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In Conversation With: Sachiko Murakami on Community Poetry Renos and

Sachiko Murakami's online community poetry project welcomes visitors to "move into" poems for the express purpose of renovating the digs. What's this? Read on.


One day, my inbox went *DING* *DONG* and this showed up:


Move in and renovate the poems of Fred Wah, Darren Werschler, Larissa Lai, a.rawlings, Ray Hsu and over a hundred more in this collaborative poetry project initiated by Sachiko Murakami.

What is a poem but a rental unit of language?
Project Rebuild allows visitors to move in to any poem/house in the neighbourhood. On the page of any poem, click on “renovate” and the poem becomes editable in a text box. Change the nouns. Throw out the verbs. Bring in the big delete-button bulldozer and start fresh. Your poem will become a new house in the neighbourhood. And you can follow a poem's evolution by clicking on the "previous tenants" and "renovations" houses on each poem's page."

I immediately went to the site, clicked on the first house closest to my cursor . . . and froze.

"I can't mess with someone else's writing!" I exclaimed. (That's the G-rated version.) I tried again, highlighting a word, then two, then clicking outside the box and closing the tab.

Later that day, I sat in the corner of the room, knees to my chin, peeking out only occasionally to see if The Poem was still intact. I became defensive of The Poem, worried someone less reasoned would stumble in, like Blanche DuBois into Woody Allen's God.

BLANCHE: I'm afraid it's all too true. Too true and too ghastly. That's why I ran out of my play. Escaped. Oh, not that Mr. Tennessee Williams is not a very great writer, but honey—he dropped me in the center of a nightmare. The last thing I remember, I was being taken out by two strangers, one who held a strait jacket.

However, talk to Sachiko Murakami and you'll soon realize that this is precisely the point—and the fun—of Project Rebuild. It's not for us to question or defend The Poem. It's ours to interpret.

Julie Wilson: Project Rebuild allows visitors to move into an existing poem and make it their own. It reminds me of a chat I had a few years ago with A. F. Moritz, in which I asked him the essential newbie questions:

"Why do you break the line there?"
"What's poetry?"
"Why did you read it one way when it sits on the page another?"
"What's poetry?"
"How do you edit poetry?"
"What IS poetry?"

Al calmly leaned back in his chair and gestured to the walls, saying, "Did you need to be an architect to walk into this building?" However, at Project Rebuild, you're inviting the reader to become the architect. (Or is it the designer?) How does the project invite rather than intimidate the reader who wants to play around but isn't sure if he or she will "get it right"?

Sachiko Murakami: "Getting it right" is I think a big part of what I'm interested in here. It's that finality of a Poem, printed on a page, bound in a book, that I want to unsettle. I don't think that's particularly new. Think of the cento, a form in which every line is taken from other poems. Think of the convention of the epigraph, where the writer takes another's line or idea and runs with it. Think of plunderverse, found poetry, flarf etc. Think of the Tradition, the Canon. A professor (Judith Hertz, at Concordia) once said every sonnet written is written in response to every sonnet written before it. And of course, think of performance—the change and surprise that comes with bringing up language up and out through the body. I know in my own experience, I've altered poems as I read them in performance, changing a preposition here, skipping a line there, following the line and its breaks, very closely or not at all. Or when you hear a poet cover a poem, how that changes it. Or even when you hear the studio version of the song, and then live in performance, or covered by someone else. All those possibilities are interesting to me.

JW: This carries through to your own writing, yes?


SM: In Rebuild, my collection due out next month, I think through this "getting it right." There are quite a few "rebuilt" poems in the book. I thought that maybe one poem isn't enough to "get it right", so I do a bit of renovation on the poem, then show its renovation next to the original. Editing is just a process of renovation, and I wanted to make that process visible. Often the renovated poems use very different methods—I knock out nouns and strip off letters; I flip one poem on its head; sometimes I just rewrite it leaving the "spirit" of the original intact, etc. It's this idea that every poem needs to be a perfectly arranged little room—those white rooms my friends' parents had, the ones kids weren't allowed in. I wanted to mess things up.

JW: We don't have to clean up after ourselves at Project Rebuild, do we?

SM: Project Rebuild is, indeed, an invitation to play. The source poem started with an idea of habitation, of neighbourliness, and I invited some poets to move in, and then had a friend (Starkaður Barkarson) create the website infrastructure that would extend this invitation to the public. I think it's the idea of the poem as the white room that might intimidate someone—How dare you track your muddy footprints all over Fred Wah's pristine poem! But the poems themselves aren't deleted as you renovate them, the new poems join the neighbourhood, and then become source poems for renovation. It certainly isn't a project to find the one great final poem about neighbourhood and then end the site once it's written. The conversation will go on as long as the site does.

JW: Knowing the renovated poems will become neighbour-poems is a great idea. This is a great project, Sachiko. See you soon, neighbour!


Say hello to Sachiko Murakami on Canadian Bookshelf.

Sachiko Murakami is the author of The Invisibility Exhibit—a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award—and Rebuild (Fall 2011), both from Talon Books.

Follow her on Twitter at @SachikoMurakami and @PivotReadings where she's the co-host of the Pivot Readings at the Press Club.

And you can Tumblr for her—get it?—here.

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