Poems are essentially virtual reality to me. You cannot touch the words. You cannot see the faces behind the voices. Printed letters or recorded sounds are only the media of a poem, but not the poem itself. Poems are created each time you read or hear them anew and afresh in your consciousness. Poetry involves what cognitive scientists call 'qualia', sensations evoked by language but can never be fully expressed by it.
Poetry is a paradox. Even if two people share a poem and appreciate its beauty the same way, they can never fully deliver their thoughts and sentiments about it to each other. You’d always feel that there is something more to say, something left unsaid after you’ve tried to describe it or the experience of reading it. Likewise, you’d never know exactly how the others have experienced it. In this sense, to experience poetry is to experience a kind of solitude. “A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep” to use W. H. Auden’s phrase. How peculiar it is, though, that this solitude is brought to our mind by a total stranger who may be far away in a foreign country, or even long dead. Why does it penetrate through our consciousness and reach the innermost core of our heart? And how intimate and real that sensation is!
Poems are virtual reality in a sense they are both virtual and real. No wonder they can live in both the cyberspace and the real world. I have been involved for years in an on-line poetry magazine called Poetry International Web (PIW), which is a virtual entity of Poetry International Rotterdam, one of the oldest poetry festivals in Europe. As Japanese national editor, I have been posting contemporary Japanese poems, in the original and in English translation, along with biographies, bibliographies and introductory essays. Video and audio files of the featured poets are also uploaded from time to time.
Most of the editorial work for PIW is done online by e-mail and via the CMS (contents management system), except once a year when the editors meet face-to-face at the festival in June, when the longest days of the mid-summer can be enjoyed in the northern city of Rotterdam. Editors from around the world come together, and see the familiar faces of the festival organizers as well as the invited poets of the year.
We immerse ourselves in poetry day and night for a week, which creates a tremendous atmosphere of friendship, celebration, and jubilation. What makes this festival experience unique and mesmerizing is the sophisticated use of digital technology throughout the festival period. Almost all the events are live-streamed and archived. You see the poets reading their poems on the stage and on your cell phone at the same time. You see the image of yourself from a few hours ago on a big screen in the main hall. You catch up hours later on the events you missed. Actual life is interlaced with virtual reality and the distinction between the two blurs as you live through the festival. You soak into this fusion so much that the everyday life you left behind starts to seem somewhat surreal.
Most of all, I feel very at home in Rotterdam, more so than in any other places in the world. Perhaps it is because I do not have a place that I can truly call home. I lived in Osaka, Japan, my birthplace, for just the first four years of my life and ever since, I have been constantly moving from one place to another, and have spent the past 30 years or so abroad. If there were a place that I could call my hometown, I'd probably feel just a guest, welcomed and accepted but regarded as a guest nonetheless.
I believe my apparently personal sentiments about my Rotterdam experience reflect something fundamental and universal about poetry and life. We cannot live in poetry forever even if we wish to. Sooner or later, we have to close the book and go back to mundane reality and attend to real matters of life such as love and money. Those who cannot live without poetry must go back and forth between poetry and real life. A poetry festival, to me, is a precious, exceptional venue where there is reconciliation between poetry and life: an otherwise impossible truce between the two mutually exclusive forces. It is a rewarding occasion for the poets who have been in solitude to enjoy communion with one another.
Makoto Ooka, a prominent Japanese poet who passed away in April this year, once pointed out that the modus operandi of traditional Japanese poetry is a dynamism between two conflicting mindsets: one that is willing to let go of one's ego and create harmony with others, and another that pursues ultimate solitude, what he called a sort of "party" attended by "lonely hearts" — Utage to Koshin.
I believe Ooka's concept holds true to this day. Any poetry festival, or even a small poetry reading, is a party where the lonely hearts gather and create a temporary community. For the party to be creative and original, each heart must bring its own solitude. The festival becomes a city of its own, unlike any other on earth, a city of paradox where the virtual and the real merge. It is this city of poetry that I call my true home.