Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Summer 2008, vol 6 no 2

An Interview with Kathy Kituai
by Amelia Fielden

AF: Kathy, you have been a writer for a very long time, I understand. Can you tell us about your writing background, the genre in which have written to date and publications before 2007?

KK: Indeed, I started writing a long time ago, in my mid-twenties in fact. After publishing two poems I stopped writing altogether. I wanted to be a musician and I composed songs instead. In hindsight had it not been for John Kolia, the editor of The Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, I may not have recognised I was a poet. He simply walked into my office and announced out of the blue that I was to attend to my duties as the sub-editor of Bikmaus, in the morning. In the afternoon I was to write for myself. If the big boss came in, my job was to look busy until he left. Thanks to John, I went on to write The Banabans, a four part dramatised radio documentary that went to air at NBC, Port Moresby and followed this with four poetry books, three anthologies and a children's picture book. If John were alive today, I'd hug him, especially now that I'm writing tanka.


AF: When did you begin writing tanka? Had you previously written haiku and what led you to write tanka (and/or haiku?)

KK: I came across haiku in 1986. Rightly or wrongly at that time, I thought a lot of Australian poets considered haiku as nothing more than 'exercise pieces' taught in creative writing because they were short and offered a form in which to study syllabics. Not a view shared by Ann Heenan, a teacher who introduced me to William Carlos Williams' poetry and haiku almost in the same session.

Inspired after this first and only haiku lesson at TAFE College, I wrote my first haiku walking back to the student car park. It was chosen as one of the Ten Honourable Mention Winners in the 1990 Mainichi Daily News Annual Haiku Contest.

You'd think I'd be encouraged by this result, wouldn't you? Not so. Nonetheless I published haiku in my first collection of poetry, green-shut-green. A reviewer in the Canberra Times did not receive these, or the prize-winning haiku, kindly. Easily discouraged in those days, I read Japanese poetry in secret but never discussed this with other poets. It wasn't until I read your translations, Amelia, of Japanese tanka poets that my love of tanka renewed to the point of passion.

Pleased to say that tanka is becoming more and more popular with Australian poets, be it ever so slowly.


AF: What is it that you particularly enjoy about the tanka form; is it reading or writing tanka?

KK: Both. I forgot to say earlier there was no need for me to read tanka in secret after I met Rosemary Swan, the graphic artist to whom I dedicated Straggling Into Winter. We met regularly in places like the Botanic Gardens here in Canberra, swapped haiku and shared our delight in certain poets. Issa is my favourite haiku poet; nothing was too small or unimportant, like fleas for instance, to rate in his poetry. If all creatures big and small are valued, particularly those we'd prefer to swat, how differently we might view war.

The first thing that I noticed after reading or writing tanka was a stillness of mind. I rarely experience this in other forms. Tanka goes to the heart of the matter, the essential essence of what needs to be said. There's little room for waffle in twenty-one syllables or less. Likewise, tanka has the capacity to embrace what's not said, the meaning behind the words relished at leisure, layer by layer.

I know it's clichéd to say it offers an aha! moment. However, whenever I write tanka, my awareness is heightened and I notice things I overlook on those days when I don't write.


AF: Please tell us about your first tanka collection; for instance when and where was Straggling Into Winter published? For instance, what inspired this Book?

KK: Being a diarist, it only seemed natural to write a journal in tanka. This of course became Straggling Into Winter. I have kept journals for twenty-two years but never one in poetry. The idea appealed.

Interactive Publications was a publisher that, coincidently, was running a literary competition for unpublished manuscripts in Queensland at the same time as I was there caring for my daughter who was ill. Actually I had looked them up on the Internet beforehand and placed them high on my list of publishers to approach. I took it as a good sign when I discovered IP was only a suburb away from where I was staying, and posted the manuscript off to them without hesitation. It was Highly Commended and they offered me a contract. I certainly don't regret this choice of publisher; they have been most supportive.


AF: What is your favourite tanka in it?

KK: I couldn't say. This would vary, day to day. The poem I'm writing at the moment is always my favourite, until the next one occurs of course.


AF: And our new book, In Two Minds, what was your impetus for this collection?

KK: What could be more inviting than creating a body of work with another writer, especially one that would be a conversation between two poets? Although I've worked with artists from different genres, I've never worked with a writer before. The mere idea of this scared the hell out of me. It felt as though I could be part of something bigger, something more challenging and different other than just writing tanka for myself. A challenge indeed it was, but I like challenges. I learnt a lot about writing in the moment, reality from another poet's point of view, myself as a writer and things I might like to write about in a future tanka collection, like my life as the wife of a Papua New Guinean historian in Australia and PNG. Many, many thanks Amelia, for all that I discovered in this journey.


AF: Would you like to tell us something about the way you compose tanka?

KK: Wow! This is quite a question. I'm not sure that I compose tanka only the one way. If you are asking me where I start technically, this could be anywhere from the pivot to the first or last line. Something will usually catch my attention. This can range from inanimate objects to wildlife, like the magpies and parrots I feed every day, or nothing more than a fleeting thought. I won't always know why something has my attention but if I feel it in my body, I know I will want to write about it.

I then jot down a few words, a phrase and if I'm lucky, it appears in five lines. Sometimes it needs little work to make it a tanka. Other times I work on it for months. If it doesn't satisfy me emotionally, I know what I really want to say is still missing. Who was it that called this 'emotional truth'? Technicalities are secondary for me. I am grateful though to all the published tankaists and what I learn from reading their work.

Essentially, what matters to me is what I feel and this alone leads me through the maze of techniques. Sol Stein makes it clear that the job of a writer is not to create emotion on the page, but in the reader. Tanka is a perfect form in which to do this.

For instance when I wrote this tanka:

should she catch that breeze
place it safely in a box
lasso those sunbeams
streaming into the hospice
delude herself any further?

I felt the melancholy of a typical autumn day. Rosemary was on my mind. She had just been diagnosed with secondary cancer. The breeze blew in through the window above my desk. A joyful sadness overtook me. I was totally aware of how pleasant the breeze was on my skin and depressed just knowing Rosemary may not experience another autumn as magical as this. As you know, Canberra winters are cold and the next wasn't too far away. Wanting Rosemary to heal was as impossible as wanting to catch the breeze for her. I was so in touch with those feelings; the poem appeared almost as it is now written. I wrote it so that both Rosemary and I were that woman in the poem.

This joyful sadness is the nature of life, isn't it? It's through the writing that I make sense of it anyway and discover what it is I'm actually writing about. Pre-dawn you'll find me writing in bed. I have to write every day. Perhaps that's why I'm drawn to keeping diaries.


AF: What does the future hold? More tanka?

KK: Yes. I'm half way through serving a self-imposed five-year apprenticeship. That doesn't mean I won't return to free-verse poetry, it just means I have a lot to learn as yet about tanka.

At the moment I'm applying for funds in order to take up a Writing Residency in Lochinvar, Scotland in 2009. I'll be involved in a cross-cultural, cross-art project that includes teaching creative writing and working beside Scottish potter Fergus Stewart. We've worked together before in Australia, but I need to work with him in his homeland in order to understand the effect environment has on any artist's work, in this case his and mine.

Actually I wrote an article about him for Pottery Australia in 1994 and am now anxious to go on to explore the relationship between pottery and poetry, especially tanka. They fit hand in glove. Potter and poet, Otagaki Rengetsu, whose work I saw at the Australian Nation Gallery 2007, demonstrated this natural affinity. She inscribed tanka directly onto pots. It's our intention to explore this relationship even more and produce pots and poetry for exhibitions. As well as this, I hope to write a collection of tanka and essays highlighting the empathy between tanka and ceramics.


Kathy Kituai Poet, diarist and creative writing teacher, Kathy Kituai has published three poetry collections: green-shut green, The lace-Maker, and Straggling into Winter (Highly Commended in the IP Best Poetry Award 2007). A fourth collection, In Two Minds, is due in 2008. She was a recipient of the Canberra Critics Circle Award for: "her constant dedication to supporting and promoting the work of other writers; particularly for her work on the anthologies Red Cat Country and There is no Mystery?" She has won awards for free verse poetry and tanka; published a children's picture book, When We All Go To Nan's House; and The Banabans, a radio four part documentary of NBC Radio. A sub-editor for Muse magazine (Aus) and Bikmaus (PNG), Kathy worked on literature committees, judged literature competitions and writes the way she lives: just to see what happens!