an Interview with Beverley George
by Jeanne Emrich
Beverley George is an Australian poet who has been writing haiku, tanka, and haibun since 1997. A writer also of mainstream poetry, articles, and short stories, she won the W.B. Yeats Poetry Prize for Australia and New Zealand in 2004 and 2005, the Vera Newsom Poetry Prize 2005 and the Society of Women Writers (NSW) Prize 2006. From 2000-2006 she was the producer and editor of the magazine, Yellow Moon, which enjoyed an international reputation and readership. In 2006, she founded Eucalypt: A Tanka Journal, the first journal in Australia dedicated entirely to tanka and of which she is the editor. Currently, she is the President of the Australian Haiku Society.
Your first venture into poetry was with Western mainstream forms. Was this background a positive factor when you started writing haiku and tanka? What, if any, hurdles did you have to overcome?
Yes, definitely positive. Much of the enduring poetry of the English-speaking world was written with the discipline of adherence to formal structure. From childhood, we respond to rhythm and cadence. The art is to let the language flow naturally, avoiding inversions and forced rhyme and meter. A phenomenon of poetry is that people who don’t usually read it, seek it out at times of great joy or distress to express their feelings at an elevated level they think is beyond their own powers to devise.
I found it a little difficult moving from mainstream genres to free verse but not difficult at all to move to writing haiku and tanka. I think that because these brief utterances teach us concision and the value of placing each word carefully they have a positive effect on everything we write. However, I know my initial response to haiku was far more instinctive than cerebral.
In 2006, your haiku collection Spinifex, was published in Tasmania by Pardalote Press and your first collection of tanka, empty garden in New South Wales by Yellow Moon. Do you feel comfortable switching back and forth between the two genres as you write?
These days I write mainly tanka although my love of reading good haiku continues undiminished. I usually find it quite difficult to switch between writing haiku and tanka as it definitely requires a different mindset. Nearly always I write them in separated time frames, an exception being a collage of haiku and tanka I was invited to submit for The Dreaming Room, edited by Michael McClintock and Denis Garrison. Lately I have seen the value of combining haiku and tanka into collages and montages as in this anthology and in collections such as Kirsty Karkow’s recently published Shorelines. I experience no difficulty in reading tanka and haiku of this standard together. The haiku seem to provide a leavening for the tanka, which is often more emotionally complex.
What was your first tanka? Tell us about what inspired you to write this particular verse and how you wrote it.
My FIRST tanka! I ask you Jeanne, is that fair? It certainly wasn’t a great tanka but it was emotionally sincere. I was visiting the Japanese Gardens at Cowra, New South Wales, where there was a break-out of Japanese soldiers interred during World War II. The gardens are quite large and exquisitely designed. Beyond their formal structure, I could see a surrounding hazy line of ecucalypts and this led me to muse on the lot of the common soldier from whichever nation.
Earth heeds not the foreigness
of those consigned to it
but gives equal succor to
cherry tree and eucalypt.
The second one was for my mother who died not long before I began writing tanka. The structure and punctuation, consecutive adjectives, might be suspect but it was written about a happy time in my mother’s life when she lived in the country, teaching pottery. I still quite like it.
clumped snowy in a crazed green jug
grace your window ledge.
You come towards me lightly,
lemons jostling your scooped skirt.
How early in your writing of the Japanese forms, and especially tanka, did you submit your work for publication? Did you workshop any of your verses, either locally with friends or critique groups or on the Internet, and, if so, how did this help you?
Oh straight away, Jeanne. No waiting around! Pat Kelsall started up Yellow Moon in Creswick, a country town in the State of Victoria, and I jumped in the deep end, with a tie for First Place for haiku and a Highly Commended for tanka in the first issue. It has been a long and interesting road since then. I didn’t workshop any of my earliest tanka or haiku but after I took over Yellow Moon in 2000 and asked Janice M. Bostok to be senior adviser and judge for haiku and related forms, and John Bird became Yellow Moon’s web-master, I received invaluable help regarding haiku from both of them. Janice wrote a number of articles for Yellow Moon and she helped me road-test all the genres such as winter kasen renga and summer kasen renga before I introduced them to Yellow Moon participants. I was certainly influenced by her own love of the Japanese poetry genres and grateful for her support and interest. John Bird workshopped my haiku for a significant length of time and together we wrote haiku sequences, placing them in mainstream competitions or submitting them to mainstream poetry magazines. By this, we strove to build bridges of understanding between poets who wrote traditional forms and those who favored the Japanese genres. Many people helped with Yellow Moon in a wide variety of ways, as anyone who has a copy of the final issue, especially, would know, but I am particularly grateful to Janice and John where the haiku and related forms are concerned.
Regarding tanka, I have workshopped with a very small international group for nearly two years. Membership is limited to seven members to keep it manageable and give us maximum opportunities to discuss each others’ work. As an editor of other people’s tanka I need to be aware of international best practice and I am grateful to this group for making me set aside writing and critiquing time each month.
Tanka as it is written today appears to be almost universally experiential with the poet narrating a personal moment or observation, even when addressing, say, world events either witnessed in person or through news media. To what extent is this personal element, the “I” presence, a defining factor in your tanka? Can you give us examples of when you have departed from it?
I am very glad you raised this point, as it is a pet hobby-horse of mine. It’s OK if you are writing a short story or a novel to write in a different persona; in fact, it’s almost mandatory. The same freedom should be true of poetry. I find that writing only from one’s own perspective can become overly introspective and restricted. I have just had a haibun accepted I wrote as if I were a man. (Thanks, editors of CHO.) John Bird and I have written an historical haiku sequence as if we were in turn an explorer, an aborigine, a sawyer. Many of my tanka are written from observation of others, particularly of people close to me. As a writer I claim the right to speak in different persona; so sorry, but I don’t want to pin down which of my tanka are autobiographical. It really shouldn’t matter to the reader.
However, since you ask so nicely, I will tell you that one of the two following tanka is autobiographical and the other is observed. I will leave it to readers who are still traveling with us to work out which is which.
day in the garden
two under the same shower
we slide into bed
nothing between us
but the outstretched cat
you strut through the bookies’ ring
in your shot silk tie–
it seems that once again
I’ve bet on the wrong horse
Though tanka in Japan is usually written in one vertical line, in the West it is usually written in five lines with some variation in structure, spacing, and indentation. How much do you experiment with these factors in your own writing?
Not widely. I’m rather conservative when it comes to the structure of my own tanka. However, as I gain confidence I don’t hesitate to repeat words, including articles, if I think the tanka requires it. I experiment only occasionally with eccentric spacing and rely generally on line breaks and arrangement of words to structure a tanka. As an editor I often take a more liberal view. If a tanka ‘speaks to me’, conveys the essence of the genre, I consider this first, before looking at the structure and technique.
There is now available a substantial amount of modern and contemporary tanka in translation, for example Ferris Wheel : 101 Modern and Contemporary Japanese Tanka (Boston, Cheng & Tsui Company, 2006), translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden, which showcases the work of some 60 different poets, and Makoto Ueda's large selection of Modern Japanese Tanka (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). There are now also quite a number of modern and contemporary single poet collections translated into English, for example of the works of Yosano Akiko, Saito Mokichi, Masaoka Shiki, Takuboku Ishikawa, Tawara Machi, Kawano Yuko, Kuriki Kyoko, Kitakubo Mariko and others. Do you think that studying modern tanka in translation is as relevant as, or perhaps more relevant than, learning from the great classical tanka poets of 1,000 years ago? What poets, whether Japanese or Western, historical or contemporary, have influenced you? Please tell us a poem or two that has been particularly inspiring.
I believe that studying both is essential and relevant, but there is no finer starting point than reading traditional waka, as exemplified by the poetry of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu , translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani in The Ink Dark Moon (New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1990). I was introduced to this book by American tanka poet, Pamela Babusci, and it was the poems in translation of Izumi Shikibu in particular that fired my love of tanka. When I give workshops to people new to tanka I always start with poems from this book. As soon as people grasp how relevant waka are across differing cultures and a millenium, they glimpse the power of this compact genre and it’s easy from that point to lead them forward into contemporary examples, including works translated from Japanese.
Two poems that continue to inspire me were written by Izumi Shikibu at the time of her daughter’s death. The translations are from The Ink Dark Moon as cited above.
Why did you vanish Listen, listen:
into empty sky? longing and loss.
Even the fragile snow In the struck bell’s
when it falls recurrent calling,
falls in this world. no moment in which to forget.
To list the contemporary poets whose work I admire, both in English and in translation, would be to open Pandora’s box and double the length of this interview. At least twenty names spring into my mind before I draw breath and there are dozens more. Our tanka world is growing.
So I will confine my response to poems by three contemporary Japanese poets whose work I enjoy and in which I find an indefinable element that appeals to me greatly. In Eucalypt 2, Yuhki Aya writes of her daughter in terms of both intimate love and distanced admiration.
I regard you as the girl
with a delicate nape
at other times
the comrade I rely on
In Eucalypt 3, Kitakubo Mariko offers us this evocative image
I really am
and the wide sky
I am always mindful of the debt we owe translators for making a foreign literature accessible. The pioneering work of Sanford Goldstein, in particular, with regard to tanka, is of immeasurable value, as is that of others of note. In contemporary terms, I think Amelia Fielden’s tireless effort in translating the work of Japanese female poets has earned its own place in tanka history. I find it difficult to explain why the following poem by Kuriki Kyōko, translated by Amelia Fielden and Yuhki Aya, has such undeniable appeal, but whenever I read it in a workshop, others love it too.
behind the evening sun
there must surely
Now that you have written tanka for several years, what themes do you see emerging in your work? What new themes have arisen lately and why? Please quote a few verses and tell us how they evolved from previous verses, if any, with respect to content.
I suspect I focus most often on the durability, or otherwise, of relationships. Lately I have found myself writing publicly acknowledged tributes to friends. The most recent of these is a five tanka collage for friend and poet, Mary Hawthorne. This is scheduled to be published in MET 6 but at the moment is on a vertical strip of paper pasted on her study wall. For me, this is publication of a particular and valued kind.
Regarding your third question, I haven’t – consciously anyway – written verses that evolved from previous ones. On occasion, I have used tanka to trigger a free verse. For example the tanka sequence ‘The Fisherman’s Wife’, published first in The Tanka Journal [Japan] and then in empty garden triggered the free verse ‘Island Mathematics’, which won the Society of Women Writer’s (NSW) Inc. poetry competition 2006. I think that because tanka are so compressed but at the heart of things, they can form the nucleus of quite a different literary product, even a short story.
To what extent is your poetry indigenous to your native country, Australia? How important to you is a sense of place in your poetry, especially place as metaphor for personal states of mind? For example, you reside at Pearl Beach, on the central coast of New South Wales. In your first collection of tanka, empty garden, you mention the beach and ocean several times, as in the following poems:
of the old fishing jetty
just like us
piers out of sight
slowly I return
an occupied shell
to the surging sea
this long night
lost in surf sound
of not doing anything
to its full potential
The first of these refers to a jetty in the broad upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River which I pass by train several days a week. The river is flanked by wooded hills and like the ocean which lies fifty meters from our front door and the freshwater lagoon immediately behind our house, it influences my poetry in the way that you suggest. I think we are all affected emotionally by the ambience of where we live. Only today I was on the beach looking up at the flannel flowers that spring from crumbling soil between the rocks on our rather dangerous cliff-face. Flannel flowers for me are a metaphor for endurance, and adaptation to harsh challenges– beauty of an unassuming kind that re-emerges each spring with little demand on the environment. They have creamy white pointed petals and green stippled centers and you need to look hard to see the tiny green dot at each petal tip. Their leaves are leathery to resist evaporation. I refer to them in both tanka and haiku, most recently in a tribute to a friend. You can see a drawing of one in Eucalypt 3.
How do you see tanka evolving in Australia? Do you think it will ever become as 'popular' as haiku? What made you move on from publishing Yellow Moon, which covered many forms of poetry, including tanka and haiku, to publishing and editing Eucalypt, Australia’s first exclusively tanka journal?
I certainly hope it will be better understood than haiku. There are so many misconceptions about haiku as syllable-counting exercises, or as homilies and adages, or worse yet, jokes about computers and so on, that are not even senryu but mere ‘spam-ku’ as we term them. I think the introduction of tanka into the literary scene is more thoughtful and includes more accurate understanding of linguistic differences and phrasing.
Yellow Moon was an exacting taskmistress that published the best work from eleven strands of competition twice a year. The haiku, tanka and related genres were always open internationally but other categories were restricted to Australian and New Zealand poets to encourage national writing and give more Australians poets the chance to be published and to have their poems preserved in libraries. It sought to build bridges of understanding between Western poetry and the Japanese genres. It was at its best when it closed. However, I believed the time was appropriate to move into a more specialized arena. The number of Australian tanka poets is quite small but the quality of their work is substantial and steadily developing.
How important is tanka form in your selections for Eucalypt? What are your personal guidelines regarding number of lines, and syllable count, also cadence, as in the short/long/short/long/long rhythm ,and 'longest, or equal longest, 5th line', of Japanese convention? What positive attributes do you look for in selecting tanka for publication.
I look for tanka that are fresh and original, not necessarily in topic but in the treatment of that topic. Poems with impact that stay with you, become part of the way you view the world. I publish tanka written in five lines and prefer those that observe the short/long/short/long/long rhythm if this can be achieved without distorting the phrasing. I don’t like the practice of making the last two lines out of what is really one line cut in two, but think this stems from the way in English our voices often drop away at the end of a sentence. I like the last line to be strong and memorable but this does not always mean that it looks to be the longest. The stressed and unstressed syllables and consonant clusters in English can mean that a line which appears physically shorter actually carries more impact. The test is to read the tanka aloud. I almost always prefer tanka that has a turning point, or a juxtaposition of images and viewpoint than those which are a ‘run-on’ sentence.
I try not to be didactic about the guidelines. For example, in Eucalypt you will find several tanka that are over the conventional syllabic count, but for me they are unquestionably good tanka. The world of tanka in English is developing rapidly and we who write and/or edit it must keep an open mind to its potential.
While you include tanka sequences of your own in empty garden, you have yet to publish those by others in Eucalypt. Is this for a formatting reason, or do you plan to include sequences in upcoming issues? What appeals to you in combining tanka in some kind of unified whole, and what do you see as the potential in this form?
I like many assemblages of themed tanka very much but think the opportunity for publishing is served by journals such as Modern English Tanka (MET) and its anthologies which often include a substantial number of tanka by the same poet, and they certainly have their place, too, in individual collections. Each of the tanka journals currently published seems to have its own ‘character’ and points of difference as noted in reviews by contributors to the Eucalypt electronic newsletter E-news.
My intention for Eucalypt is to publish tanka in the print journal that can stand alone outside a sequence. I try to arrange them with subtle linkages so that the reader can stay in much the same mood for any one page, but this is fluid, not strictly themed. I aim to discipline myself to keep the number published to 100 or 101 but this always seems to slip to nearer 108. My intention is to continue to publish the individual gems, restricting the number to about 100 of the very best I receive.
As a tanka journal editor, what advice might you give poets new to the form and wishing to submit to both Eucalypt as well as other journals?
I think it’s essential to read widely, both the translations of Japanese classical waka and contemporary tanka in English. As with submitting to any type of literary journal, people wishing to be published should study at least one issue of the relevant journal. Teaching sites such as Tanka Online and MET are invaluable. There are a few articles on Eucalypt web-site www.eucalypt.info and I hope to include more. I think each of us, whether an established or a new poet, needs to be critical of our own writing and prepared to re-work it as often as it takes to make it the best we can.
For six years (2001-2006) you were the editor of Yellow Moon and now of Eucalypt: A Tanka Journal (2006—present), Australia’s first journal dedicated to tanka. Tell us about your experience with Eucalypt and what it has taught you as both poet and editor. Also, what are your hopes for how Eucalypt might evolve?
A sage friend counseled me when I started Eucalypt, "Look only at the poem, not at the poet’s name". I learned quite quickly I must look only at the poem.
My hopes for Eucalypt? I hope it proves to be a journal which recognizes the potential of tanka in English and reflects contemporary best practice – tempered by respect for origins. I hope tanka poets will aspire to be published in it, even if this involves a few hard yards. I hope it will give Australian tanka poets a home ground and a springboard into the international arena with confidence in their own voices. I hope it will reflect its title which to me means endurance, healing, adaptation, and infinite variety. I hope people will love reading it. I hope it will have a life beyond my own.
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