Frank Spignese

Frank Spignese

Writer & poet


Originally published on on November 2009

Photo by James Hadfield

Photo by James Hadfield

How long have you been here?
A decade, now in Shinjuku. Boston born, living in San Francisco before Tokyo. There, I moved furniture. Once I accidentally dropped a piano and almost killed somebody. Decided I needed a drastic change. Hence Japan.

What do you do for a living?
Writing for The Daily Yomiuri, mostly music, occasionally literary stuff. Recently, I interviewed graphic novelist Harvey Pekar. I’m a fan, so it was a thrill. I’d like to think my work emulates his fascination with everyday people. I also flip burgers. I work at two grills in Tokyo. Some frown upon flipping, but it’s a living.

How did you get started in poetry?
Got into slam-poetry at 18. Reg E. Gaines and Patricia Smith were poets I admired, though my real influences are musicians: Dylan, Chuck D, Paul Westerberg, Springsteen, Marvin Gaye. Most poets are failed musicians. I’d rather be a musician: it’s more lucrative and the groupies are sexier.

If you had to pick three words to describe your outlook on life, what would they be?
“Be nice.” I know, that’s two words. My New Year’s resolution was “be nicer.” I’m against injustice, against hatred. But walking these streets, I question if half the people I meet are worthy of the gift of life. Myself included. I’m a hypocrite, but I’m conscious of it. It’s hard to love your neighbor, especially if their kids are noisy.

What have you been ranting about recently?
Editing my book [The Great Flood], I noticed that the need for community was something I was unconsciously craving. Boston is one of America’s most densely populated areas. It’s tight-knit, so you’re a community member whether you want to be or not. Obviously, Tokyo is larger and more crowded than Boston, but there isn’t that tangible kinship. You must seek it, and I’m blessed, as I’ve found it. Many Westerners focus exclusively on scoring Japanese girls. That’s their prerogative. But a man without fraternity is a spiritual eunuch.

Is there much of an audience for poetry in Tokyo?
Open-mics have become solely music. Late poet Edgar Henry was the scene’s soul. After his 2004 passing, it slowly died. Open-mics aren’t as epic as they were. I recently performed at this academic reading. I “read” last. Once I started, the place emptied. You would have thought I set off a stink bomb. Afterwards, someone said I sounded like a Scorsese movie. This was supposed to be insulting, but I was flattered.

Your material isn’t exactly cuddly—what kinds of reactions do you get when you perform it?
Generally positive. It’s accessible and hopefully humorous. Also, I’m loud and hard to ignore. The language is harsh, but I’m a product of my environment. I often talk about God and sex, which makes people uncomfortable. But God is good, especially when you’re on your deathbed. And sex is good too, it feels nice. I have a thick Boston accent which is as much a part of the aesthetic as my words. Comedians say I should try standup. But I’m not always amusing. I’ll be funny, then mention some kid I knew who killed himself or priests molesting children. Not exactly knee-slapping.

Do you follow Japanese poetry?
Not really. When I was 9 I wrote a haiku about Luke Skywalker.

Japan’s a famously buttoned-down culture—do you think people could get more worked up about stuff? If so, what?
Japan should get worked up about me getting harassed by the police. I’ve been hauled into the koban too often. In winter, I let my hair and beard grow. I look like Ted Nugent. This makes me suspect. Also, I like to stroll Shinjuku at 4am, listening to my iPod and playing air guitar. Apparently, this is a crime. But I’m no Japan basher. I love this country; I’m a model citizen and a taxpayer.

It’s Friday night in Tokyo and you’ve got ¥20,000 in your back pocket. What do you do?
Go to the ATM to get more money. ¥20,000 would last me about an hour on Friday night. I live in Tokyo, not Nebraska. Also, I buy beers for strangers when I drink. This is financially foolish, but spiritually satisfying.

Frank Spignese’s The Great Flood is out now. Listen to excerpts here and here.

A Meeting of the Ghost Buffalo Shirts
Tokyo’s premier spoken-word artists Marcellus Nealy and Frank Spignese perform with special guests. Nov 22, 8-11pm, ¥1,000 w/1d. Pink Cow, Shibuya. Nearest stn: Shibuya.