Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

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I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers

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on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight

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(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)

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Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)

So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”

I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:

“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.

Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.

“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.

Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”

— Jane Reichhold,  “Tanka for the Memory

So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”

I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:

at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain

— Margaret Dornaus

And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:

sweet,
but with a slight tang,
the rejected
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg

— Jeffrey Woodward

Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.

For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.

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[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident — it wasn’t finished yet — and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]

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October 24: You and only you

So here we are again, exhibiting the peculiar human fascination with round numbers by celebrating my 300th blog post. It’s only fair that I should do this by letting some of you get a word in edgewise for a change — after all, without you there wouldn’t be a me. Or rather, there would, of course. I think. Or is it like the tree that falls in the forest with no one to hear it?

Anyway. You’re all such great listeners. And responders. The comments on this blog are like food and drink to me, and I say that as a person with more than a passing interest in food and drink. I have a suspicion I might have given up this whole crazy enterprise long ago if it weren’t for all of you, jollying me along, telling me politely what’s what, suggesting I might want to rethink one or two things, and just generally making me feel like I knew something but not too much, which is the right attitude to encourage in a blatant newcomer to any enterprise. There is some kind of charmed atmosphere around this blog which I can only attribute to the kind, thoughtful, and intelligent way all of you have received me, and each other.

These contributions were all so wonderful to read and made me feel luckier than ever. I loved seeing tanka and haiga among the contributions as well as haiku — I can’t do those things, or at least I haven’t tried yet, so it’s nice to have readers who can and are willing to share. I’ve posted all the contributions in the order they arrived in my email inbox. I hope you all enjoy.

Note: There were four haikuists who took up my (tongue-in-cheek) challenge to use the number 300 in their haiku in some way. They earn the promised bonus points, though I’m not quite sure yet what those can be redeemed for. 🙂 Congrats to Alan Summers, Steve Mitchell (tricky, that one), Max Stites, and Rick Daddario.

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at the cafe . . .
caught in the firing line
of the poetry slam

(Previously published, Modern Haiku, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Winter-Spring, 1999)


— Charlotte Digregorio, charlottedigregorio.wordpress.com

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Prince’s 1999
was played on that New Year’s Eve
300 seconds
that’s all that was needed
to fall in love

(unpublished)


300 klicks
from my home to Hull
a renga love verse

(unpublished)

 


warm evening
goodnight to the needlemouse*
as I check the stars

(Previously published, Presence magazine [September 2010] ISSN 1366-5367)

*Linguistic notes on the word “needlemouse”:

Kanji: 針鼠 or 蝟

Kana: ハリネズミ

Rōmaji: harinezumi

English: hedgehog

Combination Meaning: needle ( ハリ) mouse (ネズミ)

— Alan Summers, area17.blogspot.com/

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obituary notice
the last of his regulars
died yesterday

— Stacey Wilson, theoddinkwell.com and inkwellwhispers.com

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acorn
buried among fall debris–
the waiting

(unpublished, inspired by the post “acorn time”)


symmetry
in the bare willows —
the shape of longing

 

 

— Alegria Imperial, jornales.wordpress.com

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Down this road – alone
silent, solitary, still
watching autumn fall.

(after Basho’s Kono michi ya!)


— Margaret Dornaus, haikudoodle.wordpress.com

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sunlit garden
when did my father grow
an old man’s neck?

(Previously published, Frogpond, Fall 2006)


sprinkling her ashes
on the rocks at high tide
the long walk back

(From the haibun, In the Air [Planet, The Welsh Internationalist Spring 2007])

 

 

— Lynne Rees, www.lynnerees.com

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october roses
the last but the most vivid
than ever

faded petals
the scent of their soft touch
on my cheek

 

— Claire

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first serial publication
grandma asks
when I started drinking

(Previously published, bottle rockets #22)



haiku history lecture
doodling
paper lanterns

(Previously published, tinywords 9.1)


— Aubrie Cox, aubriecox.wordpress.com

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Rivers Fast

Rivers fast!
Strongest
Clean…
Refreshing

 

Flower Waits

Flower waits
For bee
You see,
Bird told me

 

— Laz Freedman, lazfreedman.wordpress.com

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crow lands on post
carries a grasshopper
can’t talk now

 

 

soft breeze
I regard nature, but wait —
I am nature

 

— Steve Mitchell, heednotsteve.wordpress.com

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February wind
I want to believe
the crocus

early thaw––
the earth tugging
at my footsteps

 

(These two both took first place in the Shiki Kukai for the months in which they were submitted. I regard the first of them as my “signature haiku.”)


— Bill Kenney, haiku-usa.blogspot.com

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reading history
seagulls gather on the beach
then fly away

(From Poems from Oostburg, Wisconsin: ellenolinger.wordpress.com)


turning the page
of a new book
branch of gold leaves

(From New Poems: Inspired by the Psalms and Nature: elingrace.wordpress.com)

 

— Ellen Olinger

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the photo booth
becomes a grave-marker
our snapshots

how nice to see the sun
again, despite
returning spiders

 

— Ashley Capes, ashleycapes.wordpress.com/

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who needs
three hundred facebook friends when
haiku are three lines

three fluttering notes
drift through the passage to find
the player and score

 

— Max Stites, outspokenomphaloskeptic.wordpress.com

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a solitary bird calls to the space between lightning and thunder

(Previously published, http://tinywords.com/2010/08/11/2175/)


— Angie Werren, triflings.wordpress.com/

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— Rick Daddario, www.rickdaddario.com/, 19planets.wordpress.com/, wrick.gather.com, www.cafeshops.com/19planets

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spider song

eight syllables only
to tap your haiku
across my wall

— Lawrence Congdon, novaheart.wordpress.com

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sharing full moon
with all the world’s
haiku poets

 

summer’s meadow
flowers too
inspire each other

— Kerstin Neumann

 

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overcast midday sky-
her shrill voice calling
the ducks home

— Devika Jyothi

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Reception, remembrances, readings

Highlights of last night’s festival events (which I was way too dead on my feet to post about last night):

The reception that opened the festival took place in Gayle Bull’s home, which is attached to the back of her store. It’s almost as full of books as the store.

I, unfortunately, am not the ideal person to report on reception-type events, because despite the impression you may get from this blog that I am the kind of person who never shuts up, I am actually paralyzingly shy in large crowds of people. Three at a time is about my maximum. Several dozen? None of whom I’ve ever met before? Most of whom seem to know each other? Not so much.

This is not to say that people weren’t friendly. Everyone I actually managed to meet and talk to was extremely welcoming and warm. Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, with whom I corresponded earlier this summer about the conference, gave me some great tips about starting my own haiku group in Madison, and also some pointers about submitting my haiku to journals (which I have just recently, and very tentatively, started doing). Charlie Trumbull, a wonderful haiku poet and the venerable editor of what is probably the most prominent haiku journal in America, Modern Haiku, was kind enough to endure the gushing admiration of a newbie haikuist without throwing up.

(There was also really good chocolate at the reception, including one designed for the conference (by whom? must find out) called “Haiku.” It was in the shape of a leaf and was spicy and why didn’t I get a picture of it?)

During the reception Charlie was running around handing out sheets of haiku by Robert Spiess, the late editor of Modern Haiku whom the conference was commemorating. Everyone was meant to pick two from their sheet to read in the next phase of the evening …

We moved outside to take over the microphone of the singer-guitarist who had been quietly playing country and soft-rock standards all evening in order to present remembrances of Bob Spiess. I knew pretty much nothing about Bob at the start of the evening but by the end I almost felt I’d known him personally. Everyone emphasized his kindness and generosity, including Gayle’s two daughters who remembered his frequent visits to their home and the way he doled out quarters to them (at a time when a quarter would have been a much bigger deal to a kid than it is now).

Possibly the funniest story involved the time Bob visited Japan and was riding the bullet train with some other haikuists, and was very eager to see Mount Fuji. Then he had to use the restroom. The other poets watched in dismay as Mount Fuji flashed by while he was gone. He got a haiku out of it though, a very funny one which I am going to track down and add here.

Several people read Bob’s thoughts about what haiku is or should be. Lee Gurga, another amazing haiku poet who is Bob’s literary executor and took over the editorship of Modern Haiku after his death, read Bob’s list of what annoyed him in haiku, a lot of which are the same things that annoy me in haiku, including the overuse of words like “suddenly” and “silence.”

Someone else read an observation of Bob’s which really struck me (maybe because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself): “Haiku is the poetry of the healing of culture by nature.” Bob’s poetry is definitely heavy on nature imagery, which I have recently disparaged, but it feels very natural in his poetry because he has clearly spent a lot of time observing and thinking about it:

around the bend
a log lying in the stream
— the turtle’s ears

Not that he doesn’t closely observe human beings too:

some sticks and pebbles
and a place with mud
a child by himself

a high mountain path
the guide saying that monkey
tastes better than goat

He wrote a whole series of haiku, in fact — Tall River Junction, inspired, obviously, by Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology — with titles that were people’s names:


Fr. Augustine Confesso, Paris Priest
Smiles, “The pear you eat,
snitched from the tree, my neighbor boy,
be it doubly sweet.

This last poem illustrates something that I found interesting about Spiess’s haiku, which is how often it employs rhyme — and how well the rhyme works:

drifting in the skiff …
names of all the swallows now:
tree and barn and cliff

The rhyme almost always follows this pattern of the first and third line rhyming.

One of the most touching moments of the evening occurred during the reading of Spiess’s haiku. A Korean woman with a strong accent stood up and announced she was going to read only the shortest poem on her sheet because she knew her accent would be difficult for us to understand:

firefly
wakens
me

Then she added: “I have the pleasure to know Bob Spiess and he was the pure kindness.”

We had a brief break before the next phase of the evening, which was readings from our own (or others’, if we preferred) haiku. Many poets seemed to take this opportunity to further lubricate themselves with the local beer and wine that was for sale. (I don’t drink, not because I have any moral or health objections to alcohol or am a recovering alcoholic or anything, just because I have never acquired a grownup taste for the stuff. Or for coffee, for that matter. Or liver and onions. All equally disgusting as far as I’m concerned.)

Anyway, by the time the readings began, the poets were becoming kind of rowdy. Rowdy haiku poets. Heckling each other. It was quite a scene. Lots of the haiku involved double entendres or just subtle (or frank) references to sex, which all got great reactions.

Most of the haiku that were read were frankly wonderful; I wrote lots of them down thinking I would post some of them here and then realized I really can’t do that without the permission of the authors. If I can get that, I may put some up later.

Lee Gurga read a great haiku by Peter Yovu, and some commentary about it (some of which is reproduced in the link above), and announced he’d give everything he’d ever written to have written it. Everyone was familiar with the ku before he even read it, except, of course, me. But now I am and I also love it.

I really liked the Korean guy who got up and told us about the article he’d just written about how the origins of haiku were in Korea. I believe it’s traditional for the Japanese and Koreans to argue about who invented pretty much every cultural phenomenon they share, so that was entertaining.

I chose to read my “Full Moon” sequence, although, as I announced beforehand, this was completely inappropriate because we are at or near a new moon right now. This was politely, though not wildly enthusiastically, received. We all have to start somewhere.

Which reminds me that I never actually posted a new haiku yesterday. But I did write one! I swear!

new moon
haiku poets can’t forget
when it was full

Cradle of American Haiku Festival

Here’s an announcement of a haiku festival that is taking place about an hour from my house (in southern Wisconsin) in September. I’m very excited to go and meet some other haiku groupies in person. (I’m also very curious about their assertion that southwestern Wisconsin is the birthplace of American haiku. Anyone know anything about the history behind that?)

It doesn’t seem like most of my readers live anywhere near the Midwest, but if you do, or are in the mood for a really long road trip, I’d love to see some of you there. Think about it …

Join haikuists from the U.S. and Canada for their Second Annual Cradle of American Haiku Festival, at 2 p.m., Friday, Sept. 10, to 1 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 12, at Foundry Books, 105 Commerce St.,  Mineral Point. The festival is open to the public, and beginning and experienced haikuists are welcome.

… The festival will include several workshops and presentations on the form and art of haiku/related Japanese poetic forms, readings of haiku, and Japanese art.  This year’s theme is “Remembering Robert Spiess—His Life and Work.” Spiess was a longtime haikuist and author, and former editor of “Modern Haiku,” an international journal of haiku and haiku studies.

The festival will also feature an opening  reception; a “Kukai,” a peer-reviewed haiku contest on the theme “Transitions;” Tai Chi, meditative exercises; a presentation on “Kodo,” Japanese incense; mini-critique sessions with award-winning poets and publishers; a social with cocktails and Midwest style picnic/tailgate; and a “ginko” walk to observe nature and write haiku. Haikuists may also participate in a sale of books they’ve authored.

At the festival, The Haiku Society of America will hold its annual national quarterly meeting to which the public is invited. However, the HSA is not sponsoring the festival.

Southwest Wisconsin is the birthplace of American haiku. Mineral Point is a scenic  town of 19th century architecture,  listed in the National Register of Historic Places, located in the region’s hills. It is about a 45- minute drive from Madison and Dubuque, IA.

The cost of the festival is $30 which includes workshops, all activities, reception, and picnic. For more information, with a schedule of events and lodging options, contact Charlotte Digregorio, Midwest Regional Coordinator, The Haiku Society of America, at email cvpress@yahoo.com or by phone at 847-881-2664.