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Autumn 2009, vol 7 no 3

An Interview with Sanford Goldstein
by Robert D. Wilson

RW: You write tanka with a voice that's influenced many, like a river feeding tributaries. Many have referred to you as the father of modern English language tanka. What goes through your mind when composing a tanka, and how do you know when one is finished?

SG: Nothing goes through my mind. I spill my tanka. Whatever flashes through it or whatever I see in front of me can turn into a spill. Or even something spoken. The other night at the tanka cafe, my friend Kazuaki, told me to write nine more. I had written fifteen and usually write twenty-four.

What he said to me suddenly gave me the motivation for a tanka. I wrote it out and found I had a good one. I keep tanka journals, so I go through them, even older journals as far back, say, as 1978. And when I come across a tanka I like, I always go over the tanka. Revising, adding, but usually the tanka keeps its basic form. I try for short long short long long and sometimes if the subject is formal, I try for 31. Though I say spill, I go over my poems many times before sending them out, especially those that are sequences or strings. Lately, I have been experimenting and trying, say [. . .], a dramatic monologue in a tanka. Those too are gone over many times..


RW: Most of your tanka don't follow the S/L/S/L/L schema indigenous to traditional tanka. Why is that?

SG: I cannot say that most of my tanka do not follow the trend of short long short long long. Lately many do. But in going back to earlier journals, my poems were often minimalist. That was long before tanka even started its rapid climb to becoming known. A minimalist poem sometimes comes to me when the emotion is poignant, when I feel a few words can say it all.

It was sad to learn of the death of James Kirkup who insisted that without 31 syllables the poem cannot be tanka. Father Lawrence, who died several years ago, felt the same way. I tried to engage Father Lawrence in a series of letters, but he refused. Recently, before Kirkup's death, I wrote five tanka for The Tanka Journal. I was thinking of what Kirkup would say, not that he ever wrote to me. Actually I found it was easy to do, and the poems I sent were poems I thought were "good," the only adjective I can think of for a successful tanka. But the editor preferred I not do tanka with the 31 syllable count. So I sent in another batch.


RW: A few years ago, we were answering tanka with tanka via e-mail, when you stopped abruptly, saying in essence, this  wasn't working. A sample:


the terrorist's eyes
on an Israeli bus heading
for Paradise now,
their eternal anguish,
their eternal brown innocence



how vain of
you to think i'd
put my daughter
on a shelf so you
wouldn't have to dust


For me it was an interesting journey. Your honesty and admonition taught me a clarity I hadn't experienced before. I took time to sit in a stream and listen to water rushing over me, seeing the clouds with new eyes. We have resumed our tanka with tanka waltz, this time in step. I learned from you the importance of letting a better dancer lead. Why did you stop? and why did you resume? It seems what we are writing now is symbiotic in nature. Corresponding with tanka means listening closely and trying to wear the other's sandals.

SG: Your response to something serious seemed whimsical. In other words, I felt our tanka were not being connected to each other. I was talking about a Palestinian who was supposed to go into Israel and kill people on a bus, but your tanka was about something impossible, putting your daughter on a shelf so that someone called "you" would not have to dust. I felt my seriousness had been reduced to something ridiculous, so that was why I said we should stop.

But now I think it was wrong of me to stop. After your Jack Fruit Moon came out, I could see how personal and how surrealistic you were and are and how each poem somehow related to the previous poem in your collection.

I think I was looking for a close response to each tanka, but I should have let you go on in your own diverse and different way. Now we are continuing, and when you get remote, I let it be. I can criticize a tanka, but in this instance I think I should have left you to your own devices. You have your own very unusual approach to haiku/tanka, and I can see how people might be annoyed, yet beyond it is a depth in which what seems frivolous or fanciful has meaning.


RW: You write tanka. How come you don't write haiku, since the two are interrelated, haikai (haiku) coming from renga (linked poetry) which in turn emanated from waka (tanka)?

SG: In my early days I did try haiku. I was drawn to Basho and others. At Indiana University one summer I took a course in haiku writing. The teacher, a famous Japanese, wanted us to make the first and third lines rhyme and I did. I expected, as I would do as a teacher of creative writing for many years, to get my poems back full of red ink, but he did not return a single one, nor did he comment on any in class. At the end of the term I asked if I could have my poems back. Of course he never mailed my poems back. I think he was a Zen person.

I have tried renga in Tokyo groups. The process is fun, is challenging, and when a poem is accepted in the chain, there is a feeling of connection. But I find the entire poem with all its links totally boring. I feel the same when I read such poems today.

Takuboku, I fell in love with, sort of like Keats' feeling when he first looked into Chapman's Homer. I do not believe we should be that diverse in trying several verse forms, but if the poet is drawn to more than one form, he/she can do it of course. But to me doing one thing and hopefully doing it well is something I believe in. Too much diversity weakens one's work, though some are able to juggle their various interests. I feel like that Japanese woman who said she has studied flower arranging for twenty years and is still studying it—the same holds true for a Japanese studying the tea ceremony even for a longer period—say a lifetime. It's as if one cannot focus on the one element enough, sort of like the pursuit of satori, which cannot be pursued. To focus is one of the major weaknesses of our world, including mine. I don't want to spread out—I want to be thin and narrow. So I feel disenchanted when the tanka form gets tangled up with other forms—I say this realizing that you used haiku in connection with tanka in your collection.


RW: Sanford, you've lived a long productive life, having translated Japanese poetry, served as a university professor, and helped change the course of English language tanka, yet you remain an enigma to some, listing little to no credits under your name like many do today. Why is that?

SG: I never considered myself an enigma to others. Your comment surprises me. At any rate, I do not want to list where I published or the few contests I won or this and that. I do not even want my picture to be seen even though my friend made a frightening creature of out me in my book, Four Decades on My Tanka Road, listing my six tanka collections in which the cover contains a woodblock print of me. But I occasionally look at the references of a person new to tanka. If my tanka colleagues want to cite their performances, it is up to them. I am a writer of tanka and a co-translator of tanka collections and Japanese stories and novels, and for me that says enough in a few lines.

If I contributed anything to tanka, I think it was my distinction between sequence and string, but few have taken it up. I think there is a very important distinction there, and I have written about it in several places. Occasionally a poet uses the word "string." Of course I am happy about that. But when the poet uses "sequence," I usually cannot see it as that. I called many of my early poems sequences, but they were not what I consider sequence now.


RW: You are in your eighties now, and although I'm a senior citizen as well, and not as old as you, I am scared knowing that my life on earth [is limited] . . . winter a season I am not in a hurry to see. Overnight, the seasons have changed, and I no longer see myself as eternal, invincible, and ageless. The following tanka excerpted from Encounters in This Penny World (2005), included in Four Decades on My Tanka Road (published by Modern English Tanka Press), affect me deeply:

twenty years ago
the sagging neck of an actress
made him laugh;
now before his mirror
he juggles the comparison

in a pushed wheelchair
came as a shock;
in tonight's paper another hero
makes his alzheimer confession

sentimental songs
at the day-care center
for the aged:
they press him to dance, to draw,
they pat his shoulder, cut his meat

like golf clubs
raised over fragile heads
of red tulips,
his anger in the mirror
fades on knotting the yellow

Sanford Goldstein

You live in Japan far from your children and, as winter nears, more and more family members and friends are passing away, and your health is not as acute as it once was, yet you are writing a play, taking long walks daily, judging tanka for anthologies, writing scores of tanka annually, and write for a newspaper. I have watched my physical agility deteriorate, time speed up, yet like you, I'm not going to embrace death and live out my life in a rest home wearing a paper plate hat tied around my head with a ribbon to celebrate Easter. As my late mother said, "Don't put me in one of those homes. I want to die in dignity. Pull the plug if you have to!" As long as there's breath and a mind, I write. You write. We write, the creative energy in us ceding to no one, let alone winter. You've inspired me greatly and serve both as role model and as a dear friend for which I am the better. Tell us about the above tanka, your feelings on aging, and your drive to continue creating.

SG: I was not writing a play—I was revising one done when I took a playwriting course well over a decade ago—I took such a course at different colleges after my wife died and my children were either at summer camp or old enough to take care of themselves.

I think the poems you cite, even though I was doing a series of various kinds of experiences in Encounters In This Penny World, are a metaphor for the way life becomes. They are supposedly encounters, but they represent many of my own feelings.

The newspaper articles were a request—they were not my idea. As for the walking, I began walking and running in 1979 and I continue to walk even in the winter snow if it is not too high. It is not easy seeing in the newspaper everyday famous people dying at 82! I live in a rural area surrounded by rice fields during the proper season, so I see that life settles it all. My friend claims he is lengthening my life by making me eat vegetables each meal and all the right things. Hard as it is since I began eating vegetables that are really vegetables about ten years ago, it remains difficult, but, I go along with it. Actually I have thought for many years I am a "gaijin" (foreigner) even in my own country, and I like it that way. I recall a poem by Christina Rossetti, sister of the more famous brother, in which she says the road leads uphill for all the way—yes, she says, to the very end. I have a tanka that the road leads downhill all the way. I hope I am prepared for endings.


RW: You and a colleague, Professor Seishi Shinoda, translated into English Mokichi's Red Lights (1913), published by Purdue University Press in 1989 and during that experience, the two of you defined sequences by translating 38 of tanka sequences and showing us how they work and the effectiveness of using them. You said in an interview with Patricia Prime that "Mokichi set out to define what a tanka actually was. . ." Not only did you co-translate an important book of tanka—Red Lights—you also looked upon him as a role model, and said: "Much of my tanka life has been spent in trying to broaden the range of tanka the way Mokichi did."

What is it about Mokichi's tanka that influenced you to walk a similar path, using and writing tanka to broaden the range of tanka for English readers? How have you done this, and are you accomplishing this goal today?

SG: Mokichi's Red Lights startled the literary world of Japan at the time of its Japanese publication. With Professor Shinoda's enormous help, I saw how a sequence was made. The notes in the back of the book explain each sequence, so I felt I learned what a sequence was. Mokichi's own breadth of subject matter was another point I was aware of. Mokichi was quite honest—he was engaged to a person who became quite an individualist when he wrote about his visit to a prostitute.

At any rate, I noticed that tanka poets were writing about nature, and Mokichi did that too, and about love, and so did Mokichi. Somehow being a city-boy, even an ancient one now, I was not that close to nature. As for love, it has come up in my poems. I thought about the games of children, about coffee shops for tanka, about loneliness even in a cup of tea or a late night snack, that and many other subjects. The dramatic tanka monologue is something I recently have tried, though I do not know if it has been accepted yet. I also wrote a long sequence on a Japanese soap opera—I did get one comment from a poet who enjoyed it so much that he read it to his wife, but generally, from my children's e-mails, I do not think that sequence came off too well.

I think I brought literary and artistic allusions to tanka, something I had not seen in modern tanka, though lately I see more of that. Hamlet often appears in my tanka and Keats and Prufrock. One of my tanka I like includes an allusion to Toulouse-Lautrec.

Writing a sequence as a dramatic monologue, a sequence on soap operas, and recently a sequence on a Japanese film, a sequence I have not submitted yet—all these are experimental. Larry Kimmel is someone who I feel is trying for the new. But I always want to keep the tanka form, not transform the form.


RW: How does modern English tanka differ from traditional English tanka that adheres to a S/L/S/L/L schema? Are these differences truly tanka, and do you think the seed for modern English tanka as practiced by many today was sown by Imagist poets like Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and William Carlos Williams?

SG: I do not believe in that historic pointing to Pound and Lowell and Williams. Why not bring in the Parnassians too, who were influenced by things Japanese coming to Europe? The tanka is an elastic form. It can do many many things whether or not one adheres to the 31 syllables or the short long short long long. But I want to keep the five lines. I think some poets try to use punctuation strategies or some poets try to use indentations and some even try to put tanka in a long vertical line down. Whenever technique prevails over content, I think the tanka form is weakened. How did you feel at a particular moment? What did you see at a particular moment? What disturbed you at a particular moment? I do not believe in strategies, but one can be clever and manipulative with the tanka too.

I do not know the history of tanka in English, so I think you should ask M. Kei about that. I do not go along with Imagism, which has always been a part of poetry. Many of the Metaphysical poets in England had amazing images—but at my back I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near. Or: I have loved and got and told, but should I love get tell till I were old, I should not find that hidden mystery. These are cited from memory, but they take hold of me—Ezra Pound's semicolon on the metro poem troubles me! The red wheelbarrow I have used and like, but I do not give it a name as poetry.


RW: A follow-up question, Sanford: How do modern English language tanka and short Imagist poems differ?

SG: To answer that question I have to go back to the Imagist poets. I prefer to see what the tanka poets are doing now. And what I often find is three lines of a personal problem and then two lines of nature which somehow reiterate the problem or solve the problem. Or I find two lines of nature and three lines in which the problem of the poet is the same or is solved by that nature image. All these have come to be cliché-tanka to me. I know the technique, so the surprise is missing, the discovery, the delight, or the pain.

To define something reminds me of a line I heard somewhere—"We murder to dissect." I think it was Wordsworth, but I am not certain.


RW: Why is it important to know the culture of the poetry and the background of the poet you are translating?

SG: I imagine one can read Akiko Yosano's tanka without knowing Japanese culture or the life of the poet—we can do that with any work. But knowing about Japanese culture and the poet's life enriches the work. That is why I spent so much time gathering notes through questions I asked Professor Shinoda. He was a 19th century Japanese and a modern Japanese, and he knew everything about those areas, so without Professor Shinoda, I could have done nothing. But if I did not ask questions, the notes might have been much shorter.

When I read an anthology by a poet today and there are no notes and not even an introduction to the life, I miss much. A tanka from the earliest Japanese anthology needs notes, but perhaps today a poet wants his/her poem to be read, and tanka is a form with a dream-room, as Michael McClintock and Denis Garrison have shown. Michael McClintock started modern tanka with his very short typed (?) journals, and he was one of the first to accept my tanka after almost two decades of trying.


RW:. What should be our inspiration, the "is" of what is, when composing a tanka to be read by others? When you compose tanka at the cafe near your house on Saturdays, are you conscious of length, aesthetics, meter? I can't be you, you can't be me, neither of us are Japanese, though we both live in the Orient. Every tanka poet is different with a different set of cultural memories, education, genetic input, experiences, etc., so following the leader is not an option. I say this because there are those who say some of the occidental tanka written today are written by poets trying too hard to be and sound Japanese. Do you agree? And what is "sounding too Japanese?"

SG: I think making a "good" tanka is difficult. I never think a tanka I am reading is one that is trying hard to sound Japanese. But the Japanese are not one thing, but a people with a multitude of variations. Japanese were fascinated by the new connection to the United States and other Western countries, so they adopted many of our own customs and habits and all of that. I never look for inspiration. I let the tanka spill. And after it is in my tanka diary, I check, say, at the end of a year, to see the good ones or possibly good ones. Usually I write 3000 tanka a year, though now I cannot get to my tanka cafe that easily—in the states I could sit at McDonald's for two hours and write, during my trips home once a year. When I go through my tanka diary for the year, I usually find, say, 300, that are good or can be made into good. Out of these 300, I choose ones I think I can send out. So out of all these, say 35 poems, I can send these to journals. I used to send fewer poems, but now the editors ask for ten or five, so perhaps I need a few more. When you consider all that writing for one year which results in 3000 poems and the scaling down to discover that in the journals one or two of your poems are chosen, you can see that you have to be a lover of tanka to go through so much for so few poems. But to me it has all been worth it. I want to go to the end of the road with tanka if I can hold off on the crippling diseases of old age.


RW: As a follow-up, my friend, how does Japanese tanka differ from English tanka other than adherence to a strict 5/7/5/7/7 schema and cultural differences? And how close are the aesthetics of Japan to the aesthetics of the occidental world in the 21st century?

SG: That would depend on the era in which the JAPANESE tanka was written. We have to go back to 750 A.D. for the first tanka, so tanka has a varied history. As one of the editors of Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka of 2008 I do not think I ever once thought, "Say, this is just like a Japanese tanka." It never occurs to me. As for the aesthetics of wabi, sabi, yugen, shiori, akarui and others, we can find them in our individual lives, so these aesthetics are with us in our culture. But I never recall saying to myself that I want to create a wabi tanka or a sabi tanka. Takuboku said a tanka is a diary of the emotional life of the poet.