Newtown Literary contributor: Dao Ling
What the Heck Does “草間” Mean?
In the spring of 2015, I took a workshop with the brilliant poet and teacher Sally Wen Mao in a two-story downtown New York library where we watched the sun set across the Hudson River every Thursday evening. The class was called Bad Bitch Poetics; and it drew a young, attractive, feminist group of all self-identified women who liked several glasses of hard liquor to accompany their karaoke…and one older man in his 60s. Needless to say, the entire experience (karaoke included) was one of my most invigorating encounters with poetry in this lifetime.
After our first class, we were asked to go home and identify three “bad bitches”—people we knew personally or simply admired (or despised) from a distance. I remember my bitches with perfect clarity. They were: 1) supermodel of the world, RuPaul Andre Charles (whom I love); 2) la grande diva de la banda Jenni Rivera (whom I lean toward dislike); and 3) former hippie of the New York avant-garde and now commercially resurrected recluse, Yayoi Kusama (whom I lean toward like).
After presenting our selections to the class, our next job was to narrow our focus to one badass lady(boy) and write a persona poem from her perspective. I chose Yayoi, the Polka-Dot Princess, because she seemed, by far, the strangest, oldest, and most private, unknowable creature. In the days following, I deployed all the baseline research tools of a modern urbanite—scouring Google and Wikipedia for information and images of her person and work all throughout my long subway commutes. These efforts mostly resulted in me wanting to kowtow at the feet of her greatness and madness…but were not, in any way, conducive to composing a poem.
The night before our assignment was due, I sat late at the kitchen table drinking hot chocolate and watching her 1967 film, Kusama’s Self-Obliteration. My body drooped with the heavy weight of the workday, and I had to keep my head upright using both hands. And then with the thoughtlessness that accompanies exhaustion, I bore my eyes into the screen, into the hazy loop of circles, phallic ovals, and long, straight hair sweeping through shot after eerie, meditative shot. In retrospect, I realize it was something of a trance.
In retrospect, I realize that the title of the film itself invoked the task that lay ahead of me. I know that the persona poems do not truly require self-erasure; more often, we, the writer, slip ourselves like a shadow on top of our subjective interpretation of another person. But that night, I needed to rub away some conscious layer of ego to write seven short paragraphs, this one-page narrative poem.
After I finished typing, I did one final Google query for the artist’s name in Japanese, just out of curiosity. I was surprised to find that I could read the words—they were in my first tongue, Chinese, or the characters otherwise known as kanji.
Yayoi is not an uncommon woman’s name in Japan, but Kusama is infrequently seen. I titled the poem after that family name. Yayoi Kusama (草間, 彌生) literally translates as "between the grass, full extensive life." She was exactly what I needed.