Another Layer of Intimacy:
an Interview with Karen Cesar
by Margaret Chula
Karen Cesar lives with her husband and her Italian greyhound, Shadow, in Tucson, Arizona. Her tanka ‘the feel of you’ received the Members Choice Award from the Tanka Society of America’s journal Ribbons and another tanka was featured on the back cover. Moonbathing: A Journal of Women’s Tanka awarded her a prize for the best tanka of its inaugural issue. Her work also appears in the anthology Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, Volume Two. Karen has been drawing mandalas in her journals for many years. When she graduated from college, her husband gave her a complete set of Carl Jung’s work. She says, ‘Writing tanka and drawing mandalas have much in common—taking one deeper if one allows it.’
MC: Wallace Stegner wrote ‘Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterward.’ What was your childhood landscape?
KC: Midwestern and Western. I grew up in Berrien Springs, a small town in southern Michigan, a hundred miles from Chicago. For a year, when I was in the second grade, we lived in Mesa, Arizona. Then we returned to Michigan. After the sixth grade, we moved to Arizona permanently. Berrien Springs was a small town: an ice plant on the bluff coming into town, one grocery store with sawdust on the floor, a corner drugstore with a soda fountain, one public elementary school, and a high school. There was a bus station where we bought baseball cards, comics and penny candy, a hardware store, and a bakery where my mother bought jelly donuts. My brother and I walked or rode our bikes wherever we went. On Sunday afternoons, we would go to the movies. I read a lot, always coming home from the library with a huge stack of books. My mother taught school. My father was a mechanic and owned a stag bar (men only). One of my uncles had a farm. My Czechoslovakian grandmother lived with us. My father’s parents lived in the same town. The townspeople were primarily traditional—there was only one girl in our entire school whose parents were divorced. I think our moving to the West had to do in part with my father’s sense of adventure and in part with my mother’s desire to get away from doing things the way other people thought one should do them. The Midwest of my childhood symbolizes for me an iconic Norman Rockwell traditionalism but also the pressure to conform. The West, a greater freedom and openness—the opportunity to do things one's own way—but also a sense of being rootless.
MC: For many of us growing up in small towns, the library was our 'portal' to the world. What were some of the books that influenced you as a young adult? When and how did you learn about haiku and tanka?
KC: Diary of Ann Frank, The Good Earth, Old Man and the Sea, The Pearl, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.. A single older (and utterly glamorous) woman in her thirties took an interest in me when I was about eleven and picked out books for me to read. I still have one of the two volumes by Edna St. Vincent Millay she bought for me. I memorized ‘Prayer to Persephone.’
I became interested in haiku and
tanka in late spring 2006. I had had surgery for cancer mid-March and found
myself uncharacteristically mute and uninterested in keeping a journal. Sometime
in May or so, I found William J. Higginson's book,
The Haiku Handbook, in a
used book store and started writing haiku. My first published haiku/senryu
of intimacy ...
the surgeon's hand
I began writing tanka almost concurrently with haiku, primarily through the influence of various online forums and articles. My first tanka was published in Ribbons in winter 2006.
could have been
and never was and never will—
in autumn light
I place a stone
on the grave of my regrets
Writing again became enjoyable and, as can be seen from the above verses, therapeutic.
MC: It's interesting that you wrote haiku/senryu and tanka at about the same time. I think most people begin with haiku and move on to tanka. Perhaps it's a matter of when you began. I started writing haiku in the 1970s and didn’t compose my first tanka until the 1980s when I was living in Kyoto. At that time, there were no internet sites for tanka and certainly no online forums. Many of us were introduced to tanka through Jane Reichhold's Tanka Splendor. Both your senryu and tanka deal with deeply personal moments. Did these poems come fully realized or did you go through several drafts? Since you write in several different forms, how do you decide what form you'll use to record an experience?
KC: The senryu came as a gift. It was the first time I experienced the kind of poetic awareness that brings with it the best verses. The tanka went through several drafts. Some experiences can be written as either haiku or tanka and I have done that as an exercise. One of the things about learning to write tanka is that so much of it is self taught through trial and error— taking a lot of swings at the piñata and seldom connecting. The clue to whether an experience will be realized as haiku or tanka is often in how I record it in my notebook. For me, thoughts are easily lost if not caught on the fly—a bit like eavesdropping on oneself.
The first tanka I wrote was after reading one of Jane Reichhold’s articles and realizing that the haiku I was trying to write was more suited to being a tanka. Most of the verses in my notebook for well over a year were neither haiku nor tanka. It took me at least that long to even begin to understand the concept of internal comparison and/or link and shift. The kind of craftsmanship in your tanka below comes much later, if ever.
that I bought for your return
hangs in the closet
day by day plums ripen
and are picked clean by birds
MC: Thank you for the compliment. It sounds like you’ve read a lot of tanka by Western writers. What’s your experience with classical Japanese tanka poets? Many of their waka pivot on the intersection of a human event with an occurrence in nature. How do you feel about including a reference to nature in a tanka?
KC: I have read Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aritani’s The Ink Dark Moon, Steven Carter’s Waiting for the Wind, Earl Miner’s Japanese Court Poetry, and Edwin Cranston’s A Waka Anthology Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup. I also have Ueda’s Modern Japanese Tanka among other translations of Japanese work. I have also searched out classical tanka poets online. So much depends on the quality of the translation. The following quote from Hirshfield’s Nine Gates Entering the Mind of Poetry is one I like: ‘Freedom from the words of the original combined with a deep love of its words lie at the heart of translation.’
Without the ability to read the language, one is never sure which is the author and which the translator—one of the reasons I appreciate an author giving a word-by-word translation in addition to his/her interpretation. I also like to read translations by several different translators.
As to how I feel about including a reference to nature in tanka, I wrote this at the beginning of November:
of eggs in the nest
must live in the house
where we grew up
I have several of Ramirez-Christensen’s books. Heart’s Flower, The Life and Poetry of Shinkei in particular appeals to me. Writing/reading renku (particularly classical renku) is helping me to learn to write using more distant links between the two sections of a tanka. I am more and more drawn to the Japanese aesthetic for its depth.
MC: Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aritani have done a great service to the English-writing tanka poets in their book The Ink Dark Moon, which was an inspiration for many of us. I also like the ambiguity of the quote you cited from Nine Gates. Another definition of translation is that it's ‘like kissing through a veil.’ Tanka, with its use of images and shifts, allows the reader to find his/her interpretation. This is a good time to mention one of your tanka that has mystified and delighted me. Can you say a few words about it?
the feel of you
so deep inside of me
bringing us closer
KC: Some tanka begin as a direct description of an experience. In the editing process, elements may be altered to move the tanka away from the actual experience. This is why it is a mistake to confuse the poetic persona with the author. It is always important for the verse to remain true. Paradoxically, a verse can become truer as it becomes less factual. Here I am using ‘true’ in the sense of hitting a mark. Tanka translates experience into verse. It can never be the experience itself.
In the case of ‘the feel of you,’ I use several techniques simultaneously. I do not want to analyze the verse in depth because an author’s interpretation demystifies the verse. I will, however, discuss technique and generalities.
As you know, ‘the feel of you’ was written in response to the theme ‘separation’ for the "Tanka Café," the writing prompt column in Ribbons, the journal of the Tanka Society of America. I started by thinking of different kinds of separation and the relationship of separation to closeness. I wanted to give the reader the experience of moving between various ways of looking at separation/closeness and to open the verse to the reader’s experience rather than my own.
The most obvious theme is sexual intercourse, highlighted by the wording of the top section. I wanted the sexual theme to be as sensual as possible without becoming crude. The clue to look further is in the unexpected last line. Childbirth is another theme, also death, which is suggested within the sexual theme in the form of la petite mort. Life outside of the womb begins with an inhalation. It ends with an exhalation. In between, we ‘live and move and have our being.’ With each breath, and its rhythmic in and out movements, we are closer to that last exhalation, that last letting go.
MC: You've said that 'Creativity is for me more about the process than it is about the product.' What is your process for writing tanka? Do you have a daily practice or is the impulse driven by an experience or observation?
KC: I try to write something everyday—an observation, a memory, or a description. I carry a notebook with me to jot down whatever strikes me at the moment—something as simple as what I need to pick up at the store can end up in a tanka.
Tanka often come in groups. I will write none for several days and then several at a sitting. I write in different moods and often humorously, allowing myself to play. I also make up writing exercises for myself and do them.
There is a kind of one-pointed focus where I enter fully into the experience of writing. To be worried about whether or not a given verse will be ‘good enough’ or ‘publishable’ or whether it is too self-revelatory or the myriad of other things writers worry about splits my concentration. Concentrating on ‘product’ is a temptation to write in a way that has been ‘successful’ before rather than exploring other ways of approaching tanka.
When I first started writing tanka, I deconstructed tanka that I particularly liked. I still notice craft, but my noticing is now more organic and less labored. Sometimes, as I am reading someone else’s work, I note how I might have done it differently.
I write and study tanka because I love it. I love tanka the same way I love chocolate. I could try to convince you I eat chocolate for the antioxidants, but it just ain’t so. I eat chocolate because I love it. I read and write tanka because I love it.
Thank you for the opportunity to learn more about tanka through this interview and the pleasure of meeting you.
Visit the Tanka Online Gallery to read more of Karen's poetry.
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