An Interview with Sanford Goldstein
by Patricia Prime
PP: Why did you choose to write tanka over other forms of poetry?
SG: When I first came to Japan in 1953 for a two-year period to teach American literature at Niigata University, I began writing sonnets, couplets, and free verse. When I discovered haiku was a Japanese form, I wrote a few of these. But in the 1960s, back in the States, I came across Carl Sesar’s Poems to Eat, English translations of somebody called Takuboku. I felt like Keats on first looking into Chapman’s Homer. I knew tanka was the form for me. Later in the 70s, when someone in the Purdue Poets wanted me to join their group, I hesitated, for hardly anyone was interested in tanka. But when that colleague read my tanka poems, he said I had to join their group. Suddenly there was an interest in tanka. I remember that when our group was asked to give a reading of poems, I read a tanka about my child, and the audience responded enthusiastically to the humor in that poem. My poems were suddenly being listened to and apparently people were interested in them.
PP: Who has most influenced your work?
SG: My life’s pain, I would think. I discovered that tanka was a vehicle through which I could endlessly talk about my life, my feelings, and my thoughts. I kept my own tanka notebooks (not at first, but eventually), and I still keep one. But I discovered that tanka’s subjects could be much broader than myself. I remembered again and again, Akiko Yosano’s pains, Takuboku’s, Mokichi’s, Shiki’s, Ryokan’s, and Aizu Yaichi’s. So these poets I translated, most of them with the help of Professor Seishi Shinoda, my teacher-collaborator on tanka for thirty-plus years. At the same time, I think every poem, every novel, every play, every story I’ve read, has garnered thoughts of creativity in poem, story, novel, and play.
PP: Whom do you most admire among the classical Japanese tanka poets?
SG: The Japanese poets I have mentioned above are now classics. If we go further back, there is Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tales of Genji. But I also think my reading of the major haiku poets, translated into English, helped me become aware of the moment, the small moment, that moment that can fill a space with the flow of emotion and awareness.
PP: Whom do you most admire among modern tanka poets?
SG: Once I wrote some love poems to Machi Tawara for her Salad Anniversary. I’ve forgotten where I published them, but I doubt if she ever read them. In Canada, I admire the poems of Marianne Bluger and Thelma Mariano. I find that I am very much attuned to the poems of Tom Clausen, who won the Snapshot Competition for his book of tanka—my entry lost. I have to admit that I look at poems and admire this and that in many of them. Michael McClintock’s poems have always appealed to me. Well, the list can go on and on, and others may wonder why I don’t mention them—the work, for example, of Harue Aoki. Pat Shelley, who has gone now, often wrote to me, as did the poet Geraldine Clinton Little. If you ask me why I like their poems, the answer would be difficult. But I think in most cases something in the tanka I could latch on to, something natural, something not made, not strained after.
PP: Throughout your career, you have translated from the Japanese. Why have you chosen to focus much of your energy on the work of other writers?
SG: When I first came to Japan in 1953, I knew no Japanese. My wife and I studied from an army language book I found somewhere—we studied aboard the freighter taking us to Japan. Those two years in Japan, my wife and I had a tutor for Japanese conversation. When we left Japan in 1955, we went to Stanford University—there we studied the written language, the kanji—only 300 in one year. The rest has been self-study, and I’m still at it, merely a cotranslator, not an Edward Seidensticker or a Donald Keene, who have done remarkable work. At any rate, when I first came to Japan in 1953, the man who had just left the position I was taking over wrote me a letter suggesting I translate. It was with such innocence and naiveté that I asked the chairman of the department of English to translate with me Ogai Mori’s The Wild Geese. I had seen the film of that novel and was intrigued by its simplicity and beauty. My first three publications were merely done by my improving the English of my collaborators. Later, all was different, each work read in the Japanese, but always with collaborators.
PP: How do you look back on your body of published work, particularly your translations of tanka sequences by Mokichi Saito in Red Lights and the selected tanka of Akiko Yosano in Tangled Hair?
SG: I admire all the poets I translated. I became a part of them. I could feel Akiko’s feelings of liberation and Mokichi’s struggles in order to deepen tanka. That Akiko’s work has been so often mentioned by tanka poets makes me feel that many of them read and admired the work. Of course, later others translated her, and when I came across some of these translations, I felt the usual arrogance of someone who feels his work is better! I realized early that there was a woman’s lib movement in Japan, so later when I learned of Harumi Setouchi’s work entitled Beauty in Disarray, I wanted to translate it. It’s a novel no one seems to want to read, but it is a historical novel of great importance in spite of the fact that no one in the West seems to know about it. As for Mokichi, I realized through him what a tanka sequence was. In my own work I had often cited a group of poems as a sequence, but in 1987 I created the term “tanka string.” I tried to show what a sequence really was, as illustrated in Mokichi’s Red Lights; the poems Professor Shinodo and I chose were a series of 38 tanka sequences. So I feel this is one of my contributions to tanka, even though few people follow my explanations. When I was coeditor of the short-lived tanka journal, Five Lines Down, many American tanka poets were sending in strings.
PP: Both these books, Saito’s Red Lights and Yosano’s Tangled Hair, contain generous explanatory notes. How did this tremendous body of research come about?
SG: When I looked through early translations of Japanese poetry, I found almost no notes. At the same time, I realized how ignorant I was. So I asked Professor Shinoda to explain each poem we translated. Professor Shinoda was a Meiji person. I always felt he knew everything there was to know about Japanese culture. So he took time to explain words, customs, history, literature, language, the special meanings of idiomatic terms, everything, including the biography of the poet. Even the seasons have a special meaning to the Japanese, as do flowers and clouds and special times during a twenty-four hour period. I wanted to know background, the poem’s meaning to the Japanese, its importance to custom, to nature, to philosophy. But I have to give myself a little credit, for I would ask Professor Shinoda to explain this or that, to give me more details. I wanted to know each poem concretely, its biographical, sociological, historical, semantic connections. And so I learned and learned and learned. I was amazed by what seasons meant, what flowers meant, what food meant, everything.
PP: What kind of “relationship” do you build with the poets you have translated?
SG: Long after I had come to Japan, I learned about Aizu Yaichi, the famous Niigata-poet, critic, and teacher at Waseda University in Tokyo. He was alive when I came to Niigata in 1953, but no one ever mentioned him. It’s been one of my regrets that while I was walking along a Niigata street, he might have been walking along and I wouldn’t have known who he was. Later, when I translated a tanka sequence about his escape from the bombings in Tokyo and his retreat to a temple with his dying adopted daughter, I was moved again and again by what he had gone through. As for the other poets, I became Akiko or Mokichi or Shiki. When Shiki is lying ill in his bed on the mats, I am lying there too. And when Mokichi is enraged by his wife’s outrageous conduct in going to a dance hall, I know what he is feeling. I’ve never been a narcissist, but I am narcissistic as Akiko sings of the splendor of her body. And when Ryokan feels the pathos of old age, I know what he means. I have lived in Snow Country a long time, and I think I know something of the cold Ryokan felt living on a mountain, though his difficulties are immensely more painful that those I have felt.
PP: How different is the level of intensity you experience when you are translating from when you are composing your own poems?
SG: There is, I believe, a kind of intensity in spilling 24 to 30 poems or even 100 poems. I used to hear tanka music wherever I went, and even now I sometimes recall that music. Everything was tanka, everything there to be spilled. I think the intensity is different in translating. First of all, you have to understand the words of the poem. These meanings Professor Shinoda gave me even though I was reading the poem too. But because the older poets had expressions often not found in today’s Japanese dictionaries, study was necessary. I had to study the life, and I had to study the situation of that poem. And I had to try to make Professor Shinoda’s prose-like telling of the poem into a poem of five lines down. It wasn’t so much a matter of counting syllables, which I rarely did, though Shiki’s poems often lent themselves to a 31-syllable poem. When I had a first version, then I had to sharpen it. So there was a broader spectrum in translating a poem than there was in spilling one of my own in English.
PP: What does the literary companionship of translation with others involve?
SG: The relationship with Professor Shinoda I have already described. We really worked as a team, and I had full confidence in Professor Shinoda’s ability. But I have also translated Japanese novels and short stories. One novel I did translate with Professor Shinoda. When I translated with Professor Kingo Ochiai, he was quite different, quite leisurely. He would hold his cigarette in the air and wonder what would be a better expression than the one he had used in his translation of a sentence in The Wild Geese. I liked to do the revisions in private, so it was often difficult for me to come up with an expression I favored. The Wild Geese was started in 1953, and it was finally published in 1959. I spent a long time at Stanford trying to get the right tone for the novel. And the drafts I would send to Professor Ochiai he would work at diligently, carefully. Even at the end, he was not satisfied with the final version. Another translator, who shall be nameless, worked like the wind. When I asked him to go over my corrections of his translation and my version, he would do it in a whirlwind, so I always wondered if our translation was accurate enough. This collaborator could never really put a sentence into English from the way the Japanese grammar should be, so I really had to work much harder trying to get his entangled sentences to make sense. Two other translators I worked with wrote beautiful sentences in English. Their translations excited me, and I wondered if I was really necessary, yet I found that even their fine sentences could be improved.
PP: What are the differences between editing your own work and selecting tanka for an anthology?
SG: I helped select poets for an anthology, but had nothing to do with the selection of their poems. As for my own poems, often the first spill is right, but often, after gathering my list of good poems (and out of a list of 350 or 400 good poems, only 25–30 are chosen to send out to journals), I revise, sharpen. Sometimes I try for 5-7-5-7-7, but often these selections are free-form tanka. Lately I’ve come to feel a 3/2 arrangement, as in traditional tanka, is best.
PP: You have a strong interest in the weight of words within a tanka, their musicality and poetry. Where did your interest in language originate?
SG:I sang at Hebrew school years ago. And then when I went to summer camp, I loved the singing. But when I was in junior high school, we had to memorize “All the world’s a stage,” and I seemed to have done so well that most of the students hated me. Then in high school we had to recite Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”―again my list of enemies tripled. But I loved the language, and I seemed to do well in essays. We had a high school teacher, Miss Winship, who was quite eccentric. She always put the papers in order, the highest first, and we would be called on to read. My papers were often at the top or near the top. In college, I took creative writing quite often. I remember taking a course in reading dramatic passages (I’ve forgotten the technical name for such a course, perhaps Dramatic Arts), and I remember once the room changed when I read a passage from the Greeks. My voice did not adjust itself to the smaller room, and one of the women students criticized my reading as being melodramatic, something like that. So the force of language has stayed with me. Sometimes I get what I feel is power into a tanka, at other times a wabi or sabi or yugen into a tanka. Sometimes, though, I want to sound almost prose-like, but that too can take on a special feeling and power. Giving you examples might help, but I’d better stop.
PP: What type of process do you go through when you sit down to write?
SG: I believe it was Takuboku who said that the Japanese were lucky to have tanka because it is easy to write. I have never felt that getting a good tanka was easy, but it is easy to write a good many bad ones. So I don’t think I go through any process. I like to get to my hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, something I’ve done these last ten years on Saturday afternoons. The atmosphere is important. When I was at Purdue, I often wrote my tanka at a cafeteria table. In the evening when I ate out (these were the years after my wife died), I would write tanka there. In the early days, I wrote tanka on napkins, and the better ones I saved to put into a journal. I used to write tanka at the midway point of my eight-mile rapid walk. There were benches along the Sea of Japan, and with a scrap of paper and a pencil or pen, I would dash off some tanka. When my wife was operated on for brain surgery, I could dash off tanka in hospital corridors or coffee shops or places where I ate. Rarely have I written my tanka at home, but sometimes during the past ten years I have been writing “kitchen tanka.” I spill my poems at once. Lately, I’m writing 24 to 30 tanka during the two hours I’m at that coffee shop. For the last twenty-five or so years I’ve written my poems directly into my tanka diary. I’m not sure about the beginning date of these journals, for I haven’t checked recently. So getting off the poem is important. I think about what’s happened to me in the past week or past few days or even at that moment. I observe scenes in the places where I am doing my writing: a kid picking up a sandwich, two lovers arguing, old men asleep at a table, anything. Tanka is not limited to “splendor.” Sometimes I get a nature image, imagined or real, and I do something with that.
PP: Can you tell readers something about your collaborative linked tanka sequences?
SG: First of all, I never linked tanka sequences. I have sometimes participated in renku, a process I like because each of the members of a group is writing a three-line or two-line poem on the subject that is called for. We are competing with each other, so if your lines are chosen, you will feel something special. That process is what I call exciting, but I am afraid that I rarely find such linking appealing. It’s like associative streams. An image snaps one into a connection and the link is written.
PP: Almost any experience is subject matter for tanka. Do you write the tanka first and then form the verses into a sequence—or does the basic theme present itself first?
SG: Usually, for the past forty years or so, I’ve been spilling my tanka. But sometimes an idea comes to me. Recently, for example, I saw many films of the famous Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. So when I went to spill my poems on Saturday, his films came to mind, and I wrote several tanka on them. During the next week I saw more of his films and then on Saturday I wrote some tanka on them. A few times as I sat watching his films on TV, a tanka came to me at home and I wrote it down. My next contribution to the Tanka Journal was a “string” of five poems on Ozu’s movies. If I look at some of my earlier work, I found I was writing groups of tanka on, for example, the death of the poet Raymond Roseliep (November, 1985), a series on narcissism (February, 1980), a series on Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s book of poems (February, 1979), an enormous rush of poems on the holocaust (1987, in which I first used the term “string”). Once I even wrote a series of love poems to the famous tanka poet of Salad Anniversary, Machi Tawara.
PP: I share your love of Chinese poetry. Would you tell readers what brought you to Chinese poetry?
SG: Off and on over the years, I heard about Chinese poetry, but something about the emphasis on nature put me off. I don’t recall now, but at some time during the past year a book of Chinese poems came my way, translations from Du Fu (I prefer the name Tu Fu) made by a famous translator. When I mentioned my interest to others, including you Pat, other books were recommended. I tried the Internet and found other titles. All of a sudden I had six or seven books. But the book I found most appealing was a Penguin Classics book entitled Li Po and Tu Fu, the poems selected and translated by Arthur Cooper. But what was really a great help were his notes. I saw him as a person in the tradition of Professor Shinoda who offered informative notes that actually helped readers get into the poems. It was exciting to read those notes.
PP: Whom do you most admire among the classical Chinese poets?
SG: I am only a beginner in Chinese poetry, so I cannot say I have a grasp on any of the poets, though I now feel that with my greater awareness of Li Po and Tu Fu that I do admire them. They stand as contrasts, and I almost feel I can tell a Li Po poem from a Tu Fu poem but not quite. Recently I wrote a poem in imitation of Li Po and when I asked two Japanese about my poem, all they could think of was connecting it to something long in the past, whereas my poem was dealing with a modern situation. Finally, with a few clues, one of the two men recognized what I was trying to do.
PP: Why do you think these classical forms of poetry have lasted so long?
SG: Poems last as long as they can interest readers. At the same time, one needs translators to keep the works alive. With Chinese poetry, as I understand from my readings, translators cannot get the rhymes and other techniques used in Chinese poetry, so the translation is only an approximation and ends up more of a free verse translation. When I recently read a series of Chinese poems all connected to nature, I had real trouble differentiating one from the other. In this instance, I think the translator should give more comprehensive notes. I couldn’t maintain my interest as I was able to do in the Penguin book. So that remains a problem for modern readers. Sometimes, too, I think the Chinese poem may be too long for modern patience. Perhaps it’s my immersion in tanka that makes me want to have shorter Chinese poems, yet in the “Chinese” poems I am writing, I often find my poem is more than 20 lines long!
PP: You are currently writing poems based on Chinese poetry. Do you think you have more flexibility with this form than when writing tanka?
SG: Of course. In tanka, I am limited to five short lines. But what surprises me is that I am trying to move closer to nature in writing these Chinese-like poems. I have believed that tanka are moments of the human condition, but part of the human condition is nature. I do have some tanka poems on nature, though the emphasis is usually with some personal involvement. I won’t quote one of my Chinese poems here, but I have to say that I like being freed from the restrictions of tanka even as I continually tell myself that even a tanka can soar. I tried to bring into my tanka on Moby Dick some of the immense power in the novel and felt I had succeeded.
PP: Are these “Chinese” poems going to be considered for a collection?
SG: I have only a handful of poems right now―perhaps 12. I’m submitting one poem in a competition, and while I do not expect to win (I never expect to and usually don’t), I’ll see what happens. Eventually, I will see if I will continue to write these poems. In 40 years, I have published a mere five collections of tanka, so I don’t rush into publication. I’ve been lucky in terms of having many books of Japanese translation published, but I take a dim view of my own potential. Still, I want to write poems to the very end of the road.
PP: How do you feel about the way your writing career has progressed?
SG: Recently, two books of tanka collections were dedicated to me, so that was quite a jolt. I feel I did contribute to making tanka known in the West, and that has been a great satisfaction to me, though I always say that I am eternally grateful to Professor Shinoda. I feel a special quality in my own tanka that I don’t usually find in tanka, but lately I see that many people are using nature as a crutch rather than saying something about themselves in terms of tanka as diary (Takuboku’s expression). I find a greater personal element in the tanka being published nowadays, so that makes me feel I helped somewhat in that way.
PP: What do you plan to work on in the future?
SG: Actually, I want to spend a great deal of time reading more and more books, especially novels and biography. I want to study my Japanese so that one of these days I can speak with confidence or even answer simple questions without feeling I’m a foolish “gaijin” (foreigner)! Of course, my writing will go on: the tanka, the Chinese poems, the short stories, the unpublished novel. I think somewhere in me is a play that can ring somebody’s bell. I’m hoping that my eyes hold out. I may even decide to put together a tanka journal, perhaps called This Tanka World. It might be printed by computer with my artist friend doing the designs. I imagine people sending me their tanka, and I imagine myself not merely saying this one’s okay, but giving criticism, giving time to each tanka. I always admired Maxwell Perkins, and I’ve regretted for years that I never really found a person who liked my work. Once someone did, but suddenly she died. I think there’s a world of creativity out there, and I want to be part of it.
First published serially in three issues of the TSA Newsletter in 2004. See also “Sanford M. Goldstein Eulogy,” written by his son, Dave Goldstein.