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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A Writer’s Insight: Danielle Lazarin

Danielle Lazarin’s story, “Floor Plans,” appears in the summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Read more about Lazarin’s forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, and her approach to writing “New York stories,” below.

Kathleen Boland: What was the inspiration for “Floor Plans”?

Danielle Lazarin: A few years ago I noticed that one of my neighbors down the hall was moving boxes out of his apartment, but not, I understood, enough of them to be moving out. I never asked, but I did guess and confirm that it was a couple going through a divorce—the boxes belonged to the wife and daughter. I thought about both of my instincts: sadness at the fact of their marriage ending, and also wondering if they’d sell the apartment (they did, about a year later), what it looked like, how much they’d get for it. I am, after all, a native New Yorker, and shameless real estate curiosity is in my blood.

I began to imagine what it would be like to be on the inside of that story, to see opportunity in loss and also maintain empathy throughout it. At the time, there was a rash of divorces among my peers, and I knew, even under the least dramatic of circumstances, it is a wrenching process, with its own grief and expectations and pain, and I wanted to explore the aftershocks of that experience.

KB: The story opens with the image of a piano delivery via window; a bit later we meet Juliet, who wants to combine neighboring apartments. In my mind, both of these things are particularly New York City experiences. How else is this story a New York story? Or, how does the setting of New York interact this unraveling marriage and burgeoning friendship?

DL: I think New York is particularly suited to the sudden and brief sort of intimacy that Robin and Juliet share during this transitional time in their lives. The ratio of space to population in this city means that other people are inescapable; we share elevators and subway cars and washing machines; we hear each other fighting and vacuuming and crying. There’s a loss of privacy to this, of course, but I also see that New Yorkers are exceptionally respectful of this public/private boundary, sensitive to how difficult it can be to be so exposed. What Robin and Juliet do for each other, as many New Yorkers do, is bear witness to what’s difficult without interfering; I like to think this lessens the loneliness they are both feeling. Of course, they also both take advantage of these changes in each other’s circumstances (divorce, pregnancy) without apology. It’s undoubtedly part of the culture of New York to be curious, to cross boundaries in order to claim what space we can.

KB: I appreciated how much “Floor Plans” discussed the financial lives of its characters, especially the socioeconomics of real estate. Why did you choose to include these details in the story?

DL: Part of it was quite personal—there is nearly no one I know in NYC who has purchased real estate without great privilege, whether that’s a literal down payment from family or a lifetime of safety nets that account for being stable enough to save, yet this myth of luck and hard work over privilege persists, and it makes me crazy.

On a character level, it’s key to what Robin is asking herself as she makes her choices: Is this life of the woman next door built on smarter choices, more stable ground? I think we often look at someone else’s life and think it’s better than ours when we are just looking at their things or trappings without any idea of what they cost on an emotional level. What are the limits you impose on your life when you have kids? Get a mortgage? Be in a marriage? Accept money from family? Choose a certain career? We all want a life that isn’t really tied to things or relationship status, but sometimes we trick ourselves into believing we do. Everything costs. Ultimately, the choice Robin makes comes at a literal cost to her; it changes her future, and she does it for a more-or-less stranger. Robin sees that money won’t fix things she or Juliet want fixed.

KB: At one point, Robin remarks how Juliet has an “in-between of her world face and her home face.” The story revolves around in-betweenness: the divorce, the sale, the pregnancy. How does this theme speak to the tone of the story, as well as the setting of New York?

DL: A wise early reader of mine described this story as existing in “the liminal space” and that was a guiding principle when I revised it, so I’m really pleased that you picked up on that as the space of the story. Both women’s situations and choices couldn’t be farther apart, yet they need a lot of the same things: company, distraction, an illusion that they will be OK on the other side of something quite unpredictable. They need to do this out of the eye of others who know them. They find each other in that space, and once these transactions are over, so is their connection. I think, for better or worse, this is an oddly normal New York relationship: temporary, need-based, and intense, but no less real.

The city, too, leads many people to believe it’s all temporary: that you can start over again and again, that there are so many lives you can live, and that you’re always on your way to the next, better one. This can be great if you are the one who is changing or leaving—as Lev is, on to bigger and better, he believes—but it can be painful if you just want things to stay the way they are. New York will change over and over again without asking you if you want something more permanent. My favorite essay about New York, Colson Whitehead’s “Lost and Found,” speaks to this coexisting sense of loss and renewal that makes New York hum.

KB: “Floor Plans” will be in your forthcoming debut collection, Back Talk, out next year. Can you speak about your experience publishing a debut collection? What was the most surprising aspect of putting Back Talk together? The most satisfying?

DL: The publishing part has been, all things considered, fairly fast: I snagged my amazing agent, Julie Barer, in January 2016, and the book sold later that year (to the equally amazing Sarah Stein at Penguin Books). But it’s been a long road; I wrote about half the stories in the years before and during graduate school, which I finished in 2007. The rest, including “Floor Plans,” were written after moving back to New York in 2009, when I was theoretically working on a novel. So the book itself represents a lot of invested time. I think story collections at their best are representations of the risks writers have taken with their work, in craft and content. So in a really simple way, after all those years of playing around with what my stories can and cannot do, it’s been satisfying to be able to gather them, to see my own themes and limitations and ways I’ve tried to push past those.

It has been surprising to see early readers picking favorites, which are often not my favorites. And that separation of my feelings for certain stories from the readers’ feelings for them is actually delightful. It gives me hope that the stories can live beyond my feelings about them, that they might go out into the world and belong to others.

KB: And finally, what’s the strangest encounter you’ve had with a neighbor? 

DL: I really wish I had a better to answer to this, but most of my neighbor interactions are fairly normal; my NYC neighbors are great—many of them have said they think it’s adorable that the dog howls when the kids cry (which is likely because I’m yelling at my kids). They deserve cookies and booze for living around us.

There was that one time our neighbor in Michigan, who had a great sense of humor, knocked on our door to ask if we had put an opossum in the trash can. That was also the time we learned what it means to “play possum.”

Danielle Lazarin’s debut collection, Back Talk, is forthcoming from Penguin Books in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Glimmer Train, and Boston Review. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on a novel.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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When the days are longer

This morning my nine-year-old daughter came into the kitchen while I was preparing her lunch for day camp to announce that she found it “ridiculous” that Minecraft does not make seasonal adjustments for time: morning and night arrive at the same time year round. “Doesn’t Minecraft know it’s summer?!” she exhaled with her hands in the air, eyes rolled. That it was 8:00 am and we weren’t already in the car frantically en route to school was, in itself, an adjustment for summer. Another is that there are a few extra minutes in the day not dedicated to the rigorous drill of homework, dinner, bath, story, and lights-out by 8:45 pm that can, instead, be used for catching up on reading. The joys of summer.

The summer 2017 issue of The Southern Review is out, and I’ve already fielded numerous compliments, starting right with the cover. A live oak canopy opening up to blue sky, the cover painting, by New Orleans–based artist Elise Toups, is quintessential Louisiana and gives the issue an immediate sense of place. You can view a gallery of Toups’s images here. A strong sense of place as subject is reinforced with the first three poets. Alison Pelegrin’s “Our Lady of the Flood,” about the devastating floods in South Louisiana last summer, opens the issue with a woman surrounded by a “citronella halo” and carrying a “laundry basket of kittens in one arm.” In her “shrimp boots and rubber gloves,” she walks on water, leading her people “to the safety of each other.” It’s a powerful opening to strong issue of texts.

Jill Osier follows with three poems, “Elegy,” “Siberian,” and “Star Field,” set in Alaska, where the speaker regularly visits the local library to read by a window that overlooks a ridge. It’s the same region where the last caribou was killed and a meadow of tiny flowers sits high above the town. She reads her poems in our audio gallery this season along with several other writers, including Erika Meitner, who provides a long four-part poem.

Meitner’s “Another Ohio Road Trip” weaves its way through several states, touching on the subjects of death, infertility, a Super Bowl party, the movie Free Willy, and the speaker’s intersection with the Catholic Church. Having grown up taking road trips every summer with my family—often to Pennsylvania and Ohio, where my mother’s family still lives—the landscapes in Meitner’s poem felt familiar, and they immediately transported me to our own station wagon loaded up with six or seven kids who were counting trains and factories, reading billboards, and searching for a Stuckey’s.

At the other end of the journal, closing the summer issue, is Bob Hicok’s “Poem ending with a murder/suicide.” While the issue opens with poems that present specific corners of the United States, it closes with a piece that addresses the whole of America. Hicok’s poem begins, “It’s interesting to me there’s a minimum / but no maximum wage,” and then muses about work and fairness and quality of life, among other things.

In between are numerous works that talk about place, including Jeff Hardin’s poem “One Moment Touching All the Others,” about finding one’s place in the world—in other words, finding home. Edward McPherson’s “Sky-Stormers of the Llano Estacado,” set outside of Midland, Texas, presents the story of nineteenth-century “weathermakers” who use explosives in an attempt to make it rain. And Danielle Lazarin’s “Floor Plans” is a story that takes place in a New York City apartment building, where two women, neighbors who are both experiencing great personal changes, seize an opportunity to form a fast but fleeting friendship.

Fast and fleeting is what summer always seems to be. So enjoy the season that, if you’re fortunate, provides the gift of a little time and opportunity for reading.

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NEWSLETTER: The Southern Review gears up for summer – and Father’s Day

Read our latest newsletter here: The Southern Review gears up for summer – and Father’s Day

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A Writer’s Insight: Kevin Prufer

Kevin Prufer’s poem, “In Small Spaces,” appears in the spring 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Prufer read the poem in our audio gallery here; read more about the inspiration behind the poem and current projects, as well as his favorite type of gin, below.

Kathleen Boland: What inspired “In Small Spaces”?

Kevin Prufer: I was doing the dishes one evening and happened to glance up at the television. On TV was a true-crime program about a voyeur who had crawled from his apartment to his neighbor’s apartment simply by removing the ceiling tiles and squeezing above the walls. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind—both the literal thought of someone doing that to someone else (I think he ended up murdering the woman on the program, though I left that out in my poem) and the metaphorical, the idea of a violent figure moving, unseen, from one realm into another, whose motivations are mysterious. It seemed like a particularly chilling and meaningful way of thinking about the divine.

KB: As a woman, this poem was pretty terrifying to read. The voyeurism depicted is gendered, not just that the victim is a woman, but that details of her are feminized; the man’s obsession with her pink toenails, for instance. What commentary, if any, were you aiming for with these choices?

KP: Yes, I was aware of the creepily gendered subtext. But isn’t that version of God—the God who lives above our ceiling tiles and watches our every move—frequently gendered, too? Personally, I’ve always found the idea of an all-seeing, all-loving, all-knowing God frightening . . . when I thought about it (which I did, a lot, when I was a boy). But it’s important that the news story about the man coming down from the ceiling is, in many ways, buried in the larger narrative involving the speaker in the poem—a guy who begins by watching the TV program, then descends into imagining what might really be happening inside the voyeur’s head, etc. That is, the larger creepiness of the poem is the speaker who can’t help but use the terrifying story he’s watching on TV to try to understand something frightening, sexualized, and invasive about the way we think about the divine.

KB: Halfway through the poem, the narrator’s bottle of gin begins to admonish the speaker: “Don’t think about the man in the rafters, / says my bottle of gin” and then, “Stop it, / says my bottle of gin, you’re inventing things.” How does this bottle of gin speak to the themes of gaze and surveillance in the poem? Of its meditation on God?

KP: Well, I imagined the speaker slowly getting drunk here—the bottle of gin offering him some escape from anxious thoughts, suggesting that oblivion might be an alternative. But, really, there’s no escaping an image—try not thinking about a blue elephant, after all. Or a creepy man hiding in your rafters.

KB: Along with Martha Collins, you edited an anthology of poetry in translation, Into English, forthcoming from Graywolf Press later this year. What is your experience with poetry in translation, especially when translated into English? Did you make any discoveries or realizations of the genre or language while working on this project?

KP: We invited twenty-five very experienced translators to each select a poem that has been translated into English at least three times. We’re reprinting all three translations alongside both the original poem and an essay on what the various versions tell us about the art of translation, poetry, and literary history.

I’ve worked a great deal with translators and have also translated some German poetry into English (and vice versa), but I am by no means the expert that Martha and our contributors are. For me, it was fascinating editing the essays, reading the versions of the poems, and thinking about how encountering different versions at once can lead to a prismatic and far deeper understanding of a poem. Working with these translators certainly deepened my sense of the enormous number of choices translators make—considering poetic music, image, diction, white space, tone, nuance, colloquialism. What does one favor? What does one suppress? How does one translate the experience of a poem?

KB: What are you working on now?

KP: I have a book coming out next year called How He Loved Them, a new collection of poems, quite a few of which appeared in The Southern Review. We’re in the final editing process of that, though I’ve mostly moved on to newer work—a poetry collection I’m tentatively calling The Art of Fiction; “In Small Spaces” will be included in that manuscript.

And I continue to work on the Unsung Masters Series, a book series I curate with Wayne Miller devoted to bringing great, out-of-print, little-known writers to new readers. Each volume includes not just a healthy selection of the writer’s work, but also features essays on the writer, interviews with people who may have known her, photographs, ephemera, reviews, etc. The next volume is on the mid-twentieth-century Colorado poet Belle Turnbull, and the editors will be David Rothman and Jeffrey Villines.

KB: And finally, what’s your favorite brand of gin?

KP: My favorite brand of gin is Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kevin Prufer is the author of six collections of poems, the most recent of which is Churches. With Martha Collins, he is currently editing Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, which Graywolf Press will publish this year. In 2018, Four Way Books will release his next poetry book, How He Loved Them.

Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review.

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