A Writer’s Insight: Miho Nonaka

Miho Nonaka’s poems, “Rupture” and “Contained Things,” appear in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Nonaka read the poems in our audio gallery here; read more about the inspiration behind the poems, as well as Nonaka’s bilingualism and current projects, below.

Kathleen Boland: What was the initial catalyst for “Rupture” and “Contained Things”?

Miho Nonaka: “Rupture” is based on what I used to do when I was in junior high school in Japan. I was watching TV one night and I saw a woman turn cheap marbles into something gemlike by heating them up and then shocking them in ice water. It was exactly the kind of magic I would (and still will) fall for. That was one thing I could “cook.” I was a terrible cook then. My mother didn’t even want me in the kitchen. My sister nearly threw up when she tried one of the madeleines I’d managed not to burn.

I started “Contained Things” as a list of things that share the quality close to my heart: the tension between transparency (vulnerability) and enclosedness (containment). It is possible that I had Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book in the back of my mind. I was also thinking of a phrase from one of Kōbō Abe’s stories: Watching small things makes me think perhaps it’s okay for me to live, like raindrops . . .

KB: Both of the poems in this issue are prose poems. How did you decide to use the prose poem form for these works? 

MN: I wrote the first draft of “Rupture” two decades ago. It came quickly; I was simply putting down all the steps to “cook” marbles. I put the poem in quatrains.  Each line was about the same length. The poem on the whole looked and sounded like a set of instructions.

It took me a very long time to realize that I could use a less stable, more expansive form.  Reality is messy. The central action of the poem doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I had to add the character of Father and set the poem in a specific time in history. In one sense, the poem is about compulsion in the guise of a ritual. I needed more contextual details to suggest what triggers an occasion of self-contained violence.

The two poems are closely connected. I wrote “Contained Things” right after I finished revising “Rupture,” and still felt high on the relative freedom and chattiness of the form.  Not every poem has to be distilled and lean with lines like oracular bones, though I like that kind of poem, too.

KB: In “Rupture,” the speaker says: “No one taught us how to love foreign words, nor the logic behind their syntax.” You’re a bilingual poet. How does bilingualism impact and influence your writing, especially in regard to these poems?

MN: I didn’t start learning English until I was in junior high. I got one of the lowest scores in my class, and my parents put me in a cram school. I don’t know what possessed me, but I believed that English had a set of logical rules that, once you figured them out, would enable you to spell any word and compose any sentence at will. That was a beautiful delusion.

I still remember vividly, physically, what I felt—the shock, humiliation, and, of course, attraction—when I first tried to internalize English. In my mind I could never be a “real” bilingual. I lacked the ease and fluency I associated with that phrase. These poems are informed by some of those ambiguous feelings.

Another thing I find in these poems is the dominance of imagery. I tend to trust it, because, as Pound posits, it’s the one thing that translates. On the other hand, it used to be difficult for me to lose myself in the music of the English language; my self-consciousness kept me too sober to bank on it. Something in me would insist that these words were foreign, distinct, and object-like, instead of being the organic flow of music. I wanted and needed to be free from my own sense of distance from English.

KB: “Contained Things” moves across geographic locations, from Chinatown to Cornell to France, all while focusing on the unspeakable of specific moments (the “invisible bees” between lovers; the “flaming tongue” of the girl). Meanwhile, the girl remarks on the “land of egg whites” while she’s with the English and French couple. What is the purpose of the global perspective in the poem? 

MN: What’s important is not the coverage of various cultures and countries, but how each encounter with the unfamiliar in whatever form (be it people, a landscape, a piece of art, sound, or food!) could change you and allow you to discover another side of yourself and different possibilities of connecting to the world. It is impossible to remain being purely one thing. There is a certain commitment you make in each context, and you leave part of yourself with it. I tend to think that every life is shattered in some ways, each fragment authentic, and a portrait of a person is a collage.

KB: Both poems revolve around the inherent potentiality of objects: the marbles, the paperweights and Super Balls. The father in “Rupture” builds a radio on “the cusp of two Japanese eras”; while the fish in “Contained Things” swims in an enclosed bowl. Can you speak further about these poems’ theme of the potential of in-betweenness?

MN: I have a soft spot for clear objects, even kitschy ones, that hint at the presence of another world, a different mode of being. The doors that stay ajar in surrealist paintings.  Alice facing the impossibly small door that leads to a beautiful garden (though it brings her face-to-face with the Queen who wants to cut off her head). I guess you could say that is one kind of in-betweenness.

On a more everyday level, it requires patience. It takes me about ten days to start dreaming in English again after I return from Japan. When I am exhausted, I forget basic English words like toe (I called it “foot finger” one night, which disturbed my husband, God bless him). My knowledge of kanji characters is diminishing. My face changes when I switch to speaking English; it becomes more guarded, and it is prone to developing more wrinkles (or so I was told).

At “the cusp of two Japanese eras” I desperately wanted to grieve with my father, but he wouldn’t share who or what he was grieving. I don’t think he even knew how. Within a year, I would find myself in America. When you are learning a new language, you are bound to sound childish. In a foreign context, at least for a time, you must accept the conditions in which you perceive more than you can express. This is torturous for someone with artistic impulses and great need for expression. But it is also a space rich with possibilities. You find yourself juxtaposed against a background you can’t merge in, like a polar bear in a desert. You become ridiculous and interesting. In-betweenness is not about the glorification of the self, and, in some cases, you don’t even have the luxury of other options. But it can be an opportunity for losing the self and witnessing what emerges through unexpected connections. Each moment of becoming requires suspension of judgment; it keeps you from indulging in nostalgia, the heavily idealized version of who you were, of what you sounded like, and of your home country itself.

KB: What are you working on now?

MN: At a snail’s pace, I am working on an article on Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 with a wonderful scholar Wendy Faris, which will appear in Magical Realism and Literature, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. For now, I am researching and translating relevant Japanese texts. I finally mustered enough courage to face my old poetry manuscript and revised it extensively this spring. It has a different title now, and I am circulating it while trying to write new poems. And I have an assignment to write a poem about Pentecost, but I’ve been procrastinating for more than a year and a half!

Miho Nonaka is a bilingual poet from Tokyo. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Tin House, and American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans. She teaches creative writing at Wheaton College.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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