Old-World Sensibility: Levi Binnema in Conversation with Carolyn Nakagawa

Carolyn Nakagawa

Carolyn Nakagawa, whose poem "Horses and men" appears in the Malahat's Spring 2018 issue, discusses letting her work breathe, studying literature, and, of course, men on horses in her Q&A with Malahat poetry board intern Levi Binnema.


Carolyn Nakagawa is a poet and playwright whose poems have appeared recently in Canthius, Poetry is Dead, and PRISM International. A fourth generation Japanese Canadian, she calls Vancouver home.

Congratulations on your publication! I remember helping to select your poem and so it’s wonderful to get reacquainted with it.

What I found quite effective about this poem was how the reflective voice is broken in the last line. In this line we find out that the two characters have parted ways. The speaker now seems distant from the friend. Could you please elaborate on the speaker’s division from the past? Where is the speaker, now that they are not part of the revolution?

I think when you make a decision to leave something (or at least when I do), whether it’s a relationship or a job or another kind of situation, there’s often a lot of reflection and going over the same details over and over again in different ways, but after a certain point that all just breaks down, and you realize you’ve already let go of something. You somehow go from holding on very tightly to the nuances of this thing you’re in, to having those things be outside of you, and you’re not holding any of it anymore. That’s the process I wanted to go through with this poem. As for where the speaker might be “now,” it could be anywhere at all – the realization is that it’s definitely not where they were before, or where they thought they were.

Your poems have been published in Ricepaper Magazine, Poetry is Dead and PRISM to name a few. What does it mean to you as a young poet to be published in The Malahat Review?

The Malahat Review was one of the first literary magazines I remember becoming familiar with, and admiring the poems published in it, as I started to get to know contemporary literature,  so it’s very exciting to be published here. That being said, there are really wonderful communities of readers and editors doing amazing work around publications like all of the others that you mention, so I feel very privileged to have been able to share my work in all of those contexts.

I read that you write plays as well. Some writers find it difficult to work in different genres simultaneously. Do you find playwriting adds new elements to your poetry? How is your process for writing plays different than writing poetry?

When I’m writing dialogue for a play, often the language itself is very plain, the type of things people say to one another without thinking at all about the words they’re using. But then I’m refining and refining those words until they are the most distilled, powerful way of saying something that I can get to, even if the character I’m writing wouldn’t think of it that way. Sometimes I become really absorbed in the beauty of a line that appears to be fairly mundane. I’d say that a preference for the simplest possible language that will convey the meaning I want, and the process of refining that language until it becomes this beautiful thing, are both things that have served me well in writing poetry as well as plays.

For me, even a short play might be ten pages of dialogue and that can take weeks or months to get performance-ready. My poems are mostly fairly short lyric poems, so while they sometimes take just as long to get to a point where I’m ready to publish them, it’s a more contained process, where I can sit down for a short period of time and go over every single detail of a poem, and then put it away for a while. When I do a new draft of a play, it’s something I carry around in my mind for weeks before I let it breathe again.

I see that you were an English major in your undergraduate degree. Can you elaborate on how reading other writers might have helped you establish your own identity as a writer?   

Everyone who wants to be a writer gets the advice to read as much as they can, and that was definitely a big part of why I wanted to study literature. I’m really glad that I did, because it’s given me a historical understanding of the kind of writing I want to do, and a broader perspective on what might be possible in literature. There’s a ton of great contemporary writing that I’m getting to know now, but having the academic background that I do gives me a strong awareness of depth in the literary landscape as well as breadth.

While reading your poem I was struck by the repeating images you use. There are a few mentions of statues and hatchets. I began thinking about how casting something in stone creates an image of solidification or of permanent establishment. The hatchet in the poem seemed to represent youth and the willingness to combat the seemingly eternal forces in society. Can you speak more on why you chose the images of statues and hatchets and the forces they represent?

I actually wrote the first draft of this poem on my first-ever visit to Toronto, and I was struck, as I often am when I find myself in the Eastern time zone, by the old-world sensibility of the urban landscape – there are a lot more stone buildings, for example, than Vancouver, where I live. When I was writing this poem I was thinking about all the statues I was coming across, and what kind of people I was seeing statues of all over the city. Lots of men on horses. On one hand, these are cultural norms that I’m familiar with from a colonial educational system that was passed down from a “national” (read: Ontario-centric) perspective of what Canada is. But on the other, having grown up and lived most of my life on the west coast, that set of norms often felt theoretical, which makes it that much stranger when I encounter physical representations of those norms. It can be easy and you can even get in the habit of being critical of an idea, but if that idea is presented before you in the form of a statue, then you’re going to need more than an offhanded comment to take it down. I don’t actually know how one would do that, but in the absence of access to heavy machinery, I might try a hatchet, if that were the type of thing I wanted to do.

I’m always interested in how poets get their inspiration. What was your creation process for this poem? Did you start with an image and build from it or did you have the complete idea from the outset? What is your usual process when writing a poem?

I don’t know that I have a usual process because I try as much as possible to follow an idea where it wants to take me. I guess multiple drafts with time away in between is a pretty usual way for me to move through that. For this poem, I had a number of images that felt important and the process of weaving them together and collapsing them created a cerebral kind of rhythm that I wanted to bring out.


Levi Binnema

Levi Binnema

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