I recently had the privilege of speaking to a small poetry group about waka and tanka. They’d been meeting monthly, focusing on different poetic forms each month, progressing through the alphabet. For H they had explored haiku, and T brought them to tanka. Now, for W, they were doing waka. The group had been meeting via Zoom for most of the last year and a half, and this was the first time they’d met again in person. Attending their meeting felt like a small step towards normal, despite the ongoing pandemic. We had all brought our own chairs and had gathered outdoors beneath a few pines and maples, all of us vaccinated.
I took some show-and-tell, starting with a large boxed English translation of the Man'yōshū, the “collection of ten thousand leaves” compiled around 759 A.D. I then showed a lovely tanka scroll given to me by Aya Yuhki, featuring her translation of one of my tanka.
blossoms are starting—
today, someone has tied
a love poem
to my favourite tree,
that car-damaged plum
Next, I talked about the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a waka collection compiled in the thirteenth century by Fujiwara no Teika. The copy I shared was the translation that Emiko Miyashita and I published with PIE Books in 2008, and I also showed them the 2012 United States cherry blossom stamp, featuring one of the book’s translations on the back. Subsequently, I passed around Dance into the World, TSA’s 2020 membership anthology, bringing all of waka history up to the present day. Everyone took turns reading selected tanka from the anthology, and we discussed some at length.
The meeting’s focus was on waka, so this got me thinking about distinctions between waka and tanka. While some academics and translators would know more about the nuances than I would, for the purposes of this group’s writing exercise, I suggested that they try writing a love poem in five lines, and to give the poem a sort of elevated or more formal tone, noting that one could let one’s hair down a little more with tanka, but not with waka. It was pleasing to hear some of the first-time waka and tanka everyone shared.
Before the writing exercise, though, I also talked about how uta (song) had evolved into waka (Japanese song) as Japan developed its own syllabary to replace and augment the Chinese characters that were Japan’s first written language. I described how the kami-no-ku (upper verse) connects to the shimo-no-ku (lower verse), and how this pattern extended into the linked verse of renga and haikai-no-renga that gave birth to the hokku, or starting verse, that became an independent verse known as haiku.
This experience, I think, is part of how we can get tanka more out into the world, a dance into the world, and I hope you might do similar exercises or presentations about tanka in your region. The people I talked with were poets who had no tradition of writing in Japanese forms, but they were eager to learn, at least for that week. And I was delighted to hear their exploratory poems. You could see lights going off in everyone’s eyes as they connected the dots from a millennium-old Japanese formal poem to the more free-wheeling haiku and tanka of today.
In other news, congratulations to Pris Campbell, Kathryn Stevens, and Urszula Funnell, who won the top three places in this year’s Sanford Goldstein International Tanka Contest, and to Lucky Triana, Tom Bierovic, GRIX, and Chen-ou Liu, who received honorable mentions. The judges, Autumn Noelle Hall and Don Miller, provided generous commentary on all the winning poems, which begins on page 120 in this issue. This year our contest was again free, as we expect to keep it for the foreseeable future to promote broader engagement with tanka poetry. The greater number of poets who submitted (199, about 25 percent more than in 2020) suggests that this initiative is working. And although it was free to enter, we did solicit donations and I’m pleased to say that we received at least $220, so we more than broke even on paying contest prize money. Thank you to all who donated. And congratulations to Derville Quigley, who won the drawing for a free year of TSA membership from among those who submitted to the contest.
I am also happy to report that Michael H. Lester has finished all selections, notifications, and sequencing for the 2021 TSA members’ anthology, Self-Portrait. We expect to complete the design, layout, and printing by the time you read this, so watch for the book to fly out to your mailbox soon, inside another envelope lovingly decorated by Kathabela Wilson. We’ll share more details about the book and other news via our email list, and on social media, where Susan Burch continues to showcase excellent tanka from various sources.
And, of course, thank you for continuing to write and share your poems. Again, if you have a chance to promote tanka with local writing groups or poetry readings, please do!