Genie Nakano, author of Colorful Lives: A Coloring Tanka Poetry Book
If you're an experimental poet, or a lover of various poetry forms, it's inevitable that short forms, including haiku, and tanka, will come into your life. Haiku, a three line Japanese poem, imbued with elements of nature and time, has made a successful transition to the Western poetry tradition, in part due to the popularity of Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior, and beat writers like Jack Kerouac, though not in its original form, and often, as an instructional tool by teachers to convey an appreciation for poetry to junior high/high school students.
Tanka, the progenitor to haiku, is a popular, and widely respected poetry form in Japan, and a recent import to the United States, Europe, and Australia. Tanka differs in form in that it has two additional lines, has more musicality (tanka, translated means "short song"), and gives the poet more opportunity to "tell a story", than haiku. Tanka can be more challenging to craft than haiku, but the results, in my opinion, are more satisfying.
SoCal poet/yoga instructor/tanka instructor Genie Nakano's newest volume of tanka, Colorful Lives: A Coloring-Tanka Poetry Book (© 2016 Chin Music Press, www.chinmusicpress.com), is an unique type of poetry book, in that it employs tanka strings, a combination of interlinking tanka, and it's a coloring book, with beautiful black and white illustrations by artist Alvin Takamori. The combination of poetry and visuals provides the reader with a multi-sensory experience, and with the added opportunity to color, gives the reader the tactile pleasure of absorbing the poetry and illustrations on a visceral level.
Nakano agreed to an interview, to discuss the process of crafting tanka, her newest collection, and her creative process. For those interested in learning how to write tanka, Nakano facilitates a monthly workshop, Tanoshi Tanka Class, on the third Thursday of the month (this month, July 20, 2017), at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, 1964 W. 162nd Street, Room 214, 7-9 pm. (Cost $5, $3 if you become a Tomonokai member). Contact Genie at 310-644-1186, email: genieyogini AT gmail dot com.
PD: What drew you to writing short form poetry, particularly tanka?
GN: Tanka is very personal, emotional, often times of a confessional nature. A Kaleidoscope of emotions can be expressed in five lines. A whole story captured in 19 – 31 syllables or sounds. A friend gave me a copy of a tanka journal—Ribbons. I raced through the journal, reread and wanted more. The impact was direct. They were like Zen gardens where only the essence remains. Then immediately pages of tanka poured out of me. From then on I was hooked and obsessed with writing and learning tanka. Soon after, Ribbons published the first tanka I wrote.
This is #1:
clung to a fallopian tube
no one knows
of the hidden scar
where life was sliced out of me
PD: What made you decide to combine two art forms - visual and written – into your latest collection?
GN: Prior to working with Alvin, I included dance, photography and music in my presentations. I was a dancer for most of my life and collaborating with musicians and other dancers is the creative process. Where as many of my tanka are confessional or verge on Kyoka style. In Colorful Lives, so much of the imagery, hummingbirds, flowers, waterfalls call out for color and illustrations.
is what flowers turn to
we are all flowers
with colorful short lives -
Colorful Lives, page 43
if I were
to write a play
about my life
it would be
a comedy of errors (Kyoka style) Genie Nakano
PD: What was it like to see poems translated into a visual medium? What advice would you give to ensure a successful outcome?
GN: It was very exciting when Alvin showed me his first images of Colorful Lives. I remember smiling and laughing. We hadn’t planned to make a coloring book. But when I saw how Alvin transformed "A New Year" into an image it immediately said —coloring book.
I was almost apologetic when asking him to make the images into a coloring book, all his detailed work had to be converted into coloring book form.
However, we are both very happy with the outcome.
I knew of Alvin’s work because we both work and volunteer at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute. So I felt very secure knowing Alvin was responsible and reliable. I handed him about fifty tanka series and asked that he choose the ones that inspired him. From then on Alvin followed his own vision. We met over breakfast from time to time to discuss our progress. It was a wonderful surprise to see all his beautiful images.
My advice--know your collaborators work and work relations. Communicate, bounce ideas and take your time. They are the illustrator and you are the poet.
PD: Every poet has a different writing process: some write in their heads until the poems come out finished, others write down fragments and then weave them together, and many will labor over a poem like a marble sculpture. What is your writing process of writing like?
GN: I feel my best tanka are the ones that flow straight from the heart to the paper or screen. My editing consists of shaving off words or rearranging the order/sequencing. Over the years I’ve been experimenting with the many tanka forms such as tanka response, tanka strings, tanka prose. Currently I'm experimenting with the 3,5,3,5,5 rhythm. It makes, as Amelia says “the tanka sing”. The form is compact, notably asymmetrical and gets down to the core—right here, right now.
My tanka mentor, Amelia Fielden, said, "Quantity, over time, makes quality." I took it literally and at the beginning I wrote constantly. I carried a notebook everywhere jotting down observational shasei tanka. My favorite shasei poet was Takuboku. I practiced emulating his style. I didn’t want to judge myself—just write. I developed tanka muscle.
the crowds - Takuboku, 1885-1921
PD: How has your background as a dancer and yoga instructor influenced you as a poet?
GN: My dance background was such an integral part of my being. Too bad I had a hip replacement because I’d be dancing more. Dance requires discipline, learning the fundamentals. This is how I approached learning tanka. I wrote everyday and developed tanka muscles. Yoga integrates tanka into meditative act. Tanka settles me and often summarizes my day. The sound, rhythm the dance of tanka shapes my tanka.
PD: The tanka strings in Colorful Lives, function, on the surface, like a series of intimate confidences between the poet and reader. There’s a deeper level beneath the first where the reader finds herself wanting more, as in wondering what comes “after” each poem’s end. Would you agree/not agree, and if so/why/not?
GN: Yes, many of the tanka in Colorful Lives are prompted by meditation. Some are conversations with myself, as in “Letting Go”, “Straight Ahead”. By talking to myself, I hope some sort of transformation will happen. I so much want children to love tanka, so some tanka are conversations with children. “Shush”, is a lullaby for a child ,and my insomniac mind. "Shushhh", is used in Chi Gong as a healing sound and a sound to calm our fears. Some tanka offer resolutions—“endings”, and some bring more “questions”—beginnings. I hope both were offered.
as I cross the bridge
straight ahead - Colorful Lives, page 43
PD: Tanka, or waka, enjoyed a time of prosperity in ancient Japan, with the central themes being love/romance/nature. It became popular again in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, where it was then considered an almost “everyman” form of poetry, often used for political and propaganda purposes. In modern-day Japan, tanka has become a popular form of poetry in Western Culture. Where do you see the future of tanka going next?
GN: I think tanka is just beginning here in the United States. From my experience, many people are familiar with haiku ,but not tanka. Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg helped the wave of haiku. However, tanka has not yet reached that momentum. I hope to see tanka studied in the schools and universities. Tanka educates you about yourself. Tanka response offers exciting ways of interacting. The virtues of tanka are endless. I see tanka in USA going in many directions. We have over 1,500 years of history from Japan to pull from. In our diversity, I see minimalist tanka taking shape, the lyrical, longing “Golden Age” style tanka flourishes, kyoka is on the rise, and there is plenty of room in the frontier.
However, I hope the rhythm, or waka, of tanka is not lost. As a dancer, the rhythm of tanka lured me. I was pleased and surprised that there a good number of people who attended the Tanoshi tanka workshop held at Beyond Baroque. Let’s keep that movement going.
PD: Some authors say they feel a sense of regret/loss upon the publication of a new book. How do you regard this assertion upon the publication of Colorful Lives?
GN: No, I don’t feel a sense of regret. I look forward to publishing another book of tanka. I would like to create another book of kyoka and also meditative themes with doodles and mandalas.
PD: What advice would you give to poets who would like to start writing haiku or tanka, as far as who to read, what rules to/not adhere to?
GN: Start with the classics. Learn the history of tanka. It is fascinating. Read ancient tanka and go down the historical path to present. Read the lives of Japan’s tanka poets—what they went through—their passions—some went to prison for their beliefs. Their lives are inspirational.
As I said, I am a stickler for rhythm. I hope the short, long, short, long, long pattern—no less then 19 sounds or longer than 31 is upheld. Traditionally, tanka builds and the last two lines should be powerful. However, there are always exceptions. Ultimately, its about content and sound. I believe poetry should be spoken to get the full impact.
My recommended books, journals and tanka poets, are: Akiko Yosano, Tangled Hair, Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, The Ink Dark Moon, Takuboku: Poems to Eat, Modern Japanese Tanka, edited by Makoto Ueda. Amelia Fielden, an Australian poet and translator, has written many tanka books. Conversations in Tanka is a great book for Tanka Response.
Atlas Poetica, editor M. Kei,
International Tanka Journal, editor Aya Yuki
Gusts, editor Kozue Uzawa
Ribbons, from the Tanka Society of America.
PD: What insights do you hope our readers will gain from Colorful Lives?
GN: Because of the triple nature of Colorful Lives—words, visuals and the interaction of coloring in the graphics, insight is multi-dimensional. Even children can respond to the tanka by visuals and coloring in “The undefined spaces require readers to fill in the unspoken with their imaginations”. . David Lanaoue professor of English. I hope my love for this earth, nature, animals and people can be felt. I offer my words, and hope they evoke insight, humor and wonder into my readers. Each person has their own interpretation from the ground they stand on.
Colorful Lives: A Coloring-Tanka Poetry Book, Genie Nakano, © 2016 Chin Music Press, www.chinmusicpress.com, 55 pages, ISBN 9780990895312, $12.95 US