Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

An Interview with Ruri Hazama, author of Raffaello's Azure
by Robert D. Wilson and Amelia Fielden

Simply Haiku: Let's talk first about popularising tanka worldwide. Why is it important to you to see tanka accepted by the world?

Ruri Hazama: There are a number of people, myself included, who are working hard to spread the understanding and writing of tanka through the world. Tanka has already made considerable impact outside of Japan, but we are sincerely hoping that it will be even more popular in another ten years time.

My belief is that through tanka people can come to understand an important part of Japanese culture. The content of tanka has varied greatly over its 1300 years of history. However, the first step to appreciating tanka is to get a feel for its enduring special rhythm. That is not always so easy in translation, unfortunately.


Simply Haiku: You seem to genuinely want tanka to reach a broader audience and are simply doing your part. Am I right?

Ruri Hazama: Certainly. But I have only had 1,000 copies printed of my bilingual book of tanka and essays – which were translated with the assistance of Amelia Fielden. I have already sent some 120 copies to various poets and editors overseas. The more people read it, the more successful I will feel my efforts have been.


Simply Haiku: How important to you is the tanka form as exemplified in the Maníyōshū in regards to the composition of your poetry?

Ruri Hazama: Almost eight years ago, when I was earnestly composing tanka, I became frustrated at the small number of words which can be included in any one poem of that form.

At the time I felt I wanted to say more to literary society. So I diverged to writing tanka criticism and essays. Explaining and critiquing other poets' works, I could be more loquacious.

And then, when I studied tanka by the well-known modern woman poet, Morioka Sadaka, I realized how wonderful it is to be able to express within the limits of thirty-one (Japanese) syllables all kinds of things – including deep emotions as in the Maníyōshū. Less is more, in 31-syllabled poetry!

I think tanka are like abstract drawings. They need only a couple of key points and some ornamentation.


Simply Haiku: Do you think Westerners are being premature in redefining the tanka form, considering that it is relatively new to the Occidental world?

Ruri Hazama: Yes, I think so. I am not really comfortable about English tanka which do not use the basic framework and rhythm of traditional Japanese tanka. They seem to me to be some sort of short, free-form verses, not like tanka at all.

Since sending out copies of Raffaello's Azure, I have received a lot of correspondence from Westerners. It seems that tanka are more popular overseas than I had imagined. My book has been very well received. Even people new to tanka apparently are understanding and enjoying my work. For the clarity of the translations I have to thank Amelia Fielden.

Compared to haiku, tanka is less well-known in English-speaking countries. But it is wrong to think of tanka as being only for the literary elite. It is certainly difficult to compose tanka properly; yet it is relatively easy to read.


Simply Haiku: What is the inner force that drives you?

Ruri Hazama: Although I did not mention this in my book, I have been writing tanka under the influence of my mother, who is a poet, too. About fifteen years ago I was seriously ill in hospital, and had to live apart from my husband and son. My mother gave me a lot of encouragement to compose tanka at that time. And I tried to please her with my efforts.

I often revisit my old tanka. Like in jazz music, one can make improvisations on tanka. With the change of a word, a tanka can take a new life.

Twenty years or so ago, I was studying music in the USA. From abstract melodies I garner certain images. I am always thinking about the periphery between sounds and words. I plan to go on writing tanka in association with music.


Simply Haiku: What can we do to expand tanka?

Ruri Hazama: The 31 (Japanese) syllables per poem limitation is obviously somewhat restrictive.

However, if we follow Saishu's proposal and make 10 or 20 tanka together, we can express a great deal more. In tanka sequences we can organise artistic images narratively and/or with deepening lyricism.


Simply Haiku: How important to you is lyricism and metre when composing a tanka?

Ruri Hazama: For me, up until now, the rhythm of my tanka has been of fundamental importance. However, my mentor, the poet Koike Hikaru has advised me to be flexible in the balancing of rhythm with emotion.

Contemporary tanka occasionally need adjustment in their rhythm in order to express new feelings, according to Mr. Koike.


Simply Haiku: Are English and Japanese tanka that different?

Ruri Hazama: Not necessarily. Some are very much alike, some are almost unrecognisably different. I happen to work in a laboratory studying the diversification of animals. In Madagascar there are many kinds of monkeys descended from just one type shipped from the African continent.

It's the same with literature, I believe.

Tanka is bound to evolve with its migration to the Western World. We in Japan may not always like the changes made to the tanka form by English-speaking poets, but I think it is necessary to tolerate such changes for the sake of the future.


Ruri Hazama Ruri Hazama is a graduate of Tokyo Woman's University. In the mid 80s she and her husband lived in the USA, where their first son was born. She returned to Japan in 1990, where she became a member of Tanka-Jin, one of the large Japanese tanka organizations. She received the 31st Critique and Essay Prize from Tanka-Jin in 2005, and she became an editor of The Tanka Journal in 2006. She works as a secretary at the Institute of Statistical Mathematics.