Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3

An Interview with Kirsty Karkow
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: Your new book, shorelines, is one of the finest books of English-Language poetry I have read in the past several years. Your poems do more than paint a picture. They stimulate thought and resonate, making use of the unsaid. Take us for a moment into your mind. Tell us, Kirsty, what went through your mind as you wrote this tanka:

a poet's bench?
perhaps he is right
I'll sit awhile . . .
alert to any damselfly
that pauses on my knee

Were you outdoors? Indoors? Did the words come quickly? Explain this tanka and the process you went through in creating it.

KK: First of all, let me say that your enthusiasm for shorelines delights me and that it is a pleasure to talk about it a little bit. Thank you. In an odd way, this book seems to have taken on a life of its own, as did water poems, leaving me a rather bemused bystander.

To the west of our house, away from the salt water, there is a freshwater pond and overlooking it is a teak bench. A good friend of mine saw a photograph and remarked that it must be a poet's bench, supposing that I sat there, chewing on a pencil and composing poems! Not really. But it did start a thought process and I decided to try it out. As I sat quietly, noticing all the dragon- and damselflies that patrol the pond's banks, the tanka fell into place and was never edited. The idea of the insects being metaphors for poems appealed and, as a former entomologist, I like to include my old friends when I can….



winter stars
the cry of a loon
across the bay

You live in a saltwater inlet on the coast of Maine in America. Winters there can be brutal or beautiful, a place of contrasts. You use contrast in many of your poems to paint a holistic moment. What is the affinity you have towards the sea and how does it affect your poetry?

KK: The sea has played a big role in my life. Part of my childhood was spent on islands in the Caribbean. I attended a school in England which overlooked the wild waters of the English Channel. I got there on a banana boat! Later, when the kids were growing up, we lived near and sailed on the Chesapeake Bay. We chartered sailboats for family holidays in places varying from Belize to Nova Scotia. And here we are, on the coast of Maine, where we sail, paddle, and always enjoy the varying view.

So water has been a backdrop to my life, always affecting my thoughts and rhythms. The sea is known by every sense: sight, smell, touch, hearing, and even taste…it is totally encompassing. I realize, suddenly, that it isn't just the ocean, but the ability to look out over long distances to a far horizon that inspires me. For another part of my childhood was spent in the high desert of Arizona on a working ranch. Looking across long vistas toward the far mountains are experiences that I cherish. We lived in the woods for a while which I found claustrophobic. So gazing across vast distances is important to me and may, in some way, be apparent in the poems.


RW: Your tanka and haiku, Kirsty, tell me you have done your homework. What came first, tanka or haiku? And what attracted you to the aforementioned genres?

KK: Haiku came first. It was something of an epiphany. An acquaintance mentioned that he had found a poetry Website and had won a haiku contest. Being somewhat competitive, my first thought was, "I can do that!" So, the next week I won a mug with my awful poem on it, which fortunately wore off quite quickly. It wasn't even a legitimate contest. It all depended on the time of submission!

But, my interest was whetted and the Internet became my friend. I shall always be grateful to the generosity of the haiku/tanka community—starting with Jane Reichhold. My thanks also go to a very fine poet who found me at AHA! Poetry and guided my faltering first steps. He was invaluable, a US navy man stationed in Iceland. I still have all the letters that Donald Lanska wrote, nudging me along. He was a stern taskmaster. He got me started.

I realize that it is only in the West that people write both haiku and tanka. Japanese poets choose to write one or the other. As time goes by I find myself more drawn to tanka with its ability to express emotions. There seems to be a mood that inspires each one and it is difficult to switch back and forth…for me.


RW: A follow-up question. What poet has influenced you the most and why?

KK: I read everything I could find; wrote everything I could think of. My husband Ed used to stand at the door of my room, from time to time, and remark, "I don't know quite what you are doing, but it seems to take a long time!" I was addicted. I was passionate.

In the beginning there were two books I loved and read constantly. A Moon in Each Eye, by Charles B Dickson; and Family Farm: Haiku for a Place of Moons, by Carol Purington. Jane Reichhold sent me both of them. These were an excellent influence, along with others. In the tanka journals, the poems of Melissa Dixon always leapt out at me with their purity of construction and spirit. So I decided to try my hand at tanka. This led me to Elizabeth St. Jacques and from her to sijo and Larry Gross.

In the first year or two, I forget exactly, a couple of haiku won big contests. I was amazed. At this time I was advised, by a voice that I valued, not to read too much because this could dilute a certain freshness that my naivety brought to the scene. So I didn't. Not for a while anyway.

There are many haiku and tanka poets whom I admire…too many to mention. But that was how it all started at the turn of the millennium.


RW: You state in your book that it's your hope that the poetry therein will stimulate "a longing in new readers to explore further, to find books of haiku and tanka—also, perhaps, in some quiet moment, to take up a pen and write." Would you expound on this in greater depth?

KK: Writing, reading, and relishing haiku, tanka, and sijo has given me so much pleasure that I would like everyone to get on the bandwagon. I never knew what I was missing until that chap walked by, mumbling about his haiku contest! These poetic forms can be very spiritual. They are impossible to write well, I think, unless one becomes completely aware of the moment and what is happening within that moment…often as an observer. For many poets there is a strong connection with Zen. I certainly have Buddhist leanings in this respect—but more toward the Tibetan philosophies. Writing these forms can be a spiritual practice.


RW: What is the Dao of the Atlantic Coast and how does it influence you in the composition of tanka, haibun, and haiku?

KK: The coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes are more remote and less populated than the rest of the US eastern seaboard. Consider the lack of ambient light! And the stars! I have been lucky enough to grow up experiencing black skies at night and remarkably bright stars. In the tropics they are lush, in Arizona one can almost touch them. And in Maine? Well, in Maine, looking up at the clear night sky is both humbling and exhilarating. And when it is cold, there are the "winter stars." These may just be the most beautiful of all kigo, or season words, and a poem all by themselves. Billie Wilson and I agreed on this not long ago. She has similar experiences in Alaska.

There is something very special about Maine and life in Maine. It is hard to put a finger on but anyone living here expresses the same realization. There is a sensitivity to nature and the natural in people not found in most other places.


RW: What advice do you have for those who are newly composing tanka?

KK: Write from the heart. Go with your instinct. BUT, first of all, read the "rules." Then abide by them for a while. Practice, like musicians practice scales before setting off in new directions and trying new rhythms and syllable counts. I see many new people trying to be different before they have the basics; they try to run before they can walk. This leads to stumbling and never quite mastering the art. Tanka is far more than a five-line poem.



on one hind leg
a dancing bear
snout raised to the sun
and his Inuit sculptor

How important is meter to a tanka poem. Is it something you work at? Is it formula based? Or does it come naturally? There is much discussion these days about format, syllable count, and the use or non-use of punctuation in a tanka. What are your thoughts?

KK: Not coming from a free-verse or classical poetry background I don't know much about meter. I don't work at it. If it sounds right I use it. I have to admit to writing by feel and instinct. I rely on intuition, in much the same way that I learned to feel at one with the dressage horses I trained and showed. The centaur effect. It doesn't always work. I get bucked off sometimes….

Some tanka poets use punctuation very successfully. Others create gems with little or no punctuation. I have done both, but find, mostly, that a lack of punctuation leads to more ambiguity and avenues of interpretation for the reader. I may well be wrong. But again, some punctuation is often necessary to good grammar and meaning. It all depends. There are many roads to Rome.


RW: What do you do to improve your craft as a Japanese short form poet?

KK: I do want to improve. There is the struggle through dry periods when it seems clear that I will never write another even halfway decent tanka. Then there is panic and the urge to force them onto the page. This never works for me. I have to wait…and wait…and read the words of others to stimulate the juices. Reading closely and noticing which poems resonate and which can be most instructive. I find that I read mostly contemporary tanka—from all countries. I love the old romantic waka, but when there is a zinger of a poem about a current thought in a current situation, I get all excited! This I want to emulate.

There are so many inspiring English language tanka poets in the public eye now. There have never been so many journals and publications offering a wide variety of tanka poets. It is all very exciting. We are so fortunate. And thank you for Simply Haiku which has broadened the poetic horizons of many practiced and aspiring poets.




completely numb
to sun and birdsong
she bathes herself
in sighs and sorrow
clothes herself in black

not a word
between us on this walk
the wind
blows cold and fitful
my hand lies warm in yours

snow falls heavily
several inches on the sill
as she lies dying
a chill seeps into the room
and all of us who wait here

I'm older now
and given to more thought
about time
around me twilight drinks
the lees of a setting sun

my mind
free from thought
. . .I think

Kirsty Karkow

[Editor's Note: Kirsty Karkow is no stranger to Simply Haiku. Check the Contributors' List: All Issues on the Contents page for additional examples of her work, which includes haiku, haiga, and renku, as well as tanka.].


Kirsty Karkow Kirsty Karkow has retired, with her husband Ed, to the shores of mid-coast Maine. Her days are filled with gardening, walking, paddling, cooking vegetarian meals, volunteer hospice work and taking their power boat along the rocky fir-lined coast. It is basically a simple and quiet lifestyle. Kirsty's haiku and tanka have won awards and been published in many countries. She is the vice-president of The Tanka Society of America with two books in print, companion volumes. water poems: haiku, tanka and sijo was published by Black Cat Press in 2005 and reprinted in 2007. shorelines: haiku, haibun and tanka was published in the summer of 2007.

[A review of shorelines appears in this volume. Editor]