2021 Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest Winners
Autumn Noelle Hall and Don Miller, Judges
Thank you to Autumn Noelle Hall and Don Miller for their hard work in judging this year’s contest and for their thoughtful commentary. And a big thank you to everyone who entered for your dedication in making this contest a success. We had 845 poems from 199 participants, from these countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, England, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Lithuania, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Slovakia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Please enjoy the judges’ report and the winning selections.
—Susan Burch, TSA Contest Coordinator
forty years have passed
and still my ear remains
a soft carpet
on which others
dance their blues
Many thanks to Susan Burch and the Tanka Society of America for giving us this opportunity to serve our tanka community. We would also like to extend our acknowledgement and appreciation to all the poets who entrusted us with heartfelt work. In our current era of often overwhelming chaos and upheaval, continuing to write and lead a poetic life is no small thing—you are already exceptional for having answered that creative call.
Those of us who choose to practice this enduring form know in our bones that, for all its brevity and spareness, tanka possesses great power. In a mere handful of lines, tanka informs, enriches, and enlightens. At once personal and universal, tanka cultivates and promotes awareness, growth, healing, and laughter. Through carefully combined imagery and emotion, tanka conveys and assuages even the deepest grief, witnesses and provokes even the most challenging change. Owing largely to its all-important dreaming room, tanka unites by inviting each reader to connect and converse with the poet as they expand and complete the poem together.
Our contest namesake, master poet Sanford Goldstein, once encapsulated tanka as, “A snapshot of me in this moment.” We would agree and further suggest that tanka composed in the spirit of his modern teachings capture humanity in this moment of history—our passions, cultures, socio-politics, environment, and more. As we read and re-read all 845 tanka, discussing their merit and meaning, the poems that spoke loudest were those authentically and naturally voiced, relevant to our current times, and revealing of our human condition. Accordingly, our commentary attempts to convey what we believe these winning tanka have to offer us all in terms of understanding and uplifting ourselves and our world. We hope you will join us in congratulating the poets who penned these timely poems.
—Autumn Noelle Hall and Don Miller
First Place ($100)
my old home sits
next to unturned soil
and silver queen corn
long for my father’s hand
Lake Worth, Florida
The atmosphere of this winning poem makes us ache with loss—not the mono no aware of sweet cherry blossoms, but the embodied pain of life’s inherent grief. The poet’s old home recalled both our old homes. Don grew up on a working family farmstead in Indiana, and Autumn came of age right where a two-lane highway left its Iowa cornfields to enter town. These childhood homes were sold in conjunction with our fathers’ deaths—the houses and land may still sit where they always did, but they are accessible now only in memory. The unturned soil of this poem captures that lost potential. Row by row as the tanka grows, string beans and silver queen corn emerge to be laid out as if on a wooden truck-farm stand. What is the symbolic significance of this? Corn in particular is more than just a crop. It is the spiritual mana of the Americas—empires grew from its squeaking stalks; and like dried shucks in the wind, whispers of their fall echo through the s sounds present in all five lines. Just as we are gathering in that harvest, the poem peels back its green layers to reveal the father’s hand beneath all. But now it is not only the poet’s father, but our forefathers, Father Sky, the All-Father, Our Father Who Art in Heaven, the Creative, burgeoning Yang energy, which, in its life-giving essence, runs completely contrary to the toxic masculinity of our present death-dealing culture. Especially in this tragic time of global climate catastrophe, how we long as a people to have such a benevolent hand reach forth to turn the soil of this earth we’ve sullied and return us to simpler, if not always happier, times. The poet’s intuitive understanding of this all-too-unconscious dynamic results in a tanka as relevant and cathartic as it is sublime.
Second Place ($50)
in steel cages
once upon a time
only in fairytales
Cary, North Carolina
We are left rattled as this poem’s five-line cage closes around us, its visceral steel door slamming shut. What are these prisons holding our children captive? Because children have been torn from parents and interned in camps right here on the U.S.–Mexico border, our news-saturated minds might naturally land there. Yet the poem’s dreaming room allows that these could just as easily be the cargo cages of sex traffickers, the forced-labor cages of sweatshops, the titanium cages of cell phones, the virtual cages of Zoom boxes, or even the doctrinal cages of nationalism or religion. It seems, as a society, we’d prefer to relegate all such cages to the realm of the imaginary. Turning on its bedtime-story once upon a time, the poem even offers us a tempting—albeit temporary—out, by momentarily intimating this abhorrent situation might be a thing of the past; but then the trail of bread crumbs leads us into the deep woods of our painfully present reality. In a wickedly ironic twist, that reality is revealed by the concluding word: fairytales. The power of fairytales to hold psychic content was well known to depth psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz, who demonstrated the way familiar story characters—witches and wolves and straw-spinning imps—animate our inner archetypes on the page. This tanka’s time-loop, which links us barbaric-past-to-political-present, also ties us inextricably to the vulnerability of childhood and our own dark psychological content. Then, much like fairytales, it offers a key to redemption: as awareness is raised of the ways our collective shadow-side projects itself out into the world, we become better-equipped to consciously unlock the heroes in our own—and our children’s—stories. Perhaps it is the poet’s hope, as it is ours, that such consciousness will free us from these cages of our own making.
Third Place ($25)
kintsugi . . .
of your gentle words
helps to rebuild
a better version of me
As many readers are aware, the Japanese fine art of kintsugi, or golden joinery, entails creating a seam of lacquer melted (or dusted) with precious metal to effect a repair on a cracked pottery vessel. Akin to wabi sabi’s honoring of imperfection, the philosophy of kintsugi recognizes damage as an intrinsic part of the vessel’s story. This tanka applies these concepts artlessly to our own flawed nature, acknowledging brokenness as integral—whether emotional, psychological, or physical, injury is a natural part of human existence. Following the solitary standout kintsugi on line one, the ellipsis affords us a pause to visualize and consider these concepts before the poem begins to gather momentum and meaning. The poet’s choice of the active word flow both captures the practice of the art form itself and initiates a cascade that continues throughout the poem. A single phrase flowing from lines two through five demonstrates the way we might serve one another best: by continually circulating a current of kindness in the form of gentle words. The result of this restorative practice is that benefactor and beneficiary alike can arrive at a place of acceptance. Using you[r] and me, the poet reaches out of the tanka and invites each of us to join in its healing flow. Even in a world that inflicts damage daily, this nurturing approach, which encourages us to participate and embrace our brokenness, allows us an opportunity to rebuild and ultimately become better versions of ourselves—together.
Honorable Mentions (not ranked)
measure my words
in scoville units
Although chilli (a British spelling of that peppery word rendered “chili” in Colorado and “chile” in New Mexico), may not appear in any season-word database, those of us fortunate enough to live in America’s Southwest certainly count it as kigo. The much-anticipated chile harvest takes place in this region in August/September. Each fall, as roasters claim street corners and farmers’ market stalls, our arid air fills with the sweet-smokey aroma of scorching peppers; many of us clear freezer space before lining up to claim our annual shares by-the-bushel. Given that this tanka’s children are savvy (sassy?) enough to use the capsaicin-indexing scoville units as a metaphor for their parent’s biting words, the poem’s protagonist is likely in the early autumn of life—a later-middle-aged parent coping with critical teens. In addition to a judicious pinch of piquant vocabulary, there is room to play in this poem. Why is the parent resorting to blue language? Is it because the local garden center has run out of chile seeds for planting? This would indeed be an occasion for heated speech in our chile-relishing region! Or, is the parent self-scolding, “No more chilli seeds [for me],” in response to a growing awareness stemming from the children’s sharp observation? Considering the top three-line strophe, these children-as-chilli-seeds appear to have an incipient spice of their own; perhaps the pepper doesn’t fall far from the plant. Whichever way we read it, this delicious tanka has just the right spice.
with fresh soup
thinks the fly
will be all right
Humorous tanka, or kyoka, is surprisingly difficult to master. As well as wit and a grasp of comedic timing, it requires cultural literacy and sleight-of-hand. In just sixteen syllables, this poet takes what might have been a cliché—the familiar fly-in-my-soup gag—and, by skillfully turning it on its head, reanimates it. In shifting concern from the well-being of the diner to that of the fly, the poem’s brief journey from kitchen to table is rendered every bit as “aha” as it is “ha!” We can’t help but chuckle at the last line’s unexpected shift, and yet, our heartstrings also resonate with its solicitude. Herein dwells a subtle nod to Issa’s fly, who “prays with his hands . . . and his feet,” the very embodiment of that cherished master’s all-encompassing respect and compassion for even the smallest of lives. The afforded dreaming room leaves open the question of whether this loving kindness manifests in the diner, the waiter, or both. Regardless, readers are invited to share in caring long after the rim-shot, as the image of the fly’s prior predicament and apparent rescue plays itself out in our heart-minds. We feel the Issa-like empathy and gentle laughter generated by this kyoka are precisely the palliative our suffering planet needs today.
the ways I should be
allowed to exist—
a rainbow forms outside
the social construct of gender
From its opening statement, this powerful poem speaks to the way human beings not only question but take sides. Debate requires polarity; and when practicing a Western binary approach—dividing darkness from light, so to speak—we can be all too apt to proceed directly to opposite ends of the spectrum. Toggling line by line, accumulating meaning as it tumbles, this timely tanka challenges whether the underlying topic of debate—the individual right to existence—is something that should even be called into question. Without ever stating the answer, the pivot line simultaneously implies, “No, it should not” and affirms that all should be allowed to exist. As we read on, we understand that the existential rights wrongly called into question today are those of individuals outside gender’s binary construct. Our current societal antagonism towards gender differences mirrors the racial prejudice Martin Luther King Jr. addressed half a century ago when he reminded, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The most empathic among us can never step entirely into another’s shoes; therefore, no one of us can ever be qualified to best determine the way another should be. But we can step aside, stand beside, and affirm another’s right to wear whatever shoes feel most comfortable. This poem’s “I” reveals that as we do, King’s light—seen through the loving prism of compassion, acceptance, and egalitarianism—comprises all the colors of the rainbow.
Special Commendation for Embodying Sanford-Style
at morning lightfall
in the thatched hut
of an everyday mind
Introducing something new this year, we’ve chosen to honor our contest’s namesake by selecting one tanka we felt best embodied Sanford Goldstein’s singular style. Though several entries skirted the edges, this one seemed to spill top to bottom as though from Goldstein’s own pen. As is often the case in Western poetry (T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its salutes to Shakespeare and Dante, springs to mind), Japanese short-form poetry historically makes use of allusion to evoke the work of and pay tribute to past poetic masters. Following suit, our commended tanka harkens to Sanford Goldstein’s aptly named sequence, At the Hut of the Small Mind (which, like the best of folk songs, repeats its title refrain “hut of the small mind” no less than six times). Consider the following tanka from his sequence:
it was roosters
at morning light-fall—
even that crack
Parallels present immediately between the first two lines of the selected tanka and Goldstein’s, not only in their construction but in their use of avian imagery and word choice. Both poems perk our ears with birdsong (though Goldstein’s crowing roosters are arguably more bird than song). The two tanka then echo one another as we learn we are listening at morning lightfall (light-fall). So what makes this echoing different from simply copying or plagiarizing another’s work? U.S. fair use doctrine poses questions that might offer answers: What is the poet’s intent? Does the new work in any way unfavorably influence the “brand” or value of the original? Has the poet created something new from the original work? In this case, we feel strongly that the poet set out to honor an acknowledged short-form master by emulating his unique literary style. We find the tanka canon rich with such veneration in the time-and-again penning of phrases such as “tangled hair” (Akiko Yosano) or “red lights” (Mokichi Saito) or “ink-dark moon” (Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aritani’s translations of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu). In the following tanka from At the Hut of the Small Mind, Goldstein himself bows to Bashō while borrowing from his well-known works:
and that urine smell
in this mountain hut
Such intentional mirroring, or honkadori, adds another layer to the tribute tanka by reflecting imagery or sentiments from the previous work in order to build upon them. Far from unfavorably influencing, this practice can revitalize and elevate both poets as their works speak to one another. The selected tanka also succeeds in making something new of the original via its solitary pivot word: alone. Unlike the joyous atmosphere created by Goldstein’s boisterous roosters, our selected tanka’s mood is, at a minimum, one of meditative solitude. Given our recent (and in some cases, ongoing or self-imposed) Covid-19 lockdowns, the intended tone may well be a more somber sense of loneliness, further amplified by the image of birds freely gathering together for their dawn chorus. As mentioned, Goldstein returns to his hut of the small mind, with all its possible implications, throughout the sequence (perhaps pointing to his ongoing struggle to bring mind under control to achieve his satori goal, as well as his humble accommodations). Our commended poet’s hut of an everyday mind conveys a sense of the “ordinary” and “ongoing,” exhibiting a universality reflective of the “new normal” many of us are still coming to terms with daily. The two poems reinforce each other by modeling one possible way to cope: we can attempt to attend to sounds and situations surrounding us in a Zen-like state of mu, a concept meaning “nothing,” which manifests itself as “mind-less mind.” In this hut of the centered self, one can awaken to acceptance and the accompanying peace of simply being. Taken together with its philosophical balm, we find this tanka by a poet inspired by a master-inspired-by-a-master . . . inspiring.
See the 2021 submission guidelines and bios for the 2021 judges.