Behind the Words: Daryl Muranaka

Posted by on Sep 12, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Daryl Muranaka

Daryl Muranaka is a poet and a martial artist who has, in his words, “lived as a minority, as part of a majority, and also as a foreigner.”  His poem “Auntie’s Laugh” appeared in Spry’s issue 06. We sat down to talk about surprise, how his martial arts and poetry practices influence each other, and how difference can challenge and inspire. 

Kristy Harding: One of the things I really appreciate about “Auntie’s Laugh,” the poem you published in Spry, is the way you play with surprise–the surprise of her laugh but also the surprise of finding exuberant life in herself when her husband “wears decrepitude/like a badge of honor.” I’ve noticed that there’s a theme in your work of life appearing in scenes of decrepitude and visa versa, usually in a startling way. Is this a reflection of beliefs of yours, or do you find yourself surprised when that happens in a poem?

Daryl Muranaka: I had to think about the idea of decrepitude in my work. It’s was never a conscious decision, but a natural emergence. This theme comes from two places: one is from a long-time admiration of the Japanese wabi/sabi aesthetic, and the other is now that I’m firmly middle-aged, I feel comfortable with that aesthetic. Often, I think, we believe we should fear or loathe aging. There is something important to keeping a young mindset, but also to be able to appreciate the journey you have to embrace that passage of time. I started the martial arts when I was 11. My body has changed many times, sometimes it’s gotten stronger, sometimes weaker. There are things I can’t do anymore and that’s something I’ve not just had to adapt to and accept, but also value. As I’ve done that, I’ve found many things around me to be both enlightening and startling. I try to bring those things into my poems.

In a post on your blog, you talked about the “surprise at arrival” that comes of finishing a poem that starts with words and imagery and is finished when you know what the poem has to tell you. You contrast this with what you w “poems of the will,” which begin with the knowledge of what you have to say. What kind of poem was “Auntie’s Laugh” for you? What was the process of writing it like?

Auntie’s Laugh was definitely a poem of inspiration and was the kind of poem that surprises when it arrives. The poem began when I heard my Auntie laughing at my parents’ anniversary party. She had said that my uncle, who was quite a bit older than her, was slowing down a lot, but managed to still get himself into town for his haircuts. It was both an expression of affection while chiding my uncle (in absentia) for his little bit of masculine vanity. In both of them, they had this surprising flare of energy that I wanted to memorialize. This poem was the kind that almost seemed to write itself. When I got the last part, when she covers her mouth, which I suppose was a reflexive action on her part, the idea of “catching the life that was leaping from her” felt like a throwaway bit but turned out to be the image the communicates that flare of life the best.

You’re a longtime practitioner of martial arts. How do your martial arts practice and your writing practice speak to (or spar with) each other?

My various practices are surprisingly symbiotic. They are all, in their own ways, physical and sensual, but rather than competing, they meld and inform each other. Weird, I know, and very hard to explain. Writing is physically taxing as well as mentally and emotionally challenging. It’s about translating experience from physical to imagistic and then back to physical again. Tai Chi Chuan is all about balance, not just physical, but also mental and emotional balance, being grounded in your here-and-now experience. And aikido while doing the same thing, is also about spontaneous expressions of creativity at the advanced levels. My martial arts are also surprising in that both arts are about using and strengthening your joints, not your muscles, and depend on suppleness and flexibility to generate power and stability. They are about pushing (moving forward) more so than pulling (moving backwards). In this way, they are exactly like poetry and writing. I find the practices to be really invigorating for my writing, supplying me with a lot of fresh energy and a constant source of physical sensations.

I’m curious about creativity in the context of Aikido. What is your experience of that? 

Aikido is an interesting experience. It has relatively few basic techniques but then opens up into freeform exercises that require a lot of physical improvisation. In many ways, it’s like a martial arts version of jazz. Some martial artists don’t necessarily like this idea of a martial art as “the art of expressing the human body,” but there is something to it. Aikido can, when done correctly, provide a way of expressing oneself that is both practical and deeply emotional. One of my main sensei, Dick Stroud, was an artist, a painter. He had a very powerful, vigorous approach to Aikido and painting. He was also a great lover of jazz. I learned a lot about the martial and the artistic from him. For both of us, I think, Aikido was a co-medium of expression for us. Another sensei, Sioux Hall, was a close friend to Stroud-sensei. Stroud-sensei always said she was a terrific artist too. Her approach was less forceful, but equally strong and was always pushing the limits of human movement.

As a former Bostonian, I may have cheered aloud at the end of “Haibun: Morning Commute” when you mentioned subway surfing. You’ve lived a lot of places–California, Hawaii, Japan, Boston. How have these diverse places touched your process and work? 

Thank you, I had fun with that one! Moving around is at the core of a lot of my work. These different places have definitely changed how I perceive life and work. I’ve lived as a minority, as part of a majority, and also as a foreigner. Those experiences changed how I see myself in the world but also how I view our country. I see where we are more clearly and the potential of what we can become if we have the will to do so. Those experiences have changed how I see the trajectory of my new works as I write them.

I’m not sure that travel has changed my process. I think those changes would have happened regardless of where I ended up. I suppose travel has changed how I read though. I had a roommate once who said that the world is too big and so he didn’t feel the need to expand into areas of literature and cinema that he couldn’t really get into. That’s not a concept that I believe in. Exposure is where we push out our limits. Even if we can’t master what we’re seeing, we can still appreciate them and move our imaginations into new spaces.

Can you give an example of something you’ve read that pushed out your limits?

What’s an example of something I’ve read that’s pushed my limits? 

That’s a tough one. A couple of years ago, I read a “The Shape of the Journey” by Jim Harrison. I had tried a few times to read it, but it never really clicked, but then a couple of years ago it really did. I’m not really sure what about the book pushed me, but it did. Not in the content, but something about the style, his use of length, the solidity of his poems challenged me. It’s strange because the way it pushed me was eventually to make my poems smaller, my lines thinner, and my images more and more compact. I’ve always like Jim Harrison’s writing and his writing has always pushed me, but when I think about, I don’t write like him at all nor am I interested in doing it. Isn’t that odd?

I just saw your Twitter, and I have one more question that I just have to ask: You say in your bio that you’re looking for the American warrior poet. Just in case the American warrior poet is reading this interview and doesn’t know their secret identity, what do you expect the American warrior poet to be like?

When I wrote that bio, the American warrior poet was more of an aspirational thing, kind of like the idea of a “Renaissance Man.” There was a notion of being able to do divergent things like martial arts and some sort of art well at the same time. I’m not sure I’m there. I’ve had some success in both. Some who specialize in one or the other are more successful than me, but that’s fine. Things happen slowly for me, and that’s a good thing.

Kristy Harding has an MFA from Goddard College and writes fiction, poetry, and essays. Her work has most recently appeared in White Noise and Ouija Boards: An Anthology of Ghosts and Hauntings from Three Drops Press (as Mara Colleen Banks). She is a native of New England currently living in the Pacific Northwest. Her blog and more conversations with interesting people can be found here.