December 2003, Volume 1, Number 6

Sanford Goldstein on Sanford Goldstein

For fifty years I have been connected to Japan, and for forty years or so I have been connected to tanka. Unable to get a job after earning my Ph.D. in English Literature from Purdue in l953, I was offered the possibility of a job at Niigata University in Japan. My wife was an anthropologist and was eager to go. I was hesitant--the war and all that. But how fortunate that my wife won out.

When I was in the army and went through the lines at my place of induction in Indiana, I was asked if I wanted to study Japanese. Having studied French and done well in it, I thought I might try the Japanese language. Unfortunately I was never called, but from l953 on, I studied it, mostly on my own, written and spoken Japanese. I don't feel I succeeded in either, for all my translations of Japanese literature into English were done with Japanese collaborators, and my spoken Japanese sometimes leaves my listeners thinking my English is quite strange.

At first I knew no Japanese, though my wife and I studied spoken Japanese in an army language book aboard the dumpy freighter we took to Japan in l953. The first two years my wife and I studied Japanese conversation with a tutor (we stayed in Japan only two years, for my wife wanted to go to Stanford for a master's degree, and I wanted to go there to join the Stanford writing program and also to study Japanese--we were at Stanford a year before I found my permanent job at Purdue University, where I taught for thirty-six years with two-year sabbaticals to Japan).

I know my wife spoke better Japanese than I did. But during my first year in Japan, I saw a remarkable Japanese film on a novel by the famous Japanese novelist Ogai Mori. Since my predecessor at Niigata University had encouraged me to translate Japanese literature, I asked the head of the English Department if he would translate The Wild Geese with me. I knew no printed Japanese then (only my first two translated books were done in collaboration without my knowing any of the language, these novels begun during l953 and l955). Later the Ogai Mori novel was published in l959 by Charles E. Tuttle Company. Another colleague during those early years asked me to improve his English on a translation--a short novel--and I agreed. My job was to turn these two efforts into much better English. I remember that an editor at Tuttle's had said the few chapters I submitted for The Wild Geese title read like bad Henry James. Five years later that same editor accepted the Ogai Mori translation. The other brief novel became The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue. I have co-translated and published several other Japanese novels.

Having come across some translated tanka of Takuboku Ishikawa in the early l960's, I found tanka was the form I had been waiting for. And that began a period of thirty years or so of translating tanka with Professor Seishi Shinoda, my precious colleague at Niigata University. These tanka translations included Akiko Yosano's Tangled Hair, Takuboku Ishikawa's Sad Toys , Mokichi Saito's Red Lights , and Shiki Masaoka's Songs from a Bamboo Village.


Having retired from Purdue in l992 (there was no retirement date at Purdue, but I had been asked a few years earlier to help a small Christian college get established in Shibata, Japan, so I retired for that reason), I became aware of the tanka poems of Ryokan, the Zen Buddhist priest, and Yaichi Aizu, a famous Niigata poet and scholar. Two books followed with my collaborator Professor Fujisato Kitajima: Ryokan's tanka/haiku and Ryokan's Calligraphy, a book written in Japanese by a Niigata University professor.

I had taken creative writing in colleges several times (for several summers in the late 80's and early 90's, I went to various colleges to write plays), but throughout my college life I was writing mostly stories and poems. Once I stumbled across tanka, I started writing them in the early sixties. I would send out my tanka and would get rejections. It seemed almost impossible for the tanka to gain a foothold. Haiku was the rage. Eventually small magazines, some at Purdue in the 70's, began publishing my tanka. In the 70's a small group of Purdue poets asked me to join them. I was hesitant since I had had no real success with my tanka, but a member of the group read several pages of my tanka and insisted I join. The group decided to publish its own members and chose my book first. Thus my first tanka collection appeared in l977, This Tanka World.

My second collection, Gaijin Aesthetics , came out in l983. In l989, I was asked to go to Shikoku Island and interview a famous Zen farmer, but no real interview evolved (this was during my sixth trip to Japan, each trip two years, the last five being at Niigata University on sabbaticals for two years each from Purdue). The Zen farmer insisted the response to my first question would take years to answer, so that was that. Each day I would write twenty or thirty or fifty tanka. I was left isolated and was asked to correct an English manuscript of the Zen farmer. All in all, this was a major experience of my life, the closest I've come to a kind of Zen life. (A Zen master lived in my house in West Lafayette, Indiana, at two times, each trip one year--it was the most difficult Zen training I ever had.) The book that came out of the Shikoku Island experience was At the Hut of the Small Mind, published in 1992. I lost the Snapshot Press competition in tanka a few years ago, but my entry was eventually published by Linda Ward's Clinging Vine Press in 2001, my collection called This Tanka Whirl.

Long ago I wrote in a tanka that I hoped tanka would walk me to the end of the road. That remains my wish.

--Sanford Goldstein
Professor Emeritus, Purdue University
Professor Emeritus, Keiwa College


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