An Interview with Sanford Goldstein: Part II
by Patricia Prime
PP: Both these books, Saito's Red Lights and Yosano's Tangled Hair, contain generous explanatory notes. How did this tremendous body of research come about?
SG: When I looked through early translations of Japanese poetry, I found almost no notes. At the same time, I realized how ignorant I was. So I asked Professor Shinoda to explain each poem we translated. Professor Shinoda was a Meiji person. I always felt he knew everything there was to know about Japanese culture. So he took time to explain words, customs, history, literature, language, the special meanings of idiomatic terms, everything, including the biography of the poet. Even the seasons have a special meaning to the Japanese, as do flowers and clouds and special times during a twenty-four hour period. I wanted to know background, the poem’s meaning to the Japanese, its importance to custom, to nature, to philosophy. But I have to give myself a little credit, for I would ask Professor Shinoda to explain this or that, to give me more details. I wanted to know each poem concretely, its biographical, sociological, historical, semantic connections. And so I learned and learned and learned. I was amazed by what seasons meant, what flowers meant, what food meant, everything.
And so I spent time taking notes on everything Professor Shinoda told me. Often a question I asked would open another can of beans. Professor Shinoda was in no rush to finish. And the many trips I made to his office, then to his new school after he retired, and finally to his home, all took time, but they were rare moments for an ignorant foreigner to learn more about Japan. Now, copious notes are given by other translators, but I don’t feel they come up to Professor Shinoda’s level or even mine in terms of inquiry.
PP: What kind of “relationship” do you build with the poets you have translated?
PP: How different is the level of intensity you experience when you are translating from when you are composing your own poems?
SG: There is, I believe, a kind of intensity in spilling 24 to 30 poems or even 100 poems. I used to hear tanka music wherever I went, and even now I sometimes recall that music. Everything was tanka, everything there to be spilled. I think the intensity is different in translating. First of all, you have to understand the words of the poem. These meanings Professor Shinoda gave me even though I was reading the poem too. But because the older poets had expressions often not found in today’s Japanese dictionaries, study was necessary. I had to study the life, and I had to study the situation of that poem. And I had to try to make Professor Shinoda’s prose-like telling of the poem into a poem of five lines down. It wasn’t so much a matter of counting syllables, which I rarely did, though Shiki’s poems often lent themselves to a 31-syllable poem. When I had a first version, then I had to sharpen it. So there was a broader spectrum in translating a poem than there was in spilling one of my own in English.
I’ve just finished gathering the “good” poems out of my 2003 tanka notebook―29 pages of poems, all single-spaced. At the end of the year after I’ve written some 3,000 or so tanka, I asterisk in my tanka notebook those I call “good’ and type out a long list of these. I have just finished my list of “good” poems for 2003. When I choose poems from that list, I may sharpen, may reorganize, may try for a 31-syllable poem. Out of all those good ones (often between 300 and 450), I choose only 25 to 40, and these I send to journals. Poetry is the spontaneous outburst of things remembered in tranquillity―which perhaps comes from Wordsworth. Still, perhaps I’ve written 3000 poems during the year.
Most of them are of course horrible, but sometimes a good one comes out. Recently, I saw many of Yasujiro Ozu’s magnificent films, and when I was writing my own tanka on those films, I felt a real intensity. So the intensity depends on the situation. For example, when my wife was operated on for brain surgery in the late 1960s, I was writing about 200 poems a day on that. And when the Zen master came to live with us in the States, at a one-year stretch, twice, those years were intense, the most difficult, I have ever lived. The same intensity appeared when in July 1982, I went for four days and three nights to Shikoku to visit a famous Zen master farmer. Most of that time I spent writing tanka, and that resulted in my own tanka sequence of 120 poems, later published as At the Hut of the Small Mind.
With the translations, another kind of intensity occurs, for I had to make the translations that Professor Shinoda gave me (we read all the poems in Japanese, and Professor Shinoda gave his version first – then I had to make the translation into a poem). That requires a different kind of energy. With the biographical background of the poet in mind and with the specific situation of the poem before me, I had to juggle, to strengthen, to make the lines better. As I indicated above, I become the poet I am translating, and that requires putting yourself into that moment. So two forces are at work – becoming the poet and making his or her poem into an English tanka.
PP: What does the literary companionship of translation with others involve?
SG: The relationship with Professor Shinoda I have already described. We really worked as a team, and I had full confidence in Professor Shinoda’s ability. But I have also translated Japanese novels and short stories. One novel I did translate with Professor Shinoda. When I translated with Professor Kingo Ochiai, he was quite different, quite leisurely. He would hold his cigarette in the air and wonder what would be a better expression than the one he had used in his translation of a sentence in The Wild Geese. I liked to do the revisions in private, so it was often difficult for me to come up with an expression I favored. The Wild Geese was started in 1953, and it was finally published in 1959. I spent a long time at Stanford trying to get the right tone for the novel. And the drafts I would send to Professor Ochiai he would work at diligently, carefully. Even at the end, he was not satisfied with the final version. Another translator, who shall be nameless, worked like the wind. When I asked him to go over my corrections of his translation and my version, he would do it in a whirlwind, so I always wondered if our translation was accurate enough. This collaborator could never really put a sentence into English from the way the Japanese grammar should be, so I really had to work much harder trying to get his entangled sentences to make sense. Two other translators I worked with wrote beautiful sentences in English. Their translations excited me, and I wondered if I was really necessary, yet I found that even their fine sentences could be improved.
One of these two translators suggested we do two stories by a famous Japanese writer. I would do the first draft of one story, he the first draft of the other. When he corrected my first draft, he would often laugh at some of my translations. Once I recall his saying that the difficult sentences I would get right, but the easy ones I would really mess up. This translator became the famous translator of a Saul Bellow novel. In another situation, my co-translator did not seem to have enough confidence in me. I did the revisions, but he seemed to keep up a correspondence with a former teacher. What finally happened was that suddenly my collaborator’s teacher wanted to be considered a co-translator too after the first proofs had already come out. I told my collaborator I would withdraw from the project, but he pleaded with me, so for the first time there were three translators―the added person I had never even met. Two translations that never saw the light have always been painful to me, one by Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe. When my co-translator visited him, Oe insulted him on our final version, and my collaborator refused to have his name linked with Oe’s. Perhaps Oe wrote the American publisher about this, for even though we had a contract, nothing came of it.
PP: What are the differences between editing your own work and selecting tanka for an anthology?
SG: I helped select poets for an anthology, but had nothing to do with the selection of their poems. As for my own poems, often the first spill is right, but often, after gathering my list of good poems (and out of a list of 350 or 400 good poems, only 25-30 are chosen to send out to journals), I revise, sharpen. Sometimes I try for 5-7-5-7-7, but often these selections are free-form tanka. Lately I’ve come to feel a 3/2 arrangement, as in traditional tanka, is best.
PP: You have a strong interest in the weight of words within a tanka, their musicality and poetry. Where did your interest in language originate?
SG: I sang at Hebrew school years ago. And then when I went to summer camp, I loved the singing. But when I was in junior high school, we had to memorize “All the world’s a stage,” and I seemed to have done so well that most of the students hated me. Then in high school we had to recite Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”―again my list of enemies tripled. But I loved the language, and I seemed to do well in essays. We had a high school teacher, Miss Winship, who was quite eccentric. She always put the papers in order, the highest first, and we would be called on to read. My papers were often at the top or near the top. In college, I took creative writing quite often. I remember taking a course in reading dramatic passages (I’ve forgotten the technical name for such a course, perhaps Dramatic Arts), and I remember once the room changed when I read a passage from the Greeks. My voice did not adjust itself to the smaller room, and one of the women students criticized my reading as being melodramatic, something like that. So the force of language has stayed with me. Sometimes I get what I feel is power into a tanka, at other times a wabi or sabi or yugen into a tanka. Sometimes, though, I want to sound almost prose-like, but that too can take on a special feeling and power. Giving you examples might help, but I’d better stop.
PP: What type of process do you go through when you sit down to write?
SG: I believe it was Takuboku who said that the Japanese were lucky to have tanka because it is easy to write. I have never felt that getting a good tanka was easy, but it is easy to write a good many bad ones. So I don’t think I go through any process. I like to get to my hole-in-the-wall coffee shop, something I’ve done these last ten years on Saturday afternoons. The atmosphere is important. When I was at Purdue, I often wrote my tanka at a cafeteria table. In the evening when I ate out (these were the years after my wife died), I would write tanka there. In the early days, I wrote tanka on napkins, and the better ones I saved to put into a journal. I used to write tanka at the midway point of my 8-mile rapid walk. There were benches along the Sea of Japan, and with a scrap of paper and a pencil or pen, I would dash off some tanka. When my wife was operated on for brain surgery, I could dash off tanka in hospital corridors or coffee shops or places where I ate. Rarely have I written my tanka at home, but sometimes during the past ten years I have been writing “kitchen tanka.” I spill my poems at once. Lately, I’m writing 24 to 30 tanka during the two hours I’m at that coffee shop. For the last twenty-five or so years I’ve written my poems directly into my tanka diary. I’m not sure about the beginning date of these journals, for I haven’t checked recently. So getting off the poem is important. I think about what’s happened to me in the past week or past few days or even at that moment. I observe scenes in the places where I am doing my writing: a kid picking up a sandwich, two lovers arguing, old men asleep at a table, anything. Tanka is not limited to “splendor.” Sometimes I get a nature image, imagined or real, and I do something with that.
PP: Can you tell readers something about your collaborative linked tanka sequences?
SG: First of all, I never linked tanka sequences. I have sometimes participated in renku, a process I like because each of the members of a group is writing a three line or two line poem on the subject that is called for. We are competing with each other, so if your lines are chosen, you will feel something special. That process is what I call exciting, but I am afraid that I rarely find such linking appealing. It’s like associative streams. An image snaps one into a connection and the link is written.
What I have done with some poets is a double tanka string. A poet writes the first five lines, and the person you are working with writes a connected tanka. Right down the line. But in this case, the subject has been decided on. The link is concentrated. If this tanka string has to do with fathers, then all the tanka relate to fathers. So there is organization, connection, in the entire string.
Meanwhile, most tanka writers do not differentiate between string and sequence, the distinction of which is, I feel, one of my contributions to tanka.
PP: Almost any experience is subject matter for tanka. Do you write the tanka first and then form the verses into a sequence – or does the basic theme present itself first?
SG: Usually, for the past forty years or so, I’ve been spilling my tanka. But sometimes an idea comes to me. Recently, for example, I saw many films of the famous Japanese director, Yasujiro Ozu. So when I went to spill my poems on Saturday, his films came to mind, and I wrote several tanka on them. During the next week I saw more of his films and then on Saturday I wrote some tanka on them. A few times as I sat watching his films on TV, a tanka came to me at home and I wrote it down. My next contribution to the Tanka Journal was a “string” of five poems on Ozu’s movies. If I look at some of my earlier work, I found I was writing groups of tanka on, for example, the death of the poet Raymond Roseliep (November, 1985), a series on narcissism (February, 1980), a series on Elizabeth Searle Lamb’s book of poems (February, 1979), an enormous rush of poems on the holocaust (1987, in which I first used the term “string”). Once I even wrote a series of love poems to the famous tanka poet of Salad Anniversary, Machi Tawara.
In these instances, the idea or subject really came to mind and I wrote several tanka on that subject. The collection I submitted to Snapshot’s tanka book competition involved an idea I had of objectifying my tanka so that most of the tanka were not about me, so that idea excited me. Alas, I did not win the competition even though I felt this added a new dimension to tanka, a series of portraits about the human condition. I called my collection Encounters in This Penny World. It was, I felt, unlike any tanka collection I had ever come across.
PP: I share your love of Chinese poetry. Would you tell readers what brought you to Chinese poetry?
SG: Off and on over the years, I heard about Chinese poetry, but something about the emphasis on nature put me off. I don’t recall now, but at some time during the past year a book of Chinese poems came my way, translations from Du Fu (I prefer the name Tu Fu) made by a famous translator. When I mentioned my interest to others, including you Pat, other books were recommended. I tried the Internet and found other titles. All of a sudden I had six or seven books. But the book I found most appealing was a Penguin Classics book entitled Li Po and Tu Fu, the poems selected and translated by Arthur Cooper. But what was really a great help were his notes. I saw him as a person in the tradition of Professor Shinoda who offered informative notes that actually helped readers get into the poems. It was exciting to read those notes.
To be continued in the next installment: Interview with Sanford Goldstein, Part III.
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