Writing Inside Out:
an Interview with Kathy Kituai
by Amelia Fielden
Australian poet, diarist and writing teacher, Kathy Kituai has written tanka seriously since 2005, some of which are published in Japan, USA, England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as well as a tanka diary, Straggling Into Winter (Highly Commended, IP Best Poetry Award 2007), a CD, the heart takes wing, and two collections of responsive tanka in collaboration with Amelia Fielden, In Two Minds and Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2011) , Kathy has won awards for tanka and free-verse and also has published two free-verse poetry collections, a limited edition CD and cassette, three anthologies, a childrenís picture book and four part radio documentary. She currently is in a writer's residence in Lochinvar, Scotland for three months (2010).
AF: Please tell us about your literary life and publications in 'the time before tanka'
KK: To begin with, I never saw myself as a writer. I scribbled in notebooks, and wrote just to see what happened in the earlier part of my life. When asked as a mature student at Secretarial College the type of job Iíd be interested in applying for, I continually expressed a desire to work as a secretary for a writer. Had it not been for John Kolia, poet and editor at the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, who persisted with the notion that I was a writer, I would never have realised that I would become that very writer I always wanted to work for. From 1986 onwards, I kept journals and discovered a love of facilitating. I have taught creative writing since 1990, as well as numerous community projects with street people, single mothers, the physically challenged and so on and have facilitated creative writing projects like We Donít Take Cheques at Melba, designed to help residents deal with grief and sorrow as they witnessed their housing estate pulled down. More recently, I gathered stories in an oral history project for early onset dementia suffers at Mountain View Age Care, Before I Forget. In between, I won awards for poetry and published two poetry collections, a childrenís picture book, a four-part dramatised radio documentary and three anthologies. I also was a subeditor for Muse and Bikmaus and worked on committees like Peers for the ARTS ACT, FAW, Writers Centre and Weereewa, Lake George. You know, I never thought of a Ďtime before tankaí but I guess you could say it was quite different to what I write and do now.
AF: When did you first become aware of tanka? How? What did you read?
KK: No one was more surprised than I in my interest in tanka. Whereas free verse appeared to offer limitless freedom of expression, sonnets, villanella and, in particular, Australian bush poetry were too formulaic and limiting. I wanted to express myself inside out my way. Iím unsure of how I actually came across tanka, possibly through reading haiku, and ironically it was only when I began writing them that I realised the freedom I was searching for existed in tanka. I appreciate the launching pad they create for imagination as well as the countless ways of marrying external and internal landscape, their sudden burst of power and completeness in so few words, not unlike the way sherbet explodes in your mouth and leaves your tongue tingling. Yes, I am a bit of a foodie. What tipped the scales were translations of both classical and contemporary Japanese poets. I know something is always lost in translations, but Saigyo and Rengetsu as well as Kawano Yuko and Kawamura Hatsue spoke to me more than modern English tanka at the time.
AF: When did you begin writing tanka? What attracted you to this form of poetry?
KK: My first attempt was in 1994 and it was disastrous. I had no idea of what I was doing and wish that particular tanka had never been published. What attracted me to this form is what attracts me to it today, the challenge of writing meaningfully without unnecessary frills of language that draw more attention to the poet than to the essence of the poem. Because of its complex-simplicity, tanka offers poets a means by which to capture the present moment and universal experience succinctly. Iím continually in awe of Jeanne Emrich and Carol Purington who are skilled in this way and therefore know how to trust readers to experience the poem themselves. I savour traditional expression and classical Japanese poets like Saigyo and Rengetsu, yet am equally interested in multiple, more modern cultural flavours in which it is now written. Having said that, Iím well aware of the discourse on freeform versus traditional, but prefer to keep the s/l/s/l/l form.
AF: What happened next, eg did you start submitting tanka to journals? Entering competitions? Did any particular poets influence you?
KK: I started to look for poets like Kirsty Karkow in Yellow Moon because of an edge to her work. When I graduated to reading Gusts, Ribbons and Moonset etc., I searched for tankaists already mentioned like Emrich and Purington, and so many more like Bob Lucky and Margaret Chula that itís hard to name them all. What thrills me today is the way in which interest in tanka is increasing in Australia. I now add M. L. Grace, Julie Thorndyke, David Terelinck, Michael Thorley, you, and Beverley George to the list. Beverley is to be congratulated for publishing Eucalypt. I havenít entered any competitions of late but I was fortunate enough to win the Tea Towel Tanka Competition and Fuji Tanka Award and was short-listed in 2008 Saigyo Award as well as the 2009 Sixth International Tanka Society of Japan Competition.
AE: In 2007, you published a very successful tanka collection, Straggling Into Winter. Please tell us about the background of this book and why you decided to write it in the form of a loose diary
KK: It was only after Iíd written ninety tanka in three months that I was realised I was actually keeping a tanka diary. Being a diarist since 1986, it seemed only natural to continue in this way. Straggling Into Winter happened more of itself than by plan. Coincidently, the 9th June 05, the date of the first entry, was the day my close friend, Rosemary, told me she had cancer. Itís no surprise then that SIW opens with this poem:
news that the cancer
growing in your uterus
must be pruned ---
I write a requiem
for cut flowers
Rosemary had intended illustrating SIW but was too ill during its inception to fulfil her plan. We spent a lot of time together in the botanical gardens where she sketched when she could and I wrote. As her illness progressed, we concentrated on just being together. However, I went on writing and Rosemaryís illness brought with it the gift of understanding that life is both joy and sorrow.
in your own dim night
you have brought me a gift
I had no other way
of knowing how to unwrap
I wouldnít see
quite as clearly as this
but for an overcast sky
Itís my hope (as it was hers) Straggling Into Winter conveys this organically. Not all the tanka I wrote for SIW are included. Rosemary died several months before it was launched, but despite her illness edited the tanka in final draft in doctorsí surgeries.
AF: Subsequent to your book, you made a CD. Please tell us how that came about, and what your focus was in making the CD.
KK: the heart takes wing (condensed form of SIW) wasnít the first CD made of my poetry. Polonious Press recorded a cassette of green-shut-green (with music 1994) and I made a limited edition CD, You could bottle it, as part of a visual art exhibition for Weereewa, a Festival of a Lake several years later. Listening to poetry as well as reading it adds another dimension, donít you think, especially if the poet reads his or her own work? Some people prefer hearing rather than reading poetry. I like the fact that this creates a different audience for people who would never read it. It goes without saying that how a poem appears on the page is equally informative. Nitya, the composer and multi-instrumentalist who collaborated with me on thtw, featured the bansuri (African flute) and used silence as much as music to extend the essence of each poem musically. I like the way that provides space for the tanka to be realised on a deeper, more subconscious level.
even in her mind
she cannot hear how silent
those notes are
on the manuscript
until she plays them
Iím also delighted to learn that thtw is about to be played for several weeks on a UK radio jazz show; odd choice but perhaps another audience in the making?
AF: Next came a collaborative book, a collection of responsive tanka written between you and me, In Two Minds and then Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. How did you feel during the creation of ITM? Can you describe please your new major tanka project YTT?
KK: Challenged in both cases. Although I have edited anthologies with other writers and collaborated with visual artists, dancers and musicians, Iíd never written responsive tanka before we produced In Two Minds or co-written a tanka diary like Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; one person, not two, usually write diaries. I relish the stimulation of working with ĎThe Otherí, especially someone like you, Amelia, whose life experiences are so different to mine. Actually, Iíve noticed that the best responsive tanka happen between other writers who are as unalike as we are. It was a privilege to share innermost thoughts with another, and YTT offered that to me. For instance, I found it a rare privilege to write about personal as well as world events together. Your perspective on special days― Motherís Day, Christmas and Easter― was seldom mine. And then there were those months of experimentation, May, for instance, where we wrote tanka that picked up a phrase from the preceding tanka like this:
out of my depth
after the funeral Ö
below the surface
in concentric circles K
clear and smooth
the sea pulls us
from a sandy shelf
out of our depth now A
I particularly like the challenge of writing shasei-style during November and still responding to the previous tanka.
straight and receding
fragrant with lavender
even in postcards K
of a path
through Parisian woods
hung on her bathroom wall A
Had YTT been similar to ITM, I doubt if I would have enjoyed the process as much as I did.
AF: A big question: what does tanka writing mean to you? What place does it play in your life?
KK: Discovering tanka, I found a missing link to something I had been searching for in free verse. Had anyone asked exactly it was I was seeking; I couldnít have articulated accurately what it was. Instead, I wrote lyrical poems like these:
in a still mind
beneath the surface
s h a t t e r I n g
her own image
The Lace Maker
The sigh of a still wind
I embrace all that we
What we are
rests on the next moment
Lovers die in the arms
When I come to you
it's as freely as our own breath
Hear the soundless
movement the sigh
of a still wind
Silence lies in the essence
I was searching for a vehicle in which to express the unsayable. Tanka afforded this and the ability to express all of the above in even less words. However, it never occurred to me that I was seeking Zen. Even now I hesitate to say that, aware of how Ďpreciousí it may sound. I experience a heightening of the senses both by writing and reading before dawn as part of my daily life.
AF: You are taking up a writers-in-residency in Scotland June, 2010. What do you want to achieve while there?
KK: Possibly far too much during the 12 week period Iíll be there, but my aim is to produce a new body of work, Pots and Poetry (working title) in collaboration with Scottish ceramicist, Fergus Stewart. We are both interested in exploring the effect culture and environment has on potters and poets working abroad and in their place of origin. Iíll gather journal notes on the differences between Scottish and Australian poetry (and pottery) and interview UK poets and potters in order to write articles on my return to Australia. According to Australian master potter, Milton Moon (who spent many years in Japan), tanka has played a role in the tea ceremony. Where tanka heightens appreciation of the present moment, in the daily process of handling handmade pottery we become aware of the extra-ordinariness of everyday objects. The point being, no moment, or handmade object is ordinary. The only difference between pottery and poetry is the extra Ďtí. A cross-art, cross-cultural project, we hope to broaden understanding between the two art forms. Like Rengetsu, a poet and potter, who also collaborated with artists of her day, weíll explore contemporary ways in which to marry the two genres. This tanka, the first I wrote for Pots and Poetry , won the Eucalypt Tea Towel Tanka Award:
I raise to my mouth
your tea bowl
whose idea was it
to glaze it with the moon
AF: Finally, do you have any advice or guidance for newcomers to tanka?
KK: I seldom give advice, especially when facilitating, and at first this is odd to writers who attend my workshops expecting to be told whatís wrong with their work. Fixing poetry up is temporary. Passing on skills and offering creative means in which poets discover their voice and ways in which to solve challenges in each poem as they arise is longer lasting. Iím interested in whatís working in a poem and encouraging new poets to value and build upon that. This is one of the qualities I value about our writing buddy-ship. Amelia. And as you know, Iíll indicate where a poem isnít working, but prefer not to suggest how it should be re-written. Make no mistake; Iím a tough editor. Editing and workshopping are two different aspects to realising a poem. Most poetry workshops edit poetry instead of responding in a way that ensures the poets' authenticity and expression is kept in tact. And more often than not a dependency is forged between poet and teacher rather than dialogue with poetics. As I said at the beginning of this interview, I wanted to write inside out my way. If I were to give any advice at all, it would be to urge poets to value their voices above everything else. Early in my career, I shared an experimental poem with a colleague. He remarked that it was too surreal and no one would publish it. Had I more confidence in myself I wouldíve interpreted him to mean: ĎI simply donít understand it.í Five years later that poem (in its unedited form) was published in a special issue of Ďnew writingí in Blast magazine. Along with valuing authenticity, what worked for me as a newcomer to tanka, was to read (and read and read) both contemporary and classical tanka while paying special notice to what gained my full attention. I value ďBeginnerís MindĒ and experiment all the time, parallel internal and external experience as much as possible, and avoid adjectives and adverbs unless they earn their keep. Even today I still keep a daily artsí practice and write as I began in notebooks, just to see what happens.
Visit the Tanka Online Gallery and Bookstore to read Kathy's poetry and learn about her book with co-author Amelia Fielden, In Two Minds.
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