What is it like to abandon the language of your birth to write in a completely unknown one—a fiendishly complex one, a non-Western one—and in a tradition hundreds of years old? In the case of internationally acclaimed haiku poet Fortino Samano, who for 25 years called Japan his home, we will never really know.
According to former New York Times literary critic and whistleblower, Michiko Kakutani, from the moment Samano burst onto the literary scene in Kyoto in 1992 with his trailblazing collection of urban haikus, Candy Man, to his shameful expulsion in early 2002 following the more commercially successful Tattoos of My Samoan Lovers, Samano never learned a word of Japanese and wrote poems that had the “the musicality of madly rutting pigs”. Samano’s haikus, Kakutani claims, were “complete gibberish written in a pseudo-language that remains indecipherable to this day”. In Japan, Kakutani believes, that country of unimpeachable etiquette, it was simply too rude to ever expose Samano for the fake he was.
Did Samano’s poetry suffer from being written in a non-language?
Critics are divided.
But the fact is, in the wake of Kakutani’s blistering exposé, Samano lost his professorship at the University of Kyoto, together with his knighthood and several lucrative sponsorships, and was forced out of his penthouse apartment overlooking the Old Fish Market. He lived on the streets for nearly eight years running a one-man puppet theater in Spanish, until he was re-discovered in 2012, and immediately shipped out of the country for his literary crimes.
Samano’s fall from grace inspired scholars who had previously been mute on the subject of Samano’s authenticity to research the poet’s early years—from his shadowy beginnings in Cozumel, Mexico, where he was believed to have gone by the name of Coconut Dave, to his triumphant years in Castro’s Cuba, where he became the poet laureate of the Cuban Renaissance.
American novelist David Foster Wallace, who many Americans thought had invented Samano wholecloth from an Italo Calvino poem, claims he saw Samano “peddling haikus from a tamale stand” in Jalisco in the late 1980s. According to poet John Berryman, Samano was confronted by Hunter S. Thompson at a mule bar in El Paso several years before that, where he confessed in broken English that his Spanish poems had all been written in a cryptographic code that mimicked the language quite successfully.
Amazingly, Samano, who never learned a word of Spanish and yet rewrote the Cuban national anthem for an awestruck Raul Castro, published over 240 chapbooks in the language. The 2,700-stanza The Bug Catcher (transl.) was lauded by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as the “one poem I wish I’d written”.
The grotesque forgery was never officially discovered in Cuba or anywhere else in Latin American. According to University of Cincinnati Samano scholar, P.J. Elder, Castro never officially booted Samano from the country and his books continued to be reprinted and read with relish for years following his voluntary exile to Japan.
As we know, Samano returned to his native country of Cyprus in 2012, when he entered the priesthood, working briefly for the Archbishopric selling hot tubs. In the country of his birth, Samano’s return to poetry was a mostly unrecorded event, though a stringer from Karavgi did remark that Samano’s Cyprus poems are “the first ever the poet had written in a language anyone could actually read.”
But the lavish lifestyle and celebrity status his Spanish and Japanese haikus had afforded him for decades were simply unattainable in Cyprus, and the poet was reduced to producing “haikubituaries” for village luminaries, while working at an Esso station in Strovolos.
In early 2017, a fledgling independent press based in Dali, Cyprus—OWK Press—re-discovered the disgraced poet making a nuisance of himself outside the Kookaburra Pub in downtown Nicosia and agreed to publish a new volume of poems on the basis of a certainly spurious letter of introduction from dead American novelist Norman Mailer.
The book we have with us tonight—Scrambler—is the poet’s first written in a language. It is a notable achievement for a man who has been writing for so many years in non-languages. So it is more than a book of haikus about Cyprus, it is a book that you can understand, written in an alphabet you know. Which is more than Raul Castro, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Michiko Kakutani can say.