Friday, October 17, 2008


Opening the current issue of Ribbons , the journal of the Tanka Society of America, I find once again another writer's attempt to suggest something of what tanka in English might be. Of the several points offered, the presence of a poem formatted on five lines is once again offered as part of what defines tanka.

While it is conventional to format tanka in five lines in English, it is not required to do so, and exceptions have occasionally been published. I have addressed alternate lineation in tanka in an article in Modern English Tanka. Since then my understanding of tanka structure and definition have continued to refine.

Specifically, the reason why tanka is written in five lines in English is because that tanka is a poem of five poetic phrases. The easiest way to depict those phrases is with line breaks. However, this leads to poets writing things that don't have five parts, but because they are formatted on five lines, they are accepted and published as tanka. No wonder critics have difficulty in distinguishing between English language tanka and short free verse!

There is also a general misunderstanding between free verse and 'unfree' verse. The opposite of free verse is metered verse, eg, verse in which something is counted. Traditionally in English it has been meter, but it could be morae, sound units, lines, phrases, or any other subdivision. In tanka what is counted is 'poetic phrases.' Thus tanka is not 'free', it must conform to this expectation. Because it conforms, it is 'formal verse.'

Formal verse is verse written to a recognized form. The tanka form is clearly understood -- anyone who is a fan of tanka can recite by heart that it is form that originated in Japan, consisting of five phrases of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Once upon a time in literary history Western poets were quite strict about their forms, but they managed to invent new variations of them all the same, with nonce versions of the forms seeing print as well. The sonnet, for example, now has numerous recognized variants, but it is still a sonnet and the relationship between any given variation on the original forms is identifiable.

Just so with tanka; just the numbering of syllables does not serve in English, but I don't believe that formulas based on line length are an adequate definition. It is quite possible to write a poem with something other than five parts and arrange it visually so that it appears to meet the short-long-short-long-long pattern -- but when we are adhering to a format, that is not the same as adhering to a form. Tanka in Japanese are typically written in one or two lines and can be subdivided however the calligrapher pleases. Clearly, the format is not the form.

Having studied the matter extensively, I have noted that certain poems retain their 'fiveness' regardless of how they are formatted, although admittedly, changing the format does change emphasis. The line break is a powerful tool well entrenched in the Western literary tradition. Even so it is quite possible to recognize a poem as tanka that is formatted as two lines, or prose, or even in some other format.

The consequence is a great many short poems are published as tanka that do not adhere to the form. That doesn't particularly bother me since I have always been an advocate for 'tanka and related forms.' Critics of tanka are therefore missing the point. If a journal stated that it published 'sonnets and related forms,' would they claim that it was impossible to know what a sonnet is and that free verse is being published as sonnets? I think not.

On the other hand, there are forums that publish any five line poem and think it to be tanka. Some of these are amateur forums where it is only to be expected that a naive definition prevails, but the larger, more prestigious journals ought to be clear about the matter. Modern English Tanka , for example, is very clear about its expansive scope of using tanka to establish a new lyric poetry in English. I myself am not convinced that lyricism is part of the definition of tanka, but I admit that it is a very common treatment. Lyricism, which is an aesthetic consideration, appears to have replaced form as a defining principle of tanka in many people's minds.

Given the differences between Japanese and English it is inevitable that different treatments will develop in English. How many hundreds of different ways has Basho's frog poem been translated? We cannot say that any one of them is the best translation, but even in the ones we all agree are terrible translations, we can see the shadow of the original. When translating an entire form into English, it is only to be expected that myriad adaptions should result. Therefore, when critics claim to be unable to perceive the difference between tanka and free verse they are coming about it the wrong way. The question is not whether a given poem can be discerned from free verse; the question of whether a given poem's relationship to tanka is detectable.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Stylus Review : Slow Motion

Patricia Prime has also review Slow Motion : The Log of a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack in the current issue of Stylus Magazine. A lengthier and more literary review, she gives ample space to discussing the form and content from various angles. I am grateful for her deep appreciation for what I was trying to accomplish with Slow Motion .

She quotes a number of the poems to illustrate the points she makes.

"Slow Motion is a collection of haiku and tanka, interspersed with narrative that has many of the characteristics that are the essence of good writing: concise expression, clarity, sensory immediacy, an allusive quality of hinting at more than is directly stated, a preference for specifics and concrete images rather than generalities, a lightness of touch, a willingness to share the fundamental realities of experience, and an ability to communicate with others. The book is about M. Kei’s life on a skipjack fishing vessel in Chesapeake Bay. Kei takes readers on a journey that paints a vivid picture of live as a skipjack crewman.

"The poetry in this collection shows an intensely lived connection to the natural world. It deals with personal experience and emotions not in isolation; the personal is not expressed against a decorative background of natural imagery, but the two are intimately interwoven.

"Kei brings a contemporary feel to the tanka form that encapsulates the qualities of timelessness, poignancy and simplicity that can give tanka a sense of being lived by the reader. Whether it’s a description of the skipjack:

the old lady
wants a new dress:
five patches
in her sail
and more needed

Off Worton Creek

"or that sense relaxation that can follow after setting sail and is profoundly evoked in this haiku:

sails set
a deckhand
studies law

off Thomas Point Light"


"The narrative sections nicely complement the tanka. Like the tanka, there is a strong sense of personal engagement with seascape, history and personalities that pervades the narrative. Kei’s is poetry of locality, a range of history, and the constant in the relationships between narrative and poem is the poet himself. He imbues his scenes with a sense of spirit and mystery. And despite this much personalised relationship with the sea, his main concern is to bring the beauty of this world to the reader. One needs to reach beyond the confines of the short poem in order to fully achieve the necessary imaginative vision to express the history, the feelings of place, and the hardships of life at sea, and to find those anchors or signposts to help us navigate our way through.

"Slow Motion is a collection that maps a personal territory, but also addresses themes that are of universal concern. It is unusual in being a successful amalgam of haiku, tanka and narrative, with each demonstrating its particular strength."

Thank you Pat, and Stylus Journal!


For the Love of Skipjacks

Slow Motion : The Log of a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack made the cover of Bay Weekly Magazine October 9. The lead article 'For the Love of Skipjacks' reviews Slow Motion and includes excerpts and photos from the book. Reviewer Dotty Holcomb Doherty touches briefly on the history of tanka poetry and covers the wide range of treatments possible, from sensory intake, to life experiences, philosophy, and humor.

rolling swells
spray breaking every
tenth wave
the cries of seagulls
scatter around us

–Off Tilghman Island

"In his poems, Kei captures the briefest moments — often overlooked or dismissed as ordinary — to take us on a sensory voyage, immersing us in the smells, sights and feel of sailing a skipjack."

Bay Weekly is a free weekly magazine distributed throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. It is a must read for boaters, vacationers, and residents, devoted as it is recreation and conversation of the 'great shellfish bay.'

Cover: (good Oct 9-16, 2008)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

1000 Tanka

Today the publication of Modern English Tanka 9 marks an important milestone in my career: I have a thousand tanka in print, with several more to be coming out soon. It's a prodigious quantity of work, and made even more startling when the reader reflects that with a single exception, they were all published between spring of 2006 and now--a span of little more than two years. What is even more astonishing are the changes in the tanka world that have unfolded in that time.

In 2004 when I first attempted to publish (and had a single tanka published in the TSA's member anthology, to find the moon), tanka was wallowing in a straitjacket of japonisme and rule-bound demands regarding form. It must have a pivot, it must be bi-partite, it mustbe autobiographical, it must reek of the stale perfume of old Japan . . . Mine wasn't like that, and after the rejections and admonishments piled up, I decided, "Feh, I wrote for my own pleasure and that of my friends. I'll go back to doing that."

Two years later, the death of my mother and my nephew's suicide were hard blows to carry. I wrote a great deal of tanka. At the same time, I had been serving with the skipjack Martha Lewis for most of a year and found what I loved: the Chesapeake Bay, seen and worked from the deck of an old wooden sailboat. I kept writing, but what changed now was that the charms of Old Japan (that had captured me in my youth, indeed as they have captured many of us) fell away. Confronted with the realities of my own life, both beautiful and terrible, most of the Japanese verse grew brittle and cracked. It was too precious a medium to carry what my eyes saw and my heart felt. It became abundantly clear to me why the waka of Japan had grown increasingly irrelevant until it was the province of a few poetasters and dilettante.

Not all poets writing in English were ensnared this way, but it was hard to find the ones who weren't. I didn't even know the 'tanka world' existed. Joining some email lists again, I decided to try again. I still ran into much of what I had already run into, but this time somebody noticed: Michael McClintock. I recognized the name from having read (and abandoned) haiku, but McClintock, along with a handful of other poets, had stuck in my mind as somebody who wrote poetry that was worth reading, and that was categorically different from the herd. He encouraged me, and Robert Wilson at Simply Haiku published several of my tanka.

Along the way I also met Denis M. Garrison who was finishing the last issue of Haiku Harvest and moving on to a new project. At that time he called it 3 x 5 Poetry Review, but as we corresponded and met in person, the project evolved. While Denis' ideas and work is his own, I like to think our conversations helped to shape his views. The result was that 3 x 5 morphed and became Modern English Tanka, which two years later is hands down the premiere journal of tanka in English.

Feeling my education to be deficient, I had been cramming knowledge of tanka in Japanese and English. I quickly noticed that the average resident of Tankaville was even less knowledgeable than I, and considerably less motivated to rectify that ignorance. They wanted to write and read poetry. As much as I must endorse such a view, it must be coupled with discipline and knowledge to amount to anything that a larger circle of people might want to read. In short, the tanka world was much more of a 'tanka club' at the time.

Accordingly I hatched the notion of creating an anthology that might popularize tanka by presenting to people who were not members of the club, while at the same time, serving to demonstrate to the club just how broad tanka could be. The result was Fire Pearls : Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart . Denis and Michael supported the project, but when differences of opinion developed over how to manage it, withdrew financial support. I published it out of my own pocket. Denis continued to provide technical assistance, and Michael was instrumental in bringing the work to the attention of poets and readers.

Fire Pearls has sold over 300 copies, which constitutes a bestseller in Tankaland. It has entered the canon of tanka in English, appearing on recommended reading lists, and referenced in other articles. Many of the poets who appeared in it are proud of their participation. But aside from its own achievements, it spurred others. Garrison and McClintock, with proof that 'concept anthologies' worked, launched their own series of projects, published through Modern English Tanka Press. McClintock has dubbed this 'the Little Age of Anthologies,' but what is important to remember is that Denis Garrison is the foundation upon which the anthologies are built. He has been exceptionally generous in supporting worthy ideas, and so other editors, such as Alexis Rotella, have partnered with him to produced anthologies of great size and beauty. Denis' expertise has been tapped by the Tanka Society of America for help in publishing their last member anthology, Sixty Sunflowers .

Publishing a book, even with the benefits of economy offered by new models such as print on demand, is no easy task. It requires a suite of skills involving editing, book design, administration, cover design, layout, computer skills, marketing, distribution, and more. Few individuals possess the full suite; they are usually found in a team. Modern English Tanka Press has prospered, and by doing so, has changed the shape of tanka as we know it.

Denis' immense openness to form and idea has provided a forum that enriches the tanka world. It allows diversity of content and form, idea and counter-idea. The tanka club is no more: it has been replaced by the tanka world. It is a much larger, more inclusive, varied, and lively world than it was before. Truthfully, the tanka world has always been larger than the tanka club that thought itself the be-all and end-all of tanka. My own researches into tanka in English dug up evidence that tanka has been written and published in English since the tail end of the nineteenth century. My Bibliography of English-language Tanka is well over 700 books, chapbooks, journals, and other stand-alone media. (I do not record articles and other short works.) What has happened is that by providing an open forum, it has been possible to inform tanka readership of what has been out there all along, and to forge some connections that have yielded a great understanding and awareness. Tanka the island has become tanka the voyage.

Along the way, new journals have been founded and old journals have folded. New contests have been offered and prizes awarded. In remains to be seen whether the new arrivals will elevate and expand tanka as we know it, or merely provide a haven for the sponsor's particular pleasures. To a certain extent, new arrivals are reacting to the promiscuous publication of Modern English Tanka by staking out territories of their own, more tightly focussed on a narrower set of criteria. This is well and good--tanka thrives when more minds create more venues. The more there are, and the more they differ from each other, the more likely readers and poets are to find green pastures of their own delight.

Denis Garrison has often written about tanka's potential as the new lyric poetry in English. I myself am not so sure that English-speakers in general want a new lyric poetry; but at least some of us do. I do think the audience for tanka is growing and will continue to grow, but I doubt that lyric poetry has the capacity to capture the 21st century imagination that is saturated with videogames, reality television, and the looming disaster of an American economic meltdown. Lyric poetry does not admit works on economic collapse and the romance of the cell phone.

Lyric poetry is out of touch with modern life. Even as it focusses on micro details of that life, it provides an insulation between the reader and the reality. Modern Japanese tanka poets can write about being tear-gassed and arrested by the police, about menstruation and picking up young men half their age, but I have never seen those subjects in English-language poetry. Poets like Dave Bacharach and Andrew Riutta who can write about unpaid mortgages and prostitution do so through the lens of a gritty pastoralism remarkable both for speaking things rarely spoken in tanka and by speaking it through the lyric voice. They say ugly things with beautiful words.

I am as guilty as most and maybe more in my poetry. Lyricism suits my natural voice. I like the lyric world. I see beauty even in hardship. Yet I can't help feeling that I have accomplished a fundamental failure as a poet: I have soothed, instead of roused.

I have written works that are less lyric, more surreal, sharper, and darker. They don't get published. No, not even in Modern English Tanka, the most welcoming of them all. And so, after publishing one thousand tanka, instead of feeling successful, I feel disgruntled. I've felt this way before. More than a decade ago I wrote fiction. After working diligent and enjoying a certain amount of success in that field, I realized that editors were publishing certain sorts of things from me and declining others. The result was that a viewing of my published work gave a very biased view of who I was as a writer. I tried to break through, but couldn't. Editors publish what editors want to publish. I quit writing fiction rather than collude.

As the editor of Atlas Poetica , I have a bully pulpit from which to preach an alternate approach to tanka. It is bearing fruit. The first issue of tanka poetry of place provided an opportunity for poets to publish works which they loved and which readers also loved, but which lead in new directions. In the second issue, we covered new territory as poets began exploring and reporting on family and history, venturing to touch even larger topics, often through the means of tanka prose and tanka sequences that had few opportunities to be published elsewhere. Atlas Poetica was deliberately designed as a large format journal to accommodate such ventures.

Accordingly, I don't plan on going anywhere. Through the means at my disposal I will continue to advocate a larger, more complicated vision of tanka that expresses more of the myriad issues of our lives with innovation and skill. I encourage all poets to challenge themselves to go beyond the easy, the familiar, and the soothing, and I challenge all readers to open themselves to newness, change, and risk. Let tanka grow until it is more than lyric poetry, let it be the lyric of the real world.