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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3

Kisaburo Konoshima— An Interview with David Callner
by Robert D. Wilson

Kisaburo Konoshima supported his wife and four children working as a professor of political economics at Shokumin Gakkou (this school no longer exists) in Tokyo. He had been sent on an eighteen-month tour of inspection to scout employment opportunities and living conditions for future graduates of his college, and was about to embark on a second tour of inspection when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 struck Tokyo, laying ruin to the College's principal benefactor. Plagued with financial uncertainty, infighting broke out among the school's administrators and staff. At this time, Konoshima decided to abandon academia, feeling he was inadequate as a teacher. Disillusionment with school politics played a part in his decision, but his primary motivation was one of personal philosophy. Konoshima wanted to become a farmer, to "live off the soil and the sweat of my brow".

He migrated to California with his family. To put food on the table and provide a roof for his family, Konoshima, the college professor, hired out as a farm laborer working long hours for low pay under harsh conditions. Through hard work and perseverance, he and a friend eventually saved enough money to become co-partners of a truck farm. Eventually, the farm turned a profit. Life for Konoshima began to improve. Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and all Japanese living on the American west coast, regardless of citizenship or alien status, were sent to live in relocation camps.

The war ended; Konoshima and his family were released from the relocation camp. Having lost his farm, Konoshima moved to New York where he and his wife secured employment as domestic help for the Durlach's, a kind Jewish family who treated the Konoshimas with dignity, and befriended them. The Konoshima and the Durlach families remain friends today.

Kisaburo Konoshima lived a hard life but never forgot how to dream, and lived life earnestly. And fortunately for the world, he began to seriously compose tanka while living in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. Konoshima loved writing poetry. And the world is the better for it.

    Yesterday is a dream---tomorrow an illusion
    I think I shall live this one day in earnest.


RW: You spent six years translating Kisaburo Konoshima's book of tanka, entitled Hudson. You have no training as a translator, and yet Edwin Cranston, a highly respected Professor of Japanese Literature at Harvard University, had this to say about your translation:

"Konoshima's poems are very impressive. I could read any number of them. What dignity! Callner's translations show great skill and feeling. The simplicity he achieves is enviable." What was the driving force behind your doing this project?

DC: Professor Cranston was very generous and his praise meant a lot to me. I began translating Hudson as a gift to Konoshima's relatives (Kisaburo Konoshima was my grandfather) who do not read Japanese, but I quickly discovered how accomplished he was as a poet and how enjoyable his work could also be to people who did not know him personally. Thus I dedicated six years to translating Hudson to the utmost of my ability. I am actually a writer of fiction (I have written three novels plus some shorter pieces, and I am currently on my fourth novel as well as Konoshima's remaining tanka. My own work is unpublished, so except for Hudson I remain anonymous). I speak Japanese because I have lived in Japan for twenty-seven years.


RW: What did you do to prepare yourself for the translation of this book of poetry?

DC: My first task was to be able to read the Japanese. Konoshima was born in the Meiji era so some of his Japanese is rather antiquated and difficult. A friend of mine, Sadae Tsuchiya, provided me invaluable help with the proper readings for the kanji, and I wore out my copies of Kenkyusha's New Japanese-English Dictionary and Nelson's Japanese-English Character Dictionary.


RW: Obviously, translating the tanka in this book was not an easy endeavor, by anyone's standards. Tell our readers about the process, warts and all.

DC: I instinctively hide all my warts, but I can tell you some things about the process. Once I was able to read the Japanese I had to invent a format for translation into English. I am uncomfortable with the five-line style that maintains the 5-7-5-7-7 Japanese meter, so after attempts with various other structures, all my own, I arrived at a two-line version that roughly maintains the upper and lower tanka form (kami no ku shimo no ku) but completely ignores the 5-7-5-7-7 meter. I believe this brings me as close as I can come to the essence of the original Japanese. Interestingly it did not occur to me to eliminate all punctuation except for dashes until years after I had begun the translation. One day, I experimented with removing periods from the end of poems and found that freed me from certain English grammatical restraints. Another friend, Cynthia King, suggested I also remove the commas. She was right, and after further tinkering, I settled on the format you see in Hudson. A few of the poems contain details that would be unintelligible to someone who did not know Konoshima personally, so I was fortunate to have lived with him during my youth. My mother and my aunts and uncles also helped decipher certain points of context and idiosyncrasy. Konoshima's eldest daughter, Toshiko Nakata, kept a priceless collection of Konoshima photographs, nine of which were digitally reproduced in Hudson.


RW: Your grandfather composed approximately 1500 tanka during his lifetime. And the majority of them were published in the Japanese poetry magazine Cho-on. That is impressive. I understand you are currently translating them. How long do you think it will take? And will you share some of them in the future with our readers, perhaps in installments?

DC: Yes, I believe Konoshima had poems in every edition of the Japanese poetry quarterly Cho-On from 1950 to his death in 1984. Hudson has about seven hundred tanka and I am currently working on the remaining eight hundred or so. The process of translation is a very slow one for me, but I would love to complete between five and ten tanka each month and publish them in your magazine.


RW: Why is this book entitled Hudson?

DC: Hudson was Konoshima's title for the original Japanese edition in 1970. Konoshima loved the Hudson, as you can see from many poems throughout this collection, and spent hours gazing down on the river from his eighth-floor apartment in Yonkers.

If the small lamp of self-attachment is extinguished and eyes are
raised moonlight is far and wide on a snowy Hudson

The Jersey sky a vivid rose madder
shine on the Hudson - shine on my window

The entire river forming a mirror the Hudson
reflects a snowy range of hills upside down

By morning and by evening never tiring to gaze on it for twenty years
the Hudson is ultimately my second native home


RW: Your grandfather was a remarkable man. He left Japan to embark on a life that was physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging. He was incarcerated in an internment camp, lost his farm and livelihood, and worked as a domestic. In Japan he had been a professor and college official. This had to be hard on your grandfather. What was it about your grandfather that kept his spirits up and instilled in him an indomitable spirit?

DC: I think Konoshima was simply born with an indomitable spirit. That spirit, along with his sense of humor and a wonderful humility, seem to have rendered Konoshima immune to any bitterness. In other words, Konoshima was a profoundly strong man.


RW: A follow-up question. Why did he turn to tanka, and what inspired him to write so many? It seemed to be a consuming passion for him.

DC: Surely it was a consuming passion for Konoshima. Konoshima learned to compose tanka when he was eight or nine years old, and I suspect that rather than involving any actual decision to "turn to tanka," poetry was just a natural part of life.


RW: Is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about your grandfather, Kisaburo Konoshima?

DC: I would, but Konoshima's own poetry tells far more than I could about this great man, a source of pride for those who knew him and an inspiration for those who read him.

When I fling a snowball and it bursts against a tree trunk
scattering with a whack my spirits brighten

Thirty years today I settled - I who in America
plant chrysanthemums while musing over waka

I stretch out my right hand to the azure sky high above
and write random verse with all my might

Devoted to poetry - taking pleasure in antique porcelain - loving swords
entirely remote from any connection with practical matters am I

With an urge inside to shout something out
difficult to grasp - I stand at the river bank

A moth disoriented hits against an Indian-summer window
I remember that I too was like that

I reproach my wife who would turn on the light
and for a time admire the river in lingering dusk

Desiring to make a life of the soil and sweat I left for America
but with no ties to the soil I grow old in New York

I spread both arms and stand in the light - O the silhouette cast on the wall
dances with me a spring evening's caprice

Careless enough to knock my head on the shelf corner
when I hit it back I hurt my hand too

At the end of joy and anger - love and hatred - pleasure and suffering
God is love who gives death

When I reply - "I don't do anything!"
the cabbie laughs - "That's a fine position!"

Why not designate April Fool's a day not to lie?
there should be one day a year of faith

The world has its ways - one must have pluck - and so on I muse
as I straighten a crooked picture frame

While eating an apple I wonder about my poetry
though the same variety each has a distinctive flavor

Left after a spring snow - garden puddles
absorb little snowflakes without sound

Finding neither excessive fondness nor enlightenment I wander
in a strange land I celebrate the seventy-seventh year of my birth

Unable to sleep - before I know it
fantasies pictured in the dark turn into dreams

I have the same physiology as a bug
on occasion I behave like a bug

David Callner was born in 1956. His youth was spent in France, England, Italy, and America. Since 1978 he has lived in Japan. He has written four novels, all as yet unpublished. He teaches English as an adjunct at Nagano University.

Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku