Playfulness in a Monstrous World: Satoshi Iwai

Interviews with Fairy Tale Authors

Mercury Night

In the midnight subway station, I see a heavily drunken man sitting on the dirty bench. He keeps on swinging and murmuring. I lost my tail in the shredder… my long tail… As he bends his body, trickles of glittering confetti spill out of somewhere in his crumpled suit.

When the last train is arriving, his shadow on the floor turns into a black dog and stands up. The man is sleeping. The dog slides into a train car. No passenger takes notice of it. The train leaves me and the sleeping man, who doesn’t move an inch. I don’t see whether the dog had a long tail.

Stay away from emptiness, or it may bite you. I hear the announcement from somewhere above my head. The sleeping man has already half-melted into a silver pool, which is reflecting a red signal. I feel for my tail through my pants. The next station is another night.

“Mercury Night” and another poem, “Summer Faces,” are forthcoming in The Charcoal Issue.

Mikko Harvey: You’ve mentioned that you write poems in both English and Japanese. I wonder how your English poems feel different from your Japanese ones, and do you ever translate your own poems across languages?

Satoshi Iwai: I live in Japan, and I speak and write only Japanese in my daily life. English is a rather fictitious language for me. When I want to train my body at the risk of injury, I play soccer in the park near my house: this is my Japanese writing. When I want to be Lionel Messi’s teammate, I play video games on the PlayStation: this is my English writing. I have no plan to do a self-translation. Messi won’t play in the park near my house, and I won’t play at Camp Nou.

Who are your favorite poets? Are there any contemporary Japanese poets that you think more Americans should be reading?

Iwai: James Tate and Charles Simic are my favorite poets, but I’m not sure whether I have the right to love the poets who write in English. My reading ability can allow me to admire their ideas, but examining their wording is beyond my capability.

Likewise, I’m not sure whether I have the right to recommend Japanese poets to Americans. Taichi Nakao, Etsuko Nakajima, Tahi Saihate… there are many excellent poets in Japan, and their excellence mainly depends on their radical or ambiguous wording. 90% of them can be lost in translation.

Harvey: Why do you think you are drawn to James Tate? I ask because I’m drawn to him, too.

Iwai: I’m attracted by a kind of passiveness or emptiness of “I” in Tate’s collection Return to the City of White Donkeys. “I” is often put in Kafka-meets-Hitchcock-like situations. He is embarrassed about them or struggles with them, but doesn’t seem to be really embarrassed or struggle. I feel that he enjoys being a bystander while he is struggling. That suggests how I can live in this monstrous world playfully.

Harvey: That’s a good way of putting it: “live in this monstrous world playfully.” As for Simic, I was reminded of his book The World Doesn’t End while reading your poems, which will appear in our upcoming Charcoal Issue. I would describe “Summer Faces” and “Mercury Night” as prose poems that use surrealism to reach surprising conclusions. What is your writing process like for these kind of poems? And what is the purpose, for you, of surrealism in poetry?

Iwai: I usually begin my writing by finding one sentence that will be the core of a poem. Each sentence comes from anything: a picture, a piece of news, a real estate flyer, etc. In the case of “Mercury Night” it was “Stay away from emptiness, or it may bite you.” When I saw an empty garbage cage chained to the pole while walking down the street, this sentence came to my mind. Then, I make a story or a situation freely to fit the sentence into it.

I don’t always prefer surrealistic stories or situations, but I always want to know what the world is really like. Psychoanalysts have tried to know about mental health by examining mental illness. For me, surrealism is not the wings to fly over reality, but the funhouse mirror to reflect the reality of the world.

Harvey: Finally, I’m just curious: have you ever visited the United States?

Iwai: Unfortunately, I’ve never been to the United States. I hope someday I will visit your country. I want to stay at a dirty old motel. I want to sit in the waiting room of a police station. It may sound weird, but they are very special American locations to a crime movie lover.

Satoshi Iwai was born and lives in Kanagawa, Japan. He writes poems in English and in Japanese. His English work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, RHINO, Small Po[r]tions, Your Impossible Voice, Poetry Is Dead, and elsewhere.