2017 Winners

2017 Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest Winners

James Chessing and Janet Lynn Davis, Judges

This year we received 650 entries, more than we have received in any other year. These fine tanka were submitted by 109 poets from the United States and eight other countries. We are overwhelmed and encouraged by the response and grateful for everyone’s support. Many thanks to our judges, James Chessing and Janet Lynn Davis, for their dedication, cooperation, and excellent work during the entire process. Their efforts resulted in some outstanding selections. I would also like to thank Lesley Anne Swanson, who assisted me again this year 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

Judges’ Report

As one of us remarked to the other in an email exchange, “Judging a contest is hard work. It’s unnatural, it’s contrived, it’s humbling, it’s like choosing between children or trying to weigh clouds.” It’s also educational. We had no idea, for example, that we would end up examining our own writing, and even ourselves, in the process.

Sorting through 650 contest entries to eventually produce a final list of just nine tanka could be called challenging, if not daunting and maybe even “impossible.” Thankfully, there were two of us to share the burden. We looked for desirable aesthetic qualities such as sincerity, depth, openness. We valued “showing” over “telling,” the concrete over the abstract, the concise over the wordy. And we reviewed structural characteristics, flow, voice, and the use of poetic devices—for example, turns, rhythm, metaphor. Fresh subject matter and imagery, or fresh takes on traditional topics, tended to be significant factors for us. But as thorough and “objective” as we attempted to be, we recognize that humans are subjective creatures. Only a few poems can “win.” In the end, we went with ones we felt were particularly well-written and, importantly, that strongly resonated in one or more ways for us again and again.

We’re honored to have served as judges for this year’s Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest. And we’re grateful to all those who participated in the contest—for sharing their innermost selves with us through their poetry. It was a privilege to read all the entries. We hope our fellow poets will enjoy celebrating the following tanka with us.

—James Chessing and Janet Lynn Davis

First Place ($100)

I wound a child

whose rebellion is all

he has to cling to . . .

tears seep between fingers

curled into little fists

Linda Jeannette Ward

Coinjock, North Carolina

The artistry in this narrative tanka is illustrated in the contrast between the subject of the poem (the narrator) and the object (the child) and then, by the end of the poem, in the inexpressible helplessness and vulnerability they share. The poem’s bold first line immediately draws the reader into the unspecified power struggle between adult and child. It takes a courageous poet to so completely trust the imagery as well as to lay herself open, to take responsibility for having inflicted such a deep hurt upon a child, whether intentionally or not. Who hasn’t felt that? Is the relationship between them that of a harried school teacher trying to contain a hyperactive child? Is it a parent who has betrayed his or her child’s trust? The emotional experience of the reader is enhanced by the poet’s restraint; for example, the poet doesn’t specify a setting. Rather, she focuses on the razor-sharp interaction between the characters. The final two lines, beginning with the double stresses of “tears seep” after the break in line three, reveal the agony of both child and narrating adult. In the end, we agreed that, of all the poems, there is a level of authenticity in this one that stands above the rest.

Second Place ($50)

two walking sticks

lean against

the trail head sign,

so many ways to fall

in love again

Tom Clausen

Ithaca, New York

In contrast to the heaviness of the first-place tanka, this classic love tanka recalls ancient court traditions in a contemporary setting. Falling in love is indeed a journey, here symbolized by the two walking sticks that have been previously used and left standing at the trail head for the next hikers. What sets the poem apart is the poet’s exquisite technique. Note the turn, which contrasts the natural image described in the first three lines, or the upper poem, the kami-no-ku, with the feeling in the final two lines, the lower poem, the shimo-no-ku. The turn is further enhanced by the change in rhythm. The upper poem is comprised of eleven syllables, eight of which are stressed, making for a slower cadence, while in the lower poem the final two lines skip along in an iambic beat, mimicking the lightness of falling in love. Another clever device is the parallel structure in line two, “lean against,” and line five, “love again.” Also notable is the wordplay with “fall” and the placement of that word at the end of line four, nicely setting up the last line.

Third Place ($25)

twirling noodles

around my fork—

I don’t know

how much longer

I can do this

Susan Burch

Hagerstown, Maryland

This tanka starts off with an innocuous, everyday image: the narrator winding noodles, maybe spaghetti, around a fork. The shift from pasta to personal refection is an effortless one, aided by the word “long” (reminiscent of the noodles). If this small poem were read strictly on a literal level, the reader might sense some levity in the scene. But on a deeper level, the narrator’s struggles suggest a Sisyphean type of repetition—the twirling action symbolic of going around in circles. Whether the narrator is alone or at the dining table with a spouse or someone else, and whether adequate resolution will be accomplished anytime soon or at all, we’re not told but are free to imagine within the poem’s dreaming room. Throughout the selection process we, as judges, remained impressed by the author’s skill in captivating us with simple imagery and restrained language, in the process creating an effective amount of ambiguity.

Honorable Mentions (not ranked)

bone and gristle

in the ashes

what made me think

they’d give you back to me

as smooth as silt?

Donna Buck

Carlsbad, California

“Bone and gristle” isn’t just any poem about death. As readers, we feel the narrator’s dismay in receiving her loved one’s ashes in a less-than-fine state (implying that an important step or two, after the cremation process, may not have taken place or been done well). Using a question format, the poet seamlessly shifts to an awareness about the deceased: why should she expect anything different given the flawed nature of that person or, for that matter, of all human beings, “gristle” ever-present in all of us? The poet’s straightforward style, use of sound (the s’s, g’s, and b’s), and specific choice of words and symbolism/simile—including “silt” with its implications about texture and how it’s gradually formed through weathering processes—all contribute to the power of this tanka.

all my devices

plugged in for the night

I’m free to dream

of the years I had babies

and no screens to nurture

Sheila Sondik

Bellingham, Washington

In the first two lines of this unique but relatable tanka, the poet reveals a contemporary setting and also hints of children (devices plugged, or “tucked,” in). She achieves a musicality appropriate for the subject matter through a strong use of assonance (my-devices-night, free-dream-screens) and alliteration (night-no-nurture) as well as a lulling metrical pattern in much of the poem. That particular pattern is temporarily interrupted in the middle line, as a shift occurs and the poet begins to reminisce about her “babies,” contrasting them with the various “screens” that tend to feature all too prominently in our lives nowadays. Personification is a literary device we don’t see all that often in tanka, but it’s used to good effect here.


on a totem pole

in Apache

screeching owl

loves quiet mouse

Michael H. Lester

Los Angeles, California

This minimalist tanka stands out for its precise imagery in a novel setting. A quick tour of the Internet confirmed that Apaches use totem poles to tell a story, to honor an important person, place, or historical event—in this case, the story of “screeching owl” and “quiet mouse.” There is more going on here besides the mere exuberance of young love or how opposites attract. The Apaches, like any minority culture, struggle to balance and preserve long-held traditional beliefs against ever-present corrosive western values. Does the etching on the totem pole simply speak of innocent love, or is it graffiti? That’s up to the reader. Pleasing prosodic effects include the triple “ch” sounds and the assonance of “owl” and “mouse.” The reader can also have fun playing with the gender implications of the Indian names.

deer tracks

across the graveyard

in the snow

and an old prop plane

flying overhead

Joy McCall

Norwich, England

“Deer tracks,” an enchanting tanka written in a traditional short/long/short/long/long line format, is the most mysterious of the poems we selected. Note the technique: focusing the reader’s eye first on the ground, then in the second two lines raising it level to the graveyard and the broader field, following the tracks, say, into the woods, and in the final two lines lifting it skyward. What the poem means is open to the reader’s interpretation of the symbols—tracks, graveyard, snow, and the old prop plane—and their relationship to the amorphous observer. The poem doesn’t specify feelings or relationship; nor does it suggest any particular internal emotional process. It only alludes, and that is its gift.

squeezing shampoo

into the palm of my hand . . .

every day

a rain of blessings

over this aging body

Jenny Ward Angyal

Gibsonville, North Carolina

This tanka depicts the straightforward celebration of the pleasure of being able to get into the shower each day. The word “aging” in the last line brings to mind the loss of independence, decision-making, and dignity affecting so many elderly people—a curse of modern medicine and a challenge to the spirit. With the imagery of showering (the “rain”), squeezing, and shampooing—simple acts we often take for granted—the poet advises us to live in the moment, to count our blessings wherever and whenever we can. A small but effective technical element is the use of the article “this” in line five (instead of, say, “my” again), which alludes to a contrast between the way the narrator saw herself in the past and how she sees herself now. Also effective is the use of sound (the s’s, p’s, b’s, and hard a’s) throughout this “short song.”

light spills

through a fallstreak hole

onto water . . .

if nothing else,

this will be enough

Debbie Strange

Winnipeg, Manitoba

Finally, we chose “light spills” for its classical beauty and sense of the ethereal in terms of style and theme. A fallstreak hole is a large gap in certain cumulus clouds that occurs when supercooled water droplets meet up with ice crystals; what a sight that relatively rare phenomenon must be for the narrator. She literally sees the light pouring onto a body of water below (water being symbolic in its own right). She also figuratively “sees the light,” the hole representing “a break in the clouds” for her (possibly in the form of a much-needed answer or relief from a pressing matter). Perhaps, even more spectacularly, the narrator experiences a breakthrough in terms of a spiritual quest—a glimpse of heaven that, if need be, “will be enough.”

Janet Lynn Davis lives in a small community carved out of the woods north of Houston, Texas. She has enjoyed writing, and listening to the rhythm of words, since she was a child. Much of her career revolved around writing and editing. Her poems, especially tanka and related forms, have been published in numerous print and online venues over the past dozen or so years. Janet feels privileged to have served for a term as vice president and contest coordinator of the Tanka Society of America, and she’s currently the tanka prose editor at Haibun Today and a contributing editor at KYSO Flash.

James Chessing is a clinical psychologist practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began writing haiku in 1970 and tanka in 2005. In 2010, he won first prize in the TSA International Tanka Contest and twice has been a Member’s Choice tanka award winner in Ribbons’ Tanka Café. His tanka have appeared in Ribbons, Skylark, Mariposa, and Bottle Rockets, as well as other journals.