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Exploring Japanese literature translations and applying their teachings to your own poetry writing

For the next two months, RHINO Poetry will focus on translation themes. Naoko Fujimoto (August) and Noh Anothai (September) will be navigators of the forums. They are open to the public, no translation skills required.

With Naoko Fujimoto, we are going to learn three genres of Japanese literature (Zuihitsu, Waka/Haiku, & Renga). After reading translation pieces such as those by Donald Keene, we will have a couple of writing exercises adapting Japanese writing methods. 

NOTE: This is a part of RHINO Virtual Poetry Forum Outline.

Style: Zuihitsu (随筆)

Writer/Poet: Sei Shōnagon (清少納言)

Book: The Pillow Book (枕草子)

Section: The first four paragraphs of “Hateful Things” (にくきもの)

Translator: Ivan Morris

One is in a hurry to leave, but one's visitor keeps chattering away. If it is someone of no importance, one can get rid of him by saying, "You must tell me all about it next time"; but, should it be the sort of visitor whose presence commands one's best behaviour, the situation is hateful indeed.


One finds that a hair has got caught in the stone on which one is rubbing one’s inkstick, or again that gravel is lodged in the inkstick, making a nasty, grating sound.


Someone has suddenly fallen ill and one summons the exorcist. Since he is not at home, one has to send messengers to look for him. After one has had a long fretful wait, the exorcist finally arrives, and with a sigh of relief one asks him to start his incantations. But perhaps he has been exorcizing too many evil spirits recently; for hardly has he installed himself and begun praying when his voice becomes drowsy. Oh, how hateful!


A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.

Zuihitsu (随筆) is a genre of Japanese literature consisting of loosely connected personal essays. Successful zuihitsu has a rigid theme introducing the author’s fragmented/random episodes as a spine. Some zuihitsu is very short, like flash fiction. Some zuihitsu mixes the lengths of its paragraphs.


Writing Exercise 1:

Write a first draft of ten paragraphs of zuihitsu

Theme: COVID-19 Things

I am going to time each paragraph. When I say, “Move to the next paragraph”, you are going to start writing a new paragraph with a new idea within the theme. With the timed writing windows, you will have random lengths of paragraphs.



#1) 1 minutes

#2) 30 seconds

#3) 10 seconds

#4) 10 seconds

#5) 2 minutes

#6) 30 seconds

#7) 2 minutes

#8) 10 seconds

#9) 5 seconds

#10) 1 minutes

How do I choose materials and color schemes?

It is important to know why, or have a reason for choosing a material. Like the previous exercise, we observe and choose material for our particular graphic poems, which will add layers to the final composition.

Art and poetry should have creative freedom; however, too much randomness may confuse audiences and dilute the art.

Materials should support its own theme and project. The smoothness or roughness of a particular fabric may change the way you present certain emotions with it. It is the same with everything from paint type, brush tips, pencils, plastics, photos, pictures, and anything else you use in the creation process.

Some people tell me that I am lucky because I can visit Japan to purchase these fabulous papers, which is true. But I use many papers and almost any material available to me, including the color printed coupons in grocery store receipts, bits of an old towel, and shredded Sallie Mae letters.

You may like reviewing “The Sallie” in the Jet Fuel Review e-book. For the piece, I used the real bill-collecting letters (they are scattered around the graphic poem), melting ice-cream (water color & crayon), gift-wrapping paper, and pen & colored pencils.

This is the original written poem. "The Sallie" was written after reading "The Dictators" by Pablo Neruda.


No particular odor stayed in their living rooms:
cold plates, half empty bottles, and stomach aches.
Between Moll Flanders lay the carpet, in their frozen
bank accounts, their soiled orange aprons.
Their bosses said, “Before I became manager…”, and griped.
In their places, all the bills are like suicide notes.
The silent letters redoubled, a moment
spanning after graduations, sucking
these millennials’ next thousand months. Slaves of
………….the top 1%,
their loans were perpetual, and added, like puddles on ice-cream,
forcing their bodies on August 3rd, the mirage on asphalt,
and forklift by forklift in the warehouse,
five hours’ work,
their lunch boxes filled with concrete
and near American dreams. 


I use old greeting cards, magazines, candy wrappers, toilet papers, basically anything around me I can modify to fit my work. I also use my respected poet’s cover-art.

You may like to see the Gallery of Graphic Poems.

Choosing materials can be a lot fun. Probably, this is my favorite part of the process. Creating graphic poems are always a pleasure to me because it can create very festive and colorful experiences in my brain.

One simple way to improve observing habits after graphic poetry exercise

Observing our own surroundings may be overwhelming as we often have so many choices, so I want to introduce my process of graphic poetry technique to manage this habit.

I had the chance to ask college students at Oakton Community College, “If you are creating a graphic love poem, which washi paper would you choose? And why?”

This is a quick exercise for them, so I pre-selected two papers; however, this process will work for any paper and materials because the materials are just for priming the brain, like how a cogwheel starts running better after being lubricated.

This is an important point for awareness, as we will eventually notice more from our surroundings in order to create graphic poems; and perhaps, for other creative activities as well.

I also ask students to finish a simple sentence, like “Love is…”. The open-ended answers will help to understand what they are finding to be the core of these materials.

Students who pick up the blue origami responded:
Love is like the ocean. It has its ups and downs.
Love is like fish. It is sometimes cold.

Students who pick up the red origami responded:
Love makes me happy, like spring flowers.
Love is a floating feeling.

I am so happy that the students observe details despite the patterns on the origami paper being foreign to them. And then I asked for the reason for their responses.

Love is like the ocean. It has its ups and downs.
.................Because the design looks like waves. And love is not stable.
Love is like fish. It is sometimes cold.
.................After twisting the origami ninety degrees, it looks like fish scales. I like that fish have freedom (except farmed fish, and my pet goldfish), but also cold.
Love makes me happy, like spring flowers.
................White and pink flowers, and green leaves remind me of spring. The red background is like a flaming love.
Love is a floating feeling.
................The golden Asian fans remind me of the floating feeling of love.

Even though this was such a short process, students understood this concept very quickly. They selected a paper and described their choices well.

The next step is to find and select your own “two origami papers” for each graphic poem. The more advance the scope of the project, the more options can be presented. But keep it limited, or it will defeat the point of the exercise.

(You may be interested in reading: Then why did I use toilet paper?)

To be continued.

Is it difficult to have divergent thinking?

Thinking outside the box may be tough if it isn’t natural for someone, like an individual used to a defined professional or repetitive environment for a long time.

Like my mother, who was a nutritionist. She studied the latest theories in her college and taught my sister and I how important it was to choose what we ate.

For her, breakfast was crucial. Through my childhood, we had a picture-perfect breakfast every morning. This habit literally ingrained in my bones and muscles.

When I was an office worker, I had to leave every day at six-thirty to catch the morning sales meetings; therefore, I woke up at five-thirty and had breakfast around six. I had never skipped breakfast as my mother had taught me.

Then I started having problems: sudden stomachaches, bad digestion, and my atopic dermatitis (eczema) became worse and worse. It took me a while to figure out why I was becoming sick. I had never imagined that my breakfast caused these unwelcome troubles.

A 15 to 18-hour fast was introduced by my doctors. It basically skipped a breakfast to support and recover my healthy digestion system.

When I told my mother about this treatment she grew upset. But I decided to stick with the fasts to see if they could improve my health. If they didn’t work, I would simply go back to having a daily breakfast.

A 15 to 18-hour fast worked for me well. I still occasionally have breakfast together with my family and friends, but the majority of the time, I do not eat 15 to 18 hours after dinner. My mother is a pro-breakfast nutritionist, but this is her belief and it works for her health. My body is different and requires a different regimen.

This experience is very similar to my graphic poetry project. When I started creating graphic poems, feedback was generally of one of two divided opinions:

“I love what you do. It is so inspiring. I will try this.”
“Your graphic poems are not poetry. They should not be considered poems.”

These represent their preferences and how they define art and poetry, and come from their experiences and beliefs. To accept or reject graphic poetry is totally up to them. However, I strongly believe that creating graphic poems, if nothing else, is beneficial to one’s own editing skills. It even has the potential to inspire different ways to approach writing poems or observing one’s own surroundings.

(You may enjoy reading my past articles about How Graphic Poetry Helps Us Progress the Story Telling Technique and the Creative Process of Its Own Editing)

To be continued…

Video Poem about my Proxima Centauri-b Project

I posted a video poem about my Proxima Centauri-b project on Twitter. This is a fifty second video, so please visit my account whenever you have time.

Proxima Centauri-b is an exoplanet orbiting in the habitable zone of its red dwarf star, and it fascinates me, along with ants and their behavior. These themes have been my obsession.

Last year, after participating in several poetry events in Los Angeles, I packed a table cloth from our RHINO Poetry booth without knowing it contained a queen ant and was soon to be infested.

After I came back home, I started seeing ants on my walls, kitchen floor, and dining table…small, black insects chillingly crawled all over. At first, I did not kill them in light of my calm Buddhist spirit. I thought that they were passing through between the seasons and eventually they would go outside and dig deep in the garden.

However, they were comfortable between the folds of the RHINO table cloth, eating its paints (some yellow-brown holes shown like meteorite burns) on the stair handrail next to unopened mail and magazines. They dexterously laid eggs in the notch.

I was frozen (I hate swarming little things). It took me a while to use the vacuum cleaner, but the ants survived the turbo sucking mode, so I grabbed the table cloth and tossed it into the super high heat tumbler dryer.

Amazingly, they walked with unsteady steps like a toddler. I shut the door and turned it on for fifty minutes more.

And they still survived.

It took me several weeks to contain the situation. Through the battle with them, I learned a lot about the insect, and also learned that red dwarf stars are unpredictable and would randomly wipe out surrounding potential life with giant flares. As I learned more about these obsessions, I felt depressed thinking of human frailty and the rampant growth of other organisms, like ants.

So, I thought that it may be fun to add animation and music to the poems for my own cheering. I used a public domain movie, "Dancing On The Moon, A Max Fleischer Color Classic", and added a simple music track inspired by Mozart.

Indeed, summer is the perfect time to play the piano, and I am thankful to my parents for supporting me with numerous years of lessons. Although I could not become a professional, this is my life-long hobby. I will post more video poems on my Twitter, so stay tuned.

Can a graphic poem have a line break?

Recently I had a chance to interview Beth McDermott about graphic poetry. In the interview, she has great insights: such as what kind of visual textbooks she uses, what are the advantages or disadvantages of studying graphic/visual poems, etc. This is a ten-minute audio interview. If you have the time, please visit my homepage to listen to it.

In her interview, she mentioned her thoughts of line breaks in written poems. She enjoys finding surprising line breaks on a page. Then I thought, can a graphic poem also have a line break?

I enjoy placing awkward, yet surprising line breaks in my written poems too. I consider composing some line breaks to alter the tempo of words and vivid images. “Beneath the Sand” is one of my newer poems, which was published in Diode Poetry Journal. In the poem, I played with line breaks and sections a lot. The following picture is an example me wanting to use the sound “of” repeatedly without too much repetition. If you would like to read the whole poem, please visit their website.

It will take a lifetime to master line breaks; however, I learned two things about it over ten years. When I was a graduate student, I used so many awkward line breaks because I personally believed that it was a cool thing to do at the time. I felt like composing my own music of words.

Then, I took one workshop with Lina Ramona Vitkauskas who said that my line breaks were confusing. A fellow student in the workshop agreed, “Like a link of short sausages on paper”. That was my eye-opening moment of line breaks.

My two rules are now:
#1) Line breaks may not disturb and confuse readers
#2) Line breaks may not disturb the musicality or punctuation of phrases

My rules may be too simple, but I always keep these in mind when I write. So now, do I purposely add line breaks in graphic poems?

My answer is yes (but may not be for all graphic poems).

I reviewed some of my graphic poems to find out how I adapted line breaks from their written source material. “From an Apartment” may be a good example for this investigation.

This graphic poem was made after the following original poem, which I wrote in graduate school at Indiana University South Bend over nearly ten years ago. This is indeed one of my earliest poems. (And you may see stubby line breaks in this poem too, like “stale/beer”.)



I walk. Sticky yellow
chewing gum is smashed
on the concrete curb. I smell stale
beer in a green
recycling box. Crows
observe me from the electric wire. My mother
watches them from the fifth floor. She shrieks.
I step back.
A bus honks at a cab. It carelessly
turns. I keep walking,
past the fountain of polished
granite. Yesterday’s newspaper
drowns in it.
I stride down the crosswalk
stepping only on the white
lines. Cars wait.
The drivers’ eyes follow me
like mannequins. I see
the subway station while crossing
the lawn in a park. I look at the trembling
camphor trees. Black street lamps are stuck
toward the cloudless sky. I step on
a dandelion. I grasp my one-way ticket.


The graphic poem was slightly different from the original poem. Like the poetry erasure technique, the original poem carefully scattered specific phrases or implied images. However, the line breaks are clearly there. Therefore, I removed the graphic part to see the line breaks more clearly.


Smashed sticky chewing gum;
I smell stale beer..........a recycling box,
crows, the electric wire
trembling camphor trees
buses honk..........yellow cabs.
The driver’s eyes follow me..........like mannequins.
Black street lamps stick..........toward the cloudless sky.
I tip toe the crosswalk
By the fountain of polished granite.
Yesterday’s newspaper..........drowns in it.

The graphic poem of “From an Apartment” has more poetic components than visual elements, and the line breaks play a big part of it. I will keep investigating theories of line breaks in poems and graphic poems. As you already know, each graphic poem communicates with a unique imprint from the poetic spectrum.

(You may also enjoy reading this article about the differences in the spectrum of visual and written pieces.)

It excites me to analyze the relationships between poetry and graphic poetry. Thank you very much for publishing “From an Apartment” in Glass: A Journal of Poetry.

Graphic Haiku Exercise

I am going to have some lectures for young artists in Japan and was (maybe still am) brainstorming over what I am going to do with my graphic poetry project. So I decided to do Graphic Haiku. I practiced this exercise with a couple of my friends.

In this exercise, we will know what our strongest sense is, such as the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch by picking one of the following haiku lines. We will also be aware of our weakest strength by what we do not pick. Graphic poetry already has the strongest faculties of sight obviously.

This exercise may be useful for your creative process if you have spare time, you may try it. My goal here is to have poets/writers (including myself) progress their own writing and editing skills though Graphic Poetry.

I am always excited to have young audiences. The other day, I received a thoughtful letter from a girl and it made me really happy to become her inspiration.

For my next several workshops, the majority of my audiences will be Japanese (once all the details are cleared, I will share the schedule), so I am going to use one of the most famous Haikus by Masaoka Shiki as an example.

These are 5–7–5 haiku format in Japanese. Here is my English translation, I am currently learning English Haiku by translating Crystal Simon’s works. As a contemporary English Haiku, there is no strict syllable rule. So, if I simply translate this haiku like a prose poem:

I am eating a piece of persimmon
while I am listening to its deep echoing bell
at a tea house near Hōryū-ji Temple.



Kaki kueba
Kanega narunari

In the exercise, I asked my friends to replace one line into a graphic element. The choices are:
Line #1) I am eating a persimmon
Line #2) at a tea house near Hōryū-ji Tample
Line #3) while I am listening to its deep echoing bell.

It is so interesting to observe how they chose the line, and I coincidently found some details.

For example, a friend who chose Line#1, she also likes writing and mentioning food & tastes in her works. In other words, there are many cuisines (tamale, blood orange, etc.) in her pieces. My other friend who chose Line#2, likes observing sounds & noises, so in her poems, she seems to control the tempo of her lines and words.

Though, this is my subjective observation, I think that I am seeing their strongest senses in terms of how they process their creative works.

I think that it is good to identify their strengths to remind them of the five main senses when they create art. They can also identify unwanted patterns or choices through this; for example, if she is always mentioning food in her pieces (and she is very good at it), she becomes aware of this pattern, so uses something new instead. I try to tell myself all the time, we would not like to be a one-trick pony. It is fantastic to become an expert of using a particular element, but it may become boring if it becomes a collection.

I am so excited to see varieties of Graphic Haiku by young artists. Last time, I observed their paintings of hydrangea, and they were all amazing. For this exercise, it will be a combination of words and images, so I cannot wait to see their works.

Thank you so much.

List of my books: Please visit here.

Then why did I use a toilet paper?

Recently, the Indianapolis Review accepted my super long (more than five meters), toilet-paper graphic poem! I was so happy that the editors supported my new challenge, which is how to adapt a long poem into a limited space of graphic poem.

In the last article, I wrote about how I cut 73% of the words from my written poem, “Thursday”, and created a graphic poem, “On the Black Hill.” For this one, the original written poem is obviously longer than “Thursday,” so I wanted to approach it differently.

The graphic poem, “Spaceflight Sonata P”, was adapted from "Spaceflight Sonata vol.1 & 2” (The Seattle Review, Issue 11) and these original poems are fourteen pages long. My new obsession is writing long poems. I thought that I am a very minimalist writer, but I found I liked writing longer poems as if playing sonatinas and sonatas, one after another on the piano.

“Spaceflight Sonata P” has elements of Egyptian culture and history. P also stands for papyrus, but I used toilet paper, ultra-soft & strong. I have been creating graphic poems inspired by the Japanese Emaki (picture-scroll) story telling method and learning from Midori Sano’s books.

Then why did I use a toilet paper?

With the traditional Emaki method, the artists can choose not only drawing particular scans, but also background papers and styles of calligraphy. Here is one of example where Midori Sano explains how the written words look rushed, almost like being on top of each another.

A summary of this Emaki is that Aoi no Ue (the first wife of Genji) is dying, so in building up the end of this chapter, the artist creates a dramatic effect though handwriting. The background paper is brown with a bit of gold, but it looks much gloomier if you observe background paper from other chapters.

When I read Midori Sano’s research, I though that this method may be a key element of adapting a long, written poem into a graphic poem.

"Spaceflight Sonata vol.1 & 2” contain multiple storylines about space, history, and the future (if you have spare time and money, please order the issue from Seattle Review). I think that human history may as well be written on toilet paper—frequently flushed away—before we learn from our decisions, despite how horrifying some were.

Therefore, I wanted to experiment with my storylines about “human history” being represented in writing on toilet paper. In this meaning, “Spaceflight Sonata P” has more visual emphasis than previous approaches. This method worked this time, but I may want to mix it up and have a more written emphasis on some future projects.

These on-going works also have visual elements that are stronger than the written portions. There is no right or wrong method here because a process (you may try to create one or several graphic poems) is like a workout. I think that poetic trial and error is the same as push-ups or squats building muscle.

But I can clearly say that my brain is stimulated when alternating my pieces between a spectrum of visual and written, which sharpens my senses to find other topics to write about. I love this feeling.

Choosing materials while thinking of reasons can be a lot fun. Probably, this is my favorite part of the process. Creating graphic poems are always a pleasure to me because it can create very festive and colorful experiences in my brain.

It is important to know why, or have a reason for choosing a material. Art and poetry should have creative freedom; however, I believe that they should be meaningful and explainable. And it should support its own theme and project.

(I love Q&As because I think the interaction is an important key to improving one’s writing/editing skills.)

The smoothness or roughness of a particular fabric may change the way you present certain emotions with it; exactly like the Emaki artists chose background papers and handwriting styles for each chapter of the “Tale of Genji.” It is the same with everything from paint type, brush tips, pencils, plastics, photos, pictures, and anything else you use in the creative process.

Some people tell me that I am lucky because I can visit Japan to purchase these fabulous papers, which is true. But I use many papers and almost any material available to me (look at the toilet paper graphic poem!), including the color printed coupons in grocery store receipts, bits of an old towel, and shredded Sallie Mae letters. I also use old greeting cards, magazines, candy wrappers, basically anything around me I can modify to fit my work. It is an inexpensive profession, indeed!

To be continued…

Why didn’t I write down whole poem in a graphic poem?

After my graphic poetry exhibition (thank you very much to those who visited. It was a wonderful success!), one of the audience members asked me a question, “Why didn’t you write down whole poem in a graphic poem?”

(I love Q&As because I think the interaction is an important key to improving one’s writing/editing skills.)

I am so glad that he asked me this question because this leads into my theme: Graphic Poetry=Trans.Sensory. The answer is “Yes, while I used a whole poem, it was wholly expressed with words. Some words were replaced with images.” Therefore, the audience can meld the words and images in their minds and mix the work’s graphical elements with their own internal manifestations.

But then he said, “I never knew I was allowed to write a poem like that.”

So, I told him about Japanese Emaki story telling technique. I have been studying Emaki (Japanese picture scroll) for a while now. Through my theme, I want my audience to transcend the boundaries of just the images shown and the images/emotions conjured from the words they read. They can exist at the same time in the same place, and this inspiration came from studying Emaki.

There are two fascinating books by Midori Sano. The books are educational, yet fun to learn about Emaki history and techniques.

In order to understand the emaki art, we must understand its goals and approach to storytelling (like what visual cues trigger emotions in the viewers). They did not want to show much emotion in the art itself because the style challenged the viewer to connect more subtle visual cues with the emotional beats of the written story. Therefore, all the characters show minimal actions. Here is one example scene from “Tale of Genji”.

(You may like reading a review of “Tale of Genji” in RHINO Reviews.)

This is one of many fantastic, yet crazy moments of emaki. This picture shows the majority of the chapter of “Kashiwagi”. When I first saw it, I did not understand how it represented the original text because there are six characters with the same face and clothes.

A. The princess
B. The Suzaku Emperor
C. Genji
D. Three ladies
E. Kashiwagi is not present in this picture.

A very brief summery; Kashiwagi falls in love with Genji’s super young wife, the Princess. She conceived his child (Kaoru), eventually Genji would know about their secret relationship. Therefore, the Princess decided to become a nun. Her father, the Suzaku Emperor, supports her decision.

According to Midori Sano’s research, these lines and rectangles signify how complicated the characters’ emotions are under the surface (like the sorrow triangle). Also, their minimum gestures, the choice of paints, foreground and background paper, and color details of the kimonos show all that is needed to convey the story.

When the audiences look at the emaki, they would immediately understand the story of Kashiwagi even though there are no words. How amazing it is! So, I wanted to use this story telling technique into my graphic poem.

Again, I am going to use my graphic poem, “On a Black Hill”, and in the full-length book, the title is “Thursday”.

(Why are titles different?)

As you can see orange highlights, about 27% of words remain and the rest of the words become images. Like the chapter of Kashiwagi, I wanted this poem to tell a story in one glance.

In order to achieve that goal, I cut some lines from the original poem. For example, I cut the following sections in the graphic poem:

Grandfather watches TV on the highest volume,
the howling-wind.

He lost his voice seventeen years ago,
Stroke. This mouth, and the quietness—
Like the people in those black and white photos.

Piles of Jewish clothes, glasses, and hair,
Half-naked bodies and holes in the ground,
Their stark tongues with dirt in their mouths.
A last word adheres to their throats.


Why did I cut off these sections?

Because the sections are important in my written poem in a way they are not in the graphic poem. The graphic poem already shows an inappropriate, domestic moment: The mother is casually vacuuming a photo documentary of Auschwitz and the little girl is stepping on it with a caption, “Will I go to war?”

Historical documents and photographs may not mean anything if we are just like the innocent, perhaps naive girl, surrounded by words and pictures with no context. I may be the girl, but I do not want to be, and that is one of my themes in this graphic poem. There is the understanding viewpoint of the mother, and oblivious viewpoint of the girl, existing at the same time in the same room.

It takes guts to delete sections from the original poem when I create one-page graphic poems. (Indeed, this is currently leading to how to adapt a long poem in to a graphic poem.)

I received a response from one editor who said that the written portion is not interesting enough to grab the attention in my graphic poems. It is heartbreaking to hear, until I realize that different formats require different ingredients (think of a book being adapted into a movie as an example, there is no longer a narrator’s internal voice guiding the reader/viewer, so more emphasis is focused on actions and visual pacing to convey motivations).

It is not always easy to omit sections of your work you spent so much time on, but as an artist, the graphic poem will be better as a stand-alone work that does not rely on viewers to have read the poem to understand. I am still working on this aspect, and likely will continue to for some time.

One thing that I can clearly say is my favorite quote from my first-grade teacher, “If you progress one thing, the whole community learns from you. They will come up with new ideas that inspire you to ascend to the next level.” I like the thinking and I would like to share it with my poetry & art community.

To be continued…

How Graphic Poetry Helps Us Progress the Story Telling Technique and the Creative Process of Its Own Editing

I have been analyzing my writing skill since my graphic poetry project was slowly launched around 2013. I personally think that my editing technique has developed after a collection of graphic poems, so I would like to share some of my thoughts!

For those who may not know my suitcase of a writing carrier (career), I was raised and educated in Japan. English is my second language. I have a master’s degree from Indiana University, but I have never belonged to MFA programs. For a decent period, I worked in the machine tool industry as a full-time worker, my husband has proofread my poems for the last seven years. Now I am taking time off for myself.

Some people may say, I have enough time on my hands; therefore, I could create both collections of graphic poems and poems, which I agree, but I also wrote a lot of poems that became two chapbooks (Home, No Home and Silver Seasons of Heartache) during my full-time working era. (I wrote “Silver Seasons” in my car during lunchbreaks!)

I started thinking that graphic poetry may be a key to analyze how my writing and editing skills can improve. I would like to share how I use graphic poetry techniques to improve my regular writing skills. (This is my current thought and I would like to keep developing and learning new methods.) 

Here are my recent written poems’ acceptances after I finished my graphic poem collection:

The Kenyon Review, Forthcoming - “Low Orbit”
The Seattle Review, Forthcoming - "Spaceflight Sonata vol.1 and 2"
Diode Poetry Journal, "Beneath the Sand"

They are fantastic, leading literature journals. In their issues, there are so many poets and writers who I truly admire, and I am so thrilled to be with them.

My writing habits and observations have not dramatically changed. The majority of my inspirations still come from life, interviews, and historical events. The final products may contain fictional elements; however, I always start with a factual moment, and then adapt these themes into first-person narrative.

“Thursday” is written after my grandfather’s war experience. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. One was in China, and the other was close to Hiroshima. World War II is one of my continuous themes and lifetime studies because histories are constantly changed by the views of each country involved. My grandfather lost his hearing after his Japanese commanders violently abused their power on him in China. Wars just produced ugly truth. My grandfathers did not openly talk about the war; however, they occasionally told me their inhuman experiences.


Comparing my written poem and graphic poem, you may notice two major differences.

Why are titles different?

  • Written Poem, “Thursday”
  • Graphic Poem, “On a Black Hill”

The original title was "A Towel," and original published piece was in Chiron Review in 2008. Over ten years, this piece was shapeshifted and ended up in my full-length book, “Where I Was Born”.

In the full-length book, the title is “Thursday” because I wanted to flow previous poems of “Thursday” as a cohesive timeline; perhaps, as if time shifts as an ordinary day, like welcoming a Cleaning Thursday. Therefore, I chose the title “Thursday”.

The graphic poem’s title is “On a Black Hill”, not “A Towel”, nor “Thursday” because I wanted to use an image of towel. If the title is “A Towel” with the image of towel, it would be redundant. I also think that the detail of “Thursday” is not as important in this graphic poem because the image (mother is holding a baby and vacuuming) shows more details than describing a Cleaning Thursday in words. “On a Black Hill” came after conversations with my grandparents. They said that everything becomes black after bombings.

Why are the representations of white towel different?

  • Written Poem, "A white towel. He wiped his face."
  • Graphic Poem, The line was replaced as an actual towel painted as an incomplete flag.  

I wanted to show the texture and roughness of an old towel. It was used, but it was white by the point view of war victims after a bombing. It was an act of kindness, “A stranger gave him a towel”, and it also represented as an obvious irritated symbol.

In fact, the towel was from my grandparent’s bathroom, which my grandmother tried to swap it with a new one. She was really offended that I used it for my project, so she gave me both new and old towels.

When I am going to translate my poem into a graphic poem, I ask myself questions, like why I want to replace the word “towel” with an actual old towel from my grandparent’s house. Why is it meaningful to my graphic poem and not just a novelty? How will these elements effect my audience?


This process of questions and answers developed my writing / editing skills for my regular written poems. I actively produced graphic poems the last two years (about one piece a week). Maybe the action becomes my writing weight lifting in a way.

The other day, I found myself discussing more details of grammatical rules with native English speakers. First though, I discussed with myself why I wanted to place a comma or use a particular adjective somewhere. And my proofreader (my husband) said that it is not the right place to add a comma, but I did it anyway since it had value. The other day, this poem was accepted by the Kenyon Review. Their editors suggested me to remove it, so my husband was right. But at least I had my reasons and thought them through. Changes and decisions in both poetry and graphic poetry are never arbitrary, but always serve a purpose.

Here is an actual photo from the Kenyon Review's editorial team.

To be continued…

Poetry Foundation Reading List: March 2019

Angela NarcisoTorres is one of the first readers to believe in "Where I Was Born". Thank you very much!

Reading List: March 2019

Pre-Order "Where I Was Born"

My first full-length book, "Where I Was Born", will be available from Willow Books. If you would like to own a copy, please pre-order. The discount code for the store is BORN (you will save about $2). Thank you very much for supporting my poetry and art.

Dara Elerath, MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts
What does it mean when death is so present in the landscape of life that one’s mind moves swiftly from the passing of a great-grandparent to the smell of the neighbor’s grilled food and thoughts of hunger? What does it mean when loss is so integral to life that one pauses to think of a lover or licks tangerine juice from one’s fingertips while comforting an ailing family member? Fujimoto’s book engages these questions as she takes us through a landscape of continual loss. The loss of one culture for another, the loss of sanity and health brought on by illness and war, and the loss of illusions and passions that come when the outer facts of life do not join up with inner longings. In her delicate and unassuming style, Fujimoto records the small, daily moments of family life, wherein so much pain is born out of so much love. Her playful, emotionally keen and contemplative book “Where I Was Born” is one to be read and held close to the heart.

Linda Dove, Author of This Too, O Dear Deer, and In Defense of Objects
Naoko Fujimoto’s sensuous poems in Where I Was Born speak to the “Death of little things,” the griefs that accumulate inside families, across ordinary days, in the course of living regular lives. Thus the title points not only to a place, but to a condition, one in which the speaker must learn to accommodate loss—of birth country, of parents and grandparents, of unborn children, of time and opportunities, of dreams, of body parts, of voices, of names, of maps, and of the trail of breadcrumbs that might lead us out of the woods. In these brillliant and often-clipped lines, the world is unreal and unreliable: “There is / an extra season of endless fields. / The postcard fell from the refrigerator.” The poet invites questions, searching for some sort of definite knowledge: “Did someone jump? . . . . Will I go to war? . . . . Can you sleep with Grandfather’s bones? . . . . Wanna die? . . . . ‘Keep digging for what?’ . . . . What did you expect?” Yet this speaker does not give up on the world, even when the answers are distant and hard to see: “I squinted my eyes / as a satellite would look for new life.” This is a beautiful and necessary book.

Angela Narciso Torres, author of Blood Orange​
“I squinted my eyes as a satellite would look for new life,” says the speaker in Where I Was Born, Naoko Fujimoto’s disarmingly honest first full-length poetry collection. Indeed, the poet leaves no stone unturned. In this sumptuous sensory feast, Fujimoto trains one observant eye on family—examining losses and loves that resonate with each of us, even as they remain uniquely her own—while keeping another watchful eye on history’s long shadow across generations. Hiroshima, the marble from a Ramune soda bottle, and a grandmother’s Japanese calligraphy collide with Lake Michigan, Dove soap, and a couple’s first apartment in Lawrenceville, Illinois—alchemizing a global poetry that is as riveting, musical, and iridescent as “the silver sheen of snails after June rain.”

​Cover Art by Minami Kobayashi

"A Picture Says a Thousand Words: Graphic Poetry" by David B. Newell

I had a graphic poetry workshop at Woodbury University where students brought poems in text and then transformed them into graphic poems. David B. Newell wrote an article about my visit and project. Please visit: MORIA.

MORIA Poetry Magazine - the 2018 Best of the Net

I am so happy to be nominated for the 2018 Best of the Net anthology with Sundress Publications. Thank you very much, MORIA Poetry Magazine!

The Chapbook Interview

Laura Madeline Wiseman, thank you very much for this wonderful interview opportunity! I was HAPPY to share my thoughts about chapbooks. In my interview, I mentioned RHINO Poetry & Review, Educe Press, Glass Lyre Press, Backbone Press, Tupero Press, and Indiana University South Bend. And I respectfully talked about you, Igor Zelenov, Crystal Simone Smith, Jeffrey Levine, Linda Dove, Faisal Mohyuddin, Nina Li Coomes, and Kirsten Miles. Photo credit: Gail Goepfert. Snapshot: Olivia Todd. Please read the interview!

"Silver Seasons of Heartache" in Hong Kong

My chapbook, "Silver Seasons of Heartache", is Hong Kong with this beautiful dessert!  

“I Eat Pig Ears in Cebu”

What is stories behind of this graphic poetry?

Gerhard Richter (1932 – current) is a German artist, and he studies new meanings and relationships between photographs and paintings. He paints a portrait with oil paintings as if he uses an Instagram smudge filter. He has various technics such as overpainted photographs (he paints oil over a snapshot photo). When I saw his art, I felt the similar esthetic of interpretations between traditional poetry and graphic poetry. And I wanted to adapt his technique into “I Eat Pig Ears in Cebu”.

“I Eat Pig Ears in Cebu” is a based on my experience in Cebu, the Philippines when I volunteer worked for an elementary school where some of Leprosy descendent attended. As if Richter used a squeegee to scrape the paint to create blurring particular parts of his work, I used peeler objects to scrape a social problem, which the young girl who grown up in the village still had a strong stereotype discrimination against Leprosy. Because of this discrimination, the village has been isolated from better education and quality of life.

These colorful strips represent “an imaginary rainbow” that the girl made with random plastic pieces/trash in the poem, and she may know that it may be very difficult to get out from her community. The childhood-memory-like, stick-figure drawing camouflages; perhaps, blurs this harsh reality.

These strips are majorly made of four papers, (Angela Narciso Torres’ book cover, her original idea of a cover art by her son, my handmade birthday card to Angela, and origami papers). I used these papers because Angela is originally from the Philippines and we often talk about Filipino history and culture. Her book, “Blood Orange”, is full of ordinary Filipino family life. I made a large piece of the stick-figure drawing and dedicated half of it to the graphic poem, and the other half to a birthday card for her. I had one of my best birthdays when I stayed in the village. The Filipino people were so kind to me, so I tied this memory to the graphic poem and the birthday card to Angela.

Please visit my homepage for more information of graphic poetry.

Backbone Press - "Mother Said, I Want Your Pain"

My newest poetry chapbook was released! Please order your copy from Backbone Press.

Janine Joseph , Judge of the 2018 contest
Of the collection, Janine Joseph writes:“I do not know/ if I am even right to be a mother at a right time,” discloses the speaker in the opening poem of Mother Said, “I Want Your Pain.” Evocative and startling in their unflinching clarity of image, these poems are inheritors of the aftermath of nuclear fallout and chemical warfare. They are tuned to the movement of transgenerational traumas. Grandmothers who “hid in a ditch with three horses” while B-29s shot bullets overhead, leave relatives who later ask of our bequeathed earth, “Is the land poisoned or not poisoned?” Here is a striking collection with a deft voice, poised even as it turns on or transcends an observation or emotion: “Grandfather watches TV on the highest volume,/ the howling-wind.”

Faisal Mohyuddin, author of The Displaced Children of Displaced Children
"What remains, in the aftermath of the horrors humans wreak upon other humans? According to Naoko Fujimoto’s brave, ambitious poems: so many kinds of heartache and grief and so many questions that elude answers, and also the ghosts of dead grandparents and unborn children haunting quiet afternoons spent among fields of wildflowers or along lonely lake beaches. Yet these poems remind the reader—especially the one who reads with heart wide, wide open—that pain, when shared with others, can root us deeper in our collective humanity, can guide us all toward compassion, empathy, perhaps even healing. “It chokes us without a sign, or smell—,” the poet writes, “as if a radioactive current swallowed, / hurting slowly inside / to ripen our bodies.” I so deeply admire the mother who says, “I want your pain,” so deeply admire, too, this poet who has found the words to both capture this pain and to transcend it with such hopefulness and beauty."

Silvia Bonila, author of An Animal Startled by the Mechanisms of Life
"In Naoko Fujimoto’s “Mother Said, I Want Your Pain”, there are rooms without doors nor windows. Time becomes ecstatic and intimate. The reader walks into these rooms allured by the un-adorned but skillful language, the spectral beauty of the imagery and the haunting narrative of emptiness. Voluntary exile and loss are found in passages like the kitchen was dyed empty green like a milk glass. Fujimoto’s heightened sensitivity and connection to nature enhances the physical times in the speaker’s personal history, as in / because there is no answer/ beetles roll/ ants dismantle/ unwrapped pacifiers/ ghost teeth bite my nipples."​

Silver Seasons of Heartache - Poetry Chapbook - Published by Glass Lyre Press

Silver Seasons of Heartache - Poetry Chapbook - Published by Glass Lyre Press

This original manuscript was the finalist of the 2016 Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Award by Tupelo Press.

Matthew Thorburn, author of Dear Almost
In Silver Seasons of Heartache, Naoko Fujimoto walks a tightrope of language, making her way word by word across the chasm where hope can fall prey to heartbreak, the maybes and might-bes of life transformed into what simply (and complicatedly) is. She is a poet of heart and humor, of insight and image. In carefully crafted yet conversational lines, Fujimoto describes the complications of our modern lives, where “enough is never enough,” but where you also might still be lucky enough to stop and savor the moment when your “breath is quiet— / waiting to catch the last lightning bug.”

Nancy Botkin, author of Parts That Were Once Whole
Silver Seasons of Heartache is full of compelling poems that engage the senses as they navigate physical and emotional spaces: the kitchen, the family, the homeland, and the edges of this mysterious and precarious life. In “A Big Bowl of Beef Stew” she writes, “Past midnight, from the deepest forest, / a deer walked on weathered leaves.” These are lovely poems, and Fujimoto’s talent is the deep image.

Poetry Magazine - Graphic Poem "Lake Michigan"

It takes a while to realize that the tremendous news of (drum tremolos, please) my work, "Lake Michigan", will be published in Poetry Magazine. I feel like I am at the top of the world right now. 

"First Attempt"

I just realized that this art does not have a title...

My graphic poetry exhibition, "Star Fragment", at Kafein will close at the end of March. Thank you very much for supporting my event. I feel like opening night was so long ago!

After the exhibition, I am going to sell this nameless, favorite pastel drawing of mine. I designed this art for my first manuscript, "Radio Tower". It became a finalist for Kundiman's poetry competition. I was hoping to use it for cover art someday; however, that day never came.

Through the years, I learned a lot of things about creating manuscripts. "Radio Tower" was not published as a full-length collection, but the experience guided me to make "Where I Was Born", "Mother Said, I Want Your Pain", and "Glyph:Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory". I definitely would not have made it this far without "Radio Tower". So I think that I should finally give this art a title.

If you view this art closely, you will see a lot of elements like a radio tower, bridge, upside-down tree, spatula..., my favorite things to draw. The art itself is larger than my other pieces (23 x 33 inches), showcasing so many details to this story.

I think that this art signifies a limbo of sorts for my publishing dreams. I would like to name the art, "First Attempt".

Home, No Home - Poetry Chapbook - Published by Educe Press

Home, No Home - Poetry Chapbook - Published by Educe Press
The winner of the first annual Oro Fino Chapbook Competition

People happily live.... That is ideal; however, unwanted events happen-earthquakes, tsunamis, cancer, brain surgery, unfilled love, or not making monthly rent. Naoko Fujimoto, a Japanese poet, adapted these scenes into first-person narratives, in which ordinary people face these broken moments.

Diane Raptosh, Judge of the 2015 contest
"It is gritty and raw, earthy and spare, crafted superbly."

Serena Agusto-Cox, writer at Savvy Verse & Wit
"Naoko Fujimoto has deep silences that activate the reader’s mind, which turns each moment over and over to make sense of the devastation. From the deadly tsunami in Fukushima to more subtle moments of broken lives, Fujimoto takes on a first-person narrative in these literary poems to draw readers into that sadness, that loss, that emptiness, the silence to render grief alive."

Ryan Sanford Smith, MFA from the University of Notre Dame
"This is an immaculately crafted, emotionally devastating collection. There's so much elegant silence in these poems,but the carry a great deal of genuine heartbreak. The language is deft, the images are forceful and haunting. I cannot recommend this chapbook strongly enough."

Amazon Book Reviews
"A beautiful, small collection of poetry that cuts to the heart and head. Crisp style. Sharp language. Some of these poems sat with me for days" and "This is a stunning collection of poetry. Read the first poem "Seventeen Blue".

"Glyph:Graphic Poetry=Trans. Sensory"

Trans. has two meanings - Translate & Transport

Naoko Fujimoto translates her poems (that are written in English on flat paper) into words and images to create a contemporary picture scroll. The picture scroll in Japanese is Emaki (eh-MA-kee) and the style has been popular since the 7-16th centuries in Japan. It is still a widely recognized art style in Japan and the rest of the world. Emaki is akin to a current graphic novel / poetry / comic. One of the most famous Emaki is the Tale of Genji, which is a fictional (perhaps gossip) story about a handsome son of the emperor.

The graphic poetry project is also meant for the viewer to transport their senses from the flat paper and bridge the gap between words and images that will connect with their physical counterparts. Like a historical Emaki, there are side stories hidden behind some of the main graphic narratives— be they comedic or serious— for audiences to interpret. All of the details (choice of words, origami paper, or  styles) have a specific meaning to contribute to the whole.

Conception of graphic poetry
In June, 2016, Naoko Fujimoto decided to take a year off to be a full-time poet and artist. People around her asked why she was leaving a stable job, and if she was going to be a starving artist. She wanted to find out how far she can succeed as a poet and artist. After all, if she gets lost, she can just come back to what worked before.

During the year, she had opportunities to not only read books, but also explore and live with classic and contemporary works, such as the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Tokugawa Museum, and Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. There, she revisited her idea of how she could create an effective melding of poetry and art; perhaps, words and images.
The following, entitled "The Duck's Smile", was her first attempt. She wrote an original poem for a project named, "Killing Sally McHill", which was a protest against common violence hidden around the house, school, office, and society. "The Duck's Smile" was specifically written about a hierarchy in a small community between the narrator and Sally. Her first graphic poem adapted a written poem into a graphic narrative. The poem started from the top left corner and progressed to the bottom right. It took a simple black and white art approach, but did not quite embody how she wanted it to be represented.

Graphic poetry is the melding of word and image
Naoko Fujimoto researched art works of inclusions of “word” and “image” such as László Moholy-Nagy, Hiroshige Utagawa, William Blake, Francisco Goya, and many other writers and artists. Then when she observed works by a German painter and sculptor, Anselm Kiefer, she understood that poetry must have explosions of creativity. Coincidentally, she had the chance to attend a workshop with Robin Coste Lewis, who critiqued the poems to be tight in structure, but reminded to forget about grammar and rules from time to time to experiment freely.

So she chose to adapt a traditional Japanese Emaki style (an illustrated narrative art). The original poem was carefully scattered specific phrases or implied images were selected, with the rest being ignored (like the poetry erasure technique). She traveled to find paper and objects, such as supermarket advertisements, birthday gift wrapping, postcards, origami, magazines, and other materials rich in color and texture. She wrote about relatable life conflicts, so using common objects in turn grounded her graphic poetry.

A closer look at the graphic poem "Radio Tower"
"Radio Tower" was written based on the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and devoted to Miki Endo. She was a public worker who served in the Crisis Management Department. On that day, she made her emergency announcements until her building was pushed away by the tsunami. (You-tube has a recording of her brave voice, and one may see most of the building leave its steel structures behind.) Unfortunately, Endo could not return to her family and friends.


Run up to the hill,
I repeat it from the radio tower.

The tsunami slithers over the seaweed garden.
A child is held in its mother’s arms.

They are almost                         at the hill.

When the microphone slips from my hand,
clay seals my mouth. I hear

Wagner’s aria in my skull.

                    Clovers grow. Their dewdrops

glitter under the stardust. Promise me
home like bubbles in the sea,

like a sea gull,

like everyone else.

Compared to the original poem, words and phrases were selected with an erasure technique, some to be represented by visuals and others to be written out. The choice of words and images for the graphic poem is meant to engage the audience's senses. Viewers may draw emotions from triggered memories, and use them to stimulate further thinking of what those details mean.

All the details and choices of the composition, even the materials used, are carefully selected. For example, in "Radio Tower", the blue bubbles graphically portray the chaotic nature of a tsunami surrounding a woman. Some words are upside down like trembling waves. Empty buildings stand tall, but desiccated, on the Earth.

On the top right, there are people running away— some are underneath blue origami paper— these people were made from supermarket advertisements. They all ate healthy, used better products, or budgeted well for their family for when a crisis (or death) comes, yet some were consumed by the waves regardless. In the middle left is an upside-down Saint Mary, as even God-like figures cannot save them all. (Mary’s picture came from St. Paul’s Church in Antwerp, Belgium. This church supported the Kobe earthquake survivors in 1995.)

In graphic poetry, visual images can express narrative aspects beyond words. Clovers grow. Their dewdrops, she became like a plant, with roots growing into the universe, and her arms leaving the earth behind without her microphone. She is an invisible tree stretching and searching for her home.
Graphic Poetry = Trans. Sensory

Watch and listen to graphic poem, "Radio Tower"
Enjoy watching her interview at Poetry Today with City of Highland Park PEG Access TV's Jennifer Dotson. She spoke about poetry, graphic poetry, RHINO, Tupelo Press, "Home, No Home," and herself (and her dress designed and made by her mother).