2019 Haiku Poets of Northern California Tanka Contest

Written in December 2019, with results published in Mariposa #42, Spring/Summer 2020, on the HPNC website, and partially reprinted in Ribbons 16:1, Winter 2020. My congratulations to the winners.

First Place

        our long conversation

        about divorcing

        we part company


        in falling snow

                Pamela Babusci

This conversation in falling snow provides a sense of acceptance, despite the cold—a coldness that seems figurative as well as literal. The word “soundlessly” makes this poem click into place, connecting the nature of the relationship with the natural elements. What is possibly beautiful in nature is perhaps not so beautiful in the relationship. More importantly, we can see that the relationship has gone cold, and we get the feeling that this parting of company is not just at that moment but permanently. The poem offers a bittersweet sadness with the fitting image of falling snow. The soundlessness cements that acceptance, too, which provides a hint of positiveness.

Second Place

        in my dream

        Mother is still alive—

        I fall back to sleep

        to finish our stroll

        in the summer garden

                Margaret Chula

An unspoken grief and a feeling of loss serves as an undercurrent to this buoyant poem. The poet is remembering Mother in happier times, and the dream enables the poet to linger with those memories. I find it fitting, too, that this is a summer garden, when nature is at its prime, and the dream is surely of a time when the mother was in her prime as well, perhaps also being a gardener herself. The poem’s conversation and companionship, and ultimately the love that binds these two people together, makes this an inviting poem, but not without a mix of sadder feelings also.

Third Place

        some scars lie deeper

        than can ever be seen . . .

        the other mourners

        mistake my tears for grief

        instead of joy

                Tracy Davidson

Tanka tends to be more overtly introspective than haiku, and we see an honest introspection here. We can readily agree that some scars, especially emotional scars, lie deep. And at this memorial, the poet’s tears are not as simple as they may seem to others. It is difficult to think of a “mourner” being joyful at someone’s passing, except perhaps guardedly when death ends prolonged suffering. But here there’s a sort of relief to the joy admitted to in this poem, stemming from some prior incident, or many incidents, of betrayal, abuse, or other wrongdoing. These scars are barely hinted at, and although they are obviously very deep, still the poet attends this memorial service, maybe out of obligation but at least with a small feeling of victory.

Honorable Mentions (ranked)

        a cumulous cloud

        dissipating . . .

        would anyone


        if I disappeared

                Susan Burch

A minimalist introspection that ties the fading of a cloud to the fading of one’s self. Doubt is on candid display here. Yes, is the unspoken answer. Yes, other people would notice that cloud, especially when it’s a possibly stormy cumulous cloud—possibly stormy. And yes, others would notice the poet’s disappearance just as much as the poet noticed that cloud’s dissipation.

        the coiled tips

        of fiddlehead ferns

        remind me

        that every forest knows

        how to make music

                Debbie Strange

These coiled fern tips remind me of what’s called the “scroll” at the top end of a violin, which is surely why these ferns are named for fiddles. These tips will uncoil, as if to release their music. All aspects of the forest—the high canopies of swaying trees, the forest duff below, and everything in between—all contribute to the music of the forest. The poet notices and is filled with appreciation for the harmony of nature.

        sewing a button

        onto his shirt—

        at least this

        I know how

        to fix

                Susan Burch

A minimalist yet weighty presentation. Here a feeling is tied to a practical and everyday task. The middle line suggests that while the shirt can be fixed, other things can’t, or at least that the poet doesn’t know how, or at least not yet. And so the poet does what can be done, with the hope that more complicated issues might be fixed in due course.

I am grateful for the opportunity to select these poems, chosen from 77 tanka entries. This contest struck me as having a much higher percentage of strong poems compared with other contests I’ve judged, which demonstrates how devoted to tanka most of the people who entered must be. My first pass through all the poems made me think that I had too many good poems to choose from, which was a refreshing pleasure, but of course not an easy challenge. I had many close selections that could easily have been among the top selections. My congratulations to the winners and to everyone who entered for continuing to explore the nuances of tanka poetry.

—Michael Dylan Welch

Contest coordinator: Carolyne Rohrig