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Leza Lowitz

Series Editor
Jane Reichhold

Tanka Splendor 1996


Fay Aoyagi

Pamela A. Babusci

Cathy Drinkwater Better

Margaret Chula

Ellen Compton

Garry Gay

Ellie Friedland

Kathleen Harris

Momi Kam Holifield

Anna Holley

Jean Jorgensen

Michael Ketchek

Larry Kimmel

George Knox

M.L. Harrison Mackie

Patricia Neubauer

Elizabeth Nichols

Mary O'Connor

Zane Parks

Francine Porad

George Ralph

David Rice

Edward J. Rielly

John Stevenson

Elizabeth St Jacques

Sue Stapleton Tkach

Andrew Todaro

Anne Wilson

Jeff Witkin

Brad Wolthers

Judge's Comments
Leza Lowitz

My introduction to tanka came at an unlikely place -- New York University film school, where my teacher used tanka by Kakinomoto Hitomaro to demonstrate how a resonant sense of time, place/season (nature) and emotion could be conveyed with a minimum of words. He compared Hitomaro's tanka to a shot or frame in a film, and through this I learned that a central image encapsulated in a lyrical frame could convey worlds at once distant and universal by suggestion a much as by inclusion. Although I did not know the name of the form then (and doubted my teacher did either), I did know that a man writing centuries ago in a verse born on a continent I had never visited spoke to me at seventeen as few poems -- ancient or contemporary -- I had read ever had. What was it that spoke to me?

The tanka, which originated in the elite realm of the Heian court of Japan as a highly decorative expression, has a certain emotional power undergirded by reference to the life cycle or a season, a "breath" of nature. Ironically, this once "elite" form now seems to flourish in the realm of everyday experience.

Tanka pack a great deal into a small arena. In this age of short attention spans and increasing disinterest in literature (whatever its forms), the growing popularity of tanka (in whatever language) is a happy renaissance of the ancient literary form.

Here, less is indisputably more.

Some have argued that the tanka in English has become something entirely different than its Japanese predecessor. And why not? Japanese baisubaru is a different game entirely than that played Stateside on the diamond by our favorite teams. And yet it is baseball, enjoyed by millions. Traditionalists have always been wary of and resistant to change. Yet, tanka too was once born.

* * *

A few days after returning from Tokyo, a box of tanka, your tanka, arrived at my doorstep.

Opening the plain brown box, I prepared to enter another world, like mentally taking one's shoes off in the foyer and leaving the outside world behind. Barefoot, one can feel the ground more solidly under the feet, the carpet between one's toes. I held the cards in my hands. Turning them over, your worlds came to rest briefly in my fingers.

I won't write here about the technical or formal aspects of the tanka, since most of you are quite familiar with them, perhaps more so than I. The "rules" and how to bend or break them are clearly familiar ground. Also, having written at length about the subject elsewhere, I'd like to use this space to describe the feelings your words invoked in me and how I went about choosing the winning entries and what the experience was like.

For me, the most successful English tanka retain one or more (or all) the traditional elements -- a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5-7-7, kake kotoba (pivot words), engo (puns), seasonal, cultural or literary allusions. Somehow, a successful tanka embodies the formal history of the tanka and transcends it by bringing its concerns to the present world. The winning tanka resonate a deeply felt experience, emotion, or awareness that ripples through the verse to the reader and the world at large. This is the essence of tanka. That essence, or spirit, is both native and universal.

The subjects of the entries were as varied as their styles. Among them were: love, loss, loneliness, aging, children, joy, grief, friends, enemies, life, death, silence, art, the animal-, insect-, and natural worlds, ways of seeing, origami, cyberspace, AIDS, Frederick Douglass, the endangered planet, Zen, and of course, the moon. They were both humorous and serious, traditional and more experimental.

Has the tanka really transmogrified in its voyage into English? If so, has it transformed for the worse? Judging from the contest entries, I would say not. Further, many contemporary kajin in the country of its birth look upon the tanka's formal elements with a certain degree of flexibility themselves.

Each of the poems spoke to me -- I could feel all the care and feeding that went into the crafting of each poem, and was grateful to have been given the opportunity to enter the writer's world for a brief moment. The persistence of feeling in these brief moments is for me a kind of triumph, especially given the great forgetfulness of modern life and the ease with which moments slip away and then are gone. In that sense, all are winners.

I read each of the sequences five times (and wished there had been more!), ultimately choosing five and finding it difficult to narrow it down to three. Several close contenders kept calling me back. Some of the sequences contained expert verses alongside verses that fell short. I finally selected a fourth winner and included it at Jane's suggestion.

With regard to the individual works, after reading each tanka five times, I chose fifty semi-finalists, then cut it down to forty. Many were clearly superior, and those rose to the top. Winnowing out thirty-one from the last forty was difficult -- again. I kept going back to the ones that refused to release my attention. The writing or diction was crisp, the sound or wording expert, the main image specific and transporting, but something undefinable was missing from the whole: a "click", and "aha!" or sense of discovery that gave the tanka a certain inevitability. And so those were put aside. Almost there.

Since the choosing of "favorites" (read: "winners") amounts to a matter of taste in the final analysis, it is inherently as unfair as it is fair. Yet, an awards contest spurs us on, makes us create anew, challenges us to do our best within ourselves to share those efforts. And so it was with me as well. Inspired by the hundreds of tanka in the brown box, I decided to try to write a tanka sequence for the occasion.

People who read a long rainy season (the anthology of contemporary Japanese women's haiku and tanka) often wrote to tell me which tanka they liked the best. Their responses were always surprising, and never consistent. Some chose the quiet elegance of more traditional tanka like Fumi Saito's

Snow plays more lightly
in the empty sky
than me --
and falling

Others singled out the bold and quirky poems of Akitsu Ei, such as:

Why was I given breasts
I wonder,
coming to town
to buy toothpicks
in the cold afternoon

The tanka world is as eclectic as the universe it is both a magnifier and microcosm of. It is a many-splendored thing, and so the contest is well-named. I thank Jane, and all of you for giving me the chance to join you there and here in word and deed.

Judge's Tanka

Ars Tanka:
On Boarding a Plane I Think Might be my Last
And Visiting the Airport Bookstore

Leza Lowitz

Writing a tanka
or not writing a tanka --
isn't it the same thing?
Wide awake at 3 am
it's dinnertime in Tokyo.

Words, crossed out again!
Scrape, scrape, scrape for forty years
across the ocean
otoosan* grates bonito
for his miso broth.

You'll know when you read
my Last Will and Testament --
I gave it my all.
"If I am to be reborn
let it be as a poem."

School of gray sardines
a sudden about-face leaves
the leader in back.
My rival's sure-fire hit book
has been remaindered.

*Father, (or in this case, father-in-law)

Tanka Splendor 1996
Award Poems

Fay Aoyagi
San Francisco, California

Four Seasons

Spring equinox
convinced by
magnolia blossoms
I bought a multi-colored
shower curtain

Summer solstice
has Mother
all the cushion covers
to starched linens?

Autumn equinox
from a farmer's market

hozuki *
I've been looking for

Winter solstice
inhale the aroma
citron bath
prepared as
Grandmother taught

* hozuki: Asian lantern


Pamela A. Babusci
Rochester, New York

you said i was
more comely than the
fairest wildflower. . .
now i see you have
plucked them all


Cathy Drinkwater Better
Reisterstown, Maryland

late August afternoon
torrid rays shimmer
above the endless blacktop
so many miles between us
so much heat


Margaret Chula
Portland, Oregon

From inside the fog
we listen to ospreys
call to each other
-- then row back in silence
our knees just touching


Margaret Chula
Portland, Oregon

my friends tell me
that they are breaking up
I stand at the sink
-- rinse the cloudy rice over
and over again


Margaret Chula
Portland, Oregon

after you have gone
weaving the warp and woof
of our love together
-- how the sparrow struggles
to build her nest of twigs


Ellen Compton
Washington, D. C

that moment
in the august heat
when my father
turned the garden hose
to us and not his roses


Garry Gay
Santa Rosa, California

You rise to leave
saying you have a busy day
planned for tomorrow
but what about this moment
I planned for all week


Ellie Friedland
Groton, Massachusetts

For Peter

who died of AIDS
June 10, 1995

close to dying
you no longer speak
or look in my eyes
but when I kiss you goodnight
you kiss me back

looking out your wall of windows
eighteen stories up
I stand
between the world out there
and you in bed

a man and a woman came
and took you away
even though
you never
closed your eyes

wind blew your ashes back on me
I brushed you off my arms
breasts, belly, legs --
but much remains
in the fabric of my jacket

you've been gone
two weeks
but the sugar bowl
still sits
where only you use it

again today I will dress
and walk and talk
as if life goes on
and in the night
we will do your dying again


Kathleen Harris
Corbett, Oregon

Windblown Dreams

that first moonlit night
halyard slapping against the mast
unfamiliar sound
but now, even my sleep,
I hear the phantom ships return

green jungle mountains
falling steeply to the sea
my wild heart waits there
roaming the lonely ridge tops
scanning the sea for your sails

heavy leaden sky
dark shadows drift over me
two vultures circling
as I write poems to you
in the prison of La Paz


Momi Kam Holifield
New York, New York

February eighth
nineteen ninety-seven
lunar new year of the ox
we plod on surmounting
seeming impossibilities


Anna Holley
Dallas, Texas

Times and Seasons

my youthful hopes
all come to nothing;
below the bank
a stream carries away
last blossoms of spring

summer-high grass
entangled by breeze,
whose soft touch
lifting my long hair
recalls one now gone

is there another
feeling lonely tonight
with autumn?
the moon in rain, too
brushing away tears

how embarrassing,
to think in my life
I've done nothing
snow on the footpath
uselessly piling up

a midnight wind
blows out the candle;
as the old year
passes into the new,
my heart unlit, as well


Jean Jorgensen
Edmonton, Alberta

retired from work
in the bottom of his sock
tired of being stepped on too


Michael Ketchek
Rochester, New York

crushed in the dirt road
yellowjackets buzz
here I remain
in the wreckage of love


Larry Kimmel
Colrain, Massachusetts

In the face
of the approaching pedestrian,
I see something,
something to wince about --
then I hear the crash behind me.


Larry Kimmel
Colrain, Massachusetts

Rorschach treescape
and moon fleeced clouds . . .
How unlikely,
against a yellow windowshade,
this perfect female profile


George Knox
Riverside, California

before eye surgery
assurances of vision
keener than before
which has been true of eyesight
but. . . haiku as usual


George Knox
Riverside, California

in love and sorrow
for an old friend gravely ill
I sent a tanka
grieving later I recall
that genre depressed her


M. L. Harrison Mackie
Comptche, California

the tinder
of unmown hay
is moistened
as you tie the knot
on your bundle of years


Patricia Neubauer
Allentown, Pennsylvania

New Year's Day --
old Chinese shopkeeper
leaving a box
of magic water flowers
at the children's shelter


Elizabeth Nichols
Colorado Springs, Colorado

from his father
I'm divorced . . .
still unable
to separate from
the father in him


Mary O'Connor
Mendocino, California

turning my face
into winter's gale --
take my temperature
is this illness or life?


Zane Parks
Sacramento, California

Looking at
the photograph I think
what a fox . . .
to think of thinking that
of grandma


Francine Porad
Mercer Island, Washington

stop bemoaning
that your husband doesn't dance;
Uncle Simon danced
with each of his four wives


George Ralph
Holland, Michigan

once again
gazing alone
on this night
at least the moon
remains faithful


David Rice
Berkeley, California

walking ankle high
through a field full of flowers
if I knew their names
I would apologize
to the ones I step on


Edward J. Rielly
Westbrook, Maine

all my years using
pronouns, yet I recognize
only in this moment
how your enfolds our,
how sky holds the sun


John Stevenson
Nassau, New York

he always doubted
the "subconscious mind"
leaving for his funeral
I lock my car keys
in the trunk


Elizabeth St Jacques
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

even in January
the purple violet
bursting into bloom --
another year of growing
older without you


Sue Stapleton Tkach
Rochester, New York

These dog-eared pages of my book
once spoke to you.
One by one, I straighten them
now that your eyes
are focused elsewhere.


Andrew Todaro
Baltimore, Maryland

scribbled-over page:
please say
I didn't
scold you
little lost artist


Anne Wilson
Thousand Oaks, California

cherry blossom tree
arrayed in petaled splendor,
why did the North wind
rob you of your festive dress
so early in springtime?


Anne Wilson
Thousand Oaks, California

Even a sparrow
flying with lofty eagles
catches the arrow
meant for a higher trophy --
poor pile of useless feathers.


Jeff Witkin
Potomac, Maryland

not having seen
my neighbor for awhile
i take another look
at his trash
frosted on the curb


Brad Wolthers
Hillsboro, Oregon

lonely cricket
do not despair --
night after night
I too
sing alone

Tanka Splendor 1996
ISBN: 0-944676-63-4

Copyright © AHA Books 1996.
Rights to materials returned to individual authors.

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