Sachiko Murakami is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Get Me Out Of Here (Talonbooks 2015). Her current project is The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer, housed at writingsohard.com. She lives in Toronto.
Carolyn Nakagawa is a Vancouver-based poet and playwright. Her poems have been published in magazines such as Room, Ricepaper, The Puritan, and EVENT (forthcoming). Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Ruby Slippers Theatre have presented readings of her plays.
Carolyn Nakagawa: I’ve been enjoying following your latest project, the blog The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer (www.writingsohard.com), in which you interview other writers about their struggles with “the writing life.” With CWILA being the context for this interview, I’m curious if gender and race play a role in how you select authors to interview, and if you think revealing the emotional costs (and other kinds of costs) of writing has different stakes for women writers and/or writers of colour. What role, if any, do these kinds of conversations have in relation to diversity in literary communities?
Sachiko Murakami: I’m very interested in speaking with people who are from marginalized or oppressed positions, those “diversity” voices who are too often the afterthought exotic ingredient in the mostly white/cishet/male dish (whether that dish is a panel, anthology, reading, or whatever). I suspect that the costs of writing for “diversity” peeps may be different than those for people from more privileged positions. Ultimately, though, whether my participants want to talk about identity is up to them. I’m trying to avoid the practice of selecting someone with diversity in mind, then forcing them to be a spokesperson for Their People’s Experience. If I ask a question about race, or gender, or sexuality, or age, et cetera (usually based on something they mention), I ask the participant if they are comfortable proceeding and offer a different avenue of discussion if they are not. I check in throughout the process of the conversation and offer the chance for us both to go in and edit our parts; nothing gets posted before we both sign off. I try to approach each conversation with care and openness, to make the conversation a safe space for sharing difficult stuff. I think this kind of work is necessary for true diversity in our community—it’s not enough to throw in the one “diversity” person and then think that’s all that needs to be done to fix the equity problem. It’s also not right to invite such people to speak only on topics of identity. We all have much work to do.
CN: I’m really interested in the contrast between the frankness of your first-person nonfiction writing in The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer and the way identity(ies), whether yours or those of other people, tend to ghost your poems—for example, in these lines from Rebuild: “If I can’t account for the woman missing from this city / (this woman, this city)”; and from the same poem: “If I can’t get anywhere from Japantown / and it isn’t neighbourly to mention it.” The identity-related absences you write around are most palpable to me when they are gendered and/or racialized, like how in Get Me Out of Here, a tweet describing a “woman in the Bejeweled pink sari […] holding a stuffed red Angry Bird” becomes a report of an “astute observation regarding [an] unconventional carry-on” that aligns the stuffed animal with potentially dangerous items. How do you think about questions of identity, particularly politicized identities, when writing?
SM: To be honest, my relationship with my own identity as a Japanese-Canadian, mixed-race person has changed a lot over the past few years. I came into writing through creative writing programs—one workshop as an undergrad at UBC, and then an MA at Concordia—neither of which, at the time, had many people of colour on faculty or in my cohort. This overwhelming whiteness reinforced the assimilation idea that had been in my head since I was nine, when I moved from East Vancouver, where I was the third-whitest person in my class (“How many other white kids are in your class?” my Japanese-Canadian aunt had asked me at the time—and that’s a whole different layer of difficulty!), to a nearly all-white suburb. The idea as a child as well as throughout my academic experience was to downplay my racial difference, to make it as a writer, not a Japanese-Canadian writer—I had this idea that I didn’t want to “play the race card” to my advantage since it “didn’t really impact me anyway,” as I told myself. Since I had never experienced jeering name-calling or overt discrimination, I assumed I had not experienced racism and thus held no authority on the subject. So I pushed my race underground and soldiered on. When it came to writing Rebuild, a book of poetry about Vancouver real estate, development, and city-building, my editor, Karl Sigler, had to point out to me that it might be interesting to explore the relationship between my Japanese-Canadian experience and BC land ownership issues (i.e. the disappearance of Japantown from the map after WWII and the seizure of JC property, which in particular forms a large part of my family’s trauma and historical narrative). So I very reluctantly wrote in that direction—although now I am glad I did. But the thing about difference is that it is there whether you acknowledge it or not. I feel like I’m moving towards integration as I acknowledge the impact of intergenerational racist trauma and racialization. I’m a bit of a slow learner, I guess.
CN: Can you speak to how that learning process shapes your approach as a writer to racialized/politicized identities that aren’t necessarily your own? For example, I’m thinking about how you’ve mentioned elsewhere that the “Vancouver Special” poems in Rebuild were created by running an original “ur-poem” through Google Translate to different languages of families you knew who lived in Vancouver Specials, and then back into English.
SM: With the Vancouver Special poems, I was looking for a way to create subtle but significant difference among the samey-samey façade. The poem was altered by the mechanics of another language the way the material facts of a house are altered by its inhabitants. The story of those inhabitants isn’t in the poems, though. I’ve always felt very uncomfortable writing from the perspective of a different identity—that was a large part of the thinking behind The Invisibility Exhibit. That book was “about” the missing and murdered women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, but I never tried to write from the perspective of a woman gone missing or write their lives, because that was not my experience and there are many qualified people who are telling those stories (cf: Lionel Shriver’s opinion on the matter of appropriation of voice). I think that kind of poetic tourism is very problematic—like a politician living in a tent city for a few days and then returning to his comfortable home to tell his story.
CN: You’re well known for your online collaborative poetry projects—from the website Project Rebuild, where you invited visitors to “renovate” a poem entitled “Vancouver Special,” to your most recent book, Get Me Out of Here, for which you took your inspiration from tweets sent to you about airports. What prompted you to start this collaborative approach to writing? And how has engaging in these kinds of projects, and/or being known for engaging in these kinds of projects, affected your views on and relationships to Canadian literary culture?
SM: First, language is shared, exchanged, traded, collaborative in nature. Second, writing is a collaborative act even if we don’t always acknowledge our writing partners. What’s the first thing we tell new writers to do? We tell them to read so they can write in conversation with the literary culture around them. We are always riffing off of, responding to, standing on the shoulders of. A writer that writes in a vacuum and contributes something entirely different, original, and unresponsive to any writing that happened before her is rare indeed.
Also, I’m more interested in the commons than the marketplace. The idea that I own a poem is a weird concept to me. It has no life until a reader comes along and we create meaning together (another collaboration). So why not invite people to use the materials of my poems for creating their own? That’s what Project Rebuild is about—taking the bricks of my poem to make something yourself. I don’t advocate for everyone just ransacking everyone else’s language, though. Sometimes crossing that divide can be an act of aggression. Project Rebuild is all about consent.
I’m always surprised by the response to my online collaborative poetry projects. People seem very enthusiastic about them and eager to participate. It makes me think maybe people want more than just another book o’ poems, that maybe we all could be trying our hands at making weird stuff happen. I keep swearing that I’m done with book-writing. Then I start writing another poem.
CN: It sounds like consent is an important part of your artistic practice—not just for Project Rebuild but also in the process you described earlier of conducting interviews for The Hardest Thing About Being a Writer. Is there a version of this consent-centred approach at play when you are writing for more traditional forms of publication as well?
SM: Going back to The Invisibility Exhibit—I was very concerned about how the families of the missing and murdered women would feel about my approach to the subject. I approached the families via a listserv (I was living in Montreal at the time, as I wrote it for my master’s thesis at Concordia) and offered to share the manuscript with anyone who was interested. If anyone had objected to any of the poems in the book or the project as a whole, I definitely would have respected that.
CN: I’ve visited the Project Rebuild website several times (and contributed a poem), and I’m always interested by how the structure, and my understanding of it, varies each time. I’ve recognized several Canadian poets among contributors; I’ve also seen poems written by people who identify themselves as part of high school English classes, and I’ve stumbled across my own. In short, you get participants in these interactive projects who are very much a part of a pre-existing literary community, and you also sometimes connect with random people. How have you found these projects and your experience of them (and feel free to speak about whichever ones you want to use to answer this question, not just Project Rebuild) behave differently when in contact with people you are already familiar with, versus people you don’t directly know?
SM: I actually have very little interaction with the people who participate in the projects—I basically set up a system for collaboration and then let the public come in and play. I try not to be too militant about how people participate in the projects, although I do get a bit control-freaky on the inside. Sometimes people do it wrong, for sure. When I Have The Body of a Man (whenihavethebodyofaman.com) was a collaborative poem I set up to run for the duration of the 2013 Queensland Poetry Festival, and one person used it as a platform to anonymously spread gossip about a participating poet. I spent half of the festival in a corner deleting the offending lines, trying to make sure the system didn’t break. Other than that debacle, I’ve tried to be minimally curatorial, which has resulted in some sprawl, some messiness, some misuse. If I ever do another one, I’ll add some kind of sign-in feature.
CN: You use your own name a few times in poems in Get Me Out of Here—e.g. “Item: Sachiko. / Stump of a gal in an imaginary airport,” or when your Twitter handle appears in the last line of one of the poems. What kind of character do you want to be—or do you want “Sachiko” to be—in your writing?
SM: I guess I want to play with the lyric speaker and that very firm lesson you receive in your first poetry workshop that the speaker is not necessarily the author. Sometimes when I’m writing I feel like the Wizard of Oz, you know, PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE SACHI BEHIND THE CURTAIN! I can’t help but insert myself into the poem. Sometimes the suspended-disbelief of the poem needs to be broken down too, and I break the fourth wall of the poem, calling attention to its poem-ness. When I say “me” or “I” or even “her” in the poem, it’s a poem-state avatar of me. It’s the me that existed in the moment of writing that poem. Even when that “I” is in a post-apocalyptic airport withdrawing from her antidepressants. That vulnerability is fine by me, unfashionable though it may be.
That’s not to say that there’s a single, stable Sachiko/me/I perspective consistent throughout the poems. The poem you reference—“Item: Sachiko”—is followed by an instruction to stop reading, look up, and name three things you see, which I do during readings—exit sign, gin and tonic, empty chair. So the “me” shifts from the me-then of the page to the me-now of the present moment, and then back again. Readers can play along, extending the me to we.
CN: I love that idea of making the poet-avatar of “me” flexible so it can migrate from the page to the reading to the audience, and how you can do that through objects in a room. I wonder how that kind of flexibility relates to the structure of Get Me Out of Here, where each poem is a response to a tweet from a real person: that is, each poem takes on a relationship with a particular person as part of its premise. I’m thinking, for example, of the poem from Heather Jessup’s tweet “The tiled koi pond is filled with lobsters,” in which the speaker “can only assume / you are a romantic” due to “knowing you are not a liar.” Do these relationships between the speaker and addressee also transform in your readings of them, like how your poet-avatar on the page becomes your present self becomes the audience/reader? In your experience, or in your imagination, how do they function in a public space when read or shown to people outside of that relationship? Do you want to bring the audience/reader into the relationship as addressee or speaker, or is there a benefit to leaving them as observers looking in from the outside?
SM: I think the poem in question, when I read it, has an epistolary feel as I am directly addressing a non-present Heather in a kind of poem-letter. Another poem that uses the direct-address strategy is “it’s not the escalator design that makes the moment beautiful for a picture, but her enthusiasm for taking the photo,” an observation from a rawlings. rawlings is my spirit-sister and dearest friend, and in this poem I recount the moment where she taught me how to make environmental field recordings, a transformational moment for me. The poem also contains lines from typical conversations that we have via our primary method of communication, Facebook Messenger (as we live on different continents), such as “are you there” or “Sorry, where was I.” The speaker in both of these poems is most definitely me, but they employ different strategies related to the level of vulnerability/emotionality present in the poems. So my vocalization of each of them is very different. Heather’s poem is much more jocular, whereas rawlings’s poem is more raw-tender. I think attending to the tone of the poem in reading is important, to not slip into default poetry-drone. I think that listening-in generates a certain pleasurable thrill of eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. But I could be wrong—I could be totally boring and alienating my reader/audience.
I think the relationship between poet-poem-addressee-audience/reader varies depending on the tone of the poem, the vulnerability of the speaker, whether or not the experience is relatable, and the force of the language. Specifically with regards to performance—pulling a poem through the body transforms it every time it is performed, depending on the physical conditions of the body on that particular day. So in performance I am always learning new things about my poems and developing new relationships with them, and the audience is part of that process. Also, the tone of the room will influence which poems I read and how I read them, how much paratextual chatter I offer, et cetera. I think it’s important to be emotionally, physically, and energetically generous with a room, as the audience is giving me the gift of its attention.
CN: It sounds like you’re describing theatre, which I guess is appropriate, since a poetry reading is another kind of live performance. I noticed there are also nods to theatrical conventions in Get Me Out of Here—one poem quotes lines from Beckett, another (“I saw a flock of gleeful, shrieking, almost-teenagers…”) culminates with an instruction for performance described as a “vocalized murmuration as incantation, as game.” This seems fitting to me because Western theatre is based on a system where text/language controls bodies via scripts, which, like poems, are literary objects; theatrical poems seem like a good way to enact the way airports control bodies. What, in your view, is the poetic literary object’s relationship to the human body more generally? Do you account for this when you are writing, and if so, how?
SM: When I get into a perfect concentrative writing-state, I become bodiless. Timespace disappears and there’s just me and the poem in conversation with each other. Because my body is somewhat difficult, this state typically lasts for no longer than 30 minutes. My body has many demands! “Feed me,” says the body. “Water me, relieve me, rest me, deal with me, deal with me, deal with me.” In my twenties, I could go much longer in writing-state as maybe my body was in better condition and certainly I routinely ignored its demands. I’ve found denying my body creates repercussions that elongate the intervals of not-writing. My challenge is to attend to my body until it is quiet enough to get to writing-state again. Sometimes everything I do for my body isn’t enough and I just have to accept that, too.
So, you see, because of my body the writing I get to do is pretty fleeting. I put a constraint of fourteen lines (or a combination of fourteen) on the poems of Get Me Out of Here because I seriously didn’t know if my writing-state would last longer than fourteen lines. So my body in this way partially determined the form of these poems.
CN: You also have many poems, especially in Rebuild and Get Me Out of Here, that focus on language on a letter-by-letter scale. For example, in a poem in Get Me Out of Here inspired by a tweet, “Nobody stands still,” you gradually collapse the first line: “I would like to move this process along a little faster” to “!wlklktmvthsprcssalngalttlefster.” How do you imagine these letters being read out loud, or “voiced” (if at all)? Is there anything like a human, lyric speaker in the letters, or is language capable of taking on its own identity outside of a real or imagined person?
SM: Bodilessness has its downsides, too—I tend to disassociate under stress, the “get me out of here” response. It’s a bit of a paradox—being bodiless in writing-state means complete presence to language, which is still not-here. That’s a concern in Get Me Out of Here as well—in the presence-practice of the three-things poem, and elsewhere, particularly in the sound and performance-oriented pieces. Attending to sound and performance is terrifying to me because it forces me into presence—reading off the page can be bodiless (I’ve attended so many disembodied readings, haven’t you?), and I try to pull the whole poem through my body as I read it. I have a poem that invites the audience to make sound together (the “we are here/are we here” poem), for example. The poem you mention, the “I would like to move this process along a little faster” poem, I’ve only done at a reading once or twice. In answer to your question as to how to read it, you read it faster and faster and then incorporate the punctuation (exclamation points eventually replace the letters) as experiences in your body. It’s pretty scary, to ask my body to do something so fast and frenetic in front of people. This language also, as you say, has its own identity independent of a human body. The best performance of this poem was by Australian artists Thomas & Kate (as Carrion Gyre) who made a video poem of it for the 2013 Queensland Poetry Festival, in which it was recited (easily and remarkably) by a robot voice. I’m interested in writing for/with nonhuman partners, so it was a real delight to hear.
CN: Both of those readings of the poem sound incredible. Thank you so much for speaking (writing?) with me!