Machi Tawara sings praises of the simple poetry form she helped revive

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:27pm

Machi Tawara is credited with almost single-handedly reviving the tanka form of poetry for a contemporary Japanese, and increasingly global, audience. Tanka emerged in the latter half of the eighth century as a shorter form of poetry, but eventually became the dominant style. The poems consist of five units in the pattern five-seven-five-seven-seven. The form fell out of favour for many years, but there was a revival at the turn of the 20th century. Recent times have seen a more contemporary spin on tanka .

Born in 1962 in Osaka, Tawara graduated from Waseda University with a degree in Japanese literature. It was there that she began to experiment with tanka . She continued to write after she started work at Hashimoto High School in Kanagawa Prefecture, where she stayed until 1989. Her 50-poem sequence August Morning won the 32nd Kadokawa Tanka Prize. It was later combined with other works, and published as Salad Anniversary in 1987. The book sold more than 2.6 million copies in Japan and 8 million copies worldwide; it also won the 32nd Modern Poets Association Award.

Exploring love, heartache and the end of an affair, the book has been celebrated for its combination of the ancient grace of the tanka form with modern insight and wit. Ahead of the publication of a new edition of Salad Anniversary this month, Tawara talked to Julian Ryall.

At what age did you become sure you wanted to write - both and novels? What triggered the decision?

I dreamed of being a writer from the sixth grade. I think this was because I enjoyed reading books, from a very early age. I narrowed my writing interests down to tanka poetry when I was about 20. My teacher at Waseda University was Yukitsuna Sasaki, who was a writer. I knew then that I wanted to be one too.

What was the inspiration for , which you wrote while you were still teaching?

I began writing tanka as a college student and carried on when I started work as a teacher. I submitted a poem to a tanka magazine, and I was delighted [when it] won an award. It caught the attention of a publisher, and the poem then appeared in a collection of tanka works.

What did the critical and popular success of mean to you? Did it encourage you to write more?

Before the book came out, a lot of people were under the impression that tanka was an old-fashioned form - and I was delighted to reverse that opinion. Anybody can feel the charm of a special, favourite tanka. And it gave me such joy to make people feel that way with something I had written. That encouraged me to adopt the life of a writer.

Are you concerned about young [Japanese] today failing to be creative with words? Why is this happening and how might it be reversed?

I believe that thanks to email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, young people are using words more than ever. I think that we can see it as a form of training. But I believe people can become too distracted and use words quickly, as a reflex. I want people to think carefully before they use each word.

Why do you focus your efforts on ? What is it about this form that you find so appealing?

Tanka poems are very short and they have a rhythm. This means the writer has to select words carefully and get into the habit of stripping away everything that is superfluous. That five-seven-five-seven-seven rhythm is magical to the Japanese - it feels alive. Because a tanka poem is short, it cannot convey everything the writer wants to say - but it spreads ripples out to the reader's mind and stimulates it in a powerful way. And as tanka are short, I also find it easier to remember an entire poem. Who can memorise their favourite novel?

What are the limitations of the form and how do you overcome them? How do you make them compelling to a wider audience?

The limitations are only the constraint of the five-seven-five-seven-seven form. But even beginners can create tanka, thanks to this constraint. And as soon as you get used to it, it is easy to arrange your words into this form. Everyone has a moment in their day-to-day lives when something strikes them, and putting that down in a tanka at the moment of inspiration will mean that feeling of excitement will exist forever. And it's fun.

How did change your life - both for better and for worse?

I am very happy that so many people have read the book, in part because it has enabled me to make writing my profession. I know I have been very lucky.

Do you have any new projects coming out in the near future?

Since having children, I have become interested in picture books. I want to rework traditional folk tales, and tailor them to my own interests. And now that I live on Ishigaki island, in Okinawa Prefecture, I have become more aware of the natural beauty around us, so I want to write more tanka with a natural theme.