A Chat about Tanka

New Moon book cover
First published as “A Chat with Ness and Welch” in New Moon: An Introduction to Issues in Contemporary American Tanka, Red Fox Press, 2001, pages 43–49. I’ve omitted the answers from Pamela Miller Ness who received the same questions, but they are well worth seeking out. The book is available at the Red Fox Press site. Interview conducted and introduced by A. C. Missias.

 

How do American poets discover tanka and make it part of their own artistic repertoire? I decided to talk to two of the founding members [Pamela was actually a charter member, not a founding member] of the Tanka Society of America—Michael Dylan Welch and Pamela Miller Ness, each of whom has years of experience with both the haiku and tanka genres—about their views on contemporary tanka and its future in the English language.

 

A. C. Missias: How did you start writing tanka?

 

I first gravitated towards tanka after having written haiku for many years. I imagine this is a common progression among tanka writers. Books of translations such as Jane Hirshfield’s Ink Dark Moon have been tremendously beneficial.

 

ACM: How does tanka differ from the other poetic genres that you have practiced—especially from haiku, and from short Western poetry?

 

The most obvious difference is that tanka has two more lines than does a haiku, but I think it’s wrong to think of a tanka as a “long haiku.” There’s something more to it than that, a sort of spirit, a lyricism, a yearning honest emotionalism, that sets it apart from haiku. Haiku are typically objective and often about nature, which sometimes makes them emotionally “distant.” Tanka, on the other hand, are often personal, more subjective, and more focused on human relationships. In this regard, perhaps tanka have a greater potential for mass appeal to those who read poetry. Haiku often requires a trained reader, but that’s not nearly so necessary for tanka.

 

ACM: How has your concept of tanka changed over time?

 

I think my first sense of tanka was a little narrower than it was later. As I read a greater variety of tanka in translation and by English-language writers, I began to see greater possibilities. The poems that work best for me, though, still tend to be in that narrower initial range. Poets such as Takuboku, and some folks who seem to emulate him, are sometimes too personal (that is, obscure) and too lean in their expression (and thus, perhaps, not writing tanka as I understand it to be or prefer it to be). [This is not to say that I dislike Takuboku; far from it, but he does represent a particular extreme for tanka, it seems to me.] Tanka has plenty of elbow room for experimentation, though, and I hope poets will continue to explore its nooks and crannies, as well as its wide-open spaces. I have enjoyed deliberately going back to the old topics of yearning love, but also find myself writing more about modern subjects.

 

ACM: How do you see the relationship of the contemporary tanka in America to the tradition in/from Japan?

 
I think there’s probably a large disconnect between contemporary American and Japanese tanka. Tanka has not had [nearly as much of] the benefit that haiku has had in having significantly well-informed scholars and writers who are writing extensively about tanka. There are a number of fine translators, but no one writing about tanka esthetics the way Harold Henderson, R. H. Blyth, and William Higginson have for haiku. We also need more anthologies of English-language tanka so we can record our progress. Footsteps in the Fog (Press Here) and Wind Five Folded (AHA Books), both in 1994, were the first anthologies of tanka written in English. Since then, we haven’t had enough similar books. [This situation has now changed, of course.]

        In recent years, there has been a wonderful burst in information and cross-pollination between haiku poets in America and Japan, and I suspect there is a similar potential for tanka. Perhaps we are just now starting that interaction, but it has a long way to go to catch up to where haiku is, which itself is just beginning. My sense of English-language tanka, though, is that a significant number of people who write tanka have developed the genre to such a degree that, like haiku for several decades now, tanka in English is now mature enough to be independent from Japan. It should never lose touch with Japan, though!

 

ACM: What stimulated the recent formation of the Tanka Society of America?

 

I have for several years thought that there should be a tanka society, partly to give greater focus onto the genre, and also because, in the Haiku Society of America, there were occasional problems relative to tanka . . . Frogpond has in the past published tanka, which some people have objected to—I for one deliberately never submitted tanka for Frogpond because I thought it was inappropriate. Many haiku poets are under the assumption that “haiku” is an umbrella sort of term that includes senryu, tanka, renku, haiga, haibun, and other forms. There is a relationship between each of these forms, of course, but I think tanka is the most distantly related. The formation of the Tanka Society should help differentiate haiku and tanka.

        [See below for a postscript about the society’s formation.]

 

ACM: What do you hope for the American tanka community in coming years?

 

I would like to see tanka taught and understood on a par with haiku, although I suspect it will always play no better than second fiddle to haiku in American schools and textbooks.

        One of tanka’s hurdles is that many people, myself included, write tanka in the context of haiku; this is not a problem in itself, but I think we must be careful to write our tanka in the context of tanka, and learn to differentiate the genres and their histories.

 

ACM: What do you wish that haiku poets would understand about tanka?

 

I think the gap in understanding between haiku poets and tanka is not nearly as great as the gap between the general populace (including serious poets) and haiku. I think haiku poets who try tanka should understand that while some techniques are similar (the pause or turn in the poem, for example), tanka has a broader palette of colours, and perhaps one or two more painting tools, than does haiku. My pet peeve with tanka are attempts that could easily be lineated as haiku, but are “stretched” over five lines. Stretching a haiku does not a tanka make.

 

ACM: Would a “naïve” reader who came upon a tanka in a mixed-genre journal recognize it as distinct from other English short poetry?

 

A good tanka can create its own context, reaching back to all of tanka’s past as a sort of “genre allusion” that makes it a deeper poem. But whether the reader knows it’s a tanka or not, it has to be good poetry. I think that’s what we all want regardless of definitions—to make good poetry.

 
 

Postscript 

 
Originally, I was going to have the first meeting of the Tanka Society of America in California, but when the Global Haiku Festival was scheduled for April of 2000 at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, I asked Randy Brooks if I could use a room there for the society’s first meeting, to which he agreed. This struck me as being a more neutral or central place for this first meeting, thus avoiding any sense that the organization was focused just in California, which was never my intent. This decision contrasted with the Haiku Society of America, which was started in New York City and was essentially just a New York organization for most of its early years of existence. Unlike the HSA, the TSA has never had regular meetings, so that has also helped remove any geographical limitation in the way that first narrowed the HSA.

        For almost a year prior to the first tanka society meeting, I had been corresponding with various other people, especially Sanford Goldstein, about my starting such a society. I wanted to model it after the Haiku Society of America, and proposed the name of “Tanka Society of America.” This name is obvious, of course, but I deliberately wanted it to be parallel to the HSA, and I borrowed much of the tanka society’s structure and traditions from the HSA—and I’m grateful to the HSA for providing a fine model to follow.

        For the society to bloom, I figured that one of the most important necessities was a means to communicate with each other, so I wrote to Pamela Miller Ness to ask her to get involved as newsletter editor, and also talked with a few other people, especially William J. Higginson and Paul O. Williams, about ideas and plans, setting up a potential executive committee before the meeting itself. Because I had set everything up, I ran the meeting (see my report of the meeting at the Millikin University site). As those present at the meeting will remember, I was willing to let someone else be president, but because I had made the meeting happen, publicized it (and asked others to help me), had set the agenda, and directed its proceedings, it was no surprise that those present insisted that I run the organization since I started it. Thus I was elected as the first president, a position that I was grateful to hold for five years.

        The formation of the Haiku Society of America had a similar genesis. Harold G. Henderson and Leroy Kanterman, as founders, called for a first meeting, which took place in New York City in October of 1968. As documented in the 1994 HSA book A Haiku Path, Henderson and Kanterman were the founders, and those present at the first meeting were charter members. Likewise, the charter members of the Tanka Society of America were those who were present for that entire first meeting (not counting a few people who came and went). In addition to me, this included Randy M. Brooks, Naomi Y. Brown, David Cobb, Ellen Compton, Job Conger, Penny Harter, William J. Higginson, Larry Lavenz, Pamela Miller Ness, Michael Nickels-Wisdom, Chris Spindel, Celia Stuart-Powles, and Paul O. Williams. To help generate new memberships, I proposed that anyone who joined before the end of the year 2000 would also be considered charter members, and we quickly topped 100 members as a result, and topped even 150 members shortly after that.

—3 November 2009