture and contemporary poetry. I think these things make their way into my work. It's not necessarily a conscious process. I've also been compared to British poets. I've never lived in the UK, however. But I do read widely, I mean as far as poetry is concerned. I suppose writers whose work has a connection to Asia may feel close to me, but it would not only be that. It has a lot to do with style and outlook. When I think about the poets whose work has influenced me, that's such a large group that naming names seems silly.  


But there is a kind of eclecticism in my work.  To give a really simple example, Eileen Tabios wrote a brief review of diurnal in which she quotes lines like “bullets in shopping malls” (from an incident in the US, not here in Japan where people don’t have guns!) as well as “empty shrine” (Japan is dotted with Shinto shrines of course). Japanese resident, poet and poetry translator Taylor Mignon wrote a review of wildblacklake in which he notes Japanese references like “festival of dolls” and “wisteria calligraphy” as well as how overall the discrete elements that make up that chapbook-length poem are influenced by haiku aesthetics but instead of syllables I use words for the meter.


SC: What prompted you to move to Japan?


JJN: I moved to Japan for many reasons but one reason was over-riding: I was not satisfied with my thinking. I wanted to broaden it.


SC: That’s beautiful! How long have you been in Japan and what has that process looked like for you, this expansion of your thinking? Why Japan specifically—you mentioned (in a private email) being generally interested in diverse neighborhoods of Chicago while you were still living in the US; was it a long process to decide where you wanted to go abroad? Did you know you wanted to leave the US before you knew Japan was your destination? And do you ever consider moving elsewhere, whether abroad or returning home? Wait: what is your relationship to "home"?


JJN: These are such great questions, Sarah! I moved to Japan in the fall of 1989. I had grown up in a white middle class suburb of Chicago but as soon as I graduated from high school fled to Chicago (alone at the age of seventeen) because I did not want to be surrounded only by white middle class people. I was aware of racism sexism and homophobia in the community and wanted to get away from that as well. I couldn't wait to leave. I chose to live in neighborhoods in Chicago where I would be a minority—for example, neighborhoods which were chiefly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking (I had studied French in school, not Spanish!); an African American neighborhood; an LGBTQ neighborhood (at the time I assumed I was straight in any case); a neighborhood of recent European immigrants who brought "old country" languages, ways and foods with them; and so on. There were other communities too which probably developed further after I left, like where people from Vietnam or India were congregating, and of course long standing neighborhoods too like Chinatown, Greek town, Little Italy, etc. I visited a Chinese herbal medicine doctor in Chinatown recommended by an ESL teacher. He spoke no English so his daughter would translate. I thought that was so cool. In grad school I met lots of xenophiles in the form of ESL teachers who were studying to improve their job qualifications.


As an undergraduate I hung out with foreign students, and one of my favorite professors was from India; he taught Asian history and it was clear to me his perspective was quite different from my other professors (less pro-US!). I also got a chance to teach ESL, both as an undergrad and as a graduate student TA. It was exciting for me to have foreign students be my pupils; I could learn many things from them, it was fascinating. I loved it actually. And I brought my love of literature to them. You hear talk about “exoticism” of foreigners and while that is a problem for sure, xenophilia may start with curiosity and interest but perhaps can move beyond exoticism by getting to know people intimately.


I decided midway thru grad school to move to Japan. Many factors converged. I had done some reading (in the field of sociolinguistics primarily) about Japanese communication behaviors and was quite intrigued as I got the idea that Japanese followed very different rules in verbal/social interactions. I thought I would learn so much from this. I figured I would study this more once I got to Japan. Also, I had students from Japan, not many but a few—a grad student at Univ. of Illinois Chicago, and some more at Harvard where I interned as a TESOL teacher, and a fellow grad student in the Univ. of IL Linguistics program had returned from a teaching stint in Japan and had loved it, and so on.


My life after arriving in Japan was different than I expected. Not better nor worse, just different. Interestingly, other than the sociolinguistic research which was accurate, most of what I had read about Japan turned out to be wrong! I currently have no plans to leave Japan. I'm quite content here and I have a Japanese husband, mother-in-law and sister-in-law (we lost father-in-law a few years ago). 


SC: Can you talk a little about your interest in ecopoetics? I'm curious too if that interest developed more or differently after moving to Japan, or if it was something you largely brought with you, so to say.


JJN: I think Alice Notley said her interest in environmentalism happened as she was on a plane leaving the USA about to live in another country. Mine occurred after moving to Japan. I am very happy to know that ecopoetics is of interest to a lot of poets currently in various countries. I can't explain why it happened except that Japan is a beautiful mountainous country, and living in a foreign country throws many different things into relief, and Junichiro (who I met here) must have played a role in introducing me to various mountain places that he liked as well as to some more frugal lifestyle habits. For example, electricity is expensive in Japan so people are careful with it. Most people don’t have central heat and central A/C in their homes; I realize many people don’t in the US too but even middle class and well off people may not have this in Japan. People almost always hang their clothes outside to dry versus using electric dryers. We use the backside of calendar paper and advertising flyers as memo paper. We are required by city and town ordinances to separate garbage carefully for recycling. And so on. But when I first moved here I noticed destructive and ugly things too, like concrete-walled rivers. I'm lucky now that I can spend part of the year in a relatively unspoiled mountain area. But even here in the city (a small city) I try to enjoy what nature there is.


I was interested in animal rights before I moved to Japan. Fortunately, health concerns pushed me towards veganism, something I had always wanted to be/try—I was a lacto ovo vegetarian pretty much from the time I left home at 17 years old or not long after, and have been a vegan for the past seven years or more, approximately. Vegetarianism and veganism are not popular in Japan, however. Veganism was good for my physical health and I had always wanted to do it for sociopolitical reasons. The first year was hard though. Now I’m used to it and like being vegan quite a lot.


SC: And to step back a bit: if somebody without any poetic background asked you what ecopoetics is, how would you define it for or explain it to them? What would you find meaningful to say to them, given a lack of context?


JJN: That’s a fabulous question, and I am going to begin by complaining a little that most of the recent wonderful ecopoetry and ecopoetics anthologies in English that I am aware of also appear to be regional / national (and one, titled Black Nature, I’ve assumed was a response to their relative whiteness). But why? We share a globe. One I contributed poetry to myself, non-regional because published in the UK but allowing me in Japan to contribute work to it, is Entanglements: New Ecopoetry (Two Ravens Press, 2012). This anthology received a brief review Plumwood Mountain, and I might refer somebody without any poetic background to this review and some other wonderful things on the Plumwood Mountain website. The review mentions that Entanglements’ contributors are white and euro-western; tho I am white I reject the latter label because I don’t see myself as euro-western. I live in the East and have for some time. I’m not simply “passing through.” My contribution, two poems, are set in Japan. Here we have a problem with many people including myself, tho I am hardly the only one!, who might be both western and eastern. Again, the binary systems rarely work out well—they seem good because they relieve you of difficult thinking, but there’s the law of excluded middle, there’s the fact that identities can be fluid messy shifting and hybrid / doubled / tripled etc. for many of us. It also quotes somebody saying that ecopoetry is primarily a Western movement. I don’t agree with that either. A world ecopoetics anthology would be a great thing to have. I think the anthology I am editing now will have some connection to this idea of world ecopoetics because the submitters are coming from a variety of places geographically and cross-culturally.


As far as the definition of ecopoetry/ecopoetics, there are various competing ones of course and some ideas are contained in the aforementioned review. One interesting definition is Marcella Durand’s, in The Ecolanguage Reader, where she writes:


Ecological poetry is much like ecological living—it recycles materials, functions with an intense awareness of space, seeks an equality of value between all living and unliving things, explores multiple perspectives as an attempt to subvert the dominant paradigms of mono-perception, consumption and hierarchy, and utilizes powers of concentration to increase lucidity and attain a more transparent, less anthropocentric mode of existence.


That’s a very tall order! I think ecopoetry/ecopoetics ponders the relationship between (and I wish among) humans and nonhumans on our planet and perhaps other planets. Durand mentions “multiple perspectives”—I feel this is a very crucial issue, including imagined and imaginary perspectives. There are some good recent books about ecofeminism, defining what ecofeminism might mean, that I think could also shed light on the kind of ecopoetics that interests me because I think ecopoetics and ecopoetry cannot ignore patriarchy’s role in ecological destruction and oppression (of the living and nonliving) and still be meaningful or useful. Because I see the current important issues not just as anthropocentric but as anthrophallocentric and racist/ethnocentric/ableist/heteronormative (and I’m leaving out stuff too, of course, such as religious intolerance, though it’s related to phallocentrism). I am also essentially a Marxist. So part of taking different perspectives is obviously cultural among humans, though going beyond that.


SC: I was just about to ask more about the anthology you’re editing. Can you talk a little about the logistics of this project: where the impetus came from, how long it's been in the making? Are there other editors you are collaborating with or is it still mostly a solo project (besides the contributors, of course, and those whom you're seeking recommendations or advice from)? 


JJN: Thanks for asking! I have had the idea for a while, now, of trying to put together an anthology by poets who are living in a country that is not the place where they were born or grew up. I mentioned it to a few people who strongly encouraged me to do it. I decided to expand it to not just poets who chose to live someplace else but to any accomplished and innovative woman poet who is living somewhere other than where she was born. Whether this occurred because she chose it or not (for example, she could have been born abroad but moved elsewhere as a baby or child due to parental decisions, including via adoption) I decided did not matter. In fact, I came to think that the diversity of how each of us came to be living in a country other than that of our birth could be an interesting part of the overall diversity of the anthology. So I ended up making three criteria for submission: a very good female poet; the work can be called innovative / avant garde / experimental / adventurous; and she is living in a country other than her birth country or at least at the time of submitting work to me (realizing that people are mobile!). As far as the "writing in English" part, I decided this could be flexible, that translations could be submitted so long as the translator and poet were interested of course.  I began the work in summer of 2015. I’m the sole editor but the publisher is going to give input also, which is of course very important.  I’ve consulted with many people however in the past year, many poets who are experienced with this sort of thing who gave me valuable advice.  Many of the contributors also gave me ideas or let me hash out things with them. So you know it will be the result of many heads together in the end.  In any case the diversity is so intricate because of the contributors being different ages, coming from different birth countries with different literary perspectives, other kinds of overlapping identities not directly related to migration, and so forth.  It’s quite exciting! Theenk and I can’t wait to share it.


Sarah, change I switch topics by asking you:  how did you come to study the Japanese language? I want to know how you see yourself as a poet-activist, including as related perhaps to the work you do as a CSP, and other identities. I'd very much like to hear your thoughts on the identity issue vis-à-vis poetry as well as learn more about your connection to Japan.


SC: I watched one of my close friends study the language to fluency, and through the process of hearing him speak it and seeing his progress, I just became so mesmerized by the sounds of the language that I decided to study it, too. At this point I have about 3 and a half years of college-level study behind me, plus solo studying I’ve done outside school. I was lucky enough to visit Japan once in 2010―just for two weeks, but it was enough to make it really clear that I want to go back in some capacity. I’m the kind of person who falls into this bad habit, though, of feeling like my different interests are competing for my time, and so I have a hard time balancing language-study (which takes so much consistent dedication) with writing and all my other projects and activities.


In terms of work, activism and writing, this navigation has been on my mind a lot lately: I literally advocate for my clients in my current job, and then I go home and change my work clothes and find myself wondering about the compartmentalizing that happens, wondering about the work I'm accomplishing when I’m just at home, reading and writing poems. I mean, do I take off my Advocate hat in order to put on my Poet one? I’m honestly not sure. I think it’s useful―and those Poetry Foundation articles have really helped my thinking here―to remember that advocacy work is work, not just poem-making—a different kind of work— but that this doesn’t mean both aren't necessary and important. I recently revisited this interview with Maggie Nelson (from The Believer) where she says:


The words “hope” and “despair” are words that are often associated with the poetic enterprise, but I don’t think the hope/despair dichotomy is a fruitful one for me at the moment. The people who I like reading make me feel okay about being in a different spot from that―they make me feel like it’s good to be alive, and to stay committed to charting what comes down the river, and bearing witness to all this, and to imagining other spaces, and finding psychic openings that make life seem bigger than the smallness it can get boiled down into by various forces.


I found so much relief in that. Like, OK, I’m not a bad person if I sometimes need to just write the things that help me feel some semblance of ability and focus and self-worth, that allow me to be the person I am so that I can get up in the morning and go do hard, emotionally-challenging advocacy work. Maybe it’s only compartmentalizing on the surface of things, and deep down, reading Barthes in bed at night and snuggling with my cats, or publishing poems in small journals, has everything to do with what I can go out into the world and accomplish the next morning.


I do identify first and foremost as a poet, though one thing that I find so funny is navigating a sense of embarrassment that comes with that. Especially outside academia/poetry communities. It feels like it’s a much different risk to tell someone, for example, that I’m a poet, versus to just say that I’m a writer. Or even that “I write.” And perhaps that’s a risk that’s only born of privilege―I get to think of myself mostly as "unmarked,” and find myself with the luxury of such privileged embarrassments to begin with. I think it’s crucial to think about how to push back against those systems of marking, and I really do think, for me, the poem is a place for thinking through such stuff. Whether the poem “does” activist work or just allows a particular kind of space in which I can make sense of such work a tiny bit more, to ask questions and hopefully generate even better questions in the process. That was a huge thing for me to realize about my own writing, and it happened sometime during grad school: that poems for me are spaces for thinking through, for circling back around things, for grappling.


JJN:  I understand and it’s important we consider poetry as important regardless of what others may think about it. And I think everybody I know has a problem of too many things competing for their time and finding a sort of balance difficult.  Mairead Byrne has a great poem (see my short essay in The Argotist Online about her collected poems) called “The Russian Week” in which weeks are contained within other weeks in order to give her enough time to do everything she needs to do.


Moving to Japan re-awakened or intensified my feminism because it helped me begin to see more clearly how global the oppression of women is, starting with my experiences in the US, then in Japan (my own and that of women here) and then via reading and so on in other countries. I have come to think of poetry as academics, as art, and as advocacy. Poetry is a type of communication. It could even be a form of love. A form of thinking? Sure, why not. It is for me. Juliana Spahr wrote that poetry helps her think. Sure, me too. 


My mom was a full time homemaker like the other moms were back in the 70s where I grew up.  My mom’s era was Plath’s era, one of the many reasons why maybe Plath resonates with me and why I ended up doing some speeches in Japan on Plath and then writing a monograph focusing on that era, Plath and others in connection with the Hollywood film Black Swan which recalls the era for me.


Looking at your recent poetry, do you easily identify sociopolitical concerns in it or other types of connections with the rest of your life? Perhaps that is part of the "wholeness" of being both a CSP and a poet? Even if being a poet may seem "selfish," if you share the work with other people it's not just for you. If everybody decided to stop writing poetry because it's "selfish" then there wouldn't be any to read. That would be grim. Bowie, RIP, said, I think, "Life without art would be intolerable." It may seem luxurious in a sense to crave the next poem, after hearing a news report that people in South Sudan are eating grass as they have nothing else to eat (recently in the news). We must care about this, and perhaps it is difficult to now shift back to poetry. But since this is an interview about poetry I will now quote Megan Simpson who wrote:


Poetry is neither a luxurious entertainment or pastime, nor a wholly subjective self-expression valuable only to the writer; poetry is a mode of knowing and of exploring cultural and ideological processes of knowing.


I am enjoying getting to know your poetry. It's a gift—it's volunteer work—I mean we are not being paid to write poems!


SC: That means a lot to me, Jane. I’d like to ask a question about one of your recent chapbooks, Wild Black Lake (Hank’s Original Loose Gravel Press, 2014). In it, there is a lingering and haunting sense of loneliness, of emptiness, with references to stillness, silence, a void that is (trying to be) filled. But there's not necessarily a lack of interactions, both with people and nature. I wondered if you could speak a little to this notion of the "cancelled self," and how erasure or lack or emptiness relates to your writing process. I have this sense of a loneliness without necessarily being alone when I read this chapbook, and I'm interested in how this relates to one's writing identity. Maybe I am curious about the intersection between a lack of self and a lonely self, and how that’s navigated in these poems. You write, "in rooms we exchange air for air," and I'm aware simultaneously of the intensity of sharing intimate space with others as well as an inscrutable distance. 


JJN: Thanks for these great observations. I was thinking of breath, but Pam Brown mentions air conditioning which was also an idea (in her review: There does appear to be a kind of stillness to the book and I think, as you note, the "emptiness" is variegated, can be construed as both or as alternately sad, lonely, though a solitary state is of course conducive to writing and thought but also in a more Buddhist sense of emptiness would have more positive connotations. I think I had all this in mind, as well as other things. The spaces between words, the white space of a poem on a page, the white space of a painting, pauses in a conversation, these as meaningful too of course, of what arises from emptiness or emptied space, etc. A conversation I had with Eric Selland, in The Conversant, touches on "emptying.”  Eileen mentioned in her review of diurnal that the poetry has a “twilight sensibility” and that "’of the day’ is also actually ‘of the night’ and in-between; maybe there is a similar dark-and-light feel to wildblacklake though there are many differences of course between these two chapbook length poems. As far as ancelled self, it maybe comes from my feeling of being a woman in the patriarchal world, especially, I think less so as an exile, or I feel more exiled due to my gender as I’ve said I mean, though it’s part of my daily life to overcome that or strategize around it I think. I agree with you that human relationships are a chief concern of mine in the book (as well as of course the relationship to people and the nonhuman world including animals and plants which are also depicted obviously). Perhaps there is also a bit of humor in wildblacklake, e.g. I call the mind "a rosy contraption," "cancelled self" becomes "colorful glitch" and so on, though some parts of course may appear more tragic (?!) to some readers, irony may be a kind of defusing.


My friend Marcus, whose artwork is on the cover of Distant Landscapes as well as appears in two other projects I've done recently, noted that the book began for him with imagining death (Pam notes this too when she mentions “giving up”)—a sinking into a murky ocean where you cannot quite see through to the bottom, and later there are references to such things as spiritual death in the book. "Wild black lake" appears as "wide black ocean" on page one, "wild black lack" on page nine and "weird black lake" on page 19. "Black" of course is the color of funeral attire in both the US and Japan, associated with "dirt" versus the alleged purity of "white" and so on, with "night" as opposed to "day," etc. Since we began this discussion with a mention of white privilege in the poetry world, I want to emphasize that I am sensitive to the issue of color, including my use of words like "black" or "dark" in poems, a complicated and troubling issue. I want to examine stereotypes without supporting them—they are worth examining, they are still out there. But when I used "black" I meant in the sense of night, like Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night", in the sense of reduced visibility (at night), like looking at a lake in the dark, as the limitations of human intelligence and perception is a theme of the chapbook. No one has really asked me about the title very much, but I did and do want to "problematize" the use of "black."


I've veered off your question a bit!, because I feel I need to explain the title of the chapbook.  I don't want to be mistaken for a stupid white woman who knows nothing, a white imperialist, etc. I have a lot to learn of course. I want to keep learning (and unlearning). We are all flawed human beings. None of us has a perfect body or brain.  A feminist LGBTQ activist I met some years back told me she found it hard to criticize anybody because she has so many flaws herself. I feel this way too. I'd like to criticize racism and sexism, for example, but I suffer from these too, I mean we can only try to deal with these things. Trying is a beginning. It's better than denying these things exist, or denying that they exist within us, or saying they don't matter. I want to criticize racism, sexism and ableism but without really criticizing people if I can. Because I’m as flawed as the next person. But I want to be better, I want to fight against rigidity in myself, and I want to continue to learn and to make friendships with many people.


copyright © Jane Joritz-Nakagawa & Sarah Cook