A short interview with Sachiko Murakami

Sachiko Murakami : photo credit: Carmel Purkis
Sachiko Murakami : photo credit: Carmel Purkis

Sachiko Murakami is the author of the poetry collections The Invisibility Exhibit (2008), Rebuild (2011), and Get Me Out Of Here (2015). Her work in collaborative digital poetry includes Project Rebuild, HENKŌ, WIHTBOAM, and FIGURE. She has been a literary worker for various presses, journals, and organizations, and currently sits on the poetry editorial board at Talonbooks. She lives in Toronto.

Q: I’ve long been intrigued by your collaborative digital projects, from Project Rebuild, HENKŌ, WIHTBOAM, and FIGURE. What was the original impetus for Project Rebuild, and how do you feel the project helped with your own writing, specifically Rebuild?

A: Project Rebuild began with a single poem, “Vancouver Special”. It’s a poem about a specific type of house in Vancouver (the Vancouver Special), which evokes strong and emotional reactions from Vancouverites. I was interested in their sameness, the relation of their stark utilitarian facades to the Beautiful, and also their social and political complexities. They are, for example, essentially a duplex with its units stacked, which allows for different dwelling possibilities than the traditional single-family detached. Municipal bylaw changes were actually passed to prevent their construction in affluent neighbourhoods. So that’s where “Vancouver Special” started. I then wondered how the poem might be inhabited by different ‘tenants.’ I ran the poem through Google Translate into the first languages of people I have known who have lived in Specials, and then back in to English; these became the four poems titled “Vancouver Special” in Rebuild. I then wondered what might happen if I invited poets to move in to the poem, and so I sent an email out to many people in 2010 with the request that they “move in”, with no restriction on what that might mean. Thirteen poets responded. I didn’t really know what to do with the poems until I read them at the Avant-Garden reading series in Toronto. I read some of the response poems, and Jenny Sampirisi, who was in the audience, suggested letting everyone in to the poems. I liked her idea but doubted anyone outside of Vancouver would be interested in poems about Vancouver Specials. I asked a friend, Starkaður Barkarson, to code a website that would allow anyone to “rebuild” any of the original four “Vancouver Special” poems as well as the 13 response poems, poems which would in turn become “rebuildable.” My Vancouver artist friends Marian Churchland and Brandon Graham drew the Specials. The site went live in August of 2011, with the idea that it would be a companion to Rebuild, which came out the following month. Project Rebuild took on a life of its own beyond Rebuild. What started as a project about a specific type of house in Vancouver became a much more general conversation about collaborative or community-built poetry.

As for its relationship to the writing of Rebuild – both represented attempts at loosening my grip on the poem as a finished, Beautiful product, held hallowed forever on the page. Rebuild is largely about Vancouver real estate – the activity of a city where tastes rapidly change, and in which the structures built over the past one hundred years were seen as temporary, since the city has had the habit of tearing much of itself down and rebuilding itself every generation or so. Even attitudes towards the Vancouver Special, once so despised by Vancouverites, have changed, with the recent fad of loving parquet restorations and hip renovations. I wanted to emulate that activity in the book, that tearing down and rebuilding of poetry using language as materials. Many of the poems in the book are ‘rebuilds’ of other poems (identified by their identical titles). I wanted the sense of the book being a work-in-progress even as it was printed. If Talon would go for it, I would put the whole book online for renovation à la Project Rebuild. But it’s probably a bit too late for that.

Q: Are all of your digital projects, then, extensions of the ideas and concerns around your writing works-in-progress?

A: It’s not a direct path from the page work to the digital work, no. HENKŌ came into being when the Powell Street Festival (a long-running Vancouver festival celebrating Japanese-Canadian arts, culture and heritage) requested that I recreate Project Rebuild for the festival. I thought about the festival, where I had worked as a student one summer and which I attended regularly for many years, and wondered whether the form of Project Rebuild was appropriate. I thought of the renga, the collaborative Japanese form in which a poem is passed from one poet to another, each adding a stanza which responds to the stanza previous and the poem as a whole, and wondered what possibilities there might be for digital transformations of such a form. I came up with the form that HENKŌ takes – a ‘manyway’ renga, in which anyone can respond to any stanza in the poem. The poem thus branches out into many possible readings. I wanted a polyvocal poem, something like the experience of wandering through the grounds and hearing many voices drift in and out, each contributing to the whole sound of the festival. I seeded the poem with stanzas requested from poets, and then opened it up to the general public. I also created a sound poem of the seeded stanzas that played in a gallery displaying photographs from Tamio Wakayama’s project Kikyō: Coming Home To Powell Street. I distributed postcards with these seed stanzas at the festival inviting participants to contribute, and I also did an interactive performance at the festival where the audience and I contributed to the poem. So HENKŌ arose from a curiosity of how the digital space might foster the creation of new poetic forms.

WIHTBOAM came from the desire to create a collaborative poem at the 2013 Queensland Poetry Festival in Brisbane, Australia, where I had been invited to read. I wasn’t sure what that poem would look like until I came across “When I Have the Body of a Man” in Elizabeth Bachinsky’s The Hottest Summer in Recorded History. It’s a brilliant poem that links clauses between lines: “When I have the body of a man, I have the head of a bull. / When I have the head of a bull, Athena springs from my forehead. / When Athena springs from my forehead, I tell Athena, cut it out!"” and so on. I was learning to code, then, and I thought it would be a great challenge to see if that form could be created programatically. So it was Bachinsky’s form that created WIHTBOAM.

FIGURE is straight up the work of a rawlings. It was her idea, her form, and her poems. I was merely the programmer and co-designer in that project. But we both have a deep interest in Tarot, so I was game for the challenge. She had the idea to create a poetry oracle, in which each card would be associated with poem fragment – lines or visual poems – that would combine in a ‘spread’ to create a unique poem/‘reading’ for each reader. The project is still open to those who might want to contribute a ‘deck.’ I have been meaning to create a deck that pulls lines from social media, but that is still in the works.

So I guess you could say that I am investigating how the digital can change how we read and write poetry, since, for example, the relationship between “reader” and “writer” now lacks an easy distinction. The digital is a co-creative space, one in which idea ownership boundaries aren’t always clear. I’m thinking of a Tumblr blog, which often is just the aggregation of other people’s posts creating a narrative with little or no commentary beyond the curatorial decisions of the blogger (uncreative blogging?). Digital culture changes our subjectivity in that it challenges us to negotiate our relationship to others daily, immediately, continuously. We strive more than ever to be live nodes on the network, now, and “to be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter,” to quote Linda Stone. How could that not change the nature of our cultural products? I say: keep up, poetry!

Q: Have your digital collaborations changed at all the way you approach your own writing?

A: Yes. I’m more and more interested in collaboration and community-built writing. My new book, Get Me Out Of Here, consists of poems entirely written in response to observations other people made in airports. I had tried to write a book about airports, you see, as I was travelling a lot in 2012-13, but whenever I got into an airport I immediately spent the entire time waiting to leave – and forgot to look up and around and gather inspiration like a good poet. So I outsourced my inspiration. I made an open call on the internet via social media and asked people to send me what they observed in airports. I spent the next few years writing poems in response to each observation. That was tougher than I thought it would be, but it was a very pleasant challenge. After writing a poem, I’d invite the observer in as an editor to further the collaboration. Then of course there were the usual collaborations in the course of writing a book: feedback from friends (angela rawlings saved me from my habits), feedback from my editor Stephen Collis, and then Greg Gibson and Ann-Marie Metten went above and beyond copyediting the book at Talon. So the book that resulted is very much the result of collaboration.

Q: I remember when your original call went out. What were the nature of the collaborations? Were you utilizing the observations you were given as bouncing-off points, or attempting to directly incorporate the style, cadence and language of each into new poems? In what way are the poems in the new book collaborations?

A: I didn’t follow a formula for responses to the observations. Sometimes the cadence would catch me and I would work with that. Sometimes I used the letters as materials. Sometimes it made me think about the person who sent the observation, or my relationship with them. Often the line would trigger a memory, image, or idea, and I worked with that. They’re collaborations in that the source or trigger of inspiration – which traditionally comes from the mind of a poet – came from elsewhere. And the observers were invited back into the poems after I had written them, although few ventured back in as editors or responders, which was interesting. It was similar to the resistance I heard regarding Project Rebuild – students would hesitate, asking me if it wasn’t copyright infringement to use someone else’s poem for their own material. People expressed anxiety about ‘desecrating’ a work. But that's what any text is – it’s a response to something outside of the self! Poets are users and plunderers and borrowers and thieves of experiences, ideas, and language. Without the spirit of that conversation, poetry becomes sociopathic. The language and ideas of my poems are shared experiences, and rightly so.

Q: Your published work so far exists very much in the realm of ‘response,’ whether composing poems responding to “the political and emotional wake of the ‘Missing Women’ of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside” in The Invisibility Exhibit, issues of Vancouver housing in Rebuild, or the response/collaborations of Project Rebuild and Get Me Out Of Here. What I find curious is in how so much of your responses have been tied to geography, specifically certain social and political aspects of Vancouver. What is it about the social and political climate of Vancouver that causes so many of its residents, at a level unlike any other Canadian city, to respond via poetry?

A: I’m not sure why Vancouverites feel so compelled to respond to the city. I was on a panel hosted by Oana Avasilichioaei when she was the writer-in-resident at Green College (UBC) a few years back, where we wondered the same thing. Could it maybe be because activism and social/political engagement, particularly in the poetry community, seems to be more of the norm in Vancouver? Could it be because the city is relatively new and still shaping itself and its residents feel compelled to be part of that process? I don’t really have answers for anyone else. Certainly I was influenced by activists/poets. It’s hard to be a KSW member (as I was, briefly), for example, without participating in that conversation. And the regularity with which that community met provided a space for those conversations. Then again, I wrote The Invisibility Exhibit while in Montreal and Rebuild after I had moved to Toronto. It’s much easier for me to write about a place from outside it.

Q: Your first two poetry collections are tied very much to Vancouver, but your forthcoming third exists in a nebulous between-space. Airports are never destinations in themselves, but exist as a means-to-an-end. What led you to writing away from your Vancouver and into the space of the airport, and does this suggest that you might eventually begin to write of your adopted city, Toronto?

A: Well, I had left Vancouver and moved to Toronto in 2009. So there’s that. I did see Get Me Out of Here as a way of weaning me off of my writing of Vancouver, though there are some YVR poems in there, and it’s hard for my imaginative, ur-airport not to be YVR as I’ve spent the most time there. When I talk about this new book, I often say things like, “It's a book about airports. Kinda. Ostensibly.” It’s a book about wanting to leave, really: the self, the present, the here-and-now. How does that manifest? Through self-harm, through disassociation, through love, through poetry. Airports provide a useful setting for thinking through this. Until I figure out how to stay, I doubt I will be writing Toronto poems. I’m barely here yet.