M. Kei is a tall ship sailor and award-winning poet who lives on Maryland’s Eastern shore. He is the editor-in-chief of 'Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka', and the editor of 'Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka'. His most recent collection of poetry is 'January, A Tanka Diary (October, 2013)'. He is also the author of the award-winning gay Age of Sail adventure novels, 'Pirates of the Narrow Seas'.
Hello Kei, and welcome to Mandy’s Pages. It is an honor to have you grace my pages with your invaluable presence and time. Please do tell my readers something about yourself.
My name is M. Kei and I’m a tall ship sailor of Native American descent who writes tanka poetry and fiction.
You're too humble, Kei, with that response. (smiles). You are more than just a tanka poet and fiction author. Over the past year I have encountered numerous pages that you have worked on or authored. You are one of the most popular names my tanka-friends mention when asked for a reference, having made your mark upon Internationally-recognized English Tanka. When did you first start writing? What were your earliest memories – or what prompted you to write?
I recollect writing a poem about Santa when I was a child that was well-received by my family at the time. They didn’t support the idea of me becoming a professional writer, though. They persuaded me I needed a real job. That didn’t work out—ill health intervened, so I’ve wound up as one of those men scraping by. I’d much rather have valuable experiences than valuable objects. There is no price that can be put on riding the heaving breast of the ocean with the moon tangled in the rigging.
I am particularly fascinated by your love for tanka. When did you venture into the world of tanka? What made you begin this poetic journey?
I encountered Japanese literature when I was a teenager. ‘Aware’ (ah-wah-ray) is the Japanese awareness of the fragility of beauty and the perishability of the world. I wrote a few tanka as a young person, but they were terrible. Tanka look simple, but they’re really hard to write. I read Carter’s ‘Traditional Japanese Poetry’, and then tried to write my own. It was when my mother and my nephew died that I became a decent poet. Writing tanka was how I expressed myself. For me tanka is a form of sketching: with a few strokes of the pencil, I shape an image that conveys a moment. Today I will even sit and sketch people in public places the same as an artist does.
That is very impressive. I find it difficult to sketch a good tanka at one go without having to edit my work over and over again, and still there is always room for improvement. You have come a long way since you first started out. What are your main achievements as a poet and author?
I have a dual life as a writer. First, as a tanka poet and editor, and second - as a novelist.
I write tanka all the time. It’s how I keep my journal. It’s my sketch pad in which I jot down whatever catches my interest. I’ve been doing that for thirteen years. Recently, I published a collection, January, A Tanka Diary, that is drawn from one year in my journals. Recently I also edited and published a collection by Joy McCall, in England, called circling smoke, scattered bones. She’s a magical poet who is steeped in her English town of Norwich. She knows everybody from bartenders to witches to crooks. Her collection is very special. I also edit Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka. Too much poetry is navel gazing; poetry of place requires us to participate in the place where we are. (Something you’ll find typified in both ‘January’ and ‘circling smoke.’) I enjoy editing it. I have just announced a new project, Bright Stars Tanka, which is an organic anthology. It will focus on contemporary tanka. It will be bright, brash, and forward moving. I’ve done other anthologies in the past, such as Fire Pearls, Volumes 1 and 2, of love poetry. You’re already familiar with Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka, Vol. 1-4 . Tanka has grown so much that it isn’t possible to keep up with it all any more, although I try. I have my own small press, Keibooks, so I am able to pursue these projects with artistic freedom.
I write novels for fun. I have written a series Pirates of the Narrow Seas , featuring a gay hero during the Age of Sail. My books are well-informed by my experiences as a sailor on historic wooden vessels. I’m pleased that two of the books in the series have received/been nominated for awards. I also wrote a fantasy novel with a gay protagonist, Fire Dragon.
I have reviewed the four published books from the ‘Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka’ series, and they are absolutely brilliant. Any tanka lover who picks up these books will agree that it has a wonderful collection of top-grade tanka. What prompted you to work on these books?
I am a historian of tanka in English as well as a poet and an editor. From my researches, I knew tanka was much broader and varied than people seemed to think it was. I founded Take Five to survey all tanka published in English and publish the best in a representative sample. The four volumes provide a panorama of tanka literature at the beginning of the 21st century. I believe that a thousand years from now when researchers want to know what tanka was like at this time, Take Five will be an invaluable resource to them. Take Five has also broadened readers, editors, and poets’ ideas of what tanka is capable of. Of course, time and tanka don’t stand still, so we keep on seeing new developments. Tanka is an exceptionally fertile form that maintains an inner core of strength while being flexible enough to innovate in all sorts of ways.
Working with various editors can be a daunting and yet fulfilling task. The number of submissions can be overwhelming and the quality of tanka ranging from poor to very good. How has it been for you? How did you choose your editors?
I recruited the editors to represent a variety of viewpoints, experiences, and countries. It was a huge task, so not many people were willing to take it on. It was like having a second job. I had to coordinate it all, and in the last year, I had major trouble with my health. It was a strain even for a healthy person to keep up with, and when an editor broke a leg, or had a family crisis, or other life experience, they got behind. So, after four years, when the workload kept expanding and expanding, even by adding more editors we couldn’t keep up with it. So we closed it.
The good thing about having a team is that you share the work and you get the benefit of many points of view. Therefore, you can be certain, that if so many editors agree that something is good, it is. On the other hand, you can’t allow the ‘tyranny of the majority’ either. As editor-in-chief, it was my job to take the finalists chosen by the team, and make selections that balanced the work, representing the variations in tanka, and diverse subjects and treatments. It isn’t necessary to have forty tanka about scattering a loved one’s ashes, even if they’re all excellent. Two or three will suffice.
When you select a poet’s work, what do you look for? What are the factors that stand out for you as a ‘compelling tanka’?
At this point in my career I’ve read around a hundred and twenty thousand tanka, waka, kyoka, gogyoshi, and related forms. I look for good writing, a clear vision, a striking image, a sincere emotion, honesty, and an artful arrangement of words. I look for good tanka, but when I’m editing the journal, I aim for ‘interesting’ not ‘the best.’ A journal is not a contest. The purpose of a journal is to provide space for poets to grow and experiment. A failed experiment can be a lot more interesting than a bland success. I look for poets who have something to say. That might be serious or whimsical, but it’s uniquely them.
I reject those that try to be universal. You don’t create a universally appealing poem by being generic or picking cliches. My influences in tanka come from the art world even more than the poetry world; I really am an artist with words. So Andrew Wyeth is a major influence. I live not far from his family home in Pennsylvania. When I look at his paintings, I recognize the terrain. The hills are shaped differently there than here. The houses, the people, the fields, they’re different. When I cross the Mason-Dixon Line from Maryland to Pennsylvania, I don’t need a sign to tell me. I can see it. I want to see those kinds of local details captured in a poem. Once we take our locality seriously and treat it as if it’s valuable and important, then it becomes a symbol for larger issues that are shared by all people.
Apart from what I’ve showcased here at Mandy’s Pages (Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka), what are your other projects?
Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka is published thrice a year. It’s a large format journal, 8.5” x 11”. I picked the large format so that I could publish large works of poetry. Tanka is a very short five line poem that doesn’t take up much space at all; but they can be grouped together into sequences and tanka prose. In the first issue I published ‘Round Faces and Nesting Dolls’ by Alexis Rotella and an’ya. They jointly wrote 86 tanka on growing up Slavic (Russian and Serbian, respectively) in America.
I also publish nonfiction. It’s important to me to not passively consume poetry like we consume videogames and movies and gossip and other entertainments. Tanka invite the reader to reflect and to join in the making of meaning by combining their own experiences with the poem. We call this ‘dreaming room.’ So it’s important to think deeply about poetry and experience, about history and personality, technique and audience, and everything else that impinges upon our literary existence. If we engage like that, we realize that everything is tanka. I’ve said that repeatedly—people have challenged me to write tanka about unpoetic subjects like socks and asphalt. I can do it—nothing has meaning unless we give it meaning. That’s true of mountains as much as socks.
Atlas Poetica is your baby. You started it, nurture it and watch it bloom poetically, that it must mean something more than poetry to you. How would you describe Atlas Poetica or what do you find most fulfilling about the publishing results?
Poets are so happy to be published in Atlas Poetica. When they buy a physical copy and hold that gorgeous journal in their hands, they’re amazed. With the big format, you can linger over a page with your eye moving back and forth among a multitude of poems. You can’t do that with a tablet or phone. (I’m all for electronic reading devices. Almost everything published can do well on an electronic device, and for the blind or disabled, it’s a godsend to be able to read what you want to read, instead of only being able to pick what the government decides to record on tape.) So I ask myself, what does the physical form of the book contribute to the reading experience that the electronic device can’t? That is the immersive experience. A double page spread of ATPO is the size of a newspaper page. You can lose yourself in it, hide behind it if you’re riding on the subway, and enjoy the cover art on your coffee table. It’s not just poetry: it’s a world.
My big problem is my health. I have narcolepsy. The most famous symptom is falling asleep at inappropriate times, but there are other symptoms, which get summarized by the term ‘brain fog.’ I never get writer’s block—but my brain chemistry frequently malfunctions. At such times my ability to do even simple tasks evaporates. For example, sometimes I am typing and suddenly I forget how to type. I have been typing for forty years! And suddenly my hands are hovering over the keyboard in bewilderment as I wonder, “Where is the L? I know I know where it is, but where is it?” Therefore when I’m well enough to work, I work very hard, and when I’m not, I don’t.
Talk about books you’ve authored and edited, how many books do you have in your portfolio of published work? Which one has been your all-time favorite and why? What makes it so special for you? What about the least favorite from the lot?
Let's see. In the last few years I have published 3 collections of my own poetry, 1 by another person, 7 anthologies of poetry, 16 issues of the journal, 5 special poetry features online, 6 novels, 1 bibliography, and various nonfiction articles. I'm currently working on another anthology and another novel. This doesn't count all the short fiction I published when I was young. My favorite project is always the one I am starting on, and my least favorite is the one that is almost done but not quite. Like everyone, I like the excitement of beginning. The tedium of finishing when it's down to the nitty-gritty of copyediting and meeting deadlines, not so much.
Wow! That is quite a collection. Congratulations on your achievements and especially on your latest book, 'January, A Tanka Diary'. There are many people who aspire to be writers – especially to write novels. Some make it through successfully, while there are those who trudge along wondering if they will ever make the mark of an author to be reckoned with. How would you advice an aspiring writer?
Writing is a craft. If you wait to be inspired, you picked the wrong vocation. People tell me that I’m talented. No, I’m skilled. I’ve been honing my writing for thirty years. When I started, I was nothing special. But I stuck with it. They say it takes ten thousand hours of practice to master a skill. If you’re not willing to do that, then you’re not a writer. It also means there’s no such thing as writer’s block. When you sit down to write, you have a goal. When you know what your goal is, you know what steps you have to take to achieve it. If you don’t know what your goal is, why are you trying to write? That’s like doing math by staring at a blank piece of paper hoping to feel inspired. No. You do math because you need to solve a problem. If you don’t know how to solve that particular problem, you look it up, or go ask somebody who is more skilled, and you learn how to do it. Same with writing. Mathematics and writing are tools to accomplish goals. They are not goals in and of themselves.
What would you like to share about tanka? How would you advice an aspiring tanka poet?
I recommend reading good tanka. Anything mentioned in this interview is a good place to start reading Tanka. The first volume of Take Five has an introduction that will orient you to the history. To write it, you must read it. You will start absorbing it by osmosis. Then write in a journal. Next you must learn how to see. I mean ‘see’ in a Georgia O’Keefe way. Nobody paid much attention to pansies until she came along and painted a gigantic pansy that forced people to look at it. This is why a lot of tanka poets write about nature: it’s right there and it’s full of possibilities. When you become a real poet, you will be able to see infinite possibilities in a hunk of concrete. I published an article, “Everything Is Tanka,” in the Bamboo Hut, issue 1, that addresses this. When you’re ready to reach out to find others, there’s a set of International Tanka Resources published at the Atlas Poetica website.
What are your future writing plans and goals? What stands out for you when you visualize your future?
My next project is Bright Stars Tanka, An Organic Tanka Anthology. It will focus on contemporary, brash, forward-looking tanka. It will also be published in a large format to accommodate long works.
Tanka is a very old literature. Its first anthology was published in 759 AD (that’s seven hundred and fifty nine AD). The classics are very good, but people get stuck on the classics and try to write imitations of ancient Japanese tanka. Do they think nothing important has happened in the last eight hundred years? We can enjoy and learn from the ancient poets, but we shouldn’t slavish imitate them. We need to take the tools we learn from the ancient and apply them to our own lives.
Bright Stars looks forward. We have a solid foundation in the old tanka, but now it’s time to fly. Tanka has continuously evolved, and it will continue to evolve. When it stops evolving, it’s dead. Think of it in terms of art. A thousand years ago, the Europeans were doing illuminated manuscripts. They were beautiful. Does that mean European should never do anything but illumination? Of course not. Art can’t remain static. As soon as a piece is done, it’s obsolete. Somebody somewhere is already making something new.
This has been an inspiring interview, Kei. I am so grateful that you should take the time to share your life and work as a writer; more specifically, a renowned tanka poet. I wish you all the best in your career goals and writing adventures. In conclusion, I'd like to share one of your tanka with my readers. I do believe this is from your book, 'January, A Tanka Diary'.
Image Credit: M. Kei
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