On The Poetry of Japanese Painting
Shara Lessley and Paula Bohince in Conversation
These days in American poetry almost everybody is somebody. The poet’s name often finds its way into stanzas and titles. Epistolary poems are self-addressed. Even the ekphrastic is made to reflect the self—art often interpreted through the lens of autobiography, or serving as a vehicle to render the poet’s own portrait. Rather than focusing on the “me,” Paula Bohince’s third collection, Swallows and Waves, considers what it means to be. Meditating on the finer details of Japanese scroll paintings and woodblock prints, Bohince foregoes the lyric “I” in order to articulate the shared experiences of grief, longing, doubt, hope, desire, and isolation. Although they resist self-valorization, the poems in Swallows and Waves are quietly intimate, discreet. “I’m Nobody!” Bohince seems to say to centuries’ old brushstrokes and lines, “Who are you?” The resulting poems prove Bohince a patient listener as, at its best, Swallows and Waves operates paradoxically—solitude becoming communal, the centuries’ old brushstrokes not archiving feeling, but prolonging it.
Shara Lessley: There’s such distance between you, a 21st-century poet raised in rural Pennsylvania, and the Japanese artists whose work anchors Swallows and Waves. Where did you first encounter art from the Edo period (1603-1868)? Is there something about the movement in terms of craftsmanship, cultural context, or means of production that you find particularly attractive or felt well-suited as a poetic subject?
Paula Bohince: I was living (very luckily) in Paris a few years ago on the Amy Lowell scholarship and went to Provence for the first time where I visited Cézanne’s studio. The placard outside read that he’d been influenced by Japanese Edo-period artists. I hadn’t known that he and so many important French artists had been. When I came home to Pennsylvania, I was fairly exhausted with the poems I’d been writing in France and thought it might be a good time to learn about these Japanese artists. I went to the library and checked out some of those great oversized art books. As soon as I turned the first huge sail-like page, I was hooked. The images were absolutely magnetic, from the colors, the gold, the ink, to the composition. It was the harmony of how all of the elements worked together that made them pulse with ease and wonder. The seeming simplicity of an image like a bird on a branch or three women walking together felt courageous. They made me feel innocent, and I became addicted to that feeling. In my amazement, I thought if I could be quiet and listen they would teach me something about myself and life and artistry. And weirdly, it felt like no pressure because simply looking at them was fun and pleasurable and exciting. I wrote from ten of these artworks fairly quickly and then worked from other subjects, but felt myself drawn back again and again.
SL: As I understand it, pleasure is what Edo’s artists aimed to capture—whether in life’s unrehearsed moments as in the seven-line poem, “Two Beauties Leading a Horse,” or the courtesan’s practiced gestures rendered throughout the book. Is pleasure necessarily beauty?
PB: What I’ve come to feel with these artworks is that the emphasis on clarity and harmony, everything working together in an almost mathematical perfection, creates a sense of balance. This balance creates or heightens beauty, and out of that beauty comes a feeling of pleasure … leading to contentment, leading back to harmony. I wonder if the reason why these artworks feel so healing is because they’re restoring the viewer’s sense of balance. I’m articulating this for the first time now, but the relationship of balance / beauty / pleasure was something that I was, without having the words for it then, trying to mirror in my poems. Foremost, I wanted to be respectful to the artists and artworks and reflect in the poems what I saw as their aesthetic. But I was also in conversation with them, an intimate conversation. The way that friends will mirror and adjust to each other to create a bond—that’s what I was doing, so I could be on the same wavelength on which these artworks were operating.
For instance, “The Love Letter” is an eight-line poem that depicts a mother with her daughter, both of them sitting together, sort of arced together like two same-facing parentheses, holding a love letter, and it’s unclear if it belongs to the mother, the daughter, or somehow both. I deliberately wanted this poem to have, physically, a slight arc, which it does on the right edge. This new strategy (for me) of treating the words as physical material to be sculpted helped me make bolder leaps, stranger omissions. There’s also an internal, poetic arc. The first two lines have the words “mother,” “her,” and “together,” and this repetition of the “her” sound lent a feeling of claustrophobia that I felt in the painting. The poem’s last two lines contain the words “dissonance” and “bodiless,” and this sibilance of these words together felt like morning mist leaving grass or a kind of fog, which is how I think one would feel after reading a love letter. I’m in my body; I’m out of it; he’s with me; he’s absent.
SL: I love the way you break the opening lines of that poem to counter what initially seems nostalgic: “Bathed in gold, the mother and her / miniature arc together / as in disaster […]” (emphasis mine). Frankly, I didn’t see that turn coming! At what point did you decide to devote Swallows and Waves exclusively to poems based on Japanese art? Did this prospect pose particular challenges? Push you to think beyond strategies employed in The Children and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods?
PB: When I had about forty so of these poem I wondered if they could be a manuscript unto themselves. I’d never even considered having other types of poems with them. It was going to be all or nothing, which felt a little scary because I like the poems and hope they’d make it. But truly, I’d never written anything like them, and I wondered, first, if they were even poems, and second, would reading them be dependent on having the art alongside. Moving forward, I ended up writing about 80 total and culled them to 60 and then showed the manuscript to my editor Sarah at Sarabande. I never show anyone my poems except when they first go out to magazines or sometimes my husband. One thing that became difficult, particularly in writing the last poems, was trying see each with fresh eyes and innocence, while being mindful of things I’d already done so as not to repeat myself. I felt very pushed outside of what I had done in my previous collections—in subject, stance, form, technique, energy. It felt wonderful to learn and grow, to feel afraid, to risk failing bigtime.
Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods, for example, began as a series of elegies for my father, and so ordering became very important toward the end, as the book took the form of a mystery novel. That form felt right for all of the questions and searching that encompassed that collection. The Children felt more image-driven (bees, rivers, bride-white), and I tried to use a “bracelet” technique for ordering these poems, with one image linking to another to provide a sense of cohesion and momentum. With Swallows and Waves, there is a seasonal progression, so as not to disrupt a reader out of the reverie, but there is also a kind of bracelet closure, with the last poem calling back to the first, and I hope a kind of gentle, unspoken human narrative at play, as well.
SL: As the collection deepened, did you research the period’s sister arts? I’m thinking specifically about the woodprints’ transitory, ethereal nature vs. the eccentricity of Kabuki drama and dance—the actors’ elaborate costumes and make-up, those percussive wooden clappers that startle audiences and mark dramatic turns.
PB: I received a Rosenberg poetry prize in 2014 that allowed me to visit Japan for the first time with my husband. We spent two weeks in Tokyo and Kyoto where I completed research on the book and made sure that it was hitting its mark, tonally. In Kyoto, we had the chance to see an open-air, torch-lit twilight Noh performance that was one of the most memorable and moving experiences of my life. I’d never seen one before, even online, so to be there, in that theater, with hundreds of people, all of us watching together, was a dream. One thing that I loved in it, that I’ll never forget, was the look between two sisters (behind masks) that lasted about ten minutes. No one moved on stage. One of the sisters was leaving the world, and this was the goodbye. At first, I felt impatient, hot, like a squirmy little kid, and then slowly the emotion of it hit me, the goodbye of it hit me, and the silent tears just came. It was the stillness and the slowness, the enormity of the finality that brought them out. My great hope is that the even the smallest sensation of that experience is something that might come across in the poems, reading them all together.
I also saw a classical music performance and heard the samisen live for the first time, and that instrument central to the poem “Girl Playing Samisen.” I saw a number of woodblock prints in the Tokyo National Museum that were the inspirational images for poems in the book. I learned more about daily life in this time period (and how these prints were made) in the Edo-Tokyo Museum; elsewhere enjoyed nature, talked with people, and had a wonderful time. We also took in a baseball game—one team was the Swallows—and saw several pro-wrestling events, which were awesome.
SL: Surveying source materials for Swallows and Waves, I was struck by the form’s many contradictions: the delicate paper, for example, marked by dramatic curves and bold lines. How would you describe your book’s primary tensions, those places where unlikely feelings or ideas intersect?
PB: I think there’s a lot of longing in these poems, punctuated by a brief periods of relief from longing, a tension between stillness and movement, of being alone and of being with others. I’ve tried to convey these tension both within single poems and also across several, so that the poems are in conversation, like waves cresting and falling. For instance, “South Wind at Clear Dawn” uses the extended metaphor of funeral, with the agony of a wife grieving her husband amid casual mourners. What immediately follows is “Lovers in the Snow,” a poem where two lovers are insulated from the world, in their own private universe. I think the disquieting leap from one poem to another holds contains a strange, wordless energy. Something I’ve liked exploring across all my books is the idea (and enactment) of pretty surfaces with trouble underneath.
SL: For the visual artist and lyric poet, image takes precedence over storytelling. In this case, the woodprints create a void, a silence. Is the writer’s task to then fill that silence? How does one enter into dialogue with the vistas, birds, soldiers, seasons, etc., that cannot speak for themselves?
PB: I began by listening very carefully, very openly, to what the artworks seemed to be saying, calling through time, and met them sometimes more on the artist’s side, sometimes in the middle, sometimes more on mine. It was hard to think that I would be imposing on them, as I truly wanted to honor to the work. So in that silence, I silently asked what was the intention of the piece, what aspects of its composition seemed highlighted, what details were particularly arresting.
The earlier poems were the ones that were generally most strictly traditionally ekphrastic, less likely to make major leaps. “Rabbits and Crows in the Night Snow” was one of the earliest poems, and I think it adheres pretty closely to the scene. “Maples,” written much later, asks, “Is there a prettier word than privacy?” And that question felt very personal and not at all in the painting. I tried to honor the silence, the void, that would always exist in these encounters and to build that silence into the poems. Like the Noh performance, I hope some of the silence and stillness is unsettling and then breaks through to something emotional underneath that will be different for everyone.
SL: The title phrase of “Bullfinch on a Branch of Weeping Cherry” spills over with music: the melodic bird tonally countering the wailing tree, as well as repetition of like sounds (bull / branch, finch / branch / cherry, weep / cherry). Yet, a quiet fragment closes the poem: “No need for song.” Can you discuss the relationship between what’s articulated via the painting’s visual component—how the image serves as lyric catalyst, in other words—and how that relates to your interest in what the lyric withholds?
PB: That title’s one of my favorites, and all of the titles of poems are the same as their inspirational images. That image felt so optimistic to me, this bird that seemed to be giving a little attitude, looking directly out at the huge blue dawn. It seemed to me completely satisfied, ready to begin the day, and my mind leapt to the first line of “Returned like a young man / from the comfort of a courtesan.” I was giving that premise to that bullfinch, but the blue dawn, that beautiful branch, were already his.
I love that Elizabeth Bishop’s main concerns were accuracy, mystery, and spontaneity. These tenets subconsciously guide many of my decisions in poems, as well. I recently watched Billy Collins in an online interview where he says that if there is trouble with a poem, it’s usually because the poem is mysterious where it should be clear or clear where it should be mysterious. I love that. It’s such a good, clear way of understanding balance in poems. And I was very much striving for balance, even in the way the poems appeared on the page. “No need for song” seems to point to larger, metaphysical forces, to ask what song could do, or would do. I think that lyricism is in balance with silence, tapping into the Invisible, stirring it into music.
SL: Reading your work, I’ve come to expect humility, clarity, and a talent for mining the larger world from minute details. Because you typically suggest rather than claim, I was surprised to discover a number of declarative utterances scattered throughout Swallows and Waves. “This, this is the present,” insists the speaker in “Woman Tearing a Love Letter.” And in “Irises and Grasshopper,” the wrenching pronouncement that you mentioned earlier: “Proximity is ecstasy / enough.” What about drafting the poems most surprised you, in terms of lyric voice? Do these moments approach truisms?
PB: Thank you for saying that, Shara. I think there are a few reasons for this slide into more declarative sentences. Because I was in some ways masked behind these artworks, I could speak more directly. Also, although the music was propulsive, there was a kind of caution and restraint in these poems, maybe because of the lack of a speaking I. The tension kept building and building, and when there was a slight opportunity to be more overtly authoritative, it felt like a gasp, pop… a relief, if that makes sense. These moments surprised me, too, they were so out of character! There was also a, “Wow, do I really think that?” kind of feeling. But the declarations felt right to me because they did feel somehow earned.
SL: For me, the declarative utterances earn their power not only by countering the poems’ descriptive observations, but also because of their volume. Tonally, the pronouncements are louder, more severe than the meditative sentences in which they’re encased. They’re also extremely efficient. It’s also true that the poems in Swallows are noticeably shorter than those in your previous collections—some only seven or eight lines. What about this subject demanded brevity?
PB: Because the poems seemed to want to mirror the artworks in terms of harmony and balance, I really wanted them to be cages with a bird in them. There was a length when the draft would start to feel out of balance, or insist on different movements or significant breaks—like a bubble that would break if it got too big, too stretched. I concentrated hard on restraint, and shaped what I could until what was left felt absolutely necessary. I’d think of the breadth of feeling that’s in haiku or a sonnet: sound, sculpture, expansiveness within shape.
SL: In compressed poems, where speed is of the essence, how do you manage time? How do you know what can be safely omitted? I notice that internal rhyme plays an important role in many of the poems, allowing you to quickly leap from image to idea or even another scene.
PB: Musicality is so important to me in all of my poems, but these in particular because they were so short and did have to make all sorts of leaps within a tight frame, and the only way to make it not jarring was to ensure the music did the heavy lifting. So sound led me, for sure, and memorizing the poems and omitting what was forgettable or tripped up the music. There was a lot of trust (self-trust, trust in the reader, trust in the power of images and music) to decide what could be cut. But I like the intensity that comes with that trust. I do tend to overwrite and condense, although not by a lot because I’m hearing the music from the first draft, getting into that mental stance, and feeling the tension from the get-go. But definitely, I was taking away more than adding.
SL: In “Sudden Rain on Mt. Tempo,” you move from the woodblock’s “mighty ship” to a man whose profession of love goes unheard. “The waves of the Agi swell like a book left out,” you write, “blurred ink of words he would have read to her, to say / This is my voice, my mouth, my face at the gate.” When it comes to generating ekphrastic poems, how do you avoid simply summarizing or dramatizing an artwork’s visual contents? In this case, what about Gakutei’s inspired the lovers, given that the original image lacks any human presence?
PB: I was really struck by the slashes of rain, which seemed like a unique and dominant feature in this particular artwork, and how violent it seemed. I’d couldn’t help but imagine what the rain had ruined, which led to the idea of a picnic on the riverbank between two potential lovers, a picnic now ruined, just before the man was going to read to her as a form of courtship. The huge, storm-made wave looked so much like a rain-swollen book. How sensual that image was! And it also seemed kind of funny to me that, throughout time, bad weather has been wrecking dates. So I think different strategies could be using the naturally occurring metaphors to lead into a story, or to imagine that happened just before or just after the scene you’re looking at in an artwork.
SL: “Thaw has turned the mountains a becoming blue, built / consequential lakes…” opens “Peach Blossom Spring.” There’s such beautiful movement and music here. It occurs to me that the lines that follow reflect well the pursuit of lyric poetry: “…[S]toked all winter, one sentence laid / on another, slow smolder. When there are no more words.” Care, patience, language, time, form, intimacy, music, heat—it’s all there. And so is silence. Which of these are most important to you as a poet? Is anything missing?
PB: That woodblock print is so beautiful! The mountains are enormous and azure, looming over the village, with tiny white blossoms everywhere. I think that’s a wonderful insight into lyric poetry that you’ve come up with, Shara. I love that. Oh it’s hard to choose, but music and intimacy come first to mind. When I’m reading someone else’s poetry, if I feel drawn to the music, caught up in it, then I’ll feel seduced by the poem. And I like to feel surprised, in my own work and in others’.
SL: So many poems these days reflect personhood. Swallows and Waves instead denounces the self. I find its lack of ego hugely refreshing. How do you generate intimacy without exploiting autobiography?
PB: It was a very interesting experience not using I, trying to sublimate myself, to see what would happen. It really did change me, and I felt more like a vessel than ever before, which I loved. I think there are so many universal human experiences that can be explored, that art suggests. Who hasn’t felt afraid or isolated or ashamed? What was stunning to me was understanding that a samurai on a horse might feel the same cocktail of excitement and fear as any soldier, in any time and war. Or that any mother, dressing her one year old son, suddenly feels their relationship changing. If nothing else, I hope that people will check out these artworks, which are so moving and relevant today, not only from an art history stance, but because they seem to demand a kind of quiet and stillness that can be very hard to come by.
SL: You mentioned feeling that immersing yourself in art of Edo period might teach you something about not only artistry but also yourself. Has it?
PB: Sometimes, I can feel a bit numbed by the Internet, its frenetic, down-the-rabbit-hole pace, but these artworks required me to be still, awake, afraid, and responsive. Looking at them is the most marvelous combination of conversation, meditation, and time travel. I feel more empathetic, more connected to human experiences not my own, more like a permeable membrane for a poem to pass through.
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Paula Bohince is the author three collections, all from Sarabande: Swallows and Waves, The Children and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, Poetry, Granta, The TLS, The Irish Times, Australian Book Review, and elsewhere. She has received prizes from the Poetry Society of America and the UK National Poetry Competition, as well as the “Discovery”/The Nation prize. She has been the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholar, the Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place, a Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Hawthornden Fellow, among other honors. She lives in Pennsylvania.