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The Poetry of Friendship     Photo: Elizabeth Floyd and Naoshi Koriyama

Elizabeth Floyd, left, and Naoshi Koriyama at his home in a Tokyo suburb.

By Christine Hanson McKnight

e was a homesick Japanese youth struggling to earn a degree in English at the New York State College for Teachers. She was an outgoing American classmate who befriended him and taught him how to square dance in Merlin Hathaway’s physical education class.

After graduation from the College for Teachers in June of 1954, Naoshi Koriyama, B.A.’54, returned to Japan, where he taught English and quietly achieved international stature as a poet. Though he is practically unknown in Japan, since he writes in English rather than his native Japan-ese, several of his poems, most notably “Unfolding Bud” and “Jetliner,” are found in some two dozen schoolbook anthologies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and South Africa. No other living Japanese poet’s works are so frequently reprinted in the English-speaking world.

Elizabeth Floyd with parents, UAlbany alumni Joan and Bill Floyd
Elizabeth Floyd, left, with her parents, UAlbany alumni Joan and Bill Floyd, during a visit to the States last fall.

Koriyama’s square dance partner from nearly 50 years ago was Joan Labouseur, B.A.’54, M.A.’55, M.L.S.’70, who later married another classmate, William Floyd, B.A.’54, M.A.’55, and became a school librarian. Bill, meanwhile, earned his Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and also went on to a career in education. They settled in Guilderland, a suburb of Schenectady.

From opposite sides of the globe, the Floyds and Koriyama have nurtured a lifelong friendship — now enriched by a literary collaboration between Koriyama and the Floyds’ daughter, Elizabeth, a book editor and freelance writer who is fluent in Japanese and has lived in Tokyo since 1988. The Floyds and Koriyama, now all retired, fondly remember their time together at the College for Teachers, UAlbany’s predecessor institution.

“I had the same class with him, and he always seemed to me to be a shy, lonely person, being so far away from home,” Joan Floyd said. “We got to talking from time to time . . . He was very polite and very nice. He used to sit in Hawley Library on the downtown campus, doing his French homework with a French-English dictionary and a Japanese-English dictionary.”

Margaret Masai and Naoshi Koriyama
On the day of his graduation from The College for Teachers in 1954, Koriyama posed with his friend, Margaret Masai, for this photo in front of Husted Hall.

“I remember Joan as being very friendly,” Koriyama told Elizabeth Floyd recently. “Speaking frankly, some girls didn’t want to be my partner. This was right after the war. But your mother taught me very kindly how to square dance.”

Koriyama wrote about those experiences in Another Bridge over the Pacific, A Man from an Island and His American Wife, which chronicled his experiences in America after World War II. A native of the subtropical Amami Islands, between mainland Japan and Taiwan,

Elizabeth Floyd and Naoshi Koriyama
Elizabeth Floyd with Koriyama today.

Koriyama worked as a translator for U.S. military occupation forces in Okinawa, then studied at the University of New Mexico for a year as an exchange student. He completed his undergraduate studies at the College for Teachers with the encouragement of Kenkichi Masai, another native of Koriyama’s home island in Japan. Kenkichi and his “American wife,” Margaret, owned a thriving florist business on Long Island.

In Another Bridge over the Pacific, Koriyama pays homage to two of his professors: Vivian Hopkins, who encouraged him to write poetry in English, and sociologist Theodore Standing, who opened his family’s country home in East Nassau to the Japanese youth on weekends. At the suggestion of Hopkins, Koriyama submitted “Cave Man’s Moonrise,” the first poem he ever wrote in English, to The Christian Science Monitor, which printed it. He later wrote and dedicated a poem to Hopkins entitled “All the Poems I Have Written I Owe You,” as well as a tribute to Standing called “Stoney Fields.”

Unfolding Bud poem
This poem first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on July 3, 1957 and is reproduced with permission. Copyright © 1957 The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com). All rights reserved.

After returning to Japan, he taught English and poetry at Toyo University in Tokyo and continued to write poetry noted for its appeal to American tastes. He has published at least six books of poetry and is the recipient of several international prizes in poetry.

“Perhaps he is even more appreciated in the United States than in Japan — which is not surprising, since his first love is writing poetry in English,” said Elizabeth Floyd, who earned her B.A. from Binghamton University, then studied literary translation and Japanese in graduate school at the University of Iowa.

In the schoolbook anthology Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, she noted, Koriyama’s work appears alongside that of such noted poets as Theodore Roethke, Donald Hall, E.E. Cummings, Dorothy Parker, Audre Lord and Langston Hughes. “This is, of course, an extraordinary achievement for someone who is writing in a language other than his native tongue,” she said. “Only a handful of writers have been successful in adopted languages, like Vladimir Nabokov, Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Conrad.”

When Elizabeth Floyd moved to Japan 14 years ago to continue her language study, her parents encouraged her to renew their long-distance friendship with Koriyama. That led to Elizabeth and Naoshi’s recent collaboration on the English translation of a book by one of South Korea’s most famous poets, Chong Ki-Sheok. The book, Black Flower in the Sky: Poems of a Korean Bridegroom in Hiroshima, is a collection of powerful poems inspired by the passionate relationship between Chong and his wife, and his despondence following her death.


Click titles to view other poems by Naoshi Koriyama:

All the Poems I Have Written I Owe You

Jetliner

Stoney Fields

To Professor Perry D. Westbrook

You Don't Know How Much I Owe You

 

 

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