––Jordan A. Y. Smith

In the middle of a pandemic of historical proportions, it’s easy to sink into despair. It’s also precisely now that we can turn to poetry that transcends the toughest conditions, to find ways to remember that humans are always between our screaming births and the existential unknown of our deaths, while walking a hysterical tightrope of life’s various oases and alligators. It’s a perfect time, I think, to update ToPoJo’s readers on a project we’ve been developing––about poetry workshops held in prisons in the Japan and the U.S.

Prisons have long been the birthplaces of poetry. Whether as places where penitence sinks in, or where resentment festers, or where political resistance is steeled (as with Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” or Reginal Dwayne Betts, “Bastards of the Reagan Era”), for any human, time alone with one’s thoughts can yield powerful expressions. Recent years have seen a handful of projects aimed at bringing poetry into prisons in various ways, two of which caught my attention for their focus on juvenile institutions—whether prisons or so-called “detention facilities.” What kind of poetry do imprisoned or “detained” children write? What can poetry do to help them? What can their poetry teach us? How can it move us—both at the level of emotion and action?

In Japan, Poet Ryo Michiko, originally raised around Tokyo/Kanto though currently a 15-year resident of the Nara area, ran an education program at Nara Juvenile Prison from 2006-2017 in which the child inmates had the chance to try their pens and voices at poetry and other forms of expression.

Ryo’s first encounter with the prison marked her memory with an odd admixture of the strong and stately Meiji-era brick architecture and anxiety about what kinds of things the inmates had been sentenced for––which turned out to be a litany from drug abuse to murder. That first visit in September 2006 was to check out the architecture, but she ended up walking into an exhibition of the inmates’ creative work—art, writing, and more. She ended up offering a poetry course, which the prison officials allowed at the rate of one per month.

Her pedagogy was aimed at creating a safe space, without judgment, without expectations—particularly important for children who had never experienced elementary school, had been physically abused, or had suffered sustained neglect. One of the early units focused on creating poems centered on colors. A child came up with the simple poem:


I chose white, because the sky is blue.

The poem stood out, and Ryo appreciated the intrigue of its ambiguous subject—who chose white, and in what sense? The answer begins with the poem’s title, “Cloud,” but there is more behind the symbol. After getting up the courage to read the poem to the group, the child, known by the initial "D" in Ryo’s book What Spilled Over was Kindness, asked if he could explain something about it. D explained that it was the seven-year memorial of his mother’s death. Even though his mother had always been weak and in poor health, his father used to beat her. D had been too young at the time to do anything to protect her. Before she died in her hospital sick bed, she had told him, “When things get tough, look up to the sky. Because I will surely be right there.” The poem had been the boy’s way of thinking through his mother’s perspective, or so he imagined based on her dying promise.

Another child remarked, “I’ve never seen my mother, but after reading your poem, whenever I look up at the sky, I feel like see her.” Others shared very similar feelings.

Over time, Ryo and the class developed a practice of offering some positive words for each poem, but some poems were harder to praise. Take this poem, “My Favorite Color” (すきな色):

My favorite color

is blue

My second favorite color

is red





As generous a critic as Ryo has become, she was still stumped. One of the kids saved the day, raising a hand and offering, “Hey, I loved how you told us not only one color you liked, but two!” Other young critics agreed. Something as simple as learning two whole colors another human likes. The smallest bits of personal information feel all the more precious for those not used to sharing with others, or who have been denied the opportunity to become accustomed to the practice of building bonds with others.

Ryo’s work with children in the currently closed Nara Juvenile Prison deserves our full attention, and this blog is the beginning of a series of engagements with it. The next follow-up will be with BBC Radio 4, in an upcoming program co-produced by Anishka Sharma of BBC and myself, putting Ryo Michiko into dialogue with poet and professor Seth Michelson in the U.S., whose poetry writing project with children in detention centers for undocumented immigrants shows the universality and urgency of the problems surrounding incarceration—how much room there is for improvement in our systems, and how important it is for all of us to take action to ameliorate the long-term damage prisons can inflict on the most vulnerable humans, exacerbating the issues they are supposedly designed to solve. (See Seth Michelson’s book Dreaming America at Settlement House below.)

––posted from the Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Nara, with audio engineer Darin Dahlinger to begin our interviews for the program…


Reginal Dwayne Betts, “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015).

Seth Michelson. Dreaming America: Voices of Youth in Maximum Security Detention (Settlement House, 2017).

Public Enemy. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Def Jam, 1988.

Ryo Michiko (寮美千子), Afuredeta-no-ha yasashisa datta (What Spilled Over was Kindness) (Nishi-nihon Shuppan, 2018).

Christopher Soto. “Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Challenging the Dichotomy of Innocence Versus Criminality.” Poetry Foundation Blog, September 25, 2017.

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Report from Omuta City Ambassador, Michiyama Tomoyuki

Note: winning poems appear in English translation at the end of this article.

At my hometown zoo,

instead of drawing animals,

We put the animals’ feelings into words

through poetry that we write

and then read in front of everyone.

And everyone listens together.

It brought me great pleasure to see that simple premise be brought to life for the second time in fall of 2019. This second annual event also served to cheer on the new film, Life Sketch, which was partially filmed on location at the Omuta City Zoo. The film ran in theaters for five-months during fall of 2019, and featured Hayashida Mari (recipient of the Kinokuniya Drama Award), also an Omuta City native, and who was present at the poetry event to award her Actress’s Prize. Along with zoo staff, we composed poems and presented them in front of the giraffe area, where the Actress’s Prize was awarded to the most performative reading.

The first year we did the event, the two giraffes, Rin and Purin, gallivanted gleefully in the background during the reading. Would they perhaps show equal excitement for another round of poetry…

Photos courtesy of Omuta City Zoo

Poet Jordan A.Y. Smith, who participated as a judge last year was scheduled to participate as well, but just as he was scheduled to fly, a large typhoon was heading direct for Chiba where it inflicted major damage, so he had to cancel his trip in order to stay in the area to make sure local foreign students would be okay in the aftermath. Instead, Jordan participated by phone for an open mic session, uniting Chiba and all the children who participated. Jordan expressed how much he wished he could be there with them, and the children hollered their encouragement in unison, “Take good care!” It was a lovely, emotional movement amidst the powerful winds. I think the children could sense the care taken with his tough decision to be there for his local community. Jordan requested that his “Poet’s Prize” be awarded to a poem that made people laugh, and using that criterion, the other poets, actress, and zoo staff Shiihara Shunichi and Tomisawa Kanako made the award selection.

And thankfully, this second year’s event was overflowing with participants. Students from local elementary and middle schools, along with dozens of parents and guardians, and other spectators who came to watch just for fun––it was a well-attended and merry gathering. The typhoon brought heavy winds that whipped the papers out of a few hands as the young poets read, but undaunted, the children’s powerful poems came to life in their voices, producing a rare and special moment in poetic space-time. Under the bright sun, it all felt to me like a particularly momentous event.

The main purpose was to feel the combination of emotions, language, and voices.

To consider with compassion the feelings of animals.

To consider with compassion the circumstances of those affected by the typhoon.

To consider with compassion the thoughts of Jordan, who’d stayed behind in Chiba to be of help as needed.

We believe that children who cultivate a perspective like that can bring all the more kindness and warmth to the world through their rich language and loving hearts.

We hope this event will evolve from a local affair originating in Omuta City to something that can be enjoyed around the world.

☆ Omuta City Zoo homepage:

Winning Entries

Special Prize

Winner: Arai Mimori

1st Grade, Omuta Chuo Elementary School

Title: Just One Good Thing

Rin and Purin Poetry Prize

Winner: Abe Maiko

4th Grade, Tenryo Elementary School

Title: Every Day for Me

Michiyama Rain Poet’s Prize

Winner: Abe Hanako

4th Grade, Tenryo Elementary School

Title: I Love Mealtime

Jordan Smith Poet’s Prize

Winner: Ueno Amane

6th Grade, Hayame Elementary School

Title: Giraffe Wants Bento

Actress Poetry Prize

Winner: Tsuruta Mizuki

3rd Grade, Miyanohara Junior High School

Title: Kangaruminations

Zoo Director’s Poetry Prize

Winner: Ochi Kaito

4th grade, Hayamadai Elementary School

Title: These Human Questions

Winning Poems

Special Prize

Arai Mimori

1st Grade, Omuta Chuo Elementary School

Title: Just One Good Thing (Lion)

So broad, so fun,

Such delicious air to breathe.

Brought from the beautiful jungle,

to the small cage where I live now.

I used to run full speed,

to leap around

climbing trees,

but now here I am

in this tiny space.

But there is

just one good thing.

And that is

I’ve been given a name!

I’m so happy

they gave me a name.

When the zookeepers call my name

I get even happier.

When visitors call my name,

I get happier and even happier!

Rin and Purin Poetry Prize

Winner: Abe Maiko

4th Grade, Tenryo Elementary School

Title: Every Day for Me (Sloth)

I am a sloth.

Someone has come into my area.

Why do people have so much free time?

I’m always busy.

Food to eat. Hair to brush and naps to take.

Food to eat. Hair to brush and more naps to take.

Every day, tons to do.

Why does the squirrel monkey who lives across from me

Move around so much?

Just for food.

Don’ freak out like that just for some food.

Oh, here comes the zookeeper.

Carrying along some food.

Alright, time to hurry up before the squirrel monkey takes it all.

Moving right along here, yes I am.

Whew. Day in, day out, I’m just so busy.

Michiyama Rain Poet’s Prize

Winner: Abe Hanako

4th Grade, Tenryo Elementary School

Title: I Love Mealtime (Pig)

I am a pig.

Everyone says I’m fat.

Actually I’m not fat oink

oink oink oink

I am a pig.

But “oink” isn’t all I say oink.

Bu-heeee, bu-heeee, bu-heeee

My brothers and sisters just came over oink

And they brought dinner with them oink

I’m pretty classy, but even I dive in like


Every day I eat too much oink

Gotta admit it—I just love mealtime.

Jordan Smith Poet’s Prize

Winner: Ueno Amane

6th Grade, Hayame Elementary School

Title: Giraffe Wants Bento (Giraffe)

Actress Poetry Prize

Tsuruta Mizuki

3rd Grade, Miyanohara Junior High School

Title: Kangaruminations (Kangaroo)

I’m a kangaroo.

Today too I roominate.

I can fit anything in my pocket.

In no time, there’s so much stuff inside.

Secretly, I’ve been picking up the things visitors drop.

But losing things is tough for me too sometimes.

Yesterday, from my North Pole friend the polar bear,

I received a snowman––so lovely,

and somehow warm.

So I put it in my tummy pouch and went to sleep.

But when morning came, it was all gone!

Where oh where did it go…?

I am a kangaroo.

And today, I am roominating on the thief who stole it.

Zoo Director’s Poetry Prize

Winner: Ochi Kaito

4th grade, Hayamadai Elementary School

Title: These Human Questions

My hobby is loafing around. I’m always loafing around.

Humans are always facing me and making clicking sounds.

Whenever that happens, I fix my eyes on their devices.

What are these devices? Are they devices for observing me?

I stand up. I jump.

The humans get excited.

How can he jump so high?

The humans ask. I reply:

By jumping with all four of my legs and my fat tail!

But they show no reaction.

Then seconds later, the humans exclaim––

Oh, now I see!

They must be looking at the placard that introduces me.

––––Jordan A. Y. Smith

[interview + poem by Gander / translation by Nakagawa and Chozick]

Dancers Eiko Otake and Koma Otake were born in Japan and lived there until 1976, when they moved to NYC to pursue their dance career as a duo––which led to a stellar four decades plus change during which they have performed at venues including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Their fame abroad––evidenced by numerous prizes abroad, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Scripps Award––has now exceeded that in their native Japan, though they began by training there with many of the legendary founders of butoh style (or school, or genre…see our introduction to Tokyo Poetry Journal Volume 6, which devotes some space to hashing out that question). Eiko and Koma developed their own style, albeit one visibly marked by the tempo, earthly-corporeal presence, and figurative abstractions of butoh progenitors. Their dances come in various lengths—from a few minutes to a full working day (post-New Deal and prior to neoliberalization)—all of them rivet and absorb audiences.

Their circle of collaborators, admirers, and friends grew over the decades, and eventually it came to include the poet, Forrest Gander. Gander is best known to us at TPJ due to the well-known fact that his career reached a soaring pinnacle when he became a member of the Board of Advisors for Tokyo Poetry Journal. But in between and around that he also accomplished a few other things that probably bear repeating here.

Many in the international poetry community know Gander as a highly accomplished and profoundly moving poet, a scholar of comparative literature, a master of translation, and a supporter of the field of poetry as a whole, teaching scores of literary luminaries in the MFA program in Literary Arts at Brown University (and at Harvard University before that). Gander has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is known for his translations of Pablo Neruda, Raúl Zurita, and many Latin American writers, as well as for co-translation of Kiwao Nomura (with the indomitable Kyoko Yoshida). Gander’s edited volume of Gozo Yoshimasu translations, Alice Iris Red Horse (New Directions 2016), broke ground as “a book in and on translation,” pairing some dozen translations by different translators with essays about their experimental translation process. Most recently, his book Be With earned the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry (April 2019), confirming the sturdy bedrock beneath his already impressively thick regolith of accomplishments (Gander is actually educated as a geologist, unlike yours truly who had to dig deep for that last metaphor).

Eiko and Koma met Forrest Gander in the early 1990s, so their friendship is now pushing thirty. Gander’s sustained engagement with the dancers resulted in a short book of poetry titled after them: Eiko & Koma (New Directions 2013). The poems are “a kind of translative act” (as the translators say in the short interview below), a kind of ekphrasis of motion; at other times, they seem to meditate philosophically on the interpretation of the motions, all suffused by the marvel of two humans intimately relating to each other in body and spirit.

And here in Tokyo, two powerhouse translators became intensely interested in Gander’s volume: University of Tokyo faculty member and Ph.D. candidate Eri Nakagawa and Temple University (Tokyo) professor, translator, and television personality Matthew Chozick. Their interest was based both on the poetry and the dance that motivated it. The book just been released internationally by Awai Books is thus a case of "reverse-importation" (gyaku-yunyuu) of two Japanese dancers who made a name for themselves abroad and of Forrest Gander who has been drawing Japanese poetry into the English translationscape, yet whose poetry is still relatively unavailable. Nakagawa and Chozick’s translation is astonishingly smooth while extremely faithful; their volume is a rich case study in what poetry translation can accomplish.

We managed to catch up with the two of them to discuss their bilingual edition complete with beautiful photography of Eiko and Koma in performance and diagrammatic explanations of the dance.

(See more dances and readings via links at the end of the interview...)

Can you tell us what led to the choice of this particular volume from Gander’s oeuvre?

We hope this volume is just a starting point, and we selected it because it showcases Gander’s precision, originality, and buoyancy along with the fascinating Japanese subjects of Eiko and Koma. Aside from how amazing the original is to read and how we felt it needed to be more widely available, we enjoyed how the poems are recursive and fractal-like, especially from the perspective of translators. In a kind of translative act, Gander transposes the physical movements of Eiko & Koma into language; and underpinning that process is Eiko & Koma’s own idiom of the body, which also involves the translation of ideas and emotions.

What poems pushed your translatorly creativity the most? How?

The intertextuality in “Road-Entering” was a challenge for translation, since the references are not as well known in Japanese as in English. But perhaps more than anything else, the enjambment throughout pushed our creativity.

Yes—I love what happens with your faithful renderings of enjambment in the original. Can you talk about your strategy for dealing with them in the translation?

Since the sentence structure in Japanese is so different from English, we couldn’t identically replicate the original text’s enjambment. As a compromise we tried to determine what each particular line break achieved — whether adding a double meaning, accelerating or decelerating a sense of movement, highlighting an idea — and we tried to offer something in Japanese akin to that, which was a huge challenge and source of pleasure.

It was really a remarkable accomplishment in translation. I wonder about your process. In particular, this seems like it would be a complex project—in addition to managing the relationship of the English and Japanese, you had the added factor of working with poems that engaged intimately with dance performances.

Did the two of you act out any of the dances or pantomime the movements as you were trying to render the dance descriptions? Or did you translate based primarily on the semantics and other linguistic aspects of the English? In other words, how much was the dance directly involved in your translation?

Any excuse to dance is a good one! We received many funny looks in our neighborhood office/coffeeshop for pantomiming. But we had different, complementary strategies for visualizing the movements during translation. I (Matthew) tried to translate poems based on semantics and diagrams/photographs in the original book, whereas I (Eri) liked to check the poems against videos of Eiko & Koma.

Co-translating can do many things to two humans. What effect did it have on the two of you working as a team? Are you still friends? Most importantly, are you still Facebook friends?

We have yet to unfriend each other on Facebook! Co-translation was new to both of us, and it was a lot of fun collaborating. Twice a month we’d each select a poem, translate it, and then meet up to check them and discuss their nuances. You probably wouldn’t be able to guess who originally did what, since we spent a lot of time editing everything at the end and matching up the tones and diction.

Have Eiko and Koma also seen these translations? If so, did they offer any thoughts or feedback?

Eiko offered advice on adding a couple of English loanwords (in the katakana syllabary), since they’d be easier for Japanese to understand than Chinese characters.

I love it—her concern with ease of understanding, even though some might see her work anything but simple to interpret. But maybe that’s the appeal too—the simultaneous experience of simplicity and complexity… So what plans do you have for releasing the book? Any bilingual readings planned? Dance performances?

In Tokyo we’re excited to hold a bilingual reading in late August [2019] at Museum of Modern Art Tokyo with Gander, and it’ll showcase a new performance by Eiko. We’ll definitely keep you up to date on the details!

How many vacuums does it take to clean a bryophitic carpet?

We’ll confirm that with Gander!

Awesome. Let’s ask him in August—a fine season for mosses in Japan.


Videos of Gander reading from the English of E&K:

Videos of E&K Dances:

Note: Some of Gander’s readings in these early videos are of earlier versions of the poems. Some of Eiko & Koma’s dances differ each performance, so the dances that inspired Gander’s poetry often differ from the descriptions. The ephemerality of dance is one of its primary features, one that requires the viewer to be present in body just as the dancers are. The fact that the art embodies ephemerality and reminds us of the ephemerality of the body itself is perhaps the form’s most potent message.


Early draft of the world. Or

has all that came before

made them its repository? Grove of slash.

They are. Flowerless dirt.

Windmoan over leafy mound strewn

with two human forms,

veined and branched. To

become what one was: that

never happens. But now the

ground wrinkles with their languorous

pandiculation. Crescent

shoulder blade and blue

bays between expanding,

contracting ribs. That the

recognizable mammalian

familiarity recedes in

exposures, in dilated time.

Become one, inhuman, beyond

animal. Are they.

Translation into Japanese by Nakagawa and Chozick:



それまでのすべてが 彼等を作り



















超えて.そう,彼等は .