Thomas Fink: The noun “Notes” in the title of your book indicates that you are studying something: “Texture.” We’ll get to why you’re doing that a little later. The titles of the prose-poems give a sense that the note-taking took place on particular days, but this mode of titling also evokes the idea of a diary. Of course, as this excerpt from the beginning and end of the table of contents indicates, the dates are not in chronological order; most are from the year 2003 but a few are from 2004:
10.9.2003 . . . .
What I notice is that the progression isn’t exactly random. For example, in the first part above, the first and third prose-poems are a day apart, as are the fourth and sixth, and the seventh and tenth, whereas in the second part, the first and third are a day apart, the second and fourth two days apart, the fifth and sixth the same day. And in the first eleven, there’s a buildup from the numbers two to nine in the date category, whereas in the last eleven, the buildup in the date category is from 25 to 29. So it’s not merely a matter of disrupting chronology so that the “notes” or “diary” are “flowing” in an “organic” way from poem to poem. Imagine what a diary with such a smashing of chronology would do to the reader’s sense of temporal unfolding! But this is not a set of notes or a diary; it’s poetry.
The marking of time is problematic. The prose-poem “6.2.2003” could have been started and finished, merely started, or merely finished on that day, or even none of the above. Something begun in 2003 could have been finished just in time for the book’s production.
I don’t want you to give away any mystery or any absent center. Could you just, please, tell us something (anything) about the use of the date titles and the undermining of chronology?
Sawako Nakayasu: Is it not a set of notes? And not a diary? How do you know that it’s poetry? Of the many interesting topics you bring up, that’s where my attention initially lands: if you remove the book from context and just look at it as an object, the title would (should?) lead you to think that it is a set of “notes.” If you flip through the pages, the dates should stand out as a signifier for “diary,” though, as you note, they are not quite in chronological order. The editors at Letter Machine were kind enough to respect my wishes to not have the label “poetry” on the back cover – and with most of the book written in prose, who’s to say? Of course I love poetry and have little to no objection to being called a poet, but I’ve always found troubling – or rather, I’ve always felt a desire to trouble – any kind of genre segregation: market-based, institution-based, or otherwise.
Around 2003, when I wrote this book, blogs were just starting to get embraced by the masses, including masses of poets. Poets had blogs where they talked, opined, argued about poetry, and/or blogs to which they posted their poems. I wanted to try it out, too – and Texture Notes is what came out. That was the name of my blog, initially, though I eventually removed most of those original posts as I started to form a book out of it. So – chronology: the dates do correspond to the dates when the poems were written, which is also the day they were posted (and “published”) to my blog. And by that I mean that most, if not all, of the poem was written on that day. The poems were later revised, at various points between the date of inception and the day I finally gave it over to the editors at Letter Machine, but it was largely surface-level; the core of the poem arrived on the date that serves as its title.
There was something interesting, psychologically, about instantaneously publishing a poem – I’m sure many writers had this experience around that time, but the notion of an audience being immediately present (regardless of whether they were actually there or not – the potential was enough, I guess) compelled me to write on a somewhat regular basis – it was fun, sort of – (though if I look back at the contents of what I wrote then, I would question how much fun I was really having in life). (The previous statement would imply that this work also does function as a diary, at least in part.) But I would venture to say that a sense, some sense, of audience, is a part of my writing process. After graduating from college, I was worried about the sudden lack of writing workshops (with its built-in audience system), and began writing texts for performances – and hence writing for real, live audiences. When I finished graduate school, Craig Watson took it upon himself to give me an “assignment” – his way of keeping me writing. And so it turns out that it’s not necessary to have a large audience, but an audience of one is enough too. Writing on a blog was like that – I didn’t need to have a large readership, but any reader would suffice. My current idea (current, as in, from the last month or so) is to give poetry readings for an audience of one – one person at a time, I mean. It’s very intimate.
Back to the idea of chronology. The poems are placed in order of the day of the month they were written; hence the pseudo-pattern that you notice. When it came time for me to turn the blog-entries into a book, I considered many many ways of ordering the pieces – and concluded that this worked the best. (Many of my decisions are made intuitively, so I’m afraid I can’t explain any further than this.)
TF: Your questioning of genre segregation is very useful. A diary involves autobiographical notes, and notes could be framed as a diary. Chez Derrida and de Man, an autobiographical text is no less a fiction than a poem or prose-poem. The diary and notes as blog poetry also promote intimacy, as you say, between writer and audience. Intimacy, I think, is a major component of an investigation of texture. How did you get interested in doing a blog with (prose-) poems/ notes/ entries with texture as topic?
SN: After all that, let’s just call them poems, for simplicity’s sake. As for your question, it’s been so long since I wrote this that I’m having trouble recalling how it all got started – I just went back to the blog and took a look, where I can actually see the pieces in the order I wrote them (though they’re no longer visible to the public). So it looks like the first one I wrote was on 5.25.2003 – though it turns out that looking at the first few poems I wrote doesn’t tell me how all of this got started either, but it’s just as well. I start many writing projects, often, and some of them stick and some of them don’t. After I had exhausted the Texture Notes project, I changed the name of the blog to Insect Tutelage, and started posting Ant poems – those went on for a long time, if a few years can be considered a long time, and then I just stopped writing them. The ants have come to take on another beyond-text life, involving performances and other projects.
But regarding texture: I was in a between-cultures state, and texture seemed to be a means of capturing what I found varying between the places where I wrote, or lived, or thought about, the contents of this book – mostly Japan, the US, and France. In Japan, there’s something about the lack (in general greetings) and abundance (unintentional and undesired, as in crowded trains) of physical contact which I found interesting. That somehow you could be in a packed train, where your bodies are literally smashed up against everyone else’s, and yet by sheer intention you could somehow feel that you were not actually touching any of these people. So it’s possible that my interest in texture evolved out of a consideration for bodies in space. Contact improvisation dance was a big part of my life around then, too – which means I was interested in individual textures (“Whenever I meet new people I want to touch them first and find out their texture”) as well as the textures that arise among groups, masses of people and things – hence the field of bicycles, trail of anything, rooms full of things – boots, eyeballs, an airplane filled with diamonds. The population density of Tokyo must have played a part, since many of the poems seem rather heavily populated.
I was interested in how far I could take this idea of texture.
TF: In the last poem, you joke about “contact improvisation dance”: “Went to a fight. Contact improvisation broke out” (109). And I understand that you’re a hockey player, too; that’s quite a contact sport!
“How far [you] could take this idea of texture”—yes, and exceeding customary thresholds is itself an important topos. In such poems as the “Nightmare about Hamburgers” (“9.2.2003,” 3), the direct encounter with the “very very fat woman’s” folds of fat (“6.3.2003,” 5), the “trail of anything—insects, hamburgers, bicycles” (“9/19/2003,” 61), and a man’s quest for a woman in a roomful of boots (“10.25.2003,” 87), I find an extreme immersion in an extreme or, by usual standards, excessive sensual event, sometimes deliberately cultivated and sometimes, (as in the first one above) seemingly imposed, that either borders on or reaches something like sexual experience. There seems to be a battle between attraction and repulsion, and sometimes repulsion is overcome by fascination, which is not exactly attraction. And sometimes it’s the sheer quantity and thickness of catalog elements that make the event both enticing as quasi-masochistic pleasure and overwhelming, hence unpleasant. As a writer bearing intentions or as a reader of your own text, how would you characterize the psychosensual or psychosexual aspects of such unusual and intense textural encounters?
SN: I like your idea of extremes – or extremities – of sensual events. On one end might be a whole-body immersion (in hamburger meat, or a room of boots), and on the other, very particular sites of contact: licking an eyeball, poking a finger into an open wound (“9.19.2004,” 63). I’m interested in all that you mention – and in fact I wish you would say more, since I can’t. I can’t, because a) as a “writer bearing intentions,” my intentions are not very clearly known to me at the time of writing; and b) being a reader of my own text would probably lead to some kind of armchair-self-psychoanalysis that we probably should leave alone. These themes are not new to my work, either, but perhaps they are most explicitly manifest in this book in particular.
TF: OK, I will say a little more about extremes. In this book, you lay out some intriguing conceptual art projects, and extremity makes the concepts striking. I wonder how a “fried umbrella” would perform in a rainstorm. And a surrealist would need a lot of rendering skill to paint a “fried umbrella” well. The backwards vomit poem (“6.18.2003”) is reminiscent of Vertov’s cinematic experiments. But perhaps there’s a big distinction between the distancing effect of reading about a moving picture of backwards vomit and the dis-ease of seeing it on screen. This form of mediation may be necessary to avoid being overwhelmed and thus unable to get anything meaningful from the experience. The idea of diamonds filling up the airplane, in which the flight attendant has to serve food and drinks (“9.24.2003”), is equally exciting but less threatening, since diamonds have a positive association.
SN: I like you describing them as “conceptual art projects” – this also overlaps with my writings for performance, some of which are more performable than others. Often I’ve written pieces that I thought were conceptual (and hence not performable), only to end up staging it somehow – this includes “Ice Event,” a hockey game/performance in which there is only one audience member, who is also the puck. The diamonds in the airplane – are intended to counter the positive associations we have with diamonds – they are obstacles that prevent the flight attendant from making progress in her dreadful task of serving Salisbury steak to the passengers, and “what her face looks like at the end of it” implies that her face has been cut up, damaged by the sharpness of the diamonds. When the diamond drops out from under her skirt, it’s like the maid getting caught stealing jewels from the mistress.
I’m not too familiar with Vertov’s work, but if I had to name a filmmaker I feel an affinity for, it’d be Jan Svankmajer – he has such a wacky sensibility that somehow resonates as very honest to me. His films often chew around the intersections between food and flesh, pleasure and revulsion, the abject subject and the boundaries of propriety or social norms… he is definitely a master of the “excessive sensual event,” a lovely phrase you used earlier. We all need more excessive sensual events, I think.
On the other hand, you liken that poem (the backwards vomit poem) to “reading about a moving picture of backwards vomit” – which I find interesting, as that was not my intent, and yet I can see that there is something about the way I narrate that makes it seem as such. I think it’s a mode (or a style, voice, what have you) that I often use, which is related to the distancing effect that you mention.
Or perhaps there are several kinds of distance and intimacy at work. In part I might attribute it to my bougie upbringing – my mother is so proper that I got scolded when I mentioned I had eaten an apple (whole, unpeeled) on the street while walking to the train station. And so these poems filled with snot, shit, vomit, might sound very different coming from someone else, I think. I don’t want it to seem like some kind of ongoing teenage rebellion, but it seems I’ve taken to mining the discord between the propriety of the young Japanese woman (that I was supposed to become) – and the sort of clear, controlled, removed tone of writing that comes with it, and the vomiting and fucking and whatever other improprieties that may go on, to whatever extent, in my life and work.
TF: The representation of abjection (diarrhea, vomit, etc.) and the boundaries of respectable or antisocial behavior (i.e. to eat or not to eat fish eyeballs) are important thematic components of Texture Notes. On the one hand, precision and seemingly objective reportage militate against emotionalism in the treatment of these areas that folks either avoid mentioning or find painful or disgusting, while on the other, in “9.15.2003,” the “addendum” to the first “diarrhea” poem, for example, emotion is cultivated. It’s an emotional solidarity with suffering women:
The texture not of motherfucking diarrhea, but texture of the girls, women, all ages and sizes, who have it, diarrhea like a motherfucker.
Line them up, all of them, after they have done their business or between rounds, holding hands and lined up all across the hemisphere, or holding one hand out, the other hand clutching belly, and hold them, one at a time, warmly, tenderly, but firmly, these women, such consistencies. (47)
You make the textural differences between the waste product and the girls clear, but, for you, what’s the telling difference between the phrases “motherfucking diarrhea” and “diarrhea like a motherfucker”? And do you feel that there’s a feminist component in this and other poems in the book?
SN: Tom you ask such interesting questions that even I wonder if I am getting the answer right…the difference between those phrases is performative, I think. So you imagine: a group of women with sweet, young, feminine voices saying “I have motherfucking diarrhea” or “I have diarrhea like a motherfucker.” Wouldn’t you choose the latter too?
TF: Yes, the rhythm of utterance is better for those speakers!
SN: I might also add that all this grossness, the visceral details, might not so much be about being abject or antisocial, but is perhaps about intimacy, after all. Intimacy, in some ways, is forged through a sharing of viscera – so if you’re holding a woman with diarrhea, or one who is vomiting, or orgasming, or giving birth, that’s intimate. I hope he’ll forgive me for telling this story, but when my partner and I got engaged, I opted to receive my engagement ring in the form of a trip to South America. We were traveling lightly, and after paragliding off the coast of Lima, we went to the hotel room sink to wash our clothes, and discovered skid marks on the inside of his boxers. Of course it’s an embarrassing moment for him, but somehow in that moment I really felt like we were about to get married – sharing our dirty laundry, literally.
As for feminism, yes. I don’t know what kind of feminism this is (do you?), but just comparing Japanese and American language, I feel like Japanese is oppressive linguistically in that the so-called bad words are a) not that strong, and b) not accessible to me, as a woman. I just wouldn’t say them. If I wanted to say in Japanese that I have “diarrhea like a motherfucker,” it wouldn’t sound right at all…just like, “really bad diarrhea” or something. So I find English quite liberating, and I find writing liberating, as it allows me to say things that I generally would not speak. Or do I have some variation of Tourette’s syndrome? As for the poem you quote, the solidarity is with suffering women, abject women, and in a way, all women: even the most beautiful of women have diarrhea sometimes, don’t they?
TF: Diarrhea is neither sexist nor racist nor lookist. “Motherfucker” is such a classically American expression—though it should have its roots in Freud’s study of the Oedipus Complex or maybe Greek tragedy itself—that I can’t imagine a Japanese equivalent. (And I never knew more than 300 Japanese words anyway, but I can’t imagine the word “okasan” or “ha ha” attached to anything vulgar.)
In developing short, medium, and long paragraphs, as well as in balancing paragraph-lengths in a given prose-poem, do you have guiding ideas for what might be a rather intuitive process?
SN: I don’t think I have “guiding ideas” regarding length, but I have “some idea” whenever I set out to write a piece, and some ideas take more words than others to make themselves heard.
TF: The “hamburger” poem (“9.2.2003”), for example, places a paragraph that consumes nearly half a page between two one-fragment paragraphs on top and five very short paragraphs below it. It makes for an artful asymmetrical balance. The poem about a park (“9/13.2004”) expands gradually from short to medium to a long paragraph before ending with two medium ones.
SN: So I suppose it isn’t quite as arbitrary as I made it seem – I do think about phrasing, whether at the sentence level or paragraph level – and I often think that the way I shape my writing is connected to some sense of music, or musical development (or anti-development, as sometimes the case may be), that I try to achieve in my writing. In some of my earlier work, like So we have been given time . Or, it’s more apparent that I am trying to write music with words – I would have liked to become a composer, and perhaps I’ll pursue it again one day - but the way rhythms and patterns are shaped in the text, the movement of time within the text, has always been important to me.
TF: In “3.21.2004,” you think about ways of describing “the texture of a [musical] conductor’s” body, including not only “the physical memory of every symphony” but every bit of experience that he undergoes and that serves as the “source of that thing called music otherwise known as love,” but then in the next paragraph, “that conductor turns out to be not one of music but of trains,” one attuned to “the pressure of a speeding vehicle or even that of an angry nation” (69). The accidents of language double context, and then there is a reference that does not obviously follow from either context and a closing sentence that seems to stem from that reference: “Two days ago a man and his wife strung themselves from a tree, finding no other way to face down the unbending fact of their negligence.” For you, aside from what you said before about “bad words” in Japanese and English, how does language (or how do languages) impinge on the experience of texture?
SN: For starters, the texture of music was a point of departure for me in writing this book. When I studied music as an undergrad, we listened to music while following along to the scores – and one thing I found really interesting was the texture of sounds – and how you could only hear it, but also see it in the score. And then if a non-tactile sense like sound could manifest texture, then it would also apply to much more: so then there was visual texture (“Start from the outside of a peephole…”), auditory texture (sound of the wrong band warming up), and then on to the texture of abstract nouns – memory, need, uncertainty, danger.
As for your question, and regarding this poem, I’ve tried to answer this question numerous times and keep failing. By failing, I mean – first of all, I don’t think language impinges on texture, but rather allows for the textures of experience to overlap, or perhaps butt up against each other – creating a meta-texture, if you will.
TF: “3.30.2004,” the penultimate prose-poem, presents one of the most lucidly descriptive, dramatic, and touching narratives in Texture Notes. When the speaker, perhaps an attendant at a nursing home, feeds “strawberry short cake to a large, very large indeed man” (105)—reminiscent of the extremely big woman and the sumo wrestlers earlier in the book—but doesn’t succeed in helping him have “the most satisfying eating experience” (107), the two of them are so sincere and determined to make the process work, but it doesn’t happen, as “some third-party observer,” also well-intentioned, takes away the cake so that they don’t have to see “the swarm of ants that are having a ball at their expense.” We encounter human kindness/good will at the same time as we confront (what should only be a temporary) failure of intersubjective understanding, textural negotiation, and circumstance; we might also wonder why the eating area is ant-friendly (bad luck or human negligence) and whether the cake is a low-sugar, low-fat version. Could you supply any context(s) that would help us think further about this simultaneously complex and accessible text? And also, consider the reference to ants at the end, is this a nod to your poetic project involving ants or had that not yet been conceived?
SN: The “failure of intersubjective understanding, textural negotiation, and circumstance” – isn’t that just another way (or an academic way) of talking about the messiness of love? I think this is how fiction often works, too – where the actual details of the events (the large man, the strawberry shortcake) are fictional, but all stemming from some real lived experience - this book is dedicated to Eugene, not only of the aforementioned skid marks of intimacy but also the “person for whom I have spent a great deal of time and love,” (53) – not only by default because he is my partner, but also because he figured largely in my life in 2003 and 2004, in which case you might suppose that our relationship has had some struggles along the way. Were the ants because of bad luck or human negligence? Ants are everywhere. And strawberry shortcake is their favorite cake. As for my ant project, I first wrote about ants when I was nineteen. It was an assignment for class, the last line of which was “Can you find your sensibility in a colony of ants?” – a question I’ve been attempting to answer for many years now.
TF: Since September 2004, when you composed the first version of the last entry that made its way into this book, have you found your daily encounters with texture to be enhanced, deepened, dulled, troubled, intensified, and/or compromised in any way?
SN: Compromised, forgotten, buried, mistaken, undermined, overexposed. I no longer think about texture.