by Aysegül Tözeren


From PoetikHars Magazine


From the 1920s untill his death, Kitasono Katue was a pioneer artist, firstly in Japan, then throughout the world. The European Surrealists paid little attention to Katue, who was influenced by Futurism, Surrealism and Dadaism, but, starting with Ezra Pound, the changes that he brought to poetry were recognized, and the western world picked up his ideas. However, westerns didn't recognize Katue among the major poets of the 20th century. Katue who had practiced concrete poetry for decades, left the word in the manifesto "notes on plastic poetry" and pursued a new "pattern" in poetry. Katue's plastic poetry hasn't turned into a universal art movement, but from the point that he brought to mind that "word and image could no longer be kept completely seperate and that their futures will continue to become more tightly linked", his importance has increased day by day.

Here is part of an interview which was done with Kitasono Katue by Sugiura Kohei and Matsuoka Seigoh in 1975 and is taken from "oceans beyond monotonous space."

K: When you were in Italy, were you able to meet any concrete poets?

S: I didn't go to Italy, I went to Germany. [25] I was in the college town of Ulm where the concrete poet [Eugen] Gomringer was. When Max Bill lived in Ulm, Gomringer was his secretary. That was probably when concrete poetry was just getting started.

K: Oh really, is that so?

S: Gomringer went from Brazil to Germany. Other people from Brazil and Argentina are now also quite active in Germany, such as the musician Mauricio Kagel, the art critic T[omas] Maldonado, and the concrete artist A[lvin] Marvinier. They came from southern, Latin countries, yet they were anti-sentimental. The Latins were crystallizing a sensitive way of thinking which seemed different from the Germans, and that was when concrete poetry originated. Added to that was German rationality which had a background of treating language as quantified information. Gomringer was there as secretary to the head of the Ulm School of Design. A synthesis of the plastic arts, music and poetry occurred there, and Gomringer theorized about the city, advocating a return to the principles developed at the Athenian Congress of Architects in the late 1950s. His fundamental ideology was to pursue a productive approach within a social collective.

K: I didn't know that much about him. I came into contact with Gomringer when he was in Switzerland. The people who pulled me into concrete poetry were the South American Campos brothers [Haroldo and Augusto]. [26] I didn't plan it, but at some point I just slipped in smoothly.

S: So we can say that concrete poetry emanated from Germany and South America. Some South Americans went to Germany and issued manifestos. At that time the movement was reaching its peak in Brazil.

K: They always sent me their publications and seemed quite active. Ezra Pound introduced me to them. He suggested that Campos and I correspond. [27]

S: The late phase of dadaism reached South America.

K: I'm sure it did.

S: Maybe that explains why, as the strange result of a territorial phenomenon, the Argentinian Tomas Maldonado was the first in the world to write the definitive work on Max Bill. He took up Bill in a critical work, stormed into Germany with it, shocked the Germans, and then became completely one of them. The concrete artists moved their base to Switzerland where they edited Spirale, a square-shaped, nicely made book. And I remember Kitasono's work introduced there. [28] So, this intellectual phenomenon initially made its way from South America [Brazil and Argentina] to Europe [Germany and Switzerland].

K: Actually, I didn't send them anything. Campos probably did.

S: That was "Shiro no naka no shiro" ("White within White"), wasn't it?

M: Yes, that is part of the poem "Tancho na kukan" ("Monotonous Space").

S: Europe's concrete poetry is considered "Word Furniture." It occurs within a living environment. Even without going to a gallery, one can find it where furniture is sold. And people mix poetry and concrete art in their homes. It seems that nature accumulates in the sharp angles inside those rooms. Objects, not words, are exhibited, and what interests me is how an abstracted, "meta-human" appears there. In any case, international concrete poets must have been shocked by the perception in your poem "White within White" [sic, "Monotonous Space"].

K: I wonder.

S: There is simplicity within a thought-provoking viewpoint. In other words, you reveal a kind of ultimate white, demonstrating there is such a pure archetype.

K: But to be honest, that was not my original. It's even the title of a constructivist painting. [29]

S: Was it Malevich or someone else?

K: I think it was Malevich.

S: Yes, but that "White on White" is repeated only twice, whereas yours keeps going.

K: Well, that may be true, but imitators always complicate matters.

M: A little while ago you mentioned that Ezra Pound provided the opportunity for your start in concrete poetry. Could you tell us about your association with Pound?

K: When VOU [#7 - 8] came out [March/April 1936], I sent them to him. At that time I didn't know where Pound was, so I sent them care of his publisher [Faber and Faber], where [T.S.] Eliot was.

M: Did you send the first issue of VOU to prominent foreign poets?

K: No, we mainly sent it to England. And VOU was mostly distributed to unknowns.

M: Donald [sic, Ronald] Duncan [1914-1982] and others were your acquaintances at that time, weren't they?

K: Duncan was later.

S: And [e.e.] cummings?

K: I never ended up corresponding with cummings. Concrete poetry offered compelling designs in its own way. Even with that alone, I think it accomplished something useful. And from the viewpoint of quantity, recent works are increasingly using photographs. Whatever has been done until now, with or without a camera, has been referred to as concrete poetry, but lately people are differentiating between concrete and visual poetry.

S: Now the base of activity has scattered.

K: It spread all around. As a whole, not much is happening now, but the most active area is Italy, especially around Milan.

S: The "Spacialismo" group in Italy issued a manifesto at one time but has since disbanded.

K: I wasn't aware of that, but I remember when I was active that Jean-Francois Bory and Julien Blaine were operative in France. The two of them split up some years ago. Bory was a wild, strange fellow.

S: Pound introduced Eastern shapes [ideograms] into concrete poetry, and on the other hand there was a kind of theory of information [modeled on linguistic theories of the time]. Gomringer and others belonged to this latter tendency. But what you were pointing out would fit in more with the former, in other words, concrete poems that depend on shape.

K: Yes, that is right.

S: Then what becomes of "information" poetry? From what I see, it has shifted to conceptual art and the catch-phrases of advertising.... For example, before conceptual art there was minimalist art which took an initially condensed concept and searched for a method to let the imagination run freely. What have you observed in relation to that?

K: Nothing yet.

S: Like futurism, do you think concrete poetry has already had its day?

K: Yes, at least it is finished in terms of a "school." Recently I am thinking in terms of plastic poetry.

M: In the manifesto-like "Note..." you wrote about plastic poetry, you state, "Poetry started with the quill and should come to an end with the ball-point pen." Your statement can be taken as a kind of discourse on ecriture. What is the true meaning behind it?

K: What I have been thinking about most is that within words there are many words and in each country they are different. What a bother it all is. My meaning is: "Let's stop using words!"

S: Switching from the quill to the ball-point pen, is the medium the problem?

K: That is where it ends up.

S: Before you were active with other concrete poets, but now you are working on plastic poetry. Therefore, the gap between the two becomes an issue.

K: I can think of infinite ways to alter the configuration of shapes and sounds, but one gets trapped and unable to get outside that horizon. It is useless to keep repeating, and so there is nothing left to do but dissolve the gap.

M: I see. Where things close up with concrete poetry at the outer limits is the opening step for plastic poetry.

K: That is right.

M: It's the return of the primacy of the diagram.

S: For example, when you express in words a sequence that you have made up, do you spacialize it with a drawing in diagrammatic form?

K: Quite often. I did a lot with Kuki no hako [Airbox] and others.

S: Do you first have a blueprint?

K: I don't know whether the blueprint pushes the action ahead or follows it, but I have often composed with diagrams.

M: Isn't the switch to plastic poetry a coexistence with poetry rather than a shift in poetry itself.

S: That is a very difficult point.

K: Things have not developed to the point where "it must be like this"; rather, "it is probably something like this."

M: I don't know exactly how to put it, but there is a method of visual experimentation according to language and also a method of taking what is originally a fragment of an image and making it visual without recourse to language. Do plastic poems come about in a method completely alien to language, or are they intended to be a breakthrough for a language method?

K: It is not that thoroughly worked out; I just use it as one means among others. I am advocating plastic poetry, and if everyone gets into it, I think a common language will establish itself. If so, things would get much easier.

M: I see. Well, then isn't it a matter of the medium? To put it simply, isn't your starting point that photographs have more possibilities than words?

K: That is correct. Bory and others also call what they do "visual poetry," but there is a limit to the forms typography can take. It is preferable to use photographs, etc. and compose with the visual in mind.

S: In other words, there is a kind of difference in media because you transcend the serviceability of typography and use photographs.

K: You see, photographs have more possibility to expand. Sound and meaning are limited. When you examine the possibilities [with typography], you soon arrive at a dead end.

M: Photographs have more depth of reality, is that it?

K: Yes. It is a liberating method because you cut out a piece of external reality consonant with your own poetic imagination.

S: I would like to return to the problem Matsuoka brought up about diagrams. Compared with the form of poetry you aimed at in the early 1960s [concrete poetry] with its inclination to outline the object clearly, I wonder if now [plastic poetry] is not rather a releasing of the object within a new diversity, exemplified by the visual world that the camera captures. Having substituted words, maybe it simply reduces to "a new diversity," but I do think it is a thrilling and precarious situation. That is to say, literature [i.e., ideograms] emerges from within a visual setting, and what is picked up becomes abstracted once again. And, as a place to include the current of modernity, you have chosen the visuality of plastic poems. I think the transition is exhilarating.

K: Although I agree the transition is something like that, I do not believe that various materials just enter the lens by themselves. It is necessary to set the the material in some form, to lay it out in your mind.

S: Is that so? Do you mean that the objects must be arranged to return in some basic formation?

K: Yes. Of course, I am not saying that it is all right for any material whatsoever to return. If some material is necessary, then one can compose with what is around.

S: I see.

M: Isn't it a matter of the camera replacing the eye?

K: It probably comes down to that. I would say it's already inevitable.

M: I would like to ask you about that idea of "throwing away one's eyes." Moreover, isn't what you mean here by camera not the apparatus, but the camera of "seeing"?

K: Sure.

M: Then maybe your method has an inverse relationship to the "camera-eye" technique that, for example Dos Passos used, or the anti-novel of, say Robbe-Grillet, in which he uses the pen as a camera.

K: Mine certainly is the inverse method.

S: For example, there is the trend of subjective photography developed by Man Ray and those at the Bauhaus such as Moholy-Nagy, G[yorgy] Kepes and others. Around the year 1940 they went into self-exile in the U.S.A. and created a crystalized and fixed method [of subjective photography]. Rather than nature as object, they chose nature which derrived from their inner landscapes. The arranged space that you mentioned earlier is separate from this "system." Plastic poems are also somewhat different. Where do and don't these overlap?

K: That is a hard question. In my case it is more a matter of the results.

M: Poets usually claim that their theories can be found in the poems themselves, and yet in the development of their poetics they often throw in many extraordinary words. Nevertheless, there is the underlying assumption that one should not say too much. Moreover, "to say too much is a sign of being mistaken" partakes of a kind of stoicism that is also characteristic of you, Katue. But today please loosen your stoic guard, as I would like to ask you some questions about poetics. Let's move ahead while taking a glance back at the flow of your poetry. How was it when you first started writing? While discussing that, I would like you to offer the readers [an understanding of] the original shape of your conception of plastic poetry.

K: When I started writing poetry, it was the time of Shirotori Seigo and Inoue Kobun [early 1920s]. Their poetry belonged to the Popular Literature movement, but it was uninteresting and I was repelled. I did not start out as a poet — I was predominantly a painter until part way [through my career]. I painted in relief and other styles, and they numbered quite a few. But I didn't get anywhere with painting. Only from the time we published GGPG did I write poetry knowing what I was doing. It can be said that I had almost no connection with the mainstream of Japanese traditional poetry. On the contrary, being an outsider, I could do whatever I liked. So when Nogawa Ryu got involved in left-wing politics and GGPG folded, I didn't change.

S: From the beginning you created an amalgamated state.

K: Yes. From GGPG all along.

M: After that, there was Shobi Majutsu Gakusetsu [Rose, Magic, Theory] in which you teamed up with Nishiwaki [Junzaburo] and Takiguchi [Shuzo], yet you didn't really lean toward pure surrealism.

K: There was Nishiwaki [teaching] at Keio [University] and his students came over to my place and talked about surrealism. At that time I knew about dada but was not close to surrealism. I only got involved in that when I started associating with Ueda [Toshio] and his younger brother, Tamotsu. They were the first to inform me about the movement. In the middle period of [Japanese] surrealism, we had regular gatherings at the Haku Juji [coffee shop] in Kagurazaka with Sato Hajime, Takiguchi and others attending. Ueda and I didn't like where Breton and Aragon wanted to take surrealism, so we made our own manifesto and sent it here and abroad. My writing is quite different from Takiguchi's. It may not be orthodox, but I am not interested in being imitative. If we follow the French way [of surrealism], no matter how excellent, the imitation still won't be any good. My poetry of that time is in Shiro no arubamu (1929; White Album).

S: I am fascinated by the point of intersection between your use of the French and Japanese languages. For instance, even when you express a French effect in Japanese, you usually omit prolonged sounds [as in French] and use more condensed ones. In other words, the effect of a kind of gap [between the original French and the Japanese] is exposed before us.

K: That's right.

S: I imagine you did that consciously.

K: That may be so. This is not a commercial for Boya Saburo, but I do like Boya's way of enunciating. It is all right for Japanese to speak like that to one another.

M: What kind of outline [general plan] — both in the past and present — have you been using to write poetry?

K: I think up a diagram or scene that matches well with a particular state of mind. I limit that diagram in a certain way, and then convert it into the most simple characters I can find. At some point an image transforms it, so the process is a matter of making images bubble up.

S: So you only set the basic form, and the rest flows forth.

K: I deal with words for the image that comes out strongest, and then I follow through until the end.

S: Are the objects expressed at that time outside you? Are you a spectator to it?

K: In Chinese painting there is a basic pattern for cliffs, houses, etc. and one puts the pieces together. My poetry is written somewhat along those lines.

S: There is a Kitasono neuro-circuit.

M: When you take the abstracted, basic image and find words fitting for its visualization, isn't the geometrical balance between the initial diagram and the typography what determines the feasibility of the work?

K: Yes, it is. And I try to avoid those cases where I have to use graphs that I don't like.

M: What happens to meaning?

K: Meaning only clarifies the existence of the picture.

S: This might be off the point, but in children's finger painting the paint is applied directly from the hand to the canvas, and there turns out to be less likelihood of geometrical shapes emerging. In the fluid nature of the paint, or in the unfixed shape, the figurative remains obscured. I think this is an example of how man originally was surrounded by the unshaped. In other words, pleasure that people seek can be found in the unformed. On the other hand, absolutism is a by-product of pain and suffering. For example, in Inagaki Taruho's cosmic essay the absolute value of the universe appears as floating substances like rectangular parallelepipeds or spirals. It seems their existence is free and covers everything. Katue, in taking a diagram or object and making an image, how do you overcome the painful sensation when you discover Platonic shapes?

K: As you would probably suspect, in those situations I get more or less desperate; I apply the method of staying close to despair. I don't know if this is what you have in mind, but I stay close to despair and tell myself, "Your way of thinking until now has been insufficient, so keep extending it farther. For example, if "red" comes out and you make it "yellow," that is a gamble. Anything will do, like "sky" becoming "ashtray" or "tower," yet that is also gambling.

M: It is discontinuous, isn't it? You do not change in a molluscan or corpuscular way like Salvador Dali. It is not metamorphosis.

K: Metamorphosis is similar to the automatism of surrealism and does not impress me. In the way we took in surrealism there was a tendency to undervalue the Japanese social ideology and philosophy lurking in the background. We laid more emphasis on estheticism and the art itself, and that can be seen as a weakness.

M: There is the problem of the formed and unformed, and also the key point of how to create an amorphous structure.

K: I think the best structure would be that of a Möbius band. I wonder how it would be to cut it.

S: I see. So the stanza or phrase is the cutting plane to make the structure of the poem amorphous.

K: That's right. The continuity of discontinuity.

S: In the many works of yours I read long ago, I remember the word "crystallization." It seems that you were talking about the function of the outer limits of a kind of transposition or dislocation.

K: I used the word amalgamation before, but the meaning of crystallization is an even firmer way of understanding. I made up the word.

M: The word "crystallization" often appears in VOU from the 1950s and 1960s. It is a support system in contrast to the instantaneous, the fragmented, and the intermittent. At the same time, straddling the lines of the poem is a kind of temporality and, for the crafting of the object, a specialized design in which it lays dormant. Crystallization is in transit and not a final statement.

K: Yes, that is exactly it.

M: In my vocabulary it is the same as "a nostalgia for the mineral past."

K: I agree. The image of "mineral" fits.