Feathers and Fire: Growing into Tanka

First published in Modern English Tanka 2:1, Autumn 2007, pages 185–187.

It’s often asked among haiku poets how they came to haiku poetry. Often it was a school teacher, or a friend, or a chance encounter with a book that got people hooked on haiku. In tanka, though, the question doesn’t come up as frequently, because most English-language tanka poets first came to tanka from haiku. Another reason is probably because a person’s first encounter with tanka is often not as memorable as the first brush with haiku. Whatever the case, an interest in haiku expands when we who write haiku find ourselves naturally interested in senryu, tanka, renku, haibun, and haiga, not to mention other forms of short poetry or other Japanese arts. My first conscious touch with tanka was probably around 1987 or 1988, when I began to read haiku seriously—and tanka translations were sprinkled among the books I read on Japanese poetry, culture, and Zen. A few years later, I read Jane Hirshfield’s exquisite translations in The Ink Dark Moon and I felt the fire and feathers possible with this lyrical poetry. My writing of tanka probably began around 1989 or so. Then, when I was editing Woodnotes (1989 to 1997, though I was not chief editor until about 1991), I began to accept tanka for publication. At first the submissions were relatively rare, but as Woodnotes published them, perhaps people wrote them more, and tanka eventually became a full-fledged section of the journal (with Pat Shelley later becoming the tanka editor). The submission of tanka to Woodnotes obviously made me more aware of this poetry, and I occasionally published my own in Woodnotes and in other journals. Back then, there were no dedicated journals just for tanka, though Jane Reichhold had been running her Tanka Splendor Awards, resulting in an annual chapbook of the winning poems, which was also an influence. In mid to late 1993, having appreciated the tanka of poets in the San Francisco area, where I lived, I thought to publish an anthology. I asked Christopher Herold, David Rice, Pat Shelley, Dave Sutter, Kenneth Tanemura, and Paul O. Williams to join me with selections of their tanka, and the result was Footsteps in the Fog, which I believe was the first-ever anthology of English-language tanka (it preceded Wind Five Folded from AHA Books by a few months). We celebrated the release of the book with a reading at Villa Montalvo, a wonderful arts center in Saratoga, California (I have a recording of the reading, which was sold on cassette tape until the tapes ran out—and the recording includes the late Pat Shelley, which is a treasure to me). In the mid 1990s, Sanford Goldstein and Kenneth Tanemura started the first-ever English-language journal devoted to tanka, called Five Lines Down. I contributed tanka, and enjoyed the poems and discussion in the journal itself, though it only lasted two or so years. I think today that this journal is underappreciated for its significant contribution to the growth of tanka in English. Through all these years, no one started a Tanka Society of America, which seemed an obvious thing to do. No one had done it, so I thought I’d better do it myself, thus the TSA was born at a formation meeting on April 14, 2000 at the Global Haiku Festival in Decatur, Illinois, and I was elected as the group’s first president. Tanka is but one sort of poetry that I enjoy writing, but its emotional and lyrical techniques often distinguish it from haiku and other poetry, and I enjoy writing tanka to convey feelings or ideas in ways that other poetry can’t quite match. Here’s to its feathers and fire!