Sho Sugita’s long road to the world of historical poetry translation began in Ashland, included stops in Chicago, New York, and his current home of Matsumoto, Japan, and on Wednesday Sugita’s journey will come full circle when he walks through the doors of Southern Oregon University’s Schneider Museum of Art to read from his latest translation.
Sugita, who left town not long after graduating from Ashland High School in 2004 and has only visited a couple times since, will be on the third stop of a month-long coast-to-coast book tour that will take him, by Greyhound bus, to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Cincinnati, Iowa City, Milwaukee, New York and Washington D.C.
He’ll be reading from “Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems” by Hirato Renkichi, a Japanese poet whose experimental, avant-garde style was groundbreaking but little known outside of Japan when he died in 1922 at age 29. Sugita believes “Spiral Staircase” is the first collection of Japanese futurist poetry to appear in the English language, and he’s hoping its release will help to chip away at the commonly held notion that the avant-garde movement was a distinctly Western affair.
Poetry fans can judge for themselves soon enough. “Spiral Staircase,” a 208-page book, will be available to purchase the day Sugita reads here, and can be pre-ordered (for $14) online at www.uglyducklingpresse.org. The reading is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. and will last about an hour.
“I think Hirato was really full of passion about poetry and I think it’s something that a reader can really sense or experience while reading his poems,” Sugita said in a phone interview Wednesday, a day before he boarded a plane bound for the U.S.
Sugita was born in Japan and learned Japanese as his first language before his family moved to Aloha when he was 9 years old. About five years later, right before Sugita’s freshman year of high school, they moved to Ashland, and it was here that his love of poetry blossomed. He attended his first poetry workshop at SOU, led by former Oregon poet laureate Lawson Fusado Inada, and named former English teacher Joel Cicerella as another early influence.
After graduating from AHS, Sugita headed east to attend the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with a degree in East Asian Languages and Civilizations in 2008. He moved back to Japan that same year, but returned in 2012 for Brooklyn College’s MFA poetry program. He earned his master’s the next year then promptly returned to Japan, where he’s since started a translation firm.
A poet himself, Sugita has for years been a big fan of the experimental poetry such as futurism, dada and surrealism that sprang up in the early 20th century, but he was particularly drawn to Renkichi. A college dropout, Renkichi started writing poetry in 1912 and produced a relatively large body of work before dying young.
A new experimental brand of poetry was introduced to the world when the “Manifesto of Futurism” was published in a French newspaper in 1909. Within three months of that publication, a translation was available in Japan.
“And for about a decade or so there wasn’t anyone practicing a rendition of futurism in Japan, but (Renkichi) was the first poet to incorporate experimental techniques into his own poems and really, he was a poet who built the foundation for later experimental writing in Japan,” Sugita said. “He laid the foundation for a much livelier Japanese dada and surrealist movement in Japan. So I guess I thought the work was important for laying the foundation for other artists who built on what he published in Japan.”
Besides a few essays, Sugita said, “Spiral Staircase” represents everything Renkichi is known to have produced, and translating it into English was no easy task. Doing so, Sugita explained, requires tip-toeing a fine line between original meaning and modern-day accessibility, and negotiating that tumultuous path without falling flat on your face is an art form in itself.
“I think translating poetry is kind of a negotiation between whether I want to make the translation closer to the original text or to make the results fluid in English,” said Sugita, who’s only three years removed from his first crack at poetry translation. “I guess a more technical term that people tend to use in translation is ‘domestication’ — if someone wants to make the language closer to the target text, they say that. I guess I’m always thinking about the balance between the two. You don’t want to lose too much from the source material, but because I’m trying to make the resultant text for a more general reader it’s also important to not make things too destructive or hard to read.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.