Coming Into Our Own: The Tanka Society of America’s Fifteenth Anniversary - Longer

This is an unpublished longer version (about double the length) of an essay first published in Ribbons 11:1, Winter 2015 (pages 82 to 85). See also the shorter published version. Originally written in January and February of 2015, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of founding of the Tanka Society of America.    +

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 have about two hundred and twenty-five members. 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? As the organization’s founder, I’ve been very pleased with where we’ve come, and feel optimistic about the possibilities that lie before us.


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. Jane Reichhold had been running her “Tanka Splendor” contests for much of this time, and I’d edited and published Footsteps in the Fog, an anthology of tanka, in 1994, which was followed later that year by Wind Five Folded, edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold. Sanford Goldstein and Kenneth Tanemura edited the short-lived tanka journal Five Lines Down, with four issues, from 1994 to 1996, and Laura Maffei started the journal American Tanka in 1996. The Reichholds had been including tanka in Mirrors and Lynx for most of the decade. I also welcomed tanka submissions for Woodnotes, which I edited from 1989 to 1997, and also for Tundra, which published its first issue in 1999. Other tanka stirrings were also happening here and there across the country, in the 1990s and earlier. But no one else had started such a group in all those years, so I thought I might as well do it myself.

        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. This struck me as being a more neutral or central place for this first meeting, thus avoiding any sense that the organization was focused just in California, which was never my intent (even though most tanka activity at the time was primarily in California). This decision contrasted with the Haiku Society of America, which was started in New York City and seemed to be essentially just a New York organization for most of its early years of existence, even if that was never its intent. I remember how difficult it was around 1990 to get the HSA to start having regular meetings outside New York City for the first time, more than twenty years after the organization began, even though it was ostensibly a national organization.

        For almost a year before that first tanka society meeting, I had been corresponding with various other people, especially Sanford Goldstein, about my starting such a society. I wanted to model it after the Haiku Society of America, and said I wanted to call it the “Tanka Society of America.” This name is obvious, of course, but I deliberately wanted it to be parallel to the HSA, and I 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.

        I also contacted other people to see if I could get their support to help run the organization. For example, it seemed vital that the group have a publication to keep us all connected. For the society to bloom, we had to have a means to communicate (not everyone was on the Internet as much as we are today, and Facebook still hadn’t been thought of). So I wrote to Pamela Miller Ness to ask her to get involved as newsletter editor, and also talked with a few other people, especially William J. Higginson and Paul O. Williams, about ideas and plans, setting up a potential executive committee before the inaugural meeting itself. Because I had set everything up, I welcomed everyone and ran the meeting, which took place on April 14, 2000 (you can read my report of the meeting at the Millikin University website—see “Tanka Society of America Plenary Meeting”). As those present at the meeting will remember, I was willing to let someone else be president, but because I had made the meeting happen, publicized it (and asked others to help me), had set the agenda, and directed its proceedings, it was no surprise that those present insisted that I run the organization since I started it. Thus I was elected as the first president, a position that I was grateful to hold for five years. Others elected as officers at that meeting were Paul O. Williams as vice president, Job Conger as secretary, Larry Lavenz as treasurer, and Pamela Miller Ness as newsletter editor. I also asked those present to consider adopting the name I proposed for the organization, the “Tanka Society of America,” which was approved. We also decided to hold an annual tanka contest, and made an initial attempt to plan meetings, but aside from gatherings that Pamela Miller Ness organized in New York City, they never amounted to more than regional meetings. It still seems impractical to have regular meetings when the membership is scattered so thinly across the country, but perhaps it’s possible to revive the idea of regional meetings, or perhaps an annual meeting.

        The formation of the Haiku Society of America had a genesis similar to the TSA. Harold G. Henderson and Leroy Kanterman, as founders, called for a first meeting, which took place in New York City in October of 1968. As documented in the 1994 HSA book A Haiku Path, Henderson and Kanterman were the founders, and those present at the first meeting were charter members. Likewise, the charter members of the Tanka Society of America were those who were present for that entire first meeting (not counting a few people who came and went). In addition to me, as founder, this included Randy M. Brooks, Naomi Y. Brown, David Cobb, Ellen Compton, Job Conger, Penny Harter, William J. Higginson, Larry Lavenz, Pamela Miller Ness, Michael Nickels-Wisdom, Chris Spindel, Celia Stuart-Powles, and Paul O. Williams. To help generate new memberships, I proposed that anyone who joined before the end of the year 2000 would also be considered charter members, and we quickly topped 100 members as a result, and topped even 150 members shortly after that.


Over the first few years, the Tanka Society of America was feeling its way. I represented the organization by giving a speech in September of 2000 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. That same month we published the first issue of the Tanka Society of America Newsletter, and at the end of the year, David Rice and Naomi Y. Brown judged the society’s first tanka contest, which was won by Edward J. Rielly, out of 309 entries. We have continued the contest steadily each year (all of the results appear on the TSA International Tanka Contest page), and have also published occasional member anthologies, the first of which I edited and published in 2002, titled Castles in the Sand. In introducing that volume, I wrote that “The alchemy of tanka is that this poetry changes us, making us more aware of the mundane and miraculous. Indeed, the practice of writing tanka increases our consciousness of emotions and perceptions, prompting us to build castles of words where others may see only sand.” Other anthologies have been edited by Karina Young, Cathy Drinkwater Better, Jeanne Emrich, Sanford Goldstein, Dave Bacharach, Kirsty Karkow, and most recently M. Kei. Pamela Miller Ness and later an’ya spearheaded our newsletter through regular quarterly issues, each one rich with information about tanka, and many poems by members.

        I handed over the reins to TSA to a new president later than I would have predicted, but one thing I’ve appreciated is that the organization has had only three presidents since it began, thus giving the group more stability than it might have had with a more frequent change of presidents or other officers. Michael McClintock was elected president in 2005, and joining him were Jeanne Emrich as vice president, and Kirsty Karkow as secretary-treasurer. We have had other officers before and since, too, and each officer has made significant contributions to the organization in addition to the three presidents, especially Johnye Strickland, as well as Jeanne Emrich, who started the TSA website around 2005.

        When TSA began, we had decided to publish a quarterly newsletter, but deliberately avoided the publication of a tanka journal. Our thinking was that we wanted our members to support existing tanka publications, at least until a larger tanka community had emerged, and we had more bandwidth to produce our own journal—and more funding to pay for its publication. That finally happened in early 2005, with the first issue of Ribbons, the new TSA journal, named and edited by an’ya. The society continued to publish the newsletter, too, but eventually the content of the two publications merged and we continued just with Ribbons. It began at a size of 8.5x11 inches, but a few years later shrank to 6x9 inches, with a glossy colour cover. Michael McClintock has edited the “Tanka Café” feature, always the most popular feature of the newsletter and then also in Ribbons, which invited members to submit poems on a prescribed theme. Both publications featured extensive reviews, essays, and interviews, plus news items, contest results, and the “Member’s Choice Tanka” and “Poet and Poem” columns. With Ribbons, the focus has been more on publishing poetry than news, but it continues to thrive under David Rice’s current editorship.

        One of two significant events also worth mentioning is the “Tanka Day” gathering, the society’s first national conference, which 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. Those in attendance included Pamela Babusci, Angelee Deodhar, Jeanne Emrich, Efren Estevez, Stanford M. Forrester, Barbara Ann Giannacco, Penny Harter, Peggy Heinrich, William J. Higginson, Larry Lavenz, Dorothy McLaughlin, Lenard D. Moore, Pamela Miller Ness, Nicholaes Roosevelt, Ruth Sabath Rosenthal, Deborah Russell, Dave Russo, Marian S. Sharpe, Christine Shook, John Stevenson, Brian Tasker, Allen Terdiman, and Michael Dylan Welch. We enjoyed a stimulating mix of papers, writing exercises, panel discussions, and more. The night before we also had a banquet, with featured tanka readings by Laura Maffei, Pamela Miller Ness, Brian Tasker, and Michael Dylan Welch. You can read my report of this event at “A Tanka Turning Point.” 

        A second significant event was “Tanka Sunday,” the society’s second national conference, held 18 August 2013 aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner in Long Beach, California, immediately after that year’s Haiku North America conference. It was organized by me and Margaret Chula. You can read the schedule for this event at “Tanka Sunday Schedule,” which featured Professor Steven D. Carter of Stanford University, and many other presentations and readings.

        And of course, I shouldn’t forget to mention Margaret Chula, who took over as TSA president in 2011 after Michael McClintock, and current officers Janet Lynn Davis as vice president, Kathabela Wilson as secretary, James Won as treasurer, David Rice as Ribbons editor, and me as web manager. Margaret has maintained a steady path for the organization, seeing to it that we could stage our second national conference and revive the membership anthology, in addition to making sure that our contests and journal continued their successes by keeping the entire leadership team engaged and motivated.

        The Tanka Society of America has had these and many other accomplishments over its first fifteen years, but perhaps the most important accomplishment has been the publication and sharing of tanka in its journal, and the increased attention placed on 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. But thanks to the Tanka Society of America, and other similar tanka organizations that started after the TSA in Canada and the United Kingdom, tanka has emerged as more robust and popular than ever. Many others have helped with this emergence as well, including editors and publishers such as Denis Garrison with Modern English Tanka Press, M. Kei with Keibooks and the tanka journal Atlas Poetica, Marilyn Hazelton with Red Lights, Laura Maffei with American Tanka, Jane and Werner Reichhold with Lynx, Kozue Uzawa with Gusts (in Canada), Beverley George with Eucalpyt (in Australia), Claire Everett with Skylark (in England), and the Japan Tanka Poets’ Society, publishers in English of the Tanka Journal (in Japan). There have been many other contributors, including many individuals publishing tanka books, together with an increasing number of tanka websites and blogs. With all of this activity in these last fifteen years and more, tanka in English, and especially in the United States, has come into its own.

The Future

What does the future hold for tanka and the Tanka Society of America? Perhaps you are the best person to answer that question. Just as Harold Henderson said that haiku in English will become what the poets make it, the same is true for tanka in English—and for the Tanka Society of America. 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, and more TSA national conferences, perhaps yearly, or at least every two years. I started the TSA’s Facebook page in early 2013, and I redesigned the TSA website around the same time, with a new domain name, which has helped focus our online activity, but we could do more to promote the organization and our contests, especially among mainstream poets. And 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. Perhaps there are ways to improve our journal, boost membership benefits, and increase membership numbers. And maybe tanka poetry itself could be explored in more depth, with a greater range in style and subject matter, and even more experiments, while remembering the middle way. 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 my last “President’s Message” 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.