Tanka Prose Contest Winners
A Tanka Society of America Fifteenth Anniversary Special Event
Contest Coordinators: Janet Lynn Davis and Susan Burch (69 entries)
We’re pleased to see so much enthusiasm for the
Tanka Society of America’s first-ever tanka prose contest, held during the
autumn of the TSA’s fifteenth-anniversary year. Sixty-nine tanka poets from
around the world participated, a greater turnout than we expected, though we
admit we didn’t know quite what to expect. Both experienced and newer writers
of the form sent us their work; each participant was allowed one entry. The
majority who entered were TSA members, though many nonmembers also entered. We
hope such interest in the creative fusion of tanka and prose keeps growing—that
more and more of you will study the form and submit your own “tanka stories” to
the various venues that accept them.
A big thank-you to everyone who
entered the contest; to Susan Burch, who worked with me in administering the
contest, including building the judge’s anonymous file; and to Bob Lucky, who
graciously accepted the difficult task of selecting the winners. The judge’s
commentary for the TSA special-event Tanka Prose Contest follows.
—Janet Lynn Davis, contest coordinator with Susan Burch
Judge’s Report by Bob Lucky
I’ve discovered something more unsettling than being an editor: being
a contest judge. As an editor, your job is basically answering a series of yes
or no questions. Based on a combination of critical judgment and personal
taste, you accept or reject a submission and hope that you haven’t overlooked
something or let something slip through. It can be painful. Being a contest
judge exacerbates the pain. Not only do you go through the yes or no,
but also you have to rank your choices. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration
to say I have the winners and honorable mentions memorized. That’s how often I
read and reread them.
The order of the finalists pile
changed several times. They are all good (and many of the others that didn’t
make it were also good). I approached it somewhat like a scientist trying to
disprove a theory: I looked for what wouldn’t make a particular tanka prose the
winner (or one of the winners). And then, once I had the winners lined up and
the honorable mentions in place, I decided I didn’t want to know who the
authors were before I wrote the commentary. I do like the blind-review process;
each piece speaks for itself.
(winner of a 2016 TSA membership)
Perhaps she should have taken the time to
learn the rules. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, but it had always seemed so
difficult. There was something about the way he smiled at her whenever she made
a wrong move.
was sort of . . . not a smile.
never wanted to play the game in the first place but had gone along with it. There
was always that lingering feeling, as if somehow she should have known what was
coming, known how to outmanoeuvre him.
now that she had, she thought perhaps she ought to feel differently.
picked up the pieces one by one and returned them to their correct places in the
box. She noticed a spot of red on one of the knights. Using a napkin, she wiped
it and placed it facing towards the centre.
way that he had shown her.
second thoughts, she turned it facing outwards. Perhaps she did feel differently
knocks down the king
“Checkmate” reads like the distillation of a
psychological novel. The protagonist appears to be in an abusive relationship.
Psychological or physical or both—we don’t know. The man’s smile is almost a
leer or sneer but definitely “not a smile.” The woman doesn’t really want to
play the “game,” but she goes along with it despite a sense of foreboding. And
there in the middle of the tanka prose, she has outmaneuvered him and her
epiphany slowly blossoms (unlike the blinding light of most epiphanies). As she
returns the chess pieces to the box, she decides to face one of the knights
outwards rather than towards the center, “the way that he had shown her.” This
is a pivotal moment: she too is facing outwards, has perhaps found a way out.
It’s hard not to see a little symbolic blood in that “spot of red” she wipes
off the knight she turns outwards. It’s hard as a reader not to sigh with
The tanka is an analogy. Life is
the real game. It is the moment when the protagonist knocks over the king,
outmaneuvers the opponent, that she wins. But the last three lines add a tone
of somberness to the entire affair, especially the double reading of “beaten”
and “the stony silence.” There may be triumph, but there seems to be no
Although she hallucinates, it’s Casilda
I most admire. She talks back to her dead mother, who is also (this is a telenovela)
her godmother. After three seasons of woe with an increasingly rich and abusive
husband, Casilda runs away with a truck driver who adores her. They load his cargo
trailer with box after box of not-yet-laundered pesos that Casilda’s husband is
about to grieve for. Then they add the villainess of the whole series, the woman
whose deceptions, betrayals, and murders have pushed Casilda toward lunacy. In the
locked trailer the villainess excitedly unpacks the money.
one by one
The trucker drives them far off the highway
into lonesome country where he backs up into a thicket of desert thorns. He and
Casilda detach the trailer, abandoning the villainess and the pesos to run out of
oxygen and water under the ascending sun. As they drive away, Casilda asks the trucker
if money is the most important thing. He grins “no” while she laughs, throwing thousand-peso
notes out of her window. And there! in the dusty verge of the roadside stands Casilda’s
year-dead mother-godmother in a prim white suit, smiling as they pass, everyone
waving adios, goodbye, adios.
a big-sky sunset
on our cheeks
I knew better I might
it the Rapture
in part by Amarte es mi pecado, a 2004 Mexican telenovela.
“Ah Morelia” is a fast-paced romp through the Mexican telenovela Amarte es mi pecado, following in particular the exploits of Casilda. Not surprisingly, as the narrator is synopsizing parts of a telenovela, reference is made to many of the staples of melodrama: domestic violence, adultery, money laundering, larceny, and murder. Throw in a ghost, too. The prose is a cascade of plot points and explanations told at a breathless pace, which makes a dramatic contrast with the calmness of the tanka. Both tanka deal in light, the pressure of light and sensation of light. The first tanka contains the idea that in the natural course of events things reach their end. Of course, the villainess is not going to reach a natural end trapped in a trailer as the sun goes down. The final tanka adds a nice twist to this tale. Whose rosy cheeks are these? “Our cheeks” implies the cheeks of the narrator and perhaps someone she or he is with. It’s as if the narrator has come to identify with Casilda.
The Window Poem
If eyes are the windows of the soul, what
then this window with its perhaps hand that, like spring, comes carefully
out of nowhere.
as that green-fingered season, moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there. Sometimes there is a velvet backdrop, an ornament or
two upon the ledge. But I’ve yet to see the hand, let alone its sleight.
day the curtains were drawn aside, revealing a room that might have been written
into the poem last displayed (John Cage’s ‘Each Day Unexpected Shade’), and beyond,
late afternoon light through a door left ajar offered a glimpse of hollyhocks and
terracotta: a small corner belonging to someone who had left ‘The Peace of
Wild Things’ crisp upon the platen.
I can’t be the only pauser-by?
the carriage return
few last grace notes
by finger, the maestro
his white gloves
year now since I first chanced upon it in a side street of this little market town.
And now, habit dictates that I must come here on arrival and again before I depart,
to fix the charm. What I should do if I happened upon the master at his art, the
change as it was made, I do not know. What is certain is that an erudite stranger
conjures this display for who-knows-who, and whether the scene changes daily, weekly,
monthly, remains a mystery.
there a strange thing of a poem I’ve never
heard of . . . a known thing here of one I learned by heart.
. . .
audience of one
the palm of his hand
Note: Italicized text from ‘Spring is like a perhaps hand’
by E. E. Cummings.
Window Poem” deftly weaves parts of E. E. Cummings’ poem “Spring is like a
perhaps hand” into the prose. The narrator relates how she or he once chanced
upon a window down a side street in a little market town and now feels
compelled to go back to it upon arrival in and departure from the town. The
window displays poems and the occasional ornament “upon the ledge.” There is
something magical about this window, but the narrator is not sure what or what
it would mean to find out. The first two tanka imagine what it’s like behind
the scenes, most of which involves a typewriter. The second and final tanka
allude to the hand of the creator of these window displays and the hand in
Cummings’ poem, “a perhaps hand/(which comes carefully/out of
Nowhere)arranging/a window,into which people look.” In the final tanka, the
maestro behind the window has the narrator in the palm of his hand. It might
not be far-fetched to read this tanka prose as being, at least in some part,
about the nature of writing itself, the relationship between the author and the
Honorable Mentions (not ranked)
I step into the silent forest. Beside a
signpost for the Appalachian Trail, a flimsy plastic sleeve lies crushed into the
damp earth. I pick it up and puzzle over the bit of frayed, blackened clothesline
tucked inside it. Then I read the water-stained message, carefully printed in pencil:
HIKERS This is the Bloody rope that was
tied to the collar of a Ten year old boys Dog at Devils Fork Gap. where he lived.
And led to Sams Gap and got loose and was run over in the road. If a dog comes to
you please rock it away. They live here. dont let them follow you Please. this is
the third dog in two months.
a blue jay . . .
a sea of green
“Gaps” is, well, full of gaps: in mountains, in the loss of a boy’s pet dog, and between the two blocks of prose. The contrast between the narrator of the haibun, who merely sets the scene, and the writer of the italicized plea, whose anguish permeates and transcends every capitalization error and missing apostrophe, is highlighted by the white space between them. It’s a gap between the locals and the visitors that the writer of the plea is trying to bridge. In the tone of the tanka, there is a sense the narrator is touched by the note, but the subject of the tanka itself is clearly about the aspects of nature the visitors come to experience. Significantly, the tanka creates an amazing two-fold image of a gap, the contrast of the red leaf against the green leaves around it and the space it leaves in that “sea of green” when it “trembles and falls.”
Carved in Stone
There is a calm here. A quiet acceptance
of what has passed.
names lost to weather and time, Celtic cross and shamrock still sing of Irish roots.
Trading hawthorn and rowan for the strangeness of eucalypt and wattle, what did
they think of life in this infant land?
walk slowly through this world of silence. Paspalum fronds scratch at our legs as
they escape the caged confines of where they’ve taken root. A light mist begins
to fall, and we shelter under the branches of a large gum. Empty eye sockets stare
up from the overgrown plot beside us. We look closely and see the skull of a small
animal. Then shoulder plates, long bones, an intact rib cage . . . and I wonder
at the things I cannot see.
much or too little?
run my fingers through the soft needles on a dark green pine sweeping low over a
headstone. You touch the marble and trace the outline of a name, as if reading Braille
is as natural to you as breathing. We talk softly of the harshness of a time when
life often ended in single figures.
the rain lets up we head off towards the small sandstone building in the centre
of the grounds. Windows, curtained with decades of grime, become mirrors for our
own curiosity. The old mortuary chapel, doors now closed forever, keeps silent counsel
of those who crossed the threshold.
a mourning cypress . . .
life and death
stories carved in stone
Quite another type of gap is dealt with in “Carved
in Stone.” It’s a meditation on how we mark our absence. The narrator and a
companion walk through a silent cemetery in a light mist, noting the
headstones, those symbols of our lives that mark our deaths. They also examine
the skull and bones of a small mammal, all that’s left of its life. The final
tanka notes that between life and death all that’s left are our stories, which
in this setting, are “carved in stone,” a sad fate for any story, even our own.
In my comments here I’ve purposely spoken of narrators rather than
authors. As haibun and tanka prose readers, we are almost conditioned to accept
that the author and narrator are one and the same, a mistake that wouldn’t go
unnoticed in a literature course. The genre does tend to
autobiography-memoir-essay, so conflating the two is often the default reading.
However, tanka prose and haibun, the best of it, has at least an aspect of
creative nonfiction about it. And more recently, writers are consciously
writing fictional tanka prose and haibun. I’m drawn to those works in which the
authors are willing to stray from the true story to tell, often through a
narrator (and sometimes one almost identical to the author), a story that
contains a truth. That no doubt colored my selection process. I want to thank
every writer who submitted work to this contest. It was a pleasure and honor to
read your work.
Bob Lucky is content editor of Contemporary
Haibun Online and author of Ethiopian
Time. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous
journals, including Flash, Rattle,
Modern Haiku, KYSO Flash, The Prose-Poem Project, Haibun Today, and Contemporary Haibun Online. He
currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia.