Interview: Meeting Ito Naga — Poetry and Science

If a stroll through Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens seems like poetry itself, in July of 2010 it led American poet Lynne Knight to actual poetry: a reading by a French poet sous l’arbre, under a tree, in the gardens. Cheyne éditeur, a small poetry publishing house, was celebrating its thirtieth anniversary with an open-air exhibition. That evening, Knight happened to attend a reading by French poet Ito Naga, who read from his collection of aphoristic poems Je sais (I Know).

Je sais is a quirky, literally wonder-full collection of 469 observations on life and the universe by an astrophysicist whose eye for detail is keen and whose sense of humor is refreshing. As Knight described it, “It’s profound without being ponderous, instructive without being pedantic, and engaging even at its most serious.”

What made the poet and his book even more interesting was the unusual path that he had taken to writing poetry: Ito Naga is the nom de plume of a French astrophysicist. He took his pseudonym in honor of his Japanese wife.

Afterward, Knight gave the scientist-poet a card from Sixteen Rivers Press, the Northern California poetry-publishing collective of which Knight is a member.

Two years later, Ito Naga’s initial English translation of Je sais arrived unexpectedly at Sixteen Rivers, with a letter saying that he would be pleased to have the press publish it. Knight laughs, “But we’re a collective that requires a three-year work commitment from our poets, and since Ito Naga lives in Paris, publishing his book seemed impossible.”

Although Ito Naga is fluent in English (having worked for NASA for three years), his translation needed some tweaking, so in a letter saying that the members of Sixteen Rivers were sorry that they couldn’t publish his book, Knight offered to work on the translation for the sheer pleasure it. She offered to help him find a publisher, too; the book had appeared in 2006 in France and had already been reprinted four times. (It is now in its seventh printing.) Knight was certain that it would have a similar appeal in the United States.

This fall, through Knight’s determined help, the work of the Sixteen Rivers collective, and generous assistance from the Howard S. Whitney and Yellow House foundations, Sixteen River Press is publishing I Know (Je sais), the English edition of Naga’s poems. The ebook of this collection will be made available by Stillpoint Digital Press.

Recently, Knight interviewed poet-scientist Ito Naga about his work:

Lynne Knight: Could you talk a little bit about how Je sais came into being?

Ito Naga: I had been looking for Georges Pérec’s Je me souviens for quite some time.  I’d only heard of it and I thought it was an amazing idea. Many years ago, I asked the bookseller (whose name was Mr. Vie; isn’t that a nice name?) in my neighborhood about this book and he told me that the idea actually was from an American painter, Joe Brainard, who in 1970 had published a book called I Remember. This book had just been retranslated into French, and there was a lovely preface by the translator, Marie Chaix. “Brainard,” she said, “has found a key to open memory from which he extracts words corresponding to old images.” This so-called key of “I remember” lies in the fact that you directly access the “old image” without caring about introduction or other literary preparations. You sort of jump to the memories, and it’s a jubilant jump. I realized that Brainard’s idea was not only fun but also amazingly stimulating. […] And one day when I was walking in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Brainard’s key and the question of “What do I know?” came into contact together. Why? I don’t know.


LK: There’s such an exquisite delicacy and restraint at work in all three of your books. How much has your familiarity with the Japanese culture contributed to your work?

IN: I’m glad that you see such a delicacy in these books. As for the Japanese culture, I’m not sure that I’m as familiar with it as you say. One thing for sure is that, once you let this culture enter your mind, it gradually grows. I did not make up the story with the “shy” singing insects and the caring shopkeeper in Nara (No. 40 and No. 41 of I Know). These are delicate things you encounter in Japan. I think this Japanese delicacy partly lies in the fact that they do not make everything explicit. They care for what is present but not explicitly said; they care for the shade that gives shape to things and not only for full light that flattens everything. They’ll tell you a few things and you’ll have to manage by yourself to fill the gaps. “Someone who can’t read the air (kuki ga yomenai hito)” they say about someone who doesn’t get the feel of a situation. It’s a sort of training, and it’s almost a miracle that, in the end, you can be understood.

There is delicacy also in the fact that the Japanese are extremely good at observing. To describe a small garden, they may say “a garden that is small like a cat’s forehead (neko no hitai no yona niwa).” Listening to this, you not only understand that the garden is small; you develop a feeling for its smallness. Little is said, so you have to rely on different senses. It seems to me that senses are more solicited in the Japanese culture, be it for food, architecture, arts and crafts . . . The Japanese go very far in understanding the senses and our relationship with nature. In contact with that culture, you find yourself paying more attention to subtle things. And this makes you happy.


LK: I hesitate to ask this since choosing a pseudonym is implicitly a request for anonymity. But I’m wondering if you would comment on choosing Ito Naga as your pseudonym. If you type Ito Naga into Google Translate, by the way, it just offers “Ito Naga” as a translation—unless you then click on Japanese characters that Google proposes, in which case the translation is “thread length.

IN: “Itonaga” is the name of the Japanese person I cherish. I’ve cut her name into two. Ito does mean “thread,” and I enjoy that idea. I think of Ariadne’s thread, which keeps you from losing your way in a maze. As for Naga, she says it means “eternity” rather than “length,” but is she trying to sway us? There are actually two ways of writing Naga in Japanese. The second way means “long length.” A bit closer to “eternity.”


LK: How much arranging did you do of the 469 statements? Did those statements that cluster together do so naturally, when you wrote them, or did you fit them together afterward? And did it just happen that there were 469 of them, or is there a reason that you stopped there?

IN: I initially wrote probably twice as many of these statements in notebooks. Just try and you’ll see that many of them come very easily. Then the whole question is which ones you select. If I write “I know that, at atmospheric pressure, water boils at 100°C,” although meaningful, it’s not very appealing to be included in the book. Or to put it in a different way: if you decide to include “I know that water boils at 100°C,” you give the book a very specific spin. So part of the game consisted in examining all the statements of my notebooks like tiny stones or shells according to their color and their atmosphere. Inserting them, or chains of them, here and there in the book, a bit like in a mosaic, sort of naturally led to the present arrangement.


LK: You spend much of your time as an astrophysicist seeing through a lens or seeing into the theoretical and abstract. How does your astrophysicist’s eye differ from your “naked” eye, as we say in English? Or does it seem not to differ at all?

IN: First, I should say that I’m working on in-situ measurements from spacecraft. So I do not see through a lens or, if so, it is not that of a telescope but a mental one. The physicist’s eye (or viewpoint?) is constrained by different conditions, the first ones being how, when or where can some event be observed. If this event cannot be somehow measured, the physicist’s eye looks away. Well, almost. Because of course in reality one keeps looking. Both the physicist’s eye and the “naked” eye are about observing, aren’t they? And what you learn in one field of your life, you naturally apply to the other fields. The attention that you pay when looking at some scientific data, you inevitably apply it to your daily life. We sometimes say that “someone” can make you attentive to this or that. “Something” can make you attentive as well. Writing is an example of this.


LK: Jean-Pierre Siméon [poet and editor, Cheyne éditeur] says that you show us the real for what it is: a universe infinitely expanding. In what ways has being an astrophysicist influenced your close observation of the reality before you? (Let’s posit that Nabokov was right, and “reality” is a word that makes sense only within quotation marks.)

IN: Your question makes me think of a day where I was dropping flower seeds. Have you noticed how tiny these seeds are? Well, at least the seeds I dropped were. I felt like I was not dropping anything but bits of code, marking the soil from place to place. One sometimes feels surprised all over again by real things and the processes inside them. There is a sort of exaltation in these moments where you reload something that has turned invisible to your eyes. We discovered all of this at the beginning of our lives and we forgot it.


LK: When you’re doing a reading, how do you choose which of the 469 statements to read? Are there some that you find “read” better aloud than others? Are there some you always read? If so, could you name a few of them?

IN: I always read the first one and the last one. The last one about Marco Polo because this story is just marvelous. It connects East and West; it sort of opens the horizon and makes you breathe. The first one because everyone notices coincidences: “I know that it’s tempting to see signs in coincidences.” I know that this statement is intriguing because everyone has a collection of coincidences of his own. I have mine. One day at a reading, a woman told me that she did not listen to me. She got stuck at this very first “I know” and started thinking of a recent coincidence. A not so pleasant one. Some of the “I know’s” that I read are recurrent such as the one about pigeons moving away from me in the street (No. 52) and the following one about the shark in the British zoo (No. 53) or the one about sitting at a table thinking about God (No. 269). To answer your question in a different way, the “I know’s” have different atmospheres. Some of them are more gloomy than others and I’d rather not read the gloomy ones.

LK: Did your sense of the book change in any way when you began translating it into English? Did any statements seem untranslatable? Are there particular statements that seem to you better in one language than in the other? (And of course we’d love some examples, if so.)

IN: This is an interesting question and I’m not sure that I have a clear answer. First, I must say that I am very happy that the book has been translated in English, which is a beautiful language. Translating is a matter of words and sounds, and also a matter of rhythm and viewpoint. Take Joe Brainard. After writing I Remember, he wrote a second book entitled I Remember More. Then a third one entitled More I Remember More. I enjoy the spin of these titles. They are simple, light and swift. I actually mention something about this in No. 100 and No.101 of I Know: how the position of words in English curiously makes them more evocative than in French, as in “atmospheric café.” I wonder whether it works the other way around for English-speaking people. With the translation of the book into English, I’ve also learned a couple of expressions that I don’t have a chance to meet in scientific papers, such as “Are you putting me on?” “Can I hit you up for one?” or “spread ourselves thin.” I miss a number of subtleties in English. I think there is irony here and there in the book, and I’m curious to know how it sounds in English. One example is No. 279: “I know that, when you listen to someone else, something that looks like thinking occurs. This is what makes you resemble a dead fish.” In other places, I can’t help being surprised by the proximity of French and English, for instance when it comes to “dotting the i’s” (No.184).


LK: There’s always discussion about an author’s intent. How would you characterize your own intent? And, as a related question, what do you hope people gain from reading I Know (Je sais)? 

IN: One day, someone who hadn’t read the book asked me about the title. “Lucky man!” he said after I told him. When you read the book, it rapidly becomes apparent that there are different levels for understanding “knowledge” here. You may wonder here and there in the book: “What sort of knowledge is this?” The intent was not clearly formed in my mind when I started writing. It was rather a feeling that we are filled with streams of “I know’s” and that, as changing and fragile as they are, they stand at the very center of our lives. People have told me that they felt good after reading the book. If so, I’m happy that the book contributes to a sense of “bien-être” or well-being.

I Know (Je sais) is the twenty-ninth book to be published by Sixteen Rivers Press (, a poetry collective dedicated to providing an alternative publishing avenue for Bay Area poets. The press is named for the sixteen rivers that flow into San Francisco Bay.

Ito Naga is the nom de plume of a prominent French astrophysicist living in Paris. He is the author of three books, all published in France by Cheyne éditeur: NGC 224 (2013); Iro mo ka mo, la couleur et le parfum (2010), now in its third printing; and Je sais (2006), now in its seventh printing. He also contributes regularly to the Italian journal Sud.

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