Naoko Fujimoto was the keynote speaker for the 2021 University of St. Francis Writer’s Conference. I had the pleasure of interviewing Naoko about her recent graphic poetry collection, GLYPH, and her creative process. She was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in POETRY, Kenyon Review, Seattle Review, Quarterly West, North American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, and The Arkansas International. She is the author of Glyph:Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory (Tupelo Press, 2021), Where I Was Born (Willow Publishing, 2019), and four chapbooks. She is an editor at RHINO Poetry and Tupelo Quarterly.
What did you learn while creating GLYPH?
Through creating a collection for GLYPH, I learned several things.
I started creating graphic poems in 2016 while visiting an artist at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art; there, I met editors at Tupelo Press for the first time.
When I started submitting my graphic poems, there were two groups of editors. Most editors were supportive, but some said “They are not poetry. Don’t submit again” in their rejection letters.
I am an editor myself, so I understand how the submission is processed. However, I am not sure that it is necessary to say a strong rejection to creators. In addition, I also understand that I do not need to receive a permission from editors who disagree with my works, neither. I sharpen my works and find my new tribes, which guide me to this current place.
Because not many people were composing visual poetry in 2016, I needed to be my own editor including how I navigate a narrative in the paper with what kinds of materials, how much text over image, and how my audience experience graphic poems. This skill overall helped and developed my editing approaches. I began to see one topic from multiple dimensions.
I share my graphic poetry journey and study guide in my website. I also collect craft essays by writers who work with visual elements for my online gallery. I hope that my audiences find inspirations and short-cut paths for their creative process.
I watched your YouTube video “Making ‘Glyph’ by Naoko Fujimoto” and noticed that you use everything around you. Do you gravitate towards a specific type of material? What is the process of figuring out what material to use?
I translate my own poems, which were written on a flat paper, into words and images. Through the text & image translation process, I select the best suitable materials each graphic poem.
In the St. Francis Writers’ Conference, I shared how I used my written poem, “Thursdays” (Where I Was Born, Willow Books, 2019) to create a graphic poem, “On the Black Hill” (GLYPH Graphic Poetry = Trans. Sensory, Tupelo Press, 2021).
“Thursdays” is about my grandfather’s war experience. He was not an atomic bomb victim; however, he was close to Hiroshima and helped burnt victims. He suddenly shared his experience during our peaceful dinner time. He described the smells around him then.
His story shocked me. I kept repeating his experience in my mind since the dinner, and I felt that I was haunted as a Japanese descendent. Historical choices and mistakes Japan made in the early 20th century created realities that reverberated through time, and not just for Japanese citizens.
It was my first time to realize that the trauma of World War II still affects us, long after the declaration of surrender. The aftermath of war was clearly not limited. It is deeply rooted around us, around Asia, and here between people.
Currently, we do think of hiding lights in our houses from overhead bombers. I create graphic poems in a bright dining room in America. I tell a story about World War II, but people around the world open themselves to read the poems. Even though we face difficulties every day, I am thankful for this kind of peace. And, I want that.
The orange highlighted lines remained as words, and other parts became images. Writing poems are the hardest part. It takes days or years to feel complete. However, creating graphic poems—the text & image translations—are an absolute pleasure. I feel that a part of my brain that gets underutilized often starts spinning.
I thought that “On the Black Hill” has three good examples of materials. I often use unconventional materials, such as daily objects (clothes, plastics, & organic materials) along with familiar creative approaches (paper collages, drawings, & paintings). For this graphic poem, I used paper collages with a piece of towel.
#1) Fried chicken picture (first food advertainment)
#2) Origami papers from my sister’s collection since she was six years old
#3) Poetry book cover-art of Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards (Tupelo Press, 2016)
Each material has meaning, which is another layer my audience can enjoy and think about. This is a part of experiencing GLYPH “Trans.” sensory.
For “On the Black Hill,” especially, I want my audiences to talk about what peace is through observations of my material choices and colors (bright red to deep black). When we are able to express our opinions and creativity, we exchange and welcome other’s opinions, which lead to better paths in the long run. We cannot just repeat wars again and again.
What are common mistakes aspiring writers make? How can you spark motivation or inspiration when you’re doubting your skills as a writer?
I wanted my first book by my thirtieth birthday, but it did not happen. I wanted to be fluent in English (meaning I could write without a proofreader), but I realized that it will be impossible. I wanted to be a poetic rock star, but I now admit I will not win that popularity contest.
That was my mindset for a long time, but it is not the right way to approach creativity.
For creative processes, it is important to have a strong sense of self, no doubt. But it is also important to create your own community that cherishes your life & writing career no matter what. And you also congratulate their achievements.
I am thankful to belong to several trusted communities, and I am not afraid to express myself as a Japanese woman whose English is clunky with occasional inappropriate humor.
The thirty seventh broken-heart is more approachable than your first broken-heart. It still hurts, but you know what you need to do about it. Because of the unknown, we struggle and fear the process.
It is not enjoyable to have one’s heart broken, but if we do not experience it, we cannot fully process and appreciate the loved and peaceful moments later on. I am in the middle of my writing journey. Let’s enjoy riding this crazy obsession.
Sara Cahill is a senior majoring in English with a concentration in Literature Studies and a minor in Writing. Sara has experience writing for the student-lead newsletter at the University of St. Francis, The Encounter. She has been a part of the prototype design and implementation of Bernie’s Paw Prints, the university’s first digital eco-poetry collection, and is also a founding editor of Archway Review, USF’s up-and-coming undergraduate literary magazine. While working with the English Department as a blog and social media intern, Sara is also the VP of Community Relations for Alpha Phi, manager for the track and field team, and works as a writing tutor and St. Ambassador tour guide.