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Interview with M. Kei

[First appeared in Poetry Nook, Vol. 4.  --ed]

M.Kei is one of the most prominent tanka poets in modern English, having work appear in dozens of journals and collections. He is also a prolific editor, publishing the Atlas Poetica journal and numerous anthologies. Aside from publishing poetry, M. Kei has written several sea adventure novels, drawing on his experience working on ships and love of the sea. He can be followed on Twitter @kujakupoet or his website, AtlasPoetica.org. 

How did you first get exposed to poetry and when did you realize that it was a major passion in your life? Were you interested in poetry in general at first or was it exposure to the tanka form that ignited your interest?
I was forced to read Western literature in high school and didn’t care for it. Then I was exposed to manga (Japanese comic books) and became interested in all things Japanese. In college I took a Japanese humanities course and encountered tanka. So I was 22 when I became fond of tanka. I tried to write it at the time, but failed. It was much later in life (21st century) that I returned to it.
What is it about the tanka form that attracts so much of your effort—both in your own writing and your promotion of others’ work through your journal and anthologies? What do you feel is special about the tanka form that allows it to accomplish something unique compared to other short forms, such as haiku or free form micropoetry? Do you ever have poetic inspiration to express your ideas in a longer form, or do tanka sequences provide the flexibility you need in that area?
The Japanese principle of ‘aware’ or beautiful sadness appealed to me when I was young and still does. It was a way to experience the disappointments and perishability of the world without becoming maudlin and depressed. Tanka contains infinite possibilities, such as ‘akarui’, the aesthetic of brightness and noise. The five poetic phrases that make it up are uniquely strong yet flexible. This gives tanka an enduring appeal while still being able to morph into new and interesting forms. Haiku, for example, is just one of many offshoots of tanka. Haiku holds little interest for me; it lacks tanka’s power to address absolutely anything.
I’m not fond of free verse because a writer can simply start writing and meander on. Tanka forces the poet to be brief and to say what he intends, which creates clarity. Tanka has evolved over 1400 years to be able to imply a great deal more than it states. This requires the reader to participate in the creation of the poem by connecting his or her own experiences with it. I sometimes write tanka prose or tanka sequences to extend an idea, but tanka in larger works are not stanzas. Tanka are autonomous. They can be pulled out of a larger work and are still coherent and meaningful. By contrast, stanzas depend on the rest of the poem for their meaning.
Tanka can be sequenced into book length works, which does not happen with free verse and other kinds of poems. An anthology of sonnets does not build into a larger whole, but is a collection of parts. I have edited several book length works; two of my collections, January, A Tanka Diary, and Slow Motion : The Log of  a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, are both diaries. They are sections of my journals, and both come out of the same year (2007). Slow Motion focuses on the journeys made aboard a traditional work boat, but January is all other subjects, such as work or hiking in the woods. Both could be characterized as ‘memoirs’ rather than ‘collections.’
The majority of your tanka have traditional nature-connected themes, albeit with modern connections as well. For example, “grey ghost / in the winter woods, / unlike you, tree, / I will not be born again / on a spring day” or “after days / without sparrows, / suddenly a flood / of little brown birds / in the middle of the rain.” We were also particularly struck by your dead deer and walk-in-the-woods poem, and your sea-inspired poems.  Where do you find the inspiration for your poems? Do they just come to you as you go about your walks or your sailing, do you meditate on them after a long day, or do you ever use prompts?
I write on the spot. I pay attention to what’s around me. To be a tanka poet and a sailor of traditional vessels requires paying attention, to be mindful of the world in a non-Zen way. Although it is a truism of Zen that when you try to do Zen, you aren’t doing Zen. You can only do Zen when you’re not doing Zen. I’m a Quaker, we believe in simplicity and awareness too, so there’s nothing inherently Zen about being tuned into your own existence.
Sometimes I go looking for poems. As in, I put on my coat and hat, take a notebook and a pen, and go walking. The May poems in January, A Tanka Diary, about walking through the woods and finding the dead doe and fawn, those were written on the spot. I was crouching next to the bones when I wrote those poems. I have even written poems while at the wheel of a boat, but that’s harder to do because you have to steer. So often I write the poems later, when I am off duty. My notebook is mottled with water stains from thrown spray or rain. Some are written from memory. Some are written from imagination.
I did experiment with writing fictional poems at one point, but they dissatisfied me. I keep my journals in the form of verse, usually tanka, but whatever small shape the poem requires. It’s important to me to bear witness. I’m grateful that other locals regard Slow Motion as an authentic record. I hope they will also see our world truthfully depicted in my latest collection, January.
Do you set aside a specific writing goal each day or week, whether in hours writing or words written? How does your process for writing fiction and poetry differ?
Sometimes I feel like writing, so I write. I have the urge to write, so I do it. Other times, I noticed things and write them down. I used to live in an apartment on the first floor facing a vacant lot, so my poems were full of the birds and trees and honeysuckle seen from my window. Right now it is snowing, so there are snow poems outside my window.  The poet Grunge is a friend of mine. He tells me about his spiders and gecko, so there are spider and gecko poems in my journal. (I liked insects in my poems even before meeting him.)
Fiction, non-fiction, and poetry are very different. To write fiction I need to be in a state of relaxation. I can’t write fiction unless my brain is nourished and at rest. That’s physically and mentally nourished. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to write the novels. Non-fiction requires a different sort of focus. I have to be detail-oriented and analytical to create my argument and support it with evidence. Poetry is something I can write at any time unless I am utterly dysfunctional. That happens because I have narcolepsy, a neurological disorder. So I have to be patient with myself. I can only do what I can do.
Editing, by contrast, is easy for me. I can edit journals and anthologies even when I when I’m unwell. Editing is a process of creative sorting. Most people don’t understand editing at all. They think you just pick things and publish them. Where’s the skill in that? Fire Pearls Vols. 1 and 2 are sequenced into five seasons. They are creative narrative threads tracing through the various developments and denouements of intimate relationships.
Do you feel that having a supportive atmosphere around you is helpful for pursuing your writing career? Do your co-workers know about it? Do your friends and family encourage you in it? Or, as in some strains of Japanese poetic history, do you find an element of loneliness (sabishisa) to be essential in creating poetry?
Nobody around me takes any interest in my poetry or novels. My children are aware of it, but they won’t read it. It’s something I do on my own. I do have some online friends who are supportive. Twitter is an immensely supportive social environment for tanka poets. You can find me @kujakupoet there. I receive tons of email from poets, not just submissions, but comments and questions and sometimes conversations. So yes, a writer needs to cultivate an environment that furnishes his mind. Part of that is like-minded people, but it also means going out into the real world. To see different places, to choose to experience the world instead of moving blindly through it. I have written tanka in caves and college dining halls. Everything is tanka, if only we see it so.
What have you learned about writing by tackling novels after many years of successfully writing poetry?
I wrote my first novel before I succeeded in writing tanka. That was a long time ago. The thing I learned from writing the novel is that writing is a skill. It’s not something you sit around waiting to be ‘inspired’ to do. You have to drag your butt out of the chair and do the necessary research. You have to read books to teach you how to do things that you’re not good at. Then you have to practice. I spent 6–14 hours a day, 5–7 days a week on the novel until it was done. You have to make words do what you intend them to do. In that regard, novel writing and poetry writing are the same. However, the intended goal is different and the intended audience is different, so you must write in the way that addresses them. I always resent people telling me, “You’re so talented!” No, I’m skilled. I worked hard for decades to be able to write what I write.
Having returned to novel writing after an extended gap, I also find that being a tanka poet has strengthened my novel writing. I can’t write a plot or prepare an outline in advance; I make it up as I go along. Having written so much tanka has given me an appreciation for they way individual tanka speak for themselves, but collectively move a narrative forward. So that is applied in my novels. Likewise, the choice of the adroit detail. I also make synecdoches in fiction. An editor once attempted to edit all that out my writing, but it’s a distinctive part of my style. Synecdoche is a valuable technique when you’re trying to pack the maximum meaning into a small poem. I had a valuable creative writing teacher when I was a freshman in high school; he taught us poetry first. He told us that everything you learn how to do in poetry will apply to every other form of writing. He was right.
Do you plan on continuing to publish both fiction and poetry going forward? Do you see yourself leaning more towards one or the other?
I will continue both, but I am not naturally a novelist, so the novels are hard for me even when they’re fun. Writers are like runners. Some runners are naturally sprinters and some are naturally marathon runners. If they try to switch events, it feels unnatural. I am naturally given to short lengths. Tanka suits my inherent strengths. By the time I finish 100K work rough draft of a novel, I’m sick of the thing. Revision is the easy part. I’ve written six novels in the last five years, so after The Sea Leopard, the current novel is done, I’m going to take a break from novel-writing.
Your Pirates of the Narrow Seas novels, although mainly sea adventure stories, deal with sexuality directly with a gay protagonist, yet your tanka in January: A Tanka Diary only rarely discuss this theme.  What prompted you to explore homosexuality more directly in fiction as opposed to poetry? Was it the lack of gay protagonists in the genre, or do you feel that the fiction form allows a fuller exploration of the theme?
Pirates of the Narrow Seas started as an attempt to entertain myself. I enjoy nautical fiction, but I was tired of the lack of gay characters. Or, when they did appear, they were very minor stereotypes whose sole purpose for existing was to get knocked down by the hero so he could prove how manly he was. I threw a book across the room in disgust, said, “I know how to write, I’ll write my own story.” So I invented the character of Peter Thorton and started following him around. His story makes up books 1–4 of Pirates of the Narrow Seas. Two additional books, Man in the Crescent Moon and the work in progress, The Sea Leopard, detail the earlier life of Captain Tangle, a major supporting character in the first four books. Man in the Crescent Moon is a Finalist for a Rainbow Award in the category of gay historical fiction. The winners will be announced December 9.  (Book 1, The Sallee Rovers, also won awards.)
Tanka can address any subject, but when I am writing love poetry, I don’t usually make a direct gay statement. I don’t say, “I love my gay lover” in real life, I say, “I love him.” If you know I’m male, then you know it’s a gay poem. If you don’t, then you don’t. Since the reader is co-creator, they can read the genders any way that make sense to them. I have included in my biographical information that I am gay so that other LGBT tanka poets and readers will know they aren’t alone.
This is true about other LGBT tanka poets I have seen as well. Gay Japanese tanka poet Ishii Tatsuhiko wrote a collection entitle Bathhouse that centers on his experiences at a gay bathhouse and includes overt sexuality, and Andrew Cook-Jolicoeur had a website that was dedicated to his desire to find a partner and get married, but most LGBT tanka poets are ordinary people who go about their lives in the ordinary way.
Your tanka at times mention your children and possibly hint at a heterosexual marriage in the past. Was your sexuality something you understood from an early age or did your awareness develop over time? You are currently open about your sexuality in your bio and work; was it difficult to get to the point psychologically to be open about it? Has the current, more open, culture made a difference on a personal level?
I grew up in a time where there were no role models. Gay=child molester or gay-transvestite prostitute. I didn’t relate to that, so I thought I must not be gay. I was something unique and strange. I was an oddball in all ways: gender, nerd, creative, sickly, awkward, you name it. I was it. So I was married twice, with children, and attempted to have a normal suburban life, but it never fit. I wrote my first novel then, and the main character was gay, and I realized I didn’t know anything about it. So I researched it, and discovered a great many facts that helped to blow apart the stereotypes I’d been raised on. After that, I knew what I was.
Once I knew what I was, I was open about it, except where it was unsafe. That’s why I use a pen name, for example. I’m employed in public education, and I dread the paranoia directed against any idea of gay men having contact with children. I also had my home and car vandalized and my children violently assaulted, so, for the sake of safety, when I moved to another town, I kept it private. It’s not internalized homophobia that keeps me quiet; it’s the desire to not have to spend several hundred dollars to repair my vehicle when somebody takes a baseball bat to the gay pride sticker.
Bigots hate everybody. I’m Native American on my mother’s side, and my ‘red pride’ bumper stickers were targeted as well as my gay pride bumper stickers. Now I have nothing on my car. I also have a disability and walk with a limp, and I’ve been threatened with violence because of that, also. It may come as a surprise to the able-bodied, but there are bigots who specialize in beating up people with disabilities, just as there are bigots who beat up LGBT and people of color. Once you’ve adopted the viewpoint that you are the center of the world, then anyone who is different from you is despised.
How did you poetry career initially develop until the point where you started your own publishing firm?
Keibooks came first. I had published some poetry with journals in the Spring of 2006 when Denis M. Garrison, Michael McClintock and I planned the first Fire Pearls. Then Denis and Michael dropped out, and I was left holding the submissions. I decided to carry on. I’d run a small press a decade earlier, so I knew what I was doing. Print on demand and other modern technologies make small press publication much easier. So I published Fire Pearls 1 that spring before anybody knew who I was.
We notice you’ve begun publishing other poets’ collections, such as Joy McCall’s circling smoke, scattered bones, under this umbrella. How would you like to develop as a publisher over the coming years?
Joy McCall is a special case. She is paraplegic and it is difficult and painful for her to sit and type, so she hired me to take her poetry and make a book of it. I can’t pay royalties because I don’t have the necessary accounting skills to do the financial work involved. Likewise, I don’t know how to handle the tax obligation and reporting obligation when doing other people work, so I don’t. Therefore, I do work-for-hire as an editor. I know how to do my own taxes to report this self-employment income, so it fits within my skill set.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t have accepted the job if I didn’t respect Joy’s work. She’s an excellent poet, and I’m pleased with circling smoke, scattered bones, and more importantly, so is she. I might possibly publish some other poets this way. In the meantime, Keibooks will continue publishing Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Contemporary Tanka, the special features and resources on the website, anthologies, and my personal work. I have already announced Bright Stars, An Organic Tanka Anthology that is currently accepting tanka poetry on the theme of ‘akarui.’ Guidelines are at:
What qualities do you look for in the poems that you select for your journal and anthologies? What advice do you have for poets as they explore the tanka form? What do you think makes a good English tanka?
I look for poems that have something interesting to say. Other journals claim to publish only ‘fine’ or ‘excellent’ tanka, but that usually means publishing tanka that appeals to the editor’s taste. I have published some tanka I don’t like because I think they offered something different or interesting. I also believe that emerging poets need a place to publish where they can benefit from the response of the public to their work, so ATPO deliberately mixes experienced and emerging poets. It also means that experienced poets can experiment with things outside their usual work and not be typecast into publishing only the one thing they’re famous for. ATPO, being a journal of poetry of place, looks for tanka, waka, kyoka, gogyoshi, and nonce forms that are somehow grounded in a geographical or cultural place. ATPO deliberately reaches out around the world for tanka and related forms. We have had issues focused on tanka in translation, and most recently, an issue focused on SE Europe.
The anthologies look for poems relevant to the theme. I don’t publish generic anthologies. Fire Pearls 1 & 2 are on the theme of love—romantic, new, old, frustrated, passionate, lonely, desperate, misunderstood, rape, domestic violence, comedy, LGBT—any aspect of love desired, gained, or lost. Catzilla : Tanka, Kyoka and Gogyoshi about Cats was on the theme of cats. Bright Stars is looking for modern tanka, urban, upbeat, bright, etc, but also dark tanka where the darkness is an active darkness, not vapid, wan darkness.
As for interested poets: read good tanka. Many are hooked on the Japanese classics in translation, but they should also read modern tanka in translation, such as Leza Lowitz’s translation of A Long Rainy Season. They should also read excellent tanka in English, such as Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka, Vols. 1–4. Or tanka in their own native language, whatever that might be. Admittedly, there is not a lot of tanka in Fante or Slovenian, but it does exist.