December 2003, two contemporary Japanese musicians perform the works of the Japanese poets Nîkuni Seîchi and Kitasono Katue. An interest in Kitasono leads me to Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning - The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1901-1978) by John Solt, a major study of Kitasono, one of the most influential Japanese experimental poets from the 1920s to 1970s. In his introduction he mentions Sagawa Chika as another poet he may have chosen to study instead, and I want to know more.
Sagawa has no books in print. 350 copies of her collected poems, Sagawa Chika Shishû, were published in 1936, the year of her death (from stomach cancer, at the young age of 25). The full collection of her works, Sagawa Chika Zenshishû, was printed in 1983 in an edition of 550. There is, however, a website by a young woman named Ririka, whose interest in Sagawa inspired her to purchase a copy of the rare book and transcribe most of the contents, posting them on her personal website. I first read the poems here, and they are beautiful, painful, brilliant.
Some refer to Sagawa as the first Japanese female modernist. Born and raised in Hokkaido, the seventeen-year-old Sagawa arrived in Tokyo in 1928, a time and place where experimental Japanese poets were translating, and devouring, the latest developments in French theory and literature, with much interest in Dada and Surrealism. No doubt this had an effect on Sagawa's work, but equally, or perhaps more notable, is the fact that she had translated a considerable number of works from English, by authors including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf — in fact her first published works were translations, not poems. This being said, her work, which does not change too much in style over the six short years in which she wrote, displays a sensitivity and intellect that is all her own.
Sagawa's publication history, as well as the eulogies recorded in her collected writings, attest to the great respect she had garnered from some of the most influential poets of the time, including Nishiwaki Junzaburô, Hagiwara Sakutarô, and Kitasono Katue. However, she has been almost completely written out of Japanese literary history, with the exception of a handful of essays written in the last twenty years. In January I was especially pleased to meet Janine Beichman, a great Yosano Akiko scholar, who was currently translating an essay by Arai Toyomi which gives an overview to the very unusual circumstances that encouraged women such as Sagawa Chika and Ema Shôko to write — a rare occasion in the history of Japanese literature. In the book Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism, Miryam Sas brings to our attention two female surrealists, including Ema Shôko. The translations of Ema's poems included in this section are by Miryam Sas, reprinted with permission from her book.
When speaking of my projects, someone once said to me, “So you seem to be interested in minor poets, eh?” The woman who responded mutely is, unfortunately, the quiet Japanese woman that lurks inside of me, despite my best intentions. The ‘minor' poet Sagawa Chika, however, made a tremendous contribution to Japanese literature, and Japanese readers seem to be slowly coming to realize this for themselves.