2020 Sanford Goldstein 
International Tanka Contest Winners

Margaret Dornaus and Claire Everett, Judges

A big thank you to Margaret Dornaus and Claire Everett for going through 925 poems to find winners for our 2020 contest and for providing thoughtful commentary. This year we had the highest number of submissions ever, no doubt because we made the contest free to enter (with a maximum of seven tanka per person) in celebration of the Tanka Society of America’s twentieth anniversary. We received entries by 160 poets from 25 countries this year: Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, France, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan , New Zealand, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Scotland , Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam. We also thank everyone who submitted and look forward to seeing your work again next year!
—Susan Burch, TSA Contest Coordinator

Video presentation by Christine L. Villa of the 2020 winning poems

First Place ($100)

plague-year parsnips
browned in butter—
the flavor
of my mother’s victory garden
in another sort of war

        Jenny Ward Angyal
        Gibsonville, North Carolina

In five concise lines, this tanka addresses the harshness of this plague year while resisting the temptation to be maudlin. The result is a poem that conveys the everydayness of the struggle to survive Covid-19 in a powerfully understated way. Comparing a contemporary pandemic garden to a World War II victory garden underscores the historical similarities and differences between both times, while sensory details summarized by “parsnips/browned in butter” and the use of alliteration point to a simple act of survival that, despite everything, imbues the poem with an underlying sense of hopefulness. —Margaret Dornaus

The use of the expression “plague-year” crystallizes the horror of this unprecedented crisis, juxtaposed with a seemingly everyday and homely experience. When the poet’s mother planted her victory garden, there would have been just as much uncertainty as we feel now—yet still there was hope—the stuff that binds us together. The parsnip’s extensive root system, which holds it in the sustaining earth, makes this an even stronger image. The fact that the “Forces Sweetheart” Vera Lynn died during the Covid-19 pandemic makes this tanka all the more bittersweet. —Claire Everett


Second Place ($50)

another indigo evening
with windows wide open
to smell the rain
what is the color
of loneliness?

        Pamela A. Babusci
        Rochester, New York

Like other winning entries, this moody tanka raises a rhetorical question ultimately left to its readers to answer. The open-endedness of the question contrasts with the poem’s simple, straightforward language, such as the second line’s alliterative “windows wide open” that serves to intensify the first line’s less common and more descriptive “indigo evening.” The image also gives the sense of someone with arms wide open to the rain, the darkness, and all the emotions that arise from embracing that experience. The color indigo alludes to one of the seven colors Newton classified to describe a rainbow. Indigo is also the color used to represent the Third Eye or “brow” chakra linked to self-knowledge, intuition, and a kind of universal spirituality that might interpret “loneliness” as an opportunity as much for growth as for sadness. Regardless, the poet’s skillful use of more than one sense—sight and smell—combines to create a memorable and contest-worthy tanka.


Honorable Mention

watercolor poppies
blowing across the field . . .
why
is it so hard
to learn from history

        Rebecca Drouilhet
        Picayune, Mississippi


Like the first-place tanka, this poem compares this pandemic time to another historical reference point. In this case the image of windblown poppies conjures a symbol widely associated not with a victory garden but with World War I’s Flanders fields. The reference also emphasizes the current pandemic’s comparison to an unseen enemy and the previous war’s coincidental role in spreading the devastating 1918 flu. Just as Covid-19 has escalated into a worldwide health crisis, the previous pandemic resulted in widespread suffering and loss of life. The poet might have been speaking of humankind’s failure to learn from war, but there is also an inherent allusion to the post-war pandemic lesson: a cautionary tale that speaks to the impact of hastily abandoning quarantines that might have averted unnecessary casualties. It’s no wonder that the poem, like one of the other tanka recognized here, ends not with a statement but with a question as the poet skillfully shifts from a personal to a wide-angle and thought-provoking viewpoint.


For this year's contest, the judges chose not to select more than one honorable mention, and chose not to give third prize to the one honorable mention after the original third-prize poem was disqualified.