TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!
We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?
Drowning in the Floating World centers around the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the Fukushima power plant disaster, exploring diverse manifestations and interpretations of water in Japanese culture and mythology. These poems not only bear testimony to the disaster, but also serve as a warning to our future selves—on not only the dangers of nature, but also the power governments and businesses hold over their people and environment.
Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why?
I really enjoyed writing with surrealism. I was really inspired by Shuntaro Tanikawa’s aesthetic, and Patricia Smith’s personified POVs in “Blood Dazzler.” I wanted to find new ways to approach disaster, to reinvent it into mythology as a way to cope with it.
Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.
I always seem to start submitting prematurely. I started sending this collection around in 2015. It wasn’t ready. But of course, I always think it’s ready. And I guess the good thing about this is that it motivates me to keep working on a project and making it the best it can be. The highs were that I got some good encouragement, even early on—it was a semi-finalist, finalist here and there. Toward the end, I knew I needed to keep pushing but was tired. Why hadn’t it found a home yet? By then it had been on submission for almost 4 years. I had a friend encourage me, saying, “I’ve never not seen a book get published that’s gotten that far. It’ll find a home,” and that really kept me going. The poetry business is highly competitive. It takes a lot of rejections to lead to that final acceptance.
What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
I don’t know if this is official writing advice, but I always tell my students to keep digging deeper. I keep telling myself to dig deeper. Sort of connected to your advice [below] of “write until something surprises you”—but we’ve got to keep digging past the obvious, past the telling to the real gem, the real thing driving our writing. The real thing we want to say. I have to work in so many drafts, and often think early on I’ve “hit” what I want to say. But then I come back a month later and it doesn’t resonate. Once I’ve dug deep enough, it resonates every time I come back. We’ve got to do the work to really find that.
My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?
Surprise is what drove this book. I was really inspired by Shuntaro Tanikawa’s beautiful surrealism and humor even in brokenness. This aesthetic really drove how I approached disaster, and made me strive to see disaster from a new angle. The magical realism, the surrealism created something beautiful out of disaster. I was always looking for a new angle, a new image to surprise me and provide that “aha” moment in these poems.
But I think perhaps to answer your question, what surprised me, is how deeply I connected with this disaster and how it continues to haunt me. I set out to write about it because Japan is close and important to me, and it broke me when 3/11 hit. But through the research and the time spent with this disaster, there’s a whole new intimate level I have with it now. That’s what poetry does. Now, when I see footage in movies of rapid flooding—I particularly remember the moment we were in a theater, and the preview for San Andreas Fault came on the screen. There was a scene of the earthquake, and water rushing, and I almost began sobbing there in my seat. Something like lightning ripped through my chest and I panicked. All I could think of was Tohoku, and I was so shaken. For a moment, I felt like I was there, in Rikuzentakata, in the middle of disaster. Just for that moment, I broke. That’s what poetry does, we carry these moments with us and can never fully let them go. But I didn’t really know that before this collection.
What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?
It’s probably clear that I want my readers to know about is 3/11. It’s amazing how quickly the news can move on. How quickly we can forget. How long recovery can take. But as tsunami stones remind us, disaster is cyclical. We must remember and pass down this knowledge to the next generation. We cannot continue to live as we did before. Disaster should change us and move us to action.
But another idea I’d like readers to consider is the transient nature of earthly life, and recovery. As I thought about disaster and water I began thinking of a result of disaster, all that floating debris. All these once useful things now rendered useless. This made me think about the Edo period’s “floating world,” its pleasure district that was created from a rising middle class. That epicurean mindset of joy derived from pleasure. I thought about the ways we try to fill ourselves with pleasure, to forget our traumas or to find meaning. But how brief these things are if they’re rooted in an earthly context. How quickly those things we value become floating debris, useless. Or, as the remains of 80s Japan’s economic boom display, they become haikyo (literally “obsolete hill”): abandoned ruins. This was my thought process for the last section, some of which might come off as jarring. I couldn’t help but explore: now what? what do we do after disaster? How do we cope? Is there permanence to these solutions, or are they only temporary in nature? Where do we root our security, our hope, in an uncertain and disaster-prone world? Do we seek hope in objects and the physical, or something larger? My desire is that readers would also engage with these questions.
Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)
Yes! I love Japanese food and it’s such an important part of Japanese life. Some specific Japanese dishes come up in the poems, like natto and unagi don, and obviously Japanese-style rice (rice is so fundamental it’s in the name of every meal—morning rice, afternoon rice, evening rice). Whenever my husband and I make Japanese food, the whole house smells like Japan and then I really feel at home. I recently started making miso soup at home and was surprised how easy (and nutritious!) it is to make. Here’s the recipe I use: https://www.justonecookbook.com/homemade-miso-soup/
READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: megedenbooks.com/
ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR TBR STACK: https://www.press53.com/meg-eden
READ A POEM, “Tohoku Ghost Stories”: http://www.rattle.com/poetry/tohoku-ghost-stories-by-meg-eden/