In case we are tempted to think of the 1990s as a cultural wasteland defined by incongruous clashing motifs and Prozac Nation, let us remember that was the decade that launched National Poetry Month. On the steps of a post office in New York City, we are told, with a reading of T. S. Eliot’s (what else?) The Wasteland, which begins:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Mixing memory and desire. Apt words to tap the yearning, unerring poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, best beloved Japanese children’s poet and a symbol if there ever was one of beauty emerging from sorrow. David Jacobson is the author of Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, a picture book that not only speaks with honesty and grace about the poet’s life but also includes translations of some of her poetry. I asked David a few questions about his lovely book:
[Uma] Every book begins with a writer’s longing or a dream. What was your journey with this book?
[David] The dream came to me a year or so after I became acquainted with Misuzu’s poetry. Probing into her backstory, I learned of her tragic life, and was startled to discover that she was virtually unknown in North America. I couldn’t believe she had been so overlooked, even by academics. (I have subsequently been shocked to learn how few children’s authors from Japan get translated into English: only about 6 a year!) I then made it my mission to spread the word about her through this book. Fortunately, I was able to assemble a team of those who felt the same way: translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi and illustrator Toshikado Hajiri.
We are all so thrilled that the book is starting to reach those who never heard of Misuzu before, especially those who don’t have a particular interest in Japan.
[Uma] The opening poem, Big Catch, is so brilliant and so startling in how it suddenly throws the reader off kilter, plunges us into empathy in spite of ourselves. And I loved how you framed this book so a child of the 20th century serves as witness to this older life. How did these layers of narrative come together for you?
[David] From the start, there were a lot of elements I wanted to include in this book: Misuzu’s life story, the story of her rediscovery, the tsunami, and most of all, lots of examples of her poetry, in both English and Japanese. Others tried to dissuade me from doing all this in a single book, but my publisher, Bruce Rutledge, supported me, partly because he and I felt that this might be our one and only chance to introduce Misuzu to the English-speaking world. Given all those elements, we knew from the start that we would need to divide the book into a narrative section and a poetry section, and then within the narrative create a frame within which we could introduce Misuzu’s life story. So the story laid itself out, and we just had to fill in the blanks. Looking back at my first draft, I see that the structure was there from the beginning, but the specific text has changed dramatically.
[Uma] Tell me about the work you did with Sally Ito, the translator.
[David] The work I did with Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi constituted the real core of putting the book together. We all stretched beyond our nominal roles in the project. Though ostensibly “translators,” Sally and Michiko made extensive textual and content-related edits to the narrative, which is why they got additional credit on the title page. Though “author,” I edited their translations of the poetry and challenged their interpretations of the Japanese. Over the course of about 4-5 months, we produced some 40 drafts of the narrative and multiple drafts of each poem (including a number that weren’t included in the book). Michiko, who is Japanese born and bred, was a little shocked, I believe, by our occasional disagreements over wording. But I think our close and sometimes confrontational collaboration, cemented by our mutual love for Misuzu’s poetry, made it a better book.
[Uma] Thank you, David, for sharing some of the background to Are You An Echo? A literary life revealed for young readers, along with exquisite poetry, all in a lovingly crafted picture book container.
More from David on Sally Ito’s work translating Misuzu Kaneko’s poetry.