Ninja Press to publish new book by award-winning UC Santa Cruz poet Gary Young

Gary Young in Japan (photos courtesy of Gary Young)
In Japan is the title of an elegant new collection of poems from UCSC humanities lecturer and alumnus Gary Young that will soon be published by Ninja Press.

The poems were written while Young was in Japan working on a book of translations of the calligraphy of the Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa. During this time, he had the great honor of staying in the Hokyoji Zen Monastery, where he was given access to Zen Master Dōgen’s original manuscripts, calligraphy, and other relics.

Young was also a guest in the homes of a number of artists, artisans, and Buddhist priests. He met with Zen priests and Buddhist scholars who he said were extraordinarily generous with their knowledge of Buddhism, calligraphy, and poetry, and were instrumental to his translations.

While traveling around Japan and working on the translations, Young also began to work on a series of original poems.

“This was only a few months after the earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” Young noted. “My poems reflect my joy at being in Japan, but there is an undercurrent of grief and loss throughout the collection.”

“In one poem, I describe a Buddhist priest explaining to a group of children what happens when they die, and in another, I meet a man in a temple who holds a photograph of his daughter and directs it to an enormous statue of Buddha while he prays. He unexpectedly turns the photo toward me and continues to pray.

“There was little mention of the catastrophe, but the enormity of the loss seemed to permeate everything.”

The new book’s design, presswork, painting, and binding are all by Carolee Campbell--the sole proprietor of Ninja Press. The text paper is kitakata, handmade in Japan. Each faintly green text sheet is folded at the edge and painted by hand with walnut ink.

“Carolee is a brilliant designer and printer, who has a deep interest in and knowledge of Japan,” said Young. “I couldn't imagine anyone else printing these poems.”

“The resulting book is a work of extraordinary restraint, understatement and grace,” Young added. “The poems float on a sea of gorgeous handmade paper from Japan, and the elegance of the book's typography, and the precision of the printing have what can only be described as a Zen-like presence.”

Young graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 1973 and received his M.F.A. from UC Irvine in 1975. He has taught poetry as a lecturer in creative writing in UCSC’s Literature Department since 2005. Young is also the director of the Cowell Press, where he teaches printing and book arts.

His previous books include Pleasure, Hands, The Dream of A Moral Life (winner of the James D. Phelan Award), Days, Braver Deeds (winner of the Peregrine Smith Poetry Prize), and No Other Life (winner of the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award for best book of the year published by a university, literary, or independent press).

Young will do a reading and Ninja Press’s Campbell will talk about the creation of In Japan on Tuesday, April 25, from 4 to 6 p.m. in Special Collections at McHenry Library on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Admission is free.

Later that evening, Young will also appear at Bookshop Santa Cruz for a reading with all of the four poet laureates of Santa Cruz County. (In 2010, Young was named the first-ever Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz County—the other three are UCSC emeritus professor David Swanger, Ellen Bass, and Robert Sward).

Here is a poem from In Japan:

All that’s left of the fabled residence is a teahouse on a tiny island in the center of a pond. The great hall must have been beautiful; the little house and the bridge beside it are lovely even now. Wisteria sways along a trellis that rises from the pond, and three turtles rest on a rock beside a slender crane. The water is marked with the dark shadows of cedar and pine, and enormous carp circle the pond endlessly, without knowing they’re in a pond, without knowing that they’re carp.

--Gary Young--