Q&A with Corey Wakeling

Corey Wakeling Headshot

Corey Wakeling is a poet and critic with links to Perth and Melbourne now living in Takarazuka, Japan. His most recent collection of poems is The Alarming Conservatory (Giramondo 2018).
His suite of poems The Birth of a World Indisposes Another appears in The Suburban Review #14: DETRITUS.
Our Associate Editor, Sam Penny, interviews Corey about his work.
Thank you for contributing such a striking suite of poems. Could you tell us a little bit more about the places, people, or ideas that influenced the collection?
I regularly participate in the Performance Studies international conference, and in my first year in a full-time academic role here in Japan it was fortunate that PSi took place in this country, but in the far north, in Aomori Prefecture, a region understood to be a cultural and geographic fringe of the country, even more so than the northern island of Hokkaido since Hokkaido was only unified with the country in the Meiji period; but then much of the nation underwent a certain kind of unification and standardisation then, so perhaps that’s debatable too. Anyway. As part of the activities of this conference, delegates went on a group trip to Osorezan, or Mount Fear (I like this better than Marilyn Ivy’s more tasteful and probably more suitable Mount Dread).
This place is a deeply significant site and one which Western poets, artists, folklorists, and historians have written about for hundreds of years for its powerful symbology and ravelled religious and cultural intersections: folklore and literature, myth and lived reality, religion and superstition, Zen and animism.
Tradition states that the people of Aomori make their final resting place in the mountain, said to be visible in the waters of the caldera pond to one side of Bodaiji, the enormous temple complex on the mountain. When we went there, I was struck by the whimsical presentation of profundity in this place. Toy windmills spin sparklingly across the hellish landscape of grey-green mineral veins of hot spring fumaroles as votives to premature and infant death, play things for the spirits of beings that never met adulthood. Handmade miniature stone towers proliferate across this spooky landscape, towers constructed by placing stone upon stone by visitors – a gesture of acknowledgement common to sacred sites across this country.
What delightful, colourful juxtapositions to this hill of the dead! Most whimsical of all to me was the presence of a hovel of bamboo and pine sitting at the foot of the resplendent temple complex of Bodaiji. Inside, a hot spring, open to all visitors. What a cruel joke! I thought, stupidly. This reverent palace of respect for the dead featuring a hot spring on the temple grounds for people to strip naked and splash around in at their pleasure.
If you know anything about Shinto beliefs regarding the dead, spirits particularly like water. So a bath in the spring of the dead sounds to me like the biggest spiritual trap ever intended – either sacrilege, or a snare! And yet we did bathe, accepting the invitation of Osorezan.
As you will read in this poem, Raimondo Cortese, Melbourne poet and dramatist, and a disciple of Hijikata Tatsumi, co-founder of Butoh, Tamano Koichi, jumped in with me too! For me, this was a real collision of things, and a great deconstruction of assumptions often western writers and thinkers tend to have about Japanese sacramentality. That is to say, outsiders assume that sacramentality equals prohibition – prohibition of pleasure, of fun, of touch, and of invitation. There are plenty of prohibitions. But those prohibitions take many forms. Shinto prohibitions and Zen prohibitions naturally differ, even with regards to one site that they both consider a sacrament of some kind. Osorezan is also unique – and this was the point of discussion after the lecture by Head Priest Minami, actually – in its openness to polytheism; many people are aware of the special place that itako have—itako being a type of shaman from the northern region of Japan—for the Osorezan site as mediums for spirits to speak through on request for a charge.
Minami made a clear point that however different Zen ideas might be to the shamanic understanding of spirits, Osorezan is a place of and for the dead, and thus its mysteries may be explored by any who would come and encounter them. As much as a polytheistic gesture, Minami’s point directed me to an important question: the attentive experience of place. So, as absurd as it first seemed to be to take an impromptu bath metres from the epic staircase facing a weighty Zen Buddhist temple shrouded with the sulphuric pall of billowing clouds from a deathly caldera and its steam holes, that apparent absurdity in the end was a deeply trivial impression of a site whose invitations to encounter would have been invisible had I been too preoccupied with a misunderstanding.
The poem addresses the many questions this experience raised in me. The poem also deconstructs the notion that grave enthusiasm for Japanese sacramentality – a kind of naïve assumption of profundity in everything – means respect for it. It amounts to much the contrary, I think. In other words, the poem explores how rejecting the invitation to encounter presented by a site that is the property of the dead and no other’s is the most unfortunate and possibly disrespectful response to it. The final line of the poem hopefully draws readers to reread this long poem in three parts as an engagement with the mystery of death, remembering that the dead know much more than the living do.
The scenes of Japan painted in your work often feel totally natural, yet at times there is a sense of foreignness and alienation. How has your position as a westerner living in Japan affected your work?
One response to this question is very much muscle-memory and sullied by rehearsal; one answers this question in one’s daily life as a non-Japanese person, both literally and internally in interior monologue. It would be boring for me to recite such a response here.
Another response to this question is historical: what is the literary history of intercultural engagement with Japan; what is the Orientalist history of Japan, the particularly Western imperial one that contorts with the development of post-Meiji Japanese imperialism; what multicultural and multilingual histories of writing exist since the postwar period and how little do they have to do with the manner in which Japanese literature sees itself – if such an autonomous notion of literary criticism could even be deployed; what does it mean to be an unpublished writer in Japanese?
Another response poses a rhetorical question: if I am so explicitly an alien in this country, what tenuous elements of belonging do I have or am I allowed? I don’t feel that my answers to any of these questions are very interesting at all. I feel that those who ask themselves these questions the least end up being the most charming, spontaneous, and fabulous.
But then one is surprised; the most bilingual (or multilingual) people with multicultural experience in this country – not to mention those Japanese citizens who self-describe themselves as ‘not very Japanese’, which has a different meaning to those who call themselves un-Australian – can often come out with very surprising anxieties about identity, even as they seem so superbly well-adjusted and metamorphic.
How does my position as a westerner living in Japan affect my work, really? In the end, I feel that it encourages me to give up, or, at least, pause. Since many of the western migrant writers to Japan have historically produced work so caught up in an exoticist vein, I’m awfully conscious of interpellation into this genre. A very simple point to make is that the little good work written in Japan in English tends to transcend the placement rather than better embody it. This is an ontological problem, basically – the monolithic construction of Japaneseness is so total, only clowns and the self-deluded ever claim themselves to belong to it as migrants; the more common response is the ‘I am forever an exile’ response, and most of those responses lack the deconstructive awareness to avoid repetitions of Orientalism. But don’t let western migrant writer anxieties be your focus on this point. I think the question is more fruitfully engaged with by those whose assimilation within ethnonationalism is on the surface at first unquestioned.
A multitude of responses are more viable when one has a more transnational, intercultural openness to experience. The reader is probably begging me to outline those. There are so many. But perhaps it isn’t for me to direct you to them; who the hell am I, and who cares? For now, since they are my friends, I direct you to two poets who are most surprising on this front: Sawako Nakayasu, and Goro Takano. They are writers with experience of migration who challenge the hegemony of received cultural identifications explicitly with reference to Japan (and America, as it were); they also offer transversal possibilities for the emergence of something new.
In my case, I have no despair about this, however negative I sound with regards to the possibilities at hand for the western writer, as you query. Metageographical consciousness has deeply informed my practice as a thinker and poet. I am charmed by the ruined arcades of Kobe, the train crossing a kilometre from my house with some treacherous green space overhanging a bluff, the postmodern statuary at Kabutoyama the suburb over from my house, the cliffs of Toyama, northern Kyoto roads, hilltops in Sasayama, hole-in-the-walls bars in Golden Gai in Shinjuku, fish markets in Aomori City; where do I end. I don’t feel at home anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, I settle in the world. Perhaps it is time we no longer read people like me. I am probably a more reliable critic than I am a poet.
I have two children, and I feel a weird responsibility to be more attentive to this question, though, weird because I feel that the most ethical response is of course to deconstruct any attachment to a national identity that does not make the invitation to me to belong. For my mixed race kids, I have to encourage them to comprehend their experiences and the alienation comported to them in the country of their birth from multiple perspectives. What else can I do? We are in holiday in the area of Lake Shinji in Shimane Prefecture right now. Yesterday, we went to Matsue City, and an antique shop owner asked us the usual question of where are we from. We said, ‘Takarazuka City, Melbourne, and Perth,’ my wife and my usual response as people living in the first, spending much time together in the second, and the third the place where I spent the ages of two to twenty-one. She asked where our kids were born. Here in Japan, we said. She asked how old my daughter was. My daughter replied ‘three’. What wonderful Japanese you speak! she said to my daughter. I reminded her that my daughter was born in Japan.
This is a mostly inconsequential remark, of course, one that doesn’t bother me too much, but one that I expect will be frustrating for my daughter who may likely see herself as belonging here, if not now then very soon. Not to mention that this is a very innocent example of someone expressing what they are conditioned to see, innocent in contrast with much more structural and troubling experiences likely to come as she grows up. Parenthood comes to shape a sense of responsibility toward a kind of liminal mission that I hope that I am equipped enough to embark upon for her and her brother’s sake.
The question becomes, why did I allow myself to write about Japanese matter, finally? I think ‘The Birth of a World Indisposes Another’ is the only poem that I have published that explicitly describes or features Japanese content since I moved here in 2015. I think there is no satisfactory way for a western writer to write in Japan; I failed not to write about Japan in this instance. In the end, the poem is about death and that mountain. I feel myself to be very much a surface-dweller half-baked into the crust of a far more corpulent planetary history. In that sense alienness feels trite and temporary. Who cares? Certainly not the reader, I’m sure. But more specifically nation feels like a limited interpretive frame for a spiritually very live and unpredictable site with polytheistic frameworks of interpretation in play there. Not to mention a vivid gateway to the land of the restless dead.
Anyway, I am not interested in belonging and I don’t think Osorezan cares either. I have my interconnections, habits, labours, privileges, limitations, and fun. I am much smaller than nation. Might I function better as a thinker and poet the more attentive, and the more inventive, I become with the real scale of experience? Linguistically and procedurally, I have the means to encounter tomorrow in different corners of the partitioned archipelago. The most important textual thing I might contribute in the end will unlikely be intentional, will probably be a passing mention to a burnt-out house or a raccoon’s tail. An unreliable axiom. Misquoting an English-language poem in a conversation with a performance artist in Japanese.
What do you personally feel is the most difficult part of the writing process?
The hardest element of the writing process is not writing, which also means not writing that or this or more of this or that. Writing has been crucial to me since the age of ten. I never stopped. I started publishing early and reading so-called ‘literature’ earnestly in high school, and as part of being a writer. The urge not to write is a powerful and important reservoir of invention. That is to say, what you haven’t written or will not write produces a gravity, and therefore an orbit for practice that will inevitably be more significant than this or that clever resolution. As I said, writing about Japan – the place where I must and do live! – feels more and more impossible. I once thought that the most exciting writers invent spaces within lived space, providing new places. I mean, I do believe this. But do I believe I can do this in Japan? I think I am the wrong person to do it. The only relief to write I feel these days comes with a sense of relief from that aboutness. Luckily for me, I suppose, my work is rarely about aboutness, but rather involves the intuitive navigation of conceptual and procedural obstacles. Hence most of my work continues to refer to Australia, but then I write so much less now, really. Reading works in Japanese sort of strengthens this attitude rather than relieves it. There is so much linguistic matter in play in an interesting work of Japanese literature that my literacy in Japanese cements this reluctance rather than invites into writing into it. Sure, I can translate a work, because a good translation can carry that openness of a term or expression along with it into a second language through a thoughtfully considered translation. In the invention of a new text, however, I am strangled by that openness. Maybe I will stop writing my own works. Or perhaps I am just awaiting a breakthrough.
You can find out more about Corey, and purchase his work, here.