TN: How did you become interested in writing?
NK: To be frank I had difficulty in adjusting to American society, and felt lonely in the USA. I used to talk with one of my American college professors, Vivian C. Hopkins, and she asked me to give a talk about Japanese poetry. I was interested in tanka and translated about 20 verses for that talk. Ever since then I've been translating Japanese poems into English. Ms. Hopkins also encouraged me to write poetry and by and by I became more interested in literature. I found that many poets were also lonely . . . In 1954 my first poem was published in The Christian Science Monitor and I've been writing ever since.
TN: Are you a Christian Scientist?
NK: No, I'm interested in the Bible – particularly the Song of Songs, but my family is Shintoist: we have a family altar and each morning I offer tea, water, and food to our ancestors.
TN: Over the years you've translated many tanka. Are there any Japanese poets you especially admire?
NK: There are a great number of ancient poets in the Manyoushuu such as
Yamabe-no-Akaihito. I'm also interested in modern poets such as Nishiwaki Junzaburō and Shinkawa Kazue, who is a 'motherly poet' with gentle ideas.
Though it is not actually poetry, one of my current projects is translating the Konjaku Monogatari, a 12th century collection of stories, into English.
Some of those tales are brilliant.
TN: Are you active in any poetry groups?
NK: Well, I'm a member of The Poetry Society of Japan, a small group of mostly Japanese poets writing in English and the Gerard Manley Hopkins Society of Japan. I admire the sonnets of that 19th Century English poet. That group has a new year meeting and it's my habit to read a poem about the new Chinese zodiac sign each year there. It has become a ritual for me to write a poem on January 1st and to drink an extra amount of sake that day.
TN: How has your writing style changed over the years?
NK: Some changes I feel. My anger about the Iraq War and Bush is a more recent theme.
TN: What kind of reaction have your anti-war poems produced?
NK: Mixed. Some people agree with the ideas, but others feel it is a waste of energy. One influential critic wrote that if you are against war, you should do some actual work rather than just write poetry. I disagree since I believe that poetry is the soul's cry, so all of our emotions should be expressed in language. So far I'm the only poet with a book about the Iraq War.
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TN: More will come, I am sure. It usually takes time for many emotions to sink into the collective consciousness. Someday I believe most people will recognize George W. Bush as a war criminal.
NK: What else could he be? And for what reason?
TN: Oil. The Iraq War has been profitable for many oil companies.
NK: There's something very bad about the whole system. So many people have died for oil.
TN: And over 600,000 Iraqis have been murdered. In most wars, it is the civilians who suffer most.
NK: After reading a Japan Times article about the situation in Iraq I wrote a short poem. A young Iraqi boy was killed then buried in a shallow grave. Later, a stray dog dug him up and ate him. When I read about this, I almost cried. [silence]. Speaking of American poetry, the works of Robinson Jeffers interest me.
TN: Related to this issue, do you feel anti-war poetry has any influence?
NK: If many people read a poem, maybe. Who knows? I almost sent a copy of my Poems about the Iraq War to Ms. Laura Bush, but hesitated. . . The Iraq War is a very controversial matter. I didn't want to disturb Ms. Laura Bush's feelings with my poems about the arrogant, foolish, unnecessary war her husband had started.
TN: Why not send a copy of that to the Bush Library? Although the president himself seldom reads, some scholars at the Southern Methodist University Library in Texas might benefit by having access to materials providing counter-threads to the disinformation that has been fed to the American public by Bush and his cohorts.
NK: I did send a copy of a book Against Nuclear Weapons: A Collection of Poems by 181 Poets, which I translated with several others, to the Carter Center in Atlanta and Mr. Al Gore's office in Nashville and I got thank you notes back.
TN: What do you consider to be your most successful poem so far?
NK: Maybe it would be A Loaf of Poetry. The image for that poem popped into my mind while helping my wife bake home-made bread back in 1979 or 1980. It's simple, but describes the process of writing a poem. This has been reprinted in text books in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
TN: Your poem about Chaucer meeting an astronaut is also well-crafted. How did you first write that?
NK: I've been interested in the news about space exploration ever since the beginning, and I thought it would be interesting to put Chaucer aboard a spaceship. Chaucer aboard a Spaceship indicates what this poet might have said heading towards the Moon.
TN: Do you feel Japanese poetry differs from other poetry?
NK: I don't read widely enough to give a good answer. Of course tanka has only 31 syllables so we can say it is shorter than most Western poetry.
TN: . . . so there's a succinctness to it, yes?
NK: And often it is about the emotions of a single given moment. For example, when Japanese war leaders sent young kamikaze pilots to Okinawa while they remained safe, what a shame! Those young soldiers, how angry their souls must have been. But today some Japanese leaders like Koizumi go to
Yasukuni Shrine and claim to honor them.
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TN: . . . what kind of honor is that? The same thing might be said if Bush visited Arlington National Cemetery. What right does he have to visit the tombs of soldiers whom he sent to their deaths? Anyway, to wrap this up, when everything is done and said, what would you most like to be remembered for?
NK: [laughing] I don't know. I'm not big enough to be remembered. But maybe my poem A Loaf of Poetry will continue to be read for the next century. I hope this will happen, but who knows?
[pause] Some people claim I am better at dancing than writing. Dancing is the only thing I can say that I truly excel at. I can dance to any music. We have a saying in Japanese, "Kobō wa fude wo erabazu" which is often translated as "Great calligraphers are not particular about their brushes." I am that way with dancing.