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Autumn 2008, vol 6 no 3

Talking Points: Jeffrey Woodward on Haibun and Tanka Prose
An Interview with Patricia Prime

PP: As a whole, would it be true to say you are now focussing your attention on tanka, haibun and tanka prose rather than the formal poetry that we see in your selected poems, In Passing?

JW: My book is a summation, really, of a long apprenticeship. If by "formal poetry" is meant verse in fixed form, such as the sonnet or pantoum, say, or in iambic or even strict syllabic meter, then yes, it is fair to say that I've moved away from those disciplines to my current emphasis on the genres you mention. But while form is highly variable from composition to composition in tanka, haibun or tanka prose, good writing in every genre exhibits form. The same is applicable, so far as I can determine, to the best free verse. But that is another story.


PP: Can we discuss some of your tanka? I wonder if you could explain your use of rhythm, rhyme and repetition in this first one, which may have its origins in the tanka of the Japanese masters?

the road that brings me
through the garden to your door
one thousand times
I've run this course in dreams
one thousand nights or more

          (published in moonset Ed. 4, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 2008)

JW: The hyperbole of "one thousand times" is a convention of love poetry, East and West. Visitation by the medium of the dream – the lovers' tryst in the dream – is a motif that readers of Narihara or Ono no Komachi will be familiar with. One immediate stimulus for this poem is actually far removed from such Japanese masters and this is simply the haunting memory of an art song by the Austrian composer Hugo Wolf, one built upon a simple lyric by Goethe. The lover therein is reminded of his beloved "Wie hunderttausendmal" – one hundred thousand times. So you can see how far we have come from Romanticism! Rhyme is not a feature of Japanese verse, of course, but alliteration, assonance, parallelism certainly are, whether we are speaking of Hitomaro and the Man'yo poets or of later figures, such as Shunzei and Shōtetsu, who do influence my approach and practice of tanka.


PP: You may like to comment on this lovely minimalist one:

gathered into
my bare
hand only
the sun of
a dandelion

          (published in Modern English Tanka Vol. 2 No. 3, 2008)

and this one, with its unexpected punch line:

lying on her side
pretty chin propped up
in her hand she
looks girlishly innocent
and yet she lies

          (published in Modern English Tanka Vol. 2 No. 3, 2008)

JW: The dandelion tanka may displease purists as being too close in method to haiku, with its simple juxtaposition of sun and dandelion, with its reliance upon sensory impression. If this is a fault, I think it is a common one in contemporary English-language tanka. But poetry of any type, be it formal, free verse or tanka, is first and foremost an aural phenomenon in my view. What does it sound like when read aloud? I'm far less interested in questions of lineation and other typographical conventions except where they influence the reader's reception of the poem. This, I believe, is the case here where full enjambment of the first two lines leads to an unexpected pause in the middle of the third, a pause that throws great emphasis upon "only." It is often in the defeat of a good reader's expectation that a poet's true rhythms are established.

The second tanka that you cite, the one with the girl "lying on her side," employs a technique that I call incremental discovery, one wherein significant information is withheld from the reader to delay a full revelation. Edwin Arlington Robinson, for example, was a master of this method in such poems as "The Mill" or "Richard Cory." The poet provides and the reader receives relevant detail only in measured instalments. Again, this method under whatever name is frequently employed in prose and verse, East and West. The most significant detail withheld here is provided in the final word, "lies," with its punning reference to the tanka's first word, "lying."


PP: I want to set up the distinction between haibun and tanka prose. Could you elaborate on the two forms for the benefit of readers?

JW: Haibun and tanka prose share a common identity as genres that combine prose and verse. Their first and fundamental difference is their respective preferences for verse form. Haibun favors haiku and tanka prose, tanka. Their many distinguishing traits stem from that one coarse and simple fact.

Any verse – haiku, tanka or otherwise – will find that its meaning is changed, to a degree, once it is accompanied by prose; it yields some sovereignty to its companion and discovers limits placed upon its interpretation by the new prose context. Influence is reciprocal here, however, and the prose will likewise discover that the inclusion of verse curbs its freedom and demands qualitative changes in style and method. Haiku and tanka differ in form and substance; their individual affinities inevitably have varying influence upon any prose context that they inhabit.

One other general observation is historical. Tanka prose in Japanese literature predates Bashō's haibun by seven or eight centuries. Here, in English-language practice, the chronology is reversed. Haibun in English can be dated back to the '50s or '60s of the last century, depending on whether one takes Jack Kerouac or Jack Cain as one's starting point, but tanka prose in English, so far as I can determine, was not attempted prior to 1983 when Sanford Goldstein published his "Tanka Walk." And that is a solitary example insofar as other practitioners, like Jane Reichhold or Larry Kimmel, do not arrive until the '90s.


PP: Here is one of your haibun. I find it an excellent example of your work, which often contains conversation, prose, intimate knowledge and haiku. Do you agree on this summation?

Goat's Beard

"That's not a very pleasant name for a flower – goat's beard. Nor is Tragopogon dubius much better."

She knows flowers intimately – mostly the garden varieties – but she also studied Latin in school. Eager to affirm, if asked, that she, indeed, enjoys Latin and holds some pride in its acquisition.

Our field guide offers a four-color photograph of the plant in full flower: eight or so lance-like bracts with rays longer than the golden florets. The specimen before us, however, has flowered before our arrival and only its fruit remains: a generous crown of seeds, like a gargantuan dandelion, the feathery down and white parachute of each seed perfectly in place.

"Did you make a wish," she asks, "and blow the dandelion seed away as a child?"

I pick the goat's beard and gingerly hold the globe up for her admiration, afraid that the least tremble of my wrist might send the seeds off upon the four winds.

"No, I don't remember doing that."

She does not hear my reply, busy as she is with scouring the field guide.

"Noon flower," she announces, "or Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon . . . . From the plant's behaviour: closing shop, by noon, to quit the sun's rays. Now those names are more leisurely, more elegant, more suggestive."

I involuntarily stroke my grizzled beard – there, in my weedy kingdom, inviting a nymph to join me. She is younger, far younger, than I.

No trace of a breeze on this blazing morning and yet one seed and then another and yet another slips from its place in my hand.

          noon flower –
          the solitude of
          a wish floats away

          (published in Contemporary Haibun, Vol 9, 2008)

JW: "Goat's Beard" is fairly representative of my prose style, yes, although my technique, as with most poets, varies with the individual composition. You mention conversation and intimacy. Perhaps such traits are characteristic of my haibun but they do not feature, I think, as prominently elsewhere as in this particular work.


PP: Could you elaborate on your general approach to writing tanka prose and your technique when composing an individual text?

JW: I can offer some broad generalizations. My practice or approach is not fixed but determined by the demands of the given subject and form. My early efforts were abbreviated, usually one tanka and one paragraph of prose, and whether due to the brevity of the work or to the novelty of exploring a new genre, I often sought security in writing prose "around" a pre-existing or finished tanka. I rarely use tanka now that were composed independently of the immediate impulse or inspiration for the tanka prose I am writing. A tanka or a sentence of prose may be the first thing placed on paper but, in general, I do not now incorporate previously written tanka or prose.


PP: Below is one of your tanka prose pieces. Could you explain how it came to be written?

A Record of Semimaru

Dilapidated but inhabited: a straw-thatched hut.

Coarse-spun and tattered: the rags of the hermit.

Before the door of his hut, by the dust of the road, dishevelled where seated: the same with his biwa.

He is a stranger - this one called Semimaru - but a native of this village. A beggar, some say, but of royal blood. He sees, though blind from birth, where many do not.

Chanting long forgotten poems, he tames his own tempestuous and wayward spirit. Plucking four strings with a plectrum, he quiets an autumn gale.

Here on this mountain pass, by the road to the ancient capital, only this silk-stringed instrument does not abandon him.

the back of the biwa,
though delicately inlaid
with fine hammered gold,
is wooden and shallower
than a begging bowl

How early twilight settles now upon this litter of straw and, in branches that lately showered travelers with red and yellow, purple and tan, a chilly wind keens over a makeshift hut, a moonless evening offers no light . . . . How dark it has become - this autumn lantern!

one comes now one goes
one is known and one is not
all are travellers here
merely passers-by who part
on the road to the capital

The boxwood body of the biwa is carved with a polished curve, like that of the pear that Semimaru's want will not afford, and smooth to touch, having weathered the four seasons. The strings of silk are drawn taut, the plectrum in his knotted hand.

this hail that begins
well before the dawn
hail that stops only
to peck at the straw again
neither hail nor biwa end

          (published in Modern English Tanka Vol. 2, No. 2, 2008)

JW: This writing came fairly early in my exploration of tanka prose and is probably among my first efforts to extend the work beyond the basic unit of one paragraph of prose, one tanka. The character Semimaru is an actual poet of the Heian period about whom contradictory legends survive. He was the son of a prince who lived as a hermit in a hut, he was a blind master of the biwa, he was a common beggar of humble birth, and so on. One of his tanka won a place in Fujiwara no Teika's seminal Ogura Hyakunin Isshu (100 Poems by 100 Poets) and was copied, from there, into other influential anthologies such as the Kokin Wakashu.

The immediate motive for my study and adoption of tanka prose initially was to try to solve a compositional problem in the writing of haibun, to wit: I wanted to write poetic prose. Yet the farther one removes prose diction from the everyday in an approach to pure poetry, the less able is haiku to sustain a rightful place in the compositional whole. That is, the prose tends to drown out the verse element. Tanka is capable of greater definition as a form than is haiku, in my opinion, and tanka is at once more expansive and lyrical. Because I wrote tanka already, and because I had some prior acquaintance with such Japanese tanka prose classics as the Tosa Diary and Tales of Ise, it was perhaps inevitable that I would turn to tanka for a solution.

I discovered also, in writing "A Record of Semimaru," one possible limitation of tanka prose that haibun does not share, namely: Haibun, because of the presence of haiku with its sketchy nature, can employ incomplete sentences and prose fragments freely whereas such "broken" syntax is very dissonant and difficult to harmonize well with tanka. That is one explanation for the pronounced parallelism of the opening of this particular work. I started with some descriptive fragments such as might be at home in haibun but intuitively found them lacking, when measured against the tanka, and so the parallel constructions were introduced to lend gravity to the prose.

One humorous aside here is that I'd just begun listening to recordings of the biwa when writing this work. The instrument was really known to me only as a literary artefact previously, that is, I knew the famous haiku of Buson's where he compared the biwa's sound to that of 'silk tearing' and so forth. I was struck – pun intended – by the percussive style of the biwa players. Perhaps the marked rhythms of the opening parallels owe something to hearing the biwa for the first time too.


PP: Do you feel that the tanka prose form is more processed than the haibun form? That is, that tanka prose perhaps need to be worked closely with the tanka, whereas haibun proceed more naturally?

JW: That isn't my own experience. But I tend to revise haibun and tanka prose extensively, so perhaps I am not a fair indicator of what writers who venture upon tanka prose may encounter. One exception to what I've said may be in complex forms of the genre where sequences of two, three or more tanka precede or follow the prose element; such forms are tricky and demand special care. I'm not certain that we would not experience similar difficulties in writing a haibun with an embedded haiku sequence, however, but then I do not find such haibun in haikai periodicals.


PP: Do you feel that your writing (particularly tanka prose) has a 'political' impact by nature of its difference from traditional haibun?

JW: I haven't issued a manifesto or agitated for a 'political' solution, if this is what is meant. I would like to see wider acceptance of the fact, however, that even haiku, which has the longest history of English practice, is relatively new, not having attained its first century. I'm wary, therefore, of rules and definitions for the haiku and tanka genres that I perceive as rigid and inflexible. One hundred years is a heartbeat in literary history. How can we speak confidently of a tradition? So I would simply appeal to writers and readers of every persuasion to remain open and curious, to resist the easy temptation of absolutes.


PP: In what way did Japanese haibun and tanka prose poets shape or influence your poetic imagination?

JW: Travel and seclusion are recurrent motifs in much of the literature. This is as true, for example, of Bashō in his haibun as it is of the anonymous 13th century author in the tanka prose work Journey Along the Seacoast Road. One finds the same broad themes in the writing of the great women diarists. The poetess of the Sarashina Diary is a virtual captive of her obsession with reading every possible romantic tale while the Nun Abutsu, in her Diary of the Waning Moon, is possessed by the singular need to travel – in defence of her son's interests. It was probably in the movement between these two poles – the going out, the coming back – that my imagination was captured.


PP: Do you think that new innovations in haibun, such as we see in the work of Stanley Pelter (UK) are becoming more noticeable in other poets' work?

JW: Perhaps here and there, in individual cases, but I certainly detect no sea-change. If writers of haibun choose to push the envelope, content as against form is often the focus. Jeffrey Winke's witty, science fiction-like haibun come to mind. Charles Hansmann is a sophisticated writer who has challenged boundaries occasionally. The basic formal model of one or two brief paragraphs of prose with a solitary haiku at the end still dominates every venue that I am aware of, however, so the rare figure like Pelter is discounted or marginalized.


PP: What inspired you to develop your website Haibun Today?

JW: Two things: (1) a scarcity of venues for serious writers of haibun and (2) a general lack of sustained critical reflection on the genre in established periodicals.


PP: How do you see Haibun Today developing and what changes do you hope to see in it in the future?

JW: For a literary enterprise that is operated on a shoestring budget and in the spirit, if you will forgive the analogy, of a guerrilla campaign, I believe we've had uncommon success. One reason for that success is that Haibun Today identified a need and met that need – more exposure for haibun poets, critical articles and interviews. Another reason for that success is the kind welcome received from persons like Jim Kacian, Ken Jones and Bruce Ross of Contemporary Haibun Online, good writers and editors everyone, who did not begrudge our activities but generously supported them. For the immediate future, I do not anticipate great changes at the site but wish, in the main, to provide a critical outlet for haibun and tanka prose and, by our example, to persuade haiku journals, perhaps, to provide greater representation of the genre.


PP: Haibun and tanka prose are often filled with small details. Is the commonplace, for you, an aspect of the sublime?

JW: Because the commonplace, by far, accounts for the greater share of our experience, I am hopeful that this is so.


PP: What do you see as the value behind the tanka prose group blog that you administer?

JW: It provides intimacy and privacy to a small but talented group of poets who are interested in exploring what is largely uncharted territory, tanka prose. Critiques of posted writings are directly practical as an aid to the poet's revision, of course, but there is also great advantage in being able to read, on a regular basis, tanka prose as it is developed from draft to draft by fellow writers. The archives of the site constitute an anthology-in-miniature of tanka prose, so that, too, is of unique value.


PP: It would be fair to say you have mentored a number of poets (me included) in the art of tanka prose. Do you see mentoring others as a way of generating your own poetry?

JW: I do not see mentoring as a means to inspire poetry but whenever one presumes to define a phenomenon or clarify a process for others – whether one does so as mentor, essayist, professor or interview subject – one's interlocutors inevitably raise questions and problems, inevitably instruct the instructor, so to speak, in the limits of his own knowledge. So I perceive mentoring as a challenge and a means for the mentor, also, to learn.


PP: For me personally, the tanka prose group has provided a wonderful venue for criticism and appraisal of one's work. Do you see this as something you would wish to encourage other writers to join?

JW: Yes and no. The work that takes place in groups of this kind, with the many critiques and postings, is extremely labor-intensive. We currently have five members and might accommodate twice that number. I started a second private group to introduce others to the genre and to provide a private venue for less intensive comments and work. Anyone who applies will be admitted, so the "tanka / prose connection" is one logical place for interested parties to begin:


PP: I believe you spend a lot of time revising a poem before it's finished. Do you rework things over a long period of time?

JW: I do but not as obsessively as I once did.


PP: Do you feel that when the creative life is at a standstill, this is a necessary part of one's development as a writer?

JW: That is a fascinating question and one I wish I might answer negatively. If writing is a simple craft, as many maintain, shouldn't the writer be able to report to his workshop daily, like any other skilled craftsman, and write from nine to five? Of course, this is not the case with me nor with most writers I know. Thus, I do not know if a dry period in the creative life is necessary so much as it is inevitable.


PP: How important in the artistic process is your dialogue with other poets?

JW: Poetry is a very specialized pursuit. Who, other than a fellow poet, is likely to present an informed challenge – or appreciation, for that matter – on the merits? So dialogue with other poets is crucial in my view.


PP: Friendships with poets often play a critical role in one's aesthetic and emotional life. Are friendships among poets different from other friendships?

JW: On an intellectual level, perhaps so, as points of discussion tend to focus on subjects that most people are ignorant of or indifferent to. On an emotional level, I think not, for people do not have to be artists to discover an affinity for one another. Deep friendship, artistic or otherwise, is relatively rare, I suspect.


PP: Would you like to say something about the forthcoming Tanka Prose Anthology that you are editing?

JW: I would be delighted to do so. The anthology is the culmination of a year's research on my part and of 25 years of underground existence of a genre, tanka prose. I say 25 years because the oldest example that I could find in English, and it is presented in the anthology, is Sanford Goldstein's "Tanka Walk," circa 1983. The book presents writings by 19 poets from eight different countries and demonstrates well the great variety of styles and range of subjects admitted by tanka prose's flexibility. My hope, of course, is that the anthology is not an end but a beginning of wider acceptance of a medium, tanka prose, which is uniquely rewarding and rich in possibilities. And thank you for the interview. The pleasure was mine.


Jeffrey Woodward Jeffrey Woodward, with the exception of abbreviated stints in California, New Mexico and West Virginia, has resided in the Upper Great Lakes Region for much of his life. His poems and articles have been published widely in North America, Europe and Asia in various periodicals, including Acumen (England), The Christian Century, Frogpond, International Poetry Review, Lines Review (Scotland), Modern English Tanka, Modern Haiku and many others. His work is also represented in dust of summers: Red Moon Anthology 2007 and Contemporary Haibun 9. He edits Haibun Today and is an Assistant Editor for The Hypertexts.

Recent Bibliography


In Passing: Selected Poems, 1974-2007. Detroit: Carnival Books, 2007.

Quartet: a string of haibun in four voices (with Jeffrey Harpeng, Patricia Prime & Diana Webb). Teneriffe, Qld., Australia: PostPressed, 2008.

The Tanka Prose Anthology (editor). Baltimore: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008.


"The Road Ahead for Tanka in English," Modern English Tanka V2, N2, Winter 2007.

"The Elements of Tanka Prose," Modern English Tanka V2, N4, Summer 2008.