At the age of eighty-three, Naoshi Koriyama has just released his first book of poems in Japanese. After publishing nine collections of poetry in English and three books of translations from Japanese into English, Mr. Koriyama has translated his own poetry into Japanese himself. Naoshi Koriyama’s poetry could be characterized as imagistic free verse that translates human experiences into approachable poems. His poems are brief, usually less than a page in length. His topics vary from nature–Wordsworth is one of his favorite English poets, to persona poems, such as one in which an artist father explains the meaning of his paintings of naked women to his daughter, to love poems of exquisite sensitivity and insight, to political poems condemning the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to depictions of everyday scenes of domestic turmoil and tranquility.
Naoshi Koriyama was born in 1926 in southern Japan on Kikai Island, Kagoshima Prefecture. He studied English language at Kagoshima Normal School, and English literature at the University of New Mexico and the State University of New York at Albany. He served for many years as professor of English at Toyo University and is now retired. He lives in Kanagawa, a suburb of Tokyo.
Bill Wolak and Naoshi Koriyama met in Tokyo on a sunny July afternoon in 2010 at The International House of Japan, which was formerly a mansion belonging to the Kyogoku Clan, feudal lords over what is now Kagawa Prefecture, and is now a private non-profit organization founded in 1952 to promote cultural exchange and intellectual cooperation, reminiscent of the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. During that meeting, the following interview was started, and it was completed during the following months.
Bill Wolak: How many languages do you speak?
Naoshi Koriyama: I’d say I speak three, Japanese, English, and my Amami Island language. I know just a little bit of French.
BW: You have been writing your poetry for a long time in English. When did you first start to learn English?
NK: I entered Kagoshima Normal School in southern Japan in April 1941. That was my first encounter with English. Initially, we had about four English classes a week in 1941. The war started in December, 1941, then English classes were slashed as the years went by. By 1945, there were no English classes at all. I got drafted in June, 1945, and was in the army for two months till the end of the war. I returned to school after the war and graduated from Kagoshima Normal School in 1947. I taught one year at a junior high school on Kikai Island in the Amami island chain. Then I got enrolled in the Okinawa Foreign Language School in Okinawa to learn English intensively from September1948 to March 1949. Later, I came over to America in a group of 52 students from the Ryukyu Islands, which include the Amami Islands, the Okinawa Islands, the Miyako Islands, and the Yaeyama Islands. I studied at the University of New Mexico for one year and then transferred to the New York State College for Teachers at Albany, where I majored in English and minored in Social Studies. In Albany I started to write poetry as advised by my English professor, Miss Vivian C. Hopkins. Ever since, I’ve been writing poetry.
BW: Why do you think your English professor in Albany advised you to write poetry in English back around 1952?
NK: I spent my freshman year at the University of New Mexico from 1950-51. When I came to the University of New Mexico in a group of 28 students from the Ryukyu Islands, which lie between mainland Japan and Taiwan, I didn’t feel too much of a culture shock there because I was with that group from the island areas. However, when I transferred to the New York State College for Teachers at Albany by myself in September 1951, I had difficulty adjusting myself to the new environment. Miss Vivian Hopkins must have thought writing poetry might alleviate my loneliness and feeling of inadequacy.
BW: You were born on Kikai-jima (Kikai Island) in the Amami chain of Islands, which has its own language and traditions. What was it like growing up on Kikai-jima?
NK: In our grade school years, we wore kimonos sometimes and Western-style pants and jackets at other times. We walked to school barefoot. The nearest grade school, about one and a half miles from my home, only had six grades, so for the 7th and 8th grades, I walked to another bigger school about four miles each way. At our hamlet on Kikai-jima, we had a festival on August 8 by the lunar calendar. During that festival the island people danced in a circle, like at a Bon festival dance of mainland Japan, where the people offer food and drink to the souls of their dead ancestors.
BW: How are the Amami languages different from Japanese?
NK: In general, it is said that the Amami languages are dialects of Japanese. The Amami languages have many old Japanese words which mainland Japanese people must have brought in ancient times. However, when we speak our island languages, no mainland Japanese can understand them. So, these are independent languages, rather than dialects of Japanese, I’d say. The Amami languages are closer to the language of Okinawa than to Japanese. There are a dozen islands in the Amami chain of islands. Like any other groups of islands in the world, the language of each island is quite different from that of other islands! That must be true for the Hawaiian Islands and the Philippine Islands, as well. Language is such an interesting cultural property, but now the island languages of the Amami Islands are fading away like many other indigenous languages around the world. When I was a schoolboy back around 1935, I used to speak the island language at home all the time, but now no schoolchildren can speak the island
language. I’ve read in the paper that around the world one indigenous language is dying out every two weeks.
BW: Did you have to learn Japanese like a foreign language, or was it like learning Spanish after you have studied French?
NK: When we were children on Kikai-jima, we always spoke the island language at home. We spoke no Japanese at all. At grade school we were told not to speak the island language. Anyway, we didn’t feel as if we were learning a new language. We knew we were learning our own country’s language, rather than a new language, perhaps because we knew we were Japanese and that we were learning our own language, even though the Japanese language was different from the language we spoke at home.
BW: Do you still get a chance to speak the Kikai-jima language?
NK: My wife is also from Kikai-jima, so we used to speak the island language very often. But now, since our children don’t understand it, we speak Japanese instead. Nevertheless, when I call my 85-year-old cousin on Kikai-jima, we speak the island language on the phone. When I visit Kikai-jima about once every three years, I try to speak the island language as much as I can in order to feel more at home on the island. The language of Kikai-jima is different from the languages of all the other islands of the Amami chain of islands, so I speak that island language. Rather complicated, isn’t it? I could understand someone from another island only if we both speak rather slowly.
BW: Who are the Japanese poets that you read for pleasure or that you admire?
NK: I’m sorry, I have to confess that I’m not much of a poetry reader. I seldom read Japanese poetry for pleasure. If I am asked to give the names of some of the poets whose poems I enjoyed reading and translating while working on the book of Japanese poetry which I co-edited and co-translated with Edward Lueders, Like Underground Water–The Poetry of Mid-Twentieth Century Japan, I would mention such names as Nishiwaki Junzaburo, Shimaoka Shin, Ibaragi Noriko, Shinkawa Kazue, and Tada Chimako. However, I do enjoy reading and translating classical Chinese poetry by such poets as Tu Fu, Li Bai, and Su Shi.
BW: You have had a long encounter with American and English poetry, both as a student and as a teacher. Are there any American or English poets that you enjoy?
NK: If I were asked to name only one poet I most enjoy in English literature, I’d say it’s William Wordsworth. I have enjoyed and still enjoy reading William Wordsworth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read his “Tintern Abbey” poem and “Daffodils.” Of course, I also enjoy reading Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. I also enjoy reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnets. His “Wreck of the Deutschland” is too difficult for me. In the Medieval Period of English literature, I enjoy reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” I once fooled around with his Middle English, trying to write a long narrative poem, “Chaucer Goes to Expo 70,” in Middle English! Among American poets, I’ve enjoyed reading many poems by Robinson Jeffers. His poem, “The Eye” is my favorite. In addition, I’ve enjoyed reading The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. I even translated the whole anthology into Japanese, but my translation remains unpublished, since I have been unable to find a publisher.
BW: Now let’s turn to your poetry. In general, your poetry could be characterized as imagistic free verse that translates human experiences into approachable poems. Would such a statement be an oversimplification of your style of writing poetry?
NK: Your characterizing of my poetry as “imagistic free verse that translates human experiences
into approachable poems” is very appropriate, I think. Years ago, when I once submitted a poem to some poetry magazine, the editor wrote, “Thank you for sending us your impressionistic poem,” on her rejection slip! So, you might add “impressionistic,” just before “imagistic free verse. . .” I never thought of characterizing my own poetry. Thank you for trying to characterize my poetry.
BW: Can you explain a little about your writing process? Where do you do your writing? Do you tend to write at any particular time of the day or night?
NK: Just like some other poets, I jot down any impression I get in my notebook, whenever I get one, say, while helping my wife bake bread, kneading dough, or looking at cherry blossoms through train windows, noticing a hibiscus flower open in our yard, looking at Venus brightly shining by the new moon, admiring the beauty of an attractive woman, and so on. Then, looking at the jottings, I type a rough draft of a poem on my word processor. I mostly use my word processor, which I like much better than the computer. Somehow I like the feel of my fingers on the keyboard of the word processor much better than that of the computer. I know word processors are no longer manufactured. But black ribbons are still on the market, which helps. I seem to be a step behind the technology of the times. I do my writing in my office at home, where it is quiet and I feel free, looking at the persimmon tree just outside the window from time to time. I don’t set any particular hours for writing. I write whenever an idea for a poem is fermenting in my mind.
BW: Do you tend to write your poems out on paper first, or do you type them on the word processor?
NK: I jot down any ideas on my notebook, but I don’t write poems on paper. I directly type them on my word processor.
BW: Do you revise your poems, or do you tend to write complete poems that need little revision?
NK: I revise my poems often. I remember reading in an essay that an American creative writing professor said, “The secret of good writing is rewriting.”
BW: What is the purpose of poetry?
NK: The purpose of poetry is creating something beautiful, something inspiring, something enduring in the universe. Deep at the bottom of my soul, I have an ardent prayer: “I wish I could write a single poem that would be enduring and could be read by some readers in future centuries.” I do believe that poetry is something that must arouse joy, instill wisdom, inspire hope, and generate encouragement in readers. I find no meaning in writing ambiguous, foolish poems.
BW: At the age of eighty-three you are publishing your first book in Japanese, a selection of your English poetry that you have translated into Japanese yourself. How has that book been received?
NK: Many poets to whom my publisher had sent complimentary copies wrote to me warm notes or letters. However, as far as I know at the present time, only one newspaper in the Amami Islands, The Nankai Nichi Nichi Newspaper, printed a book review of my first poetry book in Japanese, entitled “Shijinn no Inryoku” (The Poet’s Power of Attraction). I am hoping a few other newspapers may have printed reviews of my book that so far have escaped the attention of my publisher and me.
BW: Was it difficult for you to translate your English poems into Japanese?
NK: No, it wasn’t difficult at all to translate my own poems into Japanese. However, it’s
quite difficult to translate English poems by others into Japanese.