April 14, 2015 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Tanka Society of America. From a jotting in my notebook, and a meeting room at Millikin University in the spring of 2000 where I had convened and led the first meeting, we have come to what we are today, an active and thriving organization that has grown to about two hundred and twenty-five members. As the organization’s founder, I’ve been very pleased with how we have all joined in pursuing the group’s aim “to further the reading, writing, understanding, promotion, and enjoyment of tanka poetry in English.” Much has happened in the last fifteen years, and it’s worth a quick review. How did this organization begin, what have we accomplished, and where might we be going in the future?
I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to think that there should be a “Tanka Society of America” in the United States, but I remember jotting the idea in my poetry notebook sometime around 1990 or 1992, and then again in the mid-90s. A couple of early journals and contests had been promoting tanka at this time, but there was no tanka society, so I thought I would start it myself. For almost a year before that first meeting, I corresponded with William J. Higginson, Paul O. Williams, and especially Sanford Goldstein about my starting such a society, and worked on setting up a potential executive committee before the inaugural meeting itself. I wanted to model the TSA after the Haiku Society of America and borrowed much of the tanka society’s structure and traditions from the HSA. I’m grateful to the HSA for providing a fine model to follow. Because it seemed vital that the group have a publication to keep us all connected (not everyone was on the Internet as much as we are today, and Facebook didn’t exist), I asked Pamela Miller Ness to get involved as the newsletter editor.
Originally, I planned to have the first meeting of the Tanka Society of America in California, where I was living at the time, but when the Global Haiku Festival was scheduled for April of 2000 at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, I asked Randy Brooks if I could use a room there for the society’s first meeting, to which he agreed. You can read my report of the first meeting at the Millikin University website—see “Tanka Society of America Plenary Meeting”). We elected officers, approved my proposal of “Tanka Society of America” as the organization’s name, and decided to hold an annual tanka contest. We agreed that the thirteen people present for that entire first meeting would be considered charter members of the Tanka Society of America, as would anyone who joined before the end of the year 2000. We soon had 150 members.
Because of the work I had done prior to the meeting, I was elected as the first president, a position I was grateful to hold for five years. (Michael McClintock became president in 2005 and Margaret Chula in 2011. TSA has been fortunate, in my opinion, to have had only three presidents to date, which has given the organization a stability it might not have had with more frequent changes of leadership.) We tried to plan subsequent meetings, but aside from local gatherings that Pamela Miller Ness organized in New York City, we have not had any meetings, except for our two conferences. Since our membership is scattered so thinly across the country, it still seems impractical to have regular meetings. Perhaps we could revive the idea of regional meetings, or perhaps schedule annual meetings.
In September, 2000, we published the first issue of the Tanka Society of America Newsletter, and that same month I represented the Tanka Society of America by giving a speech at the Third International Tanka Convention, sponsored by the Japan Tanka Poets’ Club, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Margaret Chula was invited to read her tanka, which had been awarded first prize in the Tanka Poets’ Club’s International Tanka Contest. Amelia Fielden came from Australia, and tanka poets such as Laura Maffei and Melissa Dixon attended from the United States and Canada. We had begun to promote “the enjoyment of tanka poetry in English.” At the end of that year, we held our first tanka contest, which received 309 entries, and have held the contest annually since then. (All of the results appear on the TSA International Tanka Contest page.) Jeanne Emrich also started the TSA website around 2005, which has been vital in promoting the society’s existence.
When we first started publishing a quarterly newsletter, we deliberately decided to avoid publishing a tanka journal, because we wanted our members to support existing tanka publications, at least until we had more funding to pay for our own journal. Ribbons began in early 2005 as an 8.5x11-inch journal, named and first edited by an’ya. The society continued to publish the newsletter as well as the journal, but eventually the content of the two publications merged together. In 2007 the format of Ribbons changed to its present 6x9-inch size with a glossy colour cover. I edited and published our first membership anthology in 2002, and we have published seven more since then.
The organization has had two national conferences. The first, “Tanka Day,” took place in New York City on 30 June 2003, immediately after the Haiku North America conference. I organized the event with Pamela Miller Ness, and William J. Higginson and Brian Tasker were among our main speakers. More than two dozen people enjoyed a stimulating mix of papers, writing exercises, and panel discussions. The night before, we had a banquet with featured tanka readings. You can read my report of this event at “A Tanka Turning Point.” The second national conference, “Tanka Sunday,” was organized by me and Margaret Chula. It took place on 18 August 2013 aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner in Long Beach, California, immediately after that year’s Haiku North America conference. You can read the schedule for this event at “Tanka Sunday Schedule,” which featured Professor Steven D. Carter of Stanford University as the keynote speaker, and included many other presentations and readings.
Perhaps our most important accomplishment, though, has been the increased attention we have helped bring to tanka as its own distinctive form of poetry. For decades in North America, tanka has played second fiddle to haiku, and was published along with haiku in some journals. Thanks to the Tanka Society of America, and later tanka organizations in Canada and the United Kingdom, plus Modern English Tanka Press, Keibooks, and other journals and individuals, tanka in English has emerged as more robust and popular than ever.
What does the future hold for tanka and the Tanka Society of America? Perhaps you are the best person to answer that question. What would you like to make of it? It would be a pleasure to see more regional tanka events similar to Kathabela Wilson’s “Tanka Poets on Site” activities in Southern California. Is it time to consider having annual or biennial national conferences? Through my current job as TSA web manager, we now have a more focused online presence with our Facebook page and redesigned website, but we could do even more to promote the organization and our contests online, especially among mainstream poets. We are still not yet a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, do not have bylaws, and have never offered a definition of tanka, even though that was discussed at length when the organization first started. Could we explore tanka poetry itself in more depth, with a greater range in style and subject matter? Could we find ways to improve our journal, boost membership benefits, and increase membership numbers? Can we engage more people to take on leadership positions? Other ideas must also be out there just waiting to happen—waiting for you to help make them happen.
In the last “President’s Message” I prepared for the TSA Newsletter at the end of 2004, I wrote that “the best is yet to come.” I still believe that. The Tanka Society of America has come a long way in its first fifteen years, but we still have so much potential for where we can go in the future. Let’s make that future happen, out of whatever bold dreams we can imagine today.