Ploughing a Lone Furrow – Gabriel Rosenstock

Gabriel Rosenstock
Interviewed by Rajesh Subramanian
What motivated you to choose tanka as a literary/poetic tool?
I am a bilingual writer and Irish (Gaelic) in my literary medium of choice, a language that is much older than English which was (and is) the language of Conquest in Ireland. I am motivated to do new things in the language because its development has been arrested and its future unsure. There’s an excitement and a marshalling of one’s courage and ingenuity that is required when ploughing a lone furrow, such as introducing tanka to Irish-language poetics. I had already written thousands of haiku in Irish and translated (or transcreated) thousands of haiku into Irish. I have also introduced the haiku in Irish to children. An English translation of a prize-winning book which awakens children to haiku is Fluttering their way into my head:
I have also taught haiku at home and abroad and in a short three-part video for the Irish Writers’ Centre, I suggest that the Irish-language haiku is now an established and recognised part of the literary scene. I hope this will be true of tanka as well,
in the not too distant future:
I had written about tanka before but have only begun writing tanka in recent years. It’s not just a question of adding two lines to a three-line haiku to produce a tanka. There is another sensibility at work and I wished to explore it. Your question speaks of tanka as a literary ‘tool’, which somehow suggests an external device or implement. I think of haiku and tanka as inner resources which, in spite of their foreign origin, have become ‘naturalised’ within my consciousness. As natural as speaking, breathing, or eating. This is living the life of haiku and living the life of tanka, rather than simply using a particular style
or technique. This is the way it should be, I believe.
Does not writing tanka that have to compulsorily blend with a visual image restrict one’s creativity?
All of the tanka which have appeared in Modern Literature are ekphrastic tanka, that is to say, tanka that respond to visual stimulus, to fine art paintings, or landscape photography in the main. Far from restricting one’s creativity, ekphrastic haiku and tanka open up limitless possibilities. The artwork becomes a trigger or a catalyst that releases a spontaneous response, perhaps filtered in the twinkle of an eye through various prisms of memory and desire. A spontaneous response means that one bypasses rational, analytical, mental activities – the time-consuming activities in the brain which are required to answer your questions, for instance – and the haiku or tanka response is akin to bursting into song for no reason. And this is a joy, of course. Much of today’s poetry is joyless because it is bogged down in mentation. It has stifled song and euphony. Singing and mentation are impossible bedfellows. I’m sure that tanka, the oldest form of poetry still being cultivated today, was once sung or chanted in its early phase, over a thousand years ago. I began  my tanka apprenticeship by transcreating a great Japanese tankaist, Saigyō, into Irish and English. Anybody who is familiar with the Japanese haiku grandmaster, Bashō, will have heard of the medieval tankaist whom he idolized, Saigyō. So, let us look at a tanka by the immortal master, and my version of it in English. You can count the configuration of 5-7-5-77 syllables (or syllabets) on your fingers (pronouncing every vowel in the Japanese):

amagumo no
warinaki hima o
moru tsuki no
kage bakari dani
aimiteshi gana

rays of moonlight stream
through an unexpected gap
in the heavy clouds
        could we come together now
        briefly for a secret tryst

Saigyō is sometimes called the reluctant ascetic. He became a Buddhist monk, but the fragrance of the courtly life he once led as a sensualist still lingers in his tanka. Having studied Master Saigyō and transcreated him in Irish and English versions, I found I was ready to cultivate freestyle tanka, not following the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic breakdown, but keeping within the 31 syllable total when possible.

How relevant are traditional Japanese poetic formats- tanka, haiku, etc., relevant in current times?
The question of relevance has never bothered me. I wouldn’t have devoted my life to writing primarily in Irish if relevance was a consideration. Relevant to what, to whom, when, where, why, how? You can pursue relevance, if you wish, or decide to create your own relevance. The latter has always been the only course for me. What sings to your heart, what opens it up and sings inside it, that is ‘relevant’, is it not? That is valuable, and necessary, is it not, and ‘relevant’ to our age and every age? 
Poetic formats like tanka and haiku evolved as a part of Japanese culture, religion, and language. Transplanting them in other languages – though can work well experimentally, will the endeavour stand the test of time?
Who knows what will stand the test of time. My work is fused with syncretic elements that owe something to  Irish and Celtic roots, to world literature, Sufi poetry, bhakti poetry, Zen, Advaita,  Judeo-Christian elements and so on and so forth. The tanka of Saigyō have something of the spirit of amour courtois, or courtly love, which the Anglo-Normans brought to Ireland and which had an enduring influence on the course of Gaelic poetry. I don’t like the use of the word ‘transplanting’ in your question. To suggest that Japanese art forms cannot influence world culture is to deny the very obvious and lasting influence of Japonisme on the visual arts of the West, for instance. I’m thinking of Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Bonnard, Degas and most of the modern greats, in fact. Indeed, how much of Japanese art and literature is not a refinement of Chinese art in the first place? I don’t believe there is any element of ‘pastiche’ in writing haiku or tanka. To me, they sound and look natural now, in Irish and English. They do not look like they have been transplanted. Do we think of the exotic origins of the various fruits we eat today from around the world? Does not the native apple sit comfortably in an Irish supermarket, next to the non-native banana or persimmon? And is the fruit stand not all the more colourful, tasty, and nutritious because of that?
What Irish person is transported to India, China, or Sri Lanka when sipping tea? It is a national beverage here and has been naturalised. In parts of rural Ireland it is pronounced ‘tay’, which is how early English settlers pronounced it. 
Do you think the poetic output will be influenced by the poet’s religious orientation? In other words, is “literary creativity” subject to external influences?
My own religious orientation has always been open to the whole gamut of religious experience, from A-Z, from Animism to Zen, and everything in between, and when absorbed are not ‘external’ at all but ‘internal’. Collections such as Speaking of Shiva, a bhakti anthology translated by A.K. Ramanujan toppled my world when I read it, at school-leaving age. Ireland being a heavily colonised country was a consumer of English literature and a contributor to it.  Speaking of Shiva opened up another world, another sensibility, another cosmos and there was nothing in English literature to match it. There are incomparable treasures in Irish-language literature as well, such as The Lament for Art O’Leary which are outside of the normal experience and range of the Anglophone mind. There are about 10 different translations of the Lament that I know of.
What are the current projects that you are working on?
I always have about 20 different projects on the go, work in prose, poetry (including tanka and haiku), translation work, work for children, radio plays, etc. I also translate singable versions of songs. 
How has been the response to your Irish poetry amongst the Irish speaking population?
I haven’t asked them. I wouldn’t say I’m flavour of the month! (except in the realm of children’s poetry where I’ve carved out a niche).
Could you please explain the relevance of tanka (and haiku, etc.,) from a postmodern literary perspective?
Relevance is completely and utterly irrelevant as I’ve been at pains to point out. If you are chasing relevance, you will become irrelevant very quickly. Furthermore, it is a tyranny – the intellectual equivalent of the ‘label’ which Naomi Klein and others have rightfully exposed. Too many literary agents and publishers seem to be looking for the same thing, the ‘fast buck’.. Why would you want to wear what everybody else is wearing, read what everybody else is reading, think what everyone else is thinking? This is madness and is related to consumer-capitalism, monolingualism and other threats to our sanity. Am I relevant? I hope not!  I repeat – relevant to what, to whom? Relevant to Siva? Relevant to a post-modern literary perspective? What is that? Something which people study in a university? Well, good luck to them!  Forget about the post-modern literary perspective. Have your own perspective. Treasure it, as your life’s breath. If it becomes stale,  change it. Shift your perspective. Stay fresh. Stay new. Stay ahead of the posse.  Stay close to the vast pool of creativity which is the imperishable Self. The new tanka project with Kashmiri artist Masood Hussain, Boatman! take these songs from me is beautifully irrelevant, I believe, as is a project with the Kolkata-based photographer Debiprasad Mukherjee, The Stars Are His Bones. I’m looking for a publisher who is deeply and passionately committed to the irrelevant for these and other ongoing individual and collaborative projects!


About the Poet

Gabriel Rosenstock is a bilingual poet (in Irish & English), haikuist, tankaist, playwright, novelist, short story writer, essayist, translator, writer for children and champion of ‘forlorn causes’ – the phrase is Hugh MacDiarmid’s. He is a Lineage Holder of Celtic Buddhism and a member of Aosdána (the Irish academy of arts and letters). Among his awards is the Tamgha-i-Khidmat medal (Pakistan) for services to literature. Gabriel’s most recent volume of poetry is Glengower: Poems for No One in Irish and English (The Onslaught Press). His website: