Tanka: A Poetry of Change

First published in the Tanka Society of America Newsletter 3:4, January 2003, pages 1–4, as my “President’s Message” in that issue. For five years while I was president of the Tanka Society of America (2000 to 2004), I wrote a “President’s Message” for each issue of the TSA newsletter. I have included excerpts on this website from a few of these columns. For a change, I include an entire column here. It’s more personal than most of my other messages, but I hope will still provide some interest, especially in its report of my visit to the Japan Tanka Poets Club in Tokyo.

Poetry is about change—change of scenery, change of awareness, change of season. Tanka, too, is a poetry of change, recording the many transitions in our lives, and in the life of everything that surrounds us. I’ve recently had a number of changes in my life, and have come to a greater appreciation for the role of change in poetry. The biggest change for me personally, after sixteen years of living in the California sun, is that my wife and I have moved from the San Francisco area to Seattle, Washington. More specifically, we now live in Sammamish, just east of Seattle, and I suspect, amid the winter rains, that we may soon begin to rust. This change of locales was on account of my being offered a job as an editor at Microsoft, headquartered in Redmond, just next to Sammamish (a native word meaning “hunter people”). My new address is [removed], Sammamish, WA 98074 (my email address remains WelchM@aol.com).

        Moving to Washington state meant lots of sorting and packing, lots of paperwork, and a few headaches (fortunately not lots). When we arrived in Redmond in early November, the electric autumn colours seemed to welcome us at every turn, thanks to the unusually prolonged delay of colder winter temperatures. But the rains arrived the same week we did, soon pelting down all the red and yellow leaves, heralding the change of season. Though we couldn’t enjoy the autumn colours longer, we look forward to enjoying all of the Northwest seasons, new things to do, new friends to make, and all the pleasures that changes can afford.

        Aside from getting used to wet roads and moody skies, another change for me and my wife, after living in a temporary apartment in Redmond for nearly two months, is that we have bought a house. It has a small woods and a secret garden in the back, which I hope will inspire much poetry. Owning a home will be a big change for us in the time ahead, I’m sure, especially when we have to shovel the drive, tend the garden, or rake those lovely leaves. In our new environment we are also learning new roads, new restaurants, new shops and malls—nearly everything is new. Something that has made the transition easier is the friendship of fellow haiku and tanka poets in the Haiku Northwest group that meets monthly in the Seattle area at the home of Francine Porad. I hope I might be able to stir up greater interest in tanka in this group also!

        One pleasure of so much change is that it can inspire new poetry, rejuvenating one’s senses with new experiences. Another source of potential inspiration for poetry, of course, is travel. Before we arrived in Seattle, I arranged for my new job to start in early November so my wife and I might take advantage, in October, of some free time for another visit to Japan. We flew to Nagoya, and had the pleasure of seeing cormorant fishing by firelight in Gifu, visiting the hot spring resort town of Gero, the preserved old mountain towns and villages of Takayama, Tsumago, and Magome (where Bashō, Shiki, and other poets walked), and the popular destinations of Kyoto, Kamakura, and Tokyo. We enjoyed wonderful weather nearly every day of our trip, though we were too early for most of the autumn colours.

        A highlight of this trip was a special visit I paid to the offices of the Japan Tanka Poets Club on October 21, as a guest of Hiroshi Shionozaki and Hatsue Kawamura. The offices were up a flight of stairs in a busy part of Tokyo (I’m still looking for the unbusy parts) near Gotanda station on the Yamanote train line. The club had an extensive library of Japanese tanka books around the walls, several desks where the business of managing thousands of memberships is conducted, and a large conference table in the middle of one room where a number of the group’s English-speaking tanka poets had kindly gathered on a weekday to meet me. Hatsue surprised me with the gift of a shikishi with her Japanese translation and calligraphy of one of my tanka. And many of the members present also signed another shikishi for me and my wife—signed by Hiroshi, Hatsue, Aya Yuhki, Choko Ishigaki, Ruri Hazama, Toyoko Aizawa, Fusako Kitamura, Kazuko Kannoto, Reiko Nakagawa, Shigeo Nagasawa (also known by the pen name of Narumi), Sumiko Koganei, Kimi Kawamura, and Hatsue’s husband, Yasuhiro Kawamura. You may recognize many of these names from the Tanka Journal, and it was a pleasure for me to meet these new friends and to discuss tanka. Toyoko Aizawa also gave me a copy of A Garden of Verses, her book of tanka in English and Japanese, and Narumi gave me a copy of Modern Man’yoshu, a 532-page annual collection of contemporary tanka in Japanese (alas for me, no English translations). Many other members generously gave me typed copies of their poems and asked many questions, impressing me with how curious they are about international tanka and particularly tanka in English. Hatsue had asked me to choose and read twenty of my tanka and to talk about them to the group. This was an informative experience for me, as I learned how some aspects of my own poems weren’t always culturally clear to a Japanese audience (such as why a freeway is not busy on Christmas day), whereas other aspects were clear. After my reading and explanation of the poems, the members present were asked to vote and comment on their favorite of the poems I had read. The two most popular tanka were love poems. Here is one of them:


        her plane disappears

        into starlight . . .

        and somewhere

        in her luggage

        my love poem


        After this, Narumi led a discussion of numerous questions he and others posed to me. These questions included how to discriminate between haiku and tanka in English, and how important capital letters, punctuation, and the number of lines might be in English. A more discerning question was regarding whether tanka required a shift, pause, or juxtaposition—or not. The sense many of the poets around the room had was that English-language tanka seemed to require—or at least commonly exhibited—a shift, probably because of the influence of haiku, whereas they thought a shift or pause was not always necessary in Japanese tanka or the tanka they wrote in English. Members typed up many questions and circulated them to everyone. One sheet quoted Shiki as saying at the end of his life that he thought of tanka as “long haiku,” and haiku as “short tanka,” but that he soon changed this perspective, saying that “tanka is suitable to express time and haiku is suitable to express space,” adding that rhythm is important in tanka, but association (rensou) is important in haiku. I regret that I am not able to describe at greater length more of the detailed and spirited discussion we enjoyed—conversations that tantalized me for covering only a fraction of the questions that were shared on paper. Indeed, the discussion ended much too soon at the end of the afternoon, and I wish we could all have continued talking together for the rest of the week. I am deeply grateful for the kindness and hospitality shown to me by Hiroshi Shionozaki, Hatsue Kawamura, and the Japan Tanka Poets Club, and hope that poets writing tanka in English might show as much interest in Japanese tanka as the generous and enthusiastic group that met with me shows in English-language tanka. I believe that by being aware of the work of tanka poets in Japan and elsewhere—and how the work changes over time and may differ in another culture—we can be better aware of how we write our own tanka in English.

        Also while in Japan, my wife and I enjoyed staying with Janine Beichman, whose biography of Shiki I have praised in these pages before (and Pamela Miller Ness reviewed in the previous issue of this newsletter). In addition to the pleasure of meeting her and her husband Takeo in their book-filled home in Tsukuba on the outskirts of Tokyo, I was happy to receive a copy of Janine’s latest book, Embracing the Firebird: Yosano Akiko and the Birth of the Female Voice in Modern Japanese Poetry (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002). For many years in English we have enjoyed definitive biographies introducing each of the four great masters of Japanese haiku (Janine’s on Shiki being one of them). We are not so fortunate with tanka, and a need continues for substantial biographies (rather than just translations) of some of Japan’s best tanka poets of ages past and of the last century. Now, with Janine Beichman’s Embracing the Firebird, tanka poets and students of Japanese literature can finally revel in a definitive English biography and critical study of one of Japan’s most celebrated tanka poets, Yosano Akiko. (See Margaret Chula’s review of this book elsewhere in this newsletter.) The further good news is that Janine has much more material than the publisher could fit into the book, so perhaps we might hope for even more to be in store for us in the future.

        While in Japan, I picked up a number of other excellent books, in English, of haiku and tanka, such as a lovely 400-page version of the Man’yoshu, titled Man’yo Luster, complete with lavish colour photographs by Hakudo Inoue and fine tanka translations by Ian Hideo Levy. Other highlights of the trip included meeting with prominent poets Akito Arima, Tsunehiko Hoshino, Emiko Miyashita, David Burleigh, Ryu Yotsuya, Dhugal Lindsay, Cid Corman, and Stephen Gill, but I’ll have to leave out the pleasant details.

        The plane that brought me home from Japan at the end of October took me to San Francisco, and from there I headed south to Long Beach, despite jet lag, to attend the Haiku Pacific Rim conference (Pamela Miller Ness [TSA newsletter editor] also attended, and we enjoyed getting together). There I presented a paper on the problems and challenges of international haiku. While my focus was on haiku, many of the issues also apply to tanka, which is only more recently facing the problems that haiku has faced in becoming increasingly international. I hope to give these matters of tanka internationalization more thought, and hope that you might share your thoughts as well. On the panel of respondents to my paper were William J. Higginson, Carmen Sterba, and Steven D. Carter. I particularly enjoyed meeting Professor Carter, whose books of waka and tanka translations, including Waiting for the Wind and Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, are among the definitive translations of tanka available in English. From this pleasurable conference, another plane took me and my wife north to Seattle to the change of a new life in a new job, a new house, a new city, and a new state.

        As we begin the new year of 2003, the Tanka Society of America is also undergoing some changes, or hoping to, and I’d like to address some of them. One of these is the society’s first election. You’ll find an official TSA ballot enclosed with this newsletter. Though we didn’t mean to be having communist-style elections, each officer is running unopposed. Please take a moment to fill in your ballot, and then find an envelope and stamp, and mail it off to the address provided. And please do this by the in-hand deadline of 1 March 2003. While you’re doing this, please also include a renewal payment for your 2003 TSA membership—your support is vital. Send your renewal payment together with your ballot now, so you won’t need a membership reminder later.

        And speaking of officers, a further thank you to Job Conger for his work as TSA secretary since the group’s inception, especially for filling in for another year at the last moment. Job is now stepping down, and I’m pleased to welcome Marian Smith Sharpe as the nominee for new TSA secretary. Aside from this change, all other officers will continue in their present positions for 2003 (with my gratitude). Perhaps by 2004 we may see a greater change in officers. For now, I am happy to continue as president, but hope that someone else might be willing to take over this position, maybe in 2004, and that some of you might also consider running for some of the other offices as well.

        One change that has not yet happened for TSA is the adoption of new bylaws. I had hoped we might have them to vote on and approve with this newsletter, but my move away from California put a kink in that plan (and I confess that I was more attracted to taking a trip to the source of tanka poetry than revising stuffy bylaws). Another change that hasn’t yet happened is the creation of a TSA website. Again, might anyone be willing to help with this project, even to establish just a rudimentary site? Yes, you, sitting there at your kitchen table or on your living room couch—how about it?

        I’d also like to give you an update on the 2002 tanka anthology for TSA members. I had expected to have completed the book before now, but I’ve had a few distractions, for which I hope you will forgive me. I’m nearing completion on this project, though, and plan to take the first annual TSA members’ anthology to the printer by the time you read this. A healthy number of submissions poured in from far and wide, and I thank everyone who sent in work. Do plan on sending more work for the 2003 members’ anthology once we announce it, and do let me know if you might be willing to serve as editor or to help with layout and design.

        Speaking of upcoming TSA activities, start thinking now about submitting poems to the TSA tanka contest in April. And do check out the results of the latest Tanka Splendor contest available online at www.ahapoetry.com/ts2002.htm. Continued thanks to Jane and Werner Reichhold for coordinating that contest. The results of the latest tanka contest sponsored by the Haiku Poets of Northern California have also just been announced—and thanks to HPNC for also supporting tanka with their contest.

        In the previous newsletter, I mentioned Atsuo Nakagawa’s book, Tanka in English, and speculated, after its being originally published more than ten years ago, that it would be ripe for updating in a new edition. Alas, in Japan, when I visited Ikuyo Yoshimura (a haiku scholar friend who has written a biography in Japanese of R. H. Blyth, and had Professor Nakagawa as a mentor), I learned that Nakagawa has passed away. Though the book may not be updated to include information about the last decade of increased interest in tanka poetry in English, I continue to recommend Nakagawa’s fine book.

        Life has presented me with many changes lately—fortunately, most of them positive. Despite the many pleasures of change in my moving to the Seattle area, I’ll also greatly miss the fine tanka and haiku poets in and around San Francisco. Here in the Northwest, the leaves have changed colour and fallen to earth with winter’s first rains. No doubt, you have experienced many changes in each of your lives, too, and I hope we might all capture some of them in our tanka. Even the negative changes can be powerful inspiration for poetry, and our tanka might serve to be an even keel on which to sail through life’s ups and downs.

        Poetry is indeed about change, and the seasons of our lives. But it can also be about the lack of change, for, as is said, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here’s to everything that changes and can inspire our poetry, and here’s to everything that fortuitously stays the same. As we begin the new year, and change the calendars on our walls, may tanka and other poetry remain unchangingly present in each of our lives.

        I wish each of you best wishes and many good changes for 2003. And don’t forget to renew your TSA membership right away!