Taking time out from her busy schedule of teaching and writing, I caught up with Nancy Gaffield and asked her about the impact turning her cycle of poems, Tokaido Road, into a libretto has had on her work.
What impact has creating a libretto from your cycle of poems had on the poems themselves ?
I was thinking about this, even before you asked the question. When you write, you are always aware that your work is going to be released into the world and become its own entity, although you’re not often mindful of this until you see a review! So you have no control over people or their responses to your work. But now I see people quoting my lines on Twitter! People are reading them in so many ways, and the poems take on a life of their own. Still, it’s surprising! Not negative; just surprising. Ownership is much more collective. I think Nicola now knows my poems better than I do…
What was your experience of working on the opera with Nicola LeFanu ?
Honestly – what I love is the collaboration; it’s why I agreed to the project in the first place, the thing that made it attractive. Mostly, as a poet, you work alone. I couldn’t have found anyone better to work with; she has a huge amount of experience and has worked with poets before. I’ve seen her in masterclasses and working with young people – she’s a fantastic teacher. She took on a kind of mentoring role – she knows the whole process better than I, and we worked really well together.
We met in August 2012 to sketch things out; we talked about ideas, how we saw the piece. I went away and tried to work up the libretto – it was harder than I expected. I eventually worked up seven drafts! We met again in the spring of 2013, and I also met the director [Caroline Clegg], who gave me some practical advice which focused the mind. Nicola came down to Canterbury, and we worked together on one of the later drafts – we found a structure, including what we called ‘sandwich scenes,’ getting it shaped into a dramatic performance. Then I knew exactly what I needed to do to finish it off.
I was really fighting against myself; as a poet, I want things to be ambiguous, I want that suggestiveness. I knew there was a narrative in the poems – suddenly, I was having to pull the narrative out. I did this using the three characters – Hiro, Mariko, Kikuyo – by taking the poems they were in, lifting out the characters and their story, and the narrative began to emerge. Nicola really helped with this process too.
Opera really requires that dramatic narrative.
It does; and it was implicit in the poems, but it needed drawing out for the opera. I thought to myself: ‘’Just accept you have to do the Narrative Thing!’’
What new aspects will realising the poems as chamber opera bring to the poems themselves?
When I first began the work, I was interested in each woodblock print as an art object, so some of the poems include description so that readers might imagine the scene depicted even without seeing the print. But as I went along, I began ‘reading backwards’—not simply writing about them, but writing around them, telling their story in time, in place. So the poems started with observation of an object (an individual print), but then multiple poetic interpretations arose, sometimes not even grounded in the print. The opera will give rise to something else again. The object (the print) becomes destabilized, and multiple worlds are made by all those who take part–creators, performers, audience. I love that!
From whence did the original inspiration for the cycle of poems come ?
In 2008, I went on a business trip for the University to Japan, and stayed on in Kyoto afterwards for a long weekend; I took a room in a traditional Japanese inn; my room surrounded a private garden and included kaiseki ryori (traditional multi-course seasonal foods) served in the tatami room; I had a beautiful four days in which to explore and to write. I wrote some sonnets, four of which became my first published poems. I was also, at the time, doing an MA in Creative Writing at the University, for which a substantial sequence of work was needed. I came up with the idea of the woodblock prints, the prints in themselves being a serial praxis on which a series of poems could be based. Once I started, I knew that was it – I was away! I also knew that I would continue and finish off the series after I had finished the course. The MA was brilliant; had I not been doing that, I probably wouldn’t have had the idea.
The Tokaido Road project is very much a collaborative venture, embracing music, dance, mime and visual art alongside your poems – has this had an effect on the way you or others might now perceive or understand the poems ?
I love the interdisciplinary and experimental approach of bringing all the arts together—drama, music, fine art, dance, poetry, multi-media. In my own small way, I feel like I’m part of something larger—a kind of Black Mountain College experience where poets like Charles Olson worked with dancers like Merce Cunningham and musicians like John Cage. Although that college only existed for about 20 years, the people who came out of it were changed in major ways. Certainly this experience for me has been transformative.
How do you see your role as a poet, in light of the cross-cultural nature of the cycle; are you commenting on / looking at the paintings with Western eyes, or endeavouring to bring cultural perceptions / values / meanings from East to West ?
In some poems it is me, commenting as a Westerner, for example, Maisaka, or Minakuchi. I talk about the ambivalent feelings one has when living in a foreign place. In 1979, when I went to live in Japan, there were few Westerners. I was very conscious of being an outsider. But gradually I began to feel at home there—as Goyu says ‘you are never more at home than when you are here’. Some of the poems do endeavour to bring Japanese ideas, even language, in. There are bits of myth, such as in Ōiso or Numazu, which talks about the man wearing a mask on his mask – it’s a Kabuki mask, but I wanted it to have other associations too. As a poet, I took some liberties.
So you’re less interpreting them than you are bringing out specific cultural instances ?
Yes; but it can be risky when a Westerner tries to write about the East; people think they are appropriating it. It’s a difficult balance. I’ve tried to absorb Japanese aesthetics into my work by borrowing the scenery, and being respectful. When I’ve spoken to others both here and in Japan, they seem to think that I got the balance right.