Returning to Japan to talk about tanka

Janick Belleau


Janick Belleau, poet, cultural writer, and lecturer, has been interested in teaching about Japanesehaiku and tanka since 1998. In an interview with Outreach, she revealed fond memories of her two trips to Japan: one to Tokyo in October 2007, and the other to Kyoto in May 2009. She is a relatively new voice in the field of teaching how to write tanka and haiku poetry in English and French.


spruce forest

around the calm lake

this new bird

never heard before

your laugh on a daily basis


In Tokyo, she gave three lectures on Canadian women haiku pioneers and in Kyoto she discussed how modern poets could walk in the footsteps of the great Heian poetesses. Her presentations explain how women poets have contributed to the advancement of tanka and haiku in Japan since the 9th century and in Canada and France since the 20th century. “There is nothing more I would like to do than to return to Japan to give more talks” Belleau admitted. She is on a journey to explore “the parallels between life and the cycles of nature.”


end of fall

the maple defoliating

I too—

if I could see my mother again

my mirror in twenty years


In 2010, Belleauauthored D’âmes et d’ailes/ of souls and wings(Onna gokoro), a collection of 91 tanka composed in English and French. This collection marks the first time in nearly half a century that a Francophone female poet has written a bilingual book.InOctober 2010, the Canada Council for the Arts announced the book as one ofthe winners of the 2010 Canada-Japan Literary Awards and granted Belleau a $10,000 prize. These awards recognize literary excellence by Canadian authors writing on Japan, Japanese themes, or themes promoting mutual understanding between Japan and Canada. The funds for these awards come from the Japan-Canada Fund endowment dedicated toliterary awards.In awarding the prize to Belleau, the jury members said,“Following in the tradition of the poetesses of ancient Japan, the tanka by Janick Belleau wander through gardens and seasons, love and rebellion, echoing the age-old sadness conjured by death and its partner, oblivion. She is a talented author, making delicate use of language to offer readers a work of quality.”


November night

preparing a steam bath

to forget the time –

the house empty of echoes

except those of the past


D’âmes et d’ailes/ of souls and wings begins by introducing Japanese tanka female poets. The first 42 pages ofBelleau’s book are given to a well-annotated and scholarly essay, in both languages, called Tanka by women since the 9th century. She traces the history of tanka with brief biographies of the better-known poetesses, such as Ono no Komachi and Tawara Machi.


mist on the mountain –

Ono no Komachi

her well of beauty:

I feel tears flowing

despite myself


Her study and examples are taken from books on the subject written in French. Belleau claims the first French tanka poetess was Jehanne Grandjean (1880-1982), and explains the works of Kikou Yamata and Judith Gautier, who translate Japanese tanka into French.


at sunrise

my hair on the comb

at nightfall

maple leaves blown by the wind

everything passes… except for my love


Belleau replies to sadness and death with a touch of humor. Her Japanese-influenced Canadian poetry pulls at our heart strings.


the maidenhair tree

at the Japanese pavilion

loses its foliage –

the day I lose you

I will enter a convent


Tanka poems are written on five lines. Tanka in Japanese follow a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable form, but Belleau instructs us to write in a freestyle form. Her poem about rain is a pithier version of another prize-winning poem entitled Rain, composed by Dionne Brand.



drums on the attic roof

without you beside me

from trouble-some to dismal

my pillow thoughts


Other notable excerpts from her prize-winning book suitable for introducing to university level English classes include:


ping pong:

helium balloon

over the flames –

the laughter of two friends

their childhood regained


a goldfinch

shreds a bagel –

her tuberculous father

how he ruined his health

on the docks


pedal boat

on the water lily lake

a ballet of insects

I let myself be carried

into their silent world


She writes about identity and the relationship we have to the environment. Here is an example of how her poetry can be a bridge between culture and nature.


heat haze

the cry of geese

on the quay

I question

my own agitation


Her love poems are open and precise. They greet the reader with wide open arms.


along the green road

on a midsummer day

a bay of diamonds

wild with joy I go to you

wearing red lipstick


Several of her poems reflect the ephemeral nature of life. She lays bare a bittersweet awareness of life’s brevity. She provides catharsis.


at sunrise

my hair on the comb

at nightfall

maple leaves blown by the wind

everything passes… except for my love


the maidenhair tree

at the Japanese pavilion

loses its foliage –

the day I lose you

I will enter a convent


she removes

a limp butterfly

from the edge of the well –

an urn will be more tempting

than a coffin… when my time comes


Belleau claims that “Themes of classical tanka have changed little in thirteen centuries” and that love and death remain the universal subjects that all of us can share. The final poem in her collection reads:


at the instant of my death

I pray to wake

one last time

I do not want to leave you

without a farewell kiss, my love



Belleau, J. (2010).D’âmes et d’ailes/ of souls and wings. Quebec: Éditions du tanka francophone.