Ryo Yamaguchi on Finding—and Making—a Life as a Poet

Peter Mishler Talks with the Author of The Refusal of Suitors

For this installment in our series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with poet Ryo Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi is the author of The Refusal of Suitors, published by Noemi Press. His poems have recently been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2020 and The Best Small Fictions 2020 and have recently appeared in journals such as the Bennington Review, Sink, and The Volta, among others. His book reviews and other critical writings can be found in outlets such as Jacket2, the Kenyon Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Currently traveling full-time, he was most recently based in Seattle where he was the publicity and marketing director for Wave Books. Please visit him at plotsandoaths.com.

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Peter Mishler: Is there a moment from your childhood, even a fleeting image or memory, that you think presages a life in poetry?

Ryo Yamaguchi: Yes! Let me in fact indulge two memories. In the first I am a child, about nine or ten, playing in the woods that separated the patchwork of subdivisions in Glen Burnie, MD, where I spent some formative years. I was and am a child of the woods―it’s where I’ve always gone to encounter the world. It was either late fall or early spring, and the hardwood foliage was fragile. I was sensitive to the visual effect of a walking parallax, the trees’ three-dimensional spread of upper branches rotating against the diffuse sky, which you would believe, if you let yourself forget your own motion, was the trees themselves turning, and turning specifically against the resistance, the surface, of the sky. It evinced, still evinces, an act of writing, the numerous branches scratching tentative glyphs in a confrontation with the emptiness of the open air. The word I want to use here is “ecriture.”

A second part to this first part: these were not pristine woods. These were the sorts of woods to which people go when they want to do something unobserved. I didn’t fully understand this then, and on this specific day, in late fall or early spring, I walked the longest distance I ever had, following a dry creek bed as it crossed through a series of substantial culverts. Plastic bags, littered bottles and cans, old mattresses, milk crates, discarded clothes and shoes, the basic paraphernalia of a societal margin marked the approaches to these culverts. My understanding deepened, and I began to feel afraid―I did not want to meet anyone here. I knew I was entering an adult realm.

Upon one of the culverts, I had my profoundest encounter. Not with a person, but with the burned-out body of a car. And all around it, on the car and the cement walls, graffiti. I had probably seen graffiti before, but here, in the intensity of my aloneness, in my fear and the feeling that I stepped too far into something I did not know about, the graffiti seemed, itself, to burn, a maniacal expression of urges, grievances, and representation. It was both loud and intimate―it almost felt as though I had caught someone undressed. That day was impactful for me―the combination of the trees’ attempt at a script and the discovery of a script that had already been made, each in their own realms and time, their own tonalities and shapes―I walked back home with a new wound, a new gift, having seen language in a hidden place where it could operate.

PM: And the second?

RY: In the second, and maybe I should be briefer and firmer, I am a junior in high school in Mr. Saldaña’s English class, and he is reading to us (to me, for the first time) the opening lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This is a shout-out to great teachers, which I have been so lucky to have. His reading was pure music. I didn’t know a poem could sound like that.

And as I took the poem home and spent more time with it, I began to feel that its sonic architectures―its rhyme and assonance and alliteration and meter―were indeed the architectures of a city. This wasn’t a poem that you simply read, it’s one that you inhabited.

And within that inhabitation Saldaña showed us, through Eliot, a stark, deflated reality, that for many, adulthood would always risk resignation, boredom, and ennui. And the layered tone (as in, also, famously, “My Last Duchess”) that a human could at once be in powerful command (“Let us go”) and limpid servitude (“Am an attendant lord, one that will do”). This was an important dynamic with which to wrestle at the tender age of 15, and Saldaña was a provoking but caring referee; my life changed because of this poem, because of Eliot, and because of my great teacher.

PM: I imagine that readers who are just beginning to write would be interested to hear about how you’ve made your way as a poet.

RY: Yes, in fact, this is a favorite subject of mine. It’s funny to hear the term “making a living”―I am reminded of a conversation I had with a French person about the French language, and her amusement that in English we say we “make” a living; in French, one “earns” (“gagner”) a living. I love this difference.

On one hand, I like the honesty of earning a living―I think, in a subtle way, it makes the activity for income more discrete, frees it from the greater burden of meaningfulness that “making” income implies (that one need be “passionate,” as any reader of resumes has certainly encountered). And as such, inversely, it allows a greater meaningfulness for the things we do make, regardless of their fiduciary result. For something as useless as poetry, I think such a distinction provides a better outlook.

I often tell the joke that I jam my poems into ATMs just to see what happens, but in reality, I’ve been privileged to work in the “business” of poetry as a publisher, which has given me the incredible opportunity to help network writers with outlets, poets with venues, poems with readers, and so on. I love this work and I hope I can continue to do it, but I also think it’s very important to always keep that earn/make distinction in mind.

I walked back home with a new wound, a new gift, having seen language in a hidden place where it could operate.

No matter what, I write my poems when I am NOT working; I make when I am not earning. This has meant writing poems very early in the morning, on my commutes, and sometimes during my lunches, and this setup has characterized the entirety of my working life, whether in publishing, marketing, as a TA, a meat cutter, van driver, cashier, or cook.

For other working writers I’ve known, it’s late nights and Saturdays, and yet others actually take vacation days or seek out residencies, writing better with extended periods of concentration. If you teach and get summers and/or sabbaticals, all the better, but no matter what, you have to fit the writing in; at least the great thing about poems is that they are pocketable and travel easily.

PM: I understand that you’ve spent this past year traveling the United States. Could you talk about this experience in particular as it relates to your making poems?

RY: I have been traveling the US since December 2019. My wife and I took a sort of non-institutional sabbatical, and needless to say, 2020 was a very strange, surprising, and difficult year to try to undertake any travel at all. We’ve tried very hard to move responsibly, to be apart from people and crowds, and that has created, for us, a particularly acute isolation in intimate contact not with people or culture but with places, especially remote wildernesses.

I sadly have not had the time, concentration, will, or imagination to write many poems, a particular lament because I did imagine a year where I would have the wherewithal to be a traveling and wilderness poet like the Beats or the Haiku masters! I have been able to engage something of a practice when we’ve been fixed in a place for longer than a few days, but those moments have been few and far between.

For now, I mostly consider this time a period of gestation, and I have felt lucky that that period could be characterized by these intimate encounters with places. I have been trying to write about these experiences in prose, on the travelogue on my blog, and I hope to develop that form of writing more, with poems, likely, to follow thereafter, as is always my intent for the thereafter.

PM: Would you be willing to talk about an early obsession of your first poems and how, perhaps, that position or thinking evolved, died out, or is, perhaps, still resonant in your current work?

RY: This is a difficult question to answer (this is something like my fifth attempt, erasing the previous ones), I think because they really haven’t changed. When I try to come up with a word here, “spaces” is it. I’m obsessed with spaces. Dark mountain drainages, the urban lakeshore of Chicago, the kitchen in whatever home in which I’m living, the rectilinear neighborhood brushed with hardwood canopies, sometimes the ocean, quite often the sky, especially specific corners of the sky. I can think of poems taking place in alleyways, libraries, zoos, aquariums, airplanes, hotel lobbies, and both the front and back seats of cars. What has changed, I think, is my orientation to space. I used to try to hold a single space together, to use it as a stage. Now spaces run through my poems like a bloodrush through the body.

PM: It’s difficult not to read your body of work so far as concerned with human intimacies and authentic vulnerability.

RY: Oh yes very much so; I recently called a group of my poems “letters to a beloved.” I think for me this has stemmed from an early habit of writing more straightforward love poems, but now I consider this a more fundamental ground in my practice of speaking, almost always, to a sole interlocutor. I like the plurality you use, though, of intimacies, and I would say that this sole interlocutor is not necessarily fixed―they could be a lover, a friend, even a stranger or a different version of myself, but intimacy and yes vulnerability is always the pact. I tend not to make proclamations or address a room. I think of my poems as tape recordings played on headphones.

PM: Did you arrive at this “tape recordings played on headphones” idea at some point in your writing life?

RY: I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly thought it about as such until this interview! But I would call the intimacy of headphones a fundamental in my life. When I worked and commuted, I wore headphones and listened to music maybe something like six hours a day, so the feel of sound (and voice) in the specific venue of the singularity of the ear canal, that “inside the head” feel, is something I feel pretty conditioned to.

Likewise, and on a more symbolic level, is the idea of a recording. I love the haunting effect of the recorded artifact, the inherent drama contained in something left behind: the elusiveness of a fragment, the strange confinement of a captured voice or image, the ghostly afterlife of an impression, then our own obsessive labor of forensics. I aspire to these dramas in my own writing. I think actual experience and memory, in their fluidity, in their inexact repeatability, do not haunt in quite the same way: they lack embodiment. So I favor the artifact, the capture, the recording. I want nothing more in this life than for a reader to “play” a poem of mine over and over, listening closely.

PM: Could you talk about a recent aesthetic question you’ve been considering?

RY: Let me throw the entirety of the origin of my aesthetic into this line from Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket:” “Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids / Seaward.” I’m not trying to be cheeky here: my first encounter with that line, as simple as it is, was transformative. The enjambment! The play of “e” and “i” sounds, not to mention the coarse repetition of “sea” (and the surf-like sibilance). But even more than these technical masteries is the sense of direction, this looking toward the sea, braced (blinking against the wind). I knew, almost from within the decay of that line in my interior silent-reading voice, that I wanted my poems to move exactly like that.

At least the great thing about poems is that they are pocketable and travel easily.

In earlier years, I described this to myself as “daggering,” but I have since learned the word “sagittate.” I want every line to be sagittate. What this has meant in practice, over time, is a kind of accuracy, of syntax and vocabulary, and especially a particular sensitivity to meter and stress and their variance, staggering long and short, iambs with various double stresses (or unstresses), running ahead and then resting in place, through a terrain of clauses, sentences, and line breaks.

I question this aesthetic now, or rather, I chaotically vacillate between its comfort and its confinement. I love writing like this, but I have felt the need to rethink syntax in particular, to let it be, as it were, incorrect. I’ve been very influenced by the Wave poets with whom I’ve worked and been fascinated by. Dorothea Lasky has astonished me with the emotional sophistication, a kind of highly textured intensity, that she can capture with seemingly simple words in seemingly blunt repetitions. And Geoffrey G. O’Brien has taught me how careful mutations or breakages of syntax can widen meaning and resonance, creating these kind of orb-like lines that attract and repel with varying senses, exercising the reader’s capacities for simultaneity.

I hope not to imitate either of these or any other poet, but I mention them both as artists who’ve made me feel that it’s OK to stretch my own mechanics. I’ve been trying a lot of things, jettisoning a lot of punctuation, listening to simpler repetitions, trying to blunt the arrowheads of my lines. I’m variously satisfied and then not with the efforts, but I know they are worthwhile no matter what.

PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?

RY: Poetry is reality. But I mean it is reality; it does not describe so much as engender, it is creationary rather than, as so often has been assumed, oracular. Poetry does this within the exceptional place of language, and language at both the very frontiers of its jurisdiction and among the minutest organelles of its most basic existence.

If we speak of poetry as reticent, mysterious, obfuscating, or simply nonsense, it is because our other forms of language have failed us. No, a poem cannot be completely followed, but it is because it is we who are yet unfinished, and it is the poem that challenges us to our radical indeterminate resolve. And yet it is also within a poem that an entire cosmology can be uttered, that we can transcend proximity, narrative, and otherness to formulate something complete. It is in the breath and resonance of a poem that impossibilities are made manifest, in which our greatest, most difficult, most real reality can be attempted.

PM: What have you found to be a difficult aesthetic or poetic question for you?

RY: One aspect of this dynamic that I have had a hard time with, as a matter of craft, is the necessity for poems that directly engage more shared, more legible, social and political settings. I have admired (been jealous) of many poets who can live these kinds of engagements in their poems, who can bring the leviathan structures of social/political/economic power down into the intimate arena of their personal being, highlighting injustices and mobilizing a critique while at the same time opening up―as all the very best poems do―vulnerability, hesitation, indeterminacy.

I strive to push my poems toward this engagement, to actually see and understand the specific emergencies of our times (crudely I list racism, sexual predation, the worship of capital, and environmental devastation as but a few examples), and I realize time and again how extraordinarily difficult it is to do well.

PM: You mention “emergencies.” How would you describe the emergencies your poems take up?

RY: I am something of an apocalyptic writer. Often I speak to or as a ghost. I don’t know why this is, though I know since a very young age I have internalized the fact of the finiteness of the world, that either it will come to an end or our consciousness of it will. As a good student of German philosophy, I practice dread. But I also think there is a hope in this, lodged somewhere in the intimacy of the attempt of the poem.

I strive to push my poems toward this engagement, to actually see and understand the specific emergencies of our times.

Living is complex, and, I find, the more you do it, the more complex it becomes―we often don’t know what to do. I think my poems seek to understand the nature of this particular emergency, localized at every minutiae that can articulate the space between two people, and hopefully, every so often, the poems gain a higher vantage to see something fluid, moving from past to present to future, something, that while still finite, in fact by its very finiteness, is irrefutably real.

PM: I wonder if you could say more about the striving you mentioned above—what might that look like for you, that push of your own poetics toward a more conscious, “legible” engagement with social and political events, ideas, emotions.

RY: I am trying to relearn some fundamentals, and at the moment just want to start there. I wouldn’t describe much of my past poetry as having an emotional position—perhaps more a brooding or a wrestling—and I’m trying to nudge myself in different directions to see what feels feasible, what feels real.

In a lot of my new work, I feel like I’ve turned the faucet on, having removed all punctuation, to see if a more emotional position would take shape, if I might locate a more human, rather than cosmic, urgency. I think I have to get that right before I can push toward more explicit social and political engagements (as I write in a recent poem, “the we-ness pressed into slowtime”); I’m patient, but it feels important.

PM: Could you say more about “fundamentals?”

RY: I think I ought to return to this idea of poetry as both a “frontier” and a “fundamental.” I love to disassociate all the various arts, to describe their differences, but I have to confess I don’t ever fully believe myself. Nonetheless I will levy this distinction: poetry is the simplest art that we have. You don’t even need to write a poem: you can just think it, recite it to yourself, and it exists.

Every other art has some additional requirement. Painting and drawing need some material. Songs require pitch (I might say this is the only thing they need to differ from poetry). Fiction and nonfiction require characters and narrative. Film needs a whole lot of things. Poetry has none of these trappings. It is only language, set in time. In the pressurized realm of this simplicity, as a kernel or egg or atom or the beat of a second, it contains, as has been famously said, multitudes. It can move faster than any other art. It can lay more still than any other. It is as small as the soul and as large as the universe. It is the most free, and yet it is always, more than any other art, ours.

Peter Mishler
Peter Mishler
Peter Mishler’s first volume of poetry, Fludde, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, was published by Sarabande Books in 2018.





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