Drops from Her Umbrella:
an Interview with Laura Maffei
by Jeanne Emrich
Laura Maffei is the editor of the poetry journal American Tanka, which she founded in 1996. She has worked as a technical writer, a corporate “communications specialist,” and a teacher of literature and writing at Wagner College, St. John’s University, John Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, and Lawrence Woodmere Academy. In 2006, she released her first collection of tanka, Drops from Her Umbrella (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Inkling Press, 2006).
When did you first learn about tanka and what attracted you to the form? What tanka or writers of tanka have most influenced and inspired you?
In 1992, I came across a translation of Machi Tawara’s Salad Anniversary in a friend’s apartment. These were modern tanka capturing moments in the life of a young, urban woman, which may be partly why I was so entranced: I could relate! But it was really the magic of the form—the way each poem captured those moments so concisely and so vividly—that drew me in. I felt as if, despite the differences in cultures, I were living each moment with the narrator as I was reading the poem. As I sought out other writers of tanka, both ancient and modern, I found the same powerful impact in their work, no matter how long ago it was written or from what perspective. It struck me that not only was the tanka form a beautiful and effective way to capture life on paper, it was also an accessible kind of poetry that could bring people together across time, distance and culture.
In your tanka there is a refreshing sense of truth and confession that is courageous and inspired at once. Do you write more for yourself or for your readers... or both equally? Do you wait for experience to move you to write or do you actually spend time in reflection to consider the melting pot of personal experiences and how there might be material to mine and forge into a tanka? Tell us about your writing life.
I have used several methods. When I first began writing tanka, I waited for experiences to move me—in other words, I waited to witness something or experience something that struck me and made me think of a tanka almost instantly. This was while I was in graduate school and “officially” spending my time writing prose. I continued writing tanka in this way for another year or two after graduate school, including the year when I founded American Tanka, but then I felt compelled to be more prolific and to create a more consistent working method. So I took a small sketch book with me everywhere, and each day I jotted down exactly three “moments” that I would later make into tanka. Sometimes I jotted down the moments soon after they occurred, and sometimes I scanned my memory for moments that stood out earlier that day or the day before. I wrote them down in brief, one or two line descriptions. Sometimes these descriptions were practically tanka already, and sometimes they needed a lot of work to transform them into poetry, which I would usually do within the next few days. So I was always doing two things: jotting down ideas, and going back to form poems from the ideas I had a few days before. I stuck to this method for four years and produced over 4000 poems, only a fraction of which were publishable, but which were well worth it for the good poems that were produced as well as the experience of setting aside perfectionism and allowing the imperfect poems to happen as part of the process of writing the better ones—an experience I had always struggled with in writing prose. Currently, I am using a lighter, in-between method for my tanka writing: not simply waiting for experiences to move me and not using the methodical 3-a-day sketchbook either, but doing both a little bit of planning and a little bit of letting the inspiration come, here and there. I had found my poems themselves were getting somewhat methodical after four years of the 3-a-day sketchbook method, and so a break and a change seemed necessary. I think these things go in cycles, and I imagine I will enter another prolific phase with another structured method someday in the future.
The “sense of truth and confession” in my work probably comes from the fact that I almost always use a real-life experience as the catalyst for a poem, and even if I change it in the final form, there is still a real-life honesty in what the poem presents. It’s different for different writers, of course, but for me, that’s where the impact of a tanka comes from—the real, lived moment, which is always more interesting and substantial than a fabricated one. (This doesn’t apply, in my case, to prose fiction, which may be sparked by real-life observation, but where imagination and fabrication create the final impact.)
Whether I write tanka more for myself or for readers is an interesting question. I don’t think I write tanka for either myself or the reader. It seems to me as if the tanka moment is already “there,” a sensual fact to be captured in the most vivid way possible, and it’s simply my job to capture it. Maybe that is writing it for myself. And yet my ultimate goal is to write a poem that anyone, anywhere, can vividly connect with. So maybe the answer is that I write for both myself and the reader equally, but I’m not thinking about this as I write. I’m thinking only of capturing that moment with laser-like precision.
Do you include tanka in your teaching of literature and writing to university students? What qualities in tanka do you feel might be most accessible to those new to tanka? And how might writing tanka prepare a writer for expressing him or herself in other forms of poetry?
I have taught tanka, with wonderful results, to middle school, high school, and university students. I think what makes tanka accessible to those new to it is the form’s directness and subjectivity—the fact that you can write very plainly and clearly about something you experienced and make a good poem out of it, just by choosing your words carefully and being honest. (I would add that directness and a kind of emotional honesty also apply to tanka that are about made-up experiences, since a good tanka need not actually be autobiographical.) The tanka’s short length definitely helps, too, in making it accessible and non-intimidating to new poets.
Tanka is a perfect way to prepare new writers for other forms of poetry, and even for writing prose, because it makes the writer practice many of the elements of good writing in a structured space with immediately assessable results. The tanka writer must waste no words, pay attention to sound and rhythm, choose images that will resonate with the reader without being cliché, and pull it all together into a coherent whole. That’s great practice for any kind of writing!
Do you currently write in other forms of poetry yourself?
I have been writing free-verse poems ranging from 10 to 50 lines. This is a recent endeavor, so it will be a while before I produce anything of quality, if I do. I am aiming for sensual poetry that takes the vividness of tanka and slows it down and expands it for more exploration, more questioning of the human condition. My biggest influence so far has been Sharon Olds.
You have been the editor of American Tanka for just over a decade. What kind of changes have you seen in submissions over this period and in the tanka you have selected to publish?
I think I have become a much pickier editor! Back in 1996 and 1997, I was just happy to print anything that even resembled tanka, because I received so many poems that did not. But now there is a beautiful avalanche of English-language tanka pouring into my mail and e-mail every year, and it is wonderful to be able to be more selective and to see American Tanka evolving towards the vision I’ve always had for it: to present truly astounding poetry to its readers.
This is a good place for me to mention that in the past few years, as I went back to full-time teaching, my submission response record has been horrendous—sometimes as long as ten months (i.e., the entire school year)! I am hopeful that this will change as I adjust to the all-consuming job that teaching is and learn to make room in my schedule, mentally and physically, for answering submissions in a timely manner. Meanwhile, I thank everyone who has been so patient, and hope new writers will go ahead and submit, even if there is a long wait. The discovery of a new tanka writer is one of my favorite things, and a new writer with great tanka has just as strong a chance of being published in the journal as an established writer.
Today, one trend that is emerging in the West is the grouping of several tanka together under one title, often labeled by the poet or publisher as a “sequence,” “cluster,” or “string.” Is the reason you have not published multiple verses of this kind due to the one-verse-per-page format of American Tanka or do you believe tanka is best written and presented as a single, stand-alone verse?
This is a personal preference, but I find that what is so special about tanka is the way an entire world, an entire little story, is evoked in five lines. Our world is already full of longer, wordier forms of poetry, and it is certainly full of verbose prose. Though I recognize their merit, I am simply not as interested in tanka sequences as I am in the power of a single great stand-alone poem presenting the essence of a moment. But I may change my mind someday. Meanwhile, my apologies to the all the great sequence writers out there!
Do you see tanka as it is being written in English in the West evolving into a genre separate from Japanese tanka? Why or why not? Or, is it already a distinctly different genre?
I feel one should be more of a scholar in Japanese language and literature to give this question its due, and I am definitely not (I am an English-language writer who just happened to adopt and work with a Japanese form to make her own English-language poetry). But from what I’ve learned about the long history of waka/tanka in Japan, how the tanka form is tied into the Japanese language, and the vast differences between English and Japanese, I would venture to say that tanka in English might be considered a different form, and my guess is that most Japanese readers and writers feel this way. And yet, I consider it correct to call the English-language form “tanka” because the point and spirit of the form—the distilled moment—are, in my opinion, the same in English and Japanese.
What words of encouragement would you offer
to the aspiring tanka poet in the West today?
Try it! These moments, when the world becomes still and something stands out to you with unusual clarity, are universal. You definitely experience them, and therefore have it in you to write tanka; it’s just a matter of noticing them. As with any creative writing, the first requirement is to be a keen observer of the world around you and the world within you. Start practicing this, and don’t be afraid to put the most seemingly mundane, “unpoetic” things into your work—this is the stuff of real life, and it can make for the greatest of poems.
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