First published in Ribbons 16:3, Fall 2020, pages 6 to 8. Originally written in September of 2020.
In recognition of the Tanka Society of America’s twentieth anniversary in 2020, it’s natural that we think about the organization’s past as well as its future. It’s also appropriate for us, as champions of tanka poetry in English, to think about this poetry’s past and future. Students of the genre know that tanka began more than a thousand years ago in Japan as uta (song) and then became waka (Japanese song), flowering as a love poem in Japan’s Heian era. And now it is called tanka (short song) and has spread to many parts of the world and to many languages. In all these steps, tanka never stopped just with its age-old traditions but evolved in ways appropriate to each era, culture, and language. No longer does it need to limit itself to prescribed court diction and traditional topics or be written only by the Imperial court and its elite nobles and warriors. Witness the 20th century’s minimalist, pithy, and sometimes brutally honest confessions of Takuboku, and the contemporary urban openness of Machi Tawara. Beyond this is much more variety just in Japan that I can’t even begin to itemize here. Likewise, in English, we need not hearken back just to the aesthetics of a millennium ago but build on those traditions to make traditions and innovations of our own. Indeed, one of the Tanka Society of America’s missions is to represent tanka poetry in English as its members and other poets are writing it today, in both traditional and modern ways, and everything in between. It’s a TSA mission to describe that exploration in English, not necessarily to prescribe what directions tanka should take.
And yet, if we want to write like the court poets of old, we are free to do so. I remember years ago on a plane trip when I read a book of ancient tanka in translation, an anthology called Ariake (daybreak). It inspired me to write love poems in a similar manner, to embrace that period, that voice. When I see some of the poems I wrote then, I can picture my window seat on the left side of the plane and how my actions were no doubt a great puzzle to the person sitting next to me as I penned tanka after tanka in my notebook—letting the tanka spill out of me, as Sanford Goldstein used to say. It was an exploration—not of the future but of the past. And I’ve tried to explore other voices or ways of writing, wherever inspiration leads, in both topic and style, full in length or more minimal. You’ve no doubt done the same, and these variations can all be arrows in the quiver, even if we might be shooting at different targets with each of our tanka.
Aside from being the society’s twentieth anniversary, of course, this year continues to be one of tumultuous upheaval in the lives of the society’s members and friends around the world. The coronavirus pandemic and all its attendant disruptions have been depressing at times, tiresome and draining. It has shaken up our routines, giving some of us more time to write even while some of the rest of us may feel uninspired. As mentioned before, we had hoped to have an in-person twentieth-anniversary conference, which gave way to the idea of trying to meet online via Zoom, but even that has been delayed. I’ve been calling the last few months the “lost summer,” with all the cancellations, disappointments, and trips our family couldn’t take, even if it was nice not to have fill up the car’s gas tank nearly so often. But the good news is that we have now set a date for our society-wide tanka gathering, open to both members and nonmembers: Saturday, November 14, 2020, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific time (12:00 noon to 7:00 p.m. Eastern time). We’ve worked out an engaging and informative program, and all members will receive Zoom info for this historic event. We hope you can join us. [This event had to be rescheduled.]
We are also grateful to Margaret Dornaus and Claire Everett for the extra reading they did this year in judging the 2020 Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest, which received a record number of entries (by far) of 925 poems by 160 poets from 25 countries. This increase was directly because we made the contest free to enter this year, in honor of the society’s twentieth anniversary. Thanks to the judges for reading through so many poems, and to Susan Burch for shepherding all the entries as our contest coordinator. We congratulate the top three winners, Jenny Ward Angyal, Pamela A. Babusci, and Rebecca Drouilhet. And congrats to Margaret Chula for winning our annual drawing for a free year of TSA membership, when her name was chosen at random from the 160 poets who entered.
Special thanks, once again, to Kathabela Wilson for managing to keep all our copies of Ribbons coming. In the past she’d made trips to the post office to do mailings in bigger sets, but this year has had to mail no more than ten copies at a time, at first, out of coronavirus precautions. This has meant the mailings have taken much longer, but she still lovingly hand-decorated most envelopes as part of her mailing process. Rather than slowing her down, she reports that this practice inspires her and makes her feel closer to each member. We are beyond fortunate to have this dedication and support from Kathabela, along with tremendous help from Rick Wilson, who orders the envelopes, procures and prints mailing labels and return-address labels, helps with sorting, and provides other support. With help from James Won, our treasurer, Kathabela has also seen to it that memberships are up to date and accurate—and that everyone is inspired!
Christine L. Villa, too, has had to adjust to unexpected processes. While the work of editing and laying out Ribbons could, in theory, be just the same during a pandemic lockdown as not, that’s not really the case when so many other routines are upended, and when the mental space to tackle large projects can be harder to come by. Thank you, Chrissi, for your perseverance and dedication, and for leading your team of Ribbons assistants.
Also, an update on the 2020 members’ anthology that I’ve been editing this year. I’m not sure if it’s a record, but I think it might be—more than 180 poets submitted up to five tanka each for consideration in this year’s anthology. I’ve enjoyed reading every single submission, and have been sending out acceptance messages, which everyone should have received before receiving this copy of Ribbons. Watch for the 2020 anthology in your mailbox soon.
And speaking of looking forward, I am eagerly anticipating the year ahead, which I hope will differ dramatically from 2020. Our 2020 vision may have been blurred, but 2021 will surely be improved. I hope, too, that any personal challenges you’ve had this year will soon abate. I look forward to new horizons ahead, and the inspiring places where each of you—our members and other tanka writers—will take tanka in the year ahead.
through windblown pines—
sparkle on every bough,
both broken and green