Matsuki Masutani on Writing

I loved Matsuki Masutani's poetry before I'd seen his first book. I was a juror with Poetry in Transit that year, and as I was sifting through the submissions, I came upon his poem and was seized by a swift joy - one of those readerly experiences you dream of:

At a Party

I am one of two
Japanese men on the island.
I have long hair and Yoshi’s is short.
He wears glasses and I don’t.
Still, many people
mix us up.
When people ask me,
“Do you make miso?”
(which Yoshi does)
I say,
The poem went on to be included in the series, soon after the book in which it appeared was published. That book, Masutani's debut collection I Will Be More Myself In The Next World (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2021), was my favourite of the year, and I was thrilled when it was longlisted for the Gerald Lampert award for first poetry book (and comparatively peeved when it went no further, spurring me to have an "I’mma let you finish, but..." Kanye West/Taylor Swift moment).

Masutani's precision and openness - such a difficult combination to achieve - created these easy-to-access, yet profound (and often very funny) poems. They are poems that seem deceptively simple and yet take a lifetime to master. 

Here's another example:

My fourteen-year-old daughter

asked me, "Dad, do you worry
about losing our respect?"
"No! Not at all," I replied.
"That's good."
She sounded relieved.

In bed, I wondered what she meant.
Soon a watchman in a dark costume
appeared and gazed 
at the lake of my consciousness,
as if to prevent 
a dragon from emerging.

The watchman's earnestness 
prevented me from sleeping
for a long time.

Matsuki Masutani
I anticipate (dread?) just such conversations with my own children down the road. And I'm struck, against and again, by the fact that it's the watchman's earnestness, and not the dragon itself, that keeps the speaker from sleep.

I interviewed Masutani about the book for EVENT Magazine (you can read that interview here), and was lucky enough to read at an event with him for WORD Vancouver. Still, I wanted to know more - and I suspected my students would, too. We were lucky enough to have Masutani  agree to visit our (virtual) classroom at SFU's The Writer's Studio last week. 

The conversation went much the way Masutani's poems do. When a student would ask him a question, his answer - often preceded by a length of silence - was short and to the point. If he didn't have a good answer to a question, he simply reply, with a smile, "I don't know." (How different from other writers - like me - who'd fill that space with panicked babble.) When an answer came, though, it was as precise and open as his poems, and very useful. 

During our talk, a storm on was raging on Denman Island, where Masutani lives with his wife (the star of many of his poems), and his connection was cut on a couple occasions. I was lucky, in those moments, to be able to circle back to what had been said, and record some of Masutani's very quotable replies before I'd forgotten them. Here are a few of his many observations, which I think are great reminders for poets, both aspiring and mid-career: 

On why he writes poetry: 

"Most of my friends are great talkers, but I'm not, so I wrote poems instead."

On working with his family and publisher to make his book: 

"Making a book is a collaboration. I'm just a part of it."

On the importance of writing in a writer's life: 

"Life is more than just literature." 
On translating his own writing into Japanese: 

"I know more than the words about these poems."  

On receiving edits to his poems: 

"It was difficult, but I knew these are not the last poems I'll write."
I'll have to paraphrase another one of my favourite quotes, as I didn't get it down, but when asked about the audience he writes for, he said he writes for his wife, in hopes that he might make her laugh. I can think of few more lovely ways to approach the page. 

Our conversation helped recentre me in thinking about my own writing, and my life in/around writing. Hopefully these quotes can do a little of the same for you.

To close, here's one more open, precise poem from Masutani, which likely made his wife laugh. Its last line could easily serve as my epitaph (as I suspect it could for any number of us):

As we rocked on rough waves

I said to myself, "What would
my mother think of me
dying on a sailboat?"

I got more scared and clung 
to the rails, praying
in silence, leaving control
of the boat to a priest
I barely knew.

Finally, I said, "Is the worst

Cupping his hand to his ear, 
he smiled.

I'd planned for 
a different kind
of sailing, packing
my flute
and a book.


Matsuki Masutani is a poet and translator living on Denman Island. He moved from Tokyo to Vancouver in 1976. Ten years later he moved to Denman Island, where he eventually began writing poems in English and Japanese. He has translated Canadian works such as Roy Kiyooka’s Mothertalk, Hiromi Goto’s Chorus of Mushrooms, and from Japanese into English, Kishizo Kimura’s memoir, Witness to Loss, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2017. His poems have appeared in Geist magazine, Capilano Review and in the anthology Love of the Salish Sea Islands.


Rajani said...

Thank you.. love the review and am inspired to look up and read more from this poet.

Rob Taylor said...

Mission accomplished, then!