Tanka Prose Contest Winners
A Tanka Society of America Fifteenth Anniversary Special Event
Judge: Bob Lucky
Contest Coordinators: Janet Lynn Davis and Susan Burch (69 entries)
We’re pleased to see so much enthusiasm for the Tanka Society of America’s first-ever tanka prose contest, held during the autumn of the TSA’s fifteenth-anniversary year. Sixty-nine tanka poets from around the world participated, a greater turnout than we expected, though we admit we didn’t know quite what to expect. Both experienced and newer writers of the form sent us their work; each participant was allowed one entry. The majority who entered were TSA members, though many nonmembers also entered. We hope such interest in the creative fusion of tanka and prose keeps growing—that more and more of you will study the form and submit your own “tanka stories” to the various venues that accept them.
A big thank-you to everyone who entered the contest; to Susan Burch, who worked with me in administering the contest, including building the judge’s anonymous file; and to Bob Lucky, who graciously accepted the difficult task of selecting the winners. The judge’s commentary for the TSA special-event Tanka Prose Contest follows.
—Janet Lynn Davis, contest coordinator with Susan Burch
Judge’s Report by Bob Lucky
I’ve discovered something more unsettling than being an editor: being a contest judge. As an editor, your job is basically answering a series of yes or no questions. Based on a combination of critical judgment and personal taste, you accept or reject a submission and hope that you haven’t overlooked something or let something slip through. It can be painful. Being a contest judge exacerbates the pain. Not only do you go through the yes or no, but also you have to rank your choices. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say I have the winners and honorable mentions memorized. That’s how often I read and reread them.
The order of the finalists pile changed several times. They are all good (and many of the others that didn’t make it were also good). I approached it somewhat like a scientist trying to disprove a theory: I looked for what wouldn’t make a particular tanka prose the winner (or one of the winners). And then, once I had the winners lined up and the honorable mentions in place, I decided I didn’t want to know who the authors were before I wrote the commentary. I do like the blind-review process; each piece speaks for itself.
(winner of a 2016 TSA membership)
Perhaps she should have taken the time to learn the rules. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, but it had always seemed so difficult. There was something about the way he smiled at her whenever she made a wrong move.
It was sort of . . . not a smile.
She’d never wanted to play the game in the first place but had gone along with it. There was always that lingering feeling, as if somehow she should have known what was coming, known how to outmanoeuvre him.
And now that she had, she thought perhaps she ought to feel differently.
She picked up the pieces one by one and returned them to their correct places in the box. She noticed a spot of red on one of the knights. Using a napkin, she wiped it and placed it facing towards the centre.
The way that he had shown her.
Having second thoughts, she turned it facing outwards. Perhaps she did feel differently after all.
she knocks down the king
in stony silence
after being beaten
all these years
Brighton, United Kingdom
“Checkmate” reads like the distillation of a psychological novel. The protagonist appears to be in an abusive relationship. Psychological or physical or both—we don’t know. The man’s smile is almost a leer or sneer but definitely “not a smile.” The woman doesn’t really want to play the “game,” but she goes along with it despite a sense of foreboding. And there in the middle of the tanka prose, she has outmaneuvered him and her epiphany slowly blossoms (unlike the blinding light of most epiphanies). As she returns the chess pieces to the box, she decides to face one of the knights outwards rather than towards the center, “the way that he had shown her.” This is a pivotal moment: she too is facing outwards, has perhaps found a way out. It’s hard not to see a little symbolic blood in that “spot of red” she wipes off the knight she turns outwards. It’s hard as a reader not to sigh with relief.
The tanka is an analogy. Life is the real game. It is the moment when the protagonist knocks over the king, outmaneuvers the opponent, that she wins. But the last three lines add a tone of somberness to the entire affair, especially the double reading of “beaten” and “the stony silence.” There may be triumph, but there seems to be no celebration.
Although she hallucinates, it’s Casilda I most admire. She talks back to her dead mother, who is also (this is a telenovela) her godmother. After three seasons of woe with an increasingly rich and abusive husband, Casilda runs away with a truck driver who adores her. They load his cargo trailer with box after box of not-yet-laundered pesos that Casilda’s husband is about to grieve for. Then they add the villainess of the whole series, the woman whose deceptions, betrayals, and murders have pushed Casilda toward lunacy. In the locked trailer the villainess excitedly unpacks the money.
on ripening apples
until one by one
The trucker drives them far off the highway into lonesome country where he backs up into a thicket of desert thorns. He and Casilda detach the trailer, abandoning the villainess and the pesos to run out of oxygen and water under the ascending sun. As they drive away, Casilda asks the trucker if money is the most important thing. He grins “no” while she laughs, throwing thousand-peso notes out of her window. And there! in the dusty verge of the roadside stands Casilda’s year-dead mother-godmother in a prim white suit, smiling as they pass, everyone waving adios, goodbye, adios.
the golden-pink clouds
of a big-sky sunset
shining on our cheeks
if I knew better I might
call it the Rapture
Santa Cruz, California
Note: Inspired in part by Amarte es mi pecado, a 2004 Mexican telenovela.
“Ah Morelia” is a fast-paced romp through the Mexican telenovela Amarte es mi pecado, following in particular the exploits of Casilda. Not surprisingly, as the narrator is synopsizing parts of a telenovela, reference is made to many of the staples of melodrama: domestic violence, adultery, money laundering, larceny, and murder. Throw in a ghost, too. The prose is a cascade of plot points and explanations told at a breathless pace, which makes a dramatic contrast with the calmness of the tanka. Both tanka deal in light, the pressure of light and sensation of light. The first tanka contains the idea that in the natural course of events things reach their end. Of course, the villainess is not going to reach a natural end trapped in a trailer as the sun goes down. The final tanka adds a nice twist to this tale. Whose rosy cheeks are these? “Our cheeks” implies the cheeks of the narrator and perhaps someone she or he is with. It’s as if the narrator has come to identify with Casilda.
The Window Poem
If eyes are the windows of the soul, what then this window with its perhaps hand that, like spring, comes carefully out of nowhere.
Deft as that green-fingered season, moving a perhaps fraction of flower here placing an inch of air there. Sometimes there is a velvet backdrop, an ornament or two upon the ledge. But I’ve yet to see the hand, let alone its sleight.
the stagehand replenishes
paper and ribbon
doubles as prompter
softly uttering lines
One day the curtains were drawn aside, revealing a room that might have been written into the poem last displayed (John Cage’s ‘Each Day Unexpected Shade’), and beyond, late afternoon light through a door left ajar offered a glimpse of hollyhocks and terracotta: a small corner belonging to someone who had left ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ crisp upon the platen.
Surely I can’t be the only pauser-by?
of the carriage return
a few last grace notes
finger by finger, the maestro
removes his white gloves
A year now since I first chanced upon it in a side street of this little market town. And now, habit dictates that I must come here on arrival and again before I depart, to fix the charm. What I should do if I happened upon the master at his art, the change as it was made, I do not know. What is certain is that an erudite stranger conjures this display for who-knows-who, and whether the scene changes daily, weekly, monthly, remains a mystery.
Carefully there a strange thing of a poem I’ve never heard of . . . a known thing here of one I learned by heart.
in morning light
centre-still . . .
an audience of one
in the palm of his hand
Northallerton, United Kingdom
Note: Italicized text from ‘Spring is like a perhaps hand’ by E. E. Cummings.
“The Window Poem” deftly weaves parts of E. E. Cummings’ poem “Spring is like a perhaps hand” into the prose. The narrator relates how she or he once chanced upon a window down a side street in a little market town and now feels compelled to go back to it upon arrival in and departure from the town. The window displays poems and the occasional ornament “upon the ledge.” There is something magical about this window, but the narrator is not sure what or what it would mean to find out. The first two tanka imagine what it’s like behind the scenes, most of which involves a typewriter. The second and final tanka allude to the hand of the creator of these window displays and the hand in Cummings’ poem, “a perhaps hand/(which comes carefully/out of Nowhere)arranging/a window,into which people look.” In the final tanka, the maestro behind the window has the narrator in the palm of his hand. It might not be far-fetched to read this tanka prose as being, at least in some part, about the nature of writing itself, the relationship between the author and the reader.
Honorable Mentions (not ranked)
I step into the silent forest. Beside a signpost for the Appalachian Trail, a flimsy plastic sleeve lies crushed into the damp earth. I pick it up and puzzle over the bit of frayed, blackened clothesline tucked inside it. Then I read the water-stained message, carefully printed in pencil:
HIKERS This is the Bloody rope that was tied to the collar of a Ten year old boys Dog at Devils Fork Gap. where he lived. And led to Sams Gap and got loose and was run over in the road. If a dog comes to you please rock it away. They live here. dont let them follow you Please. this is the third dog in two months.
the harsh cry
of a blue jay . . .
one red leaf
in a sea of green
trembles and falls
Jenny Ward Angyal
Gibsonville, North Carolina
“Gaps” is, well, full of gaps: in mountains, in the loss of a boy’s pet dog, and between the two blocks of prose. The contrast between the narrator of the haibun, who merely sets the scene, and the writer of the italicized plea, whose anguish permeates and transcends every capitalization error and missing apostrophe, is highlighted by the white space between them. It’s a gap between the locals and the visitors that the writer of the plea is trying to bridge. In the tone of the tanka, there is a sense the narrator is touched by the note, but the subject of the tanka itself is clearly about the aspects of nature the visitors come to experience. Significantly, the tanka creates an amazing two-fold image of a gap, the contrast of the red leaf against the green leaves around it and the space it leaves in that “sea of green” when it “trembles and falls.”
Carved in Stone
There is a calm here. A quiet acceptance of what has passed.
Despite names lost to weather and time, Celtic cross and shamrock still sing of Irish roots. Trading hawthorn and rowan for the strangeness of eucalypt and wattle, what did they think of life in this infant land?
We walk slowly through this world of silence. Paspalum fronds scratch at our legs as they escape the caged confines of where they’ve taken root. A light mist begins to fall, and we shelter under the branches of a large gum. Empty eye sockets stare up from the overgrown plot beside us. We look closely and see the skull of a small animal. Then shoulder plates, long bones, an intact rib cage . . . and I wonder at the things I cannot see.
and fortune tellers
can be wrong—
the difference between
too much or too little?
I run my fingers through the soft needles on a dark green pine sweeping low over a headstone. You touch the marble and trace the outline of a name, as if reading Braille is as natural to you as breathing. We talk softly of the harshness of a time when life often ended in single figures.
As the rain lets up we head off towards the small sandstone building in the centre of the grounds. Windows, curtained with decades of grime, become mirrors for our own curiosity. The old mortuary chapel, doors now closed forever, keeps silent counsel of those who crossed the threshold.
of a mourning cypress . . .
between two points
of life and death
their stories carved in stone
Biggera Waters, Australia
Quite another type of gap is dealt with in “Carved in Stone.” It’s a meditation on how we mark our absence. The narrator and a companion walk through a silent cemetery in a light mist, noting the headstones, those symbols of our lives that mark our deaths. They also examine the skull and bones of a small mammal, all that’s left of its life. The final tanka notes that between life and death all that’s left are our stories, which in this setting, are “carved in stone,” a sad fate for any story, even our own.
In my comments here I’ve purposely spoken of narrators rather than authors. As haibun and tanka prose readers, we are almost conditioned to accept that the author and narrator are one and the same, a mistake that wouldn’t go unnoticed in a literature course. The genre does tend to autobiography-memoir-essay, so conflating the two is often the default reading. However, tanka prose and haibun, the best of it, has at least an aspect of creative nonfiction about it. And more recently, writers are consciously writing fictional tanka prose and haibun. I’m drawn to those works in which the authors are willing to stray from the true story to tell, often through a narrator (and sometimes one almost identical to the author), a story that contains a truth. That no doubt colored my selection process. I want to thank every writer who submitted work to this contest. It was a pleasure and honor to read your work.
Bob Lucky is content editor of Contemporary Haibun Online and author of Ethiopian Time. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals, including Flash, Rattle, Modern Haiku, KYSO Flash, The Prose-Poem Project, Haibun Today, and Contemporary Haibun Online. He currently lives and works in Saudi Arabia.