Take Your Turn at Tanka

The following text, in a slightly different form, together with an explication of one of my tanka, first appeared in Sheila Bender’s informative book, Creative Writing DeMystified (McGraw-Hill, 2011), pages 90–91. It also appeared on the Education.com website on 14 September 2011 (on the site, click the option to read the full article). The book includes numerous writing exercises provided by “top writers” of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. This is my exercise on giving tanka poetry a try.

Tanka Writing Exercise

Take five sheets of paper and draw a line down the middle of each one. On the left side of each sheet, write “Sensations” (for sensory experiences). On the right side, write “Emotion/Assessment” (for how you felt or what you were thinking about at the time).

        Spend the next five weekdays, starting on a Monday, paying attention to each of your five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste (the exercise may get harder later in the week as you progress to senses that are typically less dominant). At the end of each day, try writing at least one tanka about your sensory focus for that day. Try to avoid directly saying what you were feeling or thinking about at the time of each sensory impression. Instead, try to imply those feelings or conclusions by writing about what might have caused those feelings. In other words, if seeing a baby spread its fingers makes you feel joyful, don’t write about the concept of joy, write about those fingers spreading—trust the image itself to make others joyful too! By carefully leaving out statements of feelings, you empower the poem to imply them.


Michael Dylan Welch founded the Tanka Society of America in 2000, serving as its president for five years. He has also served as vice president of the Haiku Society of America for many years, and cofounded both the Haiku North America conference (1991) and the American Haiku Archives (1996). He has won first place in numerous haiku, senryu, and tanka contests, and his poetry has been published in hundreds of journals and anthologies in more than a dozen languages. He has also published numerous books of his poetry, including translations. He lives with his wife and two children in Sammamish, Washington.