Yoshimasu Gozo on the Embodiment of Creativity

Host Kathleen Maris Paltrineri talks with Japanese poet Yoshimasu Gozo about literary translation and his recent collection from New Directions, titled Alice Iris Red Horse: Selected Poems of Yoshimasu Gozo. They also discuss the relationship of touch, sound, color, and fragment in building creative worlds as well as the poet’s transcription of poet and philosopher Yoshimoto Takaaki’s poetry as a form of honoring his work.

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Yoshimasu Gozo Interview Transcript


I’m guest host Kathleen Maris Paltrineri and you’re listening to Origins.

Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.

The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

This episode of Origins features Japanese writer Yoshimasu Gozo.


Yoshimasu GOZO is one of the most influential contemporary Japanese poets, and the winner of several major prizes, including the 50th Mainichi Art Award for Poetry, the Rekitei Prize, the Purple Ribbon Medal, and the Order of the Rising Sun. In 2013, he was designated by the Japanese government as a Person of Cultural Merit. His poetry is known for its rich and complex polyphonic structure, making full use of the two syllabaries in the Japanese language, its thousands of variably-pronounced ideogrammatic kanji, words borrowed from multiple other languages, and a variety of symbols. Through this, he has extended the possibilities of Japanese poetry as he continues to explore the ethical foundation of his art, as well as its potential as an event of the genuine. He was a participant in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 1971, 1987, and 2004.


We are recording this conversation from the University of Iowa on April 20, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Yoshimasu Gozo, who is here in Iowa City as part of the IWP’s 50th anniversary celebration.

PALTRINERI: Gozo, welcome.

GOZO: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Nice to be here.

PALTRINERI: Oh, thank you. We really appreciate you being here. First, I want to congratulate you on the new book of your selected poems, published by New Directions in September [2016]. The volume is called Alice Iris Red Horse, and it collects work from across your career as a writer, translated into English by twelve different translators. I’d like to ask you about working with these translators. Can you talk a little bit about that process in creating this book?

GOZO: Actually, this book was planned and visualized and idealized by Forrest Gander, who is the excellent poet and novelist, and he doesn’t like to be called Professor, but he’s a great man. So to tell the truth, one of my final dreams was to publish from New Direction and it came true. So he (Gander) asked, as you said, twelve interpreters. And the main thing is not only many translators but also asked them to write the different kind of writing by translators. One is sometimes like diary or memoir, and one’s writing is more complicated, passionate, or something. So when you open this book, the page, the impression is opposite of monotonous thing, it’s kind of a melting pot like thing. Also, it’s based on Gozo Yoshimasu’s poetry, it became a completely different thing. So still I am surprised and at the same time, for this occasion that Kendall Heitzmann’s invitation, we had a very condensed cities of performance or lecture. And more and more I believe this book has more seeds or new element maybe because of Forrest’s way of mixing the spirit or mind or blood I felt. So still the book is growing, in a very interesting way.

PALTRINERI: Yes, thank you. This connects to another question that I had, too, when you were performing. And for our listeners, last night Gozo performed at the Theatre Arts Building here at the University of Iowa, and it was a multimedia performance. There was so much of touch involved, actually, you were touching your fingers along the floor and touching the paint or touching a bell, and I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship to touch and to sound, or touch and language.

GOZO: In a very brilliant way, you picked up the right word: touch. To touch, to touch by something or pencil, or something, that human being, that sometimes monkey may use some piece of wood, but usually human being, as a human being, to become human being is to use a small element to touch something. The writing is essentially [Gozo begins tapping the desk] this kind of touch and as you listen, this has sound and rhythm.

And I could choose so called writing, already, has this kind of original touch. And you remember the touch and sometimes, you’re writing in English, and comma, or semicolon, or period, or dash or something; that action, that hidden tone of the language is quite important. This is the touch, the invisible touch. Therefore, the encounter with Emily Dickinson was like that. When I saw Emily’s real handwriting, it’s very deep and very compact and good, but her writing is sometimes—I cannot say crazy, but some kind of drunkard’s way of very violent thing. So I was surprised by her dash, invisible, it’s a kind of invisible language out of language. And so sometimes, we later find out that a comma, or period, or some kind of thing, that ear-by-ear, it becomes, as you said, touch. One of the roots of the touch through writing, was like this.

PALTRINERI: Thank you. Another question I wanted to ask about is in relationship to color. Last night you chose to paint using blue and green and there’s also so much color in your book, on the cover, in the title of the book, many color references throughout. And I was wondering if you could talk about how you choose these colors and does the sort of relationship you have with color change over time as well?

GOZO: Also, writing is very close to painting, a painter’s touch too. So the color, for example, I’m always carrying this yellow pencil. I was wondering why I use so often this color and I found out that I was in Brazil, 1992 to 1994, two years, University of Sao Paolo, and without speaking Portuguese, without doing anything. I should stay there two years, just reading or writing, and by the window I was writing and automatically the Brazilian trees and air, some color is coming into my mind. That was green and yellow. And this green and yellow that became a kind of my important color and then after some years, I started to make film, or making this kind of strange writing. This yellow and the green became a main color. Plus, after the Fukushima disaster, of course I was reading Van Gogh a lot, but through reading Van Gogh I also was sometimes buying water color, or something. Checking Van Gogh’s letter that he said to his brother, send me belle Veronese, or something. So I went to the paint shop and I’m very poor, friend, belle Veronese, and he gave me that color, and using that color, that kind of very primitive, very poor primitive connection, the color is coming to my mind. And yesterday, yesterday was white and blue, but my point was that I was also influenced by Jackson Pollock. Jackson Pollock’s dripping, the paint or something. And listening to the dripping sound is important, important, so I was trying to listen to how it sounds on the paper. [Gozo taps the desk.] It’s not enough, but this kind of thing.

PALTRINERI: That’s wonderful. Something else I think that connects to sound and to listening, yes, in your poetry it seemed to me, anyway, that there were full phrases, or full expressions that were then interrupted by sounds, and sounds from many different languages. There’s an American poet that I admire. Her name is Mary Ruefle, and she says that, “fragments are the husk of a secret.” And the husk is like what covers a piece of corn, for example. And I was wondering how you do think fragments can be revealing, or how they can hint at a greater whole?

GOZO: Very important, important question and point, that fragments, sometimes by chance appear sometimes in a dream, sometimes in the so-called mistake, sometimes by accident. That kind of edge of the fragment, edge of the fragment, or where maybe that kind of fragments, the born place like a tunnel, if you can feel, that is the time that a fragment’s homeland was, what you call, to see through, to see through this very, very narrow passage, if the mind is enough to be aware of the moment, the birthplace of the fragment becomes true.

I’m thinking about the moment that some nun said that, “God came and build a tiny statue-like thing and disappears.” That small, small moment exists, that is the secret of the mind. That, it’s very, very tiny moment that exists, but you believe that that moment that exists. Kierkegaard says, when something happens, that’s the start of the world, the start of the cosmos. That kind of small, small, small almost like needle’s pinpoint-like sign appears. That is the time of the encounter to the other world’s start. Maybe this is my interpretation of fragment. I think this kind of thing. It’s very confusing, but so sorry.


PALTRINERI: No, it’s complicated, I think, in any language, yeah.

GOZO: Any language, it’s complicated.

PALTRINERI: This also connects to how you’ve talked a little about it, and it’s also written in Alice Iris Red Horse, about your work in transcribing the poet and philosopher Takaaki Yoshimoto, and I was wondering if this is a meditative practice for you and how and when did you start transcribing him?

GOZO: Yes, thank you very much for asking me this right now. Any time I’m carrying this paper, right now it’s six hundred, eighty-five pages. I started this one year after that Fukushima disaster, and I sort of made up my mind to change how to write. Instead of using regular writing or something, I decided to transcribe that Yoshimoto Takaaki’s very philosophical work. I started with his poetry and the main point was as you see, only for writing poetry he draws the pencil line by not using a ruler, but by pencil he lines. And 1966, I clearly remember at the editor’s office, some editor showed, “Gozo, do you want to see Mr. Yoshimoto’s poem in his own paper?” And I saw at that moment, when I saw his script, I heard the shower, the sound of pencil. And he wrote his own poem in a small letter and I was surprised to make the world itself first, not the regular paper. He created the foundation first, his touch is creating, the first touch of the world, and then write poetry.

So it was my inspiration and later when I was in Iowa, I received one prize and went back to Tokyo and I attended one of the ceremony or lecture and he was there too. And at the backside of the stage, I was standing at the other side of the backstage, and I was watching him, he was standing at the other side of the backstage. He was touching some kind of, this kind of thing by hand constantly and I was so surprised that this man is touching, from the brain, the hand appeared and touching every wall, that’s the kind of impression I had. So I thought, this must be the secret of not only writing human beings, to touch something.

So after the Fukushima disaster and one year after that disaster, he died. So I made up my mind for my respect too, I started to not only transcribe but also to imitate to draw this line. The first time was quite painful. I only draw the line like to make stone garden like thing. But little by little, I used to draw the line and transcribe from Hiragana to Katakana is very difficult. content from hegerus to engerus to something ,something, very difficult, But as you said, to write, transcribe, is very slow and you can hear in the fragmental moment, you can hear the tone of his thinking, five years, in five years, you study that hidden tone. That’s quite important. So, if I have, I wish I have ten years of my life, I can transcribe Emily Dickinson or Yeats or Melville. It could be possible. The element is so different. So called journalism or the mass media does not do this kind of thing.

So yesterday’s stage, as you saw, I started making with making small circles on the stage, touching there, as I think this kind of action and sort of hidden tone of the life coming out and touching, so touching is the key word, touching the floor, touching the life of the wood and asking, “How are you? How are you?” or something. And talking about yesterday, it was very well planned that I was so, by my way, thinking about wrapped-up music, because musicians they are so tense, so we need to create some touch or bridge, constantly. That was, that task, not the meaning of writing or how to express your voice, is secondary thing. How to touch or how to approach or how to step into their mind was more important. Maybe that kind of mind came from these five years of transcription, I feel.

PALTRINERI: Wonderful. I did want to ask you about the laptop orchestra and also you’ve been very, it’s been well-known that you’ve performed with many jazz artists. And you’ve also spoken about the importance of something happening, essentially, one time only. That it’s an experience that is not necessarily planned for, or rehearsed, or could be done many times over—that each experience is new. And also with the connection with music, or with music and with poetry, it seems so intimately connected with breathing and with breathwork, and so I was wondering if you see any sort of link between those two items: kind of breath as it relates to sound and also the idea of performing something or experiencing something one time only and the impact that that has.

GOZO: It’s a kind of miracle. I usually refuse to do the so-called rehearsal. The rehearsal is a funny thing. Of course, technically, it’s necessary for the sound effects and mic check and writing and theatrical thing, it’s necessary. But for the essence of the expression, once you express, it becomes memory. Instinctively, when you do the rehearsal, you imitate the rehearsal, so usually I don’t do it. But this time, you are arranged that Professor Jean-François’ [Charles] group. As you know, it’s the fast, fresh group. I never saw that kind of spirited by the clarinet, and it was a very interesting scene. So we did minimum rehearsal, minimum. We succeeded to keep the very important fast experiences’ air. We succeeded to keep it. So that was the main point.

And that one girl, she’s a translator? In there the student of Translation Workshop?

PALTRINERI: Patricia Hartland?

GOZO: She gave a tiny blue stone to me. What a sign, some kind of small sign, so that kind of tiny, tiny small fragment of mind came to the stage. It changed that stage.

PALTRINERI: That’s wonderful.

GOZO: So that so-called, it’s not so-called stage or so-called theatre or so-called drama, it’s completely different, and different from happening too. And how many musicians there, in the laptop orchestra?

PALTRINERI: I think six.

GOZO: And the translator was five or six, which means similar to this Alice Iris Red Horse, you cannot say it’s a group completely different delicate mind came to the same place and sit together. And how can we do that kind of very delicate tension and anxiety and how the nervous feeling was mixed. And that’s why the great power came out.

PALTRINERI: Speaking of small blue things, I brought a small gift for you as well. I live in the forest here in Iowa, there’s not so much forest left in Iowa, but I live by the lake and I wanted to bring you this feather here.

GOZO: Oh! That’s a great thing! Thank you so much.

PALTRINERI: Thank you. It’s just been an honor to talk to you and we appreciate you being here. We’re so thankful to Kendall Heitzmann and the Japan Foundation for bringing you here and thank you so much for your time and your thoughts.

GOZO: Thank you for the great point: touch, the touch. By the way, when I read the poem “Ancient Castle in the Air” dedicated to Paul Engle and Mrs. Forrest Gander, C.D. Wright—a brilliant and mysterious good poet. When I was reading “Ancient Castle,” I quoted Man'yōshū’s song. It says that Prince Kume once touched this feather or this leaf. Once touched. Someone once touched and some thousand years later, we are touching. Same kind of thing.

So you caught that touch, thank you so much. Thank you for the feather.

PALTRINERI: Thank you very much.

GOZO: It was a great, great cosmos you created. Thank you so much.

PALTRINERI: Thank you.

The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.

Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m guest host Kathleen Maris Paltrineri. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available December 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where Christopher Merrill talks with Australian writer Julienne van Loon.

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Yoshimasu Gozo
November 15, 2018

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