How has the internet changed poetry? Twenty years ago, when digital communications were still in their infancy, many feared that their growth would put an end to the printed book and further marginalize an art form with a devoted but admittedly small audience. On the contrary, not only has the web enabled the creation of new poetic forms, but it has also enabled poetry to cross borders. One example of this phenomenon is Isobar, a poetry press established in 2013 that publishes leading British and Japanese poets such as Peter Robinson and Masaya Saito, as well as translations of Japanese writers such as Tarō Naka and Genzō Sarashina. I spoke to Isobar’s main commissioner and editor Paul Rossiter about publishing international poetry in the twenty-first century.
The name of the press is a reference to “The Isobar”, a 1930s salon once located in the iconic Isokon building in London at which Rossiter now owns a flat. The bar, designed by the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer, provided a gathering-point for leading artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Piet Mondrian and Henry Moore. Rossiter recalls hearing the modernist critic Sir Herbert Read’s description of the lounge as “a nest of gentle artists” and thinking “that’s a nice way to describe a community of writers”. At the same time, a line marking places of equal atmospheric pressure provides an apt metaphor for his inclusive editorial policy: “what this implies is that it doesn't matter where you are on the stylistic landscape as long as the poetic pressure is equally high. Most other presses have a certain style they want to put forward; what I want to do is represent the variety of the English-language writing that’s taking place here”.
When Rossiter began Isobar, he initially wanted to revive the work of Anglophone writers with a link to Japan that he felt deserved greater attention—specifically Denis Doyle and David Silverstein. He also knew that there were a number of talented English-language writers based in Japan worthy of publication: “Andrew Fitzsimons was showing me his versions of the mediaeval writer Kenkō, so I said ‘are you interested in doing these as a book?’ and he said ‘yes’. And then I spoke to Eric Selland: there is something really impressive about his work and he’s also a really good translator so he immediately slotted in”. Rossiter also became interested in providing a platform for Japanese poets working in English, including Yoko Danno and Masaya Saito. What does a Japanese person writing in English offer a reader—especially a reader who does not speak Japanese? “There’s something fresh and unusual. With Yoko, for example, there are some prose poems in her book which have Buddhist elements to them, elements which I don't think an Anglophone would engage with in that way”.
Rossiter emphasizes how new technology has facilitated the press. Not only has he located the relatives of deceased writers via Google and email, but print-on-demand enables him to keep costs low: “you don’t need to do economy of scale by printing a lot to make it cheap. You can print it one by one… that’s the genius of it.” Moreover, the internet means that the Isobar catalogue is easily available to a specialist readership: “the key thing about poetry is that it’s not mass market. It’s not fast food, it’s slow food—there’s a small, very eager audience”. Isobar therefore represents a blend of the old and the new: “[i]n some senses it is an old-fashioned technology because it’s still using paper. Some of the more avant-garde poetry publishers don’t use books, they use websites, [but] I am very much a print person and I like print”.
Paul runs Isobar according to five principles: “1. Put out good stuff. 2. Make it look good. 3. Don't lose money. 4. Pay poets whenever possible. 5. Accept no subsidy”. By avoiding money from authors or grant-holding bodies, Rossiter keeps the finances and bureaucracy simple, enabling him to publish only books he believes in. He nonetheless insists on high production values and tries to pay poets as much as possible. When asked how exactly he goes about editing poetry, Paul explains “it’s very intuitive: it’s different with each writer”. Sometimes editing requires refining inexact phrasings or clipping inessential sections so as to get at “the kernel of the poem”. Mostly it involves organizing the collection so that it has an internal coherence: “[a]ll the books I have published are books, they’re not just heaps of poems”. The evening poetry readings he organizes in Tokyo allow audiences to sample the work of different Isobar poets: “it’s like having a quick flick through an anthology”. They also enable listeners to appreciate the writing in a fresh way: “the music of the poem, the flicker of images coming into your head—hearing poetry live in real time is a different experience from reading it silently on the page”.
The Isobar ethos is embodied in Masaya Saito’s 2016 collection Snow Bones, a series of interconnected haiku monologues exploring the theme of grief that is at time of writing the number one bestseller in the ‘Asian poetry’ section on Amazon Japan. Paul first met Saito in a writers’ workshop in the 1980s and the book came together in part as a result of their relationship: “Masaya started showing me bits of it and I started saying ‘I really like this. Is this a book?’” In common with other Isobar volumes, Saito’s work has a remarkable structural integrity: “he has given it a very strong architecture. It starts off with: winter; Akita; snow; mother dies; funeral. And Part four is: winter; Akita; snow; father dies; funeral. In between, parts two and three, set in spring, summer and autumn, and each with three different speakers, represent the continuities of life in both the country and the city. So it has got a strong architecture, but it is all done by haiku means, meaning that there are no overt narrative elements. The sequences consist purely of perceptions, but they’re linked in such a way that there’s an implied narrative which gradually unfolds itself to you—and I haven’t seen that done before in haiku in English or Japanese”.
Rossiter is a poet himself and Isobar has published four of his own collections: From the Japanese, Seeing Sights, World Without and Temporary Measures. “I started writing in 1968 … and then finally published a first book in 1995 with Printed Matter Press”. He first came to Tokyo in 1969 to teach English as a foreign language and has dramatic memories of the student protests: “I remember very vividly one Sunday afternoon in Hachiko square standing in the doorway of what was then a ramen shop and is now [the central shopping mall] 109 Part 2. I was standing in the doorway, keeping out of sight, and with a wet cloth over my face because of the tear gas, while the students and the police clashed. The police were using water-cannon, and they won out—they basically hosed the students out of the square. That was something to see”. When he returned in 1981 he found a city transformed: “much more stylish, much more relaxed; the students were a lot more relaxed in the classroom, and, of course, there were none of politics of the kind I saw in 1969”. He started Isobar after retiring as a Professor at the University of Tokyo and he feels working as an editor and publisher has enabled him to make better decisions about his own writing: “It hasn’t changed the way I write poetry but it has changed the way I edit my own poetry”.
Isobar poets themselves praise the press for offering a diversity that has, in turn, influenced and enriched their own writing. Christopher Simons, author of Isobar collections One More Civil Gesture and Underground Facility, enthuses: “[Isobar] has been great for both English and Japanese poetry in Japan, which have previously been a bit separate… there are Japanese poets on the list, British and American poets on the list, and all from different styles and schools…It has certainly affected me as a writer. I had never read a lot of avant-garde American poetry before joining Isobar, for example…it’s been great to meet new poets who work in different styles and schools.”
When I ask Paul Rossiter what poetry can offer the uninitiated he responds with the phrase “cognitive refreshment”: an expression, he explains, coined by the applied linguist Guy Cook to describe how literary writing can reinvigorate readers. In an era of information overload, long commutes and repetitive office work, poetry can revitalize our perceptions—and a press like Isobar allows us to overstep cultural, linguistic and stylistic boundaries. “Language used in skillful ways gives you a slightly different experience of language and therefore a different experience of the world…you jump the tracks slightly and avoid being stuck in the tramlines.”
Isobar press books are available online on Amazon and at Books Kinokuniya Tokyo at Takashimaya, Shinjuku and the London Review Bookshop, Bloomsbury, London.