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Winter 2007, vol 5 no 4

An Interview with Steven Carter
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You've written books about Tonna, Shotetsu, and now the Reizei House. What is it about the Reizei house that stimulated you to write a book about this thousand-year-old family of poets?

SC: The most obvious answer to this question is contained in the question itself. There aren't many thousand-year-old families of poets around. When I first began to read about the modern Reizei house, I asked myself how it was possible that a tradition could last so long, and what that longevity told us about the nature of Reizei poetry and poetics, etc. The more I read, the more I became convinced that telling the Reizei story would allow me to examine the nature of certain "participatory" traditions (which would include haiku, tea ceremony, and other Japanese arts) in a way that had never been done before. Our Western obsession with individualism makes it difficult for us to appreciate discourses that emphasize community, and my hope was that a book about the Reizei house—which for much of its history was a central and mainstream institution—might lead us to reconsider our approach to arts and art forms that our scholarly methodologies are not designed to analyze.


RW: You mention in your Note on Translation Format "that there simply is no one way to put a uta on paper." What do you mean by this?

SC: If you look at how poems were actually recorded in pre-modern Japan—on kaishi ("pocket paper"), tanzaku (vertical "poem strips"), shikishi (square poem sheets), and so on—as opposed to how they tend to get presented in modern Japanese printed editions that have to make the most "efficient" use of space, you will discover that the contention that poems were always recorded in one line—or for that matter, in two—is patently untrue. I don't mean by this to suggest that translators who wish to use a one-line format should not do so, if they wish. What I reject is any claim that they are following Japanese historical precedent.

Now, there are obviously lots of other ways to format translations. I have used various formats myself, usually with the same basic purpose in mind—namely, to create syntactic tension and to militate against the idea that all Japanese poems follow the same syntactic or aural patterns, and to encourage readers to slow down as they read. In Householders, I decided to use a format inspired by the way Reizei poets recorded their poems on kaishi. By doing so I hoped to accomplish two things: to cut down on the empty white space in a book of prose narrative while at the same time allowing myself some elasticity in syntactic structure. Doing things this way did mean using the same format throughout, but that seemed the kindest things to do for readers of a book that is a study, first of all, rather than an anthology of translations.

I have tried to explain my approach to translating uta in the introduction to Unforgotten Dreams, which your readers may wish to read if they have any further interest on this issue.


RW: Please tell me about the technique Shunzei used in the following waka called honkadori (allusive variation):

As evening descends   the autumn wind
on the fields   pierces to the quick:
a quail cries from the deep grass   of Fukakusa

SC: Honkadori was a rhetorical technique used by poets to demonstrate their knowledge of the canon, to add allusive depth to their own work, and to make up for the inherent limitations of a very short form. Since Shunzei's poem does not literally "take a line" from the poems in the episode of Tales of Ise to which it alludes, some might argue that it is not, technically speaking, a honkadori. However, the poem clearly does constitute an allusion back to that episode, in which the canonical figure Ariwara no Narihira and a woman of the village of Fukakusa exchange poems as he prepares to return to the capital. In his poem, Narihira wonders—coyly—whether she will remember him after he is gone, to which she replies that when he hears the sound of quails' calling he should remember her and come "hunting again." His poem reads like witty repartee, hers like a truly plaintive plea.

This whole incident hovers in the background of Shunzei's poem, adding a layer of "plot" and also a layer of sadness. In Shunzei's poem, both Narihira and the woman are of course long gone—victims of the principle of inevitable change that is the mortal condition, which is also symbolized by the biting autumn wind and the grasses that have overcome all. (No reference to Sandburg ["I am the grass; I cover all."], of course; but maybe an allusion to Du Fu's famous lament that would form the backdrop for Bashō's natsukusa ya.)


RW: What is the The Way of Poetry?

SC: The word michi, which is usually treated as "way," has a very long history in China and Japan. Most fundamentally, the word meant "pathway" or "road" in the physical sense. By metaphorical extension, it also came to mean a "way" of practice among Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist monks and among artists. It is in this latter sense that one most often encounters the term in Japanese poetic culture. Inevitably this kind of metaphorical process leads to mystifications of various sorts, sometimes even ending in mysticism. In this connection, I think it is important to remember that while uta was certainly a "way" of religious devotion to the Reizei and their disciples, it was also a "profession" and a house occupation (kagyo in Japanese). In other words, I don't think it is possible to entirely separate the "worldly" from the "artistic" or "religious" in matters of practice and poetics. One of my purposes in Householders is to show that while the Reizei and their adherents were devoted to certain artistic ideals, they were also obliged to make a living. In the end, I think one could argue that they succeeded in making much of what constituted that living into a quasi-religious Way recognized along with other "ways" in the broader context of Japanese culture.


RW: How adverse were The Reizei House poets to individual poetic expression? And why this adversity?

SC: This is one of those million dollar questions. I won't pretend that I have THE answer. I think that the place to begin thinking about the issue is to remember that the concept of individuality, especially as we understand it in the US in the 21st century—after Kant, Descartes, Freud, the Protestant revolution, etc.—cannot have existed in Japan before the Meiji era. I would therefore argue that people like Reizei Tamesuke and Tamekazu and Tametada were not averse to individuality so much as they were committed to participation in a long tradition, within conventions that defined a genre but also a community—the community that provided a grounding for their identity. And I would argue that this was even true of Kyōgoku Tamekane and Shōtetsu, whose opposition to Nijō orthodoxy was more an appeal to a more expansive sense of community than to any idea of poetry as "self-expression."

In practice, this meant not that the Reizei and their adherents had no sense of self but rather that their sense of self was structured in ways different from those we are used to. I would say the same thing about the Reizei that I have about Ichijō Kaneyoshi: " . . . I do not mean to suggest that Kaneyoshi had no sure sense of individual self at all; on the contrary, my study of his life reveals that he had a strong sense of who he was. But what gave him that strength, I have come to believe, was less a firm sense of some individual identity—what was not so long ago tellingly called a 'strong' character, based upon 'inner' resources—than a firm sense of his affiliations, his place in a master narrative longer and larger than any one person could ever claim for his own, a master narrative represented by the titles and names that he quite literally inherited from earlier times." (Carter, Regent Redux, p. 2)


RW: Poetry was rarely practiced and did not have the same prestige amongst Western leaders as those who were members of the Japanese Imperial Court. This is also true today. What was and is the appeal of poetry to Japan's royalty?

SC: Actually, although scholars don't pay a lot of attention to it, the courts of medieval and renaissance Europe did produce lots of poetry, in particular, love poetry. However, I do think it is fair to say that poetry was more important at the imperial Japanese courts—and in the courts of the shoguns, often—than in Western culture generally. The reasons for this are no doubt complex, but I can think of two fairly straightforward ones. First is the strong relationship between literacy and political power in early Japan, which was a product of both the practical and symbolic power of the written word (see Levi-Strauss and others) and of the peculiar situation of Japan on the fringes of China, with its long written heritage and emphasis on literary talent as a prerequisite for governing. Second, as Helen McCullough suggests, is the utility of the arts in general and poetry in particular in providing a safe, orderly manner of mediating all kinds of political exchanges. Heian society was a pressure-cooker. Sometimes, as in the case of the Lady Rokujo in The Tale of Genji, the pressure could not be contained and ended in controversy and violence. But all the poems in the tale—which express unhappiness, frustration, longing, and so on—help keep the lid on things. In this context, it is not surprising that poetry ends up being closely associated with politics and power.


RW: Were metaphors a commonly used tool in the composition of waka during the 11th century by those of the Reizei House? I think of Fujiwara no Tameie's poem:

The hour has grown late.   For a moment
I doze off   into fitful sleep - - -
hearing still from time to time   the tolling
of the bells

More than one tier of meaning is entwined into Tameie's waka (pg. 380). On the surface, there is the obvious literal meaning but upon a deeper look . . . Is this a poem to be taken literally or does it have a deeper, perhaps, codified meaning?

SC: Explicit simile (metaphor using "like" or "as") may be rare in pre-modern Japanese poetry (although one could make a case for understanding rhetorical devices like the jo or "preface" in precisely that way). But it is obvious that metaphor is at work in many court poems, including scores that I have translated for Householders. Often the metaphors do involve highly codified meanings that require the reader to possess some cultural knowledge (the bell standing for the "voice" of Buddhist law, in Tameie's poem, for instance), but sometimes the secondary meaning can be understood from the rhetoric of the poem itself. An example would be the poem by Kajiko of Gion (p. 432):

Once when there was a picture of a boat hidden in the reeds inscribed on a fan, someone asked her to write a poem about it

My body too   may end up
rotting the same way:   hidden in the reeds
of the Bay at Naniwa,   a discarded
fishing boat.

Surely Kajiko didn't think her body would literally be cast into the bay, at death or when she had lost all means of support. Rather she was speaking metaphorically, suggesting that she might be abandoned like a discarded boat. Here knowing that in the Japanese poetic tradition the world is often called the "floating" world and that the fate of women was often described in those terms perhaps might help the reader, but I should think that anyone reading it would be able to "process" the metaphor without much prompting.


RW: Reizei Fumiko, the matriarch of the Reizei family, is quoted in your book as saying, "Write poems on things as they are, the natural world as you feel it. I am always telling disciples that what they need is to refine their emotions and build up their powers of observation and concentration. To put one's heart into one's poems is one of the most basic teaching of the Reizei house. But putting one's heart into things is truly a challenge. Of course it depends on a person's inborn talent, but it takes time until one is able to put one's heart into a poem." Care to elucidate?

SC: There is much precedent for this way of thinking in the Reizei tradition, going all the way back to Shunzei, who insisted that poetry should come from the heart. But I should point out that this approach to learning is a major feature of many traditional Japanese arts, such as tea, noh chanting, samisen, and even the martial arts. The "refinement" Fumiko speaks of might also be called discipline—a Way that emphasizes dedication and not just rhetorical verve or what we called "creativity." (Another word that demands more elucidation in this context, but I will desist.) To be cynical, one might suggest that this is a very convenient stance for the Reizei—or any other artist who claims to be a master qualified to teach—to take: refining is a process, and the process needs direction. But I think there is more to it than that. Again, the operative concept is community. Expressing any random feeling in an idiosyncratic way may be satisfying, but it will also usually be obtuse; the goal in the Reizei way is to become part of a community and to express oneself within that community—in literary terms, within the conventions of a highly codified genre.


RW: Why is the Reizei House more concerned with collective identity and the preservation of family poetic practices, negating the importance of individual expression?

SC: As far as back as Tameie, the Reizei were admitting you can't teach genius—a fact that obviously presents a huge problem for a lineage that claims a kind of monopoly in the field of poetry. Hence the emphasis on developing competence, which can be taught and can bring a sense of belonging and accomplishment. Of course, when a few truly gifted poets did appear—Tamehiro, say, or Tamemura—the Reizei were happy to claim them. But even those poets were not addicted to any abstract notion of individualism, partly because they too were teachers who had to give their students reasonable goals.

I should conclude by saying that we in the 21st century may find something to learn from this. We are so accustomed to living in a consumer culture that we don't stop to think that our involvement in things is often very passive. We sit at home and watch the best players play—the NFL, the major leagues, concerts—and never even imagine that we could actually participate. (Ok, so nowadays we have American Idol and the Amazing Race, but I think my point still generally holds.) Billy Collins writes poems; so do Charles Simic and Rita Dove and A. R. Ammons. But we just read. The Reizei approach says, Why not try your hand at writing? Participation is possible, and fulfilling—and you don't have to be a genius to be a part of things. And this attitude is even more evident in haiku, which even in the US seems to me to be distinguishable from mainstream poetry in the emphasis it puts on groups, societies, and so on.


RW: What will be your next book?

SC: I am finishing up an anthology of translations of zuihitsu—Japanese essays or miscellanies, beginning with texts from the 1300s and ending in 1980 or so. I am also well into a book that I will call "First Verses—Haiku Before Basho." This will also be an anthology, of hokku by renga poets, none of which have ever been translated before, at least to my knowledge.


Steven D. Carter is a Professor in the Department of Asian Languages at Stanford University in California. His recent publications include:

Just Living: Poems by the Medieval Monk Tonna. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

Medieval Japanese Writers, Editor. (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 203. Detroit: Bruccoli, Clark, Layman, Inc., 1999).

Unforgotten Dreams: Poems by the Zen Monk Sh˘tetsu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

Regent Redux: A Life of the Statesman-Scholar Ichij˘ Kaneyoshi. (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997).

"Remodeling the Reizei House: The State of the Poetic Field in Eighteenth Century Japan," Early Modern Japan: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9.2 (Fall 2001): 30-39.

"Chats with the Master: Selections from Kenzai Zōdan," Monumenta Nipponica 56.3 (Autumn 2001): 295-347.

"The Persistence of the Personal in Late Medieval Uta," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 59.1 (June 1999): 163-185.

"Seeking What the Masters Sought: Masters, Disciples, and Poetic Enlightenment in Medieval Japan," in The Distant Isle: Studies and Translations of Japanese Literature in Honor of Robert H. Brower. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997, pp. 35-38.

"On a Bare Branch: Bash˘ and the Haikai Profession," Journal of the American Oriental Society 117.1 (1997): 57-69.

Professor Carter is widely renowned for his translations of medieval Japanese court poetry into English.