Snapshot: Sawako Nakayasu

Interview by Steven Karl

Insect Country (A) and Insect Country (B) are very ant-centric, so let’s talk about ants — did you have a fascination with them as a child, perhaps a proud owner of an ant farm, or did they just appear in a poem?

I had always wanted an ant farm as a child – but never got to have one. (I did try to make my own, which failed miserably.) This is probably how it all got started…aren’t all our desires based on what we didn’t or couldn’t have as children? Anyway, I did always like ants, and insects in general – I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, often climbing trees, and insects were always around. In editing my two most recent books (Hurry Home Honey and Texture Notes), I saw that there were ants in those books too, so they’ve been on my mind for some time now. As for formally incorporating them into my writings, I credit John Granger, who taught an introductory non-fiction writing course my sophomore year at UCSD, in which one of the assignments was to write about ants. And – I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but my time in Tokyo probably contributed to this ant-sensibility I’ve developed. When you find yourself shuffling along massive daily crowds of black-headed creatures moving at industrial rates, all utilizing some kind of internal logic that keeps everyone moving forward while avoiding collisions, it’s hard not to feel like an ant.

I’ve also always found collective energies really fascinating too, like when I used to go to concerts when I was younger – in those giant American stadiums – I loved the thought of being with so many people who were interested in the same music, being so in love with the moment and the music – but then again some very atrocious things can take place via collective masses of human energy too, so I can’t really advocate for it, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to me. I remember something Endo Shusaku once wrote, about how he couldn’t stand to go to baseball games because he couldn’t help but think about the fact that the huge number of people collected in this one building was a result of twice that many people having sex, and the thought of all that sex was just too much for him. Funny prudish man!

I suppose there’s also something endearing in the fact that ants are relatively small creatures. I am a relatively small creature too, so there’s some sympathy there. If only I had an exoskeleton too…I do remember one fine day in Providence, RI after I had purchased my first-ever set of full hockey padding, so that I could learn to play ice hockey. I put on all my pads and ran around the house crashing into walls and furniture, marveling at the fact that it didn’t hurt at all!

Anyway…on the other hand it’s not that I’m such an ant lover either – I do squash them if they invade the house, and there were some that once got sacrificed in the course of their involuntary participation in a performance piece. I just find them interesting, and for a while they served as some kind of poetic medium. It was only recently that I read The Earth Dwellers (by Erich Hoyt), and now I’m looking forward to reading those giant ant tomes by Edward Wilson and William Brown. Oh, and of course I loved that film, Microcosmos

Recently I saw at the Benesse museum in Naoshima a work of art called “The World Flag Ant Farm” by the Japanese artist Yukinori Yanagi – and loved it. Each flag is made of colored sand in a plexiglass frame, which are all placed on a grid and linked to each other via tunnels of tubing. The ants move through like immigrants, mixing up the colors of the flags as they go, setting up their ant farms within these flags. I regret that it wasn’t in operation by the time I saw it (they eventually removed the ants and cement the cavities they leave behind – the exhibit consists of these antless remains, plus video of the ants at work), and that it wasn’t made in such a manner as to be sustainable for the ants – so that’s another example of ants being sacrificed for art, I guess. Poor things.

Hurry Home Honey collects two previous chapbooks, Balconic and Clutch, as well as a third section, “Crime to be Quick.”  Thematically, this book can be viewed as a collection of love poems. How did this book come together?

Hurry Home Honey is my only book of poems that is a “collection of poems,” rather than a book-length poem (like the first two) or the most recent Texture Notes, which is a collection of notes on texture, true to its title. The subtitle is “Love Poems 1994-2004” – which means I had to reckon with some poems I had written quite a long while ago, which was a very strange and interesting process for me. (In 1994 I was a sophomore in college, writing poems for Jerome Rothenberg’s poetry class. Cole Heinowitz was my TA, incidentally.) Rosmarie Waldrop and I had some back and forth about which poems to include or cut, and my final round of editing consisted of an evening sitting at a teahouse overlooking Hangzhou (a huge lake not far from Shanghai), reading the entire book out loud to Jen Hofer while she knitted, drinking endless cups of tea as the bats swooped down around us. We were interrupted by a Chinese man who had been listening from nearby, who finally came over and communicated (by writing down Chinese characters for me – I can’t speak Chinese) that he was also a poet, and claimed to be a descendant of Confucius, to boot. And then he took my pen and wrote, on my manuscript, a (generic-looking) poem about the reflection of the moon on the water. In any case, I’m happy to have this book out – I like the way it spans a good chunk of my writing life and the various kinds of poetry I’ve written over the years. And of course I’m thrilled to have a book from Burning Deck, a press I’ve admired for many years. And working with Rosmarie on it did give me some insight into how she manages to do so much – German efficiency!

You’ve also worked diligently as an editor and translator.  Factorial, a journal of modernist Japanese poetry, seems a perfect combination of both of these intersections. Are you still editing the journal, or if not, is it on hiatus, or did it accomplish the expectations you set out for it when you began editing it?

I’m not sure if I’m really all that “diligent” of a person, but if it looks that way to you, sure! I have to admit that Factorial is on indefinite hiatus. I’ve felt reluctant to kill it off completely, though it’s been a few years now since I’ve produced an issue. I imagine I will return to it in some shape or form eventually. Or maybe not – it’s hard to tell, and there are so many interesting things to do with one’s time. But I certainly haven’t “finished” that project, by any means – there’s so much more, in fact. The main problem with Factorial was on the distribution end – by the time I had finished producing the issue, I was too tired to do all the selling and promoting and distributing, especially when my own geography was so unstable and in flux. Ben Basan has always been a huge support and help for me, though, and for that I’m grateful. Right now I’m working with Eric Selland on an anthology of Modernist and Contemporary Japanese poetry, which I find really exciting – Eric is much more the expert on the modernism, and my contributions are mostly on the contemporary front – but I’m very excited about what this is leading to, which is a very different kind of anthology (of Japanese poetry) than I’ve previously seen.

Also, I’m starting to feel more inclined towards translating full-length books by individual poets. I’m really happy about For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, and my newest translation – forthcoming in the spring from Litmus Press – is two books by Ayane Kawata compiled into one. Hiraide and Kawata were two of the first poets I ever translated, and I’m happy about making more of their work available to an anglophone audience. And then after that, I’ll be looking for a publisher for Chika Sagawa’s collected poems – this is the thing, I guess – is that instead of editing, I could be translating more work – and then letting other people (who are better at it than I) handle the production and distribution – so there’s a certain efficiency in that, rather than trying to do everything myself.

When I read your work, I get such a strong sense of theater and cinema.  How much do other art forms influence your work? 

If I had to say, I would think that my influences are more from the realm of performance, dance, and music – but it’s probably because of our ongoing conversation about movies that gives you this slant? I always wanted to be a composer, or an improvisor, or some other kind of Maker of Music. On the other hand I have been seeing more films lately – for this I thank my partner, Eugene, who is the real film lover around here. But I’ve given up on trying to assess what influences what, especially regarding my own work – I just can’t tell. Each book is a different project, has a different agenda, sensibility, etc. My very first book, So we have been given time  Or, is the one where I was most explicitly trying to engage performance plus music plus narrative in the same playing field. Also, for a few years now I’ve been thinking of compiling a book just of performative texts, of which I realize I’ve written quite a lot. One of my favorite pieces is “Ice Event,” which is in the “Clutch” section of HHH – about a hockey game wherein the puck is a human hockey puck (called “IT”), and the goal of the game is to make IT cry.


Sawako Nakayasu is the author of Hurry Home Honey, Nothing fictional but the accuracy or arrangement (she, So we have been given time  Or, and the chapbooks, Insect Country (A), Insect Country (B), Or Mountains or mountains, a collaboration with Jen Hofer, as well as, the editor for Four From Japan: Contemporary Poetry by Women.