Robyn Hood Black - children's author, poet, artist

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Hanging with fellow Georgia writers (from top, l-r) Tracy Walker, Heather Kolich, Donna Bowman, (bottom, middle) Janice Hardy and Paula Puckett
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Life on the Deckle Edge

Poetry Friday: Interview with David Jacobson - ARE YOU AN ECHO?

November 10, 2016

Tags: Poetry Friday, poetry, David Jacobson, book tracks, Are You an Echo

The poem:
After day comes night,
after night comes day.
From where can I see
this long, long rope,
its one end, and the other?

Greetings, Poetry Friends. In a week when we could all use more poetry celebrating the human spirit, Iím delighted to welcome David Jacobson, author of the recently released and much-lauded ARE YOU AN ECHO?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (Chin Music Press, September 2016). This gorgeous 64-page picture book biography and poetry collection was also translated by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi and was illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri.

Misuzu lived 100 years ago in Japan. She possessed a keen ability to interpret life from the perspectives of others, even objects. Her poems are taught in schools and beloved by the population there, though largely unknown here, at least until now.

If you donít know this book yet, these recent features are superb, and they offer many more links. [Youíll have to click back to return here, but please do Ė David offers a glimpse into the many moving parts behind the bookís creation as well as some history of childrenís literature in Japan.]


For Jamaís rich review at Alphabet Soup, click here.

Click here for Janet Wongís behind-the-scenes interviews with David and Sally Ito at Sylvia Vardellís Poetry for Children.

Julie Danielson at Kirkus interviewed David here.

For an interview on Playing by the Book with Zoe Toft, click here.

Hereís the Misuzu Kaneko/ARE YOU AN ECHO? site.


The posts above offer insights into the hardships and tragedy of Misuzu's life, and discussions of how these are sensitively handled in the text and art, as well as showcasing her beautiful poetry.

Now itís my turn to interview David!

Tell us a bit about yourself - your career as a writer, your interest (and fluency) in Japanese, how you spend your days?

My writing career started inauspiciously as a copy boy at the New York bureau of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Japanís Wall St. Journal), where I would retrieve wire copy and fetch dinner for the correspondents. I then progressed through a series of reporting and editing jobs at the Associated Press, NHK (Japanese public broadcasting), and CNN. Following a long transition during which I got an MBA and had 2 kids, I ended up at Chin Music Press in Seattle, where Iíve worked ever since doing a variety of editorial and marketing jobs.

Iíve been interested in Japan ever since going there as an exchange student during high school. I obtained a degree in East Asian Studies from Yale, and undertook advanced language instruction at Middlebury and the Stanford Center in Tokyo. After obtaining my degree at Yale, I lived in Japan for 5 years, first as a graduate student and then as a journalist. My work has involved Japan in various ways ever since.

Today, Iím the principal caregiver to my two children, and am forever trying to complete my writing and publishing obligations during the time they are at school. I also try to fit in some time to play the piano, a hobby Iíve pursued since I was five.

How did you first discover the poetry of Misuzu Kaneko?

A Japanese friend of many years sent me an anthology of her work in the fall of 2013. In reading her poems, I was first struck by how relevant they were to me and my own kids, even though Misuzu wrote them nearly 100 years ago. And then I was utterly charmed by the compassion she shows Ė to the fish on her plate, to a dog who has broken its leg, to a boy and a girl on a first date.

What compelled you to create a book about Misuzu and her poetry?

I started out loving her poetry. Then once I started looking into the possibility of translating her work, I realized that she was really a dream subject. Her poems had hardly been translated into English, and her backstory was both fascinating and tragic. But then the idea of pitching a poetry book (not a favorite of most US publishers) about what some might consider a fairly esoteric subject (a Japanese poet from a century ago) set inÖ Fortunately, though, Chin Music Press liked the idea.

I was struck by how she maintained her voice, despite the times and the culture in which she lived, as well as her illness. How do you think she kept her sense of self in these circumstances?

Itís really astonishing, isnít it? She must have been a truly amazing woman. She grew up in a family of women, in which her mother and grandmother were in charge (her father had died when she was 3 and her grandfather was out of the picture). They let her get much more education than most Japanese girls got in those days. So I think her family must have encouraged her to become a strong, smart, and self-possessed young woman.

But when you look at how she responded to her very difficult marriage, her illness and the impending takeaway of her daughter, she displays such tremendous courage and will, based on her personal values, that you get the sense of a woman of great internal strength. I think thatís what enabled her to get through such difficulties.

As a student of haiku, I heard echoes of Issa as I read Musuzu's beautiful, original poems. What might have been some of her literary influences?

For someone who grew up in a fairly remote and provincial part of Japan, Misuzu was extremely well educated and cosmopolitan. There are multiple references to Hans Christian Andersen in her work, as well as to Western stories and characters like Jack and the Beanstalk, Robinson Crusoe, and King Midas. She became familiar with English poet Christina Rossetti, after her mentor said her poetry was reminiscent of Rossettiís.

As for Japanese influences, she kept a scrapbook of works by contemporary poets she admired, offering a direct window into her literary tastes (poets included Kitahara Hakushu, Saijo Yaso, Horiguchi Daigaku, etc.). I canít name any specific classical Japanese influences; however, her work often (though not always) follows 5-7 or 7-7 rhythms, suggesting close understanding of Japanese traditional forms such as tanka and haiku.

What was the publishing world like for children's literature in early 20th-Century Japan?

It must have been quite an exciting and liberating time to be in childrenís literature in Japan in the 1920s when Misuzu was writing. Prominent writers such as Akutagawa and Shimazaki were joining the field. For the first time in Japanese literary history, Japanese writers were attempting to depict childrenís inner lives, and they were encouraging each other to experiment. Moreover, there were amazing opportunities to be published. At one point there were 66 different childrenís magazines published in Tokyo alone!

This book is a sparkling feat of collaboration. How did you, Setsuo Yazaki, Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi come to cross paths? What was it like to work together?

There are so many collaborators on this book that reviewers canít seem to keep straight who did what!

With the approval of my boss at Chin Music Press, Bruce Rutledge, I selected Sally and Michiko from a list of several translators. I liked the fact that Sally was herself a poet, and had already translated a considerable number of Misuzuís poems with Michiko. Most important, though, was their sometimes motherly, sometimes girlish, but always accessible tone. We needed a voice that would speak to children, and I think Sally and Michiko provided it.

The collaboration between Sally, Michiko and me was much more intense than I expected, but very rewarding too. We lived in 3 different countries with 3 different time zones, so the most effective way to communicate was by email or Skype. Starting in early summer of last year, we exchanged comments and suggestions about the narrative and the poetry nearly daily. Each poem went through multiple drafts, as did the narrative. It was frustrating at times, but exhilarating, too, to get to the bottom of what Misuzu was trying to accomplish and then to convey that to English readers.

As for Yazaki, I met him in Japan during my September 2015 trip there. He and the head of JULA Publishing Bureau, Misuzuís Japanese publisher, met me, illustrator Toshikado Hajiri and translator Michiko Tsuboi in Senzaki, where Misuzu grew up. They showed us around the Kaneko Memorial Museum (which Yazaki directs) and a number of other places in town connected with Misuzu. They had flown all the way from Tokyo (at least a half dayís travel) to meet us.

Toshikado Hajiri's art is breathtaking, capturing joy as well as solemnity. Did you see the paintings before publication, and how do they help tell the story?

Yes, I was in close contact with Toshi from early on in the process, and showed him multiple copies of the manuscript before he even began sketching. In September of 2015, the two of us, along with translator Michiko Tsuboi, visited Misuzuís hometown of Senzaki together, so that Toshi could get a feel for the look of the place where she grew up. After a month or so, he submitted sketches, which we commented on, and then once we reached agreement, he painted them.

I feel his work adds a lot to the text: the look and feel of early 20th century Japan; and tone and emotion, particularly to the darker parts of the story where the text is spare. His art also amplifies the meaning of some of the poems. I love, for instance, his interpretation of ďDay and Night,Ē a poem in which a child is wondering about time: when does day end and night begin? Toshi brilliantly reinterprets the rope, a metaphor for time, as a jump rope!

Finally, tell us about your travel plans for January!

I am not familiar with all the details yet, but from what I understand I will be participating in three events with poet Setsuo Yazaki in Kyoto, Tokyo and Asahikawa, Japan. They are being organized by Misuzuís Japanese publisher, JULA Publishing Bureau, and are intended to celebrate the launch of ARE YOU AN ECHO? in Japan.

Sounds wonderful! Many thanks for joining us today, David, and sharing so much of how this treasure of a book came to be. (My thanks as well to Janet Wong for introducing me to David last month at POETRY CAMP at Western Washington University.)

For this weekís delectable Poetry Friday Roundup, please visit the aforementioned one-and-only Jama at Alphabet Soup!


  1. November 10, 2016 9:54 PM EST
    Thanks for the interview and for introducing us to the book, which I now want to read. Sounds wonderful, and the poem shared here makes me want to read more.
    - Sally Murphy
  2. November 10, 2016 9:59 PM EST
    Hi, Sally - it's a beautiful and unusual book. I know you'll appreciate it if you can get your hands on a copy!
    - Robyn Black
  3. November 10, 2016 10:08 PM EST
    Great interview Robyn and David. The library's copy of the book still hasn't arrived, yet, but maybe next week... I've read so much about it in the blogosphere, I'm getting a bit antsy!
    - Diane Mayr
  4. November 10, 2016 10:22 PM EST
    Thanks, Diane - glad you have a copy on the way!
    - Robyn Black
  5. November 10, 2016 10:55 PM EST
    Thanks for this insight.
    - Joy Acey
  6. November 11, 2016 4:14 AM EST
    I love this book - it's just beautiful, and it introduces us to such a fine and interesting poet. And thanks for the interview!
    - Julie Larios
  7. November 11, 2016 8:03 AM EST
    Hi, Joy - thanks for coming by!

    Julie, I agree - and learning about all the time, passion and talents that went into producing it makes me love it even more.
    - Robyn Black
  8. November 11, 2016 8:11 AM EST
    I'm fascinated by the joint translation efforts! A lot of love went into this book, clearly. Thank you, Robyn, for sharing. xo
    - Irene Latham
  9. November 11, 2016 8:20 AM EST
    Wonderful interview. I will look for this book.
    - Brenda at friendlyfairytales
  10. November 11, 2016 9:15 AM EST
    This book is on the Cybil's list and I am looking forward to reading it, Robyn. You've added wonderful information through this interview. I am really looking forward to reading it. Thanks!
    - Linda Baie
  11. November 11, 2016 9:57 AM EST
    Thank you Robyn and David, for the in depth interview. It's amazing to me how much went into the making of this beautiful book on so many levels! And Misuzu's poetry speaks straight to the heart.
    - Michelle Heidenrich Barnes
  12. November 11, 2016 10:11 AM EST
    Irene - isn't that amazing? A lot of skill and finesse, for sure.

    Hi, Brenda - you will not be disappointed! Thanks for popping in.

    Linda, I have a feeling you will be delighted and moved by these spare poems and the personal story - I'll be anxious to hear what you think!

    Thanks for dropping by, Michelle. And I echo your thanks to David for the richness and depth of his responses.
    - Robyn Black
  13. November 11, 2016 10:31 AM EST
    Thoroughly enjoyed the interview, Robyn and David! It was wonderful learning more about the collaboration to top all collaborations :). I am inspired by the passion displayed by the entire team to create such a beautiful end product. I am also thankful for Chin Music Press and other indie publishers who champion sometimes esoteric, off-the-beaten path subjects. This book was a breath of fresh air and struck me immediately amongst the tons of same-old, same-old stuff some of the mainstream publishers are bringing out.
    - jama
  14. November 11, 2016 12:51 PM EST
    Wonderful interview--putting this on my to-read list!
    - Buffy Silverman
  15. November 11, 2016 1:20 PM EST
    Hi, Jama - You did such an amazing job with your feature/review - it was fun to add a little more backstory to the story of this unique book. Hear, hear for thoughtful indie presses, too! Thanks for hosting the Roundup today.

    Buffy - It's a worthy member of that list! :0) Thanks for coming by.
    - Robyn Black
  16. November 11, 2016 1:43 PM EST
    What a great interview! I share his fascination with Japan - I'm off for 5 weeks there in December, can't wait!!
    - Jane @ Raincity Librarian
  17. November 11, 2016 2:24 PM EST
    Looks like a gorgeous book.
    - Tabatha
  18. November 11, 2016 6:40 PM EST
    I've so many good things about this book, Robyn! Can't wait to read it myself. =)
    - Bridget Magee
  19. November 11, 2016 8:26 PM EST
    Oh, Jane - how fabulous! Hope you have an inspiring time.

    Hi, Tabatha - it is, words and pictures.

    Bridget, I'm sure you will appreciate it! & Hey - I miss you!
    - Robyn Black
  20. November 12, 2016 6:40 AM EST
    I've heard so much praise for this book, but haven't had time to look for it yet. Thank you for this insightful interview, Robyn!
    - Catherine @ Reading to the Core
  21. November 12, 2016 8:48 AM EST
    An absolutely delightful interview. I can't get enough about the background to this book. I have it on my school library wish list.
    - Linda Mitchell
  22. November 12, 2016 1:01 PM EST
    Fabulous interview, Robyn! It sure makes one appreciate the behind-the-scenes thought, attention to detail and authenticity that went into this book. I've put it on my list to reserve at the library. Thanks so much!
    - Violet N.
  23. November 12, 2016 3:44 PM EST
    Catherine, you heard right! ;0) And glad you enjoyed.

    Hi, Linda - I do hope your school library will get for their collection. Such devotion went into this book's creation, right?

    Violet, You will appreciate it, I know. Thanks for joining the discussion!

    - Robyn Black
  24. November 13, 2016 6:38 AM EST
    How fascinating to read this after Jama's post last week!
    - Mary Lee Hahn
  25. November 13, 2016 1:47 PM EST
    Hi, Mary Lee - glad you enjoyed! No one does a book feature like Jama... happy to share some more backstory. :0)
    - Robyn Black

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bio, photos, interview links, etc.
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In schools or other settings, Robyn shares her passion for writing and encourages creativity. Presentations for all age groups.
In addition to writing books, Robyn has sold her writing to major children's magazines.
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