December 2003, Volume 1, Number 6

Sanford Goldstein Interview
by Pamela Babusci

Q) What brought you down the tanka "path"?

A) It was before l964 that I came across a group of poems by Takuboku--translated into English of course. The poems were called Poems to Eat. I didn't know at that time that those words came from an essay Takuboku had written. When I read those short poems, which were called tanka, I felt at once their connection to me. Tanka entered my spirit. I have been writing tanka ever since. I felt a tanka music everywhere--and I feel that now, but not with the same intensity. It was only later in the 70's that I began translating Takuboku's Sad Toys. I came across haiku when I first came to Japan in l953 (staying two years--each of my first six trips to Japan were for two-year periods--after l957 I always returned to Purdue University where I
taught English). And I wrote some haiku. When I took a course in haiku at Indiana University in the 70's, I wrote some haiku. But I always felt tanka was closer to me, even though I enjoy the great haiku masters.

Q) What was the first Japanese tanka book that you translated? how long did it take you to translate?

A) The first tanka poet I translated was Akiko Yosano--her Midaregami, which my collaborator and I dubbed Tangled Hair. Akiko's book was published in l899, and it had 399 poems. Professor Shinoda translated all 399 poems, but we decided to limit the poems to l50. Each poem has notes. To do all 399 took five years and then another year to get everything in order. The book was finally published in l972, but we began it in l964. [A lapse suddenly--I think there are 150 poems, all with notes, romaji renderings, and the original Japanese. But I will check tonight. Sorry.]

Q) Who do you consider to be the "masters of tanka" and why.

A) My knowledge of tanka goes only so far as the tanka writers I have translated. There are scores of good tanka poets, so with my limited abilities in Japanese, I focused on tanka poets my Japanese teacher of Japanese literature suggested. At other times a Japanese colleague suggested I translate two other famous tanka figures. So I can say only that Akiko Yosano, Takuoku Ishikawa, Mokichi Saito, Shiki Masaoka were great tanka poets to me. I studied them with my Japanese collaborator (Seishi Shinoda) for more thirty years. I worked lovingly on their poems. But my own knowledge is limited. Of course The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (about a thousand years ago) and the Manyoshu (even earlier) contain good tanka poems. But I can't talk about them. Akiko was unusual as a woman's liberationist in Meiji Japan. Takuboku's colloquial, down-to-earthness made his appeal to me great. He suffered and suffered. I feel and can understand--as I can with most of the poets I translated. Mokichi Saito was important to me because it was through the study of Mokichi that I realized what a true tanka sequence was. Out of that I shaped my own term "tanka string," a term one rarely uses today, though when I was co-editor of Five Lines Down and wrote essays in the journal about sequence and string, people were sending me strings. Shiki's great suffering moved me. His life is itself a study in human courage. Shiki also wrote the first real sequences in Japanese. The variety of his subjects made him dear to me. I also translated the Zen tanka poet Ryokan. I helped translate both his haiku and his tanka and his Chinese poems --just some of all of these. His love of nature was not that appealing to me, but other aspects of his bare yet rich life appealed to me. The last is a Niigata poet called Yaichi Aizu. I translated with a colleague here his tanka on the death of his adopted daughter--very very moving. He has two series of tanka on his life after his adopted daughter's death.

Q) How many tanka do you write on a daily basis?

A) In those early years, perhaps forty years ago, I was writing ten tanka a day. I believe I kept that up for twenty-five years or more. Then because my life was less in turmoil, I wrote fewer. When I lived in Japan, I would write tanka on my walk along the sea; then I would transfer the good ones to my tanka notebook. I don't remember when I started my tanka notebooks, but perhaps in the 70's. I used to write tanka on cafeteria napkins (in the States) at any time of the day or evening or night. During times of crisis I would write more. When my wife was having brain surgery in New York (we were travelling with our three children at the time and heading for Maine), I wrote sometimes 200 tanka in a day. Sometimes 70 or 80 or more. It was a time of intense crisis for me. Nowadays I write only once a week, though sometimes I might jot down some tanka in my notebook while I'm at home--something that comes to me, from a program or movie. But last Saturday, I wrote 30 tanka. Usually I write between 24 and 30 every Saturday evening at my favorite coffee shop during these last ten years in Japan. But for about six of those years I also wrote tanka on Sunday evening at a favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant. But simply because I spill these tanka does not mean they are good. Perhaps one or two will be in a spill, perhaps none. In one year I usually have written about 3000 tanka. When the New Year begins, I asterisk the "good" ones in the year's tanka notebook. Then I type a list all the good ones. Then I go over the list and select ones I will consider sending to a journal. Every so often I revise a tanka I am sending out, but often I do not. At any rate, a great deal of work goes into a process that boils down to sending out about 25 to 35 tanka a year. Out of these a few are published. But the five poems I send twice a year to Japan's famous The Tanka Journal are automatically accepted. So that's l0 right there!

Q) Do you follow any particular style of writing?

A) When I began translating Tangled Hair with Professor Shinoda in l964, Akiko, in spite of her daring poems, was more formal, so even though I wanted a directness, a cutting through to essence (while being accurate), I capitalized each line. But I soon realized, especially in seeing Takuboku's colloquial quality, that I didn't want caps. Only if a line begins with a person's name or place name or with the pronoun did I capitalize. Many of my early poems were free style, but quite terse, as in my first tanka collection This Tanka World (l977)--take, for example, the following:

my wife
on a hospital bed



This poem may be read as a negative one, but that was not my meaning. "nothing" in Zen Buddhism is everything. So the "nothingness" of the world (mu in Japanese) satisfied me on that day. Even in Gaijin Aesthetics (l983), a kind of stark, bare tanka often occurs:

this October
a bush

(Of course the sudden flight of birds).

In At The Hut Of The Small Mind (1992), there's the following--even though somewhat longer, it's terse:

at the master's
two Americans,
one Japanese,
and a white hen

In my last tanka collection This Tanka Whirl (2001), many of the poems are longer, yet I find the following:

tonight's relief:
in a cafeteria

Lately and for some years I have been aware of short/long/short/long/ long, and sometimes I aim for this. Sometimes I try for 5/7/5/7/7. But usually I want to be honest, natural, simple. What I know I have done is to broaden tanka's base. Most of the tanka poems I read by others dwell on love, nature, death, friendship and sometimes sentimentality--perhaps lately the tanka is becoming broader in content. Sometimes the poems I write have a new angle of vision, a content not mentioned before (if that is possible). I don't try for tricks. I don't try to make the layout of the poem call attention to itself. I want to follow the traditional way of 3/2--only in the past three or four years. Three lines in which the problem is presented/something about that problem in the last two:

As in this poem in This Tanka Whirl:

again, Hamlet,
you haul me to your heart,
to your precious mouth,
and I feel even tanka
can scale the spectacular

Q) who do you consider to be the best contemporary tanka poets, and why?

A) This question can mean the best tanka poets writing in Japanese, and I do not follow them usually. All my efforts go either into translating (and very little nowadays) or into tanka in English. I don't feel I'd better answer that about the poets writing tanka in America. Every so often I come across a striking tanka. I don't think in America that we have the Japanese network of making tanka poets known. In Japan, tanka poets are members of a group and the group publishes it own journal, and so the Japanese can easily get published and known. In America there is more competition. I want to recommend poets published in American Tanka and Hummingbird and the newsletter of the Tanka Society Of America. Jane Reichhold's Lynx has provided amazing space for tanka poets along with her Tanka Splendor competition--I liked the earlier format. Now Canada, New Zealand, and Australia are offering in various journals good tanka.

Q) What do you envision to be the future of contemporary tanka?

A) Takuboku thought tanka would die out eventually, but of course it hasn't. I think tanka has to somehow get into the main stream. Recently I tried to interest a commercial publisher with a collection, but to earn money was more important to that publisher than presenting a tanka poet. Tanka poets do not sell. So we are obliged to appear in small journals, yet the quality of which are often high. Our audience will continue to be small. Whether a tanka poet will be satisfied and continue to pursue small spaces remains to be seen. I want to see tanka get into the main stream of our prominent poetry journals, a superhuman task. Perhaps it can be done. If not, to hold a journal in one's hand and participate in that tanka world can be pleasurable enough.


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