Monday, May 4, 2009

Gogyohka and Wet Cherry Petals stuck to Umbrellas


yesterday, Sunday, May 3rd, 2009, I went to the Cherry Blossom Festival, known as Sakura Matsuri, in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I went with Olivia, who was willing to go out in the rain. The Botanic Garden is right near my house, and even though it was raining we walked. I couldn't hear much Olivia said because her umbrella is huge and blue and perhaps magical (see her blog for more on that) and blocked her face. I have bad hearing anyway so the background noise of the cars on eastern parkway whooshing the water out of the way of their steel belted radials drowned out, and sometimes splashed out, most everything she said. This frustrated me, because Olivia is an interesting person and I like listening to what she says, so we tried to work it out so that she held the umbrella under her but at an angle tilting away from me. Eventually I just gave her my umbrella, which is smaller and broken and has lions on it and is probably not so magical, but allowed me to hear her better.

The garden was beautiful! Wet cherry blossoms are darker, and you can see time pass in the way the rain washes them off. Olivia said that she liked seeing an individual blossom kind of kamikaze off the branch, because the way each one spins to the ground is like its own dance. It's sort of like pink snowfalls under a canopy of cloud trees. There's a little spring in winter after all--it's no wonder they are neighbhors. The lilacs looked like whipped cream Olivia said (she wasn't using her umbrella at all at this point) and she stuck her face in one and tasted the lilac water, which if it was as sweet as the lilac bushes smelled must have been delicious. I tasted one but I can't smell as well as Olivia.

The thing we had agreed on seeing was the poetry reading they do at the festival. The first year we went, which was three years ago, they did readings by the Brooklyn Haiku Society or something like that, and it inspired me. They read at this mini-amphitheater carved out of stone right on the pond that banks the Japanese garden. There's one arching cherry tree that lopes into the water there, and it looks like a waterfall when it's in bloom. I think a duck was hiding under it from the rain yesterday, but not all the ducks hid on the pond. Last year the poetry wasn't as good or memorable--something about the atmosphere, which the first time had Japanese American girls in kimonos and sandals trickling through the amphitheater, but who I don't remember that second time. Maybe we showed up late that second year, which was last year. Can't tell. But THIS year it was held indoors, in the auditorium of the visitor center.

The stage was big and blank. On it was a very small man in a dark blue robe and the same sandals the Japanese American girls wore, with the same white socks pulled up so you couldn't see the color of his shin skin. He looked calm, gentle, and happy. The picture might convey that, I dunno. He's also old, 71, and beautifully so. His name was Enta Kusakabe, and he talked to us about Gogyohka, a five-line form of poetry that he created. He told us his voice was very coarse--he spoke softly and a little raspily, but I wouldn't call it coarse--and that three months ago his voice was beautiful, that he doesn't know what happened: poof! Voice gone. So a woman who was head of the first and only American Gogyohka Society (more on that later) read the poems for him. He talked a great deal, though, and introduced the Gogyohka form, how it's different than more traditional forms of Japanese poetry like Haiku or Tanka, which also has five lines. Gogyohka (which you say with hard g's in both instances, go-gee-yo-ka), though, allows more freedom in its "melody," he said, that it's tune is different, because as a form it allows for any subject matter and does not restrict syllables. The only thing gogyohka asks is that each of the five lines are short, that they are concise and the images very clear, and in this way they are very similar and in the tradition of Tanka and Haiku. The big difference is that you can talk freely and openly about your feelings, and you don't have to use "poetic" words or conventions, like referring to the seasons, though you can if you want to. It was very, very hard to hear him, but I sat forward in my seat because not only his words but they way he said them was very captivating to me. He said life begins at 50, which was funny to me because he started writing gogyohka, created the form, at the age of 19. He was very funny in general, and also very open. The woman would read a poem, which was of course very short so only took a couple seconds, and then she'd hand him the microphone back. Sometimes he said a few words, or almost nothing. After this poem:

When you laugh
your eyes narrow
Isn't it strange then
how the world

he said almost nothing, just, "You get it? Yes!" And then he kind of exploded with his hands and his little eyes got huge. Even from my seat in the crowd I could see it (my eyes are much better than my ears). One time he said a great deal, got carried away, walking stridently from one end of the stage to the other, very animated, was after the woman read one of his poems:

It wasn't the Americans
who dropped the bomb
it was the consciousness of the era
If Japan had had the bomb
we would have dropped it too

he got so animated in talking about this poem, about how important it is for all of us to change our consciousness, that he forgot to hold the microphone close to his mouth, and the woman on the stage, who was much younger and had beautiful eyes, kind of gently and hesitantly with obvious respect sort of nudged the microphone back toward his mouth. He smiled and kept going and going and going, but I could see a lot of people getting up and leaving and answering their cell phones or just talking and ignoring him. Maybe they couldn't hear, maybe they had other preoccupations, or worries, but I struggled with my enmity toward what were after all my fellow people, not just my community neighbors but my fellow citizens. I felt, and still feel, they were very disrespectful, but what can you do?

Well, if you're Olivia you buy me a book about Gogyohka that Enta Kusakabe wrote and signed for me (he signed his name in English and Japanese, which was super cool). I had asked him a question at the end of the presentation and reading, and as he was leaving the auditorium he walked up my aisle and smiled very warmly at me and shook my hand. I told him his answer to my question was like the poem I quoted up above about the laughter and the world widening with it (he talked a lot about gogyohka widening the world of Japanese poetry, that it could be a very small package or door that opened into a much bigger world). He smiled even bigger and let go of my hands and his hands exploded again. I remembered after he walked past that when I had asked my question he had shaded his eyes so he could see who I was past the house lights, and when he was done answering he looked right at me from the stage to ask, nodding, Yes? Which meant to me did I answer your question. I nodded back and said, out loud because who knows maybe he has better ears than me, yes, thank you. And then he came down my aisle because the presentation was over and shook my hand. I think Enta Kukasabe must have good eyes, too.

One thing he talked about extensively, emphasized, was how accessible and easy gogyohka were to write. How in Japan there is no distinct separation between "poets" and "lay people," that something like half a million people are writing gogyohka. He publishes a monthly poetry anthology that's 400 pages long! Even more people write haiku. It's easy, he said, and with gogyohka you don't have to worry about syllables, or translating japanese "sounds" in their language to english syllables, and so he hopes more Americans will write gogyohka. He said he has already seen many wonderful gogyohka written by Americans, some of which were read at the presentation. My favorite was this one:

It is not
a sin
to be miserable
It is
a diving board

At the end of the reading and presentation his last words were, "I hope all of you go out and write gogyohka yourselves. Go! Write!" So I decided to give it a whirl. It's not as easy for someone like me, who is so long-winded, to write such tight poems, but equally I like the challenge. I also wanted to honor the experience and inspiration the day had provided, and since we forgot to bring the camera I wrote mainly nature poems about the botanic garden. I share them with all of you in the hopes that you will listen to Mr. Kusakabe and Go! Write! Your own gogyohka. It's pretty fun, actually.

At the dam
a pink algae foam
of cherry petals
Oh! An orange koi
thinks it's food!

The pond refills
with pocks
of droplets:--
---: Full-the duck
sits on the rain.

The gloom of rain
droops the camellia
drops petals
loud in the glory
of wet birdsong

Careful prop
to umbrella tent
under the cherry tree
Headbutts blossoms

The rain and
the lilac bushes:
the wet smell
you taste like a bee


So wet the smells
become tastes
The lilac water
you eat
like a bee.

In the shiny rain
black umbrella people
become flowers--
open arched thirsty
and coated with pink petals.

One dog circles fast
while the other stoops
in the grass
Around and around like a buoy
three legs struggle to shit

(i had that last one in my head last night before I went to bed and wrote it just now)

Finally, the image I used of Enta Kusakabe is from The Gogyohka Poetry Society in Westchester, New York, who hosted his visit to the botanic garden yesterday. If you want more information on the form then check out the website, or ask me: I read Kusakabe's book Olivia bought me last night. He wrote it in English, his first time writing a manuscript in the language! He's a small man, but he's pretty mighty. And it occurs to me that in his poetic vision, in his warmth and urging to use poetry to share ourselves, our inner light with each other, in order to bring us all into understanding and a cosmos of peaceful communication, he is like a Japanese Walt Whitman. He embodies his soul, anyway, to me, partly because I felt so moved at the prospect of shaking the hand of a person who had a puff of the soul smoke of Walt Whitman. With any luck I inhaled some of it!

1 comment:

The Gogyohka Society said...

Hi Tim,
Enta and I enjoyed reading about your detailed experience of his Gogyohka lecture at the Botanical Gardens. Enta remembered you clearly. I'm glad your experience was positive, and that you quickly began writing your own gogyohka. They were all good and I like this one especially:

So wet the smells
become tastes
The lilac water
you eat
like a bee.

It is so vivid, I can taste the lilac water.

Please keep in touch through the e-mail on our website. Enta wants to meet with you before he goes back to Japan in June, if possible.

Best Regards,
Elizabeth Phaire, Director of the Gogyoka Society (the woman who was on stage ;)