Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Interview with Meg Eden About Her Book Drowning in the Floating World

Meg Eden

I wore driftwood / & got dressed for the ocean."
- from "All Summer I Wore" by Meg Eden

(Interview was conducted via email in October 2020 by Nancy Chen Long.)

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Meg Eden's work is published or forthcoming in magazines including Prairie Schooner, Poetry Northwest, Crab Orchard Review, RHINO, and CV2. She teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, the novel Post-High School Reality Quest (Rare Bird Books, 2017), and the poetry collection Drowning in the Floating World (Press 53, 2020). She runs the Magfest MAGES Library blog, which posts accessible academic articles about video games. Find her online at or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.

Side note: Meg Eden is poetry guest editor for Issue 197 of Press 53’s Prime Number Magazine and will be reading submissions for that issue until November 9, 2020. Writers who are interested, please see the following link:

Overview of Drowning in the Floating World
"Drowning in the Floating World by Meg Eden immerses us into the Japanese natural disaster known as 3/11: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Relentless as the disaster itself, Eden seizes control of our deepest emotional centers, and, through insightful perspective, holds us in consideration of loss, helplessness, upheaval, and, perhaps most stirring, what do make of, and do with, survival. This poetry collection is also a cultural education, sure to encourage further reading and research. Drowning in the Floating World is, itself, a tsunami stone—a warning beacon to remind us to learn from disaster and, in doing so, honor all that’s lost."

Review of Drowning in the Floating World

Response to the Brother Who Wants to Move in After the Earthquake: 
by Meg Eden
(a poem from Drowning in the Floating World)

You are not welcome here.
You are contaminated.
You have radiation in your skin.
You breathed in that nuclear air.

You are contaminated;
a power plant lives in you now.
There’s already radiation in your skin,
and I can’t risk you rubbing off on me.

You carry that power plant inside you,
but we are genki here,
and I can’t risk you rubbing off on us.
We want to live—

We are genki here, but
he who mixes with vermillion turns red.
I want to live,
I don’t want to think about Fukushima.

Mixed with red ink, anything becomes red.
It can’t be helped.
I don’t want to think about Fukushima.
There are places for that sort of thing.

Shikata ga nai.
You breathed in that nuclear air.
There are places for that sort of thing, but
you are not welcome here. 

* * *

NCL: Please tell us a little about your book Drowning in the Floating World and how it came to be. Some say that one of the primary difficulties a poet may have with a first full-length poetry manuscript is shaping it into a book, as opposed to of a collection of disparate poems. Drowning is solidly coherent with respect to theme. Did you set out to write a series of related poems, or was it something that unfolded as you went along? 

ME: Drowning in the Floating World is a collection about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and Fukushima power plant disaster. It explores the literal destruction, as well as the idea of water, and how deeply rooted water is conceptually in Japanese language and mythology, this dual function of killing and sustaining life. The first poem was probably written shortly after the event—I don’t think it made it into the collection. I was haunted by the footage of 3/11, and as I went to Fukuoka that summer, I was disturbed by how normal everything seemed in the rest of Japan—how there was this devastation in part of the country, but everything else was going on as usual. That’s life, but it’s also shocking and troubling. I couldn’t stop thinking about the disaster, and over time the poems collected. The most recent poem(s) were a couple of rewrites once the collection was acquired—I remember the pantoum and “Town Hall” were both rewritten right before printing, and became stronger as a result.

I think once I had several poems about 3/11, I realized I was going to have a collection. When I write more than one poem about a thing, and those different poems are saying different things (and not just me rewriting the same poem), I tend to have some sort of collection, whether that be a chapbook or a full-length. At first, I set out to gather and create thematically similar poems. By playing with forms, I tried to diversify my perspective on the theme and flesh out gaps in the collection. Through feedback from some amazing readers, I saw how I could open up the collection and go beyond just 3/11 to water at large, and the idea of the floating world. I submitted it over and over, got rejections, and kept tinkering. It was a conscious process of making a full-length manuscript, but at the same time, it felt organic. I’ve tried to make collections happen before and they just didn’t. You can’t brute force it. So I think that combination of intent with natural rhythm was important for the collection to actually become a collection.

NCL: I’m intrigued regarding your use of Japanese language in these poems. For example, some of the poem titles contain Japanese words, cities, or characters in them. There are also Japanese words and phrases peppered throughout the collection. I couldn’t help but think of my Taiwanese mother and how she interjects Taiwanese or Mandarin in her sentences, a type of code-switching so to speak. Please share with us a bit about your use of Japanese in the collection and the impact of the Japanese language and culture on your writing. For example, how long did you live in Japan? Are any of your ancestors Japanese? Have any of your poems been published in Japanese journals or have you written any poems entirely in Japanese?

ME: I love this question! Code-switching is a natural part of speech, so it only makes sense to me for it to happen on the page. Some things just can’t be translated—and they shouldn’t have to be. Something is always lost in translation. As I wrote, I used the words that came to me, the ones that made the most sense. For example in “Town Hall” I wanted to recreate the visceral experience of the do not enter signs by using their exact language. In “Response to a Brother,” I use both shikata ga nai and its “translation,” “it can’t be helped.” Really, shikata ga nai means shikata ga nai. It’s such a common Japanese phrase, such a big part of the way of thinking in the culture, that using that exact language was critical to me. Interacting with Japanese kanji is such a visual and animated experience that sometimes I wanted to capture a taste of that richness on the page. Translating it into roman letters felt like it would cheapen it. Sometimes that was necessary, but especially with some of the titles, I wanted that visual element.

While I have not formally lived in Japan, Japan has always been a significant part of my life. My father has been working in Okinawa since I was in grade school. We would visit as a family, and I spent a summer there when I was in college. When I was in high school, my father was there every other month. I ate up everything I could get my hands on, growing up: Japanese mythology texts, J-pop CDs, language courses, manga. It’s hard to explain—I guess I haven’t written enough poems about it yet—but Japanese language and culture just make sense to me. There is a system, a kata, a way of doing things. You know what to expect from others, and what’s expected of you. I love the feeling of the language in my mouth—it’s like rich chocolate. In America, I’m always anxious, never knowing what to expect from others. Americans are so unpredictable sometimes. But in Japan, even though they certainly have their own problems as a country, I have a sense of relief at the expectations—for example, I know the man at the kombini will wrap my croquette the same way every morning! My husband spent several years as a teenager growing up in Japan, so it’s a common closeness for us. I think of it as our heart-home. I do not have Japanese ancestry that I know of. It’s interesting though—my grandfather was based in Hokkaido during the Korean war. Before he passed, he expressed how much he loved it there, how much the culture made sense to him, and how he almost stayed. We both carried that love in our blood.

Japanese language and culture have had a huge impact on my writing—not to mention how I think and see the world. I have not yet written poems entirely in Japanese, though in my MFA program, I took an amazing translation course with Michael Collier, and spent the semester focused on translating poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa. That was an incredible experience. Studying his work really exploded all these possibilities on the page for me. His language is so accessible yet clever, and his images so shocking. He also translates the Peanuts comics into Japanese! There’s this magical realism to his work, which I suppose is very Japanese, very Shinto—the lack of boundaries between the mythological and the everyday. This has hugely shaped and influenced my perspective for Drowning. As a Christian, I really resonate with this, as I also believe that the spiritual and the everyday have no boundary; they are interconnected and impact each other. For my writing, this magical realism aesthetic gave me an entrance into disaster, being able to imagine and create and open a little window of light into a situation that can seem so relentlessly heartbreaking.

NCL: I read most of the poems as persona poems—i.e., as a distinct person who is not the poet—as poems in the voices of those who have suffered in the catastrophes, for example “Radium Girls”, “I Ask My Mother What It’s Like, Living at the Bottom of the Ocean,” and Response to the Brother Who Wants to Move in After the Earthquake:,” which is printed at the beginning of this interview. How did you approach writing the persona poems? For example, did you conduct any interviews of survivors? or perhaps had a particular person in mind? On the other hand, some of the poems, such as “Corpse Washing,” come across as possibly something experienced by the poet-speaker. I’m curious, were you in Japan for the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster? Tell us a bit about your research process for this book.

ME: Many of the persona poems were rooted in interviews I read online, or videos of footage I saw. Others were inspired by that Shuntaro Tanikawa brand of magical realism, as well as Patricia Smith’s collection Blood Dazzler. When I first read that book in school, it blew me away. I was so inspired by all the creative perspectives she brought in, and the voice she gave Hurricane Katrina. As I fleshed out the collection, I wanted to explore the fantastical angles—like the idea of living in the bottom of the ocean, or the voice of a town hall or a doll that was lost in the ruins and unable to get a proper burial.

I was not in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami, but I was in the country that summer. Some poems were from personal experience; for example “原爆 – Atom” was a sort of response to my visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. “In Tokyo, three months after the earthquake” was in response to my time in Tokyo during 2011. “Corpse Washing” was a response to the incredible 2008 film Departures (おくりびと).

I think my research process was basically absorbing everything I possibly could about the disaster. Surrounding myself with it. At some point, reading and writing and researching, it becomes more than just distant facts, but a visceral feeling. I remember being in a theater with a preview for the movie San Andreas Fault in the middle of the research process, and there was a scene of water flooding into a room. I almost started screaming and sobbing in the middle of the theater. All I could think of was Rikuzentakata. That it wasn’t just a movie; this was something that people lived through, that really happened in Japan. How can we let ourselves forget?

NCL: What is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you?

ME: It’s so funny, because I think this has changed over time, as the collection has been out in the world and I’ve done readings. I seem to always want to read “Town Hall.” This was one of the last poems to come together for the collection. I completely rewrote it when the collection was acquired. Something about the voice of the town hall, its anger, its insistence on not being forgotten—I’m haunted by it. As we are increasingly talking about the injustices in our country, I keep thinking about the Town Hall’s anger, it’s refusal to fall or be forgotten. There is so much suffering, so many people suffering that we completely forget. The town hall reminds me to never forget, and to speak out.

This poem is inspired by the town hall in Rikuzentakata, which I believe was the only building left standing after the tsunami. In my research, I was reading about tsunami stones, stones marking where previous tsunamis hit—physical warnings to future generations of where to not build your homes. Unfortunately, just enough time passes between disaster for us to forget. If we listened to the tsunami stones, if we did not build below them, so many lives would have been saved in 3/11. The town hall is a kind of tsunami stone, standing to remind us of what has happened, what can come again, how we should not become complacent and forget.

Town Hall

Watching the town resurrect,
I remain unfixed,
mouth filled with birds.

My eyes are dusty & split
down the middle; my bowels
washed in mud. A car

rests in my intestines.
The dog in my chest
just delivered puppies.

I’ve been given many names:
Do not enter,

Tsunami, you may have
erased my neighbors,
but still I remain!

I defy you, Tsunami.
I defy you, Town.
I will always remember

should you mistakenly
forget. Here I stand,
a new tsunami stone.

NCL: When do you remember first being interested in poetry? Was there a mentor who encouraged you?

ME: Poetry was what my friends were doing in middle school, so of course I conformed! But I got hooked. Up to that point, my interest was in the visual arts. I wanted to be a cartoonist, or a manga-ka. But I found that poems gave me another way to express my thoughts and process the world around me—one that I could do with or without a whole set of artist’s tools. I have had the privilege of having so many amazing mentors to encourage me. The first was my mother. A history teacher in middle school told me I was a good writer. In community college, I was so blessed to have an instructor work closely with me and believe in my poems. I think that was the spark that made me become serious about this whole poetry thing. 

NCL: You also have a fiction book out. A number of years back, at an AWP panel on the poetry-prose dynamic, some of the panelists said they found it difficult to smoothly switch between poetry and prose. One panelist said it was, in part, because she wanted to break or control the line. Another said it was because of the compression of language that his poetry seeks. Of course, some of the panelists said they had no difficulty going from one to the other. What is your experience with switching between genres? Do you prefer one over the other?

ME: I used to THINK I was good at switching between the genres, but many of my poems should’ve been novels, and my novels poems! So I think for me the difficulty has been based on content—what container does this content need? Is it a whole story? Or is it a brief moment? I think recently, I’ve been drawn more toward prose, and haven’t written as many poems. But there are seasons. For a while, all I wanted to do was write poems. Now, all I want to do is write stories. This summer, I wrote a novel in verse, which merged the two sensibilities—and that was so much fun. I definitely want to do more of that. 

NCL: I see you teach creative writing. What is one thing that you impress upon your students with respect to poetry?

ME: That it’s for them—that it can be for them if they want it. For so many students, poetry equals Shakespeare, or poetry equals “only for smart people” (whatever that means). I want every student to be able to see poetry as an outlet for their own voice. That there’s a place at the table for everyone. And for my intro students, I want them to see that poetry can be fun—when I learned poetry could be fun, that was everything 

NCL: What are you working on now?

ME: I just finished a middle grade novel in verse, which was so fun. I’m also working on a contemporary young adult novel. I’ve not been focusing much on poetry, but every now and then a poem will pop out.

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Purchase Drowning in the Floating World

Find Meg Eden online:

- Website:

- Twitter: @ConfusedNarwhal.

All poems printed or quoted in this post © Meg Eden Drowning in the Floating World (Press 53, 2020)

Nancy Chen Long is the author of two books of poetry: Wider than the Sky (Diode Editions, 2020), selected for the Diode Editions Book Award,  and Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), which won the Tampa Review Poetry Prize. Her work has been supported by a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing fellowship and the Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award. You’ll find her recent work in The Southern Review, Copper Nickel, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She  works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020


By Linda Parsons
Iris Press, 2019
ISBN 9781604542578
91 pages

Review of Candescent
by Rosemary Royston

Candescent by Linda Parsons is a collection of poems that succeeds in what its title denotes: to glow from within. Is it not a great achievement in this life to shine from our core, amidst the travails and tragedies that life brings? In these poems, the speaker documents her wrestling matches with grief, from watching her father fade away, the pain of  broken marriages, to the tedious yet natural act of aging. Within her collection, where there exists a healthy mix of Judeo, Islamic, and Christian imagery and practices, Parsons poems show both the sweat and the gain that discipline offers, allowing the speaker to be present in life through all its moments. Furthermore, Parsons masters sound, diction, and imagery throughout these poems; it is evident that she has practiced and honed her own craft.

The first section opens with “Smudge” where the speaker lights “…sage bound with thread from my grandmother’s / sewing box. Smoke rise, melt of burden, bellows nearest my heart, my length, woodsy / sweet.” The speaker walks through her home cleansing the “odd things he left behind…” The “he” being her partner of over twenty years, with the final image capturing the solitude and sudden singleness of the speaker,


As for me, I’ll root in my little Eden,

                        a bowl of ashes to catch the new moon,

                        crow feather on the sill, the remains

                        flapping off, mateless.

 Yet our speaker is not totally alone. She has a good shepherd in the poem of the same name. In “The Good Shepherd”(and several other poems) Parsons captures the grace of having a loving canine in one’s life. Her “good shepherd” shadows her from “counter to couch, / Naomi to my Ruth, wither going or staying / in the barley fields, finally the shelter of Boaz.” It is in the fur of this “last man of the house” where the speaker buries her face in grief, and it is with this loving animal that she finds comfort, “Eyes ghosted, nose works the air // of what dims but blooms still, keeper / from whence cometh my help.” The comparison of “Naomi to my Ruth” will be familiar to any reader that has been raised in the Christian tradition, and the solace this animal provides is revered through the diction in this poem; this good shepherd is a faithful servant, a gift from the Divine.

Family, whether it is a father, granddaughters, or former husband, all make appearances in the collection. The speaker has reached that point in life where enough time has passed to welcome back a first husband as in “Confluence. ” The poem opens with the metaphor of two rivers joining -- the Clinch and the tributary Powell, just as this once estranged couple now shares a meal, “the rope less taut between us -- / knot by knot, he mends memory’s seine” with the layered meaning of seine performing much work in such a small space, as Parsons does throughout the collection.

As opposed to dodging grief (which is often our first reflex), the speaker in Candescent turns towards her grief, absorbs it, and reckons with it. In “The Only Way,” with an epigraph from Rumi, “There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” the speaker “[Honors her] grief with ragged breath and privation / in the body’s dark cell despite how the blithe / word cries enough.” The assonance of “despite” and “blithe” force the reader to semi-howl, slowing the line and making us pay attention. And the redemption is that the speaker’s practice pays off, both literally and metaphorically. In the final poem of the opening section, “The First Night Pain Doesn’t Wake Me” the speaker notes the ongoing “ache in [her] hip” is suddenly gone not due to only the “ice, yoga’s cat and child, / tai chi’s white stork…” but because


…I scraped my bowl

empty of longing, until I sat in the dust

busking my tarnished tune and bowed

in gratitude for ache, for moan, for loss

at the hot marrow…”

 “The First Night Pain Doesn’t Wake Me” is a prayer with its musical sounds and deep gratitude for staying with the pain, “until I invited the hours to the side porch / for oranges and ginger tea, no longer / friendless and warring.”

In section two of the collection we find the speaker on her own “Damascus Road” where she is lost in thought “thinking of / Judy Blue Eyes,” and jolted back to the moment after reading her neighbor’s written complaint about the speaker’s “burning bushes” that block her view to the road. After all, it is a life and death issue, as her neighbor has almost been “T-boned three times.” The speaker, “swaddled in grief and remorse” has neglected the burning bushes, allowing them to grow too big and block the road. It is in this poem where she compares herself to Saul turned Paul, “…who am I but my own weary / traveler transformed, blasted new into traffic // without looking both ways?”

Just because the speaker finds her way through the pain does not mean that life is free of suffering. In “Enough” we watch as the good shepherd, “the dying dog” brings the estranged couple back together for the beloved dog’s final breath,

                         …our redemption impossible


                        on the flowered rug, his bag of bones

                        flown or sunken wherever the spirit lights –


                        even that of a dog is holy, my crook

                        and shepherd unto the psalmed hills.

Again, Parsons’ use of diction conjures the holy, regardless of religious tradition, forcing the reader to see the Divine in all aspects of life.

 In section three, the practice of meditation is artfully joined with place in “The Art of Meditation in Tennessee,” where we learn that “Ah invites the Divine, om gives thanks / to the Divine.” Whether these terms are familiar to the reader or not, any reader from the South will recognize these sounds and images, “Heat bugs deafen the understory, blacksnake / twines in honeysuckle, crawdad pinches / till it thunders / leeches suckle shin, river / mourns and bleeds…” The practice of breathing in and out, of the “om and ah,” leads the speaker to the knowledge, “..In the end, all is left, all Divine. / Breathe in peace, breathe out joy” – which is impossible not to do with the music and images that Parsons provides us in her poems.

The ability to breathe, to be present, also allows for joy to flow, and the love the speaker has for her granddaughters spills forth in the playful diction and rhyme within “I Love You Like a Dragon,” I love you:


…In mountain’s toes


that scoop earth’s foes, scales raging blustery

skies slice down to burning questions---chocolate


or apple pie? In hot breath, crafty yellow eye,

I set the meatiest afire. I love you bold and bolder…

The passion of “I Love you Like a Dragon” leads into one of my favorite poems in this collection, which is more or less a manifesto, “Stand Up.” It is here where the speaker reckons with her former, docile self who was a “walker on eggshells, the biter of lips, the please pleaser,” who turns into a woman who is neither silent nor meek, who

                         …sings without

                        pause, the unturned cheek, the unshut eye,

                        who digs her heels in this wide-awake

                        moment and lets the mother tongue fly.

 “Stand Up” is a poem that every woman should read aloud and often, with gusto. For it is in this poem when the speaker fully comes alive into her Self – the Self that is referenced in “Oracle,” where the enjambed line joins the first and second stanza of the poem, “Though nothing is fair in the dream of life, // our waking akin to a dream, said the Buddha, acceptance of what is, our only magick wand.”

The closing poem in the final section, “With Me” encapsulates the collection. While we opened to the speaker cleansing her house with sage, this final poem has the speaker carefully building “the home of myself,” acknowledging “bones of contention,” and the “entre chien et loup,” or time of the day “between dog and wolf, world and otherworld, my dusk,” – the time of life which the speaker now inhabits. She has witnessed and felt the loss of relationships, the loss of her father, of her good shepherd of a dog, but simultaneously knows the gift of discipline, the joy of granddaughters and the sounds and beauty of the South, and her upcoming “last ecstasy” will pass “into blessing, into hard surrender.”

These poems invite the reader to return to them, just as one turns to her most comforting scripture or to the daily practice of meditation or yoga. Layered with imagery and allusions, deft diction, and a love of sound, this is a collection I will keep close to my bed; a bedrock for when things do not go my way, but instead a reminder to embrace “acceptance of what is, our only magick wand.”

Rosemary Royston, author of Splitting the Soil (Finishing Line Press, 2014), resides in northeast Georgia with her family. Her poetry has been published in journals such as Split Rock Review, Southern Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, Poetry South, KUDZU, NANO Fiction, and *82 Review. She’s an Assistant Professor of English at Young Harris College.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Interview with Rika Inami, Tanka Poet

Interview with Rika Inami, Tanka Poet

                                                      by Barry George



Tanka, originally waka, is a traditional Japanese poetry form that is increasingly being translated and written in the English language. One of the Japanese tanka poets who best exemplifies this meeting of cultures is Rika Inami, who composes her tanka in classical Japanese before carefully translating them into English. She believes this process "keeps her work true to her native language and tanka style." I first encountered Rika Inami's photographs and tanka about five years ago, and have been captivated ever since by the evocative and delicate lyricism of her poetry.

Rika Inami lives in Akita, Japan. A graduate of Waseda University, she is a member of Tanka Association Mirai, Muro Saisei Learned Society, and Akita International Haiku Network. Her books of tanka include Tanka Harako I, II, and III, and Tanka Harako Collection I. She has been interested since her university days in both Eastern and Western philosophy, as well as aesthetics. Writing predominantly about nature, she believes that "poetry is the spirit of language."

The following are her answers, in edited form, to questions I posed to her. Note: Traditionally composed as a five-part poem of 31 Japanese sound-syllables, tanka is typically written and translated in English in five lines, with a more flexible syllable count.

All photographs and poems in both Japanese and English (C) Rika Inami 稲美 里佳.

All photographs with embedded haiku published in Akita International Haiku homepage, Tanka by Rika Inami, No. 32, 33, and 34.


When did you start writing tanka?  Did you learn from a teacher or teachers, or are you self-taught?

I started composing tanka seventeen years ago as a member of the Muro Saisei Learned Society for Literature, whose president was my late mentor, Shuhei Hayama. Before writing tanka, I used to write novels. I think the story is like an orchestra as the method of self-expression. Beginning with the plot constructed by the author, the storyline is developed by the characters and events, and the author completes this by following the carefully planned plot. 

But I found out I was not good at creating a plot. In those days when I was still immature, I wandered and was tossed around like a person who couldn't express something in her own heart. Then I moved back to my hometown from the Tokyo area, going through various transitions in life. Finally, I came to know the self-expression method of tanka.



        painful memory 

        healed enough to write 

        to mentor…

        adding a phrase to a letter

         I start tanka

To write tanka is to put oneself in the moment. The flying objects, movements, and emotions of the poet's soul are expressed in a single musical instrument rather than an entire orchestra. For me, this encounter with tanka was the equivalent of becoming a solo violinist.

I learned the basic way to write tanka from friends; I have not had a tanka teacher or mentor so far. I have mainly composed tanka based on tanka books and aesthetics that I empathized with.



What poets, past or present, have inspired you?

My tanka has been inspired by the classical tanka, or waka, poets, and the Meiji Era (1868-1912) to Showa Era (1926-1989) poets. These include the poets of the classical collections Manyoshu, Kokinwakashu and New Kokinwakashu, especially Abe-no-Nakamaro, Saigyo, Yoshida Kenko, and Ono-no-Komachi. According to one influential theory, Ono-no-Komachi was born in Ono, Yuzawa, Akita, in the prefecture where I live. I love her.

Among my favorites from the modern poets, in the Meiji Period to Showa Period, are Masaoka Shiki, Ito Sachio, Warabi Shinichiro, Nagatsuka Takashi, Wakayama Bokusui, Saito Mokichi, Kubota Utsubo, and Maeda Yugure.

I see that you refer to yourself as "The Poet of the Fifth Dimension." What does this mean?

I think that this world consists of what is visible to the naked eye and what is invisible. About the fifth dimension, I think that it is the world beyond the normal time of the fourth dimension. It may be said that it is the world of the invisible soul in which we can freely move back and forth between time and space. The world of the soul, the fifth dimension, is currently being explored in microscopic studies of quantum physics, neutrinos, and photons. In this regard, I believe that literature and science will reach one truth in the future because the truth is One.

Now, as for me calling myself such a mysterious name as Poet of the Fifth Dimension, this means that I write tanka flexibly and disclose myself to this world without being trapped in anything other than the basic set form of tanka.

Many of your published tanka are accompanied by photographs that you have taken. Which usually comes first―the tanka or the photograph?

In tanka, I draw nature while expressing myself at the same time. Thus, I take photographs of nature from which to write the tanka. For these tanka, first of all, I come across the subject. Then, I take a photograph to capture the impression of the subject as it appeared in my mind. This also takes in the weather—is it sunny, cloudy, rainy, snowy?—and the light and angle of perception. I want to preserve the moment of passion before it comes out of my mind. That moment may disappear in the next moment. So, I start by taking pictures.

I use the smartphone and write the tanka in the writing app. When the words for the tanka come to me, I cannot help writing them: the urge to keep the words coming out of my heart makes me stop walking and write them quickly. Later, it may be possible to find better words that are more suited to the scene and subject than the words that first came to mind. So I take pictures not only for my instinct but also for later revision.



Do you always write the Japanese version of your tanka first?

The first thing I do is compose my original Japanese tanka. I use the old Japanese words as much as possible. Even if I take new words, I follow the archaic Japanese grammar. This is an essential point for me. Carefully selecting the words deepens the work. I see tanka as a linguistic art in which the difference in the choice of one word could change the meaning and sound of the tanka itself.

What challenges are there in translating your tanka from Japanese into English?

"Tanka" in English literally means "short song." Songs not only have words but also rhythms. When being read aloud, the Japanese tanka has its own unique rhythm. With tanka in English, "song" can mean rhythm, too.

I am usually careful not to be verbose because as a rule, we have to write Japanese tanka with only 31 mora (similar to syllables in English). When a Japanese sentence would make a long English translation, I use the participle construction, along with the conjunctions "because," "as," "although," and so on. Like Japanese tanka, an English translation has implications beyond words. It leads to what I call spacetime.



Some of your recent tanka are about the Coronavirus.  How has the virus affected life in Japan?

For the Japanese people, new Coronavirus infections are mainly concentrated in urban areas. However, we have continued self-restraint all over Japan in order to avoid a recurrence. We are always alert to the possibility.

To prevent a new Coronavirus infection in Japan, people have avoided the Three C's: "closed spaces," "crowded places," and "close-contact settings." In daily life, we need to be careful about washing our hands frequently, putting on a mask, and keeping social distance. I think it has been easy for us Japanese people to practice precautions because, for example, we are accustomed to washing our hands after coming home from outside. This is one of the disciplines of parenting. Also, masks have been worn to avoid hay fever by many people. As for social distancing, to some extent, we have always kept a certain distance when interacting with others.      

In my personal life, as I live in the countryside of Akita Prefecture, I hardly have had to change my life. As of July 21, 2020, only sixteen people have been infected here, and the number of infected people has not increased since April 16. The infected people were those who returned from the metropolitan area or outside the prefecture and brought the virus with them. Therefore, we have to keep practicing self-restraint and refrain from going out of the prefecture, especially not to the Tokyo metropolitan area. 

From now on, the Japanese government will emphasize decentralization in local areas instead of focusing everything on one big city. I think this phenomenon will also affect literature. For example, in recent years Japanese tanka has tended to focus on urban subjects. A return to the local, I think, will also mean a return to nature, and poets will tend to compose more poetry on nature.   

It is interesting in this regard that the Japanese Emperor Tenno was replaced last year, and the era changed from Heisei to Reiwa. "Reiwa" is a word taken from Manyoshu, the oldest tanka anthology (published around 783 A.D.).  In the Manyo era, people were creative and dynamic in nature. I think the new era was named with such a wish. Reiwa tanka might be more creative and dynamic than Heisei tanka.


       in the graveyard

       the cherry tree

       may be

       a guardian spirit of the village

       against Coronavirus

In one of your tanka you write that "the cherry tree/ may be/ a guardian spirit of the village" to protect against the Coronavirus. And in another tanka you refer to "Dragon Gods." Are spiritual and religious ideas important in your writing?

Yes, spiritual ideas are important to me. It's not religion so much as beauty, the spirit that exists in nature, which I think everyone feels whether they are the conscious of it or not.

The original religion of Japan is Shinto, in which "God" is not the only one god, but there are also the gods that exist in nature. In time, Shinto was united with Buddhism, and monotheistic Christianity also came to Japan, although the number of its believers are still few. I think the reason Shinto and Buddhism based on nature have taken root in Japan is that the Japanese people, living on this small island, have felt the spiritual existence in nature itself—the awe, blessing, and fear.

As for the spirits of the dead, I feel them when I visit my family grave and temples, and sit at the Buddhist altar in my home. My sect is Zen, Soto-Shu.


        is the world living

        with the dead endless?

        I meditate—

        while serving spirits

        in the morning


What writing projects are you working on now?

I would like to complete the "Poet of the Fifth Dimension" tanka that are serialized on my blog at present.

You can learn more about Rika Inami and see her work on her blog, Poet of the Fifth Dimension,, and Akita International Haiku Network,

Barry George's haiku and tanka have been published in more than 60 journals and twelve languages. His poems appear in such anthologies as A New Resonance 2: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku; The New Haiku; Haiku 21; Streetlights: Poetry of Urban Life in Modern English Tanka; Bigger Than They Appear; Anthology of Very Short Poems; and most recently, Tanka 2020: Tanka from Today's World. He has won numerous international Japanese short-form competitions, including First Prize in the Haiku Society of America's Gerald R. Brady Contest. He is the author of Wrecking Ball and Other Urban Haiku, The One That Flies Back (tanka), and the forthcoming Sirens and Rain (haiku). His main interest is poetry that explores human nature, and our relationship with "nature" and Earth. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

With Luck, We All Become Persons of a Certain Age: an interview with Leatha Kendrick

Leatha Kendrick lives and works in Kentucky. She is the author of five volumes of poetry, the most recent one, And Luckier (Accents Publishing, 2020). She co-edited Crossing Troublesome, Twenty-Five Years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop and wrote the script for A Lasting Thing for the World—The Photography of Doris Ulmann, a documentary film. Her poems, essays and fiction appear widely in journals and anthologies including What Comes Down to Us – Twenty-Five Contemporary Kentucky Poets; The Kentucky Anthology—Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass State; Listen Here: Women Writing in AppalachiaI to I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists, and others.

She leads workshops in poetry, life writing, and writing to heal at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, KY, as well as at workshops and conferences in Kentucky and elsewhere. She is at work on a novel that centers on sisters, small town life, relinquishment and adoption.

Review and Interview by Melva Sue Priddy

Leatha Kendrick guest taught in a few of my creative writing and English class rooms some 15 years or more ago. Engaging and organized, my students and I learned from having her in my high school classes. I also rubbed elbows with Leatha at The Hindman Appalachian Writers Workshop, KY, and The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Lexington, KY. We have a mutual friend, Ann Olson (, who sent me a copy of Leatha’s new book upon its release during these months of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been an uplifting, inspiring and engaging read for this isolating time. I was reading Elizabeth Berg’s novel The Pull of the Moon as I read Leatha’s And Luckier. Somehow they worked with and informed each other—but that could just be me and my luck.

Leatha’s readers, mature and young, will enjoy reading these 45 poems, divided evenly between “I. Home Fires,” “II. Broken, Various, Inscrutable,” and “III. Unasked-for Singing.” Her writing has honed deeper into the human condition with each new book, and, ever personal and real, she holds your hand as a friend who walks with you as you read. You might think I am exaggerating; well, not by much. Leatha caught my hand with her second poem, “Next World” and we walked from there.

            Tell an unborn child
            there is dancing here,
            a blaze of scarlet leaves
            at autumn, seas that whisper
            to the sand, vermillion rose-
            gold skies at evening,
            I dance, he’ll say. His legs,
            flexed, test a wall.
            I hear the ocean pulse,
            drift in warm waters,
            gaze on ruby skies
            bright and filtered.
            Sleep, dream. I know
            that other world—
            how it must be.

            Tell him galaxies, wind,
            houses, lightning,
            lover’s fingers, dinner’s
            warm steams rising,
            a flower. Yes, yes,
            he’ll say. I know.

Reading on, Leatha doesn’t gloss over the difficulties in life. In another poem, “How to Go On,” one line reads: “So much suffering. We cannot uncause it.” In her briefest poem, “Eviction,” she writes: “Most of what / I lost I took / from myself.” If that isn’t everyone’s truth! Her range of themes move through birth and death, order and chaos, finding and making home, joy and difficulties, and aging. General and very specific. And she conveys so much wisdom. Her skill with words is modest and fluent. And her poems are informed by what is going on in this world and what she has experienced in her lifetime. “Out the Door,” a sonnet, “stands / between us and the world”:

            It’s getting out the door that stands
            between us and the world. I know. Open
            the damn thing and step through. Broken
            promises are all that hold us. Plans
            we made and then ignored. The mess in the house
            we’re afraid will survive us. The quiet hours
            we thought to have. Access to the powers
            we felt as children, near in us, now lost
            to lack of faith. The only thing that changes
            is the heart. There’s the door. The dream
            kept the faith you dropped. Time arranges
            more second chances than they tell us. Clean
            breaks, old reservations waiting to be
            taken up.

The following interview was conducted via email.

MSP – The first poem in your collection that I fell in love with is your second poem, “Next World”. Tell me about that poem.

LK – The poem began with my trying to imagine the world from an embryo’s point of view. Imagining the sky, the “weather,” the sounds, the day/night cycles of it. An embryo late in its gestation might feel pretty certain about what life and the cosmos were all about. And then comes birth! So the poem is a playful, speculative look at the limits of knowledge. The poem is one of the oldest ones in the book, drafted in 2013 and published in 2014. And Luckier came together as a collection over the past decade, and “Next World” survived multiple drafts as the poems began to teach me what this book was going to be about. One of its biggest themes is limits: physical limitations, the limits of what we know and can know, and the limits of our courage and compassion. This poem could have been a first inkling of the book’s themes, if I had known enough to realize it!

MSP – “Reinvention” reads like a very coronavirus poem. When did you write this? Do you agree? What is it about?

LK – I first drafted “Reinvention” in July, 2013. For years I had juggled teaching and writing while commuting between Lexington and eastern Kentucky. As I worked on this poem I was clearing out the house we’d lived in for thirty years and our small place in Lexington as we downsized to the townhouse where we live now. It was another one of those times when I felt that I was never doing enough or being enough, and I wondered what it might feel like to simply stop. The poem is a playful response to my weariness with multitasking and trying to be all things to everyone.

I suppose that in the back of my mind were visions of a post-apocalyptic world in which we’d be forced to start over, though I certainly did not anticipate that we’d be living through a pandemic that would bring so much of daily life to a halt. I remember wondering what it might look like if we chose stillness. Many of us discovered in the silence of the lock-down a chance to reflect on what matters.

As in all utopias, however, human nature itself is the ultimate shaper of outcomes. To the extent that they can, old patterns of thought and being will reassert themselves, and the poem imagines some aspects of this as well.

If many poems in this collection seem fitted to our moment in history, maybe that is because the pandemic forced a recognition of pressures that have been building in our culture. For example, the opening poem of the collection, “Your Fear,” was written in December of 2018—not in response to pandemic fears, but out of my realization that our personal and societal fears are partly created and certainly manipulated by the headlines someone in some media outlet has chosen to present to us on a given day. I am conscious of writing to engage with moments of time in a broader context (on the planet, in our global society) as I age. I have my small sliver of vision about how things are – what do I have to say? what do I have to say?

MSP – Your poems include many questions, more than I’ve ever seen in any one collection. Can you tell me about that?

LK – I had not considered that the book is filled with questions until you pointed it out. Maybe part of that is a function, again, of age! I am acutely aware of all that I do not know and will never know.

Here are some questions from the poems: “What is the new?” “What did I want?” “What do I have to say today?” “What do I know?”

A question opens a door – it makes space for what I might not have considered before. Questions are about wonder – about taking a fresh look, taking a step back and saying, “Hmmm.”

At this point in my life I feel an urgency to look at everything differently, to consider possibilities. And part of recognizing what might be possible is learning to ask the right question—the best question to enlarge understanding. Ultimately, the poems are concerned with discovering what questions are important to ask and accepting never having a single right answer for any of them. And it is about having faith in the midst of the unknowable. As a writer, I want to come at the world with what Keats called “negative capability,” which he characterized as “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

The questions in my poems point to moments of understanding, but they also admit the limits of what we can know. It’s about trusting not knowing. Facts and reason have a important place in discursive writing, but art helps us inhabit other points of view. I want my poems to be about learning empathy, honoring the mysteries of other ways of being.

MSP – “Poem for a Daughter” appears, scattered in the collection, in three versions, I, II, and III. You chose different forms for each. Tell me about these poems.

LK – The three “Poem(s) for a Daughter” were written separately and over a long period of time. Each had its own title, and I did not think of grouping them until I was well into making this book. As I chose which poems to include I knew that this collection circled issues of identity: who am I? how do I know who I am?

For many years, mothering was central to who I was. I wrote my first poems and essays about mothering. “Mother,” of course, is not a static identity. Each of these poems was born of a moment of transition as I moved from parenting children at home to becoming the mother of young adult and adult daughters.

The poems appear in the order in which they were written – the first one dating from when our daughters were coming home from college, suddenly independent and distanced from me. I had wanted that poem to be a sonnet, but could not get it into fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. I settled for sixteen lines which range from ten to seventeen syllables each. The uneven rhythm mimics my struggle to reach through the changing roles that separated us, though the poem settles toward iambic pentameter in the last five lines.

“Poem for a Daughter, II” is a villanelle occasioned by our oldest daughter’s pregnancy with her first child. The poem began as a villanelle, though it went through ten years of revisions (our oldest grandson turned 11 in June) to find the truest and most accurate words to express the layers of feeling I was trying to convey. The repetition and variation of the form – and the liberties I took with the refrain – reflect the fact that every pregnancy is both common and one of a kind, endlessly repeated and unique. From the very first draft, the villanelle had be the form for this poem.

“Poem for a Daughter, III” is a fairly new poem, drafted late last summer on a day that brought back the intensity of mothering our first child in a little house on a hillside in eastern Kentucky above the Big Sandy River during the worst winter in decades (1976-77). Again, the poem leans toward a sonnet’s shape and musicality, though it is not quite a double sonnet. Written on an August day that recalled the heat of our first August in that little house next to the church on Cow Creek, the poem speaks to an “all-at-onceness” contained in some moments when time feels as if it’s collapsed. My daughter and her daughter on the phone talking about a smelly mess made by a broken washer brought back those diaper pails of forty years ago, as if they were not gone at all. Were they truly gone? How can everything be both here and not here at the same time?

MSP – You include about ten sonnets in the book, five of what I call “”very free verse poems” (pages 7, 27, 35,39, & 50—you may have a different name?), and two prose poems, and at least one villanelle, one ode and one triolet. Can you say something about how you know when a poem should be a particular form.

LK – As I was saying about the “Poem for a Daughter” villanelle earlier, sometimes a form suggests itself and sustains layers of meaning in a poem. Form, allows me to play with words and step outside my normal phrasing and thought patterns. Far from constricting expression, form is a vehicle for discoveries as I write a poem.

Fixed forms – like the villanelle or triolet, for example – offer a doorway into difficult material sometimes and other times allow a playful stance. “Dream Shop,” the triolet in AL, gave me a way to render a vividly recalled dream – the form’s repeating lines mimicked the stuckness of the dreamer, her self-questioning: How did I end up here?

Content pushing against form creates a fruitful tension that makes a poem more interesting – both to write and to read. Meeting the demands of form forces me to consider more deeply exactly what I mean to say. As Richard Wilbur put it, “The strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.” Pursuing a form as I write makes each decision conscious: every word and line break, the sound and rhythm of each line, the visual impact of the poem.

The sonnet is my favorite fixed form, a challenging and useful container. Though it seems counterintuitive, the sonnet’s rigid structure has been part of why it has endured: poets through the centuries have wrestled with, adapted, rebelled against, and ultimately made use of the form. It’s just the right length to contain a small argument with the self. Its fourteen iambic lines put a limit on how far you can go. Rhyme complicates and diversifies the conversation with the self, forcing me to find language I would not have used otherwise.

Most of the sonnets I write begin as sonnets, with me letting the form itself guide me into the content of the poem. Reaching for a line-ending takes the poem in unexpected directions and is very satisfying. It’s rare (and difficult) for me to revise a free-verse poem into a form.

Very free verse poems – which may be characterized as “astrophic,” or not written in regular stanzas – make use of white space as well as line breaks and stanza breaks. I love this form for its sense of energy and whimsy, as in e.e. cummings’ poems. I can deploy lines across the field of the page to set up another layer of tensions and juxtapositions. Lines can mimic the way thought moves – white space can say, “On the one hand . . . but also. . .” simply by where words are placed in relationship to each other. May Swenson is an influence on my use of this kind of form, and, more recently, the poems of Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

Prose poems offer a chance to blur genres – to tell a little story yet keep poetry’s strangeness and lyricism. They are (for me) the hardest form to trust. The two prose poems in And Luckier spent years in other forms before I thought to try them as prose poems. Now I try to make it a practice to put poems into un-lineated form to see what happens. Every change of form as I am revising shows me what isn’t in the poem yet – or what needs to come out.

I usually begin drafting free verse poems in a long unbroken stanza, with the lines finding whatever length seems to suit the rhythm of what I’m hearing in my head. Deciding where to break stanzas and whether open up the lines and use the whole page is part of what is, for me, usually a long process of revision that includes refining the language of the poem and paying attention to sound. Finding the form for a poem is the same thing as finding the poem for me—the form is part of the poem’s content.

MSP – What did you learn about aging in writing And Luckier?

LK – It’s not so much a matter of what I learned as what writing these poems allowed me to articulate that I had not found a way to say before. My poet self loves words for themselves, she plays with language and speculates and riffs on lists and sounds and associations, and in the process, she names what she feels, as in the poem, “Naming It.” Here, the aging woman claims her right to sing, “unasked.”

Writing poems –especially in forms like the sonnet (in “The Warp,” for instance) – leads me to voices I didn’t know I had. In “The Warp” I found images of rust and heat and slivers of light that voiced a wiser and more joyful understanding than I had articulated before. Through those images, I let go of the person I used to be and put away the dream of the person I thought I might become. These surrenders made space for the person who is and allowed me to embrace her in the poem’s last two lines.

Aging is a lesson in confronting limits. Writing these poems I learned that limits are best confronted with humor (if possible) and a big dose of self-compassion. The latter is not always easy to practice. Courage and optimism are also essential. Singing helps – and dancing, too, whenever and however you can. One thing that did surprise me was that many of the poems of aging took me to light-hearted places.

Part of the joy of putting And Luckier together as a collection was the chance it gave me, at 70, to speak back to the circumstances of my life and of the world. The part of me speaking in these poems has made a space for herself and claimed and filled it. When I teach a workshop or write with friends, we are creating and owning space for the kinds of understandings and delights and self-acceptance that making poems can bring us. We are doing it together, and there is joy in that.

MSP – Do you want to say anything about how difficult it is to have a poetry collection come out during the coronavirus pandemic?

LK – What I am most aware of is how many writers I know who had books coming out this spring and summer. Artists of all kinds – particularly ones whose art is performance – have faced challenges getting their work to its audience. Most musicians and writers responded by generously sharing work they would have otherwise been performing live over virtual platforms. We’ve had extraordinary online access to all kinds of art these past months!

Platforms like FaceBook and YouTube and Zoom have allowed us to get our work heard. In one way, it’s been an amazing thing to reach people around the world this way. Despite the potential reach of a virtual event, however, the trade-off is a loss of the energy and spontaneity of an in-person reading, not to mention the serendipitous conversations and connections that happen at live events. Like my other writing friends with new books, I had scheduled readings and local and regional events beginning in April and throughout most of the year. All but a couple of these have been cancelled – and those will be virtual.

It is more important than ever to talk to each other about books that came out during these months of social isolation. Sharing poems on social media and in email and Zoom conversations, writing reviews (even brief ones in social media posts), attending virtual readings, and buying books (from local booksellers if possible) are vital to sustain and support each other. Podcasts, blog posts, and interviews (like this one you are doing – thank you!) keep us aware of new books we can come to love. These days I am more aware of and grateful for the many ways we stay connected as artists.

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Leatha Kendrick’s title poem comes in response to a quote from Walt Whitman: All goes onward and outward nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one is supposed, and luckier.” This blog is always a a virtual event, and I thank Leatha for working this interview in, around all the everyday events that yank us up and sooth us down, especially during the coronavirus epidemic. I’ll give Leatha the last word, from “There Was a Door”:

     What do I have to say today?
             Only Oh and Oh and Oh
     let me cross my own boundary
              open the door—

Melva Sue Priddy, a native Kentuckian, earned degrees in English/Education from Berea College and The University of Kentucky, before earning an MFA. Her poems witness survivance and growth, bringing to light truths that arise out of felt experience. In addition to poems, she creates gardens, quilts, and some rustic woodwork. Her poetry can be found in ABZ, Accents Publishing’s LexPoMo, Blood Lotus, The Louisville Review, Poet Lore, Motif Anthologies, The Single Hound, and Still.