Sunday, December 18, 2011

Making of The End

Note to self: Always write down wandering thoughts that seem vaguely poetic and always save your scraps. My poem The End sat in my scraps folder (that is, the folder on my laptop) for a year just as 2 separate images that I would whittle for a moment whenever I was working on a poem. Until, with the perspective that comes from memory loss, I realised the 2 images could relate to each other as end-of-life scenarios. They became verses 1 and 2 and I made up the 3rd verse to complete the idea. Then I whittled some more, now that the idea was clear in my head and it emerged a publishable poem.

I mention this because sometimes I hear writer friends saying you have to be disciplined and not stray off the path of your goal. But I only have one writing rule: If the juices are flowing, write it down. You never know what it will become.

If I may get a bit carried away, I love this saying: "You never know when something begins". I don't know who said it first but I'm quoting John Berger, incidentally, from a talk on his recent book Bento's Sketchbook, which I'm really enjoying. Anyway, not just a saying to be applied to writing, obviously but a really nice one for life, I think.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pop-up Tokyo

Konichiwa is the Japanese for good morning and good afternoon but not good evening. Kampai is how you say cheers. It's good for any time of day except when you're with your client CEO because it actually means bottoms-up. But I'll get to that later.

I started writing a poem in my head called Pop-up Tokyo when I stepped off the plane in Japan. I was hit by the aesthetics of the city, its geometrical landscape, multi-coloured bicycles and glaring shopping blocks with vertical letters that I wanted to climb. But over a few days I began to see that the poem was missing something. Just like the occasional crescent-moon roof-top lying low next to designer stores, an older world persists in Tokyo, in the form of the Japanese culture. I was discovering that all social interaction has a rich set of rules. For example, people bow to each other, in the same way that westerners nod, wink or wave. The bow is slow and taken with care as a sign of respect. This respect is also demonstrated in the exchange of an object. Always presented and accepted with both hands. There's something quaint about a guy in grunge jeans tipping his head when he offers you his card. Then there are the aspirational rituals that have to be deserved. Like topping up your hosts drink over dinner. Well, we all have that one, in a way, when you think about it. But I learned this was not something you do casually. And it was by accident that I was included for dinner with our client CEO on the evening of our project launch. A matter of the right place at the right time when the interpreter invited my manager. ‘Bring five people,’ she instructed, leaving him to select quickly. My team were also making plans to go out and part of me wanted to go with them. Our working days were long and we were constantly on call. But every night, despite the jetlag we had to let off steam. There was the restaurant with the revolving tables and a little of everything served, but no pictures to tell you what you ordered. And later that night a strange basement bar with an American pool hustler and no business calling itself The Oasis. Then there was the noodle bar, tucked away off a side-street that, despite the smoky air, had the best noodle soup we'd ever tasted! - a haven, as we left work so late we thought we'd have to survive on a liquid dinner. Bars are a strong feature of Japanese eateries. Tucked away cubbyholes in shopping centres or tucked away on side-streets. It was in a narrow, disco-lit darts bar where I somehow became a darts hustler. There were a lot of high-fives with the locals that night. However, I had never actually had sushi before and we were being taken to a famous Sushi restaurant.

This is where I tried the Kampai ice-breaker. Her first time in Japan, was the explanation for my charm. Never even had Sushi. At this I was forgiven. 'You, eat' the CEO demanded with delight pointing at the little rectangles of fish. 'You know, he told the waitress to bring the weird stuff out for you' my Tokyo team-lead helpfully interpreted as small dishes were placed around me. I felt like the future relationship of our companies depended on my keeping seaweed down. It's not that I didn't like it. I found the tastes so strange in my mouth I couldn't really tell if I liked it. After a few speed swallows, afraid to think about what I was eating, my stomach was definitely unsettled. It probably won't be considered polite if I vomit on the table, I told myself with surreptitious deep breaths. This is when my team-leader suggested the magical ginger and sachi combo to settle the stomach. He had my back. But I still doubted him when he said, 'His glass is empty. If you top it up, it's a sign of respect.' He was apparently not a man to miss an opportunity. 'Are you sure?' I asked, lifting the fat jug of Sachi. 'You're not setting me up?' (I mean, we had only met a few days earlier and he seemed to have a pretty developed sense of humor). But I had already sailed my arm over the sushi tray so there was no going back. 'Go for it.' he encouraged as the table paused and heads turned, seeing what I was doing. The CEO had to scramble for his glass, in surprise at my forwardness. I managed not to spill. 'He says thank you for fulfilling his need when no one else saw his need,' the interpreter said, making everyone laugh with relief. 'Respect,' one of my managers nodded and I realised the weight given the gesture meant the kudos wasn't limited to the Japanese! Wonder if it will count towards a pay rise?

Outside the restaurant we said our goodbyes and cards were exchanged with the promise of future business opportunities. I asked the interpreter to convey to our host that I would always remember my first sushi experience. She replied he hoped I would not remember him because young Japanese men were very good and he would like me to come back to find one. Well, as it happens there may be opportunities in the Tokyo office and the trip has given me something to think about. I might be back, I bowed and we shook hands, western style.

The poem needs a little work...