2005 TSA International Tanka Contest Winners
Margaret Chula and Larry Kimmel, Judges
Tanka in English is a form that is evolving. Within the five-line poem structure, we found many variations among the 185 entries we received. Indeed our prize winners indicate the wide range of possibilities for a successful tanka.
Aside from the oft-mentioned shift that characterizes the tanka, we looked for tension within each work: that is, tension between conflicting emotions, between nature and human events, or between words that can do double action with sound and meaning. Rhythm and/or cadence to heighten the theme or emotion; sensible line breaks; and a strong last line were also important considerations. Tanka is not merely a sentence broken up into five lines.
There are two things we’d like to mention that might be helpful to tanka poets for future contests and any other publications. First, we found many submissions that were written with one or two words in each line. Condensed, these would have made decent three-lined senryu, but they did not have the fullness or the evocative images of tanka. Second, there were some stunning images that we reluctantly put aside because of awkwardness of expression. For example, the unnecessary word that damaged the poem’s flow, making a potentially good tanka read like prose.
In the end, however, it was a privilege and a pleasure to read such a great diversity of English-language tanka. We thank each one of you for giving us the opportunity to enter moments of your lives through your poems.
moonlight’s silver glaze
on leaves and grass,
on the jungle stream,
on the faces of soldiers
prepared to kill
Somerset, New Jersey
The first place winner took our breaths away with its relentless rhythm and repetition that propel the reader toward that final line. With telescopic precision, the “moonlight’s silver glaze” spotlights the natural beauty of the jungle at night. The focus descends from the sky to trees, to grass and stream. Then, with equanimity, the moon shines on the faces of soldiers lying on their bellies, weapons at the ready. Everything in nature just is. The soldiers have a mission: kill or be killed. Tension mounts with the contrast of jungle stillness and the soldiers, ready to erupt. “Glaze” is an excellent choice of words, both in sound and meaning. The light-giving force of the moon is juxtaposed with the glazed expressions on the soldiers’ faces—grimly set, fixed on the enemy. In a war zone, the full moon is not something beautiful. It just makes them more vulnerable.
slowly I return
an occupied shell
to the surging sea
Pearl Beach, Australia
In Beverley’s second place tanka, this is not just a tide, but a rip-tide: a strong narrow surface current that flows rapidly away from the shore. The primal force of nature contrasts with the poet’s reluctant and/or respectful action of returning the shell to the sea. We stop and watch a moment as the sea swallows it back. The shell was occupied; there was life within it. Something has been saved by relinquishing it. The metaphor continues with the “surging sea between us,” which includes not only the actual sea but the surge of emotion between the two people. Beautifully done.
Homemade ice cream
raspberry seeds snap
between my teeth
on a day of thunder
Family reunions bring up feelings of both anticipation and dread. At first, things seem to be going well. Everyone’s cooperating, turning that crank to make homemade ice cream. The raspberries are fresh, perhaps picked at a family outing. But then the “raspberry seeds snap” as the grit of family relationships becomes intensified. Disharmony, like the recurrent thunder, rumbles in the background. The three-tiered form of this tanka is unusual, but works well. Another thing we prized was the poet’s use of texture as an image.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
all her obligations
little by little
the wildflower garden
turns to a field of grass
Linda Jeannette Ward
Coinjock, North Carolina
Linda’s tanka both pivots and connects on that third line. “Little by little” can be read with the first two lines as well as with the last two. “Wildflower garden” tells us that this is a busy person who plants a garden that offers beauty with low maintenance. The irony is that not only have the flowers disappeared, but the garden has turned into something that will take a lot more effort to restore. Perhaps there is something of the cautionary tale in this tanka, warning us that while we take on more and more obligations, no matter how noble, we run the risk of losing the finer things of life.
A wedding reception
years after the death camp
in a rented hall
table by table
we enter the circle dance
In Dan’s tanka, anyone who’s been to a Jewish wedding knows this “circle dance.” It is a dance of family unity and joy. Once “years after the death camp” is introduced, however, everything that follows is shaded with a darker meaning. The choice of the word “rented” evokes a temporary feeling, a people who have no permanent home. “Table by table” takes on a sinister dimension, the Nazis need for order and precision: wait your turn, do this in an organized fashion, get into that boxcar, go to that line, one by one. In this tanka, we enter the dance of life and death.
summer night voices—
we listen to katydids
and tree frogs;
our silent conversation
comes in soft breaths
Adelaide B. Shaw
Scarsdale, New York
Adelaide’s tanka is subtly erotic—perhaps not intentionally so—but the possibility is there. Form the first line, it’s resplendent with sound—those night voices of insects, amphibians, all of them mating calls. But the humans in this tanka have passed that point. Their voices are silent. Only the softness of breaths pass between them. They are close in physical proximity and, we suspect, in spirit and understanding as well. Whatever their relationship, they share a quietness within the clamor of the night sounds.
Margaret Chula is a poet, teacher, performer and editor of Katsura Press. She has published five collections of poetry, including Always Filling, Always Full. Her tanka have received two first prizes in the Japan Tanka Poets’ Society’s International Tanka Contest and have also been selected for Appetite: Food as Metaphor, An Anthology of Women Poets. Maggie has introduced tanka to audiences through staged productions of “Three Women Who Loved Love: The Lives and Poems of Izumi Shikibu, Akiko Yosano, and Masajo Suzuki,” with performances in Portland, Ottawa, Krakow, and Japan. Growing up in Northfield, Massachusetts, she traveled around the world, lived in Kyoto for 12 years and now lives in Portland, Oregon.
Larry Kimmel lives in the hills of western Massachusetts. He is a frequent contributor to tanka journals and tanka anthologies, both nationally and internationally, including The Tanka Anthology (Red Moon Press, 2003). He has published one collection of tanka, Cold Stars White Moon, and a collection of intertwined tanka and haiku, Alone Tonight. He is founder and editor of Winfred Press, a small press devoted mainly to haikai publications, which now boasts three Haiku Society of America Merit Award winners. His most recent book is A River Years from Here, a collection of haibun culled from the past eight years. Collections of Larry’s tanka and haiku, as well as a catalog of Winfred Press publications, can be found at http://larrykimmel.tripod.com/.
Contest Coordinator: Kirsty Karkow