10 Questions for W. Todd Kaneko
- By Abby MacGregor
I am afraid that all my ancestors
have gathered my words like birds
collect hair from the dead
for nesting, an abundance of silence,
whole spools of it ready to tether
me to the trees.
—from “Minidoka Was a Concentration Camp in Idaho”, Winter 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 4)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I began writing as a fiction writer, so most of my early work is prose. I was infatuated with form and was always trying to write something that was formally adventurous. Like, I wrote a story in flash-forwards because I wanted to experiment with exposition and time. I wrote a story that spanned a whole decade because I wanted to play with lists and compression. Eventually, I got tired and just wanted to write a good story. I think that’s where I am now with poetry—my early poems tried to privilege some kind of flashy play with form (list poems, serial poems, fake haibuns) but nowadays, I am more interested in just finding a good poem at the end of the day.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I’ve learned more about writing poetry by reading poetry than anything else, and as such, I’m greatly influenced by nearly everything I read. I’ve probably learned the most from reading Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Transit and Fuel, and Kim Addonizio’s What Is This Thing Called Love.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I like that this question implies that I am no longer young! (It’s okay—I’m not.) When I was a kid, I wanted to be a professional wrestler. Specifically, I wanted to be Ric Flair. It was lost on me that I would likely end up working a crappy Kung-Fu or Samurai gimmick instead because wrestling is so full of racist tropes, and I didn’t want to believe that I would never be big enough to be a wrestler.
What inspired you to write this piece?
My father and his parents were incarcerated at Minidoka, a concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. I find myself writing a lot about Minidoka because it’s a shadowy part of my family history, an awful point of origin for my family that no one particularly wants to claim. And because poems will be one way for me to talk to my son about our family history too.
Also, I remember talking to someone at an editorial meeting who said that readers felt like they just didn’t know enough about Minidoka to really understand what my manuscript of poems was about. So I tried to write a poem that just spells out for people the gravity of Minidoka on our lives.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Like I said, Minidoka finds its way into a lot of my writing. But lately, I’ve found that America has been a big influence on my writing, both real and imagined, as well as where the real and imagined intersect.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I do like to listen to music while writing, when I can. It’s always something without words to nullify all the noise in my head. Sometimes I listen to jazz, sometimes I listen to electronic music. I’ve tried writing with ambient music, but it just makes me sleepy. I try to aim for that spot where I don’t notice that the CD player has shut off or the playlist has ended. Like, if I can get to that point where I’m in the zone and don’t notice the silence, I’m in a good place because the noise in my head has been replaced by the words I’m trying to coax on to the page. That being said, now that I have a child, I don’t always have a say in whether or not I get to listen to music while I write—sometimes I’m just trying to tap something out on my phone real quick before he finishes watching an episode of Paw Patrol.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I used to have rituals and traditions—coffee, an ideal space, a particular time of day—but I ultimately decided that these things really just get in my way, particularly now that I have a child, time is precious. Now, I just try to squeeze writing in wherever I can. I write poems in coffee shops and at my desk, but I’ve also written poems in bathrooms, in my car, on my phone in the dark while my son is trying to fall asleep. I used to ritualize sitting down to write because that felt like that romantic thing that writers are supposed to do. Now, I have a practice of stealing time to write wherever I can.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I’m lucky to be married to a writer, so often, she is my first reader. But I am also lucky to have a writing group comprised of some of the smartest, canniest, and most eloquent poets I know. Truth be told though—a lot of my poems just go out into the world without having other people’s eyes on them first. I know this isn’t the ideal practice for most people, but it happens more often than I’d like it to.
What are you working on currently?
I am currently working on a sequence of lyric essays about professional wrestling. Also, I am trying to corral a bunch of poems into a new manuscript. Maybe they are really two new manuscripts of poems—I don’t know yet.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. When I am done, I will try reading it to my son, who liked listening to me read poems from her book Lucky Fish when he was a baby. I’m hoping he still likes her poems like I do.
W. TODD KANEKO is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies, co-author of Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology, and his poems and prose can be seen in many journals and anthologies. A Kundiman fellow, he is coeditor of the online literary journal Waxwing and lives in Grand Rapids, MI, where he teaches creative writing at Grand Valley State University.