Negaeri wo
suru zo wakiyore

Cricket, be
careful! I'm rolling

Media Mike

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Photo by Sue Farmer

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Many Ways of Looking at Tamamushi-Iro

by Media Mike Hazard

A swarm of 25 first through eighth graders at Capitol Hill School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was busy as bees off and on for a whole school year, creating Tamamushi-Iro. It is a great little video of haiku about bugs written by the Japanese poet Issa (1763-1827). We might look at it in many different ways.

While developing the project with the art teacher Julie Woodman, I learned from Ross Corson, then an aide to Ambassador Mondale in Japan, that there is a saying, "tama-mushi-iro," literally meaning "round-bug-color." It is used in diplomatic circles to describe something which looks beautiful to everyone, yet different from all angles. Our dream became to create a video of some of Issa's insect haiku which might be seen as tamamushi-iro.

Like a Rashomon, the video has been seen as a program about Issa, about bugs, about poetry, about Japan, about kids' views of the world, about art and artist residencies, about television, about international education, about experiential learning, about crossgenerational, crosscultural and crossdisciplinary education, about a person who lived 200 years ago, about inquiry science, about old poetry and new technology...It has been seen in many colorful ways.

First, it's about great poems. This is why I love poetry. My nine year old daughter, who was on the Issa team, saw a spring fly, and flew to get a flyswatter. She raised her arm, and in mid-air stopped, and thought "Issa," and let the fly fly. Now if we raise a society to respect even the tiniest creatures of the earth, maybe when some dumb finger is about to push a button and blow us all to kingdom come, some small poem will save us from our worst selves. If we can create a society which stops and thinks, stop and think: we just might....

Ambassador Mondale helped us connect with Sakurababa Junior High School in Nagasaki. Our sister city relationship between Saint Paul and Nagasaki was set up to heal the war wounds of World War Two. On a profound level, this was all about international education, across time and space.

I look into a dragonfly's eye
and see
the mountains over my shoulder.

Toyama ga
tsuki ni utsuru
tonbo kana

The first Issa poem I ever heard was this version of Robert Bly's about a dragonfly. For ten years, I kept an eye open to test the truth of the poem. And one Saturday morning, helping a friend move in early spring, a humongous dragonfly was hanging out on a bush in a front yard in Northeast Minneapolis.

American culture has this soft idea of the poet as only a dreamer. We don't understand the great poem is not just from the heart, it is also good science. I looked in the eye of that dragonfly and I saw a house across the street. I also saw myself, and noticed that Issa mentions the world over his shoulder, and he doesn't make himself the center of the world.

Cute as a bug, the colorful array of masks symbolizes the concept behind Tamamushi-Iro, a video about the bug haiku of Issa. Photo by Julie Woodman.

The way we made the video was another way of looking at this story. This was a hands-on, learn-by-making project. The students shot, directed, performed, edited, produced, wrote scripts, and made props for the whole shebang. Further, the process was an experiment in crossdisciplinary, crossgenerational, and crosscultural education supported by grants from the School Arts Fund of COMPAS and the Minnesota State Arts Board.

In the American educational system, for convenience we divide students by age and grade, and this extends to the larger society, which is a lot of groups of like-minded, like-aged individuals. When our Japanese speaker was preparing for his performance of the poems, he rehearsed with his Grandmother, who speaks no English. This is how we can build a bigger community, a deeper world.

Our sister city school in Nagasaki was astonished by the Japanese in the film, as it turns out the dialect which Grandmother taught him was the 200 year old speech which Issa himself would have spoken.

I love Issa because he is a champion of little things. No thing was too small for his attention. His good humor, fierce sense of fairness, willingness to be silly, and childlike perspective give his poems universal appeal. He is a rebel, a voice for the poor, a bug for bugs who talks to bugs.

This stupid world--
skinny mosquitos, skinny fleas,
skinny children.

Another way to see what we did is by looking at the idea of translation as a central metaphor. There are things that can't be translated, like the allusive layering of meanings of words in the archaeology of the original language or onomatopoeia. There's the new popular arts messing with the old traditional arts. It is like raising children, you can never do it right; you just do the best you can. Viewers might notice the first and last things we hear in the video are poems in the original language.

(Translation note: Robert Bly translated the poems which appear with the Japanese versions; Robert Hass provided the other one. Arigato/thank you.)

Our goal was to create an American version, integrating the ethnicities of the school--Japanese, Iranian, Hmong, Swedish, Indian, Irish, African, Hispanic, German, and Norwegian among others--into a new way of seeing Issa's poems. One might consider four ways to learn about others: (1) Pay attention, and respect; (2) Know you will never get it right; (3) Get good helpers; and (4) Trust yourself.

When we called the Japan America Society of Minnesota, we were given good leads, especially a certain Yuko Miyamoto Gosda. A writer who majored in Japanese literature, she suggested things at the beginning, consulted on the rough cut, and offered comments at the end. We learned things about Issa which are not translatable, heard suggestive stories about Issa's life, and finally enjoyed her supportive feedback.

One last way to look at the video is for you can ask us for it. We give it away free to anyone who does so. (We do also sell them. Check out the order form.)

The old dog bends his head listening...
I guess the singing
of the earthworms gets to him.

Furu inu ya
mimizu no uta ni

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