An Interview with Sanford Goldstein: Part III
by Patricia Prime
PP: Whom do you most admire among the classical Chinese poets?
SG: I am only a beginner in Chinese poetry, so I cannot say I have a grasp on any of the poets, though I now feel that with my greater awareness of Li Po and Tu Fu that I do admire them. They stand as contrasts, and I almost feel I can tell a Li Po poem from a Tu Fu poem but not quite. Recently I wrote a poem in imitation of Li Po and when I asked two Japanese about my poem, all they could think of was connecting it to something long in the past, whereas my poem was dealing with a modern situation. Finally, with a few clues, one of the two men recognized what I was trying to do.
PP: Why do you think these classical forms of poetry have lasted so long?
SG: Poems last as long as they can interest readers. At the same time, one needs translators to keep the works alive. With Chinese poetry, as I understand from my readings, translators cannot get the rhymes and other techniques used in Chinese poetry, so the translation is only an approximation and ends up more of a free verse translation. When I recently read a series of Chinese poems all connected to nature, I had real trouble differentiating one from the other. In this instance, I think the translator should give more comprehensive notes. I couldn’t maintain my interest as I was able to do in the Penguin book. So that remains a problem for modern readers. Sometimes, too, I think the Chinese poem may be too long for modern patience. Perhaps it’s my immersion in tanka that makes me want to have shorter Chinese poems, yet in the “Chinese” poems I am writing, I often find my poem is more than 20 lines long!
PP: You are currently writing poems based on Chinese poetry. Do you think you have more flexibility with this form than when writing tanka?
SG: Of course. In tanka, I am limited to five short lines. But what surprises me is that I am trying to move closer to nature in writing these Chinese-like poems. I have believed that tanka are moments of the human condition, but part of the human condition is nature. I do have some tanka poems on nature, though the emphasis is usually with some personal involvement. I won’t quote one of my Chinese poems here, but I have to say that I like being freed from the restrictions of tanka even as I continually tell myself that even a tanka can soar. I tried to bring into my tanka on Moby Dick some of the immense power in the novel and felt I had succeeded.
Lately I haven’t written any Chinese poems, but I think that during my retirement years and days which will soon be spent in rural Japan in a house I have only slightly helped build myself (my artist friend has done most of it), I will get closer to nature and even perhaps to the human condition. Who knows what is waiting out there?
PP: Are these “Chinese” poems going to be considered for a collection?
SG: I have only a handful of poems right now―perhaps 12. I’m submitting one poem in a competition, and while I do not expect to win (I never expect to and usually don’t), I’ll see what happens. Eventually, I will see if I will continue to write these poems. In 40 years, I have published a mere five collections of tanka, so I don’t rush into publication. I’ve been lucky in terms of having many books of Japanese translation published, but I take a dim view of my own potential. Still, I want to write poems to the very end of the road.
PP: How do you feel about the way your writing career has progressed?
SG: Recently, two books of tanka collections were dedicated to me, so that was quite a jolt. I feel I did contribute to making tanka known in the West, and that has been a great satisfaction to me, though I always say that I am eternally grateful to Professor Shinoda. I feel a special quality in my own tanka that I don’t usually find in tanka, but lately I see that many people are using nature as a crutch rather than saying something about themselves in terms of tanka as diary (Takuboku’s expression). I find a greater personal element in the tanka being published nowadays, so that makes me feel I helped somewhat in that way.
But I have not only been a writer of tanka. I’m a frustrated short story writer, even though 17 or so of my short stories have been published, often in university journals and in smaller places. The other areas are the novel and plays. I wrote a novel entitled Letters to a Zen Master, rejected in the few places I sent it. And I have written at least five or six plays. When I was teaching creative writing at Purdue, I thought I ought to teach playwriting, something that had not been taught at Purdue for many years. In order to understand plays better, I became a member of the Purdue Players and was in a few plays with that group and another group. I went to several universities, including Harvard and UCLA and the University of Texas, to study playwriting and to write a play in each course. But nothing came of that.
I can’t say, then, that I’m happy about the way things have worked out. In my retirement I hope to get back to some of these other forms, but one doesn’t burst forth at 78, don’t you agree?
PP: What do you plan to work on in the future?
SG: Actually, I want to spend a great deal of time reading more and more books, especially novels and biography. I want to study my Japanese so that one of these days I can speak with confidence or even answer simple questions without feeling I’m a foolish “gaijin” (foreigner)! Of course, my writing will go on: the tanka, the Chinese poems, the short stories, the unpublished novel. I think somewhere in me is a play that can ring somebody’s bell. I’m hoping that my eyes hold out. I may even decide to put together a tanka journal, perhaps called This Tanka World. It might be printed by computer with my artist friend doing the designs. I imagine people sending me their tanka, and I imagine myself not merely saying this one’s okay, but giving criticism, giving time to each tanka. I always admired Maxwell Perkins, and I’ve regretted for years that I never really found a person who liked my work. Once someone did, but suddenly she died. I think there’s a world of creativity out there, and I want to be part of it.
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Return to the The Tanka Society of America Main Page.