Film Tanka

Richard von Sturmer is a New Zealand writer and has published three books: We Xerox Your Zebras (Modern House, 1988), A Network of Dissolving Threads (Auckland University Press, 1991), and Suchness: Zen Poetry and Prose (HeadworX, 2005).

As well as being a lyricist for several New Zealand bands, including Blam Blam Blam, he and his partner, Amala Wrightson, toured the country in the 1980’s as the performing duo, The Humanimals. From 1993 to 2003 he lived and worked at the Rochester Zen Center, a Buddhist community in upstate New York. During that time his work appeared regularly in literary journals and anthologies. His poetry was also included in Best New Zealand Poems 2003.

von Sturmer comments: ‘One morning, after returning to live in New Zealand in 2004, I walked into the bathroom and found a moth clinging to the handle of my razor. The verse below formed at that moment, and as I had recently bought a digital camcorder in the United States, I filmed the moth as well.

the rain is continuous,
as a moth is sleeping
on the stem of my razor
I decide
to remain unshaved

‘This would become the first of 26 Tanka Films, tanka being an unrhymed Japanese verse form of five lines. Tanka is generally more lyrical and subjective than haiku, and before the Meiji Restoration in Japan it was known as waka. Yoel Hoffmann provides a good description of its composition:

“Most tanka contain two poetic images. The first is taken from nature; the second, which may proceed, follow, or be woven into the first, is a kind of meditative complement to the nature image.…The tanka poet may be likened to a person holding two mirrors in his hand, one reflecting a scene from nature, the other reflecting himself as he holds the first mirror. The tanka thus provides a look at nature, but it regards the observer of nature as well.”

‘With my Tanka Films, you could say that I held a camera in one hand and a pen in the other. As the cycle progressed, the filmed material would come first and the verse would then arise from the juxtaposition of images. Number 11 is an example of this.

‘Although I began with five shots to correspond with the five line form of tanka, it soon became unnecessary to adhere to a five-shot sequence; sometimes the filmed images were so strong that only three shots were needed. This can be seen in Number 22, where a pan across a shelf of Islamic books, with gold, Arabic lettering on their spines, is bracketed by the image of an octopus in an aquarium. Both images were filmed on the same day in Wellington; the octopus at Wellington Airport and the books at the home of a friend, the Iraqi poet Emad Jabbar. Number 22 also has no verse.

‘Spaced throughout the cycle, there are six Tanka Films that have no text, relying only on visual images and sound. I found this important as there is no “literary” bias to the cycle; the words are meant to work hand-in-hand with the visual images to evoke an atmosphere, to create a resonance, and there were times when no text was needed. This also allows the viewer to enter another space when watching the cycle of 26 films from beginning to end (each film lasts between 40 seconds and 1 minute).

‘Over the two years of filming, a natural thematic development occurred. I started with everyday images from my home and neighbourhood, and then extended the terrain to include a wide range of subject matter. Ecological concerns began to appear, and the cycle ends with a global perspective in the final Tanka Film:

there’s a window to the future
a window for dreaming
your rocket ship is ready,
but it’s the earth — the sight of the earth
that always draws you back

‘From Thursday, May 18, the entire cycle of 26 Tanka Films can be viewed at the National Film Archive, 84 Taranaki Street, Wellington.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Auckland Zen Centre