An Interview with Sanford Goldstein: Part I
by Patricia Prime
This serial interview first appeared in three issues of the 2004 TSA Quarterly Newsletter.
~Sanford Goldstein was professor of English at Purdue University and when he retired as Professor Emeritus from Purdue, he continued as professor at Keiwa College in Japan, where he now lives. Sanford recently retired from teaching and after a brief holiday in the United States he moved into a new house he has had built in Japan.
Sanford’s publications include books of his own tanka and translations of Japanese tanka, novels, and short stories. He has collaborated on books of tanka translations and continues to write tanka, poetry, and critical essays. He began writing tanka in 1964 and his first collection, This Tanka World, was published by the Purdue Poets Cooperative Press in 1977. He was co-editor, with Kenneth Tanamura, of the tanka journal, Five Lines Down. He has long been recognised as the English-language authority on tanka and was judge of the Mirrors First International Awards in 1989.
His most recent publication is a collection of six of his books called Four Decades on My Tanka Road, published by Modern English Tanka Press in 2007.
Following are two examples of Sanford’s tanka, the first taken from This Tanka World (1977) and the second from the Tanka Society of America International Tanka Contest, 2003, where it won first place:
of past griefs
and I keep washing
the same dish
I see across a bare field
in the morning rain
a yellow silk umbrella
on its solitary way
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?
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 co-translator, 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.
Again, at any rate, when I came to Japan in 1964, I wanted to translate a tanka poet. I must have seen some tanka in those early years, perhaps just some pages from Carl Sesar’s book-to-be. My teacher of Japanese literature at Niigata University (I helped him write lectures for a trip to Alaska, and he lectured me in broken-down English on Japanese literature) suggested Akiko Yosano’s Tangled Hair (Midaregami). It was then I asked Professor Shinoda to translate with me. It took us five years to translate all 399 of Akiko’s tanka in that collection. The other books took almost as long. So it was a matter of spending a long time on one book. Meanwhile, I was learning. And the years passed.
~Here is an example of one of the tanka Sanford translated from Tangled Hair (Cheng & Tsui Company, 2002):
I meet him?
Four years ago
His tears fell
On this hand
That now beats a dancer’s drum
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 co-editor of the short-lived tanka journal, Five Lines Down, many American tanka poets were sending in strings.
I think the work Professor Shinoda and I did helped establish the tanka in America and elsewhere. It’s audacious to say so, but I think it’s true.
~The following is one of Sanford’s translations of a tanka by Mokichi Saito from Red Lights (Purdue Research Foundation, 1989):
late tonight as usual
and thinking, thinking
only of her
To be continued in the next installment: Interview with Sanford Goldstein, Part II.
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