This story was originally printed in the Rafu Holiday Issue on December 10, 2013.

genie nakano
Genie Nakano is a professional dancer, teacher, and haibun and tanka writer. She writes on a computer but she tries to stand up instead of sitting in a chair, which is good for her back. (RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff Writer

born in E.L.A. barrios
I live in a world of dualities
in my tight skirt and sweater
I can cha cha and hully gully down
but I don’t know who I am

I peroxide my black hair red
rat in high, rat in high
pierce my ears with the Catholic cross
orale pues—Buddhahead
a sansei becomes a chola*

This is a tanka form poem that Genie Nakano submitted to a journal for contemporary tanka and published this year. Tanka (meaning “short song”) were originally performed as songs and are the oldest form of poetry in Japan, going back over 1,300 years.

“It is simply an unrhymed five-line verse. Today, themes range from love, to despair, political environmental issues, to puppies and kittens and family topics,” Nakano says.

Haiku, 5-7-5-word poetry that references nature, is well known. Haiku has been taught even in U.S. elementary schools, but tanka, a long form of poetry, has not been recognized as much, Nakano says. “Tanka can express more emotion, tell the stories — and your personality in it … I wrote about my upbringing from East Los Angeles. Chola means ‘gangsters’ and orale pues refers to ‘all right’ or ‘right on.”

Nakano has been writing since she was nine. She worked professionally as a dancer/choreographer and dance teacher, teaches gentle yoga at the Japanese Cultural Institute in Gardena, and contributes a column, “Genie’s Lamp,” to The Gardena Valley News. Currently, her passion is tanka and haibun (haiku with prose). “Three lines, I can do that!”

Nakano started writing haiku, and later on got more into tanka when she came across a tanka written by Akiko Yosano, “Tangled Hair” (Midaregami).

How has Nakano developed her tanka writing skills?

Nakano has been working as a professional dancer after she received her master’s degree from UCLA.
Nakano has been working as a professional dancer after she received her master’s degree from UCLA.

In the summer of 2012, she met Amelia Fielden, a well-known tanka poet and translator from Australia. Nakano admired Fielden’s work, so she asked Fielden to be her mentor. Instead, Fielden suggested writing a series of responsive tanka together. “We communicate through emails and she gives me immediate feedback on my tanka. All of our work has been published in international tanka journals. I’m so grateful for this experience.”

According to Fielden, tanka must include a minimum of 19 syllables to a maximum of 31, with 21 being the ideal. This tanka (waka) rhythm is essential. The form does not limit the topic of expression.

There are many ways to enjoy tanka, Nakano says. “For example, I experiment with movement, dance, props and music when performing haibun and tanka regularly at open mikes (spoken-word events). This is a great way to make tanka ‘live’ and a responsive audience event.”

Last August, for the first time in the Los Angeles area, the Haiku Society of America hosted its annual tanka conference at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Nakano choreographed her interpretation for the three winning tanka as they were read.

In addition, if one wishes to publish poetry, you can self-publish.  Nakano has self-published several books, most recently a booklet of haibun entitled “Enter the Stream,” which is sold at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and also Harmony Works in Riviera Village in Redondo Beach. On Jan. 11, 2014, she will perform her haibun with dance and music, accompanied by shamisen artist Joseph Kamiya.

“When you write, do not censor yourself,” Nakano suggests. “You can use anything for your inspiration of writing, even by looking at photographs or thinking about your experience of visiting a place.  I want to encourage everybody to explore life. Try new things, explore and discover, be creative, learn, keep your eyes and heart open, grow — glow. Live a fulfilling life.”

Information: Nakano’s tanka class is held at Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute (GVJCI), 1964 W. 162nd St., Gardena, every third Thursday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m. Cost: $5 per meeting ($3 for GVJCI Tomo no Kai members). Call Nakano at (310) 644-1186 or GVJCI at (310) 324-6611. Second Sunday Jam, a poetry and music session, will be held every second Sunday of the month from 4 to 6 p.m. at GVJCI, free.

Upcoming Events: Little Tokyo creative writing contest: Maximum 2,500 words. Deadline: Jan. 31, 2014. First place receives $1,000 cash.

*excerpt from Genie Nakano’s “Orale pues,” published in Atlas Poetica Issue 14 (spring 2013)

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