The following is an essay I wrote
for the "Poet & Tanka" feature in Ribbons,
the journal of the Tanka Society of America.
It appeared in Ribbons 10:2, spring/summer 2014.
Don’t say, don’t say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts
~Denise Levertov, “The Fountain”
I climb the hill with my mother to clear oak leaves from the spring. A frog leaps in. The water in the cold stone box rises out of the earth and flows down to our house through a copper pipe. Clearing the spring—that is tanka, but I will not discover it for half a century.
I grew up immersed in the worlds of nature and of books. Stones and streams and sky were my childhood companions. I listened to my mother recite Alfred Noyes’ "The Highwayman" and read aloud from Edna St. Vincent Millay, and in time I discovered Yeats and Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson and e.e. cummings. My own first composition is penciled on brown paper in my brother’s hand because I was too young to print the letters myself.
at age five
my first poem, an ode
trying ever since to grasp
the nuances of light
~A Hundred Gourds 3:2, March 2014
I continued to write throughout high school and college, but while I pursued marriage, further education, two successive careers, and raised two children—one with significant, multiple disabilities—it often came as a relief to ignore the naggings of the muse. For long periods she fell silent, though she never left me. I wrote factual educational materials about biology, but the poetry in that had to stay deeply hidden. I taught nonverbal children how to communicate, but their means of expression were more often pictures than words. I struggled to understand my younger son’s disordered communication, and sometimes I found poetry there.
you write the wind
a poem on fluttering paper:
blow windy just Earth
thunderstorms rain strong
~from “Sky Moving,” a tanka sequence,
Lynx 28:1, Feb. 2013
My life expanded when my disabled son, now grown, at last found a safe, caring home away from home, and it expanded again a few years later when I retired. During this period I began writing more than I had in decades. I published a fistful of poems, and won a couple of awards from my state poetry society. I wrote mostly free verse, but I entertained the niggling suspicion that—as Robert Frost put it—“writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” I experimented with form—sestina, sonnet, villanelle, ghazal—and even tried my hand at a few haiku. Although I intuitively understood the benefits of having a flexible form to push against, I did not discover “my” form until I stumbled upon tanka.
For that I thank Jane Reichhold. I had never heard of tanka until I read her little book, Writing and Enjoying Haiku: AHands-on Guide. Immediately I thought I could do that and began experimenting. Curiously, my first published tanka comprised an entire sequence, “The Rosewood Bird,” which, to my amazement, was one of three winning sequences in the twentieth (and final) Tanka Splendor Contest sponsored by AHA Books. Writing that sequence about my father showed me the uncanny power of tanka to give voice even to a complex grief muffled for forty years.
in a trunk
the sweater I wore
the day I learned
what you had done
~from “The Rosewood Bird,” a tanka sequence,
Twenty Years Tanka Splendor, AHA Books, 2009
Over the next several years I made a gradual transition to writing tanka pretty much exclusively. In 2012, I joined the AHAPoetry Forum (more thanks to Jane Reichhold), which has provided invaluable companionship and help on my journey. The chance to read and comment on other poets’ works-in-progress sharpens the eye and ear; and my own tanka receive just the friendly drubbing they often need.
of my life as a changeling—
a silk purse stitched
from a sow’s left ear
kernels 1:1, April 2013
More recently, I have taken on the role of Reviews and Features Editor for Claire Everett’s Skylark:A Tanka Journal, and in that capacity I look forward to reading and sharing some of the many fine tanka collections currently being published. Although I have not yet put together a collection of my own, I hope to do so eventually, and in the meanwhile I maintain this blog as a repository for my poems.
But why tanka? Friends, family, and even “mainstream” poets are often mystified by my enchantment with the form.
Tanka clears the spring. The need for compression forces the writer to select only the most telling details—there can be no muddying the water with abstract maundering. Simple, concrete images laid side-by-side transmogrify into metaphor as if by magic, like an image coming clear in the rippled surface of a pool.
skip across the water
trailing glints of light
on the riverbank
~A Hundred Gourds 2:1, December 2012
William Stafford, in Writing the Australian Crawl, says that "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them." For me, tanka is that process. Often, I go to sleep frustrated by the elusive whisper of a thought, by a compelling image whose significance I cannot grasp, by a strong but inarticulate feeling. And often I wake to a flow of words forming themselves into tanka, arising from some mysterious inner wellspring.
of rain on the roof
the curtain between worlds
shimmers and lifts
In five lines, tanka affords the writer just enough space to explore the subterranean passageways that connect subjective and objective realms, psyche and Gaia.
I’ve clung to
all these years
~Skylark 1:1, summer 2013
For me, the most potent source of images for that exploration lies in the natural world--from which we are never separate, despite our post-modern dreams and nightmares.
in an ink-dark pool
our mirrored faces
~Skylark 1:2, winter 2013
But while tanka may have a bit more room than haiku for the lyrical expression of the writer’s emotions and imagination, it is still a vessel small enough to catch and hold the elusive stream of nows that flow through our lives like mist on the wind.
the gold flash
of a flicker’s wing
in gray rain
I glimpse another world
inside this one
~redlights 9:1, Jan. 2013
And tanka’s brevity allows me to compose and revise whole poems in my head, so an undercurrent of poetry flows through nearly everything I do—an enriching way to live. I hope to keep following that current back toward its source.
a river to the sea
of the heart’s darkness
in marshes where the reeds sing
~Skylark 2:1, summer 2014