Books Nobody Reads
by David Fujino
The other day, when the publisher of my last book of poetry — air pressure — said that it was still difficult to publish and sell writing like mine, this got me thinking, and smiling, crookedly.
When air pressure was published in 2006, according to my publisher, this was “before [he] got really involved in the “business” of publishing.” He explained that he had wanted to see what kind of impact my poems would have on a poetry-reading public. That was in 2006. He felt free to try things and just put it out there for people to read.
But in 2013, you can’t do that kind of publishing. It doesn’t pay and it will surely bankrupt you.
No — novels and poetry with clear storylines, discernible themes, and well-delineated characters are what publishers can sell. As for most readers, they similarly prefer novels and poetry with followable stories that strongly resemble our social world.
This is nothing new. Ever since I was a little boy growing up in Toronto, the idea of popular and artistic, high and low, the poor and the middle class, the fans of Elvis and the fans of Pat Boone, classical music lovers and jazz lovers — those idea extremes that people put upon you — have ping-ponged in my head for years and years. I never did agree with these over-simplifications, nor the mainstream viewpoint they’re based upon.
So as a writer, I’d say I’ve taken a non-mainstream approach to my personal poetry and prose. And as a reader, I have a strong interest in writers who are variously labelled experimental/avant garde/non- mainstream — writers like Roy Kiyooka, Gerry Shikatani, and Roy Miki.
Their poetry and occasional prose was not expressly written to tell stories. Their writing usually doesn’t feature characters like in most novels. Often they were written to satisfy the poet/writer’s enjoyment of words and the ideas and pictures and emotions that were expressed. Most importantly, these writers are comfortable creating open-ended and allusive writing. Their poetic skill set consists of knowledge and intuition, combined with a high level of consciousness and deft craft.
In the case of the great and late poet-painter-teacher-sculptor-photographer-musician-nisei, Roy K. Kiyooka (1926 – 1994), I’d suggest you might read, purchase, or borrow from the public library, Pacific Windows, Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka, edited by Roy Miki and published by Talonbooks of Vancouver (1997). The aesthetics of personal experience characterize the nature of Kiyooka’s wonderful poetry. In one volume, Miki has gathered together the significant titles of Kiyooka’s poetry, among them, Kyoto Airs, Nevertheless these eyes, StoneDGloves, the Fontainebleau Dream Machine, Pear Tree Poems, and the various self-published works like All Amazed in the Runnels of his 60 Winters and an April Fool Divertimento that Kiyooka gave out to interested parties in his later days.
Here’s this, from Kyoto Airs:
the sash you bought
for my yukata is
firm around my waist
each time I tie it
you are on one end
& I am on the other.
how else tell
of a brother & sister
thirty years parted
drawn together, again?
And while we’re at it, let’s consider the poetic career of Roy Miki, a poet-editor-critic-teacher-Redress activist who’s done a lot to introduce readers to the work of JC writers like Roy Kiyooka and Muriel Kitagawa. Miki’s early poetry collection (saving face, poems selected, 1976 -1988, Turnstone Press,1991) shows Miki to be a lyric poet of clarity and directness: “i drive down the street/& nothing pleases/no beauty to speak// empty playgrounds/grass so soggy/the feet like sponge// soak up the rain/that’s been falling three days/& you say let it go at that// the rain renews all hollow/pain that can’t be renewed/by a drive down the street”
Now let’s admire the quantum leap made in the development of Miki’s language in Surrender, The Mercury Press, 2001, for which Miki won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2001.
the river organizes itself around/the ring fingers of the city planners// walking is an exercise in becoming/the rivulets criss-cross down the stairs// no strident social voices can equal/the equanimity of the touristic gaze// all fallow hands on deck are heard/melodies through the megaphones// of the fluted stories no longer echoed/in the camouflage of ochre embankments”
(from anticipation alert)
Then there’s Gerry Shikatani. In 1981, his anthology of Japanese-Canadian poetry, paper doors (Coach House Press), became one of the very first anthologies of multicultural writing. (It contained, besides the haiku and tanka poets, the work of Shikatani, Joy Kogawa, Roy Kiyooka, Kevin Irie, and David Fujino.)
Shikatani’s landmark thick poetry book, AQUEDUCT, Poems and Texts from Europe, 1979- 1987, was the product of many years of writing, plus the sustained effort of three book publishers— The Mercury Press, Underwhich Editions, and Wolsak and Wynn Publishers — and was published in 1996. Gerry is also a performance poet and has ventured into food writing, particularly the new cuisine of Spain, for which he has received awards and distinction.
This selection is from Gerry’s AQUEDUCT: “when the snail/talks we/clamber up/the alleys and/turn sharp corners:// cool stone walls, shut/stores, heads/moonlit/travel the hidden/sea.//
snails crawl/under a tent./tent walls flap/all night.
Or how about this bit of Shikatani from paper doors, 1981?
of a hidden stream/
in the ear
where it appears
this idea heard,
But let’s return to where we started.
The writing of these three entirely different poet-artist-writers — Roy Kiyooka, Roy Miki, and Gerry Shikatani — qualifies as non-mainstream and yet some readers will notice the inherited traces of Kiyooka in the work of the other two.
As it turns out, quite a bit of this non-mainstream writing is very communal and clearly derives from some notion of a poetic community, after all.