“Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” —William Butler Yeats
This anthology celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the Tanka Society of America, so we might well look back at the society’s origins. When the possibility of such a society first came to me in the early 1990s, much North American tanka activity took place in haiku journals and later in a few small tanka journals. In 1999, when no one else had started this organization, or anything like it, I decided to get the dance going myself. After initially planning to organize the group in California, I asked Randy Brooks if I might have an inaugural society meeting at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, in conjunction with the Global Haiku Festival held there in April of 2000. I hoped that this location would attract more attendees and recognize the society’s nationwide focus. Before the meeting, I asked Pamela Miller Ness whether she would be willing to edit the society’s newsletter, and she agreed. This was a vital position to fill, because our communication would be the most important tool in those days before any of us had websites or blogs and not everyone was using email—all long before social media was even a glimmer of an idea. I had also asked Paul O. Williams whether he might be vice president, and he too agreed. But I didn’t have a secretary or treasurer lined up, so I was glad when Job Conger and Larry Lavenz volunteered for these positions at the first meeting, convened on April 14, 2000. My gratitude to Randy Brooks, who provided the Fireplace Room in the Student Union building at Millikin for this activity. Those present at the meeting, in addition to me, were Randy Brooks, Naomi Y. Brown, David Cobb (visiting from England), Ellen Compton, Job Conger, Penny Harter, William J. Higginson, Larry Lavenz, Pamela Miller Ness, Michael Nickels-Wisdom, Chris Spindle, Celia Stuart-Powles, and Paul O. Williams. Somewhere I have a piece of paper that everyone signed to mark the occasion. Special gratitude to each poet present that day, and to all officers and many other society volunteers since then.
At that first official meeting I proposed the society’s name, which attendees approved, as was the slate of officers. My initial thinking was to not have a tanka journal, so we wouldn’t compete with the few existing journals, but the newsletter eventually evolved into the Ribbons journal we enjoy today, named and started by an’ya. I did think, however, that we could have a members’ anthology, and I edited and published the first one, Castles in the Sand, in 2002. We got going a little more quickly in having an annual tanka contest, and the first one was held in late 2000, judged by Naomi Y. Brown and David Rice. In 2015 we renamed the contest after Sanford Goldstein, who has been an inspiration to everyone writing tanka in English through his own poems and his essential translations.
Other key events in the society were our 2003 Tanka Day in conjunction with that year’s Haiku North America conference in New York City, and additional Tanka Sunday conferences in 2013, 2015, and 2017, in Long Beach, California; Albany, New York; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 2019 we celebrated Tanka Monday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Additional accomplishments include the establishment of our website and Ribbons in 2005, and publication of our Tanka Teachers Guide in 2007. In 2013 we completely rebuilt the website and switched from a .com domain to .org, more suitable for nonprofit corporations. The society was incorporated in 2017 in Washington state. We’ve also continued to run our annual tanka contest for two decades and have now published thirteen members’ anthologies (annually since 2014), including this book in your hands. More importantly, we hope we have served our members and spread the pleasure and understanding of tanka poetry to wider audiences, helping tanka dance out into the world.
Speaking of the book in your hands, I’ve divided the 175 tanka that follow into seven themed collections. The first section, “The Earth Is Alive,” offers twenty-three poems relating to nature. Following nature’s lead is “This Slender Thread,” with eleven poems that speak of death and dying in various guises. After that, we turn to love, at the root of tanka’s heritage, with twenty-eight poems in the “Barefoot to the Sunset” section. Next is a set of twenty-nine family-themed poems, “Letting the Firefly Go.” The “Umbrella Inside Out” grouping presents twenty-eight miscellaneous poems, although a few might easily have been added to other sections. Next, we feature “Garden of Dwindling Petals,” the book’s largest selection, which collects forty-two tanka recounting the coronavirus pandemic and its effects that have so consumed our lives in our twentieth-anniversary year. We end, however, on a note of hope, with fourteen travel-themed poems in “Path to Holy Waters.” My sincere hope is that each of this anthology’s sections will engage readers in different ways and remind us all that our tanka dance is worth celebrating for another twenty years—and more.
Michael Dylan Welch
TSA Founder and President
The following is my tanka from the book:
for the janitor
having to lower
the flag again
to half mast
thoughts and prayers