Taking tanka to a new and timeless plane

by Kaori Shoji

Machi Tawara made a spectacular debut as a tanka poet at the age of 25 in 1987, and since then the Osaka-born artist has devoted her life to condensing her world into those neat, rhythmic but not rhyming, 31-syllable compositions.

The 5:7:5:7:7 sequence of this Japanese verse form hasn’t changed since the inception of the tanka (meaning, “short song”) some 1,000 years ago — and had Tawara been around then, she would no doubt have been chosen as a kyutei kajin (court poet) whose job it was to pen love tanka for the ladies of the high court and tutor the offspring of the Imperial Family.

Nowadays, Japan has many tanka poets, but none can match Tawara for her sheer prolificness, or for the way she has consistently kept herself at the forefront of the rarified tanka world — while at the same time deftly navigating the grubby pop-culture terrain of the promotional media.

In the process, Tawara — who graduated in Japanese literature from Waseda University in 1985 — remains unchanged: a stunning, elfin figure wielding a calligraphy brush in one hand and a sheet of washi (traditional paper) in the other; the visual image she has had since the enormous success of her first collection of tanka, titled “Sarada Kinenbi (Salad Anniversary).” It was published in 1987 and has sold more than 3 million copies in Japan and almost 6 million copies in translation worldwide.

In fact that collection became so popular that snacks and cocktail drinks were named after it, restaurants created similar anniversary dishes (“Chocolate Mousse Love Anniversary”) and up and down the nation, couples invented their own private commemoration days.

Tawara’s biggest contribution to tanka is her ability to take the elements of everyday, modern Japanese life and sculpt them into impeccably elegant lines, brimming with girlishness and femininity.

“Sarada Kinenbi,” for example, is one poem from the collection about a young woman who, upon hearing her boyfriend say that he liked her salad, decided to call that day their Salad Anniversary.

Tanka is all about capturing the moment and pinning it down; Tawara does this ever so gently, and in the clasp of her unclenched fist transitory emotions and moments give up their struggle to flee and become still, like tamed butterflies.

How did you become involved in writing tanka? Back in the mid-1980s, there wasn’t much demand for it in the Japanese publishing world and young people generally thought it was traditional, boring and old.

I was always interested in the Japanese language, and from an early age I was attuned to how beautiful and unique it was. I was never a bookworm, though I did go through the standard classics, like everyone else.

In high school I joined the drama club and started reading books about Japanese language and semantics because I was interested in what made the language so attractive to me. I really can’t recall a work of fiction influencing me in one way or another. But in college [Waseda University in Tokyo] other literature students were writing free verse, and trying their hand at novels, and it struck me how agonized they all were. You know, novels are really long and they had to slave away for hours at a time.

The shortness and economy of the tanka appealed to me very much because it’s a formula made to suit the particularities of the Japanese language. The person who called my attention to that was Professor Yukitsuna Sasaki, who taught Japanese language and literature. He encouraged me to start creating my own tanka, and I went off from there. But I never thought there would be any money in it, so I took a teaching license as well and started teaching high school right after graduation.

Do you think your tanka have changed over the years, compared to when you were a young teacher?

It’s easy to link tanka with the author simply because tanka is always written in the first person. Readers will immediately think they’re a reflection of my own life. Some of that is true. . . . I always take my material from personal experiences or emotions. But at the same time, the “I” in my tanka isn’t really me. The real, living me is at once more distant and immediate. In that sense, I think I’ve changed; I’ve come to distance myself more from my work, yet my work couldn’t exist without me.

Your readers love your work for the way you combine an innocent girlishness with heavy-duty sensuality. In fact, so many of your tanka are downright erotic, and they speak of relationships with much younger men or older, married men with children. Do you risk anything in being so forthright or so bold?

Like getting up to leave
a hamburger place —
that’s how I’ll leave
that man
* * *
The day I left for Tokyo
Mother looked older by all the years
of separation ahead
* * *
“This tastes great,” you said and so
the sixth of July —
our salad anniversary
* * *
Writing on the blackboard,
I pause to rest my hand —
in those seconds
think meltingly of you

Well, tanka poems have been singing about sex and eroticism for over 1,000 years, so I don’t think I’m blazing any new trails here. By nature, tanka are about love and longing and its physical aspects. Tanka and love just go together, it’s a very good match and I’ve always tried to reflect the way I feel about love, specific or otherwise, in my poems.

As for risking anything, I think writers and poets are always risking something. Maybe more so with writing tanka because by nature they’re so brief. There’s no room in there for explanations and apologies. There’s just the fleeting five seconds to say what we have to say and that’s it.

So you have to be selective.

That’s exactly right. I try to take the essence of a certain emotion, or a moment, and stick to that one essence.

“I love you/I miss you/I want you” — those are things we’d all like to say, the only things we’d like to say, given the chance. But circumstances and decorum will usually make that difficult, so we “say-sing” them in tanka. That’s what the women and men of this country have been doing for a long, long time — which to me is a wonderful thing.

There’s just no space in the lines of a tanka for whys and whats and hows. That’s the beauty of it: no explanations, apologies, recriminations.”

Two years ago, you gave birth to a baby boy and chose to become a single mother. In your most recent collection of tanka (“Pooh-san no Hana”) there’s a poem in there about how a male reporter asked whether you’re capable of being the father as well as the mother, since a child needs both for a healthy upbringing. Do you get that sort of unthinking, unkind remark often?

Single mothers are still a minority in this country, so I didn’t think I was going to be able to duck the slings and arrows that come my way. Actually, I had been on a government-appointed committee on enhancing the birth rate, so (laughing) I think I should be commended for setting an example!

But seriously, I think the decision to have a child or not is purely up to the individual, and as far as child-rearing goes, a healthy environment and lots of love are the most important things. Having a full set of parents doesn’t guard a child against unhappiness or instability, and I think the world is big enough for all kinds of alternative families.

I wanted this baby and chose to do this on my own, not out of any political stance but simply because I thought how wonderful it would be to have a child in my life. And it is wonderful.”

What is your typical day like?

I get up at 7 with my son, make him breakfast and usually go for a walk in the park if the weather’s nice. Then we come back and I make lunch and try to get some work done. He takes a short nap in the afternoon, so I get some work time then. In the evenings we go over to my parents’ apartment in the same neighborhood and have dinner. I get a baby-sitter three days a week to get some real work done, but otherwise, this is pretty much how I live these days. Oh, at 5 p.m. I tell myself it’s OK to have a beer!”

Do you find that your productivity has increased with having a baby around?

Yes, I honestly think that’s the case. My whole work schedule revolves around my son, so I thought at first it would be very difficult to keep writing. But then I realized that tanka had traditionally been written by people who were busy doing other things — working at day jobs or in the rice fields, bringing up children, cleaning, cooking or fighting on the battlefields, whatever. The medium is suited to busy hands and minds.

With my son around, I find it’s difficult to sit down for the length of time needed to write a novel, but with a tanka, I can work on that for five minutes, get up and do something and come back to it for another 15 minutes. Also, living with a small child yields a lot of material, and my son is such a great source of inspiration. The whole experience has made me alert to other emotions and sensations.

Does the 31-syllable format ever pall?

Honestly, no. The more that I work in this format, the more I’m convinced of its great match with the Japanese language. And I think that in art, having a format helps rather than hinders the artist. People say that the format takes away the freedom, but in my experience, true freedom is attained within the confines of the format.

In the Western scheme of things, I know it’s considered better to do away with all fences, but in terms of artistry in Japan, formats and rituals really work. Kabuki, noh, gagaku, dance — these all have set modes and formats. And personally, the simplicity and brevity of the tanka has always been a source of great energy for me.

If I was given complete freedom to write however I wished, and at any length . . . I think that I’d be lost. I’d rather pare my words down to the barest essentials, pick out the ones with the most beauty and meaning, and work from there. Tanka really is a happy and very joyous art form.