Eighty-five poets from the
United States and eleven other countries (including Australia, Sri Lanka,
Japan, Croatia, etc.) submitted a total of 499 tanka to the Tanka Society of
America for this year’s contest. We’re encouraged by the response and grateful
for everyone’s support. Many thanks to our judges, Carole MacRury and Laura
Maffei, for their dedication, attention, and cooperation during the entire
process. We’d also like to extend a special thanks to Lesley Anne Swanson, who
generously volunteered her time to assemble the judges’ file of shuffled,
anonymous entries (not a small task). Finally, I’m happy to have served as
coordinator for this TSA contest, which was renamed in April 2015 after Sanford
Goldstein. Please enjoy the winning tanka and the judges’ comments.
—Janet Lynn Davis, TSA contest
We would like to express our thanks to the TSA for the privilege of judging this year’s contest and our appreciation to all the poets for submitting and entrusting their tanka to us. We carefully considered each poem over several weeks of reading and rereading, both silently and aloud for flow. Ultimately we narrowed our choices down to a list of twenty-five poems each. Of the resulting fifty poems, four poems rose to the surface as favorites of both judges and from these we selected our top three. Further narrowing brought us down to four more honorable mentions, two from each of our lists.
We worked well together and shared a similar appreciation for freshness in topic and authenticity as it relates to the human experience. Those were our top criteria along with lyricism, imagery, language, and poetic devices. We also looked for surprising juxtaposition that opened the poem to deeper levels. We shared a tendency to avoid the overly sentimental poem. We hope you find your own favorites among this palette of poems we present to you. Our heartiest congratulations to our selected winners. The following comments represent the thoughts and opinions of both of us.
—Carole MacRury and Laura Maffei
First Place ($100)
a tree trunk
lost in the
of its branches . . .
when I meant to say no
Our first-place selection expresses a complex universal truth with elegant simplicity. “Shadow” is the key word here. It shows how our lives can become so involved, through children, through mates, through family, through our activities in all parts of life, that attention to ourselves becomes lost. The shadow can also be the way in which our outer selves—that which we present to the world (helpful, cheerful, etc.)—can overshadow or get in the way of our core selves. “Another yes / when I meant to say no” is a concise and evocative way of portraying exactly how we let this happen. Yet both our outer and inner selves are vital parts of who we are, just as the trunk and branches are to the tree, even though the “trunk” can become invisible behind the “branches.” The image also suggests the familial trap that can overwhelm anyone because of the deep connections: tree, branches, roots, shadow. A superb and multifaceted metaphor.
Second Place ($50)
of the waitress
working its wings
This poem captures attention with the honesty and clarity of the first four lines, then takes flight with the brilliant phrase “working its wings.” Anyone in the service industry or on the receiving end of the service industry can immediately relate to this poem, which carries all the energy of a person determined to give the very best possible service, whether there is to be a good tip at the end or not. “Table to table” evokes the constant movement required, and the choice of syntax in “the smile / of the waitress” sets the smile apart as its own entity, working without pause. We have all seen this waitress, and she comes to energetic life in this poem.
Third Place ($25)
in the fridge
the pickle jar
neither one of us
The economy of this poem and its realistic humor are perfect. Both the pickle jar and the couple are getting old, and the jar sits in their fridge like a symbol or constant reminder of their aging and the reality of their increasing physical limitations. The pickles themselves are aging right along with the couple, as neither spouse is able to open the jar to eat them. There is also the connotation of this couple finding themselves in a pickle because of their declining hand strength. This poem is an excellent example of the capacity of the tanka form to use humor and an everyday object to convey a deeper and universal reality.
Honorable Mentions (not ranked)
Milky Way candy bar,
standing room only—
the universe melts
in my pocket
on a Beijing bus
This lighthearted poem is so well executed that it suggests seriousness within its humor: the hot, crowded condition of the bus perfectly portrayed by the candy bar representing the speaker’s “universe.” It also contains the wonderful, humorous connotation of finding one’s own universe suddenly cramped up, much as the Milky Way is packed with stars.
room & board
plus minimum wage—
in the mirror
rounded shoulders that once
belonged to his father
This poem evokes the stark reality of unjust wages and living conditions, of defeat, and of economic struggle across generations, through a smart and innovative use of language. The ampersand and the word “plus” give the sense of a dry transaction, which is surely how this man’s employers feel about him. But in the mirror we see the human toll of the economic system the man is trapped in—which also trapped his father.
through a tangle of trees
after the layoff . . .
not knowing where to go
I take one step
There isn’t a word that doesn’t earn its keep in this tanka. The alliteration and sibilance used within the images “sunlight slips” and “tangle of trees” reflect the confusion and shock of one who has just lost his or her job. This tanka suggests the paralysis we would feel at such a moment and the determination to simply take one step in a forward direction in the hope that a tangled situation might indeed offer a glimpse of sunlight in the days to come. The juxtaposition of this wonderful image speaks well to the human condition.
in my persimmon tree
no fight left
just the wish
to go peacefully
San Ramon, California
The opening line immediately sets the mood of this poem—“crows, crows” shows a weariness, a resignation, perhaps even a fatalistic approach to the ongoing battle between the crows and the fruit they steal and what could also be the ongoing battle to stay alive. The pivot of “no fight left” speaks to no longer having the energy to fight off the crows or to fight off whatever might be sapping one of life.
at the bird feeder . . .
steals another moment
of my life
With one concise image, this poem represents all the tiny ways we waste our time on earth with needless worry and anxiety. The choice of animal makes it visceral because, in addition to the real tendency of squirrels to steal bird food, squirrels’ movements are frenetic and jerky and evocative of the feeling of anxiety.
Carole MacRury lives in Point Roberts, Washington, and is involved with the arts community on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border. Her poems have won awards and have been published in anthologies and journals worldwide. She served as secretary/treasurer for the Tanka Society of America for five years and is currently secretary for the United Haiku and Tanka Society. Carole is the author of In the Company of Crows: Haiku and Tanka Between the Tides (Black Cat Press, 2008) and the award-winning tanka e-chapbook The Tang of Nasturtiums (Snapshot Press, 2012). Her photographs and haiga have been widely published and also featured on the covers of various anthologies as well as the TSA journal, Ribbons.
Laura Maffei is the editor of American Tanka, the journal she founded in 1996, and author of the tanka collection Drops from Her Umbrella (Inkling Press, 2006). She was a cojudge for the 2004 Winfred Press Poetry Competition, a consultant for The Tanka Anthology (Red Moon Press, 2003), and she has given presentations on tanka and on teaching tanka. Her poems have appeared in several anthologies and journals and have won or placed in several contests.