Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tana's History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America

I have posted an introduction and the complete master's thesis by Tomoe Tana, one of the most important figures in North American tanka from the 20th century at the Resource section of Tana's research covers the publication of tanka in Japanese and English in North and South America during the 20th century. Tana was an award-winning tanka poet, a translator, editor, publisher, and scholar of tanka.

She accomplished all this in a time when the Japanese were actively discriminated against. She and her children and husband were interned during World War Two. Her husband was separated from his wife and young sons and sent to a camp in another state. In an interview, Tana said that she was glad of the barbed wire in the camp—American hostility was so severe she was certain Japanese people would have been murdered if they had not been interned. Tana was among the many internees who burned all the tanka they had written for fear that it would be used against them when they were arrested.

After being released from the camps, her family was reunited, but her husband was ill. Tana went to work as a maid and took in sewing at night to support her ailing husband and children. During this time, she still wrote tanka and even won the Imperial Poetry Contest in 1949. Approximately 40,000 entries were received. During the 1950s, she was employed as a maid by Lucille Nixon, an American educator. They became friends, and Tana tutored Nixon in Japanese and writing tanka poetry. In 1957, Nixon won the Imperial Poetry Contest, and attracted quite a bit of press attention. Tana and Nixon worked to translate Japanese language tanka written by North Americans into English, publishing them in the newsletter of the tanka circle to which they belonged, as well as books.

Together they translated and edited Sounds from the Unknown, a major tanka anthology of the 20th century. When Nixon was killed in December of 1963 and the only copy lost, Tana reconstructed the manuscript. The book was published in 1964. Tana continued to translate and publish, and in 1978 she self-published Tomoshibi, an attempt to document the life and tanka poetry of Lucille Nixon, and her influence on tanka in English. For example, Nixon was able to get tanka included in the elementary school curriculum in California. This is possibly the first time tanka was tanka in the public schools. It is now a staple for elementary schools in Canada and the United States.

Later, Tana attended university and achieved her master's degree in 1985 from San Jose State University. Her master's thesis, The History of Japanese Tanka Poetry in America, is the first history of North American tanka, and also touches on South America. It contains a great deal of information not available elsewhere. It also includes useful appendices, such a listing of all American winners of the Imperial Poetry Contest 1949–1984. It also includes the winning and selected poems from Zaibei dōbō haykunin isshu / One Hundred Tanka by our Countrymen in America, which had previously only been published in fragments in Japan. The anthology was the result of a poetry contest with 5000 (five thousand) tanka submitted. It was judged by a trio of Japanese judges: Kubota Utsubo, Saitō Mokichi, and Shaku Chakū. Readers of tanka will recognize Mokichi as one of the great Japanese tanka poets of the modern era.

Tana had an indomitable spirit, a spirit that was inculcated in her by her husband, the Rev. Daisho Tana. On the day they arrived in America, he gave her some money and dropped her off, telling her to find her own way home. The new bride, not speaking any English, on her first day in America, found herself alone. She made it home, and thereafter knew that she could do anything she put her mind to. Although it seems cruel, Tana herself felt it was a useful lesson. Her husband explained to her that life in America would be extremely difficult, and she needed to know that she could meet the challenge.

Although at first they were comfortable due to his position as a Buddhist priest, they were all interned and her husband was sent away to a camp in a different state. A prisoner behind barbed wire, she had to take care of her young children by herself. After the war, her husband's health was very bad, and she had to go to work as a domestic servant and seamstress to support her family. Their modest prosperity was gone. Nonetheless, she pulled through, raised her sons, and put herself through college and obtained her master's degree.

Tana has strong opinions backed up by a faith in herself and her abilities. Although modern tanka will not necessarily agree with all of her views regarding tanka (she advocates for 5-7-5-7-7 syllables), it must be remembered that she was dead before the modern era of scholarship that has provided so much information about tanka and the best way to adapt it to English. What she has done is to preserve a significant piece of tanka history.

The details of the literary accomplishments of internees, for example, is a tale of quiet heroism. She tells us that Tomari Yoshihiko formed a tanka circle in the internment camp where he was and published its newsletter by cutting stencils by hand. Not only that, but he published several books by the same method. For some reason, references books were denied to the internees, so Tomari published textbooks by the same method. This same highly educated man, due to discrimination against the Japanese, was obliged to earn his living as a gardener after the war.

The modern tanka poet lingering over coffee and notebook in a café today owes their literary comfort in large part the hard work of Japanese Americans and Canadians: seamstresses, maids, factory workers, gardens, valets, and other manual and domestic laborers who did not allow the hardship and discrimination they faced to quench their love of literature, or to embitter them to their American hosts. After the war, Tana was engaged on a quest to introduce tanka to Americans not of Japanese descent in the belief that it could bridge the differences and bring both sides closer together.

Tana lived long enough to see the earliest fruits of her work as Americans of all backgrounds, classes, and colors wrote tanka poetry. Today she would no doubt be pleased to see how tanka has grown and improved. Although she might not agree with all the different tacks taken with tanka today her overarching goals of preserving tanka history and teaching tanka to bring a mutual appreciation between the two sides formerly divided by war have been realized.

Read more at:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Excerpts from Bathhouse by Ishii Tatsuhiko

The following tanka are excerpted from Bathhouse by Ishii Tatsuhiko and appear in Partings at Dawn : An Anthology of Japanese Gay Literature. Translated by Hiroaki Sato.

Martyr's pomegranate like wounds you say and the bar also turns into a catacomb

Looking for father or for whom? Reflected upside down in a glass constellation

The young ones though male paint eyebrows dazzlingly green the night has deepened

Ask the false moon no less how much is the value of the boy with a pigeon chest

Since I wandered into twilight town my body filled with sleepiness has been dark

All those dreams drowned in wine cups this body too had days it was an innocent child

Satiated and yet starved, starved and yet . . . tonight what kind of pleasure shall I buy

Probably this is madness nay I grow ever more transparent tonight this sanity

Mediterranean nudes! I don't want to boast, no, but we are such an elegant tribe

Pull them a little closer and lift them a young man's eyebrows (oh ocean!) so beautiful

Having exchanged a modicum of money for a key (to my palm this key feels like ice)

Bronze automatic door every soul goes in there in silence (as if wishing to die)

They turn to look, again, they turn to look, as they pass in the hall, souls, so, lonesome!

(Love is just like wrestling) the way they love each other they appear ever so noble

(The throat is another sexual organ) at a faint sound of gargling I prick up my ear

The Kingdom is in this steam now, a man rising from the bath a wandering knight

Smelling like some apocalyptic event in the dark lies the body of a man half asleep

Cursed sleep what the man has on his shoulder is the <head> of someone unknown to him

This body grown thin with no reason these days increasing among the dead the number of friends

A man is a single duct (blocked by the arm of an angel burning like fire)

A man runs pelted by a rain of fire (ah) my heart resembles him more than anything else

Hold tight a young man's innocent nude body . . . else tightly tie it up with a rope

What kind of bird is a cuckoo? On silent tv a video showing a man being dissected

I shall be too late! I chase a shadow that runs away through the midst of my soul

A man possesses (as a means of having himself saved?) a dew-drenched sinful soul

I dreamed of falling unstoppably toward the bottom of a grave my skull covered with mud

The ear is an oyster in a deep sea. It gets sucked by gleaming teeth and scarlet tongue

Snow-white bedsheets and tablecloth all the countless lives and deaths that fell into this throat

Keibooks Announces circling smoke, scattered bones by Joy McCall, edited by M. Kei

Keibooks Announces circling smoke, scattered bones by Joy McCall

Press Release – For Immediate Release – Please post to all appropriate venues

31 October 2013– Perryville, Maryland, USA

“There is a veil in this world, a mystery. Everyone knows it, or senses it; those who don’t,  perhaps, sense it most of all. Maybe more a skeptic than a believer, Joy McCall knows all about spirits for, you see, she, too, is one. The beautiful verse, the tanka herein, are not about nature in the conventional, Western sense, not in the sense so often found in Eastern-inflected work. They are nature.”--Don Wentworth, Editor and Poet, Lilliput Review

Joy McCall’s collection of tanka poetry, circling smoke, scattered bones, published by Keibooks, is the debut collection of a powerful new voice. Intensely autobiographical with a focus on the details of her daily life, they are also intensely social. Joy is not an island, but a mother, daughter, sister, wife, friend, neighbor, nurse, helper, and witness to the tribulations and joys of her community in Norwich, England. 

how lovely you look
in the green silk coat and hat
barefoot on the path
by the river; above you
the green silk of the willows

witches, demons
and all those dark ancient spirits
stalk the streets
in the guise of passersby
in the faces of citizens

the silver labyrinth
with one finger
always wondering
where the road will lead

“Joy has compassion for all creatures: the spider dangling from its thread, mice, birds, madwomen, felons, old nuns, drunks, ghosts, and the unnamed dead with their broken gravestones. To read Joy’s tanka is to walk the unseen world that overlaps the streets and fields of her hometown. The veil that separates us from other people, living or dead, is a gossamer that parts when she waves her magic wand.”--M. Kei, author of January, a Tanka Diary

circling smoke, scattered bones
by Joy McCall
Edited by M. Kei
ISBN 978-0615880006 (Print) 176 pp
$15.00 USD (print) or $5.00 USD (Kindle)

Purchase in print at:

Also available in print and ebook at and other online retailers.

P O Box 516
Perryville, MD 21903 USA