Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Blogterview with Tim Geaghan, Gogyohka Poet

This article is the first in a series of interviews with People I Know who are Doing Cool Things.

When I was a freshman at Harvey Mudd College, I took a class from an insane graduate student named Tim Geaghan. His class on American literature during the Cold War introduced me to such amazing books as Nabokov’s Lolita and Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Tim had a unique relationship with his students, often coming out to the dorms to read Faulkner and Ginsberg to us on Friday afternoons. At the end of the semester, we went to his house and helped him pack a U-Haul truck full of stuff so he and his girlfriend Olivia and roommate John could move to Brokelyn. I mean Brooklyn.

But that was then, and this is now. Even though Tim and I are both out of the Inland Empire, we have kept in touch, most recently through our respective blogs. On Tim’s blog, most of his posts these days are Gogyohka, a Japanese form of poetry, which piqued my curiosity. I asked Tim if he was willing to be interviewed about Gogyohka on my blog, which is visited weekly by literally TENS of readers. The interview, which was originally conducted on Gchat, has been edited for clarity.

Claire: OK, let's start out with a question that has been plaguing me for awhile. How do you pronounce Gogyohka?

Tim Geaghan: All the g's are hard, as in "good." It's four syllables long, so: "Go-gee-oh-ka." That's actually the #1 asked question from people.

Claire: Ah, great! So, when people ask you to describe Gogyohka, how do you respond?

Tim Geaghan: Usually I start with Haiku, since most people know what Haiku is. Then I got to Tanka, which is just 5 line Haiku, with syllables patterns 5/7/5/7/7. Gogyohka is just free verse Tanka. The lines should be short, but there are no syllable restrictions. Also, you can write about whatever you want. Traditionally in Tanka you have to include a seasonal reference and you're not supposed to talk openly about your feelings. Not so with Gogyohka. The word itself translates into "five-line poetry." So five lines is really the only rule. Enta, it's creator, calls Gogyohka "a small door that opens into a wider world."

Claire: So how did you discover Gogyohka?

Tim Geaghan: By discovering Enta! Enta Kusakabe, along with Elizabeth Phaire, the then director of the American Gogyohka Society, held a reading/lecture about Gogyohka at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as part of their Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) back in May of this year. The experience moved me deeply, so my special lady friend Olivia bought me a book by Enta, which he signed to me, and that night I read it and began writing. The next day I posted a blog about the experience and got a comment later that afternoon from "The American Gogyohka Society." It was Elizabeth! She said she and Enta enjoyed my post and Enta wanted to meet with me before he left for Japan. So I ate lunch for three hours with the two of them and have been writing and in touch with Enta ever since. It's kind of fairy tale actually, and hard to believe as true when I write it out.

Claire: Wow, that IS a fairy tale! What about this form of poetry drew you in so well? Were you much of a poet before this?

Tim Geaghan: I'd been writing poetry since I was 15, and took poetry workshops as an undergraduate. But never really thought of seriously or wrote it regularly. It's weird--I wrote long, long lines for a period of nearly 10 years up to the point I discovered Gogyohka. I think it was the relief of doing something brief and immediate, the appeal of condensing a spontaneous moment into a lasting impression, that hooked me, at least in part. I also like that 5th line, the fact that it has an odd number of lines. I'd always liked to write sonnets, but sonnets are easy compared to Gogyohka, because in a five line poem, you have to write a couplet, resolve it, in one line! And it can be the 1st line, 3rd line, or 5th line. But I don't wanna get too technical...

Claire: On your blog, you seem to post new Gogyohka every day. Why/how do you write so much?

Tim Geaghan: Ha! That's a great question--well-timed. Just last night I was trying to reckon how many I had written so far, in the past six months. The estimate is at about 500--crazy! I once wrote:

I write these
every day
I can't stop
I don't know why
but it feels good

and it does. Why is hard. But how is easy. I write them in the shower, or at night, when my brain is calming down. It's not a big investment of time, and it's a great way to sort out all the emotionally significant observations and experiences I have in the course of a day, to figure out what's important, to come back to myself and the world in a way that's not driven by ok what did i get done today. It's the most anti-neurotic form of writing I've ever done. I wrote a novel. It was agony. But I finished it, gritting my teeth. And I've written short stories--again, total nose to the grindstone experience. But these--I can pop off three or four before even putting pants on. So I do, and it just so happens meaningful stuff happens all the freaking time!

Claire: Like literary therapy, I suppose.

Tim Geaghan: Eh, sort of. Enta talks a lot about the emotional benefits of Gogyohka. We all have a central axis, the core of who we are, and Gogyohka helps us access that. When we do, stress dissipates, because we are able to see what's important and what isn't. Stress usually is the result of not knowing what's important. Anyway, apparently he's gone into cancer wards and helped people live better lives before they die.

Claire: Can you share with me one or two or however many of your favorite poems that you've written?

Tim Geaghan: Here's one I wrote after the National Park PBS special:
You can kill
the wolf
but you can't kill
fear of the wolf
inside you

Here's one I wrote after the NYC marathon last Sunday:
Gospel choir singing so hard
in front
of the Baptist Church
even white boys on the avenue
have to smile

Here's a New York one I know you like:
There are six million people living in Brooklyn
not one
And if he keeps acting like that
he's going to meet them
real quick

That's a sassy one! Here's the best one I ever wrote, which Enta published in the August issue of his Magazine:

The corn tassels
blowing softly
in the wind of the Plains
grow higher
on the bones of the buffalo

That one and the wolf one are linked, somehow, despite being written far apart. It is also linked to a poem by Enta:

It wasn't the Americans
Who dropped the bomb
It was the consciousness of the Era
If the Japanese had had it
We would have dropped it too

Claire: Those are some cool ones, thanks for sharing. So I hear you are writing a Fulbright application on Gogyohka?

Tim Geaghan: You hear right! I'm done, actually. In the mail. We'll find out if I got past the first round January 2010. I'm hoping to spend a year in Japan "walking near" Enta and having him be my poetic sensei in the traditional Japanese sense. Also hoping to learn about the Japanese "Membership Society" model of writing poetry, whereby folks who want to write in a given form submit monthly dues to help run a magazine and monthly workshops and visiting lectures. It's very different from how advertising or non-profit subsidies works to support print magazines in America. With so much poetry tanking in America, it'd be nice to see how a society makes it an integral part of their lives. 500,000 people are registered to write Gogyohka in Japan! While there I would also have the added responsibility of being "English Advisory Editor" for Enta's magazine, as well as lead monthly workshops for folks who want to write in English. The whole thing would be English only.

Claire: I wish you much luck. It seems like the Gogyohka movement is quite alive in Japan. What is it like in America?

Tim Geaghan: Thank you. If the movement in Japan is a sturdy oak then the movement in America is barely a sprouted acorn, sadly. It's very new, but lately a lot is happening. The American Gogyohka Society is one year old, and planning to have Enta back in the States next Spring, with workshops, readings, lectures--the whole bit. I just did a reading in Westchester County with Peter Fiore, who published the first book of American Gogyohka Poetry. We're doing another reading up there in a couple weeks, followed by "Gogyohka Nite" (I hate the misspeling, but what can you do?) which will feature about 10 poets at Cornelia St. Cafe in the Village in Manhattan. Other than that, I'm rolling out a social networking site devoted entirely to Gogyoha in the next few days, which will include events listings, blog posts, and most importantly, a place for folks to share and comment upon Gogyohka. It's at We're also working on doing some workshops at the Brooklyn Public Library. I'd like to do one with kids through the children's library, one with adults through the main branch, and one with seniors through an arm of BPL called "Services to the Aging."

Claire: That sounds like a lot of things.

Tim Geaghan: Yeah, I'd call this thing my second job, but that would imply a paycheck.

Claire: Well, our time is almost up (because, you know, we have schedules). Is there anything else you'd like to say about Gogyohka...or anything else for that matter?

Tim Geaghan: I hope everyone feels compelled to give it a whirl. One of the best things about the form is its accessibility and availability. Anyone can write it. Peter Fiore called his Gogyohka collection Text Messages, which reminds us that you could text Gogyohka to each other if you wanted to. Anyway, it's very compatible with our lives these days, so I hope folks feel compelled to check it out--talk to me and I can hook you up with Enta's book. Good stuff! I think Gogyohka is like twitter poetry, as goofy as that sounds. Poetry with a 140 character limit, that sort of thing.

Claire: That makes a lot of's quick and whatever you want it to be.

Tim Geaghan: Pretty much. It's easy to write Gogyohka, though it's hard to write a good one, and it's not all "arty" and intimidating. I like that about it...


By five lines, Claire concludes with

A haiku instead