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Animal Poetry @ Omuta City Zoo

Updated: Dec 29, 2018

––Jordan A. Y. Smith, Michiyama Rain, Oshima Takeo


On October 20, 2018, three poets, a zookeeper, a veterinarian, forty young student writers, and a pair of splendid giraffes gathered for a special poetry session at the Omuta City Zoo in beautiful Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture. Omuta City Coal Mine, designated in 2015 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, fueled the industrial revolution at the heart of the rapid modernization of Japan’s Meiji Era until the transition to petroleum based industry.


You might say that the sudden economic shift and the subsequent population decline has left a certain mark on the atmosphere of Omuta—that of sympathy, of compassion. The city has worked to transform itself, rising from the coal dust as it were, to reshape itself in the contemporary economy—one set to change yet again as fossil fuels are on their way out. The sense of history, of community is palpable. The bright greetings of children on the way to school in the morning, the conversations of hikers on Mt. Miike, the year-round preparations for the summer festival—it’s a town where people have learned deep lessons about sticking together, caring for each other.


The feeling equally defines the zoo itself, known as Japan’s leader in respecting animal subjectivity and in providing spacious habitats that strive to imitate the natural flora and atmosphere for the animals. The zoo’s programs in “Habitat Enrichment” and “Husbandry Training” are attended by zoo directors, zoologists, veterinarians and staff from all over Japan, earning the Enrichment Award in 2016 in acknowledgement for their commitment to innovation and leadership. (See more or head down for a visit: http://www.omutacityzoo.org/)


Children were asked to immerse themselves in animal mindsets, adopting the feelings of the animals they observed and interacted during a walk through the zoo. As they roamed around, each young poet wrote down their thoughts, then crafted them into a single poem to be read in front of the giraffe habitat—with the two giraffes listening intently, leaning in at times to get a closer look.


The readings were nothing short of inspiring, with simple words used deftly to depict what animals can mean to humans. It was an exercise in compassion, and one that showed how much our experience of a zoo and its animal residents can change when we take the time to engage, imagine, and express.


The event was organized by Omuta City ambassador to Tokyo, Michiyama Tomoyuki, known also by his nom de plume, Michiyama Rain, which graces the covers of his two poetry volumes and his poems in ToPoJo volume 4. Michiyama invited two poets from Tokyo, Oshima Takeo (Poetry Slam Japan champion 2016, featured in ToPoJo volume 4) and ToPoJo’s own Jordan A. Y. Smith, to write with the children and to participate in the readings. We were joined by the Zoo Director, Mr. Shiihara Shun'ichi, and the zoo’s head veterinarian, Dr. Kimura Ran.


This five-person panel was treated to a delightful variety of poems—from rabbits to lions and from poop to pride, the diversity was both of species and of theme. Oshima describes the readings:


It was such an honor to participate in the Animal Perspectives Poetry event—when I heard these poems by the children of Omuta, it felt like shockwave was cracking open the ground below my feet. I’d been doing things all wrong. It’s not my, but the children who truly approach the essence of this thing we call “poetry.” The practice of calling oneself a poet, reciting at countless livehouse events, appearing in poetry slams—its only relevance lies in how it draws us to the essence of poetry itself. However, just one moment after that realization, I noticed something else. It was through all those activities that I had come to be standing there, afforded the chance to experience this thrill.
The Omuta area and every one of the children there possess an astonishing force. The memory of sitting together in front of the giraffe habitat as the evening eased on, listening to recitals of one poem after another, will remain with me for life. And every time I consider the question of what poetry is, I’ll recall the experience of Animal Perspectives Poetry.

After the readings, each panelist gave a prize to the poem we felt was the most eloquent, powerful, or generally outstanding. The recipients were all from local schools, and the winners were from first grade in elementary to second year of middle school. All of the poems elicited reactions from us in different ways, from somber reflections to choruses of laughter.


Michiyama, who masterminded the innovative event, explains the background:

In lieu of sketching, we will translate the hearts and minds of animals into the language of poetry, and recite them together.
Putting a plan like that into action was a first for me. It was also the first event I planned as Omuta City Ambassador, bringing poets from Tokyo and the larger world of poetry to the hometown I love so deeply. I was a bit worried that no one would attend, but we were overwhelmed with the positive responses from local elementary and middle school children and their supportive parents, who also came along.
And the brilliance and innocence of those forty children brought me to tears. The giraffes, leaning over for a listen or frolicking around behind us. Translating feelings into words, and words into voices gave a keen sensation of being present in the Now. I hope what we began in Omuta will spread around the world.

After the readings, Michiyama and Smith went on FM Tanto Radio, discussing and reading the poems in Japanese and English translation. Updates of those translations are below. We congratulate these young poets on using words to bring us closer to animals, to respect their emotional lives and subjectivity. We hope that the exercise of in poetry will help them grow as poets, and that the exercise in compassion will help us all rethink our relationship with our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.



Michiyama Rain Poetry Prize recipient

Hirakawa Yukino

Hayamadai Elementary School, 4th grade


“Places to Shine”

––Snow leopard


Though at first I hated it so much,

I am wondering why.

Now I love it here.

Though you all knew we’d have to part one day

So many of you came to see me

And you remembered my name.

Now, I’m so grateful to everyone.

Though I’ve made so many new friends,

I have to return to the place I was before.

Sorry that I didn’t come out very often during the daytime.

Now, I’m filled with such happiness.

And that is because now there are two places

Where I can shine like the star, my namesake.

Thank you, thank you!

My name is Spica.



Oshima Takeo Poetry Prize recipient

Fukuchi Rino

Taisho Elementary School, 5th grade


“I’m So Number One, I Call Myself ‘Sir’”


Before my eyes: a hunk of meat.

Perhaps too big for me to eat—

Is that what you think? Ha! You idiots.

What do you take me for?

I’m just sleepy right now,

And don’t want to eat too much.

I’m so number one, I call myself “Sir.”

I’m so number one, I call myself “Sir.”

Where do I belong?

What is this place?

It’s not Africa.

Where is this place? Anyway,

I’m so number one, I call myself “Sir.”

I’m so number one, I call myself “Sir.”

Sir Myself is going to sleep.

In my dreams,

On the wide savannah,

I’m so number one, I call myself “Sir.”

I’m so number one, I call myself “Sir.”



Jordan Smith Poetry Prize recipient

Tsuruta Mizuki

Miyanohara Middle School, 2nd grade


“I Am the Royal Lion”


I am the royal lion

My sharp claws, sharp fangs, and golden mane

Give me great pride.

I rise early each morning to sharpen these claws,

And these fangs I lavish with love as I brush them one by one.

And my-oh-my, would you look at this mane?

It takes me five hours to set it, man!

But I, the Royal Lion, am a wee bit sad

Because everyone’s scared of me.

Especially the girls, who often shriek,

“He’s so scary! Ahhhhh!”

But my royal lion heart is strong

Today too I groom my royal self with pride.

Because, my-oh-my, am I the king of the beasts!

I am the Royal Lion—take care, you!



Zoo Director’s Prize for Poetry recipient

Sakamoto Kohaku

Tegama Elementary School, 1st grade


“Self-introduction”

––rabbit


I eat grass.

After I eat, my poop comes rolling out.

When I’m in a bad mood, I stamp my feet.

When I’m happy, I wiggle my nose and snort.

My ears are long, so I can hear lots of sounds.

People always tell me I’m cute.

That’s how I introduce myself.



Rin and Purin Poetry Prize

Awarded by Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Kimura Ran

Kawamura Yukina

Yoshino Elementary School, 6th grade


“The True King”

––Mandrill


My face is red. As is my rear end.

Humans are so lucky—their faces so uniform.

But compared with them,

My face is even more colorful.

People treat me

Like the jester of the animal kingdom.

Someday, I want to be an awesome animal,

Like the lion,

A meat eater.

But even if I’ll never be a lion,

With this face I have now,

I’ll still show the world my best.

And I,

The true king,

Will show them what it really means to be a mandrill.

Tokyo Poetry Journal

topojo2015@gmail.com

Tokyo Poetry Journal
c/o Jeffrey Johnson
English Department, Daito Bunka University
Iwadono 560 Higashimatsuyama-shi
Saitama-ken 355-8501 Japan

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