Editor: Takako AraiSpecial Essays

  • International Poetry at the Tokyo Poetry Festival
    ----Reflections on the Tokyo Poetry Festival 2008

Judy Halebsky (Poet)

Halebsky / Japanese for Daydreamers001

Poetry in Tokyo is thriving. The Tokyo Poetry Festival created a series of windows into many different forms of contemporary poetry in Japan, and a sampling of voices from different parts of the world. I was most impressed by how many routes and pathways the festival built to allow for poetry in different languages and poets from different places to come together. Poetry can seem bound to the language it was written in. Some people have even argued that poetry is untranslatable.

Anthology of TPF

The festival, however, through print translation and voice interpretation, is evidence to the contrary. Translation is a process of change and re-creation, it is also an opportunity for a point of connection and a conversation. The anthology published with translations of poems, functioned as a shared text that we read together along with the live readings. This created a synergy among the written word, the spoken word, the chanted word, and our live interactions.

I was glad that poets from outside of Japan could share in some of my favorite Tokyo activities. Most importantly, poetry, but also the welcoming spirit that invites new friends to eat and drink together at a nomikai (a drinking party). This extended into a nijikai (a second drinking party) and a sanjikai (a third drinking party) which even I did not have the stamina for. There was a great diversity in the contemporary poetry at the festival and a wealth of contemporary writers writing in traditional forms. I was surprised by how performative haiku is onstage. This was created not only by reading the haiku twice but also by poets who offered different ways to read haiku that brought repetition and variation into the poems.


The festival was a time we came together to navigate ways to foster an international dialog on poetry. I use the word international -- but that makes it sound as though I am talking about a line between two countries. Our locations, the places we live, the places we come from, and the experiences that shape us are far more complex than the words: Japan, Croatia, Belgium, Mongolia, Portugal, Turkey, Denmark, Korea. We are shaped by patterns of migration. Individuals drawing from these complex personal locations, through lines of language and friendship, made the festival possible. People who could speak two or more languages or who have lived in places different from where they were born or who have a welcoming spirit for new relationships, were able to support the work of this festival through social connections, creative connections and also through translating the poems.

Performers of TPF

The Tokyo Poetry Festival was a time when we nourished a dialog among poets living in many different places. Despite being separated geographically we are passing among us breaths, visions, and dreams in poems. These poems are challenging and inspiring us to shift our points of view and understand the world outside of ourselves. This is important work and the festival was a gift to all of us who were fortunate enough to attend and be involved.

* The photos of haiku poets and TPF party by Akira Takenami
* This essay first appeared in “Mi’Te #105” (December, 2008).