Friday, June 3, 2016

To the Lighthouse: Shuji Terayama's Tanka Poetics, "Fiction of Possibility"

Nothing is less real than realism.
-- Georgia O'Keeffe

By “fiction of possibility," Terayama seems to claim the potential of fiction to create a legitimate reality.
-- Steven Ridgely

Tanka is confessional fiction.
-- Chen-ou Liu

Like most poets in the English language tanka community, I began my tanka journey by studying and imitating Ishikawa Takuboku's style of writing. The emotional strength, sociopolitical sensibilities, and colloquial language of Takuboku’s tanka, a kind of poetry in the moment, appealed to me.

My mind, which was yearning after some indescribable thing from morning to night, could find an outlet to some extent only by making poems. And I had absolutely nothing except that mind… I want to say this: a very complicated process was needed to turn actual feelings into poetry… Poetry must not be what is usually called poetry. It must be an exact report, an honest diary, of the changes in a man’s emotional life (Takuboku, Intro.)

For Takuboku, writing tanka was more like the emotional outburst of a mind agonized by inner struggle and external events that shaped his life and identity. Since encountering his heartfelt and poignant work, I came to view tanka as a "poetic diary" that could be employed to record the changes in my immigrant life, a newly-racialized life of struggle with transition and translation.

bare maple tree
standing on the front lawn…
with no one around
I speak to it
in my mother tongue

2011 Best of the Best Poetry Award (Tanka Category)

mid-autumn night…
the wind whispers to me
Chinese words
that offer me a home
in the shape of a moon

Tanka First Place, 2011 San Francisco International Competition Haiku, Senryu, Tanka, and Rengay

A year later, I cam across Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fiedden. Interweaving the narrative threads of personal mythology, trauma, cultural memories, sociopolitical events and surreal imagination, Terayama’s cinematic fiction tanka not only dismantled my hard-learned ideas about what the tanka is, but also opened up a brand new world for me.

a child of O'Keeffe
I've made words my ladder
to the moon --
critics cannot stop
cracking their knuckles

A Hundred Gourds, 3:2, March 2014

wolf moon
standing high in the sky
I hear it
howl in my blood ...
eyes upon the dripping

Opening Tanka, "Ein Fremdes Land," a tanka sequence for Georg Trakl, Lynx, 25:2, June, 2010

The avant-garde stage and film director, poet, critic, author and founder of the experimental theater group Tenjo Sajiki, Shuji Terayama (or Terayama Shuji in the Japanese way) was born in 1935 in Aomori, Japan. He started writing tanka in his late teens and received the Tanka Kenkyu Award for Emerging Poets at the age of 18. He published several tanka collections before he stopped writing at the age of 30. He died in 1983. The Terayama Shuji Tanka Prize was established in 1996. It's now one of the most prestigious tanka prizes in Japan (Terayama, p.13)

Many of  Terayama's tanka read "like scenes from  a movie, stage play, or short story" (Terayama, p. 7). The stories he writes in his tanka are different from his real life. For example:

a summer butterfly
passes over me
as I sell Red Flag
mother must be tilling
the rice field in my hometown

The dramatic construction of this tanka  is a skillful montage of  two scenes (about the speaker/youth, who has come to Tyoko, selling the communist newspaper, Akahata / Red Flag, and his mother, who now lives in his hometown , tilling the rice field). This tanka not only overlaps the reality of Terayama who came from Aomori to study at Waseda University in Tyoko while his mother was working, even if not in the rice field, at a US military base to send him money), but also raises "an ethical question at the heart of left-wing politics: who will bear the labor burden on the road to social change?" (Ridgely, p. 27) Most of his critics cared little about the ethical dilemma or the suggestive power of the image of a summer butterfly that might transcend and bridge mother and child (ibid.), but more about the questions regarding if Terayama had ever actually sold the communist newspaper, or if he was really a communist, or if his mother was a farm worker. He addressed these challenging questions at a published round table shortly after his debut:

I'd like to unravel one more thing: the problem of fiction. It seems that until now whenever people say fiction they only ever mean absolute fantasy I feel that we've got to integrate something else we might call "the fiction of possibility" [kanosei fikushon] into our work. For example, when I composed the poem, " a summer butterfly passes over me as I sell Red Flag," everyone instantly started asking: "you sold Red Flag?" or  "stop lying" or "you are dishonest." Kitamura and I had a long debate about this the other day, and it's true, I have never sold Red Flag, but I know a lot of people who do, and when I muster up my empathy for those people I feel justified in saying "I sell Red Flag." By giving tanka primary significance and subordinating everyday life to the poem, I was able to live within a consciousness that was selling Red Flag, even if I hadn't physically stood there selling it. We've got to start using this type of fiction of possibility (ibid., p. 29)

By "fiction of possibility," Terayama claims "the potential of fiction to create a legitimate reality" (one in which he truly possessed a consciousness that sold the communist newspaper, Red Flag) (ibid., p. 30). Shortly after winning the national tanka contest, he commented on his tanka, saying, "In terms of method, I am attempting to grasp the point of contact between neorealism and emotion" (ibid.), and  he insisted that "this new 'fiction of possibility' maintains a form of authenticity and a legitimate sincerity" (ibid.). Through his tanka, Terayama argues for a "rational acceptance of the reality of his fictionalized and fictionalizing poet self -- a loyalty (shared with his readers) to the veracity of imagination, which trumps the typical bindings of factual existence" (ibid.).

Terayama’s tanka are unique in that they are based mainly on his imagination, which is often colored by his complex feelings of being "abandoned" by his mother, and that they are interwoven with cultural memory,  personal mythology, and the emotions he experienced in his dysfunctional life and inner turmoil.

the sunflowers still
in offering
at my father’s tomb --
it’s shorter than I

a man, who knows
my dead father’s
shoe size,
came to see me one day
... nightmare 

with my cold gunshot
a sparrow on the roof
might be
my mother

coming alone
to the sold rice field
on a winter night
I'm burying
my mother's scarlet comb

I gently comb
the turtledove
with my dead mother's
scarlet comb --
its down keeps falling out

this wind
carrying carrot seeds
the orphan,
sunset, and me

birds banished
from the sky,
time, beasts
all collected here
in my arc-like toy box

in order to sew up
the horizon
my sister hid
a silk needle
in the sewing box

while an ant
toiled from the dahlia
to the ash tray
I was forming
a beautiful lie

Unlike his poetic forefathers whose relationship with nature was harmonious, Terayama’s poetic relationship with nature is often gruesome and violent. One of the most common themes in his tanka is about a bird being shot by a gun.

it may be an angel --
this small sparrow
I shot
then returned home
smelling of gunpowder

having shot
a winter dove that
might be my god,
I go home
with smoking gun

failing even
to become an actress
I listen to
the sound of seagulls
shot in the winter marsh

for a small bird
to come back
after it's shot
there is a grassland
in my head

I was breathing
in unison
with a pregnant cow
waiting for her turn
to be slaughtered

And through his tanka, Terayama creates a polyphony of voices for those who were sociopolitically marginalized from the mainstream of the Japanese society. And most importantly, when he speaks for these people, he does so through their own discourse (Norimasa, pp. 43-53).

a horse's mane
between pages
of the diary
he kept in prison

with a battered
summer hat
on my knees
my vagrant life grew
accustomed to buses

being of mixed blood
I feel lonely
even if I win --
I walk along chewing
a hot grass stalk

summer lights, and
my homeland Korea --
even from the roof
the sea is invisible

submerging them
in the water
of a night-dark stream,
I wash my military shoes
from those captive days

striking a match
I see the foggy ocean--
is there a motherland
I can dedicate myself to?


Norimasa,  Morita, "The World of Terayama Shuji: Others Within," Waseda Global Forum, 2, 2005

Ridgely, Steven C., Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Takuboku, Ishikawa, Romaji Diary and Sad Toys, translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda. Rutland, Charles E. Tuttle Co. 1985.

Terayama, Shuji, Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama, translated by Kozue Uzawa and Amelia Fielden, Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 2008

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