Cities, Airports, Houses, Histories: EVENT interviews Sachiko Murakami
Sachiko Murakami is the poet responsible for The Invisibility Exhibit (Talonbooks, 2008) and Rebuild (Talonbooks, 2011). She is the poetry editor at Insomniac Press, and stretches the bounds of poetry-as-we-know-it through Internet-based collaborative projects such as Project Rebuild and GET ME OUT OF HERE. Want to know more about her? You’re in luck: her essay ‘The Central Fact’ appears in the latest Notes on Writing issue (42/1) and, below, we’re featuring an interview that follows up on that piece and asks some other questions about her projects as a whole. I first came across her work during a research project on teaching poetry with new writers’ first books that was presented at the 2013 AWP conference in Boston, and I have been following her exciting online projects ever since. Though she launched her career in Vancouver with very Vancouver-inflected poetry, she’s now based in Toronto, so I had to catch up with her by email.
EVENT: Vancouver—its geography, culture, history and its problems—is a dominant figure in your first two books. How do you imagine yourself interacting with your new setting?
Sachiko Murakami: I’m still writing about Vancouver. I can’t get away from it! I’m writing about airports now, and YVR is a central figure in the manuscript. I’m trying to get to YYZ. Once I leave the airport, I imagine I’ll start tackling Toronto. It’s a slow process.
E: Your poetry seems to be largely concerned with space: housing, geography, city, the use of city space (the notion of not littering comes up in several poems.) How did you develop an interest in these concepts?
SM: I think Vancouver is preoccupied with—passionate about, perpetually anxious about—real estate. Most of my adult conversations in that city ended up at some point turning to real estate in some way. I had a growing anxiety about advancing into adulthood with the certainty I would never own property in the city. This was perhaps made more acute by my family, who have a troubled relationship with real estate, understandably so after the seizure of their property in WW II. I think we write about our preoccupations. My relationship with the city and its land was occupying much of my thoughts.
E: Your Notes on Writing piece for EVENT found you struggling to create since you’d ‘replaced writing with recovery.’ How have you been managing your relationship to writing lately?
SM: Not great! I’m trying more to focus on managing my relationship with fear. Sometimes I look back on poems I’ve written that I really like, and feel like I have no relationship to the mind that produced them. And the belief that my ability to write has been crippled by the damage I did to my brain, as well as by the effects of medication, can be crippling itself. I get to a blank page and my heart races, I erase every second word, I judge every line that comes out as too clunky or obvious or trite. Some days I can catch myself long enough to suck in lungfuls of faith and keep going until that voice settles and I find a path to empty-mind, source-connected writing. But a lot of days I can’t get past the fear, and I have to quietly direct my attention toward something else. Like a doughnut. I get panicked when I think of all the days that pile up between those source-connected writing days. Some days I feel like someone who talks about being a writer, rather than being a writer. Then I actually talk to other writers and I’ve yet to talk to anyone who hasn’t gone through something similar.
E: Many of the poems in Rebuild seem to function as poetic remixes of other poems (including similar elements but in different orders, structures, etc.). How do you see this as working between two poems and in the context of a larger project?
SM: While I was writing Rebuild, I felt antagonistic toward poetry, particularly toward the lyric narrative, frustrated at its inability to do anything. (Note that I was grieving my father’s death at the time.) I felt that a sense of dissatisfaction was also evident in Vancouver’s habit of tearing down the buildings it erected only a few years ago. Stripping away story. Hitting the restart button. ‘But that’s not what I meant at all.’ Try again, fail again. I think of them as rebuilds, rather than remixes.
E: Many of your works, notably the Vancouver Special series in Rebuild, seem to be informed to a degree by conceptual poetry, in that the idea and process of the work are as important as the product. How do you see your work in the context of conceptualism (if at all)?
SM: I have great admiration for the procedural and the conceptual poem. I also have great admiration for the lyric poem. I think this comes through in my writing.
E: You seem to be pushing the boundaries with community-built / interactive / ‘outsourced’ poetry (as on projectrebuild.ca and in your forthcoming airport project). How does this affect your process? Your product?
SM: There’s a sense of relief at letting in some help. It’s a bit in a way like working with found text—I feel like something gets sidestepped in my fear-based brain that has a real problem with being a creator, the idea of pulling a poem from the ether. It’s easier to say, okay, brain, start with these words, now go anywhere. In another way, I think collaborative gestures like Project Rebuild ask us to consider accepting our collective mind as a viable creator of poetry.
E: How do you conceptualize the function of technology in your poetic process? For instance, I’ve read that you’ve used translators to manipulate text in the Vancouver Special series. What does this add to a text?
SM: I ran an ur-poem, ‘Vancouver Special’, through Google Translate to four different languages and then back again to English to produce the four poems titled ‘Vancouver Special’ that appear in Rebuild and which form the basis of ProjectRebuild.ca. The poem is concerned with the experience of people living in Vancouver Specials, and so I used the home languages of four people I have known who lived in them. I wanted to produce a same-same-but-different quality, the feeling you get encountering one Vancouver Special after another as you walk down a city block.
E: You seem Web savvy. How do you see Web presence working as a component in your poetry career?
SM: I can’t remember the last time I printed off a poster for an event. Can you? I try to integrate social media into my experience rather than have it distract from my experience.
E: What are you reading now? What new influences can we expect in your next output?
SM: I’m reading airport books, American poets, and Web programming manuals.
E: Do you have any other interesting artistic projects in the works?
SM: I’m working on the structure for a digital collaborative poem based on the poem, ‘When I have the body of a man,’ by EVENT’s editor, Elizabeth Bachinsky, for the 2013 Queensland Poetry Festival. I’ve contracted out the programming of my online poetry projects (Project Rebuild and HENKŌ), and now I am learning to build them myself. Writing code is, so far, as frustrating and as rewarding as writing poetry, with the added benefit that you can tell when it is working because the button on the website actually does something. Meanwhile, I’m writing poems in response to crowdsourced airport observations for GET ME OUT OF HERE and throwing everything else into a site-unspecific poetry manuscript (the first of its kind for me—I always tie my poems to spaces and situations).
Interview by Joshua Grant.
Photo by Angela Rawlings