Naoko Fujimoto: poet, artist and the Japanese machine industry

I met Naoko at a poetry reading in an Irish pub in South Bend, IN. After the reading, we learned that we both lived in Chicago and decided we should meet in Chicago next time and save ourselves the two hour drive. She is a dazzling poet and in this interview shares a lot of insight into a writer’s life. You can find out more about Naoko and her writing and art on her blog

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But first a little bio: Naoko was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan. She came to America as an exchange student at Indiana University South Bend. There, she received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English. Currently, she works as a sales assistant in the Japanese machine industry to support her artistic pursuits.

Tell us, what do you write?

I write poetry and personal essays. My poetry is currently focused on the Japanese earthquake and following nuclear disaster. Before the earthquake happened, my focus was on war. My grandfather was in the navy in Hiroshima during World War II. He was a very quiet person; however, once a while, he rushed to speak about what he saw when the atomic bomb exploded. As Japanese poet, I have a passion to preserve how people live through those ongoing obstacles.  For my personal essays, I used to be a columnist in Indiana University South Bend’s college newspaper. The column series was called “Empty Suitcase.” The essays were about how an Asian exchange student survived American college life with a fork & knife over chopsticks. You may wonder, but they were not food critiques— though— I wrote about twizzler-astic experiments. Now I occasionally write personal essays for my blog.

Can you share a little about your writing process? 

I write everyday with a pen & paper and on the computer. My very first draft is written with both Japanese and English mixed in a notebook. I carry the notes everywhere like a yellow comfort blanket— just like a Linus from Snoopy. Once I am ready to formally write down a poem, I type it in English. For the final process, my husband proofreads my poem. He is a full-time industrial editor; however, we sometimes fight over his word choices, fixing former grammar, and comma rules. I scream, “You are destroying my poem!” even though he is right.

Who are the writers you return to for inspiration?

I like reading traditional literature and philosophic science articles in Japanese. Soseki Natsume (famous Japanese writer, 1867-1916) and Takeshi Yoro (doctor of anatomy at Tokyo Univ., 1937 – current) are my favorite authors. Natsume’s writing is funny in a kooky way even though he is writing about death. His sense of humor is like a ray of light in life. His writing teaches me that I cannot forget “hope” even though I am writing about tragedy. I read Yoro’s books when I need to think outside “common” sense. When I write a poem, I should be very flexible in American, Japanese, and other cultures. I want to write something that I can only create.  I also like “Firstborn” by Louise Glück, “Rose” by Li-Young Lee, “Internal West” by Priscilla Becker, “Rising” by Farrah Field.

So tell us more about being what you do for a living. 

I work as an inside sales support and translator in a Japanese-American company. I graduated in a horrible economic situation. All my college friends, including my husband, had really difficult times finding a job. Fortunately, I found a job through a Japanese agency and was hired.  For a long time I doubted my decision— should I be a starving artist?— However, I concluded that it is very important to have a secure environment financially and emotionally. It has been three years since graduation and I am finally happy where I am in my life.

However, it is tough to keep working in an office environment for artists or anybody; even though, I am paid with benefits. When I am upset, I try to think that I am in a business school with a full scholarship and allowance. I actually have learned a lot about business manners and rules— how to communicate with customers, decide work priorities, and have presentations with clear pronunciation! I am really thankful for my bosses. They understand my artistic characteristic and deal with me.

That business knowledge will help me when I become an established poet later.  Currently, I do not have any books; however, I want my readers to be happy when I sell my books. I would like to read my poems with proper pronunciation. And most importantly, I would like to entertain people through my art.

I recently opened a little art shop on Etsy.  I draw with soft pastels and colored pencils along with my poems. In addition, I am thinking to have a poetry and music reading concert again with a Russian-Estonian pianist sometime in the spring. We had a poetry concert about the Japanese tsunami last June in South Bend, IN.

For my dreams, I would like to create a poetry-musical-concert-theater-reading. I do not know how I am going to create one, but it is super-fun to think about that!

Thank you for sharing this insight and inspiration, Naoko. A mix-media art night sounds awesome. Keep up posted on this dream! 

I think Naoko makes an important point about whether it is nobler to be a starving artist or to create a stable, financially responsible lifestyle for yourself. Virginia Woolf weighed in on this conversation in A Room of One’s Own when she wrote, 

All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write …

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