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Winter 2008, vol 6 no 4

Fulfilling My Dream of Performing Tanka
by Mariko Kitakubo,
translated by Amelia Fielden

My first experience of giving a public tanka reading came in 2002, when I performed on the big stage at Hama Rikyū Park in Tokyo. That was exactly ten years after I had begun writing tanka. The event was a marathon reading in which I was invited to participate by the tanka group I belonged to at that time. For a person like myself unaccustomed to public speaking, it required a deal of courage to do so.

Reading tanka aloud is something totally different from composing; but I was somehow then drawn into the new dimension represented by performance poetry.

From that date on I have performed three to eight times a year at a small theatre club in Tokyo called "Live House", and participated in group readings at various locales, in succession creating new tanka to present.

While I was becoming acknowledged within Japan as a "performance tankaist", I began to dream of expanding my readings to overseas countries. For I realised that, although there are far more people now enjoying tanka in English than I had imagined, such foreign fans rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to listen to the fundamental rhythms of Japanese tanka. I was keen to have them hear the traditional five seven five seven seven music of the tanka form which has endured for over 1300 years. It was also my earnest desire to have overseas audiences experience "that something beyond words".

My dream first came true in September 2005 in Australia's capital city, Canberra, where my poet friend and translator, Amelia Fielden, had invited me to perform at the launch of her fifth tanka collection, Still Swimming. At that launch, I read from my collection Will (published in Tokyo six months earlier), twenty-five tanka centering on the elegies I had written for my mother. These were tanka which Amelia had translated, and we performed them bilingually: I read the original Japanese, Amelia her English translations, with a CD playing in the background.

I was deeply moved by the audience's evident appreciation, especially when, after the performance, several people approached me to say "Your Japanese poems sound just like music". It was an unforgettable experience for me.

Subsequently I have been fortunate enough to receive a number of invitations to perform at overseas events, for example: in May 2006 in Vancouver, Canada; in May 2007 again in Canberra; in September 2007 in Monterey, USA; in April and September 2008 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Monterey*.

What I have learned from those experiences is that, regardless of the size or nationality of the audience, the success of a performance comes from the interaction between reader(s) and listener(s). I have also discovered that the reaction of the audience varies greatly according to nationality and locale.

For instance, in April 2008 when I read in the USA in Los Angeles and San Francisco, I performed at three venues. At two of those venues there were people in tears after my first tanka. I had felt also a very emotional atmosphere in Vancouver in May 2006, but not to the extent of weeping in the audience. Moreover, in Australia, where I have had the opportunity to perform at venues large and small on multiple occasions, my audiences have been relatively unemotional; there people tend to listen attentively, then, after the readings, ask serious and penetrating questions about Japanese tanka in general, and my own work in particular.

Accustomed as I am to the straight-faced listening, and absence of direct comments from Japanese audiences, such overseas experiences have made a strong impact on me.

In this essay it is not possible of course for you to hear my voice, but I would like to show you two examples of the rhythm which I create from using the traditional syllable/sound count in Japanese.

1. in romanized Japanese:
  garasu do no
sumi ni ataru hi
kaki sashi no
tegami nokoshite
haha yukitamou
5 (sounds)
and in Amelia Fielden's translation
  sun shining
into corners of the glass door —
leaving behind
an unfinished letter
Mother departed this life
          (from On This Same Star, p.62)
2. in romanized Japanese:
hito wo ayameni
i kanaide
senaka no hane mo
nuke kiranu kora
and in Amelia's English
  don't go
don't go to kill people
oh you children
with cherub's wings
sprouting from your backs
          (from Cicada Forest, p.42)

As you will notice, Japanese tanka are composed in a total of 31 syllables / sounds to a 5/7/5/7/7 rhythm pattern. That tradition has continued for 1300 years, and the exceptions to the pattern are rare.

I do hope that one day all of you reading this essay might have the chance to hear some of my tanka in the original Japanese.

My sincere thanks go to Robert Wilson for inviting me to express my thoughts on this subject, in Simply Haiku.

As of November 2008, I have given a total of 35 performances in Japan and overseas.

Future performances are scheduled for December 2008, on the Noh theatre stage in Tokyo; March 2009 at two venues in Canberra; and September 2009 at the Haiku Pacific Rim conference also in Australia.


Mariko Kitakubo Mariko Kitakubo is a poet who lives in Tokyo. A member of the Association of Contemporary Tanka Poets and the Kokoronohana Tanka Society, Kitakubo is active in writing and performing. To date she has published the following tanka collections: I Want to Tell You in the Words of Waves (1999, Artland); When the Music Stops (2002, Nagarami Shobo); Will (2005, Kadokawa Shoten); On This Same Star. (2006); and Cicada Forest: An Anthology of Tanka (Kadokawa Shoten, 2008).