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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3

An Interview with Noriko Tanaka
by Robert D. Wilson
translated by Amelia Fielden and Saeko Ogi

from the pit of night
a faint blueness …
with my cocooned child
sleeping beside me

From Doorway to the Sky by Noriko Tanaka;
translated by Fielden and Ogi.


RW: Ms. Tanaka, your book, Doorway to the Sky, is a rare gem. You write with a fresh voice; your tanka ingrain themselves in a reader's consciousness; your use of figurative language is a finely honed gift few people master, let alone know how to use. With you, it seems intuitive. What draws you to the use of figurative language in your tanka?

NT: The figurative language we use in contemporary tanka is almost all already displayed in the eighth century Man'yōshu which is the fountainhead of waka. My interest in figurative language derives from my research into the poetry of the Man'yōshu.

Throughout the ages, many poets have simply borrowed directly from the language of the Man'yōshu to write their waka / tanka. But my case is somewhat different: in my tanka I have re-arranged the structure and word order, and the type of rhetoric, found in the Man'yōshu into a contemporary style while adapting it to suit the workings of my own heart.

The great modern tankaists Saitō Mokichi and Wakayama Bokusui freely acknowledged the debt of their work to the Man'yōshu. However, although Mokichi and Bokusui are still revered in Japan as poetic geniuses, contemporary writers of tanka often seem to regard the Man'yōshu as archaic, and to have abandoned it. The so-called "Man'yōshu boom" of modern times now appears to be well and truly over.

Yet for me the Man'yōshu remains a treasure trove.


RW: How does light and shade permeate your thinking, especially when composing tanka?

NT: In creating my tanka I draw on the dualistic elements which are the construct of my personal world. Light symbolizes happiness and good fortune, shade is discord and unease. Moreover, I have severe astigmatism. My poor eyesight gives rise to all sorts of illusions. Such optical illusions can occur, too, in the interplay of light and shade.

Somehow being a person who is subject to illusory experiences makes me feel isolated and lonely. Perhaps this is because I lead my life incorporating such "illusions" into my reality. Light and shade do not so much constantly permeate my thinking as arrive and then move on, appear and disappear, never for the same length of time, or in the same way twice.


RW: How important is meter, the song-like quality indigenous to tanka?

NT: At first glance, it would appear stifling to have to write within syllabic limitations. However, this very restriction influences the poet to condense and polish expressions to their purest level. And because tanka is lyric poetry, meter is absolutely essential. It is the combination of the right words and the right rhythm in tanka, which can convey inexplicable truths to the reader.


RW: What is your opinion of non-traditional tanka some Japanese are composing that deviate from the 5/7/5/7/7 which has been at the heart of tanka since its inception? Is non-traditional tanka growing in Japan, or is it just a small grouping?

NT: I myself am not an absolute stickler for the set form of tanka. Essentially I am a "formalist," yet occasionally I "break the rules" and write a non-traditional tanka. However, I have no intention of ever making a non-traditional structure the basis for my poetry as such. That's because I believe it is the framework of the set form which enables us to focus on the careful choice of words and expressions. Each to his own; those who feel that a non-traditional form can be equally effective are free to write outside of my preferred framework. However, I do think it is very important to define clearly the difference between "tanka" and "short poems."


RW: At 41, you are a young woman gifted with a distinct mastery of tanka, so much so that Amelia Fielden and Saeko Ogi chose to translate and introduce your tanka to the English speaking tanka world. Please tell us about your tanka journey, how it began, the bumps in between, how you got where you are today and what you want to learn and master regarding tanka in the future.

NT: I began my tanka journey at the age of nineteen, when I was at university and attending inspirational lectures on the Man'yōshu by a Professor Inomata who also encouraged his students to try composing original tanka. And then I became involved with the university's Japanese literature society, started scanning tanka journals standing up in bookshops, and so on. At the time, I much preferred the classical waka of the Man'yōshu and Kokinshu to contemporary tanka, so I tried to model my tanka on the classics, but without success.

Being of a somewhat perverse nature, I then became determined to discover what was "good" about contemporary tanka. I began reading the publications of the famous Araragi tanka society, more closely. There I came across articles which criticized the work of a poet called Tawara Machi for being "shallow." I didn't understand why, but I also didn't bother to read her Salad Anniversary for myself.

Several years later, the Araragi society of which my professor was a long-time member, broke up, and I married and had a child. I continued to correspond with Professor Inomata, occasionally writing tanka and sending them to him for his opinion. Inevitably he would return my work with the comment "old-fashioned" written somewhere.

Meantime, Professor Inomata had retired from the university, and started up a new tanka society called Neiraku, which I joined. I sometimes contributed to Neiraku's journal, and at last began to attempt to analyze what was "old-fashioned" about my tanka, and what I might do to move on. From the Man'yōshu and Kokinshu I took a gigantic leap forward to the late nineteenth century poetry of the Meiji era. I studied the great Ishikawa Takuboku and tried to model my tanka on his. Still no good, according to Professor Inomata. Then I went on to Saitō Mokichi's Red Lights, finding I disliked the constant presence of tears in Mokichi's work. I read Yosano Akiko's tanka. Her romanticism didn't suit me, either. Though I liked Wakayama Bokusui's style, it wasn't something I could imitate in my tanka. Next I tried Tsuchiya Bunmei. Still I couldn't escape the label of "old-fashioned."

I then went through an extremely difficult period with an asthmatic child who was often hospitalized, and a philandering and violent husband. I separated from my husband and returned to my birth family. My tanka began to reflect the pain I was experiencing in my life. Simultaneously, I was delving into both avant-garde and conservative contemporary work in my study of tanka. I finally got the nod of approval from Professor Inomata for some things I'd written. He was very positive about what he saw as my breakthrough into an original "young" voice, and urged me to join the New Araragi Society, which included a number of young, up and coming poets. Which I did, though my tanka still met with criticism there.

More reading, more study—this time of Watanabe Matsuo's work. I was excited to discover in it the sort of figurative language which greatly resembled that of my beloved Man'yōshu.
In other words, it seemed to me that Watanabe was writing in an updated Man'yō style. It was about then I resolved to go back to university and do post-graduate research on the Man'yōshu.

I found fresh impetus for my writing, and in due course, with the encouragement of Professor Inomata, I began entering tanka competitions sponsored by various journals and publishers. And began getting "runner up" and "honourable mention" awards, though I had no big wins.

My father died, then my mother too passed away after being seriously ill. I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

If I die now without ever publishing a book, it will be a shame, I thought. So I decided to put together a collection of my tanka. Just when this was still at the manuscript stage, Mrs. Saeko Ogi came back to Japan for a visit, and I met her at a tanka celebration in Nara. We talked about publishing my book in a bilingual edition, and Mrs. Ogi recommended Australian translator Amelia Fielden, with whom she had worked before. Thanks to this translation team of Ogi and Fielden, my book was successfully published in 2008 under the title of Doorway to the Sky.

And then came the wonderful news that I had won a major tanka prize, the Third Nakajō Fumiko Award, for a new sequence of 50 tanka called "The Zoo," which I had composed consciously employing contemporary arrangements of Man'yōshu style figurative language. I was especially moved at receiving this award which honours the great modern poet Nakajō Fumiko who died of breast cancer.

"The Zoo'" sequence will be published in my second bilingual collection, which is currently being translated by Saeko and Amelia Fielden.


RW: What is a tanka school and the importance of studying tanka under a tanka master?

NT: The main benefits of belonging to a tanka group are that one can freely get all sorts of input and opinions on one's work, and also study and learn from the work of other poets. As for "tanka master," I can only speak of my own mentor, Professor Inomata. He is a rather old-style teacher, and initially I couldn't see the point of his abrupt directives. However, he gradually guided me from being too shackled by convention into my own world of truly original tanka. I believe that a good mentor is a real blessing; conversely to follow a mentor with limited vision can be counterproductive. There are tanka poets who go their own way, without a "master," but I am quite sure I wouldn't be where I am today without Professor Inomata.


RW: Your tanka and the imagery you use touch me. Take for instance

under a blazing sky
drying up
a mountain of watermelons
and the young girl seller

I live in the Philippines and once lived in Vietnam for a year during the war. When one works under a blazing hot tropical sun, it takes a toll on a woman's skin. Like watermelons, young women, when exposed to extreme heat, reflected off water for a long time, eventually begin to wither. I've seen female street vendors and rice field laborers who looked young until around the age of thirty. After thirty, their skin would wrinkle, harden like leather and lose its elasticity and smoothness. Is this what you had in mind writing this tanka?

NT: The tanka you have quoted was inspired by a scene in Shanghai, in a market in a poor area of the city which I came upon when I had lost my way. Shanghai was in drought that summer, and lots of people were selling watermelons under its blazing sky. There were mountains of watermelons everywhere, but no one appeared to be buying. The glossy green of the melons seemed to be fading in the glaring sunlight. I noticed a young girl vendor. She was miserable, absolutely wilting from the heat; I wondered why she was there, on her own, trying to sell those rapidly drying melons which must once have been growing in a lovely-looking melon patch.


RW: Ms. Tanaka, do you think an informed tanka reader's role is to interpret what you've written according to their own cultural memories and experiences?

NT: As a poet, I never know how my tanka will be interpreted by their readers. There are always various potential readings of what I write, some of them perhaps far-removed from my original intentions. And I acknowledge the validity of her/his interpretation for each individual reader. Once a poem has left the poet and is "out there," it is autonomous—that is the way of the world.


RW: Your tanka at times are spiritual, hinting, without preaching, of a different way of viewing life, a life your ancestors lived and breathed, a path many today have replaced with science, although science is never concrete, always changing, evolving.

my grandmother
was one of those
traditional Nara folk
who say 'night'
in the echoing old dialect

from afar
come stars to lodge
in the hillside rice paddies
as they sink beneath
deep blue darkness

Would you elucidate regarding the Nara folk of whom your grandmother is one, and how their indigenous ways influence these tanka?

NT: Nara prefecture has a north/south divide. My father's family come from the south of the prefecture. The south is further divided into the mountains and the hinterland. My home at Yamato Takada was in the hinterland. This Yamato Plain was the cradle of Japanese civilization. From ancient time it was believed that gods dwelled in the mountains of Nara Prefecture. Mankind was thought small and weak compared to the lush nature there. Even now the frequent mists and clouds, which pass over the mountain ranges and the level ground in between, lend a mysterious air to the everyday life one leads. My ancestors resided in this area for generations. It was especially so in my grandmother's era, but one still hears vestiges of the ancient Japanese language spoken in the Yamato area today. At the same time, Yamato people are rather taciturn, though they smile a lot. My grandmother was a devout Buddhist, and she influenced my thinking a great deal.


RW: Is the composition of tanka a spontaneous art for you, or is it something you must prepare your mind for? What goes on in your mind?

NT: In my case, it seems that my tanka are pretty much spontaneous, maybe unusually so. I find it relatively easy to compose tanka when I am stimulated by surprises, illusions, shocks, or misunderstandings. People often say that I am a spontaneous, even impulsive, person—for sure I'm given to making boo-boos.

And then there are the times when I feel I simply can't compose, when I dislike everything and have no mind for writing tanka. That's mostly because I am wearied in body and soul. But if I rest a bit while getting my strength back, and then copy out tanka from the collections of other poets, and wait—well I find myself filling up with words seeking an outlet. If I can't write, it's probably because I haven't a large enough pool of words inside of me.

Words are like the water in a well. If you are not careful, the well will run dry, and you'll have to prime the pump. But some day even priming the pump mightn't work.


RW: As a follow-up question, Ms. Tanaka, do you write several tanka daily as a discipline, or do they come to you in spurts?

from the pit of night
a faint blueness …
with my cocooned child
sleeping beside me

NT: I tend to let them come naturally. Even if I take a laissez-faire attitude. I somehow seem to have the requisite number of new tanka for submission each month to my society's journal. But occasionally I will get an "order" for a larger batch of tanka. Or I have to write more than usual for the culture classes I run, or for some tanka gathering—then I do have to get down to it in a more disciplined way.


RW: Tell us about the process of translating your book of poetry from your native tongue to the English language. The translator must adopt what you've written as much as humanly possible into a poem readable grammatically to English readers conveying your thoughts and maintaining the sense of meter indigenous to tanka. How did you, Amelia and Saeko work together on your book's adaptation to the English language.

NT: Well, first of all I went to Australia for a few days and gave both Amelia and Saeko typed copies of my manuscript. Then I spent some time with Amelia, at her request, reading all of the tanka in it out loud. Meanwhile Saeko scanned the collection identifying tanka she thought might be unsuitable for translation.

I then returned to Japan. Amelia did the initial draft translations. She then discussed translation problems she had encountered, first with Saeko who was also living in Canberra. If Saeko couldn't answer any of Amelia's questions, she (Saeko) emailed them to me in Japanese. I replied by email to Saeko, who conveyed my answers to Amelia in person. We three repeated this process as often as we needed to complete the final English translations of the whole book. I am highly appreciative of their painstaking efforts which have resulted in such wonderful English translations. I understand that Amelia and Saeko, who are fluent in each other's native language, worked together using both Japanese and English.


RW: One final question: In your book's Afterword you wrote: "The tanka which I have collected into this book, are those from the bright daytime which is now behind me. They are youthful, rather unskilled poems." A humble statement considering the soulful beauty of the tanka you share in Doorway to the Sky. Would you please share with us one of your newest tanka?

NT: Really, you are too kind. I am overwhelmed at your appreciation for my work, and also deeply grateful for this interview. I would like to take this opportunity also to thank Amelia and Saeko once more from the bottom of my heart.

As for a more recent tanka, here is one from my sequence "The Zoo," which received the Nakajō Fumilo Award. I composed it when I visited the zoo after my breast cancer surgery. Amelia's translation of this is:

blowing on the back
of that tiger,
a faint breeze—
veiled within it is
the tomorrow I will live

In Japanese it is:

tora no sei o fukiyuku kasuka na kaze no naka mienai asu o watashi wa ikiru.

We must all live unable to see our tomorrows, but I do believe there was a god in that faint breeze at the zoo. And I pray that the winds of good fortune will blow the way of you and all your readers.


RW: Thank you, Ms. Tanaka, for taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed, which again entailed an additional collaboration with Amelia and Saeko. I will eagerly await your second book of tanka, for which you say Amelia and Saeko are right now preparing an English translation to be shared with readers worldwide.


Noriko Tanaka Noriko Tanaka was born in Japan in 1967. She is a member of Araragi Tanka Society and has engaged in postgraduate studies of Man'youshu. Her bilingual collection, Doorway to the Sky, was published in 2008. She was awarded Third Nakajou Fumiko Prize for Tanka, also in 2008. She has one son.

Amelia Fielden was born in Sydney, Australia. She received an MA in Japanese Literature from the University of Newcastle, Australia, and she has lived and worked in Japan. She is the translator, or co-translator, of 14 books of modern and contemporary tanka. She is a professional translator and enthusiastic amateur poet.

Saeko Ogi was born in Tokyo and graduated from Tokyo Woman’s Christian University. In 1972 she came to Canberra and devoted herself to Japanese language teaching to Australians for 25 years. She belongs to two Tanka clubs in Japan, Shin-Araragi Tanka-kai and Neiraku Tanka-kai.