Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Make it New: An Interview with Sachiko Murakami

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Make it New: An Interview with Sachiko Murakami

In this interview, I catch up with poet Sachiko Murakami as she discusses her fantastic upcoming book Rebuild due out in fall 2011 from Talonbooks.
Those poets in my roughly under 30 generation (and others, of course) will remember Murakami's GG nominated debut The Invisibility Exhibit as an important book that signaled a bright new talent. Only 3 years later, Murakami has avoided the sophomore slump altogether by delivering on all the promise of TIE with Rebuild.

Rebuild is a further meshing of lyrical sensibilities with experimental techniques to create, for lack of a better word, a not-one-boring-moment style. Murakami discusses her interest in real estate as a cultural phenomenon -- particularly in Vancouver -- and how that interest became quickly intertwined with a remarkable family back-story. It's good to be a poet in this day and age.

Enjoy.

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JL: Thanks for doing this interview, Sachiko.

I thought we'd start off by maybe doing a bit of a retrospective of the past few years. You're just on the cusp of releasing a new collection Rebuild (Talonbooks, fall 2011), and by my calculation The Invisibility Exhibit is roughly three years old. You've experienced a rare critical reception that has included a GG nomination, substantial buzz in the blogworld, and the respect of both lyric and experimental poets alike. Pretty good, I'd say. But do you have a bouncy ball because I DO!

Okay. I'm wondering, though, if you can just talk us through the ride a little bit. What do you remember about releasing TIE? What surprised you? What changed, if anything, in your perception about what it meant to be a published author -- a published poet at that? Does releasing Rebuild feel different in any substantial or notable way three or four years in?

SM: I remember being in a constant state of mortal terror from the time Karl Siegler at Talon accepted it (December 2006) and the time it was released (April 2008). That's a lot of terror, believe me. My adrenal glands are still recovering. I received a lot of positive feedback about it from my writing community in Montreal, but once I moved back to Vancouver I was suddenly stricken with a whole pile of self-doubt - did I get it totally wrong? Why did I bother doing this in the first place? And then, the inevitable chorus, "They're All Going To Laugh At You!"

Once it came out, though, I realized that my perceptions are pretty distorted. The positive response, I must admit, helped with that.

Writing Rebuild, then, could have been a huge disaster for my ego. The Invisibility Exhibit was my Master's thesis, and I was getting guidance and feedback the whole way through. That didn't happen with Rebuild - there were a few poems at the beginning that I workshopped in a writing group, and I would occasionally exchange work with friends, but it was much more of a solitary effort - until Karl, my editor, got his hands on it - thank God! But I've learned that the book is not the be-all-end-all, that there will likely be another one, and that it's all part of a process. I show up and make my best effort, and the results are what they are.

There's a bit of playing with this in Rebuild - I work with remixing text a lot in it, breaking poems open, undoing the "art" of the lyric. A poem, as it turns out, is really no big deal, there's nothing eternal, nothing precious, about it. I'm open to being wrong. I'd rather be open to possibility and make mistakes than closed down and convinced I am right.

Can I borrow your ball? Yours looks bouncier than mine.

JL: No. It's...mine.

What you said in your last paragraph made me think of one of my favourite poems in TIE, "Exhibit A (Boxes)." I remember a line in that poem -- "You and your big disappointment" -- addressing, neh confronting, the reader as if they were bringing an expectation with them, or, that they were never quite finding what they wanted the way they wanted it. It seemed to me there that you were engaging with your reader's reaction, which is quite uncommon in a book with such thematic clarity.

Could you tell me a little more about the "art" of the lyric? What does that mean to you? Do you see a certain style of lyricism as being "closed down"? How would you characterize it? Going along with what I said re: "Boxes," I noticed that a lot of the poems in IE don't come from a traditional lyric standpoint -- that is, they don't appear to be you, or, they make a concerted effort to bring the reader into the meaning-making work the poem achieves.

But some of the poems in TIE are beautifully traditional too such as "Skipping Stones." How do you look back on a poem like "Skipping Stones" now?

SM: Well, I don't know about the lyric. I don't have the lyric figured out, at all. But I know that in my own writing, I get into ruts - easy patterns, the same strategies, and at first I think, wow, this is how it works! This is easy! This is fantastic! I'm writing up a storm - and then, eventually I get sick of my own voice. Oh, it's you again? I can't get very far thinking I'm right all the time. That easy, comfortable place - not much interesting happens there.

So I like to work with that discomfort - which is what is happening, I suppose, in "Boxes" - Looking for answers, coming up short, coming out somewhere unexpected. As poets, we are so lucky to work with a medium - language - that has such rich possibilities for different ways of knowing beyond me and my big idea and my beautiful way of expressing it. It's a big wide field and I prefer to play. Even if it means getting dirty and possibly failing entirely. I'd rather try and fail with glee rather than stay stuck in the mud, holding my (well-crafted, praise-worthy, same-old-same-old) position.

Having said that, it is still definitely the lyric game that I'm playing.

As for poems like "Skipping Stones", I don't feel any remorse or anything, if that's what you mean. I was trying to write something sonnet-like. And I think it worked out pretty well. The poem rhymes, and rhyme is just a fascinating puzzle for me. How am I going to get this to work? And then it just starts working on its own - how did that happen?! I still get deep pleasure from rhyme. Maybe too much for my own good.

JL: Wow. Well said.

I must say, I'm kind of baffled by "Skipping Stones." It makes sense in terms of the general geography of the book (East Vancouver, near water), but it's also just so unexpected and accomplished. I thought I might include it here for readers:

Skipping Stones

I fling flat stones into the surf corral
my anger in the strangely angled prose.
Each beat's concentric blip a sound so odd
it clarifies the brine to mellow blues.
My mother's ex once skimmed his bottle caps
down at the lake; not littering, I thought,
the glinting disc's fourteen discrete hop-hops.
Now I trust black, the solid strength of rock.
My hand must learn the pebble's weight, and I know
which chips will change the shape and spoil the trick;
this can't be accurately guessed, and though
some seem to work without my gauging it;
I fling them to new bottom homes,
and some I leave to dry upon the beach. Skip stones.

*** I manually typed this out and all typos must be attributed to me*******

Okay, so Rebuild. The title seems to imply that some kind of destruction has taken place. There is hope in it, as well.

Can you talk a little bit about how you manage to shake out of these lyrical "ruts" where, I'd assume, you feel that your writing lacks the "self-surprise" Flannery O'Conner said that all good writing needs to have? That is, if the writer isn't surprised by what they come up with, nor will the reader be surprised.

I know some writers -- writers with conventional tendencies -- have gone to the Oulipo Compendium to try to kick start new ideas. I suppose other have worked with some form of collaboration. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what methods you tried -- what worked and maybe (if time permits) what didn't in the process of shaking yourself out of the same well crafted, praise-worthy rut.

SM: Working with found text is useful to get out of that same-voice rut. Two poems in TIE are I guess what you would call "hidden erasures" - the ones titled "News Development". I took newspaper stories somewhat related to my subject - Vancouver's missing and murdered women - and erased words until I had lines that I found interesting. I was thinking about how the narratives of the women's lives had been cut up in the media - characterized as and reduced to drug-addicted street level sex trade workers, and I was interested in doing a bit of similar reducing to news texts.

Rebuild thinks through some notions of homeowning, specifically in the real estate-obsessed Vancouver, where condo marketing is just everywhere, so I play with some condo marketing text in there, too. Originally I had wanted to do a big sonnet sequence using only condo marketing text but I abandoned that series - it was too depressing, and as it turns out you can only go so far with the "condo marketers want to sell you a lifestyle!" idea.

Lineation is another good starting point for switching it up. I tend to do the same trick with the line. David McGimpsey, who was an instructor of mine at Concordia, talked a lot about the line as a unit, and I try to bring as much consciousness as possible to the line. So when I feel like my lines are playing the same tricks they always do, I switch it up - ending all on full stops, or going full-on prose poem, for example. Those techniques require different strategies than enjambment, and just a simple turn like that will often take a poem in a completely different direction.

JL: There's a line in Rebuild where you say you can't see yourself in a condo, but "You can't help. You can't help wanting to."

I won't be so presumptuous as to assume this is you you. But it seemed to me to be quite poignant, and if it wasn't you per say, it seemed to express a certain kind of longing that came from somewhere. In other poems, I noticed this very real push towards the idea of structure, harmony, and familiarity. But, to put it simply, it seems unattainable in some classical sense and thus things continually unravel, break down, and move away. And there's a kind of sadness but also a great unfettered hope to it, just in how new possibilities become apparent.

I'm curious, though, as you were working with this material (condos and real estate development) and I guess, thinking through a certain kind of lifestyle -- of home ownership; of having a nice view and a steady job perhaps, and so on and on... was it difficult not to begin to sort of identify with it? Or was it the opposite: did it put that lifestyle into a certain perspective for you?

I know I'm using my terms liberally and I would never go so far as to say there's a homogenous "condo lifestyle" that's somehow "easier" than an artistic lifestyle or something. But we could probably agree that dealing with condo advertising and development would at least mean constantly coming into contact with the ideal it was offering--and, I'll admit it, it's powerful...

So I guess I'm just wondering what kept you on track with Rebuild as an uncompromising artistic work and kept you from just saying, yeah, hell, I'll just get a condo and settle down?

SM: If I could afford to own a condo in Vancouver, I'm not sure I would say no to one. I actually was trying to buy one at one point, but with the (what I thought was) substantial money I had for a down payment (after the death of my grandfather) and a relatively okay-paying job, I could afford about 400 square feet - if I spent nearly all my income on a mortgage. I don't really have any idea how people manage to own property in Vancouver. I know there are ways to do it, involving flipping properties, and making grown-up money, and renting out basement suites, but if I had to do that it would likely take up most of my psychic energy.

Real estate takes us enough of my psychic energy in Vancouver as a renter - you talk to anyone, really, any demographic, and eventually real estate comes up in the conversation in one form or another. It's an easy topic for Vancouverites - after the rain, real estate. It's a bit of an obsession, really. That's what interested me in writing about it.

Then there's my own family's relationship to real estate and homeowning. My father was born in 1944 in an internment camp for Japanese-Canadians in New Denver, BC - far from Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island, where his family's farm had long been sold off by the government to pay for their internment. His family would eventually work their way back to the west coast and re-establish themselves as a prominent family on Salt Spring.

That treatment had a huge impact on my family, and one of the outcomes was a real drive to buy land on the island. (As an aside, my uncle and aunt just opened the first non-profit housing project on the island.) Yet my father did not own the home we grew up in. So I come to real estate with a bit of baggage, you see. And I like to work with my baggage as fruitfully as I can.

JL: Wow, congrats to your aunt and uncle.

It strikes me that Rebuild is a more sort of adventurous, searching book than IE. You have stanzas and line lengths as well as prose poems like IE but you've also included more experimental approaches in terms of layout and content. There are redaction poems based on other poems, work that might be coined "visual poetry," and a variety of seemingly found texts worked over and regenerated.

But it also strikes me that Rebuild is a more personal book too. As you've stated, issues of real estate are inextricably linked with a remarkable, complicated family history. I'm thinking particularly the last third of the book, where deeply affecting poems like "Spectular Loss" make up a kind of emotional core that the rest of the book seems to orbit.

Was there a relationship here, between letting things become more free, between working with more experimental techniques, and with allowing the content to shift slightly more towards the personal? Or are the two simply co-related with no casual connection? Or maybe I should ask: did this book feel more personal?

SM: It's interesting that you see Rebuild as more personal than TIE; I think of TIE as my "mom" book and Rebuild as my "dad" book. There's a section of TIE that speaks directly about my experience with my mother - I always thought it was obvious, but some people have been quite surprised when I mention it.

My father and our family's relationship to land sort of landed on Rebuild. I began Rebuild in late 2007, and at the end of 2008 my father, rather abruptly, died. So that's where the final section of Rebuild emerged from, and it really took my editor Karl to point out the connections between what I was writing about - real estate - and what I was also writing about - my family's experience. Once he gave me permission to see that, the poems definitely found a more certain orbital path around the emotional core, as you say.

The strategy of tearing down a poem and rebuilding it happens often in the book. Often such destruction leaves detritus - and that detritus turned out to be, oftentimes, little chunks of me and my family. So maybe, yes, that allowed the content to shift more towards the personal - at the corners of the poem, rather than perfectly formed sonnet after glorious ghazal after rambling lyric about me, me, me. (Not that I have anything against the sonnet or the ghazal or the free-verse lyric - all make appearances in the book.)

JL: It sounds as though you've had a good editorial relationship with Karl at Talonbooks. It's funny that sometimes a person needs an outside party to come in and tell them what they already know, or tell them what they are already consciously doing. Being immersed in one's own work creates a certain myopic perception of self: you lose perspective easily.

What has kept you coming back to poetry through the writing of TIE and Rebuild? Was there something special about poetry that allowed you to work through what you wanted to work through, or was it just something you were good at? Only 3 years turnaround on a 2nd book -- that's pretty amazing and especially one as strong as Rebuild. So, I guess my question is, what keeps you coming back to poetry? Do you have swervings into other genres, or have you remained a poet primarily for the last while? Or, and maybe we could close with this, what does the future have in store? Are you working on new poems, something else, or are you taking a break?

SM: Well, Rebuild began before TIE even came out. It started with wondering why everyone hates the Vancouver Special, a style of house considered ugly (well-documented at Keith Higgins' www.vancouverspecial.com). So there were a lot of walks, noticing what the city actually looked like - in Vancouver your eyes tend to glaze over what is immediately in front of you and look beyond to the spectacular-spectacular Nature. And that sort of wondering lends itself more to poetry, I think, than to fiction - are those my two options?

But now I actually am taking a breather from poetry - from 2004 to now it's been intense subject-driven projects (loads of research went into both TIE and Rebuild, although I don't think they read like "research" poetry projects), and I think maybe I'd like to try just a regular old collection next - I have some formal interests in mind, though.

I'm working on a novel at the moment. I find writing fiction both terrifying (you mean I have to keep writing once I get to the end of the page) and liberating. Half the time when I'm writing I'm giggling to myself about this story I'm just making up. It's tentatively titled The Orphans, and it takes up the trope of the orphan in literature and bonks it on the head a bit. It's moving so slowly - I get down these avenues that I think are fantastic and then I have to abandon them. When that happened with TIE or Rebuild I lost a few pages from the manuscript - but now I lose whole sections, entire characters. But I'm enjoying myself immensely.

JL: Good to hear it. Thanks, Sachiko.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Jeff Latosik

Jeff Latosik’s first book, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac Press), was published in Spring 2010.

Go to Jeff Latosik’s Author Page