2001 Haiku Poets of Northern California Tanka Contest

First published in the Haiku Poets of Northern California contest results flyer in 2001. Results and commentary also available on the HPNC website.

First Place ($100)


of metastasis,

she ticks

dozens of exotic lilies

in the bulb catalog.

Pamela Miller Ness

New York, New York

Second Place ($50)

the leaves

were just budding

when you left

later you claimed

I could have stopped you

John Stevenson

Nassau, New York

Third Place ($25)

how old are you now

my father asks me

and when I tell him

his shoulders sag

into the present

Margaret Chula

Portland, Oregon

Honorable Mentions (in order)

Still a newcomer

to this rural village.

For how many years

have our hedges grown a little more

than we have trimmed them?

John Stevenson

Nassau, New York

we watch from the porch

as the setting sun’s reflection

shimmers in the lake

tomorrow’s good-byes

begin in this silence

David Rice

Berkeley, California

My son has left

his wallet on the table.

Now he’s driving

without a license . . .

or prophylactics.

John Stevenson

Nassau, New York

Special Honorable Mention in Recognition of September 11


and indistinguishable

in the rubble’s gray dust:

terrorists’ ashes

among their victims

Dorothy McLaughlin

Somerset, New Jersey

Judge’s Comments

Each of the winning and honorable mention poems in the 2001 tanka contest sponsored by the Haiku Poets of Northern California has much to recommend it. The first-place poem presents hope for the future, not just in anticipating the growth of ordinary flowers, but of exotic lilies, dozens of them. Perhaps optimism is the person’s normal demeanor, or perhaps it is a newly applied coping mechanism, directly caught in this poem. Though a cancer can grow, so too can the bulbs of hope, and perhaps hope will triumph in the human spirit over fear. In addition, the “autumn of metastasis” suggests the autumn of life, and the “tick” of the pen echoes the ticking of life’s clock. We are left wondering if the person will live to see the springtime blooms and certainly we hope so.

The second-place poem is similar to the first in its rendering of mixed emotions. In spring, the hopeful season of promise, a relationship has ended, yet it is remembered later with a sense of yearning. Yet perhaps this is a poem of resolve. Though the departed lover claims he or she could have been stopped, he or she was not stopped, just as surely as the budding of the leaves could not be stopped and the cycle of the seasons continued.

Finally, the third-place poem, with its last line’s effective abstraction, also contrasts time. Perhaps suffering from growing senility or maybe merely forgetfulness, an aging father asks his daughter her age. Perhaps the daughter regrets telling him because, on hearing her answer, he realizes how old he is and droops his shoulders, deflated with the imminence of his own aging. The poem itself brings us into the present with its precise observation of human nature.

All three of these poems (though not by my design in choosing them) present one season or time in the context of another—the first set in autumn yet anticipating spring; the second remembering springtime in some later season; and the third presenting age amid youth and the realization of passing time. Not all tanka need to use the same technique of contrasting time (there are many additional techniques), but tanka, like haiku, has the powerful capability of making us aware of time, not just the life of the seasons, but, in Jane Hirshfield’s words, the lives of the heart.

I am honored to have been asked to consider all of the tanka for this contest, several more of which could have been listed as honorable mentions. Thank you to all participants for entering and to Dan Brady for coordinating the contest, and congratulations to each of the winners.

—Michael Dylan Welch