Japanese Death Poems: A conversation with Carl Terver
Carl Terver loves to listen to Bob Marley’s ‘Who The Cap Fits’. He’s in-house writer and critic at Praxis Magazine where he is also Assistant Digital Editor. In 2019 he led a review team at the same magazine, as Media Partner, to review the Writivism shortlisted entries. He is known for his criticisms on culture and Nigerian writing. His writing is dedicated to long-form creative nonfiction, the essay, and poems on love and humanity. His chapbook, For Girl at Rubicon, will be published later this year. He’s working on two projects: M.I.A., a novel, and a book-length essay on new school poetry. He’s @CarlTerver on Twitter.
Let’s begin from current affairs: you recently posted on Facebook saying your name is ‘Black Hitomaro’ which is an alias after the Japanese poet Kakinomoto Hitomaro. In addition, you have a new poem titled ‘Night Hitomaro Lines for Catherine’. First, there’s little detailed account of the Japanese poet; secondly, here are ‘night Hitomaro lines’ for Catherine. This is obviously some code naming to think about, especially as it is drawn from way 7th century Japanese poetry. When I saw your post, one of the first things that came to mind was the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa and his names. Let’s hear you.
Thank you, Ishaya. There’s some info on Hitomaro, if you look well. For now, I limit my knowledge of him to Wikipedia (that source I hate but often resort to) and Anne Commons’ Hitomaro: Poet as God, which I am still going through. His poems are also included in the Manyoshu, also known as ‘The Ten Thousand Leaves’, an anthology of ancient Japanese poetry.
I first used the alias, Black Hitomaro, as my screen name on Twitter but nobody noticed it, I guess. Perhaps, due to my 260 followers that keeps oscillating back to 258. Well, you took notice of it on Facebook, as others.
There’s a lot going on with poetry lately, and as a poet and a critic of poetry, I have to keep up with a lot of reading, even if I have found out that I cannot always be up to date with the speed of its evolution. This exposes me, though, to good poetry, which I collect, as I have had it in mind to run poetry workshops. This same way I have found some good samples in Japanese Death Poems, an anthology of death poems by Zen masters compiled by Yoel Hoffmann. Then I also came across Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Japanese where Hitomaro happened to me. At once, I felt like Hitomaro knew me and was writing his poems for me; I’m thinking his Iwami poems. His style appealed to my sense of imagery: ‘This morning I will not / Comb my hair. / It has lain / Pillowed on the hand of my lover.’ Reading him made me recall the first time I read a haiku; it must be five years now. How I was moved by its compactness and its music, the rhythm, created by the trick of its 5-7-5 syllabication. From that time, I believe, the poetic expression of the haiku form was sown in me, even if I had not known, because it is quite evident today, as, at a point, my style began to assume or prefer compactness and a sense of conciseness. I have written a poem that shows the height of this, titled ‘16 Verses for Ele-ojo’. One stanza reads, ‘you are a siren / not the kind mothers warn of— / your loudness is distilled / in piano keys’.
The naming Black Hitomaro began like this: One night after a phone call, this lady asks me to write her a poem. I looked in the sky and saw the new moon, and the lines came: The new moon this night / Is like a bow of heaven / Waiting for us to snatch it / From the sky. The next morning I wrote another short poem like this, and the recurring night. I found myself writing these poems when I went to bed and when I woke up, and decided to make it a collection. I titled it Poems by Night & Day but it didn’t cut my experience at the time; I had subtracted the influence of Hitomaro from it. So I thought of a better title and I came up with Black Hitomaro. In this sense, I am re-living Hitomaro through my lines, but since I am not Japanese, or Asian, but African, I am like Black Hitomaro.
I have not heard of Fernando Pessoa. What is it about ‘his names’?
This is interesting. I think we will ask this lady to keep asking you for poems. And Kenneth did great translation there. The condensation, the simplicity, the depth and the beauty captured in poetry. “The new moon this night / Is like a bow of heaven / Waiting for us to snatch it / From the sky.” It’s morning here, but this poem made me look out the window for the moon. What poetry does to us. I’m glad you’ve made a collection. Will you be publishing that soon? For Fernando Pessoa, he had multiple personas, pseudonyms if you like, over eighty, he called them heteronyms and worked and published in these distinctive names. And I wondered if that’s a line you’ll be treading as well. I was looking at Anne Commons’ Hitomaro: Poet as God, and damn, it’s way expensive on Amazon—about seventy quid. I will look for it in my uni library. Back to your poetry: can you speak about other poets you have strong affinity with? Your influences.
Yes, Kenneth Rexroth did a good work with his translation, when I compare to what I’ve read in the Manyoshu. The lady friend, well . . . Collection? I plan to write a hundred and more of these Hitomaro lines before I turn them into a book, and I don’t think I’ve hit twenty poems yet, so the collection can wait. Rather, I am working on two chapbooks. My debut poetry collection, Boy Not On A Swing, if not published by the end of this year, should be ready next year.
Influence on my poetry, the poets involved—that’s a tricky one. I have undergone phases of poetry writing. Some years back in an online chat with E. O. Dairo, we—that is me and him— quipped about how a poet goes through seven life cycles of complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult) to become an arrived poet, although we didn’t specify what each life cycle entails. So if I have gone through four of these life cycles. There have been a cocktail of influences. It’d be a dishonour to the innumerable influence on my poetry if I mention just a few names, but I’ll start with music. I think music, mostly rap music, influenced me a lot: 2pac, Nas, The Game, Wyclef Jean, Bob Marley . . . I particularly like musicians like Jeff Buckley, John Ondrasik and Hozier because of the poetry in their lyrics. On having any strong affinity – and, of course, this should be more about poets – there’s no one poet, or even two. I fall in love with poems, and not the poets. It is what I read: like Achebe’s ‘Mango Seedling’ or’Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ or John Donne’s ‘The Good Morrow’ or Millay’s ‘What lips my lips have kissed and when and why’. I’d also go with Neruda, Hitomaro, Niyi Osundare, Gabriel Okara, Ahmed Maiwada, Romeo Oriogun, Theresa Lola, Warsan Shire, Ocean Vuong, Dami Ajayi, Oko Owi Ocho, Aondosoo Labe, Gbenga Adeoba, Christopher Okigbo, Miguel Hernandez, Langston Hughes, Senghor, Mtshali, and Lenrie Peters. So no strong affinity. At the end of the day, your poetry just has to speak to me, to tell me something I didn’t know could be expressed the way the poet does; I’m talking about the poet’s ability to use language in new ways in creating imagery, and the poet’s message. These are the two strong points for me. But if I have to pinpoint anyone’s poetry I love anytime, it’s Maiwada’s.
Maiwada’s We’re fish is simply incredible—from the plain blue-and-white cover to the poems. Reading the entire collection feels like a continuous wave. Each poem stands on its own and, at the same time, dissolves into something whole; a kind of correspondence between poems that is carried on to the next. Of his five books this is my best. I’m aware you share similar fascination with We’re fish, can you speak briefly about that?
At first, Maiwada’s We’re fish put me off. I even saw the blue-and-white cover as an elitist fancy for abstractness in art. The innovativeness was overbearing. But having read Maiwada before, I tried the book again and I did not remain the same. It is poetry that I have not read in a while, which I don’t think I’ll ever read again yet: This is where I’d say We’re fish is a classic. It has the qualities you mention—each sub-poem standing on its own and dissolving into something else— and more. To me it is like a piece of classical music: it has movements, mood, tempo—middle, high, low—and notes even. These notes could be the manipulation of structure, to the inverted transferred epithets employed throughout (We remember you, martyr of the wind, a desire we couldn’t rescue) and how the piece crescendo when it does, or when it has to go mid-tempo, all these calibrations, the conscious effort of the poet to achieve an aim for response from the reader. The employment of imagery and style is painstaking, overkill. Maiwada outdid himself. To a reader with good eye for poetry, this makes it an extraordinary work, that lines upon lines in the collection remain memorable. But I have to be brief; I could go on about all the things the collection means to me.
Speaking about influence: I remember something Anais Nin said: “We’re influenced beyond direct influence.” Can you walk us through those phases, the metamorphosis you mentioned? What was the early stage like? Events that concretized your faith in poetry and writing in general.
The phases, I think—since I have mentioned a going through, over and over, of a repeated process of metamorphosis—I’d say this: it’s like taking a sip of art, which is a little knowledge, that thrusts one blindly into believing his writing is the best, until he drinks from the Pierian spring. When the latter happens, the scales come off his eyes because he has learnt something new by reading more, or has experienced something pivotal that changed his way of seeing. This could also mean he was exposed to good criticism. (Well, he undergoes a paradigm shift.) This has to happen in each metamorphosis. When it happens, he is ready to move into the next phase or life cycle. (Seven of them.) This way he grows and gets better. It is like a refining process, till the crude is properly distillated.
In my first life cycle, my early stage of writing, identity crisis was my middle name. I didn’t know what I was doing; the artistic genes were undergoing mutation. But I wrote nonetheless. Always. It was chaotic. My aesthetic consciousness was not committed to a tradition. I did not belong to, or owe my art to, any solid influence, by say another writer, or consciousness, like what I was writing for. In hindsight, I think this distorted my growth a bit—kinda gave me a misplaced identity. But thanks to Alexander Pope’s An Essay On Criticism that initiated me into the ritual to see things anew, imbuing in me the need to reinvent myself always.
Hmmph. Concretization of my faith in poetry and writing? For poetry, I think, Donatus Nwoga’s West African Verse did it. I knew when I read that book that I was not only interested in writing poetry, but that I was going to write about poetry. For writing, three things: Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, and the New Yorker.
Poetry is hard, some people say. What do you say?
It is true. Poetry is hard. Any poet who has disciplined himself to understand how imagery works will admit this.
Should it also be hard for or to the reader?
It doesn’t have to be hard for the reader, or to the reader. But it depends. Thing is, both reader and poet need to have an appreciation grounds: appreciation in the sense of poetry and its aesthetics. This way there’s a negotiation of the reader’s ability to appreciate poetry and the poet’s ability to write the appreciable poem. In this same way, too, the question of exposure of both poet and reader is considered. The whole buck falls on imagery though. What kind and how much, wealthy, an imagery does the poet need, and for which kind of reader? How well then will a reader traffic through his use of imagery? And that is why I mentioned discipline earlier. A good poet should know that no matter how stylistic he becomes, on average, his poetry doesn’t have to be hard for the reader. Readers should have enough discipline, too, to see imagery, by looking closer. But if any poem gives us too much headache, I think we can skip it.
I am interested in how food and health factor into our writing and creativity—the well-being of a writer. Are there diets or habits you’ve had to take up or cut off specifically having your writing in mind?
I have never thought of writing and nutrition in this way. The only scenario close to this is, I stay away from alcohol when I need to write. Because even when inebriation clears I have to deal with more wasted hours returning to the kind of clearheadedness that I need to write.
In a conversation somewhere, Cynthia Cruz said, “…for me, poetry is this mix of a kind of mysticism and philosophy.” What’s your view? What’s the interplay? A poem of yours titled ‘Halimat’ does point in that direction, if I may. I mean, this line: “Life is this lake of grey memories.” When an incidence compels one towards some kind of existential quantification. Plus, your usage of ‘lake’. What’s your take?
Do we have to go into some criticism on this one? I don’t like words with –isms in them; I think they are overreaching. Mystical? Mysticism? This is a typical example. Do we mean ‘divine’ here or some quasi-divine association? Cruz can have her say but I don’t agree with her. How is Thomas Gray’s ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ or Oko Owi Ocho’s ‘We Will Sing Water’ a kind of mix of mysticism and philosophy to me, when what I feel about either is their magic? It is hard to have a view for something as protean as poetry. It is something whose spell you have to fall under to even have an inkling—or by Jove, a vision—of what to tell about it. Dylan Thomas thought about it as ‘. . . the rhythmic, inevitable narrative, movement from overclothed blindness to a naked vision’. Yet, what does he really mean? So, for ‘Life is this lake of grey memories’, what you need is contextual reference within the poem it appears in. The lake is that which I am going to drown in because of the overbrooding of ‘grey memories’ that make it—life likened to a lake—unpleasant for living.
I am trying to imagine ‘existential quantification’ . . . Does ‘lake’ fit? My take would be—really, I don’t know. Musing on the poems I have read lately, I don’t think they fit into this position. But I wouldn’t turn down being schooled on this.
That’s another word for it, the magic, the spell. And on the existential bit, you mention now “life likened to a lake—unpleasant for living”. And further into musings, into revelations: as a reader and as a poet, how would you describe the effect of poetry on you? to the extent of the self, self-discovery and examining the world.
One thing poetry does for me is that it gives me reason to believe that God exists. All that beauty of it cannot be accountable by humans alone. God is the first poet. And if we have his life force flowing through us we’re therefore his offspring in this art. Poetry also makes me believe in humanity, in the beautifulness of the souls that pen them as a way of reconstructing our ravaged world. And how by being pure, it seeks to redeem, heal, and save us from our hypocritical selves. It also helps me see. By reading Hitomaro’s poems, for example, or Hyginus Ekwuazi’s, I am able to understand that the experiences they have recorded in their poems are no different from mine or any other person, and as such, this helps me see, as Martin Luther King Jr said, my inevitable connectedness to other people in the world, so that I owe myself an obligation to do right.
You were at the recently concluded Benue Book and Arts Festival in Makurdi, and were fully involved in it. How did it go?
That festival, for me, went well. I mean, it was a first time thing in a city that, having lived there for some time, I’ve sensed its apathy for anything literary. And also that it was ran by persons I’d call foot soldiers—who lived up to the expectations of the calvary—in making it happen. You’ve just mentioned it, others too are talking about it. At least, now it’s known out there that that state shall not only make the news for the infamous. Friends were made, connections made. Debates were raised.
Of the cities you’ve lived in, which would you say has had the most impact on you and your writing? And what five cities would you like to visit before you turn 200?
When I first came to Makurdi in 2016 I was homesick for Abuja throughout my first semester at the university there. It’s uncanny now—Makurdi has impacted me more than any other city. (Not as if I have been to many though.) My consciousness of art increased in this city. Perhaps, because of the aloneness it offered me, or that I chose to spend time staying back in the city instead of going back to Abuja during holidays from uni.
Four cities? Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong, and whichever city the Iwami River Hitomaro wrote so much about is in Japan. There are too many cities one may want to see, but one can’t see them all.
And how many books can’t one read? (Laughs). Two more questions in one: what are you currently reading? And to your preference, what books do you think will become classics of the 21st century?
The last book I read was Franz Kafka’s The Trial, amongst the texts selected by my lecturer for our European literature class. Currently, no book. I’ve been too busy editing for people to have to read. But most recently I led a review team at Praxis Magazine for the 2019 Writivism shortlisted works, so I read everything on the shortlists, and then few days back glanced through Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets. On your second question: unfortunately I can’t have an answer for that. But I’m sure should Teju Cole write another novel, it’ll become a classic.
As a reader and a poet yourself, how would you describe the poetry scene currently in Nigeria? Last month you posted on Facebook saying: “It’s unfortunate how our generation has put so much faith in long bios and the need to get published in numeral journals. Man, I don’t want to know how many journals you have been published in; I want to read your work and experience surprise.” I wonder if you still hold this opinion or have some clarification?
Ha! Nobody can rant again? Anyway it is my biased opinion. I am not a dinosaur nor insular to progress. If there’s a crop of Nigerian writers who want long bios and publication in numeral journals, that is fine. However, my problem is with how this has become an unhealthily cultivated nonsense culture where the unsuspecting young Nigerian writer makes the error that he needs this to get validation. In the process, I see often average and poor writing getting published, because the writer hasn’t taken time to focus on craft, doesn’t grow enough, because he has to submit to these journals that have relaxed standards. So he has a long bio that is purported to be a sign of his wonder but his writing has no surprise? Yet he believes he is worth the onion while he doesn’t; he has believed in the long bio, not in his ability to aspire to good writing.
The poetry scene is Nigeria today is all phases of dynamic weaving into each other. It is a time of poetry boom. The new school poets are penetrating and taking over. And it’s a wave: they have their thinking and aesthetic, courting the kind of imagery they want to see. Some few mavericks are writing their stuff, too. It is a dust cloud now; but we need what is going on right now, at the end there shall be light.
Any advice for fellow writers?
(Laughs) You are my fellow writer—you give me an advice. I am still in need of some myself. Well, as with all other endeavours, fellow writer, exercise discipline. Build a regimen for yourself to help you grow as a writer. And there’s no way about this than to read. Read very well. Read the unusual stuff everybody is not reading. Be friends with fellow writers. Grow. Be open-minded. Accept criticism. Have a strong sense of your vision as a writer so that you’re not easily swayed by what the establishment demands or what everybody is doing. And, avoid bad writing.
I’d like us to wrap up on a musical note: what kind of music displeases you? What’s your playlist like? and if you don’t mind, could you share with us?
What kind of music displeases me? I hardly have an answer for that. I almost assimilate everything music as long as it communicates to me. But I must say some nonsense music in Nigeria by hacks who rely solely on beats—same sounds—advertising their mediocrity for all annoys me. I don’t make or keep playlists. I listen to songs according to genre or artist. When I don’t do this I set my music player on shuffle and allow anything play. Playlist? So someone wants to know my taste. Well, this is not my taste; it is just what I listen to lately. Kendrick Lamar, All The Stars. Camila Cabello, Never Be The Same Again. Lagbaja, Skentele. James Blunt, Annie. Hozier, From Eden. Di’ja, Save Me. Miley Cyrus, We Can’t Stop. Eminem, We Made You. The Weeknd, I Feel It Coming. Lil Wayne, Mona Lisa. That’s ten. They’re prolly a poor combination for a playlist.
Thanks, Carl, for your time. We should start a radio or music program for writers and their playlists (laughs).
Well, you know what 2Baba says, ‘Come mek we go.’