Updated: Sep 11
KYOTO JOURNAL - INSIGHTS FROM ASIA
Kala's interview appears in issue #102 along with Pico Iyer, Nilanjan Bandyopadyay and many others. Ken Rodgers interviewed Kala last Sep 2021 after her book - the forest i know - was published. The interview was published on 7th August 2022.
KYOTO JOURNAL – INSIGHTS FROM ASIA – 102
yugen and tanka doha
INTERVIEW BY KEN RODGERS
On the website of Akita International Haiku Network, Pune-based Kala Ramesh is introduced as follows: “…‘searching’ is the one word that seems to say everything about her. She went through the path of Indian Classical Music, first instrumental then vocal, from South Indian Classical crossed over to North Indian Classical music, and performed in various cities in India. Then plunged into Yoga, Hindu Philosophy and Vipassana—and this accidentally led her to haiku in 2005, and since then it has been haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun and renku that she breathes.”
Seeking to share her enthusiasm, Kala founded ‘INhaiku’ in 2013, bringing Indian haikai poets together in a successful association that morphed in 2016 into TRIVENI (the name originally refers to the confluence of India’s three major rivers, Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati, but now represents connections between India, Japan, and the rest of the world). She has organised eight major haiku festivals since 2006, and has edited seven international collections of haiku and tanka anthologies. Beyond the Horizon Beyond, her book of haiku and haibun, was shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2019. In August 2021 the interactive TRIVENI Haikai India website [https://www.trivenihaikai.in] was launched with an online symposium. Her most recent book, the forest i know, published by HarperCollins India, is a reflective “gathering of tanka verses”—highly personal, yet evocative of universality in the way of the best of this time-honored traditional form.
Kala’s commitment to the spoken and written word is complemented by a deep respect for silence: “The Indian theory of anaahata baani (the unstruck sound) and rasa (the aesthetic essence)—still practised and kept alive in all Indian art forms—has aesthetic correlation to the interval in time and space or, in plain words, the silence used in haiku poetics.”
Tanka has a long history in Japanese literature. What is tanka, for you? And what made it your poetic form of choice for this new book?
Tanka, a 1,300-year-old five-line lyrical form of poetry from Japan, was originally called ‘waka,’ which translates as ‘short song.’ The well-known Japanese tanka poet, Machi Tawara, believes that nearly all tanka are written in the first person, and that tanka can convey only the ‘middle’ of a story. Probing still further into this ancient art form, I came to know that ‘yugen,’ an aesthetic nuance meaning elegance, beauty and mysterious grace, is used extensively in tanka. These three factors made tanka my poetic form of choice for this book, the forest i know.
Do you feel that you are writing tanka within that long tradition, or in a more contemporary style?
You touch upon a pet topic of mine—what is tradition? Is it a movement that is long dead? Or something that is? Something that should be pulsating with life? For tradition to be kept alive, it needs to be a flowing river. Techniques are her banks, that hold and keep the art alive. And the creative spirit, without being restrained, should be able to move at will, like the meandering Ganga, to change course, venture into unknown fields and discover new pastures. I would say I’m a writer viewing contemporary truth through a traditional lens to keep the creative spirit of tanka alive.
You teach tanka as well as haiku—are there any particular tanka that you like to use as teaching examples? What do they illustrate about the genre?
I’ve been teaching haikai and tanka extensively in India for the last 15 years, since January of 2006. I use several of Yosano Akiko’s tanka, translated by Sam Hamill & Keiko Matsui Gibson.
Here is one:
it was only
the thin thread of a cloud,
leading me along the way
like an ancient sacred song
Tanka are to a great extent experiential in nature. Consider this tanka by Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani:
my black hair tangled,
I long for the one
who touched it first.
Or this one, by the contemporary poet Michael McClintock:
I’ve this memory—
riding my father’s shoulders
into the ocean,
the poetry of things
before I could speak
Most good tanka, in my judgement, embody the quality of yugen. As I mentioned above, yugen means, in brief, elegance, beauty and mysterious grace. D. T. Suzuki says that “yugen (幽玄) is a mysterious concept. It is composed of two characters, the first of which indicates mist settling in a valley and the second indicating impenetrability. It is used to refer to the Tao, or The Way, ‘as something obscure, hard to grasp, eluding categorisation.’ Yugen has thus had a long association with mystical or religious concepts, in particular those of Taoism and the Zen sect of Buddhism.” There are many other aesthetic qualities such as mono no aware and wabi sabi, but I find yugen to be the strongest in tanka and I do highlight this fact in my classes.
In the case of haiku, some poets are scrupulously strict about following the 5/7/5 syllable count, even though writing in English. Others are more flexible. How about in tanka? Where do you stand on this?
I belong to that group of contemporary tanka and haiku poets (writing in English) who are flexible and don’t often (read never) follow 5/7/5/7/7 syllable count in tanka or 5/7/5 when writing haiku. Not adhering to strict syllable counts sets the mind and the pen free to explore. I’m of the firm opinion that perfect syllabic count alone will not make a good tanka. Tanka goes deeper than that.
And is the idea of a tanka sequence (or as you term it, a tanka sutra, or thread) your own development? How about your tanka doha? —For example:
the cobbler finds them
difficult to mend
and I find them hard
a palmist predicts
bad days ahead
I offer the other saying
no two hands are ever
quite the same
Like haiku sequences, tanka sequences have always been there. My doctor father always told us that ‘suture’ (to stitch a surgical incision) came from the Sanskrit word sutra, which means a thread, so I named my sequences “tanka sutra!” Kabir, a 15th-century Indian mystic-poet-saint, is famous for his Doha—couplets of 24 sound units. Ignoring the sound units, I found that I could pair tanka together to tell a story. We have tanka sequences, but there is something special about twin tanka that say so much in a short span of 10 lines. For me, the link and shift that happens in the white space between the two tanka is sheer magic. I’m happy that tanka doha is gaining wide acceptance.
fold into a bird
the wide-eyed children
in the origami class
settles in the silences
of the singer’s held breath
This interview was conducted by email in September 2021.
KYOTO JOURNAL - Pages - 36, 37 & 38.