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Sunday, Dec. 8, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

TOKYO ODES

Expat writers shoot from the lip


By LEZA LOWITZ
FACES IN THE CROWDS: A Tokyo International Anthology, edited by Hillel Wright. Printed Matter Press: Tokyo, 2002, 254 pp., 2 yen,500/$25 (cloth) "Faces in the Crowds" is a hyperkinetic grab bag that brings work by a cross section of Tokyo's expat writers, and Japanese writers working in English, together in an act of literary homage.

Many of the authors in these pages have strutted their stuff at events such as the "Power of the Spoken Word" series hosted by Taylor Mignon and the open-mike sessions held at What the Dickens, a British pub in Ebisu. They've honed their work at meetings of the Tokyo Writers Group and Temple University Japan Poets, and published it in Wingspan, Printed Matter and Yomimono and through Saru Press and other local literary presses and magazines.

The book's publisher, Printed Matter Press, locally owned and (usually) cooperatively operated, has managed to survive and thrive for 30 years, with new editors at the helm every so often to morph the journal into a reflection of the Tokyo zeitgeist, whatever it might be.

The expat literary community is in a constant state of flux, giving it a fluid, spontaneous quality, like a parade or a carnival. Editor Hillel Wright, a poet, novelist and coeditor with Mignon of the recent bilingual anthology "Poesie Yaponesia," has captured perfectly that flux in this bursting-at-the-seams collection. Wright seems to delight in the offbeat moment.

The book's title is apt -- the writers, who hail from countries including Canada, Australia, China, Ghana, the United States, Britain, China and Taiwan, jostle and grind like a human wave washing over the Tokyo streets, singing, shouting, bemoaning and celebrating this crazy thing called life. Not all of the contributors live in Japan.

Their subject is not what it's like to be expats. Rather, they are concerned with that universal quagmire of being human, being alive, political, engaged, disenfranchised. There's no glorification of or attempt to understand culture or its clashes. The only stylization is a lack of it, which becomes a style of its own, like free jazz. It's that style that sets this collection apart, making it more like a "happening" than a conventional anthology.

The book is divided into five parts. The first three -- "What the Dickens," "Tokyo Writers Group" and "Temple University Japan Poets" -- are based on the venue that spawned the work, while "Word of Mouth" is a collection of pieces by writers who sent in material after hearing about the anthology project. The authors in "Editor's Guests" contributed work at the invitation of Wright.

Though each section has a distinct flavor, the editor's overall taste in writing and art could be classified as something approaching youthful anarchy. These writers and artists "shoot from the lip," and seem to have found freedom in form -- if they haven't dispensed with form altogether.

In "Inside the Kamakura Buddha," Wallace Gagne calls the revered statue a "cool dude" and writes, "You're the biggest friggin' Buddha I've ever seen/Bar none. Ten thousand tons of bronze and concrete enlightenment."

Kathy Murphy's lengthy prose piece "In the Glass Department" begins, "At least sometimes, but it may be always, shopping turns a girl on."

And Stephen Nelmes' "Five Short Poems" combine the minimalism of haiku with a Western straight-edged razor wit, collaging scraps of quotes and images in a stream-of-consciousness riff. In one of the poems, "Triptych," he writes:

The Zen garden sinking in
the sound and fury
the carnal mosaic heaves inside the
TV screen
Reflections
in a price tag
Dangling
from
a
Sleeve

In "CHOOSE JAPAN," Leigh Norrie rants:

CHOOSE JAPAN. CHOOSE INCONVENIENCE. GO TO SHOPPING. GO TO HOME. CHOOSE A TAMAGOCHI. CHOOSE A MOBILE PHONE. EVERYONE. EVERYWHERE. MOBILE PHONES. ALL HAVE. ALL BITCH. 120 MILLION OF THEM, GOING OFF AT ONCE.

Taylor Mignon rips into the soul of Japan in "Mishima Post-Mortem":

Arrows melt martyr
Grandma's boy cuts take-no-ko
: fist flying blades

Confessions of a Mask
SM cannibial
Kabuki hara-kiri
Romanesque facades
Order of Rose coffee break
Unarmed, kicked-back bust

Hagakure then
Honda bushi, Sony now-
Yen hana typhoon
Japans tamashi
Dostoevsky Disneyland
Western-wasted soul

While much of the work is experimental and raw, there's also more conventional fiction from well-respected writers Morgan Gibson, Elaine Lies, Tony Skevington, David Cozy, G.M.A. Iddris (about his Ghanian family), Wright himself and Barbara Summerhawk.

Excellent poems by long-standing literary lights Stephen Forster, William Elliott and Ryu Makoto complement relative newcomers like Malinda Markham, whose well-crafted poems shine. Frank Spignese, Edgar Henry and John Gribble weigh in with accomplished poems that pack a punch. Atsuko Ueno's quietly erotic "Grow Bigger" surprises by its subtlety.

Japanese writers Fujio Ogura, Shiori Tsuchiya, Torii Shozo and Satoshi Ishizaka add their own distinct voices to the rant. In "My 3-D Agenda for Reforming Japan," Ishizaka writes, "I have the utmost disgust for the devastatingly unhealthy lifestyle of most Japanese." So much for ambiguity and politeness. And that's only the first sentence.

A lovely preface by writer Carol Baba, former coeditor of Printed Matter, takes us back in time to the birth of the Tokyo literary scene. An engaging and erudite foreword by Donald Richie places the anthology alongside other expat movements and anthologies, arguing, "We are no longer in the bar at the elegant Algonquin but in Ben's Cafe in grubby Tokyo, but we are much more alive, much more concerned, and much more cool."

As a whole, the work can be seen as an embodiment of the "first thought, best thought" aesthetic borne of the Beat movement. It ranges from spontaneous overwrite at a caffeine speedwriting session to the morse-code shorthand of writing on a subway ride. When the writing is good, it's eye-and-mind-opening good. When it isn't, it's on the sophomoric level -- there are lots of works about sex, breasts, love hotels and breasts again.

Taken together, everything attests to the range of talent emanating from this city, and anyone wanting a bird's eye view of the expat poetry scene in Tokyo would do well to check it out. As a snapshot for posterity, it gives a vivid glimpse of the current Tokyo-International Express as it shuttles by.



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