2019 Sanford Goldstein 
International Tanka Contest Winners

Michelle Brock and Hazel Hall, Judges

Thank you to Michelle Brock and Hazel Hall for their time and hard work in choosing this year’s winners. They did an amazing job of culling down the 595 entries to just nine winners. We thank them for their effort and we thank everyone who entered for making this year’s contest a success! We had submissions from seven countries: Australia, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

—Susan Burch, TSA Contest Coordinator


Judges’ Report

We are honored to have served as judges for this year’s Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Award. With almost 600 entries, and many outstanding poems, it was a challenging but immensely rewarding task. Guided by the processes of past judges, we began by reading each tanka deeply and taking notes. It took some time and much discussion before we each completed draft lists of tanka that we wanted to consider more thoroughly as potential short-listed poems. From these, common preferences began emerging. We each chose a list of thirty tanka based on attributes such as poetic lyricism, dreaming room, pivot or turning point, subject matter, and originality. When we explored the poems further, we reduced this list to eleven preferences common to both of us. By this time it was clear which were winning poems, but in what order? We discussed each tanka by email, adding insights to our individual comments. Aiming for a final shortlist of nine poems, reluctantly we had to leave two of our favorites behind. Although they were very fine poems, the others shone more brightly. Finally, we returned to the entire list to ensure that every tanka had been examined carefully and honored. We needed to be fully satisfied with the choices that we had made.
        It’s clear to us that all the tanka we received were significant to the poets who composed them, some in ways we could never know. We have learned so much from each poet, yet there are always images that remain in only the poet’s heart. Most of the tanka we’ve selected explore grief and loss and we share our vulnerabilities in our poetry. This makes judging exciting, difficult, and incredibly humbling. Thanks to Susan Burch and the Tanka Society of America for entrusting this year’s selections to us, thanks to all the poets who submitted tanka, and congratulations to the winners!
—Michelle Brock and Hazel Hall

First Place ($100)

muddy foxhole
and camouflaged soldiers
buried by a bomb
sunlight visits
the unmarked grave

        Dorothy McLaughlin
        Somerset, New Jersey

The brutality of war is eloquently captured in this standout tanka that begins with the metaphor of another hunted creature—the fox. Foxes are killers and therefore despised. We do not know who the soldiers are or when the tragedy happened, only that they are in a small tunnel or dugout. We are reminded of the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam, but this tragedy could have happened at any time in any place. The soldiers are “camouflaged” for safety but the mud has given them a different kind of covering. Have they only just been found? Or will they never be discovered? There are no technical errors jarring this smoothly flowing lament. In a tightly constructed poem the first and final lines offer a perfect précis of what is happening. Time is skillfully explored. At first the action seems to be happening in the present until the pivot line, “buried by a bomb,” its force all the more surprising by the use of alliteration. Reading this line aloud requires the lips to release those sounds like tiny explosions. The bomb is both death weapon and grave digger. It drives the tanka from the present back to the past and then into the eternal. Sunlight brings peace after the conflict but it only “visits” the grave, a reminder that war is always with us all. Like sunlight, the poet also shines a light on this tragedy.
In five short lines this poem sums up the devastation of war and the consequences of a lesson we have yet to learn. When will our leaders see the light?


Second Place ($50)

broken oaks
waiting patiently to die
for someone
to count their rings
and tell their stories

        Michael H. Lester
        Los Angeles, California

The poem begins with what might be the sawn-off trunks and felled trees lying on the ground or the trees themselves dying from poison or environmental damage. Powerful line breaks punctuate this tanka, unfolding a salient reminder of how the natural world is being plundered. Oaks can live for more than three hundred years, some twice as long. These oaks are already “broken” but not yet dead. As if sentient beings, they are “waiting patiently to die.” Recent research has shown how plants and trees in forests can feel and communicate with each other like single organisms through their root systems. We have also learned that continual felling of trees endangers wildlife and leaves the environment more vulnerable to climate change. Much has been written about the oak tree in prose, poetry, and song. In this tanka, the life-circles on the trunks in line four suggest that the history, mythology, and arts connected with oaks are also being placed at risk. A traditional symbol of strength, wisdom and endurance, the oak tree has been named the national tree for some fifteen countries. What is the poet suggesting about these qualities of life that sustain us? The dreaming room within this poem creates another layer of meaning. The oaks could also be seen as a metaphor for elderly residents in a nursing home waiting patiently for the release that only death can bring.
The counting of rings could symbolize the years of a life and the telling of stories could represent the writing of eulogies. From the first line with its wonderful assonance, the poem goes from strength to strength, commanding attention.


Third Place ($25)

an accident
whilst cleaning his rifle?
on baked earth
an unbearable softness
of flannel flowers

        David Terelinck
        Biggera Waters, Australia

The use of a question in the first two lines provides us with enough information to suspect that this man has taken his own life. Turning faultlessly in the third line, the poem moves from baked earth to the flannel flowers, still growing there. The wealth of images arising in the final two lines contrasts with the previous harshness of the first three lines. In Australia, water holes are drying up and rivers are dying. The suicide rate among farmers is almost double that of the general male population. Even the flannel flowers, soft but hardy Australian wildflowers, must use all resources to survive.
Due to their strength, resilience, and adaptability, flannel flowers are a symbol used to promote mental health. They also bring to mind the serviceable checked flannelette shirts worn by farmers, known in Australia as “flannies.” But this tanka is not simply restricted to the Australian environment. Drought has wreaked havoc on farming communities in many countries and the tragedy that unfolds is symbolic of a world that is fast becoming unsustainable. A superbly crafted tanka, delicately alliterated with perfect line breaks. It says so much without stating the obvious.


Honorable Mentions (not ranked)

last slant
of the sinking sun
my dying father
gathers his Silver Queen corn,
shivering in the warm breeze

        Pris Campbell
        Lake Worth, Florida

The use of sibilants brings a strange mystery to this superbly crafted poem. Its phrasing is masterful, with the story emerging line by line; each line break carefully considered. The third line breaks the poem into two interconnected haiku. First, the sinking sun’s last “slant” suggests a bridge into the afterworld for the dying man. It captures that brilliant moment that comes before dark when the light is intensified and the whole cornfield is lit up. In the second part, the father shivers while gathering his prized corn, desiring nothing to be wasted before his departure. Silver Queen corn is a late-harvest, pale variety valued for its sweetness. His shiver suggests the tremor of death, but also determination. Yet the breeze is warm. Death can be a friendly release. Placed together these two small poems become a beautiful celebration of life.

Arakawa River
angry and overflowing
from the storm
still, we float paper lanterns
to honor the drowned spirits

        Michael H. Lester
        Los Angeles, California

In this poem, the key word is “honor.” Lives have been lost after a terrible storm. Were they taken trying to save others? Were they members of the poet’s family? Or were they unknown, yet honored as all lives are in Japanese tradition? We are left wondering. As part of the Arakawa River is allegedly engineered to protect the community from repeated flooding, there’s a sense of irony in this poem. The poet has used multisyllable words as line breaks, leaving only the pivot’s starkness. This emphasizes the tanka’s flow so that we feel the water and its powerful current sweeping the lanterns away into the afterworld. The overflowing river is also a powerful metaphor for the outpouring of tears. This carefully crafted tanka includes strong phrasing and line breaks and the effective use of assonance and alliteration.
An undercurrent of grief and anger demonstrates the power and paradox of tradition. While the river is angry and overflowing, there is great risk in remembering the drowned spirits.

a cry
stretches and breaks,
all that remains,
this canyon’s river flow
and silent stones

        Louis Osofsky
        Sacramento, California

Rich in ambiguity, this poem might be an eloquent comment on human destruction of the environment. Does the cry represent the lament of a dying river system or the end of a human life? Perhaps the canyon is being destroyed and all that remains is a cry. Is this poem set in Ontario, where development has crept to the edge of Niagara Falls? Is it the cry of a bird soaring above the flow and silent stones? Or has somebody taken their life? Whatever the cry is, it “stretches and breaks,” emphasizing the tension of the moment. The cry is visceral and almost visual. The reader is left wondering. A chilling tanka full of dreaming room.

the night bus arrives
my daughter disappears
behind the swish of doors
a vanishing act
I’m never prepared for

        Sara Ellison
        Sebastopol, California

This masterful poem on separation has powerful word choices and excellent phrasing. For some it will bring to mind a parent’s reluctance to part with a child who is growing up and claiming her own life. For others it will pivot into the sinister as bus doors “swish” shut. The poet achieves this by turning the fourth line’s almost theatrical setting to expose the parent’s anxiety. In doing so, our own unease is exposed. We are all glad to know when our children have reached their destinations safely. The longing and perhaps unease embedded in this tanka lingers after reading. Throughout the poem the repetitive “s” sounds create movement. This is a social poem that needs to be heard in these times when young people “disappear” more often than before. It reminds us about the ever-changing nature of relationships and the importance of treasuring the moments we have with our children.

in my dreams
the black dog and I romp
through the bluebells—
there is no rain
there is no road

        Kathy Lippard Cobb
        Bradenton, Florida

Most readers know what it feels like to lose a pet. We’re also reminded of the carelessness of drivers and danger on busy roads. Bluebells are safe. They take us back to fields and the black dog’s puppyhood while suggesting the passing of a loved canine friend. The poet’s use of parallelism in the last two lines is reminiscent of separate lanes on a highway where traffic comes and goes. It also suggests the poet’s profound feeling of loss. The strong imagery in this poem is created not only by what exists, but also by what is missing. There is another interpretation where the black dog might represent depression.
Perhaps the poet dreams of being liberated from the path of sadness and despair. Do the “blues” become “bluebells” and does the black dog become a playful puppy? This intriguing, multilayered poem is rich in dreaming room.

sudden chill
a dragonfly skip jives
with its reflection . . .
when did you stop
finding us amazing

        Marion Clarke
        Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland

This poem’s reference to the dragonfly’s reflection segues beautifully into the poet’s internal reflection and sudden realization evoked by the image. The question is rhetorical and indicative of a relationship that is no longer revered and cherished. Is the poem about an adult relationship that’s lost its spark or a parent-child relationship? Perhaps the tanka is exploring what happens when children are not nourished with encouragement. We all want to “amaze” our parents. Often we don’t and spend our lives seeking some gesture of affection and recognition of our achievements. Sometimes parents forget to acknowledge children when they become adults. In other families one child receives all the attention. The dragonfly’s skip jive is almost like the heartbeat of a child waiting for those positive words. Relationships are fragile and this is an important, topical poem.