February 15, 2019

Love and the Ink Dark Moon

Izumi Shikibu, a poet at Empress Teishi's court.
(Shown here in a c. 1765 Kusazōshi by Komatsuken)

When my desire
grows too fierce
I wear my bed clothes
inside out,
dark as the night's rough husk
    - Ono no Komachi

I was gifted with a copy of The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu which are translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani. Besides the poems, I found the story of these poets from over a millennium ago very interesting. It seems that in Japan's imperial Heian Court, female poets were well accepted. I would have assumed the opposite. They were given a voice and could have a place in literary circles.

In this particular time and culture, the arts were valued and women had a place. No other period in Japan’s literary history was as dominated by women as the Heian Period. Hirshfield writes that this court setting "proved to be a uniquely auspicious environment for women writers for several reasons, but foremost is the central role of the arts in the conduct of daily life."

This collection is subtitled as "love poems" and there are certainly many that concern matters of the heart, but there are also poems about the passage of time and other themes.

This body
grown fragile, floating,
a reed cut from its roots...
If a stream would ask me
to follow, I'd go, I think.

    - Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu were important poets during Japan's Heian Age (795-1185). Their poems were generally waka (tanka) poems in form. Hirshfield says that "Komachi and Shikibu stand out as two of the greatest poets in an age of greatness not simply because they achieved technical virtuosity in their chosen form, the thirty-one syllable tanka verse, but because they used this form as a medium of reflection and introspection... each confronted her experience with a directness and honesty unusual in any age."

Izumi Shikibu was religious but also passionate - two qualities that are not always equally present. She did spend time in Buddhist monasteries and once contemplated becoming a nun. But she never denied her femininity, and her extramarital affairs made her the subject of ostracism by her family. While married, she fell in love with the Empress' son. After the death of the Prince she had an affair with the Prince's married brother.

the scandal caused the Prince's wife to leave him and Shikibu lived with him for five years. The Prince died during and during a period of intense mourning, she wrote more than 200 poems to her departed lover.

Remembering you...
The fireflies of this marsh
seem like sparks
that rise
from my body's longing.

    - Izumi Shikibu

Ono no Komachi as an old woman, a woodcut by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
A life in vain.
My looks, talents faded
like these cherry blossoms
paling in the endless rains
that I gaze out upon, alone
    - Ono no Komachi

Jane Hirshfield is a well known poet with many connections to Japanese forms and philosophy. With the help of Mariko Aratani, she translated into the English language these poems, many of which were not available in English.

If you are interested in the tanka genre, women poets, or this period  and gives us new insight into life as lived during the Heian Era, considered by many scholars as a golden age for Japanese poetry and literature.

If you have ever read classical Japanese literature by women, you probably are more likely to know Sei Shonagon's The Pillow Book or Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji than these poets. (Shikibu is a title, not a name, so the two writers are not related except both were  part of the court of Empress Akiko. Komachi wrote 100 years earlier.)

All of these works deal with the Heian Period life and the sexual intrigue that was well known but usually happening under covers of silk and darkness. Court poets wrote about  almost anything happening around them from an affair, rain and snow storms, aging, or returning a fan. The poems are devoid of the politics of courtly life.

In this world
love has no color — 
yet how deeply
my body
is stained by yours.

Besides the poems, the book has a fascinating introduction and information about the process of translation. The latter topic has interested me of late, as I may take on some translation myself.

Hirshfield writes about that process:
"Anyone who attempts that impossible task, the translation of poetry, must at some point wonder what exactly a poem might be, if not its own body of words. For surely, all can attest who have made the hard and joyous effort to write a poem of their own, poetry dwells in words: absolutely particular in meaning, irreplaceably individual in rhythm and sound... the act of translation constitutes a leap of faith, a belief that somehow this part of a poem that lives both through words and beyond words can be kept alive, can move from its life in one verbal body to another."

Look at their translation of one poem by Komachi, and then compare it to another translation.

I know it must be this way
in the waking world,
but how cruel ---
even in my dreams
we hide from others' eyes

Another translation of that poem by Edwin Cranston, a translator who makes no claim to being a poet himself, renders that poem in this way.

In the waking world
Such caution may be well advised,
But even in dreams
To see him watching others' eyes ---
This is wretchedness itself!

Which translation is "correct?" Or is no translation really correct? As a poet, I prefer the Hirshfield version which is probably less literal. But there have always been those purists who would claim that literature should only be read in its original language. Of course, that takes a great deal of literature away from us.

This pine tree by the rock
must have its memories too:
after a thousand years,
see how its branches
lean towards the ground
     - Izumi Shikibu

No way to see him
on this moonless night ---
I lie awake longing, burning,
breasts racing fire,
heart in flames.

    - Ono no Komachi


February 4, 2019

Prompt: Valentines

I was watching the video of Naomi Shihab Nye reading "Valentine for Ernest Mann," which was made as part of the Academy of American Poets' educational project for National Poetry Month in 2014.

There will be many cards given on February 14 with good and bad verses about love. But not all Valentine's Day verses have to be about love or be happy - though that is usually the hope.

Did you give and get valentines as a child in school? When my sons were in elementary school, we were told that you had to have one for everyone in the class. This seemed to defeat the purpose, but it was politically correct and we looked for packages of cards that contained ones that were innocuous enough to give to both his female and his male classmates without causing a scene.

Reading Valentine for Ernest Mann by Naomi Shihab Nye, we find her response to a request for a poem from a boy. (I imagine it to be a student in a class she has visited.) That's not the way it works with poems, she might have said. But she does write him a poem, even though:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Nevertheless, the poet continues:

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.

She has suggestions on where you might find a poem: "They are the shadows / drifting across our ceilings the moment / before we wake up." And advice: "What we have to do / is live in a way that lets us find them."

Her valentine to Ernest is a poem, but it is also ways to find his own poems.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

Our writing prompt for February is a valentine, but that certainly doesn't mean it must be a love poem. It might be difficult to find a serious or sad Valentine's Day card in a store, but I'm sure they have been written. 

A poet connection to all of this goes back to medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. There are no records before his writing of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day. But when he wrote around 1375 his “Parliament of Foules,” he connected a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day. That connection didn’t exist until he made it. In his poem February 14 is the day when birds and humans try to find a mate.

“For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.”

Chaucer may have invented the holiday.

The original valentine predates Chaucer. That valentine may have expressed love, but was certainly written under sad conditions. According to one version, an imprisoned Valentine (not yet Saint Valentine) sent a note of love to a young girl (possibly his jailor’s daughter–who visited him during his confinement) before his execution. He signed it “From your Valentine.” That expression is still in use today.

Submission Deadline for this prompt is February 28. Yipes! Short month!

February 1, 2019

What Are Publishers Looking For?

Poets often ask other poets for advice on where to send poems and for tips about what publishers are seeking.

If you send out poems regularly, then you probably also regularly get rejections or a "declined" response on Submittable. For submissions to Poets Online, we reject the most poems for a very simple reason: they don't respond to the prompt, since we are looking only for poems from the current writing prompt, 

Publications always recommend that you look at a few issues (online or in print) to get a sense of "what they are looking for," but I have done that for some publications and have still wondered what made those poems the ones they accepted.

Writers should look at a journal or press' website for that submission guidelines page. A useful tool is the database at Poets and Writers magazine. If you look at their search tool and narrow the search to small presses that accept poetry, you will find many possibilities.

But the information given out by a press can really vary in its usefulness.

2River offers this EDITORIAL FOCUS "We prefer poems with these qualities: image, subtlety, and point of view; a surface of worldly exactitude, as well as a depth of semantic ambiguity; and a voice that negotiates with its body of predecessors."

Wow. That's a tough focus to parse. Do my poems have a "surface of worldly exactitude" and do they negotiate with some body of predecessors?  This would be a tough essay question for the final exam.

On the other hand, the next press in the alphabetical list is 3 Mile Harbor Press and their focus gives me a better sense of what they are looking for in submissions: "3 Mile Harbor Press is committed to publishing the best diverse work by new and established poets and is particularly interested in finding LGBQT, feminist and environmentally aware voices."

They further offer these TIPS FROM THE EDITOR: "Please no greeting card, overly sentimental or clichéd offerings--also nothing sexist, misogynist, racist or homophobic. 3 Mile Harbor Press is looking for strong voices and strong imagery. Virtually any genre of poetry is acceptable: lyric, narrative, experimental, magical realism, spoken word, etc., as long as it is within a cohesive manuscript."

You might think that Wake Forest University Press in North Carolina might be a good place for your Southern-focused poetry, but they say that they publish "Irish poetry only" and they do not accept manuscripts from American poets, including Irish-American poets. So, "If you are a native of Ireland and wish to submit a poetry manuscript, please email a representative sampling of your poetry and your biographical information."  Cross that one off my list.

Looking in the search under "literary magazines," I find one I am familiar with and have submitted to and have had poems published in. That is the Paterson Literary Review. But their description is not very useful "Poems: under 2 pages, high quality, any style... Please do not send more than five poems  at a time. We do not accept online submissions."

That is pretty basic and I know by reading the journal and by my own submissions that were accepted and also by being lucky enough to know the poet/editor, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, that "any stle" isn't really what they are looking for in submissions. If you submit "language poems," there is an excellent chance that they will be rejected. Looking in PLR, you will not find that style. Maybe you should send those to places like Poetry magazine, even though they claim a "desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written."