Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Winter 2006, vol 4 no 4

An Interview with Tanka Poet Kawano Yuko
by Amelia Fielden

AF: You teach tanka composition in the community, and you lecture on tanka throughout Japan.

  • What is your concept of tanka?
  • Why is tanka so popular in Japan?

KY: Tanka is a fixed form lyric which Japanese people have been composing since ancient times - for more than 1300 years, in fact. Such continuity in poetry is no doubt unparalleled in the world. We can only conjecture why the 5/7/5/7/7 sound-unit rhythm of tanka has kept such a firm hold on the Japanese heart and mind, why over all these centuries we have never diverged from basic pattern for writing traditional poetry.

What I always feel, when composing, is that the meaning or content of a poem is not its starting point; rather, it is the fundamental rhythm of the tanka form itself which somehow creates the meaning of a poem. Throughout history, Japanese people have subconsciously thought and expressed themselves in this 5/7/5 rhythm. Why even today our modern mottos, slogans, and contemporary commercials on TV and so on, employ the same pattern of alternating 5/7/5 sound-units.

And I think it's just wonderful that there continue to be regular tanka and haiku columns, and feature articles devoted to our traditional verse forms in all the Japanese newspapers. Moreover, our national broadcaster, NHK, produces monthly half-hour tanka and haiku TV programs which are viewed by a huge, broad-based audience. Tanka, and haiku too, are thriving through the media of books, journals, and societies of devoted teachers and practitioners everywhere in Japan.


AF: What do you think enables the tanka which you yourself compose to connect with readers in Japan - and, through translation, outside of Japan?

KY: Most likely it is the way I write: frankly, clearly, simply. I don't theorize, or write in a convoluted manner. The words I use come out naturally, as expressions of my whole visceral and emotional being.


AF: What do you consider to be the most important aspect in composing tanka?

KY: Using straightforward, honest language without posturing or artificiality. Writing instinctively.


AF: You do an enormous amount of tanka selection for the Tower journal, and other media. What is your definition of a successful tanka?

KY: For me, the best tanka are those which seem to have been created not solely by the thinking mind, but by the poet fully engaging her or his physical body and five senses in the composition of tanka rhythm.


AF: What are some common mistakes made by new tanka writers? Do you have some advice for people who want to write tanka?

KY: As tanka is an extremely short form, it is important not to try to cram too much into one poem. By saying just a little, skillfully, the poet can convey such a lot to the reader. The very brevity of tanka is empowering. Condense your expressions to reveal the true essence of your message.


AF: Which one tanka poet, living or dead, has had the greatest influence on your work?

KY: This is a difficult question to answer, for there are many whom I admire. Closest to my life and work is my husband and fellow poet Nagata Kazuhiro. He always reads my tanka for me and I value his advice greatly.


Kawano Yuko (1946-) is one of the leading tanka poets of Japan. Selections of her recently published book As Things Are, 100 Tanka From 10 Collections by Kawano Yuko, translated by Amelia Fielden with the assistance of Kozue Uzawa, may be seen in the Tanka Section of Simply Haiku, vol. 3, no. 3.