March 5, 2015: Listening to the BBC World News about ISIS at home in Munich, my mind drifts to the news from Japan. Our Prime Minister will make a World War Two 70th Anniversary speech in August and has appointed a committee for its preparation. I find it both dismaying and ludicrous. A committee to advise on what to be said and what not? Linguistic examinations on the political connotation of ‘remorse’ or ‘repentance’? How can you expect an honest and sincere speech that way? And why bother with the words, anyway? A politician should be a man of action rather than of words. Leave the matter of rhetoric to poets . . . The next moment, I am being struck with a crazy idea: what if I organize a renshi session with poets from China and Korea and publish the result on August 15, just as Prime Minister delivers his speech? Or better yet, how about reading it together on one of those disputed islands . . . ?
March 6: I share my idea with Mindy, whose poems I translated into Japanese recently. Looking back, perhaps the e-mail conversation I had with her in the process of the translation was at the back of my mind in the previous evening. To my question about her national identity, which I often ask to myself, she wrote back, “there is so much to feel in life that I don’t really pay attention to ‘Citizenship’ which is a stupid word or stupid thing...”
March 7: Mindy writes back from across the ocean, “Great idea. I would love to join you.” All of a sudden, it doesn’t sound crazy anymore. I then write to Michael Brennan, an Australian poet who is publishing poets in Asia and Oceania from his own publishing house, and Mia You, who was born in Korea and is central editor of Rotterdam Poetry International, in search for Korean poets.
March 14: Not only do Michael and Mia You introduce to me several Korean poets, they also express strong support for the idea. I follow one of their leads and reach Don Mee Choi, a poet and translator born in Seoul and grew up in the US, and then Kim Hyesoon, whose poems Don Mee has translated into English.
March 16: Don Mee writes, “Kim Hyesoon says she would like to participate . . . I‘m very glad about her decision! I will take full responsibility of translating her poems.” At this moment, the crazy idea becomes a reality . . . well, almost.
March 21: Mindy, Don Mee and I have been wondering whether we should do this with 3 poets, or 6 poets (a couple each from 3 countries). In case of 6, Don Mee and Kim Hyesoon would team up. I ask Shuntaro Tanikawa about his interest and Mindy explores her contacts in China. We like the idea of 6 because of the diversity, but we worry about the extra time required for translation and coordination. Can we finish everything by August 15? After consulting with her calendar during the summer time, Don Mee decides that she should rather concentrate on translating Kim Hyesoon this time. But then Shuntaro comes back saying, “I’m interested in it” and I just cannot resist the temptation of writing together with him (I did a couple of sessions with him before and, boy, what a rewarding experience it was!).
March 24: I argue to the team that, while it may be politically correct to keep the balance among the three countries, Shun should really not count as Japanese poet. Because of his cosmic vision and extraterrestrial sensitivity, as the title of his debut book Alone in Two Billion Light Years indicates, he was often called as “Space Man”. So he represents the universe in this session! The team, apparently out of pity, accepts my plea and we reach our conclusion: 4 poets, 9 rounds, 36 linked poems. We shall follow the 5 and 3 lines convention, which was developed through the numerous Renshi sessions by a group of Japanese poets including Makoto Ooka and Shuntaro back in 1960’s and 70’s. If I did not meet the two poets in my 20’s, I would never be doing this right now. I also propose to set a general theme for each of the 3 rounds and suggest ‘Sea’ for the first 3 rounds. Maybe ‘Rice’ for the second 3 rounds, something we have in common…
March 28: I write the first 5 lines, Hokku or the opening poem, and send to the team, as I pack my suitcase for traveling to Japan over the next 2 weeks. My thinking goes: if I sent it right before my departure, it will probably take 2 weeks to complete the first round, so I can relax during my stay in Japan . . .
I was wrong. By the time I got to Munich Airport for departure on April 1, Shuntaro already sent to me his poem Nr. 4, completing the first round. When I left Haneda Aiport 14 days later, we were halfway through at poem Nr. 15. Almost every morning, I found a new poem waiting for me in my laptop. It seemed that the poets, me included, simply could not help but write their 5 or 3 lines as soon as they got the preceding poem. At one point, Mindy sent her poem even though it was not her turn yet. And there was another trick: the time difference between the US West Coast where Mindy and Don Mee live and Korea / Japan. When one side was in bed sleeping, the other side was up and writing. It was a 24-hour non-stop global production!
I wrote my poem Nr. 10 as I was actually flying over the Suruga Bay and looking down at Mt. Fuji, although ‘norimaki’ is a fictional device to link with Mindy’s poem Nr.9 via ‘seaweed’. ‘A grain of rice’ in Nr. 14 was in fact hanging from the beard of my father, whom I visited in Kyushu and had dinner with. It was a dreamlike experience of living in two worlds at the same time: one in reality and the other in language, the two intertwining with each other. When I received Mindy’s poem Nr. 13 about a dolphin flying up from the flooded rice field, I thought it might be from an ancient Chinese legend and googled it up. As it turned out, it was purely Mindy’s imagination but guess what I found in the google search? A news report about a dolphin trapped in an inland rice field after the 3.11 tsunami!
The teaching of “never stand still”, just keep going forward, in my poem Nr. 19 is essentially what I had learned from Makoto Ooka as the most basic rule of renshi. But there was one moment when we stood still, not knowing how to move on. That was when Shuntaro wrote his poem Nr. 25 about Hinomaru Japanese flag. To me, it was a baldly personal, courageous statement against nationalism. I translated it into English and sent to Don Mee with a short comment “Wow!” Don Mee replied “Wow, in deed!” But Hyesoon expressed her concern that readers in her country may misunderstand the poem as a praise for the flag and its historical association. I passed her remark to Shuntaro, who happened to be in Seoul that day for another poetry event! He understood Hyesoon’s concern and offered to modify the text. Hyesoon could not visit Shuntaro in his Seoul event but the two poets found a mutual acquaintance, Shuntaro’s editor and Hyesoon’s former student. In the meanwhile, I realized that the problem, at least partly, stemmed from my English translation which was rather vague and open to interpretation, especially the first 4 lines. Don Mee and I worked together on the revised translation. I also shared the whole situation with Mindy, who wrote back, “I think I understand Shuntaro. As poets we want to be non-political but maintain the basic humanistic principle.” Then, on April 23, came Hyesoon’s message via Don Mee, “Kim Hyesoon says she is so thankful for your explanation of Shuntaro's intention and for the revision (of the English translation). text). Now it is clear to her. She wanted me to relay her deep gratitude to you!”
That was a pivotal moment in our renshi session. It somehow gave the collaboration among us a new dimension, and a new driving force. We were now closer to each other and able to feel the real persons behind the poems. And poems gushed out. We knew there was no need to hurry, we should rather take time and cherish this exhilarating experience, but to no avail. It was non-stoppable. And . . .
April 30: 32 days after I sent my Hokku, I receive from Shuntaro his Ageku, the closing poem, Nr. 36. I translate it in English and send it to the whole team including Michael and Mia. The session is over. Alone in Munich with no one around to give a toast with, I just sit still and look at the PC display. I realize then that we made not only the crazy idea come true but also the longest e-mail chain in my life with 98 messages linked together in a string.
This essay appears in the book, Trilingual Renshi, available from Vagabond Press.