It was an honor for both of us to have been entrusted with the task of judging the 2022 Sandford Goldstein contest for the Tanka Society of America. The process of judging the 585 poems was an enjoyable experience. We spent many hours reading tanka alone, and just as many consulting about them over the phone. We both initially arrived at our individual shortlists, which we then whittled down with much discussion and comparison of personal notes. Ultimately, we arrived at our final three placed and six honorable mention tanka.
Our criteria for choosing excellent tanka was identical. We sought poems that had personal and universal appeal. Tanka selected had an emotional impact upon us—poems that spoke to us and called us back repeatedly on subsequent readings. Of the poems chosen, all are technically proficient and have a solid structure and purposeful word usage. They are respectful of the history of this form as a “short song” and are pleasing and lyrical to the ear when read aloud. We were drawn to poems with a depth of dreaming room that revealed something new on each subsequent reading. The placed and honorable mention poems are original and avoid cliché, and they gave us new windows to look out of in order to interpret and appreciate the world in which we live.
For the poets who did not place in our selections, please do not be disheartened and keep writing. There were many outstanding poems that, under other judges, may well have featured in a different set of winners.
Our congratulations to the winners and the honorable mention poets. Again, we are deeply thankful to everyone who submitted and trusted us with poems that have meaning and relevance for them.
—Kathy Kituai and David Terelinck
on musk thistle . . .
how long until
I’m more my illness
Robin Anna Smith
This is a tanka with a universal and timeless relevance, and one both of us could relate to on a personal and professional level. So often, in the whirlwind of treatment and care of chronic and life-threating illnesses, personal essence can be lost to the diction of disease. The person can suddenly, or insidiously, become “the liver in bed 10” or perhaps just another patient on another specialist ward. They indeed become “more my illness” than a holistic individual. And as they become sicker, illness takes over where once there was independence. We feel that anyone on the chronic illness spectrum of diagnostics, specialist visits, treatments, and medical reviews would be able to relate. So too those family and loved ones who care for such individuals personally and accompany them on their illness journey.
The tanka is rich in dreaming room, as the reader is not told who this person is, or what illness they have. We do not know if this is a curable condition, chronic, or terminal. The reader can apply their own life experiences as it applies to them.
On another level, there is a considered and appropriate use of the language in the first two lines:
on musk thistle . . .
Musk thistle is an invasive, aggressive weed. A single plant can produce around 20,000 seeds. They do not fall far from the parent plant and thereby create a monoculture carpet. As it spreads, it becomes the perfect metaphor for an illness taking over and transforming a body. Suddenly a field can be more musk thistle than pasture. The poet achieves a subtle and effective partial rhyme with rust/musk. And rust is an example of an unhealthy plant; illness metaphored further within this poem. Interestingly Puccinia carduorum, an autoecious rust fungus from Turkey, has been evaluated for biological control of musk thistles since 1978. Medicinally, musk thistle leaves and seeds are useful as a bitter tonic to stimulate liver function. Studies suggest that it may help to promote healthy skin, reduce cholesterol, support the immune system, contribute to bone health, and improve allergic asthma symptoms. This suggests there is an alternative angle to this tanka, that the musk thistle is a metaphor for the body, and the rust is indeed the illness taking over. These fascinating facts add further layers of depth to the meaning and interpretation of this poem.
the wet dog smell
of a small town
something i didn’t come in for
Biddulph, United Kingdom
This tanka is rich in evocative and descriptive imagery. Everyone who has owned a dog would immediately be able to recall that “wet dog smell” that evokes long-standing memory and sense for these judges. The metaphor is sound and is working very well.
Both judges have lived in smalls towns and are familiar with these junk shops—the dim interiors and dusty shelves with unexpected surprises around each corner. And anyone who has spent time in such shops would recall nosing around, dog-like, sniffing out a bargain. And that sudden Aha! moment when something jumps out at you; something that you were not looking for but has indeed found you. That one item you must take home because it has called to you like a longed-for memory.
The structure of this tanka is sound with a highly effective pivot in line three. Despite it not adhering to the traditional short/long/short/long/long line format, it is a high-impact tanka with the very short closing line. It is effused with the subtlety of understatement. Content echoes form the way one line follows the next, canine-like, and tracks down treasures naturally.
the silent swoosh
of a turned page
as I scribble the shapes
of another unfinished poem
There are invariably submissions about poets penning poems in many competitions, but this tanka stood out for the expert way it was crafted. Is this night owl an actual person, or nature observed through the window? Owls swoop on the most vulnerable and timid creatures, those that live in fear of its presence. Internalized critics can be as cold-blooded as the owl as they swoop upon first efforts to write and kill creativity. The poem employs subtle alliteration with sibilants that effectively evoke sound and scene.
Whichever way this is viewed, bird, poet, or critic are seeking prey, one for sustenance in physical form, the others for penned inspiration.
What is it that keeps this poet awake? Is it the drive to write, or other matters pressing on the conscious or subconscious mind? There is the suggestion that this behavior is habitual—it is “another” poem unfinished. The dreaming room is ample with the specific word choice and the reader ponders why these poems remain incomplete.
Honorable Mentions (not ranked)
of a lighthouse
all that is left
a train whistle echoes
from room to room
There is an engaging synergy within this tanka between the lighthouse painting and the train whistle. Train whistles and echoes fade, much as the light from a lighthouse fades as the light revolves. One can also picture a train light piercing the darkness or a tunnel. The train whistle also emulates the mournful sound, so like the wailing that escapes our lips as we grieve.
Time is stilled in this tanka, and it paints a picture of loss and grief. A passing era will not be recaptured. There is an intangibility here with things that cannot be held: light, sound, grief. The only physical memory of the narrator’s father is a painting. But in this dreaming room, the reader does not know if it is simply a painting owned by the father, or one the man painted himself? And why is this painting all that remains? The pivot line, “all that is left,” earmarks the fact that this is no mere painting. What significance does it hold?
Structurally, the pivot in line three enhances the appeal.
to awaken the chimes
again, the boy asks
if his cat is still dead
A fine tanka that grapples with a child’s first experience of loss. There is such weight in the use of the word “again” in line four. It underscores the difficult reality for the boy—and parent—in navigating this grief and loss. How hard it is to accept this when you love a person or pet. And this is not surprising when children are exposed to cartoons, video games, and other media where someone who is shot or dies gets up and carries on.
The tanka opens with silence, no breeze through the wind chimes. There will be no more purring from the cat, no more meowing for dinner. The silence of death and loss permeates the poem. There are echoes of the human condition with this tanka where someone does not like the answer to their question, so they ask it repeatedly, hoping for a different outcome. We feel sadness in knowing the child will never get the answer he seeks.
A strong and powerful tanka with a highly effective third-line pivot.
they sing from balconies
from underground shelters
and bombed-out churches
deep beneath the ocean
the rumble of whale song
A topical and relevant tanka that speaks to our times. Beautifully written with a lyrical musicality to it that builds line by line to a satisfactory conclusion, very in keeping with the theme. A poem where content echoes form. It is technically proficient with subtle alliteration.
Given the devastating war in Ukraine, the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, and increasing global unrest, this tanka is one of healing and connection. Who can forget the images of people singing from their balconies when in Covid quarantine? And the Ukraine people seeking sanctuary in shelters, and those tragically buried beneath the rubble of bombed shopping centers and places of worship? And underscoring this is the rumble of whale song. These majestic creatures who themselves have been targeted, hunted, and killed. There is a constant rumble in the world today and we can see and feel it. This tanka links the human condition with nature and brings it home expertly in five lines.
along the path . . .
a crop so heavy
the mandarin tree leans
on the shoulder of my fence
Hamilton, New Zealand
This tanka illustrates the burden of a fruitful bounty. The mandarin tree is so heavy with a ripe crop that it blocks access to the walker. It is a lesson to us that even when we are blossoming, we can be weighted down. We can be overburdened at times in life. We can have too much that it becomes difficult to navigate the simpler pleasures in life.
Specificity matters in this tanka, with the use of “mandarin.” Traditionally this is a fruit or fortune and wealth. It makes the reader ponder if the wealth is a burden—is the person too rich to enjoy life? One thinks of people who win millions of dollars in lotteries, and how this changes their life—not always for the better.
This poem is lyrical and there is wonderful phrasing in the imagery of the mandarins leaning upon the “shoulder” of the fence for support.
“Sorry about the shit
hitting the fan,” he says
outside the courtroom
like it wasn’t his
and he didn’t aim
A very contemporary tanka on a relevant theme for today. It is not often we read tanka with spoken dialogue. In this case it works extremely well with the edgy subject material. This tanka is topical and holds much relevance in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and the recent defamation trial played out in the courts and social media by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. In the Depp-Heard trial we saw much slung, and from both sides. And it was delivered with deliberate aim.
Of interest is the strength and pointed nature of the closing two lines. The narrator feels aggrieved for what has been said, and how it was said for targeted impact.
This poem is rich in dreaming room as the reader has no idea what the litigation concerned, who instigated it, and what the ultimate outcome was. But it is a tanka that evokes empathy, no matter whose side you happen to align with.
by the screen door
on a house demolished
a lifetime ago
This tanka opens with an innocuous concrete act and imagery—someone being awaked from sleep by the slamming of a screen door. But the denouement in line four twists this tanka into something deeper, into darker territory. The reader learns, in the closing two lines, that this screen door is slamming in someone’s dream or nightmare. It is not the screen door of their current abode. We do not know who is having this dream, but it is significant. The narrator is not simply awaked; they are jolted awake. And the tanka alludes to many unanswered questions such as what happened in this house? Whom did it happen to? What was this significant trauma that causes it to surface in dream memory many years, perhaps decades, later—“a lifetime ago,” in fact? And the revelation that the house has been demolished serves to emphasize the fear and emotions that linger from this house.
This tanka is a prime example of the artful use of dreaming room in a tanka. Much is suggested, but never stated outright. And all the emotion is inferred for the reader to tease out.
See the 2022 submission guidelines and bios for the 2022 judges.