Salvaging My Old Dream: Rob Taylor Interviews Matsuki Masutani
I was at my computer
My wife was downstairs
at her computer.
“I don’t know
what to do!”
I shouted back,
“Dust the kitchen
remembering she always says
“I should dust that light.”
I expected she would say,
But she said, “Okay,”
and put on CBC radio.
I went to have a nap.
(Mother Tongue Publishing, 2021).
Reprinted with permission.
Matsuki Masutani is a poet and translator living on Denman Island. He moved from Tokyo to Vancouver in 1976. Ten years later he moved to Denman Island, where he eventually began writing poems in English and Japanese. He has translated Canadian works such as Roy Kiyooka’s Mothertalk, Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms, and from Japanese into English, Kishizo Kimura’s memoir, Witness to Loss, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2017. His poems have appeared in Geist magazine, Capilano Review and in the anthology Love of the Salish Sea Islands.
Rob Taylor: You note in the acknowledgments to I Will Be More Myself in the Next World that, at the encouragement of Roy Kiyooka, you started writing poems in English around twenty years ago. You also work as a translator between English and Japanese, having translated books by Kiyooka, Hiromi Goto, and others. Could you talk a little about that choice, spurred on by Kiyooka, to write in English and not your mother tongue of Japanese?
Matsuki Masutani: I stopped writing poems around 1970. I decided that direct action was a more effective means of expressing myself. However, I still considered myself a poet.
My way back to poetry turned out to be long and winding. I met the poet Roy Kiyooka in Vancouver. He was known in the Japanese immigrant community as “a famous painter who doesn’t paint anymore.” I was a poet who didn’t write. I complained to him that my chances of getting back to writing poems were slim because I was away from Japan and my audience. His surprising advice was to write in English, which was unthinkable to me at the time.
Roy hired me as a translator. I interviewed his mother in Japanese and transcribed and translated her answers into English. Based on my rough translation, Roy wrote Mothertalk. I then translated Mothertalk back into Japanese, and it was published in Tokyo. The Japanese title was The Samurai’s Daughter Who Went to Canada.
RT: It must have been interesting to translate a work you translated into English back into Japanese. Did you simply use the original transcriptions, or did you do another round of translating? Did that process teach you anything about the art of translation?
MM: When I was translating Mothertalk into Japanese I could hear his mother’s voice ringing in my head all the time, but I didn’t refer to it directly. I was surprised how close The Samurai ‘s Daughter Who Went to Canada was to her original interview.
RT: Could you talk a little about translating Hiromi Goto?
MM: When Hiromi Goto asked me to translate her work, I was delighted. I wanted to translate Japanese Canadian works. I feel that the works of Japanese Canadians are variants of Japanese works. Even their English seems coloured by a Japanese sensibility. They needed to be translated and appreciated by Japanese readers. They are part of our works.
RT: Your work, too, is very much “coloured by a Japanese sensibility.” Would you say that when you are writing you are, in a sense, “thinking” in Japanese and translating it into English?
MM: When I write a poem in English, I don’t think in Japanese at all. English words are my sole guide. It’s the same as when I’m talking to my family and friends in English. It is crucially important to be understood. It is a struggle.
RT: Do you think the poems you write would be different if you wrote them in Japanese first, and then translated them into English?
MM: I’ve never translated my Japanese poems into English. I started to write English poems in 1999, long after Roy’s demise. For several more years I could not write poems in Japanese. I still feel funny with my Japanese poems, as if I am not recovered from the trauma of separation. For more than thirty years I didn’t write poems in Japanese.
Meanwhile, I wrote English poems every day. Poems poured out. I wrote about myself, my father, an ancestor in a revolutionary war, and a friend who killed himself. I felt I owed them poems. Many of these are included in this book.
RT: Yes, and they are tremendous. I’m so glad they poured out! Though you haven’t translated your Japanese poems into English, you have gone in the other direction: a number of the longer sequences in the book appear in both English and Japanese, with you providing the translations. Did you find that process simple enough, or was it a struggle?
MM: I translated some of my Chemo poems into Japanese as soon as I wrote the English versions. I felt these poems were important for me and worthy of translation. That was the first time I translated my own poems.
RT: Did you see your poems in a new light through the process of translating them?
MM: Some of the verses work for English readers but not for Japanese readers. This is because of cultural differences. Translating my own poems gave me an opportunity to adjust these verses. It helped keep the translations poetic.
RT: There are obvious connections between your poems and traditions of minimalist poetry in Japan, and then in certain small ways the book feels very Canadian, too, very West Coast.
MM: I was unaware of my poems being minimalist until others pointed it out. It seems that I want to get out of the creative mode as soon as I am in it because of my shyness or self-consciousness.
RT: I love that: being unintentionally minimalist because whenever you start a poem you are already in a hurry to end it! Could you talk a little about the influences that shaped your writing, be they minimalist or shy or otherwise?
MM: In my early twenties, a whole bunch of Japanese contemporary poets influenced me. They were mostly avant-garde and some were influenced by the New American Art Movement. Only a few people understood them. But I loved their experimental verses. I thought their audacity helped to revive something at the heart of Japanese traditions.
RT: Your being inspired by artists “few people understood” is interesting, as your own writing is—at least on the surface— very easy to understand. Could you say a little more about how their audacity revived something at the heart of Japanese traditions? Do you see their work reflected in your own writing today?
MM: When I was young I was proud not to be understood by others. Now, I feel completely opposite. Probably this is because of my age, but it could be the influence of Charles Bukowski. I read his work The Last Night of The Earth Poems. I was not impressed by the content of the poems, but very inspired by his plain speaking.
RT: Ha! Yes, I think I share your mixed feelings around Bukowski’s content and style. And that’s so interesting that an American poet brought you towards a type of plain-speaking that seems to me very much in keeping with that of Japanese minimalist traditions like haiku (at least as I read them, in translation). Your poems are a meeting place, I suppose, where your Japanese and North American influences (and your shyness!) can come together.
We’ve talked a lot so far about how you came to write your poems, but of course writing them is only part of the process—you have to send them out in the world. Could you talk about how the book came into being, and how your daughter Hanako—a tremendous writer in her own right—assisted you in the process?
MM: A few years ago, my daughter Hanako told me to put my poems together. I did that without any enthusiasm and forgot about it. She created the sections and presented “Marriage Poems” to Geist. The choice of poems was excellent and very well edited. That was the beginning. It was also Hanako who prepared the manuscript with her friends, especially Meg Todd, for Mother Tongue Publishing. I was still recovering from my sickness and didn’t participate in editing until the last stage. It is both satisfying and humbling to have my daughter help me.
RT: I can only imagine what a joy that must have been—a dream of any parent. On the theme of dreams: most of the poems in I Will Be More Myself in the Next World feel born out of individual experiences in your life and bound to the “real” world, but some move into the mind and the dream mind (“The view is so monotone, I ended / up looking into my own / mind”). Were dreams always important in your writing, or has their importance increased with age?
MM: I have always felt that dreams are an integral part of my life. But as I get older, the reality of the dream world has intensified. Meanwhile, the real world looks more and more confusing.
RT: The waking mind and the night mind changing places… yes, that resonates with me (perhaps there is a correlation between old age and raising young children—the stabilizing power of sleep!). In recent years, your poems have been preoccupied with both aging and illness: the latter half of I Will Be More Myself in the Next World is largely devoted to your diagnoses with cancer and Parkinson’s.
During remission from your cancer, you wrote “I long for the expansive / feeling I had / when I thought / I was leaving the world.” It’s of note that your late-in-life writing and publishing of poetry correspond with your illnesses. Do you see a connection there, between these diseases and your desire to write and publish your poetry? Is it, in some sense, a way to dwell in, and share, that “expansive feeling” you describe?
MM: It was very mysterious that sickness and the publication of my poems came to me hand in hand. A few years ago, I had rectal cancer and my wife and I were staying in my daughter’s basement in Vancouver. From there, we commuted to the Cancer Center on Broadway. We took a Fraser bus to Broadway and walked the rest of the way. It was a cloudy November. On the road, I encountered many homeless people. I remember feeling acute envy towards one of them who was particularly vigorous.
The same nurses and doctors received us warmly. Everything seemed perfect except I was seriously sick. I spent a lot of time sleeping and praying. Fortunately I had no pain.
In the middle of this, suddenly, I received two unexpected emails both wanting to publish my poems. I wondered if someone was salvaging my old dream to inform me of the end. But I began to see that there was something I could be alive and doing.
When I was told I had cancer, I panicked. I had no idea what it was like to be a cancer patient. I thought I could avoid cancer by avoiding the word cancer. So I wrote chemo poems to show what it is like to have cancer for people like me. That was a new beginning for my poetry writing. I was seventy-three.
RT: Has Parkinson’s changed what you want to write about in your poems?
MM: After my cancer treatment, I thought I would go back to normal, but Parkinson’s changed all that. I felt it wasn’t fair. Once I’d adjusted to it, I noticed that the world had changed. There is a lot of sickness, suffering and death in the world. This is depressing, but I found it made life somehow more real and sacred. This is the world where angels appear and miracles happen.
RT: Speaking of angels and miracles, though the second half of I Will Be More Myself in the Next World is focused on aging and your illnesses, you chose to close the book with a section on grandchildren. Could you talk a bit about that decision, and how grandchildren have shifted your thinking on aging?
MM: After aging, sickness and death comes rebirth. Children are sacred. So, there is a bright light in the darkness.