Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews poet Tony Barnstone about Tokyo Burning, the music CD based on Tongue of War—Barnstone’s book of poems that perceives World War II in the Pacific from the worm’s-eye view.
What incited you to write Tongue of War?
The origin goes back seventeen years, to the night I was invited to sit down and break bread with the pilot of the Enola Gay—the man who had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Brigadier General Paul Tibbets (1915-2007). It was an invitation I had deep reservations about, not least because my then-wife and in-laws were Japanese-American. Nonetheless, pulled by a sense of morbid curiosity, a need to look in the face of history, I went.
At our strange dinner, I asked him what his response was to recent revisionist histories that have questioned the morality of the decision to drop the Bomb on Hiroshima. A pugnacious, white-haired fellow with protruding ears, he looked harmless, like one of the seven dwarfs, but he was a forceful presence, clearheaded, with a powerful memory, and his reply was fierce: “All people were fair game … . There is no such thing as separating the innocent from the guilty, because everyone is guilty.” General Tibbets was the one man I knew who really believed in the bomb. Perhaps he had to. He was a patriot with not an ounce of doubt that he did the right thing. He believed in the story of the army: honor, duty, following orders, necessary violence. And he believed in the official story of the bomb — that he was a hero who saved a million lives, that the bomb had to be dropped on a city, not on a demonstration site, and that those who were killed got what they deserved.
This encounter spurred me to write the first poem in what years later was to be published as a book of poems titled Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasakiand which later would develop into our CD of songs Tokyo Burning, an album that I wrote in collaboration with singer-songwriters John Clinebell and Ariana Hall who perform as a duo called Genuine Brandish.
The songs in this CD draw on the decade and a half I spent researching war letters, diaries, histories, oral histories, and interviews with American and Japanese soldiers, scientists such as Robert Oppenheimer, President Harry Truman, and citizens survivors of the Rape of Nanjing, of Hiroshima, and of Nagasaki. [Excerpted from http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/594899386/tokyo-burning-music-based-on-wwii-oral-histories]
How did you and Genuine Brandish connect?
Three years ago, I found myself at a music party at an apartment in Santa Monica. … It was a fine concert, one great act after another, but the one who really wowed me was an independent singer-songwriter named John Clinebell, who performed an amazing set. I remember especially loving his powerful song, “The End,” a subtle sweet song that reminded me of early Simon and Garfunkel.
I came up, somewhat shyly, to congratulate him, and as we fell to talking I opened up about my idea for a CD of WWII music based on my poems. He looked at me and said, “You know, that’s something I might be interested in.”
From that one phrase emerged a whole Volkswagen of circus clowns. I spent the bulk of my savings and the next two years on learning how to write song lyrics, hire a producer, find a studio, arrange songs, hire studio musicians, create a promovideomix, master, print, and create a CD label and a music publishing company.
We were lucky to be joined in the project some months later by my other favorite L.A.-based indie singer-songwriter, Ariana Hall, who gave the Yin to John’s Yang and helped make this war CD speak to the experiences and sufferings of wives, and navy nurses, and “comfort women” who were forced to be sex slaves for the Japanese army. [See http://stonecoastfacultyblog.com/2012/10/22/playing-with-magic-how-i-became-a-record-producer/]
How did the three of you come up with the idea for a music CD?
I had always wanted to recreate the book in a different form, to find other media so that the audience for these stories would be larger. I had always wanted to take the project further—to make it a graphic novel, perhaps, or a play, or better yet, a cycle of songs.
So the answer was putting the poems to music. But I didn’t know how. Meeting John and Ariana was my great good luck. It was such a joy to work with these two terrific talents and to make art together.
In the video on the Kickstarter page, you talk about history’s human face, and “history from the worm’s-eye view.” This perspective lends itself well to a project featuring oral history and folk music. Can you talk a little about the braiding of worm’s-eye view, folk music, and World War II in the Pacific?
I became interested in history and how we tell it as a grad student while working on my dissertation on William Carlos Williams. Williams himself tried to make history present tense in his book In the American Grain, by telling history in a series of testimonials by figures such as Lincoln, Daniel Boone, and Cortez. History for Williams was a way of understanding the present, and of resolving its problems – which Williams felt lay in Puritan repression of natural expression. Through studying under Elaine Scarry, I became interested in the New Historicist approach to literature, which attempts to tell history from around the margins. An important early influence was an essay by Stephen Greenblatt, the Shakespeare scholar, which meditated on nature and structure, image and thing, by analyzing a waterfall in Yosemite from the point of view of a sign placed next to the waterfall that included a picture of the waterfall. For tourists, this sign authenticated the falls as something to look at, as a “natural wonder” in quotes. Its status as something to be looked at had been verified by the fact that it had been reproduced and was to be reproduced again in hundreds of thousands of tourist photos. That is, the approach is to use ignored elements in a society such as ads or pop songs to unravel the larger structures that form that society. Thus, when we talk about war, we normally tell it in terms of armies, resources, treaties, and nation states, not from the soldier or civilian’s point of view; my approach was not to look at troop counts and economic structures, but at, for example, the testimony of an 11-year-old child who survived the atom bomb drop on Hiroshima. That’s what we did in this CD and in my book: we sang history in the present tense and in the voices of the people who lived through it. In terms of style, we incorporated Japanese folk, American folk, and Blues styles of music. After all, folk music, by definition, is music of the folk. By its nature, it expresses or tells the history of the people, and is a natural way to tell history from the worm’s eye view by delivering the emotional charge of the experience of the people as told in their own voices.
What was the first poem in the book?
The first poem in the book was a free verse poem from the point of view of Paul Tibbets, set when he was piloting the Enola Gay, a God’s-eye-view poem about dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima. I threw that one away and years later wrote a sonnet instead, which I kept in the book. After that I began researching interviews with Hiroshima survivors and wrote a series of worm’s-eye-view poems about that holocaust. And from there, I worked up poem spoken in the voices of Gandhi, Oppenheimer, Truman, American prisoners of war, Japanese officers, American factory workers, and so on until I felt I had a pan-optic view of the event. And there the book stopped. I didn’t have the courage to tackle the whole war – Hiroshima was big enough! But, finally, I decided to put my nose to the grindstone and I spent 15 years researching and writing, until I covered the whole war from the Rape of Nanjing to post-war PTSD.
Are the poems in the book and the songs on the CD ordered similarly?
Some of these are stories told in retrospect, and others are dramatic monologues in the moment – so which should come first? My solution was to make the book and CD both roughly chronological, with the idea that memory time is different from sequential time. Therefore, I put poems that are more about how one deals with the past in the present day into the postwar section. Both the book and CD end with a woman whose husband dealt with his PTSD through a violent alcoholism, and with a survivor of the Bataan Death March decrying torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
What new facets of the poems revealed themselves when they were put to music?
In order to do this project, I had to teach myself how to write a song. I have a pretty thorough understanding of meter when it comes to poetry, but it’s been decades since I studied music theory. So I began listening for where the beats fell in songs and it came to me that song rhythm is equivalent to stress meter in poetry, where you only count the strong stresses and don’t worry about how many syllables and where you ignore the half stresses. I was listening to Tom Waits’s “San Diego Serenade,” where the rhythm is like the Old English strong-stress meter in Beowulf, and I modeled my songs on that, writing lyrics with four strong stresses per line, and sometimes rhyming on the half-line at the caesura.
With the WWII poems, I had tried to hide the form. Though many were sonnets in terms of rhythm and rhyme, I tried to make them sound like natural language. A poem is so afraid of the cliché that you’ll bend over backwards to make rhymes unusual, not jingly or expected, not at the end of a clause or a sentence, but a hidden pleasure. In a song, it’s just the opposite: you want the expected, you want jingly. You’re striving for the thing to emerge, not the invisible thing. In a poem, the words are the art, but in song the words emerge from the beauty of the music and even before they can resolve into meaning they need to sing themselves into being. The key lesson I learned is that the function of words is different in a song than in a poem.
Is there a particular song on the CD or poem in the book that you find yourself talking about or thinking about more than others? In other words, does one song seem to haunt you? If so, is it the obvious poem/song? Or does it surprise you?
“White Lily” is one of the most haunting songs on the CD. It’s the story of a woman from the Dutch East Indies who was captured by the Japanese army and forced into sex slavery. More than 200,000 of these “comfort women” were beaten, starved, and essentially raped to death, with only 25 percent surviving. It was a lesser-known holocaust in the war. The Japanese government has given half-hearted apologies, blended with denials, and now conservative politicians in Japan are considering revoking the little acknowledgment that the comfort women have received. In fact, recently the Japanese government asked the city of Glendale in California not to put up a statue memorializing the comfort women.
The challenge was how to tell this story of survival, how many of those who survived were so damaged they were unable to bear children, how they were ostracized by their communities, how their real names were taken from them and they were given prostitute names such as “White Lily.” “White Lily” had her identity, her body, and her name taken from her; to the soldiers she was just a body to be consumed and thrown away. I wanted to tell her story simply and in plain language, and have it be a song where the emotion comes through the music more than the words. Ariana braided her voice with a soaring, sad cello solo to evoke this cry of pain. So there’s this waterfalling sadness that comes through her voice that’s really very powerful.
Do you have a crusade in terms of literature? You seem to be branching out with your poetry, making it accessible through multiple media platforms. Why graphic novels? Why decks of cards? What’s next? And what do you see as poetry’s future in American pop culture?
My lifelong goal has been to find ways of making poetry accessible and appealing, while maintaining its depth, complexity, and esthetic rigor. I am a poetry addict, and I’m convinced that if those who dismiss the art would allow me to make a few poetry injections they would quickly come to crave the drug as well. And it only scars a little.
How, though, to break down the barriers of fear and disinterest? I began, when I was first writing, by self-consciously setting out to discover how to make my poetry, funny, ironic, and punning, since as Freud says, humor works to get the mind to open its gates so one can deliver the joke’s hidden ideology (hidden, perhaps, in a giant wooden horse).
Next, I set out to discover how to write narrative poetry, trying to reclaim from the novel, TV, and film what used to be the territory of poetry, trying to get past the dominant mode of the Confessional, first person, and lyrical poem. Tongue of War, for example, is a book of first-person dramatic monologues in which I allow other people’s stories to be told. They’re Confessional, which makes them intimate, but it is not me confessing, which makes them more universal, less solipsistic.
The move into multimedia comes from a similar impulse. Graphic novels, comic books, and music are the chosen media for the smart under-thirty crowd. My idea is to find ways of making these media work for poets. Songs already have lyrics and people love them and are not afraid of them (because the music, like the joke, breaks down the mind’s resistance and allows the Trojan Horse in). Well, if the lyrics are written by poets, then the songs will bring poetry directly into the car, the computer, the stereo system and ultimately into the deep rhythms of the mind, so that the poem becomes that song you can’t get out of the head.
As to the comix form, my idea is to piggyback on the alt comix scene that began, arguably, with Krazy Kat and that came into its own with the 1960s and 70s underground comix scene of R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Half a century later, these wild anti-comix are mainstream, best-selling, even Pulitzer-Prize winning. I’ve created 35 pages of a projected 120 page graphic novel that is a feminist werewolf story-in-sonnets based on historical cases of women who thought they were werewolves and were locked up in mental institutions, and am now launching a series of short poetry comix based on individual poems. Ultimately, these artistic collaborations come out of my lifelong interest in the art and poetry of William Blake and in the poet-painters of China.
Finally, I am working with the artist Alexandra Eldridge to create a Creativity Tarot, which our agent is currently marketing to publishers. This will be a poetry-and-art deck that works to draw creative activity out of the unconscious, helping artists, writers, actors, dancers, to create, revise, and craft their work.
I believe that poetry will change in the digital age, and I see my collaborations with the other arts as an attempt to help create new forms of poetry that might bring the upcoming generations into this marvelous art. Really, just drink the Kool-aid. You’ll like it.
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Tony Barnstone is the Albert Upton Professor of English at Whittier College and has a Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature from UC Berkeley. His books of poems include Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki (BKMK Press, 2009, winner of the John Ciardi Prize in Poetry), The Golem of Los Angeles (Red Hen Press, 2008, winner, Benjamin Saltman Award); Sad Jazz: Sonnets (Sheep Meadow Press, 2005); and Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone (University Press of Florida, 1998), in addition to the chapbook Naked Magic (Main Street Rag). He is also a distinguished translator of Chinese poetry and literary prose and an editor of literary textbooks. Among his awards are a fellowship from the NEA, a fellowship from the California Arts Council, a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, and 1st place in in the 2008 Strokestown International Poetry Prize.
He is the recipient of many national poetry prizes and of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Barnstone has lived in Greece, Spain, Kenya and China.