Stay tuned all month for poet interviews in honor of National Poetry Month.
1) Why poetry?
I have for many years been hearing, while falling asleep, two voices: the voice of a young woman and the voice of an old man. The woman and the man, or their voices, come from behind my right ear, as if out of my shoulder, and surround me. Or, I enter them (their voices). It is as if the woman and the man live inside me, or I inside them (they make a room), but their conversation is private, is theirs. I only listen. I heard their voices for the first time when I lived in Missoula, Montana, the town where my grandfather was incarcerated, under suspicion of being a spy for Japan, during WWII. I started to believe the voices had something to do with him: maybe he was the old man, maybe even the young woman. The belief was related to the sensation, similar to falling asleep, of sinking into (through) the ground, to where the memory of my grandfather’s incarceration had been buried (disintegrated). At first, the voices are clear, enough that I can write down what they are saying. But as I fall asleep, their voices dovetail, come together then go everywhere, so that I cannot tell whose is whose, until, having fallen asleep, I lose them. I realize that I am not falling asleep, but through the voices. I explain the situation to myself as: ancestors. Also: the grave. The voices are not so far away, but enough that a ritual has had to be created to spend time with them, in order to bring them back with me to the surface.
2) Do you feel like poetry is more or less important & relevant today?
Some poems are more relevant today, I think, than the moments (or times) in which they were written, but so are the moments (and times). Some poems are infinitely less relevant. Although: relevant or less relevant to who or what? Important how? Poems, because they are, for the most part, made by people, have equal capacity to illuminate and empower as they do to darken and disempower, though oftentimes neither (nothing). The last few years, for example, have exposed us, as experiencers, to innumerable poems that have caused genuine harm—that have divided, excluded and oppressed. By the last few years, I mean: measurable time. These kinds of poems are—because we wake up each morning (or night) into society, atmosphere—as unavoidable as the people who make them, and often appear in the guise of good intentions. (I just saw, for example, a renga, by a whole populace of good intenders, written as a tribute to whom I can only assume is their preferred murderer). So many poems (and poets) I was tricked into thinking were important and relevant, not only in general, but to me, have proven to be hungry ghosts, at least, and at worst, means of mind control. The poems, however, to which I return, are those poems that are, in fact, impossible to return to, because they keep changing, because they keep being re/conceived, by the moments (and times, therefore emergencies) in which they find themselves. What I mean also is that a poem like Etel Adnan’s The Arab Apocalypse is not only still being written, but will always be. (I second, by the way, what Chiwan Choi said earlier this month: Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.)
But the short answer is: more or less, yes.
3) Tell us about one poet who has greatly influenced you as a writer and a thinker.
Hiromi Ito drove me to the town in Kumamoto where my grandfather lived before immigrating to the United States (1919). My grandfather was born on an island off the coast of Hiroshima in 1910. He moved, when he was six, with his mother and brothers, to Kumamoto, to his paternal grandmother’s house. The town no longer exists. Hiromi Ito drove us—Hiromi, her daughter Zana, the poet Dot Devota, me—to the town that no longer exists. I have a difficult time explaining influence, especially as it multiplies and refracts, over time, so I won’t. But … I knew and loved Sawako Nakayasu’s translations of Hiromi’s poems, had just read Jeffrey Angles’ translation of Killing Kanoko, then discovered Hiromi was in Kumamoto, taking care of her father, so I wrote to her. She wrote back. We met in Kumamoto, and drove to the town that no longer exists. In its place were rice fields, with a graveyard in the center. And in the center of the graveyard was an upright stone with a roof flared like a hat broken by a strong wind and an unopened flower saying: 下田. Hiromi saw it first.
4) Tell us about one lesser-known contemporary poet who you’d like more people to know about.
She is dead, but contemporary: Saniyya Saleh (1935-1985), a poet from northern Syria. She is the first who came to mind. I first encountered her six years ago while preparing to edit (with Thom Donovan) what eventually became To look at the sea is to become what one is, a retrospective collection of writings by Etel Adnan. Etel’s poems led me to Saniyya’s; they are both in Women of the Fertile Crescent: Modern Poetry By Arab Women. The first lines of Saniyya’s “Blind Boats,” translated by Kamal Boullata, are:
Because desolate rooms are the beds for the poetry
I dry up like trees.
5) Share with us one of your recent poems and tell us a little bit about its context.
Here are thirteen poems, or one poem, in thirteen parts, that I wrote in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where I have spent the last six summers.
Brandon Shimoda is the author of several books, most recently Evening Oracle (Letter Machine Editions). New writings can be read in The Felt, Hyperallergic, The Margins (AAWW), and No Tokens Journal. He lives in the desert.