North American Tanka Contest Results

The following are my selections and commentary for the North American Tanka Contest facilitated by Gerald St. Maur in 2001. The poems, but not the commentary, also appeared in Countless Leaves, an anthology of tanka published in late 2001 by Inkling Press in Edmonton, Alberta. I judged the “modern” category of tanka, and Jan Walls, of Simon Fraser University, judged the “traditional” category. Here I also include Jan’s top three winners, but I do not have a record of his honourable mentions or any commentary on his selections. The postscript at the end shares a short summary of the contest from the book’s introduction by Gerald St. Maur. To read my poems from this anthology, see also “From Countless Leaves.”

Modern Tanka

Any judge considering tanka for a contest must confront the definition of tanka and his or her tanka aesthetics. For me, a tanka is an emotional poetic construct, a present-tense and present-intense conveyance of honesty about the self in the context of nature and/or humanity. Formally, in English, the tanka is typically five lines long (adding a title is inappropriate, I feel, in that it’s either redundant because it repeats something in the poem, or its “cheating” because it adds a sixth line). Within the five lines, the best tanka typically exhibit a pause or “turn” that introduces tension and the notion of context, where one part of the poem happens in the significant context of the other part. Good tanka also have other characteristics, although not all of them are necessarily present in a specific tanka. In my selection of tanka in the “modern” category assigned to me, I have tried to choose poems of honest emotional perception, and poems that are well-crafted and thus effortless to read. To me, my category could be more accurately defined as “free form” because syllabic (5-7-5-7-7) tanka might still also be “modern” in content and nonsyllabic tanka might still present “traditional” content. I hope the poems I’ve chosen demonstrate at least some of the range that’s possible in free-form tanka, with both “modern” and “traditional” topics. I offer congratulations to the winners and gratefulness for the opportunity to judge this contest.



First Place


feeling cranky

the palm reader

tells him

she’s never seen a life line

as short as his

             Joanne Morcom


This poem was the clear winner nearly from the beginning. The first line, “feeling cranky,” is the key to the poem, and without it the tanka would not portray the palm reader’s emotion authentically. The poem also shows strong empathy for the feelings of another person, for tanka need not be just about the self. In addition, we also feel a touch of humor, something tanka might well explore more frequently.



Second Place


she’s not here

to see it

but after breaking the stick

I perfectly fit the broken ends

back together again

             Tom Clausen


This selection has the more “traditional” topic of love and yearning. In the act of breaking the stick we see the frustration of lost love, and in the act of fitting the two pieces back together again we see and feel a yearning for requited love. Ultimately, though, this is a sad poem, for the object of the persona’s affection is not there to see or participate in the relationship’s metaphorical mending.



Third Place


Where is it now,

my severed appendix—

in a bag

with gall bladders, spleens,

and toes of strangers

             William M. Ramsey


I chose this poem because it strikes me as genuine. Such honest self-awareness frequently lies at the heart of tanka. If we can fearlessly convey our honest thoughts and emotions in tanka, as is done in this poem, then our tanka strikes a chisel-blow into the granite statue of human identity. Perhaps not all of us have had an operation such as the one mentioned here, but we can relate to the poet’s unreserved and sincere question, as macabre as it may be to some readers.



First Honourable Mention


when asked

about her own health


          the silence

          of this small bowl

          of riverstones

             Carolyn Thomas


This tanka says volumes with its silence. Any illness is bound to instigate self-reflection, and here we see that reflection plus a moment of doubt as the person contemplates how much detail to relate, if any. The conversation has already been on the topic of health, but now it switches to the second person’s health. Perhaps the earlier conversation has just been small-talk, but now the discussion becomes more serious. Of course, perhaps there’s no illness here after all, but the silence and implied pause suggests that there is—and perhaps this illness is as serious as the silence is deep. Though we all die and flow on like a river, we leave behind many riverstones, silent and eternal. Perhaps even the bowl of riverstones in this poem is itself a recognition of this fact.



Second Honourable Mention


in a ruined orchard

among the drenched leaves

I found you these


fat blue plums

             Marianne Bluger


This is a poem of beauty, and thus again perhaps in the mode of “traditional” tanka topics while using a free approach to form. It is also a love poem—the giving of a hard-won gift to someone the persona wants to please. The gift of the fat blue plums is presented with all the beauty of silver mist. We can see the colour of the plums, feel their wetness, and very nearly taste them in our mouths. Just as the orchard is ruined, perhaps the relationship is too, but readers can hope that it is not ruined, or at least mended by this simple but enticing gift of love.



Third Honourable Mention



the diagnosis

the taste

of bite after bite of this

buttered bread.

             Pamela Miller Ness


This poem presents a moment of gratefulness. Despite the diagnosis, about which we know nothing further, the persona is grateful for all of life’s simple pleasures, including even the taste of buttered bread. My main hesitation with this poem is that “After” is not strong as first line and “of this” might be better on the fifth, but I take comfort in the poem’s positive attitude.


Once again, congratulations to all of this contest’s winners. May these selections inspire you to write more tanka of your own.


Michael Dylan Welch

Foster City, California



Traditional Tanka

The following selections in the “traditional” category were made by Jan Walls. I do not have a record of any honourable mentions he selected, nor of his commentary on the winning poems.



First Place


a sudden loud noise

all the pigeons of Venice

at once fill the sky

that’s how it felt when your hand

accidentally touched mine

             Ruby Spriggs



Second Place


You do not see me,

Though I pass before your eyes

Day in and day out

Like a bird building its nest

Twig by twig, making a home.

             Karen Gable



Third Place


strong wind—

flowers and leaves turn

inside out

a door slams and I welcome

a visit from my mother

             Kirsty Karkow




The North American Tanka Contest resulted in an anthology, Countless Leaves, published in late 2001 by Inkling Press. In the book’s introduction, editor Gerald St. Maur described the contest as follows:


The North American Tanka Contest

As noted earlier, this anthology has grown out of submissions made to the North American Tanka Contest which benefited greatly from the dedication of two eminently qualified judges. They were assigned the daunting task of selecting the prize winners from a common list of poems, but each judge assumed a different responsibility. Professor Jan Walls, author and oriental scholar at Simon Fraser University, was asked to select the best poems in the traditional category, defined by the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure and the use of traditional topics such as love, sorrow, etc. On the other hand, Michael Dylan Welch, poet, editor and Founding President of the Tanka Society of America, was asked to choose the poems in the modern category, defined loosely by five short lines in the tanka spirit. Not surprisingly, a few poems could be fitted into both categories but categorization was considered much less important than the quality of the poem.


The third place “traditional” tanka was not 5-7-5-7-7, and seems to show less of a traditional leaning in its subject matter and tone, but demonstrates the range of possibility in traditional tanka, even while some of the “modern” tanka also exhibit traditional traits. Indeed, the quality of the poems mattered more than their classification.

—26 February 2022