2016 Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest Winners
Amelia Fielden and M. Kei, Judges
Seventy-three poets from the United States and eight other countries submitted a total of 463 tanka to the Tanka Society of America for this year’s contest. We are encouraged by the response and grateful for everyone’s support. Many thanks to our judges, Amelia Fielden and M. Kei, for their dedication, cooperation, and excellent work during the entire process. We were fortunate indeed to have such experienced and outstanding judges for this event. I would especially like to thank Lesley Anne Swanson, who assisted me every step of the way in assembling and shuffling these poems for the judges. I’m honored to have served as coordinator for this TSA contest. Please enjoy the winning tanka and the judges’ comments.
—Ken Slaughter, TSA contest coordinator
We thank the members and officers of TSA for the opportunity to judge this year’s contest. It was a privilege to read the many fine tanka that were entrusted to us. Each tanka was identified by number, not by name. The contest coordinator was careful to preserve formatting, and we checked to make certain that any nonstandard formatting was the poet’s intention and not due to email corruption. We wanted to be sure we were seeing each poem as the poet intended.
We received more than four hundred individual tanka and settled down to read them all separately. By coincidence, we each made an initial selection of 38. There was some overlap, but also differences. We discussed the merits of pieces that particularly moved us, and then reconsidered our own choices, eliminating some, and adding some that the other judge had recommended. We found the first three fell into place after this process.
In considering honorable mentions, there were many meritorious tanka. We discussed principles such as freshness, originality, authenticity, lyricism, structure, humor, word play, details, balance, controlled ambiguity, and dreaming room. Quite a few poems could have been chosen for the honorable mentions, so we selected several that represented a range of topics and approaches as well as possessing individual merit.
—Amelia Fielden and M. Kei
I keep telling myself
that it means don’t cry—
at the doctor’s office
a routine procedure
This disarmingly simple tanka immediately struck an emotional chord. The topic is an unusual one: I cannot recall ever having seen a tanka about the specific surgical procedure called dilation and curettage, D&C. The poem is especially moving because that procedure is frequently performed after abortion—either spontaneous abortion, miscarriage, or scheduled abortion. Those few tanka I have read that do reference abortion, in the main indirectly, recount the poets’ emotions subsequent to the loss of a fetus, not what is being felt at the time of the actual surgery to clear the womb. Treating this latter aspect of abortion sensitively and with restraint the poet here writes only that she keeps telling herself not to cry. Her layering of the words “don’t cry” onto the abbreviation “D&C” is clever and imaginative, while the final line, “a routine procedure,” is stunningly understated.
Behind these straightforward expressions one can intuit a world of complicated pain. The language and phraseology may be straightforward, yet there remains considerable “dreaming room,” a most desirable attribute for a tanka, which enables it to linger long in the reader’s mind. For, in the first instance, a D&C can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including excessive uterine bleeding, and infertility. And then, even if this particular tanka does refer to the more commonly understood post abortion application of the procedure, we do not know whether the poet has suffered the miscarriage of a longed-for baby, or whether for medical or other reasons the abortion of her fetus has been deemed necessary. Whatever gynecological problem has brought the woman to the doctor’s office for this D&C, it is certain to have caused her much anxiety and distress. Those are the emotions the poet has deftly conveyed in twenty-seven syllables to create a tanka which has earned her first place in this competition.
Holy Week . . .
in my Christmas wreath
two wrens nesting
as if to remind me
this house was once our home
The opening “Holy Week . . .” serves as a “jo” to establish the setting and gives an aura of the sacred to the rest of the poem. The wrens in their nest are part of the natural divinity of the world, and the home where the author used to live with the missing person is also sacred. Lines 1 to 4 create a cozy, spiritual, safe place, which is broken by line 5 and the loss of the beloved—which also turns back to line 1 with a play on the words “week/weak.” The breaking of the safety and sanctity of the home means that it was weak. That in turn suggests that the loss is a betrayal in which the beloved chose to leave. This poem demonstrates the art of implication that is essential in tanka.
by rope and rafter
and with him
The difficult subject of suicide is handled obliquely, but effectively. The writer captures both the pain the subject must have experienced before making his choice (I’m assuming the suicide is a man because of the garage; the men I’ve known who committed suicide have tried to be tidy about it and not mess up the house), but it also represents the pain and confusion of those left behind. Suicide is not often discussed in tanka, so it is original, but the brief nature of tanka suits it. What else can you say when you are stunned by someone’s suicide? There is no need to go into further detail here. “Garage,” “rope,” and “rafter” tell us everything we need to know, followed by the blank confusion of lines 3 to 5. This combines full literary development with brevity.
Honorable Mentions (not ranked)
around her floppy straw hat
everything about her
fresh as the beets she gathers
for borscht tonight
Santa Fe, New Mexico
This tanka is a beautifully realized sketch portrait. The image is clear, and the use of beets and borscht gives cultural specificity to this image. This is not a generic “woman in the garden,” but a particular woman. The addition of borscht tells us about her ethnicity. Perhaps the woman is Russian American, or Jewish. She is young (“fresh”) but not a youth, and she is maintaining elements of her ancestral culture (“borscht”) while reflecting the modern United States or Australia or wherever it is that she lives (“floppy straw hat”). The lines balance well. Line 5 is shorter, but it works because most of us are not expecting “borscht.”
is not for sissies . . .
the room packed
with women my age
Michele L. Harvey
Hamilton, New York
One of the desirable attributes for tanka is karumi, or lightness. This poem treats a serious subject in a delightfully unserious way. For me, as a woman now reaching my three quarters of a century, it has a rueful “smile-along” nuance. The first two lines, which paraphrase film actress Bette Davis’s famous saying “old age ain’t no place for sissies,” set the ironic tone of the tanka. And of course the ending is ironic, as we know only too well that the practice of self-defense is no defense against the majority of griefs and ills that may come to assail us in our senior years. Nonetheless, we can applaud the feistiness of the women who pack this room. Technically, with its 3/5/3/5/6 syllables, this tanka makes perfect use of the short/long/short/long/long form without artificiality or distortion of expression. A worthy honorable mention.
always, it seems,
the things to do
that will bury us
From the first important word, “always,” I can hear the sigh in this tanka! Reading and rereading the many well-composed entries in the competition, I was looking for freshness in the treatment of topic. And the metaphorical use of mathematics by this poet to encapsulate an emotional state is certainly fresh. How well the verb “multiply” conveys the number and complexity of our obligations! It’s not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by daily life, and “bury” is the perfect word for the tanka’s final line. All these “things to do” before we die . . .
the conflict continues
and teddy bears
run for their lives
This tanka treats a contemporary and highly contentious topic, the exodus of refugees from Middle Eastern conflict. The “sickle moon” of the first line being a symbol of Islam, I assume we are confronting here the quagmire that is currently Syria. And “teddy bears / run for their lives” emphasizes the plight of innocent children made homeless and stateless by the political machinations of adults. Although there is no direct reference made to him, the memory of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler whose body was washed up onto a beach in Turkey, is inescapable. A powerfully sad tanka.
and still I look
to the haze of bluebells
behind and beyond
deaf to these shin-high peals,
this fragrant call to prayer
“And still I look” opens with the poet looking beyond what is right in front of her/him, “deaf to these shin-high peals.” The “fragrant call to prayer” invokes the pealing of church bells, and also tells us that the author is a spiritual seeker. And yet, somehow, although the poet is aware of the spirituality of the now, s/he keeps looking “behind and beyond.” There’s a restless confusion as the narrator is looking for what is unknown. The poet has used the symbolism of the flower’s blue bell to invoke the divine while grounding the divine firmly in the here and now, the ordinary, and the mindfully present, even though the narrator cannot quite grasp that mindfulness.
Amelia Fielden, a professional translator of Japanese literature, is a keen writer of tanka in English. Since 2001 she has published nineteen books of translations, seven of her own poetry, and six of tanka collaborations (two of them bilingual). Amelia has also edited/coedited six tanka anthologies. Her 2016 publications are Colouring In, and Poems to Wear. For Instance, Sweetheart . . . Forty Years of Love Songs, a volume of essays and tanka written by Kawano Yuko and Nagata Kazuhiro, and translated by Amelia, is forthcoming in early 2017. Amelia is happy to be contacted at email@example.com.
M. Kei is a tall-ship sailor and award-winning poet who lives on Maryland’s Eastern shore. He is the editor of Atlas Poetica: A Journal of World Tanka. He was the editor-in-chief of Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, Volumes 1–4, and the editor of Bright Stars: An Organic Tanka Anthology. His most recent collection of poetry is January: A Tanka Diary. He is also the author of a gay Asian-themed fantasy novel, Fire Dragon. He can be followed on Twitter @kujakupoet, or visit www.atlaspoetica.org.