Interview with Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

WG: Jane, thanks so much for agreeing to have this important conversation with me. Can you kindly tell the readers a bit about yourself, for those who may not be familiar with you or your work?

JJN: Thank you Diane! I am an American poet who has spent much of her life in Japan. I think many American poets however may not know me both due to not having spent much time in the U.S. in recent years and because my presence on social media is also not as great as many others for a variety of reasons most of which are physical, but also due to constraints on my time and my attitudes towards social media. Due in large part to disability I avoid plane travel to the extent I can. I did manage to take an extended trip by ship however last year. I have published hundreds of poems in many journals which are based both in the U.S.A. and other countries, and my tenth book, Plan B Audio, has just been published in May 2020, with a local (Japan-based) press called Isobar run by a retired Tokyo University professor who currently divides his time between London and Tokyo.

I have lived with fibromyalgia probably my whole life, although it was not diagnosed until middle age. About five years ago I was diagnosed with cancer and then later with another one. I had more than one major surgery, radiation, and so on. My body became permanently far more non-normative than it already was. I have started writing more openly/directly about disability in recent years in poems, essays, interviews, academic papers, fiction, and the like and am eager to read as much as I can about disability. This study and writing predates my cancer.

I have taught undergrad and grad courses in poetry here in Japan as well as university courses in gender, culture and history but currently I am only working part-time for disability-related reasons.

I edited an anthology of innovative poetry by women who currently live outside their birth countries a few years ago, it was a great experience; the book is titled women : poetry : migration [an anthology] (theenk Books 2017). I had begun the project before my cancer diagnosis and it was quite difficult to complete during my cancer treatment but we got it done, hurrah! It is a big book featuring fifty women including Beauty is a Verb (BIAV) contributor Norma Cole.

WG: Thanks very much, Jane. How would you describe “feminist disability poetics“? I know from our previous interactions, and from your own work, that you understand feminist disability poetics to be transnational. We at Wordgathering agree! Please define the terms, in your own words, for folks who may be unfamiliar with them. Thank you!

JJN: That’s a great but also complex question, Diane! Yes, it is definitely transnational. I think of feminist poetry as poetry which does not exclude the perspectives of women or other non-dominant genders nor minorities, nor the non-human world of animals and plants, and does not debase any of these. Feminist poetry might also challenge traditional notions of masculinity and femininity or heteronormativity or other issues associated with gender. It is not simply poems written by women and minorities. For example I might call a poem by a white male American “feminist” if it seems to me anti-patriarchal in style or content, or challenges “toxic masculinity” or is supportive of women or minorities or animals or renders disability less invisible and so on. Not all women are feminists and not all men non-feminists, of course (nor would want to be called either). “Disability” for me is also quite broad because it of course includes various types of visible, invisible, and partially or sometimes visible physical and mental conditions including even conditions which are “normative” to people who identify as “able-bodied” such as related to aging.

Experimental poetry, which I somewhat specialize in, obviously aims to disrupt the status quo but it is possible even for stylistically traditional poetry to fall into the realm of feminist disability poetics of course. Because of the disruption to norms however for some of us experimental poetry feels closely allied with feminism. Of course, the boundaries between stylistically traditional and non-traditional poetry may be fluid just as they may be within feminism and disability. Binary systems exclude and thus can be rather unhelpful. I’d rather attempt to break down walls moreso than erect them I think. My own work I think combines traditional and non-traditional elements. Quality is more important than style.

I will say I think the disability movement, like the LGBTQAIplus movement, has great potential to positively impact American (and Japanese, and international) society, and that feminist disability poetics can play a very key role in this transformation. Right now (June 7, 2020) are protests in the U.S.A. against police violence and I would like to see as much interaction as possible personally between disability, feminist, and racial (“racial”) or ethnic rights movements as well as of course ecopoetics.

WG: Thanks for your wonderful, layered response, Jane. Can you say more about what you mean by, “Experimental poetry disrupts the status quo, but it is possible even for stylistically traditional poetry to fall into the realm of feminist disability poetics, of course”? Specifically, what are some of the ways in which experimental poetry is―or can be, potentially―”disruptive,” and can you give an example or two? Some of this poetic work may counter ableism, in its countering of patriarchy; some of the poetic work, well…not so much of either countering, right? What are your thoughts?

JJN: Sure, Diane. Even stylistically conventional poetry often relies on ambiguity, and may intend to make people not only feel but think, I believe, and may be complex in its use of language and may have intellectual rigor and attention to language itself which is important in poetry, what finally makes poetry different from ordinary discourse. Experimental poetry may encourage people to think in a new way, to make their own connections, it is generally not going to be top down nor linear but encourages the reader to make of it as they will and typically challenges the notion of authority including the authority of the author and any speaker(s) in the poem, if there even is a speaker. Some feminists are pretty famous for saying that language itself is sexist (e.g., Luce Irigaray speaking of French) since it is inherited versus chosen and we need a new language. For some of us that language is poetry, including experimental poetry of course which is the most divergent of all from ordinary discourse. There are a few books for anybody interested I might recommend including Lyric interventions: Feminism, experimental poetry and contemporary poetry by Linda Kinnahan, Poetic epistemelogies: Gender and knowing in women’s language-oriented writing by Megan Simpson, Elisabeth Frost’s The feminist avant-garde in American poetry and Innovative women poets: An anthology of contemporary poetry and interviews by Frost and Cynthia Hogue, for example. In these books experimental poetry by American women is married theoretically speaking to feminism and this connection is explained in great detail using many example poems and in interviews.

American poet Lyn Hejinian, quoted in Rankine and Spahr (2002, p. 284) describes innovative poetry as that which “…invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies….[and] often emphasizes or foregrounds process…and thus resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material, turn it into a product.” Hoover (1994) noted: “Implicit in the language poets’ break with traditional modes such as narrative, with its emphasis on linearity and closure, is a challenge to the male-dominant hierarchy” (p. xxxiv). Elsewhere poet Lyn Hejinian described her interest in creating “….a genuinely ‘open’ or ‘generative’ poetic text, a text that ‘relinquishes total control and challenges authority as a principle and control as a motive'” (in Perloff, 1996, p. 212). Luce Irigaray, in Je, tu, nous: Toward a culture of difference (translated by Alison Martin, published in English in 1993) stated: “Women’s entry into the public world, the social relations they have among themselves and with men, have made cultural transformations, and especially linguistic ones, a necessity” (Irigaray, 1993, p. 67).

I’ll quote part of a poem by Marthe Reed titled “Chandeleur Sound” (on p. 448 of The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral pub. 2012). This poem is on my desktop because I wrote a speech using it for a conference this year on North American poetry. The conference theme this year had to do with the environment, but specifically oceans/waterways; my speech was titled “Mother nature v. idealized machines: contemporary ecopoetry by American women.” “idealized machines” comes from this stanza, Reed’s second stanza of four:

Barrier islands braceleted in orange. Royal terns, laughing gulls slide above (oiled)
surf. Pelicans, given to loafing on shoals. Shelter dolphins, turtles: haven, refuge,
home. This: investment portfolio, what’s really at stake. Residual marsh toxicity,
pompom booms mimicking widgeon-grass. A regulatory regime cut-to-fit Big Oil,
profit, thirst of our idealized machines. Fill in the blank. “No clear strategy objec-
tives” — tern estuary, soak, seat — “linked to statutory requirements.” What is re-

I like that final question is never answered anywhere in the poem, the reader is invited to answer it themself, as with “fill in the blank” in line 5. The reader fills it in. The poem requires the reader to think. In my own speech (published in the Australian online journal Otoliths) I took the ending as a cue to tell my audience what I think is required:-), basically to make the world more friendly to women and people with disabilities and be more caring towards animals and the physical environment. I ended the speech with an excerpt from Jennifer Bartlett’s 2018 poetry collection (I think Jennifer’s work may be well known to many Wordgathering readers).

According to American poet Marcella Durand, “Ecological poetry…functions with an intense awareness of space, seeks an equality of value between all living and unliving things, explores multiple perspectives as an attempt to subvert the dominant paradigms of mono-perception, consumption and hierarchy, and utilizes powers of concentration to increase lucidity and attain a more transparent, less anthropocentric mode of existence”(from ‘The ecology of poetry’ pp. 117-118 of Ecolanguage Reader, ed. Brenda Iijima, 2010).

For me, disability, gender, race, animal rights activism, environmental protection, all of these can be pursued in a variety of ways and styles via writing poems, reading poems, and sharing poems with others written by oneself or others, often marrying these goals simultaneously, regardless of stylistic bent.

WG: Jane, wow, what a rigorous, thoughtful, and engaging reply. And, thank you for sharing those great resources. You raised so many profound issues of great depth. I want to pick up on two of the many threads in your multi-quilted commentary (!).

First, it seems to me that, at least in some respects, experimental poetry can be described as a “cripping” of “normative” poetry, even regardless of the identity of the poet (so, a nondisabled poet could be, through their experimental writing, “cripping” the poetic norms, without ”appropriating“ a disability identity).

[Note from the Editor: “Cripping” is now frequently used as a form of reclamation. For those readers who might be unfamiliar with the term, a definition (“What ‘Cripping‘ Means”) can be found here.]

I would love to know what you think about this idea of “cripping,” in terms of experimental poetry and feminist work.

Second, can you please comment more about this great statement?

“For me, disability, gender, race, animal rights activism, environmental protection, all of these can be pursued in a variety of ways and styles via writing poems, reading poems, and sharing poems with others written by oneself or others, often marrying these goals simultaneously, regardless of stylistic bent.”

I have so many thoughts, reading these words. I will share a few.

I read this statement as being about pursuing social change and equity through the medium of poetry…a goal among so many poets, for probably thousands of years!

It seems to me that you are talking, here, not just about “intersections in identity,” “multi-issue politics,” or “axes of difference,” but highlighting the promise presented by interconnections in *poetic genres*, a practice that could create a kind of radical explosion―wherein the “goals” include that no one gets hurt (or, personal, interpersonal, and social injuries are―at least―decreased greatly). Deliberate potential and brave possibility “explode” (maybe an explosion of daffodils leads to harm reduction!).

In my understanding of your description, this sort of poetic, interactive transformation honors and centers wellness, emotional intelligence, and attentiveness. These commitments are of course often still gendered as female. I believe there are hundreds of genders (not just two). Yet, care is still often coded as female, in a binary gender system. (Imagination breaks down rigidity, but sometimes reinforces it, after all.)

JJN: Diane I feel very lucky to have a conversation partner like you. :-). Yes, I agree with everything you have just said, and I think it is very possible to be “cripping” in experimental poetry and the idea of “transgenre” writing is exciting and important, or panstylistic. You reminded me of another great book by a feminist female author, Diana Tietjens Meyers, titled Subjection and Subjectivity: Psychoanalytic Feminism and Moral Philosophy (Routledge, 1994). In this book she discusses why in her opinion logic cannot be used effectively to counter prejudice (including gender prejudice but it would extend to any kind of prejudice I think even tho some theorize that types of prejudice are very different from each other as did Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in her book The Anatomy of Prejudices published in 1998 by Harvard UP; unfortunately Young-Bruehl does not discuss ableism to the best of my recollection but there are other books that do fortunately like one of my favorites, The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability by Susan Wendell ). For those who haven’t read the book, Tietjens Meyers argues that “dissident speech” can be effective in countering culturally entrenched prejudice by creating counter-concepts if you will via imaginative speech. This could include the creation of the label “crip poetry” or how LGBTQAIplus individuals reinvented the word “queer” as a badge of pride — these could ultimately become “counterfigurations” (a word Tietjens Meyers uses in the book) as some brief examples. Activists are often clever at creating dissident speech; last night I listened to the Reverend Al Sharpton’s speech asking white Americans to take their knees off of the necks of Black Americans everywhere, using it [how George Floyd was killed] as a metaphor for racial oppression generally. Three words: “I can’t breathe” have taken on new (horrific) meaning as has BLM.

I agree of course that experimental poetry can disturb the status quo, that is part of its function, including the status quo as regards ableism, but that this is not exclusive to experimental poetry and art. It’s also a way of thinking, a non-linear way, that feels natural to at least some of us. In addition to my own work perhaps, one example could be Gaia Thomas’ work in the book We are Not Your Metaphor (or find some of her wonderful work online in magazines such as Dispatches from the Poetry Wars) or in BIAV Danielle Pafunda’s work. Art especially very divergent art has long been considered dangerous to at least some conservative people and regimes. I recall an art exhibit in 1991 titled “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” in Chicago which showed how work by artists famous today were considered culturally threatening and thus devalued, defaced, and destroyed in the 1930s by the Nazi regime. Less dramatically some people may simply reject what they do not understand. PETA, a group I support, on their website depict animals as often viewed as Other, as treated as Other, and even draw parallels between animal cruelty and Nazi Germany (Diane, I have been a vegan for 15 years now).

But yes I don’t want to advocate for a style of poetry over others, as each poet should do what they want to do and as I’ve already said, I don’t want to create divisions, and I do like “blended” approaches! No one need argue that apples are superior to oranges. People are good at creating elaborate arguments for why what they like is better than what somebody else likes, but this can be both unhelpful and even downright silly in the end or lead to unnecessary conflict. Similarly, although I earlier implied I was interested in finding poetry of high artistic standards and sharing that not everybody has the same goals as a poet. There are many amateur poets and some people may be happy to stay in the amateur category. There is also art therapy including poetry therapy; people writing poems in such workshops or in other scenarios may not be aspiring to be a poet at large but may simply be using poetry as a way to recover from emotional trauma (I’ve read is Mazza’s Poetry Therapy: Theory and Practice; I also liked Creative Art Therapies Manual by Stephanie Brooke which includes a chapter on poetry therapy). For those of us who teach and use poetry in courses and teacher training workshops (as I abundantly do) some of the techniques explained by Mazza and Brooke can be used, in my experience at least, in ordinary courses, in a variety of ways.

I think there will always be people who get hurt but to try to minimize that hurt is a worthy goal. To try to make progress via poetry is a worthy goal, I agree absolutely.

WG: It seems to me that Feminist Disability Studies, of course including poetry (!), in refuting what Alfred Schutz famously called “typifications” (accepted patterns in social life) has contributed mightily to upsetting the toxic masculinist applecart. Schutz, a phenomenologist, is often considered (rightfully so!), one of the forefathers of ethnomethodology (speaking of masculinity, though hopefully not toxic, in this case!).

What are some final thoughts from you―for now―about feminist disability poetics as ”disruptive,“ but not necessarily in a “refuting” way? Here, I’m aiming to get at the idea of innovation and positive reframing (as we were also just discussing reclaimed language), without idealization―and without minimizing lived experiences of disablement and ableism.

JJN: That’s a great question, Diane! BIAV I think was absolutely groundbreaking. It’s fabulous that the BIAV editors included a range of types of disability, a range of poetic styles, and essays accompanying the poems helped the reader understand the poems and lives of the poets who contributed. I think this approach could be emulated by others. Different things appeal to different people; different people notice different things and react differently to the same thing, so there is no one correct way. There may be ways that are relatively (in)effective depending not the situation and people involved if you are trying to help bring about social change, which requires individual change of course. When I edited an anthology of poetry I asked all the women poets to write a short essay to accompany their work. I did this because it was so effective a concept in anthologies like BIAV and Carrie Etter’s Infinite Difference or Frost & Hogue’s Innovative Women Poets and others.

As you point out, one does not want to minimize lived experience. Right after my last major surgery I was overwhelmed with grief. I grieved the loss of my old body. (I went through a much shorter grieving process, though I did grieve, when I realized I had fibromyalgia and I was unlikely to be able to “fix” me.) But now it’s been a year and a half since then. Though I documented this grief, as well as other emotions, in my new book (written on and off during a four year period beginning with the first cancer diagnosis) the emotions have shifted. I am beginning to achieve a kind of pride in my new body. The body positivity movement online has been extraordinarily helpful to me. I’ve been able to see photographs of beautiful naked and clothed disabled women and men who show a full emotional range including happiness with their non-normative bodies, some of them photographed intertwined with those who love them. Although I understand the complaint about “inspiration porn” what I need myself as a disabled person are role models just as I need female role models (and other types of role models, e.g. models of people who have devoted their lives to poetry for example or people who take teaching seriously, etc.). When a colostomy and urostomy were created for me, afterwards I searched the net “desperately” (I was distraught at the time) for a literary depiction of it. It was very hard to find anything; I ended up finding only autobiographical fiction and one poem by Arturo Islas written in the 1970s (he had a colostomy and the character based on himself was shy about it when naked with his lovers). It was obvious to me that I needed to depict my experience in my own writing as it was so hard to find anything. (I have seen however photographs of proud smiling ostomates online with their [opaque only, both of mine are clear] bag visible.) The more disability is openly depicted the better obviously, given that disability has been in the closet far too long.

Within education there is an area of study some readers will be familiar with called “transformative learning” that attempts to study how people change their worldviews. One of its researchers, Patricia Cranton, wrote some articles a while back trying to apply Jungian psychological types to the process of personal transformation. Although some people reject Jung’s theory, the idea of trying to understand how the process of personal transformation in terms of one’s thinking may differ based on the person’s personality is interesting and important to consider. Some Jungians have tried to apply the theory to national cultures as well; for example, one thing that interested me in that literature was the idea of a “falsified” psychological type, as when one is truly an introvert but the society rewards extraversion rather so the person acts in a more extraverted way. Whatever one thinks of Jung, the idea that our personalities and cultures affect our thinking (and interact with each other) is not so radical. If Cranton is correct different stimuli will motivate different people to change (or not!) their thinking. This means there is no one path, no single way of reaching people.

Dialogue, especially listening, but also speaking out, is important. I have twice interviewed BIAV contributor Cynthia Hogue. Here is a snippet from our second conversation which was published ten years ago in a now defunct poetry ezine:

JJN: In an interview Richard Lopez said: “Poems, poetry, and poets are sort of an antidote against hate-mongering and thinned-down ideas that give rise to feelings of being absolutely right.” Would you agree? I’d like to hear your thoughts on that. I’d also like to hear more about what you think poetry’s place is and poets’ places are in the sociopolitical realm. Can poets change the world?

CH:.I completely agree with Richard Lopez’s wonderful point. Poetry helps to ensure that the thoughtful use of our language will transcend its cynical misuse. And even though relatively few people read poetry today, compared to, say, a Dan Brown thriller, what’s remarkable to me is that so many people write it, perform it, listen to it, and that people still turn to writing poetry in times of crisis. […]

If one can learn to embrace “unfamiliarity” and not run from it one can broaden oneself. That could very well include of course reading writing and sharing feminist poems by disabled poets. Jim Ferris has said “Disability is dangerous. We represent danger to the normate world, and rightly so” but “Disability brings with it a wonderful range of remarkable and powerful vantage points. It is so much easier to see when you can gain a little distance, a little perspective. Some of what we see is peculiar to disability” (, retrieved June 7, 2020). I agree with Ferris. I also feel living outside the country of one’s birth for a long period also helps a person gain a little distance.

Since none of us has a perfect body or brain or spirit or personality et al, we all have the experience of disability, despite how we identify or the extent to which we perceive or don’t perceive of ourselves as disabled. Widening the net of disability I personally think is a good thing, not simply a clever political strategy but a reflection of reality-based thinking. Tribalism can be a bad thing, not an us v. them or other false dichotomy but a we and we wanting what is good for us all I think is a worthy and perhaps attainable goal, isn’t it? It’s not an easy struggle but I think anthologies like BIAV, journals like Wordgathering, disabled poets getting their voices heard via poems and essays on the internet elsewhere and in books etc. and doing workshops and speeches and the like will help bring about positive change. We need everybody! An important thing for human beings generally is to make the attempt to understand others and try not restrict oneself too much via factionalism.

Cynthia also said in the interview:

Angus Fletcher writes movingly in his book on ecopoetics that poetry teaches us how to imagine the world, and how to think about what may happen or what has happened. That capacity to imagine helps us to preserve our humanity, helps us to know how to be in the world.

If this is correct the possible effects of feminist disability poetics are profound.

Books Cited

Bartlett, J., Black, S., & Northen, M. 2011. Beauty is a verb: The new poetry of disability. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press.

Brooke, S. 2006. Creative arts therapy manual: A guide to the history, theoretical approaches, assessment, and work with special populations of art, play, dance, music, drama and poetry therapies. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Corey, J., & Waldrep, J. C. (Eds.). 2012. The Arcadia project: North American postmodern pastoral. Boise: Ahsahta Press.

Etter, C. (Ed.) 2010. Infinite difference: Other poetries by UK women poets. London: Shearsman.

Frost, E., & Hogue, C. (Eds.) 2007. Innovative women poets: An anthology of contemporary poetry and interviews. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Hoover, P. (Ed.) 1994. Post modern American poetry. New York: W. W. Norton.

Iijima, B. 2010. The ecolanguage reader. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books

Irigaray, L. 1993. Je, tu, nous: toward a culture of difference (trans. A. Martin). New York: Routledge.

Joritz-Nakagawa, J. 2020. Plan B Audio. Tokyo/London: Isobar.

Joritz-Nakagawa, J. (Ed.). 2017. Women : poetry : migration [an anthology]. Palmyra, NY: theenk books.

Kinnahan, L. 2004. Lyric interventions: Feminism, experimental poetry, and contemporary discourse. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Mazza, N. 2016. Poetry therapy: theory and practice. New York: Routledge.

Perloff, M. 1996. Wittgenstein’s ladder: Poetic language and the strangeness of the ordinary. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rankine, C., & Spahr, J. 2002. American women poets in the 21st century. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Simpson, M. 2000. Poetic epistemologies: Gender and knowing in women’s language-oriented writing. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Tietjens Meyers, D. 1994. Subjection and subjectivity: Psychoanalytic feminism and moral philosophy. New York: Routledge.

Wendell, S. 1996. The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. New York: Routledge.

Young-Bruehl, E. 1998. The anatomy of prejudices. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zoeglossia Fellows. 2019. We are not your metaphor. Squares & Rebels Press.

Back to Top of Page | Back to Interviews | Back to Volume 14, Issue 2 – June 2020

Note: Read Jane Joritz-Nakagawa’s review of Meg Eden’s Drowning in the Floating World in the March 2020 issue of Wordgathering.

About Jane Joritz-Nakagawa

Jane Joritz-Nakagawa is the author of ten full-length poetry collections, as well as chapbooks, ebooks, essays, and a volume of selected work, Poems: New & Selected (Isobar, 2018). She has also edited an anthology of innovative transcultural poetry and essays by fifty women poets titled, women : poetry : migration [an anthology] (theenk, 2017). Originally from the United States, Jane lives in central Japan. Her new poetry book, Plan B Audio (Isobar, 2020), in part depicts Jane’s struggle with disability and her non-normative body. Email is welcome at janejoritznakagawa(at)gmail(dot)com. To learn more about Jane Joritz-Nakagawa, visit her Wikipedia page.