2014 TSA International Tanka Contest Winners

Susan Constable and Michele L. Harvey, Judges

The Tanka Society of America received a record number of entries for this year’s contest. Eighty poets from the United States and ten other countries (including Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom) sent us a total of 519 tanka, making this a truly international event. Many thanks to all participants for supporting the contest. We’re also indebted to our judges, Susan Constable and Michele L. Harvey, for their expertise, hard work, and professionalism during the selection process and beyond. How difficult it must have been to narrow down such a large crop of wonderful tanka to the final seven winners. The judges’ comments follow.

Janet Lynn Davis, TSA contest coordinator

Judges’ Report

While serving as the judges for the fifteenth annual TSA International Tanka Contest was indeed an honor, it also was very challenging. The contest coordinator emailed us an electronic file of 519 tanka that she had converted to the same font, shuffled for anonymity, and numbered. After our initial read-through, we had both chosen the same tanka as our number one. We were off to a great start. The rest should be easy, no? We shortlisted our individual choices to thirty, shared written comments on our selections, and then each made a list of the twelve tanka we felt were the best.
        It’s an interesting procedure, this drawing of two minds together by two people with their own preferences and point of view. The personality mix can make it an enjoyable process or a difficult one. We quickly found this was going to be the former,
and we set to work. It didn’t take long to settle on our three top choices, but whittling down the list of tanka worthy of honorable mention was much more daunting. There were so many! We looked for poems with an original voice and fresh images; poems with lyricism and surprise; poems operating on more than one level without being overt; poems that continued to move us emotionally.
        We are deeply grateful to all the poets who participated, for putting their hearts onto the page and sharing their work with us.

Susan Constable and Michele L. Harvey

First Place ($100)

along this notebook page
almost invisible
the tiny separations
that ease the final parting

                Lesley Anne Swanson
                Coopersburg, Pennsylvania

This poem remained at the top of my list with each and every reading. How the mind can create the leap from something as simple, innocuous, and ordinary as a notebook and relate it to the great mystery is nothing short of mastery of the form. Seamlessly done, without fuss or explanation. This is what made me fall in love with the tanka form to begin with. —Michele

Through the entire selection process, this tanka also remained my top pick. Using a wonderfully unique and apt comparison, it takes a fresh look at relationships. Not until
line five are we aware of the metaphor. Along with the lovely, natural pivot in line three, I really enjoy the repetition of Ps and Bs as well as the sharp little Ts that act like perforations throughout this beautiful tanka. —Susan

Second Place ($50)

on pilgrimage
to Yeats’ rag & bone shop—
I hammer
steely scraps of song,
build a monument to loss

                Jenny Ward Angyal
                Gibsonville, North Carolina

This poem stood out from the field and grabbed my interest right away. Both Susan and I intuitively chose it for its unique vision but briefly questioned its clarity of meaning. A short email exchange put it squarely in the number-two spot for us. Yeats was a wonderful lyricist and built “monuments” (long poems) to loss. It’s easy to see and feel the classic poet’s inspiration and effect on this tanka poet’s poem. —Michele

The literary allusion and description in the opening lines capture my imagination, while challenging my memory. Even without knowledge of Yeats, however, this tanka works well. I appreciate the fresh images and comparisons that leave room for the reader’s input. The sounds, too, are lovely: the assonance of on/shop/song/monument/loss and the alliteration of bone/build as well as steel/scraps/song. This tanka sings! —Susan

Third Place ($25)

banking the embers
after the last guest
has departed . . .
this Pandora’s box
of deepening silence

                David Terelinck
                Pyrmont, Australia

I very much like the gravity that “deepening silence” imparts to line five. It’s a pregnant silence, not a passive, empty one. Is the host alone with his (or her) thoughts? The afterimages of party chatter? Or with a spouse or partner who holds interest equivalent to a piece of furniture? Perhaps something happened at the party that has now bec
ome the elephant in the room. No matter what, this poem itself is a Pandora’s box of meaning. —Michele

This tanka opens with a warm image, making us feel all is right with the world. Lines four and five, however, raise some questions. Are the hosts having relationship problems? Are the sparks—literally and metaphorically—gone? Or, as Michele suggests, is this person alone? Is the deepening silence entering the realm of problematic? There’s a lot said in these five lines, while still leaving interpretation up to the reader. —Susan

Honorable Mentions (Not Ranked)

long drought
our prayers for rain
go unanswered
the one cloud on the horizon
mushroom-shaped and growing

                Tracy Davidson
                Stratford-on-Avon, United Kingdom

The words “drought” and “prayer” go hand in hand naturally in human consciousness. Here, though, the menacing mushroom-shaped cloud in this poem makes it unforgettable. —Michele

This tanka has three distinct parts, yet it feels cohesive, growing to line five both visually and thematically. The repetition of Rs help link one line to the next, while line five’s sudden twist in expectations adds interest and poignancy. We discover, and are left with, a much more ominous scenario than the hoped-for rain. —Susan

gentle waves
rocking the boats . . .
another storm
my mind predicted
never happens

                Kenneth Slaughter
                Grafton, Massachusetts

This poem, with its understatement, caught me by surprise. I really like the juxtaposition here of gentle waves and rocking boats. It’s a great setup for what follows and the surprise ending of line five. It’s a lovely depiction of how our thoughts can run amok and, happily, are not always true. —Michele

In this tanka, the poet opens with a serene image, using syllabic rhythm to emphasize the rocking of the boats. But just as we’re lulled into a sense of comfort, we become aware of a storm and then, almost as suddenly, discover it’s only something imagined. The more abrupt sounds in the wording of lines three to five seem to parallel the poet’s troubled thoughts. —Susan

only remembering
how he loved me . . .
in a clear brook
white clouds gather
in my hands

                Christine L. Villa
                North Highlands, California

At first I overlooked this poem, though with successive readings I
found I couldn’t leave it behind. The first two lines are somewhat standard and self-explanatory, but the final three lines take the reader to another place. This second image is as gorgeous and transitory as life itself and lends its intangible power to the poem overall. —Michele

I’m particularly fond of tanka that combine human emotions and natural settings while employing effective sounds and rhythms. The word “only” suggests that nothing else matters and adds poignancy to what follows. The closing image, an apt and beautiful metaphor, enables the reader to reflect on the elusiveness of memories and even on love itself. —Susan

as her memory
the family ghosts
out of the closet

                Celia Stuart-Powles
                Tulsa, Oklahoma

True, this poem describes the common subjects of ghosts and memory loss, but it tosses them together in fresh ways not before considered. How many buried memories surface once the mind is unbound? This is a short and simple poem, with a fresh and interesting twist to the subject. —Michele

This tanka literally slips from beginning to end, almost like a one-line haiku. The ambiguous first line puts us on edge, making us wonder who is listening to what. The pivot in line three deftly turns the tanka and the reader’s expectations in a completely different direction. As the words slip past us, interpretations jostle for position and demand our involvement. Of all the minimalist tanka among the contest entries, this one shines. —Susan

Contest Coordinator: Janet Lynn Davis (519 entries)