Carolyn Nakagawa is a poet and playwright studying English literature at UBC. This week, Echo Editor Laura Ritland chats with her about her poem "the path you choose," second-place winner of The Maze chapbook contest.
is it really what you want,
shapeless summer days
that would weave itself
like a blanket, settling
on lenses brighter than a
- excerpt from "the path you choose"
LR: Hi Carolyn! Once again, congrats on your publication in The Maze chapbook! If poetry were an Olympic sport, I’d say “the path you choose” scores outrageously high in categories of style, sound, visual shape, and imagery. Musically, the poem is a joy to read aloud. Take the first lines: “shimmer” and “summer” resonate beautifully here, as well as the hushed “s” and “st” in the “shapeless” and “dust.” The poem also uses space on the page very inventively: it’s arranged in two columns, far enough apart to read individually, but close enough together to allow the eye to skate between one column and the other. Did you have this form already in mind when writing the poem?
CN: I had been carrying the idea of "the maze" around with me for a few weeks - and made some false starts - before I started writing “the path you choose”. But I'd already been experimenting with using white space on the page in my poetry, and noticed that arranging the text in unconventional ways made readers unsure of what order to read a poem in. It made sense to me to write a poem that was itself a kind of maze - there are multiple ways to read it, and not a single one that's more "right" than the others. Also, the white space on the page looks like a piece of a maze - there's mazes everywhere.
LR: I also found that reading the poem was less a narrative experience than an aural one for me. And there’s mention of music in the poem itself: “cadence” and “chords.” How does music relate to poetry for you? Does it inform your compositional process in any way?
CN: Too many ways for me to mention without this becoming a term paper! This poem in particular owes a lot to my musical pursuits. I've played the trumpet since I was ten years old, and although it's always been an important part of my life, it's only in the past few years that I've really started thinking consciously above improving myself as a musician. One thing that that’s lead to is trying to train myself to really listen to music. I think about “the path you choose” as a kind of quintet– there are five stanzas, each with a different character and flow, that enter and exit and overlap with one another. When I listen to any group of musicians, I’m always torn between trying to hear each individual line of music being played, but also appreciating the harmonies that emerge through their combination and create the piece as a whole. It’s more or less impossible to do both, especially if you’re listening to a live performance, but the challenge is part of the process, I think.
I also think playing a wind instrument has had a huge influence on how I approach poetry and sound. You learn to take these huge breaths and exhale them in an extremely controlled, directed, and sustained fashion. It can be kind of terrifying to be in the middle of a long phrase (of music) and feel your breath almost pulling you through it, but it’s also exhilarating. I try to replicate that feeling in a lot of my poems because, in my experience, good poetry is often overwhelming like that – it has a life of its own, and it will affect your breathing. Especially if I’m writing a poem that doesn’t have a very defined narrative, I try to still build a sense of momentum by using sounds that carry into one another to create long, interesting phrases.
LR: I know that aside from writing poetry, you're also involve in writing and directing plays. What’s next for you in terms of creative projects or adventures? Anything currently in the works?
CN: So far I actually don't have any shows in the works for this summer, which will be weird for me, unless of course something pops up and I do something after all, which could well happen. I'll be working a couple different jobs, though, including doing some research and community-based work here in Vancouver. I'm looking forward to hopefully having a bit of quiet time to write - theatre productions are amazing and wonderful, but they can really devour your time and headspace and emotional energy.
I actually just printed a small limited-edition run of my very own poetry chapbook - I did it as a creative final project for a class I co-coordinated this past term at UBC on the Japanese Canadian poet and visual artist Roy Kiyooka. A lot of Kiyooka's poetry was only published during his lifetime in limited-edition chapbooks which he designed and printed himself to hand out to friends, so I took a leaf out of his book, so to speak, and made one that's a tribute to him and to our class. I hand-bound the 20 copies and did the artwork for them, and it was a fun experience to physically frame my poetry like that, even if/especially because I really didn't know what I was doing.
I guess right now artistically I'm taking a breath (it's been a crazy year), writing whatever I feel like, and keeping my eye out for more opportunities, both in poetry and playwriting. You can find more of my poetry in the current/forthcoming issues of QWERTY, The Maynard, and hopefully others as I continue to get in the rhythm of submitting to magazines, and people in Vancouver can look for me around the theatre scene. I'm not sure exactly what's next for me, but that's the way I like it - the most amazing things I've done with my writing have usually been the things I didn't really anticipate. I just try to keep my eyes open and be ready for any adventure that might come along.
Carolyn is a poet and playwright studying English literature at UBC. She is an editor for The Garden Statuary, and president and former playwright-in-residence of the UBC Players Club. She also plays the trumpet and tutors math, and sometimes poetry, to high school students.
The Maze Chapbook can be ordered here in print or PDF format.