Like many readers around the world, I have always been attracted to Japanese culture. Whilst my son pores over Pokémon comics, I glance up at my bookshelves in the next room and can see novels by Murakami, Kawabata, Yoshimoto. Two of my favourite novels of the last year were Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, and Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, translated by Stephen Snyder.
And of course, as a poet, how could I not love the haiku? It is perhaps the most beloved form in the world, for its technical precision and brevity; its seasonal feeling; its ability to capture a moment like a photograph or, as Masaoka Shiki called it, a form of ‘verbal sketching’. Basho memorably asked: ‘Is there any good in saying everything?’ and the idea of poetry as ‘the half-said thing’ is one of the most influential in the artform’s history. Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson and Issa (Bloodaxe, 2013) is one of my most beloved books, pressed into the hands of my students, its images imprinted in my memory. I have often repeated Issa’s haiku to arachnids:
Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
The first winter rain always makes me think of Basho’s monkey who ‘seems to want a raincoat’; the Spring of his cherry blossoms falling ‘in the salads, the soup, everywhere.’
Embarrassingly though, when I began my editorship at Modern Poetry in Translation I realised I knew almost nothing about contemporary Japanese poetry, so decided this was something I needed to remedy with a Japanese focus. My research began when I came across an article on Chika Sagawa, Japan’s first female Modernist poet, who died of stomach cancer in 1936 at the age of only 24. I was absolutely blown away by her Collected Poems, translated by Sawako Nakayasu (Canarium Books, 2015), which feel both precise and disorientating, with their astonishing opening lines: ‘Insects multiplied with the speed of an electric current’; ‘Seasons change their gloves’; ‘In the morning I see several friends escaping from the window’; ‘Dreams are severed fruit’; ‘With all of my ears | I listen’; ‘Night eats colour’. Sawako Nakayasu is, I have since discovered, also a thrilling poet in her own right, experimenting with translations and ‘anti-translations’, who I am very pleased to include in this issue.
My education continued when Vahni Capildeo kindly brought a book back from Australia for us, the landmark anthology Poet to Poet: Contemporary Women Poets from Japan, edited by Rina Kikuchi and Jen Crawford (Recent Work Press, 2018), which Jennifer Lee Tsai reviewed in these pages, and which introduced me to poets such as the extraordinary Hiromi Ito, whose Killing Kanoko/Wild Grass on the Riverbank has just been published by Tilted Axis Press, translated by Jeffrey Angles. Since then we have been given advice and help by Junko Takekawa at Japan Foundation and translators like Andrew Houwen and Polly Barton, as well as support from the Japan Society and The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation. Many thanks too, of course, to all in the translation community who submitted poems to this issue.
So I am very pleased to share with you in these pages a glimpse of some of the very exciting poetry happening in Japan beyond the haiku – a starting point, I hope, for further explorations (both for our readers and myself). With the Olympics now rescheduled for next year, we hope that when the eyes of the world are on Japan, its poets will also gain some of the wider visibility they deserve.
– Clare Pollard
Read poems from this issue online
NORIKO IBARAKI, ‘CHERRY’
Translated by PETER ROBINSON and ANDREW HOUWEN
TAKUJI ŌTE, ‘PORCELAIN CROW’
Translated by JAMES GARZA
CHŪYA NAKAHARA, ‘HANGOVER’
Translated by JEFFREY ANGLES
ITSUKO ISHIKAWA,’FOR YOU’
Translated by RINA KIKUCHI and JEN CRAWFORD
SHLOMO LAUFER, ‘SHUTTING DOWN’
Translated by BETSY ROSENBERG
BEI DAO, ‘JUNE’
Translated by KIT FAN