Thursday, June 08, 2006

Kyoka vs. Tanka - Examples

Previously I spent a lot of time on 'waka'. Waka are 'tanka', tanka means nothing more than 'short song.' Waka literally means 'Japanese song,' and was originally applied to all forms of poetry written in Japanese, as opposed to Chinese, the other popular language for intellectuels and aristocrats. By the late 19th century waka had become so calcified that it was a living fossil. Masaoka Shiki, fresh from his crusade to reform haiku, launched a reform movement for waka as well. He and other reformers changed the name to 'tanka' to make a complete break with the past. The revitalized genre permitted all kinds of subjects and language that had previously been forbidden. As a consequence, much of what had been kyoka got absorbed into tanka and kyoka died instead of waka/tanka.

This same liberation has not reached North America. As the article on kyoka made clear, English-language kyoka, especially that produced in North American, is characterized by a restriction of subject, language, mood, and techniques that is almost as stifling as what nearly killed waka. By contrast, tanka published in the United Kingom will address topics such as war and lust, which makes for a broader range. Unfortunately, rumors are floating that Tangled Hair, the noteworthy UK journal, may be closing. Always plagued with an irregular schedule, this would not be a surprise.

North American tanka enthusiasts do not take kindly to being told their poetry is stilted and boring and insist that tanka in English is a richly diverse field. If that's so, name me three non-white North American tanka poets who aren't Japanese.

I'll go get a Coke while you think. This may take a while.

And the answer is.... Aside from me, I have no idea. The non-white tanka poets I can think of are living in India, the Philippines, and the Middle East. They participate in international email forums. On the other hand, many tanka poets do not provide racial or ethnic information in their biographies so for all I know, maybe half of all tankateers are not white. But, at the same time, all the photos I've seen of tanka poets look white. Including mine.

I'm a light-skinned person of mixed Native American and European descent. My mother had five kids and a husband so white he pratically glowed... My brothers and sisters are all dark-haired, I'm the odd one with light brown hair. Genetics are a crap shoot. I lost.

I've taken a stab at writing Native American themed tanka. The results are unlikely to be published in any tanka journal anywhere in the world. The following is taken from a Blackfeet Indian legend:

Severed Leg the Moon
pursues the sun and humans
across the sky,
lurching on the one leg they left her,
she plots her revenge.
~M. Kei

Nooooo. I don't see that in the next issue of Simply Haiku. Editor-in-chief Robert Wilson is quite clear about publishing 'Japanese poetry in English.' It's his magazine, he can do what he wants with it. That's the editor's right. And Simply Haiku is a fine magazine. I'm glad it exists. But this is definitely not SH material.

Is the above poem unworthy of the name of 'poem?' That's a matter of taste, but it's certainly a properly formed poem, with strikingly original images, and it engages the attention. Is it tanka? ...... It partakes of natural imagery, 'the moon' is about as mainstream a motif as you can get with tanka. It deals with human emotion; I feel plenty of emotion in the anger of the betrayed and wounded Moon Woman. But it treats of revenge and violence which is taboo in tanka in English. The modern Japanese could write about vengeful woman, but the usual vengeful American woman in tanka is a) rare, and b) usually limits herself to scrawling 'goodbye' in lipstick on a convenient flat surface.

Let's agree that it isn't tanka. It looks like tanka, but it's way outside the North American ouevre. If it looks like tanka, treats of tanka themes, and violates taboos.... it's KYOKA!

Let's try another one. I know, cats! Cats are cute, cuddly and furry! They're fun to pet and they're very popular. People love their cats with big gooshy kisses and think they're just so cute and adorable, they just have to be part of the sweet and friendly genre of North American tanka!

licking his balls,
the cat
pays no attention
to the etiquette debate
~M. Kei

Well... maybe not...

This is another one of the duties of kyoka: to point out muzzy-headed thinking, unexamined assumptions, and ill-conceived ideas. My cat is completely truthful, humorous, cute, and a satire on social niceties and poetic assumptions. Go, cat, go!

I started writing kyoka by accident. The earliest one in my journals dates from 2000, which is when I started writing any poetry worth actually writing down. I didn't know it was called 'kyoka', I didn't learn that an entire genre of this stuff existed and that it actually had a name until the spring of 2006. But the urge to parody poets is as old as poetry itself.

If I sit here
listening to your poetry
very much longer
I will be wrinkled
like an old woman!
~M. Kei

Exercise caution around amateur poets because listening to bad poetry is proven to shorten life expectancy and may lead to murder-suicide.

Kyoka doesn't have to be satire though. Outright silliness is also within the genre. The following kyoka was written when I discovered the senryu of Alan Pizzarelli. Pizzarelli is a fine poet and is the first name that will spring to anyone's lips if you whisper the words 'good senryu poet.' I like this stuff. I do. But I just couldn't get past the name... Admit it, you're thinking what I'm thinking! Alan is probably thinking it too, which would explain why he became a senryu poet.

your name is a deli,
so I fill my belly
in Canyon de Chelley
with your Pizzarelli!
~M. Kei

Don't tell Alan I said this!

It's never ever going to be published in a tanka magazine. It's juvenile and far from art. And tanka's not supposed to rhyme. Never ever! Fortunately, kyoka accommodates the juvenile, the tasteless, and yes, even rhyme. Kyoka of this nature is the Japanese equivalent of the limerick. Just don't make a habit of it, okay? It'll be our little secret.

By this point I hope I have convinced you that kyoka provides a kind of escape valve to that allows 'serious tanka poets' let their hair down and have a little fun. We're all human, we think outside the social prescribed norms. But does kyoka have to be funny? I submit that it does not. Satire can be very dark indeed.

two boiling kettles
of vultures,
one black, one turkey,
and a third of
oblivious tourists
~M. Kei

I like vultures. They're big handsome birds and we have a lot of them around here. City slickers frequently mistake them for eagles and admire them. They feel cheated when they find out it's an ugly old vulture. The difference between the two is not that great. Eagles pick carrion too. I almost hit a golden eagle one day. I came around the bend of a country road and he was picking carrion. He flew up with wings as big as my windshield. Impressive! But vultures are that big too. So why the prejudice against vultures? Every single vulture poem I've written has been rejected by the people who read it as "yuck! vultures are icky!"

When poets don't like something because of the content rather than the form or the treatment, it tells us that said subject is taboo. Tanka is often construed as nature poetry, and vultures are part of nature, but vultures are ruled out. They're gross. Episodes like this put the lie to the fantasy that tanka has no barriers. A great many tanka poets and editors cling to this illusion and aren't going to like me saying they're wrong. But that's kyoka's job: smashing the rose colored glasses.

Fortunately, we can write kyoka about farting, vultures, and George Bush's underwear. There are no limits. Not even the bounds of good taste. Some people might think that's a bad thing, but it's called 'freedom of expression.' If you want to say what you want, you have to let other people say what they want, if you you don't like it. You'd think kyoka would be popular in a democratic society.

if i had been
a smaller, prettier child,
quieter, more obedient,
and less stubborn,
would my father have loved me?
~M. Kei

Kyoka don't have to be tasteless or funny. They don't have to be satire. The great virtue of kyoka is that they give voice to what cannot be voiced in tanka as it currently stands in the English langauge.

I hope kyoka amuse you. I hope they shock you. I hope they hurt you. I hope they open your tanka so that you too will be able to express yourself with all the aching joy of being human.

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