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.