Monday, December 25, 2006

Blog Update

I have switched over to the new blogging system here, and I like it. I like the ability to add labels, to see which posts have comments attached in the edit window, and republishing much more quickly and easily. I like being able to see what has linked to my posts. It's a much more convenient system.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Nature and Poetry

Recently a discussion about blind people writing haiku and people writing from imagination versus direct experience occurred on a workshop list. I had the following comments to make:

Experiencing nature directly provides material which can be turned into a poem now or later. I see a definite difference between poems written from those written from direct experience and those which are only imaginary. This is not to say that one is superior to the other, but I much prefer those written from direct experience myself. They are much more likely to offer new insights and to avoid the risk of being vague or generic.

Consider the difference:

summer day
birds on pylons
one different

summer day at the port,
a seagull among the baygulls
perched upon the pylon

How many people realize how many different kinds of seagulls there are? And would a person assume 'marina' or even 'riverfront' unless they were told 'port?' And having picked 'port' doesn't it call to mind other resonances, such as a big container ship among the much smaller pleasure craft, as compared to the seagull among the baygulls? Etc.

These truths of the world do not need to be viewed directly with the eyes, and your blind friend is very wise to point out the importance of perceiving the world through other methods. All too often, those of us who can see base our poetry on what we perceive with our eyes, but the other senses are just as important. In poetry they can be extremely effective for the simple reason that the other senses show up much less frequently than sight, and are therefore more likely to be fresh.

after scurrying
across the cement floor
in bare feet,
how welcome the warmth
of the laundry room


NB. 'Baygull' is local terminology for inland gulls; they're on the Chesapeake Bay, not the sea, so they must be a 'baygull,' right? True seagulls are huge by comparison to baygulls.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Haiku Writing Prompts at OneBreathPoetry

I stumbled across OneBreathPoetry blog while searching the web and found they had reprinted a poem of mine as a poem for inspiration. (Naughty, naughty, you're supposed to ask first! Consider yourselves to have had a finger wagged at you, ladies.) I liked the sight and was flattered that they thought well of my poetry, and I am even more flattered that they keep referring to me as a haiku poet of international standing, in spite of me telling them that when it comes to haiku I am nobody in particular. I have had a few things published in Modern Haiku, Fish in Love, Haiku Miscellany, Simply Haiku, and Haiku Harvest, but the quality and quanity of my haiku are both inferior to my tanka.

Nonetheless, I like the way they are approaching the teaching of haiku by offering writing prompts, poems for inspiration, and links to participating poets' blogs. The presentation is attractive and not overwhelmed -- too many sites try to do too much and wind up with a page crammed with gewgaws and bad poetry. If you're interested in practicing haiku in a different form than the usual online email lists and bulletin boards, check it out.

Poems for the writing prompts:

Delicious Autumn:

one yellow leaf
clings to the branch
in a world of grey.
~M. Kei from


basket womb
full of the fruit
of life
~ M. Kei, from


white fur blending
into white snow
the dead cat


Monday, December 18, 2006

Fire Pearls - Errata

Fire Pearls was a large and complex project, and like all such projects, is slowly accumulating errata.

All instances of bottle rockets should have been lower case, not Upper Case.

Robert Wilson's poem 'explore with me' was previously accepted for publication in Wisteria.

My guidelines required all previously published poems to include information on prior publication so that they could be properly acknowledged. In all cases when the poet provided the information to me, the necessary credit appeared. Several poets included previously published material without acknowledgement, and these have been handled on a case by case basis as necessary to satisfy the previous publisher.

As I ranted in a previous post, I am disimpressed with poets who fail to follow published guidelines and disrespect me and their prior publisher by failing to provide proper acknowledgement. It's unprofessional and unacceptable.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bird Haiku

I love blue herons, but other kinds of birds interest me as well. I am interested in the birds I see before me and I am trying to learn their names. So many of the birds, such as the crow and wild goose, have become cliches in poetry. It is hard to write about them. But less common birds and their habits are excellent fodder for poetry.

the slate-backed junco—
a little bit of storm cloud
hopping around my yard

Previously appeared in Nisqually Delta Review, Winter/Spring, 2007.

On a night like this,
not even the owls
have anything to say.

Previously appeared in Haiku Harvest, Spring/Summer, 2006.

low tide,
ducks and yachts
coast into the marina

Previously appeared in Clouds Peak, Fall, 2006.

Traffic radio,
"Wild turkeys in the road."
Rush hour, country style.

Previously appeared in 'Wandering the County,' Honorable Mention, Lighthouse Poetry Contest, 2006.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Occasional Kyoka - Call for Submissions

From Kyoka Mad Poems

Okay, folks. I've been thinking about this kyoka, and I don't have the space, time or energy to edit a journal, so I have decided to try a small experiment. I have a blog: where I ramble and rant on things poetic and boats. I have decided to try a feature called 'Occasional Kyoka' in which I publish kyoka submissions from others from time to time. There is no fame or glory here, but maybe down the line I'll be able to do another kyoka feature somewhere.

If you'd like to participate in Occasional Kyoka, send me up to ten kyoka for consideration. There is no deadline; I'll be putting up the post when I have the time/urge/enough poetry. Preferably before or during the Christmas break (hey, kyoka is a good stress relief, right). So don't worry about 'the best kyoka,' just something that made you laugh. *I* can use some stress relief right now myself!

You can share this with your friends if you like, but please don't propagate it to other mailing lists since it's not a formal journal. It's just a chance for us to mess about with our poetry a little more and maybe put some of it into an orderly presentation.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Fire Pearls Marketing Efforts

Work on Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart continues. For those of you who think that publishing a book is hard work, wait until you try marketing one! Nonetheless, progress is being made.

Upcoming: Fire Pearls will be featured as a Valentine's Day tie-in for the newsletter. Fire Pearls will also be featured at a Valentine's Day Coffeehouse at Cecil Community College, North East, MD, also as a Valentine's Day tie-in, complete with chocolate and flowers. I have also submitted the pdf to to be processed for their 'Search Inside the Book' program. This allows an excerpt of the book to be read online by a prospective buyer. I have faith that the quality of poetry is such that should a reader read it, they will want to buy it!

I am also working on getting review copies out. This requires proofreading and personalizing the press releases as I am including them with the review copies. I have made splash sheets to go with them saying 'LOCAL AUTHOR' and "GREAT TIE-IN" with listings of upcoming relevant observances, including Valentine's Day, Poetry Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, Mother's Day, and June Weddings. I'm a little disappointed that Fire Pearls seems to be getting pegged as a Valentine's Day product by mainstream media, but I suppose it's better to be seen at Valentine's Day than not seen at all. I remain confident that should the book come to reader's attention, it will interest them.

Due to the individual attention I am providing the review copies, and due to the fact that I work fulltime (and sometimes more), plus serve on the board of a directors of a local museum during a Capital Campaign, I don't have as much time as I would like. Still, every week I do something to get Fire Pearls noticed in the world. Oftentimes what I do results in email and mail going into the great round file in the sky, but I do it. This is the kind of thing where persistance pays off. Frankly, if only 5% of the effort results in something tangible, that's still pretty good. All it takes is one Oprah to notice the book...

Yes, I've submitted my 'suggestion' to Oprah's Book Club. Haven't heard back and don't think I will... but you have to try. It's their job to reject my efforts, not mine. This is something that many people don't understand. They think that you should try to guess in advance if you're going to be successful, and if you think you won't be, don't even bother trying. If you don't try, you won't succeed. I think it was Edison who said he learned more from his failures than his successes.

Marketing a small press book is no easy thing, and poetry is a notoriously hard sell. Tanka especially so. Currently, if a book of tanka sells 300 copies, it's a hit. My goal is to sell a 1000 copies of Fire Pearls . If I recall correctly, the initial print-run on Goldstein and Shinoda's translation of Tangled Hair was only 1200 copies, and it's been in print since then and is now considered a classic. I hope for something similar for Fire Pearls .

Having gotten my hands on most of the anthologies of English-language tanka published in the last one hundred years, I can say that Fire Pearls compares well. I have even laid hands on hard to find books such as Maple (1975). I haven't gotten hold of all the anthologies; several still elude me (see previous books wanted post), but I do have about 3/4 of the English-language anthologies ever published in my possession. Expect to see future articles derived from this research!


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Books Containing Tanka Wanted

I am looking to obtain copies of the following anthologies containing tanka in English. Reasonably priced used books, donations, or trades, all welcome.

1972 McClintock, Michael. Thief: Diary Notes Paterson, NJ: Haiku Magazine, Special Issue, No. 5:4
1979 Keinholz, Mary, ed. Little Japan Spokane, WA: Scrivener
1990 Reichhold, Jane, ed. Tanka Splendor 1990 Gualala, CA: AHA Books
1993 Reichhold, Jane, ed. Tanka Splendor 1993 Gualala, CA: AHA Books
1994 Reichhold, Jane, ed. Tanka Splendor 1994 Gualala, CA: AHA Books
1996 Reichhold, Jane, ed. Tanka Splendor 1996 Gualala, CA: AHA Books
1998 Maya, Giselle, ed. CATS - tanka, haiku & cat tales /CHATS - tanka, haiku & contes de chat St. Martin de Castillon, France: Koyama Press
2000 England, Gerald, ed. The Art of Haiku 2000 Cheshire, UK: New Hope International
2001 Maya, Giselle, ed. Moondust РPoussi̬re de Lune St. Martin de Castillon, France: Koyama Press
2002 Ross, Bruce, ed. How to Haiku
2002 Yoshimura, Hayakawa Ikuyo, Hatsue Kawamura & Kazuo Hayakawa, eds. & trans. Internationalization of Japanese Poems: Haiku, Tanka, Senryu Gifu, Japan: Chugainippohsha Co. Ltd
2006 Carter, Terry Ann , Claudia Radmore, & Grant D. Savage, eds. Invisible Tea: haiku and tanka Ottawa, Canada Kado
2006 Rowe, Noel, & Vivian Smith, eds. Windchimes Australia: Pandanus
2005 Kimmel, Larry, & Linda Jeannette Ward, eds. Tanka Calendar 2005
2006 Kimmel, Larry, & Linda Jeannette Ward, eds. Tanka Calendar 2006
2006 Garrison, Denis M., ed. Five Hole-Flute

If you want to give, sell, or trade me a book, please email me at: kujaku at verizon dot net.

Please note: I write book reviews for Lynx and Modern English Tanka . Please note if you would like the book reviewed.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Some Recent Published Tanka

I have had a fair amount of tanka accepted for publication recently. Here are a few:

His burlap skin
washed by the
diamond waters,
and everywhere,
jellyfish in bloom.

--from Modern English Tanka, 1:2

rattlesnake love--
you gave me warning,
but I, entranced
by your desert heart,
wouldn't heed it

--from Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart

tracing the face
of the man in the moon
my own face
looks back
at me

--from Modern English Tanka, 1:1

At the end of
a bad oyster season,
we spend Christmas
stripping the oyster boards
and swabbing the decks.

--from Sketchbook, 1:1

if only the leaves
were not so green,
this lover's heart
might enjoy
a little emptiness

--from Tanka Splendor 2006

The skyline's
not much to look at,
just a green line
drawn along the bottom
of the clouds.

--from Red Lights, 3:1 (forthcoming)

a dozen contrails
stretch across the sky,
all pointing
to the west
beyond my dreams

--from Gusts #4

my boss gives me
a bag of melted chocolates . . .
I think this means
I'm in her good graces
at last

--from Kokako #5

If you like what you read, I hope you will seek and support these find journals and anthologies by buying them. Without financial support, our publishers, all of whom are small presses who do this as a labor of love, would not be able to continue publishing. Without them, there would be very few places to publish tanka.

Bibliography of Books Containing Tanka in English

I was going to leave the bibliography to Denis, but since he was in the accident, I decided I might as well take all the data I had and turn it into a word document. The resulting bibliography contains approximately 325 entries. About 100 overlap with Ce Rosenow's Tanka Bibliography, but hers has not been updated since 2000. In addition, I tried hard to find old and obscure works, and put a tremendous effort into research.

I queried poets, viewed existing bibliographies, searched web sites, book reviews in journals, poets biographies, the Library of Congress card catalog, the catalogs of several colleges in the US and Canada, queried my colleagues, etc. Nonetheless, I have about 50 or more titles about which I do not have enough information to make a guess as to whether they contain tanka, and there are many more poets and editors yet to query. It's a neverending project, so I decided to post what I had so that people could start using it and hopefully send me additions and corrections. It is now posted at

I also made some corrections as requested by Denis Garrison, and my 'A History of Tanka Book Publishing in English' is now posted to the Winter issue of Modern English Tanka. Essentially it's a narrative of information in the bibliography and contextual information and commentary, tracing the history of publishing tanka in English. It can be viewed at, Winter, 2006.

I regard both as being preliminaries works. There is so little scholarship on tanka in English that it's important to do this kind of fundamental groundwork to get started and open the subject for discussion and further research.

It's good to see it come to fruition because I've put a tremendous amount of work into this research. There is more to be done, but I don't plan on pushing as hard in it as I have been. I think my next step is to complete my acquistion of tanka anthologies and write about anthology publishing.

The anthologies containing tanka that I own or have on order are:

Japan: Theme and Variations
Sounds from the Unknown
Poets Behind Barbed Wire
Tanka in English
Tanka Splendor 1990
Tanka Splendor 1991
Tanka Splendor 1994
Tanka Splendor 1995
Tanka Splendor 1996
Tanka Splendor 1997
Tanka Splendor 1998
Tanka Splendor 1999
Tanka Splendor 2000
Tanka Splendor 2001
Tanka Splendor 2002
Tanka Splendor 2003
Tanka Splendor 2004
Tanka Splendor 2005
Tanka Splendor 2006
The Wind Five Folded
Footsteps in the Fog
Outcry from the Inferno
Heiwa: Peace Poetry
Quiet Fire
Book of Tanka
New Moon
Tangerine Anthology
Castles in the Sand
The Tanka Anthology
Unrolling the Awning
Searching for Echoes
Only the Bulbs
English Tanka Poems
To Find the Moon
Fire Pearls
Something Like a Sigh
A Thin Green Horizon

Books I want to acquire (if you are very nice, you will send them to me!):

Ishokurin (Transplanted Forest)
Tanka Splendor 1992
Tanka Splendor 1993
The Art of Haiku
My Neighbor's Life
Countless Leaves
Full Moon Tide
Moondust/Poussiere de la Lune
How to Haiku
Tulip Haiku
Rose Haiku for Flower Lovers and Gardeners
Tanka Calendar 2005
Tanka Calendar 2006
Invisible Tea and Haiku


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Maritime News

In other news, I am keeping busy, too busy! Last night I was elected to the Board of Directors of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, in Havre de Grace, Maryland. "Where Bay Life Begins" is the new slogan which will be implemented throughout the course of the upcoming capital campaign. The capital campaign will complete the pavilion on the grounds, creating exhibit, storage, and rental space, enabling the Chesapeake Wooden Boat School to move downstairs in the main building and the first floor be expanded entirely into exhibits and additional features, such as a library/resource room, offices, handicap elevator, etc.

So far the museum is a cute little museum, very inexpensive whose dominant features is the wooden boat school that restores and builds wooden boats. The wooden boat program is widely recognized for its excellence. Other notable features are the sustainable landscaping and its nearness to other nautical features, including the Concord Point Lighthouse and Lighthousekeeper's house, the Decoy Museum, and Havre de Grace Promenade. Plans will include the replacement of the wooden dock that was washed away by Hurricane Isabel.

Since I am in the process of changing careers from what I used to do into museum management, especially development and fundraising, it's quite exciting to be a member of the board during this time period. And since I am also a local with a passion for the history of the Chesapeake Bay, a degree in history, and experience in non-profit, educational development, with a passion for wooden boats... It was a natural fit.

If you have any interest in maritime history, Maryland, or the Chesapeake Bay, or just to win brownie points with me, please visit the website of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum and become a member or donor! We will love you for it.

Up until this point in my blog I have concentrated principally on poetry and will continue to do so, but I believe very much in poetry of place and now that I've covered the history and development of tanka/waka/kyoka (see archives, especially the earliest ones), look for more poetry of place and maritime information to be interspersed among the modern tanka posts.


Fire Pearls *****

At last! Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart is complete and ready for sale. I'm well pleased with the way it turned out, although I cannot say that I am happy with the global distribution system. Errors on their part caused delays and frustration and expense on my part. Still, it is done at last, and the book is out and selling. So far reviews left on the site are excellent with an average five star rating (*****). Even my daughter, the teenage skeptic, says it's pretty cool.



BOOK NOTE: Please forward to all interested parties.

October 19, 2006


M. Kei, Editor

Edited by M. Kei, trade paperback, 160 pages, $14.95 USD. Available from or major booksellers.

A handsome new anthology of nearly four hundred tanka, kyoka, cinquains, and free verse by more than fifty poets from around the world. Includes both well known and emerging voices, arranged into five seasons that explore the human heart through its many manifestations of love and passion.

“Fire Pearls will be quite a surprise for those who are frequent readers of tanka, the five-line poem with a 1300 year history. For newcomers to tanka, the poems should be a challenge and a delight. The last section, entitled 'Fifth Season,' is a tour de force. To journey through this anthology is to experience key moments of our lives.“ — Sanford Goldstein, co-translator of Tangled Hair: Selected Tanka from Midaregami

“What a magnificent anthology . . . it weakens, heartens, humbles, enlarges, and delivers so many poetic truths that I just am so glad to see this come to fruition.” — Tom Clausen, author of Growing Late

Excerpts from Fire Pearls:

between sun and shade
a butterfly pauses
like none I've seen—
who ever falls in love
with someone they know?

Michael McClintock

the tilt
of her head to undo
an earring—
fortresses crumble into
winter moonlight

Larry Kimmel

rain-furled hibiscus—
in the slow refolding
of our secret places
we draw even closer
than at passion's zenith

Beverley George

White birch
with black-streaked trunk,
How many Russian girls
have hugged you, crying for their long
lost loves?

Zhanna P. Rader

His heart
is a skeleton key
that unlocks doors
that should never
be opened.

M. Kei

mourners assemble
after Joe’s funeral—
they come
to pick widow Green’s apples
and press out the amber juice

John Daleiden

and still
there may be encounters
in this penny world,
and still the electric surge
of a look, a stare, a nod

Sanford Goldstein

To purchase, or for more information, contact:

M. Kei, Editor
P O Box 1118
Elkton, MD, 21922-1118


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Counting Syllables

Recently some one on a tanka workshop email list pleaded to be told the 'correct' number of syllables to be used in writing English-language tanka. I posted the following response:

There is no correct syllable count for English-language tanka, because tanka are not built on syllables. They are built on 'on' which is translated as 'syllable,' but this is an error. The correct translation is 'mora,' which is a unit of sound. For example, the English word 'stretch' is only one syllable, but three mora. str-e-tch. In Japanese, it would be four or five morae.

Since English prosody is built on the syllable, not the mora, it is impossible to make any direct correlation between Japanese 'on' and English syllables. In short, it is linguistically impossible to count syllables correctly in English for the simple reason that syllables are not what the Japanese count.

Japanese and English are extremely different languages. An English verse contains approximately 35% more information than a verse of equal syllable count in Japanese. Therefore, your syllable count in English should rarely exceed 31. Usually English-language tanka fall into the range of 21 - 27 syllables, but there are no hard and fast rules about this.

Some people adopt various alternative schema to mimic the Japanese form, such as the rubric of 'short-long-short-long-long', the adoption of metered feet of 2-3-2-3-3, and various other forms. Most people writing in English settle for the pattern of five phrases on five lines.

Yet even this has problems; Japanese tanka are written in one, two, or three lines, or whatever lineation happens to suit either the style of the calligraphy or the space available. Since Japanese is structurally different than English, the precise arrangement of lines and words on the page does not have the same impact that the choice of line breaks does in English; the calligrapher is free to place line breaks in Japanese where he pleases, but the same is not true in English.

A small number of English-language poets regard the 'on' or mora as not being the most important unit of the tanka; some poets regard the division of the poem into two parts to be the defining feature. Two- part structure is certainly common in tanka, but not universal; tanka have been written with one, two, three, four, and five part structures.

If two part structure is used, English-language tanka frequently places the break at the end of L3, probably due to the influence of haiku, but it could just as viably occur at the end of L1, 2, 3, or 4 and often does in Japanese. Three part structures are not rare in tanka, four and five parts are fairly uncommon, but unitary tanka (no breaks), also referred to as a 'rush of five lines down,' are well enough known to have inspired the name of the first tanka-only journal in English, Five Lines Down, edited by Sanford Goldstein (one of the most prominent translators of modern Japanese tanka) and Kenneth Tamemura.

In short, the translation of a Japanese poetic form to English is not easy, and no one can make it simple for you. In fact, given the profound differences between English and Japanese, I would argue that 5-7-5-7-7 syllables is about the only wrong way to write a tanka. Poems of this length are far too wordy. The Japanese originals are lithe, supple poems.

My advice is: Aim for the greatest possible meaning in the fewest necessary words, pleasingly arranged on five lines.



Nakagawa, Atsuo. Tanka in English: In Pursuit of World Tanka. Tokyo: New Currents Internataionl, 1990 [1987].

Gilbert, Richard. 'Stalking the Wild Onji: The Search for Current Linguistic Terms Used in Japanese Poetry Circles.' AHA Books Online. Previously published in Language Issues: Journal of the Foreign Language Education Center.(1999, Vol. 5, No. 1). Prefectural University of Kumamoto, Kumamoto, Japan.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Denis Garrison, Tanka Poet and Editor, Injured in Crash

Today I received word that Denis M. Garrison, the well-known tanka poet and editor, was seriously injured in a crash on 9/8. His wife was also seriously injured.

Denis suffered multiple fractures and is expected to be in rehab for the next six weeks. His wife suffered multiple fractures and will be in rehab for several months.

Modern English Tanka will be delayed a month while Denis recuperates.

I will continue managing the Tanka Roundtable in his absence.

Denis is the former editor of Haiku Harvest, and is the current editor of Modern English Tanka , the webmaster of, the Manager of Tanka Roundtable, and author of Eight Shades of Blue.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fire Pearls nears completion

Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart , is nearly done. The final selections have been made, the manuscript has been laid out, the covers designed, and the poets are proofing their work even as we speak. A couple of more days to the deadline for corrections, then bam! The galleyproof, and should it be good, we go on sale. Fire Pearls should be available to the public in about two weeks.

It has been a pleasure to work with so much fine poetry and many good poets. I am gratified by the poets' responses -- most of them have not merely proofed their own work, but have read the book cover to cover and send me their glowing responses. Tom Clausen was kind enough to give me permission to quote him:

“Holy Tanka !!! what a magnificent anthology... I just read from cover to cover and it weakens, heartens, humbles, enlarges, and delivers so many poetic truths that I just am so glad to see this come to fruition. Congratulations.”

I am also very gratified by the kind and unflagging support of the grand old man of tanka, Sanford Golstein. Sandy has provided the blurb for the back cover:

Fire Pearls will be quite a surprise for those who are frequent readers of tanka, the five-line poem with a 1300 year history. For newcomers to tanka, the poems should be a challenge and a delight. The anthology, edited by M. Kei, focuses on love and passion, subjects which the poets in the anthologyare not hesitant about. The last section, entitled 'Fifth Season,' is a tour de force. Editor Kei can be cited among those editors who really care about their contributors and make frequent contact with them. To journey through this anthology is to experience key moments in our lives.”

Several poets, including very well known and highly respected poets with long careers, have commented on the innovation of the 'fifth season.' Tanka often utilize nature imagery, and so much of the work fell very neatly into categories of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. But the human heart is a capricious thing and often refuses to follow our demands. The Fifth Season was added to present those poems which, like the human heart, cannot be easily categorized.

With just shy of eighty poems in each of five sections, Fire Pearls comes in at 389 poems -- which is like editing four books at once, given that tanka books are usually slim. More than that, each section is sequenced by theme and logical progressions, which is a huge undertaking. I have been bored and annoyed by the usual method of presenting tanka alphabetically by author's last name. What if the author write wildly varying stuff that doesn't really go together? Plus such a work itself has no cohesion; it is simply random assembly of poems by the rather arbitrary standard of last names.

On the other hand, sequencing close to 400 poems is no small undertaking. Sequences of this size have rarely, if ever, been undertaken in English-language tanka, although Japanese tanka anthologies are often sequenced. Sequencing is one of the most ancient skills associated with editorship in Japan; the old imperial anthologies are organized by topic and sequenced within their topics -- even the 4500 poems of the Man'yoshu.

One of the things that makes the Kokinshu a classic is that it is an imminently readable anthology, thanks to the care that went into its organization. This is not fully understood by most people who discuss it; while the Kokinshu is justly criticized for its mannerism, its mannerism is partially a result of the choices made in putting together a readable anthology. Poems that are wildly different than other poems are hard to sequence and may be omitted. Regretably, there were some very good poems I wanted to publish in Fire Pearls , but they just didn't fit. That's the drawback of sequencing, it imposes choices which may exclude some poems.

While I regret not being able to publish all the excellent poems that were submitted to me, every editor faces the same conundrum. It is not that the book is sequenced that caused some good poems to be left out, it is that the budget will only tolerate a book of a certain size. My hope from the start is that Fire Pearls would prove itself a viable approach and inspire other authors to experiment with sequencing and anthology building. These are two skills that are in short supply but are essential to the development of the genre. I am sure there are people who will find fault with what I have done, but I am not shy, and I hope that people will be inspired to edit more anthologies according to their own views -- we need more books representing more viewpoints.

Already I have influenced two major editors, who shall remain nameless since their projects are not yet ready for public inspection. Suffice it to say, Fire Pearls has convinced others that the approach is viable and flexible enough to be adapted to individual editor's approaches. Cross your fingers and look for more anthologies.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Poetic Peccadilloes -- I am not amused

Generally speaking I refrain from using my blog to fulminate about things that raise my ire because there is nothing duller than watching somebody froth at the mouth like a lunatic. But, it is a blog, so fulmination is de rigeur.

This evening's fulminary topic is integrity, or more precisely, the lack of it among poets. I have been a freelance editor and writer for better than fifteen years. I have edited fiction and non-fiction for small presses and alternative presses. I have been a technical writer and grantwriter. In short, I am accustomed to working to professional standards. Granted, not every organization has the budget for fancy software and slick productions, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about intellectuel honesty.

Honesty costs zero dollars and zero time. It's the easiest policy that requires the least amount of work. All you have to do is to act like an adult. Tanka poets, I'm sad to say, are deficit in this quality. While most poets are honest, time after time I discover that many are not. Here are my rules. More than one person has violated each of them.

1) Read the guidelines. Believe the guidelines. Follow the guidelines. Do not insult me by informing me that your poetry is so extraodinary that I should abandon my carefully planned and financed project in order to cater to your immature ego.

2) My guidelines mean what they say. I am tolerant of errors and friendly to newbies. That doesn't mean I'm a pushover and that you can trammel my guidelines at will.

3) When I say, 'no simultaneous submissions,' I mean 'no simultaneous submissions.' That is not an invitation to sneak things past me. You think I won't catch you? You're wrong. I have caught four poets doing this on Fire Pearls alone. I have not mentioned to them that I have caught them, but they won't be invited to my next project.

4) When I say reprints are welcome as long as previous publication is acknowledged, I mean 'previous publication.' Not just the first, or the most recent, or the one most flattering to you. I mean, I want to know about the places where the public has been able to read your poem. Your blog, a journal, a book, a website, anywhere.

5) This includes works that are pending but not yet in print. Guess what? I am also a reviewer, plus I am on cordial terms with other editors. We talk to each other. We show each other galleyproofs and ask for opinions. We write blurbs for each other. We ask one another for professional opinions. In short, your book may not be in print yet -- but that doesn't mean I don't know about it.

5 b) I am in the process of tracking down every single book, chapbook, broadside, calendar, journal, CD, poster, and anything else containing English-language tanka. No, I don't have everything yet, so you might put one over on me temporarily, but pretty soon I will and I will notice. I'm an easy-going person, but I take a dim view of people deliberately trying to deceive, or who are so lazy that they don't care about their own integrity. We won't be working together again.

6) Don't tell me 'it doesn't matter' and that I'm uptight. I'm the editor and I'm a damn good one. If you want a sloppy, deceptive book, go publish it yourself.


History of Tanka in English

No, this won't be a post about the history of tanka in English, in spite of the title. That article will be posted to Modern English Tanka, probably the Winter issue (next issue). However, since posting the previous numbers regarding publications, I have learned about many more tanka books, chapbooks, calendars, broadsides, CDs, and other publications over the years. Here are the revised numbers:

pre-1915 0
1915-19 3
1920-24 1
1920-29 1
1930-34 0
1935-39 0
1940-44 2
1945-49 1
1950-54 2
1955-59 4
1960-64 1
1965-69 1
1970-74 6
1975-79 7
1980-84 3
1985-89 0
1990-94 17
1995-99 50
2000-04 73
2005-09 45
Total 217

Notice how in 1990 tanka publication took off. Yet there is a perception that there's not very much interest or market for tanka as compared to haiku. Somebody has got to be buying these books. What's also interesting is how the tanka genre has evolved over time, but for perspicacious observations on the subject, along with a naming of titles and authors you'll have to wait for my article to come out in Modern English Tanka.


Ships and Poetry

10 more days to the deadline for Fire Pearls. I hope I don't get a bunch of last minute submissions, but if they do, I hope they're fabuolous. Cutting has been difficult. So much good stuff has been sent that I'm well over the original plan for 300 poems. Nonetheless, all poets have been advised regarding their first cuts, and the draft is in good shape.

Due to the amount of time it takes a new book to work its way into the distribution channels, I want to have the manuscript in the printer's hands as quickly after the deadline as possible. I put in about thirty hours this weekend on the book, and the draft has been sent a dear friend who is a Very Famous Tanka Poet to read and write the cover blurb.

It's also important to get as much done now as possible as I have a job interview with an historic wooden ship whose name I won't mention. I'm dissatisfied with my current job, so I sent out feelers last week to see if any of the regional marine museums and historic sailing ships have jobs available. And lo, one does! So on Tuesday I go for an interview. I am crossing my fingers and hoping it works out. If it does, I'll be commuting much further, working longer hours, earning more, and having to learn a new job -- right at the Fire Pearls deadline.

Which is my why I busted my butt this weekend to see that Fire Pearls is shipshape. I don't miss deadlines and I don't do sloppy work. I plan ahead and get things done in advance and allow for contigencies. While this is the first poetry book I've done, I have previous experience as a small press and alternative press editor. I've published more than a dozen books and chapbooks. All is good.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Haiku and Rust

Someone sent around the following poem and exerpt:

this deserted mountain
the aged farmer
digging wild potatoes

-- Bashô

"Where the mood of the moment is solitary and quiet it is called sabi...
Sabi is loneliness in the sense of Buddhist detachment,
of seeing all things as happening "by themselves" in miraculous
spontaneity. With this goes that sense of deep, illimitable
quietude which descends with a long fall of snow, swallowing all
sounds in layer upon layer of softness." - Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

Ah, that old sabi nonsense. What a mysterious cult Westerners have made of it!

Sabi means 'rust'. Plain and simple. Thus, sabi is the Japanese 'rustic.' It only appears exotic thanks to the distance in time, space, and culture. More broadly sabi means 'patina of age' which is to say, the deteriorating effect on things caused by age of which rust is the most obvious example, but includes the weathering of wood, the fading of clothing, the build up of soot, etc.

Basho was an urbanite and required an urban setting to make his living, but he did not care for the rat race and tried to opt out as much as possible. Edo had a population of more than a million people in Basho's day. It was a bustling, sophisticated city, obsessed with making money, climbing the ladder of ambition, and enjoying the pleasures of theater, sex, and alcohol. In other words, it was a lot like New York City. I think this is the reason why Basho appeals to us. He tried to resolve the tension between the attractive, yet unnatural, life in the city and his own human need for something deeper and more lasting.

The poem above is an excellent example of sabi -- a rural location, an old peasant, gathering wild foods. It was Basho's genius to appreciate such things; in this he follows the tea aesthetic established by Sen no Rikyu approximately a hundred and fifty years earlier. Basho was rebelling against a materialistic, urban life. Rikyu also rebelled against the conspicuous consumption that had been the hallmark of the tea ceremony in his day; it was Rikyu who made the door to the tea hut so small that even the shogun had to get down on his knees and crawl.

To chase after Zen does no good if one doesn't give up materialism and consumerism. If materialism and consumerism are abandoned, there is no need for Zen. Zen is not about doing or not doing. Zen just is.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Love Tanka

Since I am editing Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart, it might logically be asked whether I know anything about writing love poetry. I like to think that I do -- I started writing tanka to impress a woman. It worked. And, after further scientific analysis, purely for the altruistic reason of enhancing our understanding of tanka, I can also announce that it works on men as well.

In fact, I used to never think of publishing my poetry, but in 2004 when my friends started asking me if I'd written any more poetry, and listening to it dreamy-eyed, then beating up their boyfriends for not writing them love poetry, I was forced to conclude that maybe I had something. Normally sane people flee the other way when they see an amateur poet coming.

Nonetheless, we must remember that Fire Pearls is not just love poetry, it is about the passions of the human heart, which may resemble love, but is actually a much larger field.

The following tanka are provided with dates so that you can trace the development of my style, if you have any interest in that sort of thing. Or you can just read the poems and enjoy, or laugh and point. It's all the same to me. They're a tiny fraction of my output of love poetry; the really good romantic ones are all committed to Fire Pearls.

I was not lonely
with the snow-capped heron
as my company;
but when my lover returned
the silence was desolate.

~K~ 2001
Previously appeared in, Summer, 2006.

The evening ocean
reflects silver moonshine like
a polished mirror.
The boat that rowed out early
this morning has not returned.

~K~ 2004

The boat above is Mansei's boat, in one of the oldest and best know of Japanese verses. His boat has been rowing through Japanese poetry for as long as Japanese poetry has been written down. When we are beginning, slavish imitation and derivation is good practice. Do what the masters did until you understand them, then throw away the rules and do as your poetry dictates.

yo no naka o
nani ni tatoemu
kogiinishi fune no
ato naki ga goto

~Sami Mansei

Our life in this world--
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

~trans. Steven D. Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry

Cinnamon mornings
follow silk moons of August.
Styrofoam tea sits
quietly at my elbow,
teasing with remembered taste.

~K~ 2003
Previously appeared in My Town , 2006.

When my boys are here
the autumn nights fly past like
swallows in the dusk.
Autumn nights are long
only by repute.

~K~ 2003
Previously appeared in, Summer, 2006.

A pearl of rain
trembles at the tip
of a holly leaf.
She passes by,
and my heart falls.

~K~ 2005

he discovers his new book
belonged to someone else;
love messages
inside the cover.

~K~ Jan, 2006

My sister grieves
over her own gold star;
so I dread the blue one
my daughter seems determined
to give to me.

~K~ Feb 2006

NB. During WWI, Sons in Service flags were displayed in the windows of families with service members serving. One blue star was placed for each family member on active duty. If the service member died, the star was changed to blue. My nephew, SFC Joshua Lee Omvig, committed suicide after his tour in Iraq due to untreated Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His brother still serves. The men and women of our family have served in every war since the French and Indian War.

Beside the road,
only the hawk’s tail recognizable
amid the shattered feathers;
I say another prayer
for our fallen soldier.

~K~ Apr 2006

I’d sleep
if sleep were safe,
but I fear
the ruin
of my dreams.

~K~ Jun 2006

A single boot
tossed casually aside,
suddenly I remember
how long it has been
since I heard from her.

~K~ Jun 2006

Her going
is a bright loss
from which I
will never

~K~ Jun 2006

The sternest mountain
crumbles into dust and
washes to the sea;
it forms a sandy beach
where my love walks.

~K~ Jun 2006

if you came
(but you didn’t)
if you had come
(but still you won’t)

~K~ Jul 2006

coitus interuptus --
suddenly I realize
my dead mother
can see me
having sex

~K~ Aug 2006

Ah yes. It's a long way from Mansei's boat to coitus interruptus, but logically, if you believe in the afterlife, whether it be Buddhist or something else, then we must also conclude that the living have no privacy from the dead. It's enough to make an atheist of any man. Since I happen to be a person of faith, it's a real conundrum. I just hope she skips over those parts of my life the same way she skipped over sex scenes in the novels.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Catching Up

I hardly know what to write. So it's been a month since I posted, enit? It hardly seems a minute. I've been hard at work and broiling in the heat. July wasn't such a good month, only 80 poems. A good month is 200+ and they come as easily as joy. My accomplishments have been scholarly rather than poetic, though I haven't any finished work to show for them.

I'm working on a large article about Tanka Structure, describing and explaining the various kinds of structures that have been used in the past and present, Japanese and English tanka, with examples culled from old masters and modern poets. Hopefully it will appear in the Winter issue of Modern English Tanka. I have to say, the more I learn, the more appalled I am at the general lack of knowledge about tanka in English. Oh, there are people who think they know about it, and there are even a few who do know something about it, but there are also some extremely well-known and respected names who have appalled me by revealing gaps in knowledge the size of the Grand Canyon.

In other places I have ranted about what I call 'American mannerism,' which is formulaic poetry whose predictably drives me up the wall. There is actually nothing wrong with the formula, what's wrong is that it is used over and over again and taken as the standard of what tanka should be. With the exception of Sanford Goldstein's entry, the winners in the 2006 Tanka Society of American Contest are all examples of this. Good examples, but mannered all the same. It's like watching a dog and pony show that only has one dog and it only knows one trick. It was clever the first time, but by the forty-seventh time the audience is filled with a desire to shoot the dog.

I have become a great admirer of Sanford Goldstein's poetry. His 1992 book, At the Hut of the Small Mind, can be read online at: He has published five books of tanka, the first in 1977, the most recent in 2005. Over all these years his work is decidedly unmannered, direct, fresh, original, and honest. Influenced by Takonobu who said that tanka should be a record of the poet's emotional life, Goldstein's work is profoundly human. He stretches in all directions, attempting things that few poets try. Often he succeeds, sometimes he doesn't. But he never settles for what's easy.

I struck up a conversation with him when he submitted poetry to the anthology Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart, which I am editing. It was a heady moment, me, the unknown upstart, editing the Grand Old Man of Tanka! After an initial difference of opinion, we found we shared many views on tanka and editing and he very kindly sent me four of his books as a gift all the way from Japan. I admire his largeness of spirit that enables him to encompass all subjects; even eccentric me.

I have also been participating in the Tanka Roundtable. I seem to have talked myself into another scholarly article; Denis M. Garrison has been compiling bibliographic information. Being the kind of person who doesn't just surf the net, I spelunk it, I have been sending him quite a bit of bibliography for the bibliographies. I have set myself the goal of getting my hands on all the pre-1990 tanka ever published, the explosion of tanka after 1990 is a rather large task. But anyhow, I was in a position to contribute some historical information. Getting curious, I decided to organize the tanka in English bibliographic information into chronological order to see what could be seen.

Tanka Books in English (omits journals and websites)

pre-1915 0
1915-19 3
1920-24 1
1920-29 1
1930-34 0
1935-39 0
1940-44 1
1945-49 0
1950-54 0
1955-59 2
1960-64 1
1965-69 0
1970-74 3
1975-79 3
1980-84 2
1985-89 0
1990-94 11
1995-99 44
2000-04 59
2005-09 36 -- as of August 2006

Some very interesting trends emerged, prior to 1970, tanka was dominated by Japanese Americans, but in the 1970s and 1980s a transition occurred in which more Westerners started writing tanka. Then, as the figures show, tanka took off in the 1990s, and is going full tilt in the 21st century. Denis has asked for a full article about the history of tanka for the Spring issue of Modern English Tanka. Naturally, I said yes.

All this during a time of hardship. I don't make much money, and things have happened this summer to make things even harder. I'm surviving, but I fell into some gloomy moods. I was feeling quite gloomy today when a certain young man wrote me a challenge: he dared me to played at homoerotic linked verse with him. How could I refuse a request that began with 'Hi there handsome...' But the resulting poems are private for the time being. Suffice to say, some of this poet's work will be appearing in Fire Pearls .

August is off to a decent start poetically, already 36 poems written. I am not feeling the suppleness of June, but I'm doing better than July. In June I could sit down and write 50 good tanka in a single sitting. How I envy Sandy Goldstein going to his tanka cafe to write 30 poems and drink coffee to relax! But the man's retired. I'm still obliged to make a living.


Friday, July 07, 2006

Misadventures & Homoerotic Poetry

Two of my friends have passed judgment on the photograph. One says, "You're not as hideous as me," and the other says, "Handsome, in a classical 18th century style." Here I am, hours later, and I still haven't gotten all the wax off my keyboard. The lighting in that photo is candlelight. My actual purpose was to try and photograph the candles in an artistic way, thinking that if it turned out decent, I would use it as the cover for Fire Pearls. It didn't, and I won't.

I also developed a pet peeve: Software that tries to read my mind and fails. Hell, not even my own mother knows what I'm thinking! How could software outsmart my mother? And so I committed the rather embarassing faux pas of sending some homoerotic poetry to a tanka e-list that I meant to send to a different recipient. *BLUSH* Fortunately, I have not figured out how to competently write truly hot tanka, so the poems were relatively tame. As opposed to my imagination which isn't tame at all!

Long, long ago, a wise old leatherman taught me the secret of sexuality. He pointed to his head and said, "If you're not turned on up here," he pointed to his lower head, "It doesn't matter what's going on down here." Amen, brother. The brain is the only sex organ.

Having embarassed myself by posting six homoerotic tanka where others could read, I figured I might as well post them here, too. Better to be hanged as a wolf than a sheep, I always say. A word of warning, although tanka are often autobiographical, not all of these are. Some of them are complete fiction, but all of them half true.

a man
with tangled hair
is a rare thing, but
that is because
I am a rare lover

After we make love,
I spend the night staring
at the mountain of his shoulder
and the darkness of his skin,
hating his wife.

Male colors...
yellow and brown,
legs and arms entwined,
and the rumble of his sleep
through the winter’s night.

I show him how much
I love and desire him --
then he goes home to her.
I want to hammer nails
through both of them.

He answers, “Hello?”
and I nearly drop the phone
at the sexy sound of his baritone.
Would it be so wrong
to seduce my friend’s husband?

Sneak up dancer,
deer toes around your ankles,
hairpipes around your throat,
copper skin flashing,
you dance the Red Road.

NB. 'Sneak Up Dance,' one of the oldest traditional Native American dances.

An admirable man, the captain,
able, honorable, and reliable --
handsome, too,
although that doesn’t matter
to the wind.

I'm also exceptionally bored this evening, which is something you will rarely hear me admit. In my opinion, bored people are boring people. I really don't see how anyone with a brain could ever be bored. Nothing to do? Use your head! Therefore, in my search for socialization and amusement, I decided to update my profile and go blog reading. Now I have a new pet peeve: People who create blogs, post once, and disappear. Collateral peeve: Blog software that claims a person has made 'recent' posts to their blog when they haven't posted since 2004. Exactly what is blogspot's definition of 'recent?'

I also noticed that people look at my profile, but they don't post comments. This must mean I have either overawed them with my brilliance, or they decided cleaning the catbox was more fun. Talk to me, people! It's a blog! Use the comment feature!

Just don't spam me with ads for porn, diploma mills, stock of questionable merits, Viagra, cures for hair loss, or any other junk. My imagination is sexier than your porn, I already have my diploma, I'm too damned poor to buy stock, I don't need Viagra, I have a full head of hair, and I have a lifetime supply of junk. In short, whatever you're selling, I don't need it.


I hate having my picture taken, but people keep asking me if I have a picture, so here it is. I know zilch about photography so I couldn't figure out how to upload it to my profile.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Modern English Tanka

Modern English Tanka , the new print and web journal from Denis M. Garrison, has posted my article, '11 Good Kyoka: Experiments in English.' I am curious to see the reactions. In addition, the MET has also published 18 of my tanka and kyoka, which is very gratifying.

Here are just two of the poems from that selection. If you want to read them all, follow the link to the MET.

the dowager houses
stand primly in their ragged porches
looking embarrassed
as ladies do
in such circumstances

~M. Kei

'Dowager houses' was written on a trip to Port Deposit, Maryland. I've shown the poem to some people around here and who know the town and they recognized the truthfulness of the picture. The phrase 'dowager house' really does describe these grand old dames fallen on hard times.

Give me the heart
of an old chief
and I’ll make it
young again,
dancing on the Red Road.

~M. Kei

'Give me the heart of an old chief' was written while remembering when I learned how to do Sneak Up Dance from an extremely fine sneak up dancer. It was a hot afternoon at the Assateague powwow and hardly anybody was around, just me and the headman dancer. He called for a sneak up dance and I had to admit that I had never done it. He looked at me and said, "You're dressed right," and, "Just follow along with me." (I was dressed as a men's traditional dancer, as usual. No fancydancing for these creaky old bones!) There was a boy there who was nervous because it was his first time dancing in the arena, and so, with the wisdom born of thirty seconds greater knowledge than his, assured him, "Just follow the headman dancer and do what he does." And then a Dog Soldier arrived, and admitted he didn't know how to do a sneak up dance, either. Feeling quite the experienced old man at this point, I assured him as well, "Just do what Charlie does."

With that inauspicious beginning, the drum began to play. The basic step is the same: it's the Indian Two Step which is the foundation of most traditional dancese. It varies with bending low as the hunter pantomimes cutting for sign, then short runs as he pursues his quarry, then upright dancing as he lifts his dance staff to Heaven and whoops his thanks to Creator above for success. Usually every dancer does his own thing, acting out his personal story, and in competitions, are judged individually. We all follow Charlie, and swiftly a rapport grew amongst us. Charlie was our chieftain and we his hunting party, following his leadership, fanning out to search the ground, but working together. The synergy was incredible.

And suddenly... old men who had been sluggish in the heat and humidity suddenly popped upright and leaped into the arena to follow Charlie Running Eagle. At least a dozen of us formed his hunting party, each doing his own part as part of the larger whole. The veil of time parted and we were dancing with all the Native men of the past and future who have ever followed or ever would follow the hunting trail.

And so this poem about dancing the hearts of old chiefs, it is a song about the goodness of the Red Road -- the road of tradition and righteousness. It runs from north to south, and it brings all good things. The elders say that if a man has a wicked thing in his heart and he dances, the wicked thing cannot stay but is cleaned from his body. Therefore, a man who makes a habit of dancing cannot have any evil in him. A man who refuses to dance is therefore viewed with suspicion. Dancing cures everything that ails a man.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Tanka Tanka Tanka

Great news! Denis M. Garrison, best known as the editor of Haiku Harvest, is taking on more projects. The man can't stay retired, enit? Anyhow, he has established Tanka Central to be a clearinghouse of information about tanka, waka, kyoka, and related forms. Tanka Central has a library, links to tanka resources and organizations, bibliographies, email lists, and more.

At my suggestion, he has also started the Tanka Roundtable email list for the discussion of tanka, its history, present, and future, prosody, and anything else. Not primarily a workshop list, its for scholars as well as poets.

He has also changed his plans for 3x5 Poetry Review and decided to concentrate entirely on tanka, and has renamed his new journal Modern English Tanka. My article '11 Good Kyoka' will be appearing in the initial issue, which will be out in July. He is also accepting submissions of 1 - 40 (yes, FORTY) tanka and related forms, and will published up to 40 poems by one poet in the journal. He believes in giving the poet space to present his voice, vision, and variety. Modern English Tanka will have both online and print versions.

This is very good news for tanka poets. Best of luck to Denis!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Tanka Reading List

The number of books and magazines currently in print that contain tanka are rather small in number. However, they can often be obtained used through,, and other sources. As far as I know, there are no books or magazines that carry kyoka as more than a passing reference or occassional poem. The closest is The Tanka Anthology which regards kyoka as being 'humorous tanka,' and includes some tanka written 'in the kyoka style.'

Recommended Tanka Reading

  • Brower, Robert H., and Earl Miner. Japanese Court Poetry. Stanford University Press, 1961.

  • Carter, Steven D., editor and translator. Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

  • Carter, Steven D., editor and translator. Just Living: Poems & Prose by the Japanese Monk Tonna. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

  • Cranston, Edwin, editor and translator. A Waka Anthology, Volume One: The Gem-Glistening Cup. Stanford: Stanford U P, 1993.

  • Hirshfield, Jane and Mariko Aratani, editors and translators. The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

  • Karkow, Kirsty. Water Poems: Haiku, Tanka, and Sijo. Eldersburg, MD: Black Cat Press, 2005.

  • LaFleur, William, editor and translator. Awesome Nightfull: The Life, Times, and Poetry of Saigyo. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003.

  • Lowitz, Leza, et al., editors and translators. A Long Rainy Season: Haiku & Tanka, Vol. I of Contemporary Japanese Women's Poetry. Berkeley, Stone Bridge Press, 1994.

  • Masaoka, Shiki. Songs from a Bamboo Village: Selected Tanka from Take no Sato Uta translated by Sanford Goldstein and Seishi Shinoda.

  • McClintock, Michael. Letters in Time: Sixty Short Poems. South Pasadena, CA: Hermitage West, 2005.

  • McClintock, Michael, Pamela Miller Ness, Jim Kacian, editors. The Tanka Anthology: 800 of the Best Tanka in English by 68 of Its Finest Practioners. Winchester VA: Red Moon Press, 2003.

  • Rodgers, Christiana. Twilight Sunrise: A Collection of One Hundred Tankas. Leicester, UK: Upfront Publishing, 2003.

  • Watson, Burton, editor and translator. Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

  • All the above books I own and have read. I have also read some others, such as Ueda's Modern Tanka, Saito's Red Lights, and Ishikawa's Sad Toys , all of which are considered classics of the genre and crop up on other people's reading lists. I find them a snooze. I left them off because this is my list. If you don't like it, go read somebody else's list. You'll notice other listmakers ignore several titles which I consider to be quite excellent. He who writes the list gets to decide what's on it.

    Higginson's Selected Tanka Bibliography

    Tanka Central - an essential resource for tanka poets

    There are some websites out there that make quality tanka available for free in relatively easy to use formats. I recommend:

  • Simply Haiku

  • Haiku Harvest and 3 x 5 Poetry

  • Anglo-Japanese Tanka Society (UK)

  • Full Moon, Literary Magazine

  • These are not all the magazines out there, just as the reading list is not all the books out there. I have a stack of recently acquired books 14 inches high, but I'm still slogging through A Waka Anthology, Vol 1. It's an exhaustive and exhausting work, a major and important work. But it's not a weekend read. It's an important reference for anyone interested in the earliest Japanese poetry. And if you are rich and very kind, you will buy a copy of Vol 2 and send it to me -- see the Wish List at right!

    Saturday, June 10, 2006

    Tanka Poets Announce New Publishing Venture

    9 June 2006

    Tanka Poets Announce New Publishing Venture

    Poets M. Kei, Michael McClintock, and Denis M. Garrison today announced the formation of ~Seamark~, a publishing venture ‘For Poets, by Poets.’ McClintock, well-known in the English-speaking world as one of the foremost tanka poets of the day, is also a co-editor of The Tanka Anthology and President of the Tanka Society of America. Garrison, a poet and the well-known editor of Haiku Harvest and several other poetry journals, recently established a new journal, the 3 x 5 Poetry Review. M. Kei is a young tanka poet and editor who is the Moderator for Kyoka Mad Poems. The new anthology from Seamark is his brainchild. All three poets will continue their established associations and responsibilities as well as taking on the duties of running the new publishing house.

    Seamark’s first project is Fire Pearls: Short Masterpieces of Love and Passion. A call for submissions will be made later this summer. Poets should not submit until the call is made as the editors are very busy finalizing plans for the new anthology. Submissions made before the opening date will not be read.

    For more information, visit the web site at:

    Friday, June 09, 2006

    Submission Policy - Please Read

    Yes, I am an editor as well as a poet. No, I do not accept unsolicited submissions. No, I will not critique your poetry/novel/blog/love life/velvet elvis collection/anything else.

    I am single, but please verify my gender before proposing marriage/sex/dating. I'm bisexual so it doesn't matter to me what gender I am, but it might matter to you. No, sleeping with me will not increase your chance of getting published. If you do propose, please be advised that I find literacy and good bodily hygiene attractive.

    If you wish to bribe your way into getting published, please send books (my wish list is on the right) and chocolate (make sure it's the good stuff). These bribes will in no way increase your chance of getting published, but I will enjoy them.

    When I am open to submissions, it will be posted in the right hand column under 'Links.' Oh look! There's two posted right now! Kyoka Mad Poems and the Chesapeake Bay Saijiki. This means that if you read and follow the directions pertaining to those projects, I will read your submissions and treat you just like everybody else who has had the courtesy to read and follow directions. If your work does not pertain to my projects, is your friend. Try: Directory> Art> Literature> Poetry> Forms> Haiku and Related Forms.

    I believe my responsibility as an editor means giving my energy and attention to the projects to which I am committed. The people participating in those projects have the right to expect the best I can give. I am a volunteer, I do these projects because I love them and I believe in them. Doing them is the equivalent of a second, unpaid job. Actually, in my case, a third job. I have my regular full time work, then my job as a volunteer crewman aboard a historic wooden sailing vessel, and thirdly, my poetry responsibilities.

    I also have the right to have the time and energy to devote to my own creative writing, study, and development. I chose a blog because a blog, by definition, is an informal, unscheduled, personal opinion space that I can use and ignore at will. If I had wanted to meet deadlines and keep quotas I would have founded a journal.

    If you are not serious about your work, but just want to yak because the urge hit you, that is what the 'comment' button at the end of the posts is for.


    This post close-captioned for the humor-impaired.

    Oh c'mon. I write kyoka! Satire is expected! If it's not expected, you need to reread my blog and pay better attention.

    Thursday, June 08, 2006

    Kyoka vs. Tanka - Examples

    Previously I spent a lot of time on 'waka'. Waka are 'tanka', tanka means nothing more than 'short song.' Waka literally means 'Japanese song,' and was originally applied to all forms of poetry written in Japanese, as opposed to Chinese, the other popular language for intellectuels and aristocrats. By the late 19th century waka had become so calcified that it was a living fossil. Masaoka Shiki, fresh from his crusade to reform haiku, launched a reform movement for waka as well. He and other reformers changed the name to 'tanka' to make a complete break with the past. The revitalized genre permitted all kinds of subjects and language that had previously been forbidden. As a consequence, much of what had been kyoka got absorbed into tanka and kyoka died instead of waka/tanka.

    This same liberation has not reached North America. As the article on kyoka made clear, English-language kyoka, especially that produced in North American, is characterized by a restriction of subject, language, mood, and techniques that is almost as stifling as what nearly killed waka. By contrast, tanka published in the United Kingom will address topics such as war and lust, which makes for a broader range. Unfortunately, rumors are floating that Tangled Hair, the noteworthy UK journal, may be closing. Always plagued with an irregular schedule, this would not be a surprise.

    North American tanka enthusiasts do not take kindly to being told their poetry is stilted and boring and insist that tanka in English is a richly diverse field. If that's so, name me three non-white North American tanka poets who aren't Japanese.

    I'll go get a Coke while you think. This may take a while.

    And the answer is.... Aside from me, I have no idea. The non-white tanka poets I can think of are living in India, the Philippines, and the Middle East. They participate in international email forums. On the other hand, many tanka poets do not provide racial or ethnic information in their biographies so for all I know, maybe half of all tankateers are not white. But, at the same time, all the photos I've seen of tanka poets look white. Including mine.

    I'm a light-skinned person of mixed Native American and European descent. My mother had five kids and a husband so white he pratically glowed... My brothers and sisters are all dark-haired, I'm the odd one with light brown hair. Genetics are a crap shoot. I lost.

    I've taken a stab at writing Native American themed tanka. The results are unlikely to be published in any tanka journal anywhere in the world. The following is taken from a Blackfeet Indian legend:

    Severed Leg the Moon
    pursues the sun and humans
    across the sky,
    lurching on the one leg they left her,
    she plots her revenge.
    ~M. Kei

    Nooooo. I don't see that in the next issue of Simply Haiku. Editor-in-chief Robert Wilson is quite clear about publishing 'Japanese poetry in English.' It's his magazine, he can do what he wants with it. That's the editor's right. And Simply Haiku is a fine magazine. I'm glad it exists. But this is definitely not SH material.

    Is the above poem unworthy of the name of 'poem?' That's a matter of taste, but it's certainly a properly formed poem, with strikingly original images, and it engages the attention. Is it tanka? ...... It partakes of natural imagery, 'the moon' is about as mainstream a motif as you can get with tanka. It deals with human emotion; I feel plenty of emotion in the anger of the betrayed and wounded Moon Woman. But it treats of revenge and violence which is taboo in tanka in English. The modern Japanese could write about vengeful woman, but the usual vengeful American woman in tanka is a) rare, and b) usually limits herself to scrawling 'goodbye' in lipstick on a convenient flat surface.

    Let's agree that it isn't tanka. It looks like tanka, but it's way outside the North American ouevre. If it looks like tanka, treats of tanka themes, and violates taboos.... it's KYOKA!

    Let's try another one. I know, cats! Cats are cute, cuddly and furry! They're fun to pet and they're very popular. People love their cats with big gooshy kisses and think they're just so cute and adorable, they just have to be part of the sweet and friendly genre of North American tanka!

    licking his balls,
    the cat
    pays no attention
    to the etiquette debate
    ~M. Kei

    Well... maybe not...

    This is another one of the duties of kyoka: to point out muzzy-headed thinking, unexamined assumptions, and ill-conceived ideas. My cat is completely truthful, humorous, cute, and a satire on social niceties and poetic assumptions. Go, cat, go!

    I started writing kyoka by accident. The earliest one in my journals dates from 2000, which is when I started writing any poetry worth actually writing down. I didn't know it was called 'kyoka', I didn't learn that an entire genre of this stuff existed and that it actually had a name until the spring of 2006. But the urge to parody poets is as old as poetry itself.

    If I sit here
    listening to your poetry
    very much longer
    I will be wrinkled
    like an old woman!
    ~M. Kei

    Exercise caution around amateur poets because listening to bad poetry is proven to shorten life expectancy and may lead to murder-suicide.

    Kyoka doesn't have to be satire though. Outright silliness is also within the genre. The following kyoka was written when I discovered the senryu of Alan Pizzarelli. Pizzarelli is a fine poet and is the first name that will spring to anyone's lips if you whisper the words 'good senryu poet.' I like this stuff. I do. But I just couldn't get past the name... Admit it, you're thinking what I'm thinking! Alan is probably thinking it too, which would explain why he became a senryu poet.

    your name is a deli,
    so I fill my belly
    in Canyon de Chelley
    with your Pizzarelli!
    ~M. Kei

    Don't tell Alan I said this!

    It's never ever going to be published in a tanka magazine. It's juvenile and far from art. And tanka's not supposed to rhyme. Never ever! Fortunately, kyoka accommodates the juvenile, the tasteless, and yes, even rhyme. Kyoka of this nature is the Japanese equivalent of the limerick. Just don't make a habit of it, okay? It'll be our little secret.

    By this point I hope I have convinced you that kyoka provides a kind of escape valve to that allows 'serious tanka poets' let their hair down and have a little fun. We're all human, we think outside the social prescribed norms. But does kyoka have to be funny? I submit that it does not. Satire can be very dark indeed.

    two boiling kettles
    of vultures,
    one black, one turkey,
    and a third of
    oblivious tourists
    ~M. Kei

    I like vultures. They're big handsome birds and we have a lot of them around here. City slickers frequently mistake them for eagles and admire them. They feel cheated when they find out it's an ugly old vulture. The difference between the two is not that great. Eagles pick carrion too. I almost hit a golden eagle one day. I came around the bend of a country road and he was picking carrion. He flew up with wings as big as my windshield. Impressive! But vultures are that big too. So why the prejudice against vultures? Every single vulture poem I've written has been rejected by the people who read it as "yuck! vultures are icky!"

    When poets don't like something because of the content rather than the form or the treatment, it tells us that said subject is taboo. Tanka is often construed as nature poetry, and vultures are part of nature, but vultures are ruled out. They're gross. Episodes like this put the lie to the fantasy that tanka has no barriers. A great many tanka poets and editors cling to this illusion and aren't going to like me saying they're wrong. But that's kyoka's job: smashing the rose colored glasses.

    Fortunately, we can write kyoka about farting, vultures, and George Bush's underwear. There are no limits. Not even the bounds of good taste. Some people might think that's a bad thing, but it's called 'freedom of expression.' If you want to say what you want, you have to let other people say what they want, if you you don't like it. You'd think kyoka would be popular in a democratic society.

    if i had been
    a smaller, prettier child,
    quieter, more obedient,
    and less stubborn,
    would my father have loved me?
    ~M. Kei

    Kyoka don't have to be tasteless or funny. They don't have to be satire. The great virtue of kyoka is that they give voice to what cannot be voiced in tanka as it currently stands in the English langauge.

    I hope kyoka amuse you. I hope they shock you. I hope they hurt you. I hope they open your tanka so that you too will be able to express yourself with all the aching joy of being human.

    Tuesday, June 06, 2006


    Kyoka is typically glossed in English as 'humorous tanka.' This is not precisely the case. It would be more accurate to say that kyoka is 'anti-tanka,' earliest kyoka going back to the medieval period are parodies on famous works of literature. Literary parodies, social satire, and comic, even vulgar, verse are all part of kyoka. Every form of humor, including forms that are not considered 'humor' in English are part of the genre, eg, social protest.

    It's hard for a person who doesn't read Japanese to know anything about kyoka because very little has been translated into English and even fewer have been written. At the time of this writing I know of only one poem that has appeared in print labeled as 'kyoka,' Johanson's kyoka about a black cat named 'insomnia.' It appeared in Moonset, journal 2, issue 1, Spring, 2006. When I queried Johansson about it he told me that he did not submit it as kyoka; it was the editor, an'ya, who labeled it that. Kudos to an'ya for having the courage to do so! Moonset is an inexpensively produced journal but contains quality poetry. A unique facet of the journal is that an'ya provides commentary on each poem and explains why she chose it. While some pooh-pooh this in the belief that they are perfectly capable of reading the poem and understanding it on their own, I welcome it. We need more people talking, thinking and writing about poetry.

    In addition to that one poem, two poems were published in The Tanka Anthology McClintock, Kacian, and Ness, editors, which were labeled 'kyoka style.' McClintock and I have had extensive emailed discussions about kyoka; McClintock sees it as a subset of tanka and doesn't feel any need to separate it out and give it its own label. Ironically, he rejected a poem I submitted to his Tanka Cafe column in Ribbons because it was kyoka, not tanka, and Tanka Cafe is about tanka. As long as we gloss 'kyoka' as nothing but 'humorous tanka' it is possible to see kyoka as a subset of tanka, but once we start writing and labeling things as kyoka which are clearly not tanka, the difference between the two begins to emerge.

    I started the Kyoka Mad Poems email list at Googlegroups (see links to the right) to explore kyoka. I did this because I felt that tanka written in English, as a genre, was suffering severe limitations. Recent events have only served to strengthen my feeling, stay tuned for a rant on that topic somewhere in the near future. But for now, let me simply say that mainstream English-language tanka is extremely mannered stuff.

    The form, which I have dubbed 'American Mannerism,' is very simple: first half: a natural image, second half, an emotional situation. If you're very creative and clever, you can put the emotional situation first and THEN the natural image. Wow! What excitment. (Close-captioned for the sarcasm impaired.) Diction is often stilted and unnatural and suffers from haikuism, which is to say, the inappropriate application of haiku concepts to tanka. Some tankateers go so far as to insist on a pivot or zeugma in the third or fourth line and many consciously imitate the waka of a thousand years ago. I did this myself... and examples are present in this blog to show it. Imitating the masters is an excellent way to learn the form. But once you learn it, MOVE ON. Find your own voice! Quit writing imitation Japanese waka!

    American tanka moved on. Or, to quote Ghostbusters "You forget, I was present an unexplained mass migration of sea sponges!" "Oh c'mon, the sea sponges migrated about a foot!" Now we have American Mannerism, which is medeival Japanese tanka in a coonskin cap, except, not as good. The Japanese may have limited their form, but they didn't limit their imagination. At least, not during the period which the imitaters justly admire. Stagnation set in after Teika.

    So what does this have to do with kyoka? Kyoka provides an alternative to mannered tankaism. Kyoka is anti-tanka. It is parody and satire. It makes fun of stuffy old tanka and offers new subjects and new approaches. It's about as popular among tankateers and haikuists as body odor at a beauty pageant, which means those few souls who are consciously trying it out feel rather self-conscious and are trying to fit it into their concept of the tanka tradition. Kyoka Mad Poems has seen a lot of genteel humor and vulgarities and attempts at 'tanka noir.'

    Nonetheless, humor is under-represented in English-language tanka, and those poets participating in the lists have felt free to experiment with kyoka in a way that they wouldn't with tanka. They enjoy it, too. Freedom and creativity are fun! Even if kyoka never catches on as an English-language genre it will have been worthwhile if it opens tankateers to new ideas, new approaches, and new subjects. The question is: Will anybody publish it? There are precious few venues that publish tanka as it is, and conservatism being what it is, it is to be expected that most won't welcome this new development. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that the new 3 x 5 Poetry Review <> will be a good venue for kyoka. Editor Denis M. Garrison is certainly one of the most open-minded of the Japaniform editors, and is friendly to kyoka -- he will be publishing my upcoming article, "11 Good Kyoka," there. Here's hoping for good buzz from that.

    Tanka readership is a small part of the haiku readership. Tanka is almost always subsumed as an adjunct to haiku, as the footnote to the much more popular genre of haiku. This is sad because as much as I have criticized the current state of tanka, I like the stuff. Even the excessively mannered works are well written, pleasant, and enjoyable poetry. I don't mind reading such stuff, I just hate to see it held up as the standard to which we should all aspire. There are a number of tanka poets who write very good stuff and I'm positive that if somehow their work could be put before a wider audience, a lot of people would become tanka fans. However, that requires more editors to publish more of the stuff, more journals and anthologies to accept it, and more poets to write it. This post is a cattle prod to get things moving in that direction.

    Sedoka - Examples

    Sedoka is an obscure form of Japanese poetry that occassionally occurred the Man'yoshu but was pretty much extinct after that. It occassionally crops up but doesn't warrant more than a really short footnote when it does. Be that as it may, I find myself occassionally writing it. Usually by accident when tanka cannot quite contain all that I want to do.

    Sedoka were composed of two katauta, or half-poems. Each katauta was three lines and complete in itself and could stand alone; they followed a pattern of 5-7-7 syllables. Two of them combined together to make a complete whole, for 5-7-7-5-7-7. As is usual, English does not conform to the Japanese syllable pattern so considerable leeway is given regarding line length. Since few people are writing even fewer sedoka, there are no English-language standards. This makes it rather attractive since whoever writes one gets to do as they please and nobody will argue with them. If sedoka catch on, which seems unlikely, perhaps some consensus will emerge.

    Having written a few myself I have started to develop an opinion of how an English-language sedoka should be written. In particular, I believe that the two halves should be autonomous, but create a gestalt when combined together. If they are not discrete, then it is not a sedoka but a really short choka. (See the previous a post on choka.)

    Here are two examples. The first is an attractive poem, but technically defective as a sedoka; the lower verse does not stand alone.

    the heavy beauty
    of a Mexican saddle
    filled my child’s eye:
    black tapaderos
    mother-of-pearl pommel
    and hand-tooled roses.
    ~M. Kei

    a shallow sky
    leaves my heart
    no room to stand;
    I bow my head
    and carry heaven
    on my back
    ~M. Kei

    In the second poem, the two katauta can be split apart: "a shallow sky / leaves my heart / no room to stand" AND "I bow my head / and carry heaven / on my back". The two katauta are perfectly decent senryu and can stand alone quite comfortably. (Senryu, because the emphasis is on the human element.) However, when placed together, they make up a coherent whole that amplifies each.

    Had the two katauta been written by different poets, the work would be a mondo. Mondo frequently fell into the pattern of a male suitor approaching a woman in the first katauta and the woman's response in the second katauta, but there is no reason why modern mondo should adhere to this convention. On the other hand, renku and other forms of linked verse are highly popular, including haiku sequences, so there is no reason to resurrect mondo; it's already been done under a different name.

    It should be noted that the kataura are NOT haiku -- they predate haiku by at least a thousand years and were often folksongs or even things approaching free verse. Often the last line of the two katauta was the same; in other words, it served as a short refrain in a short folk song. That pattern would look like:

    line one
    line two
    line three
    line four
    line five
    line three

    While repetition was often used in the Man'yoshu which included many folk songs and songs of humble origin, later poets eschewed repetition as simplistic. The poets of the courtly tradition of waka (see previous posts) want to pack as much meaning as possible into their short poems. Redundancy was eliminated.

    Sedoka, with its 38 syllables, offers more room than tanka with 31 and haiku with 17, yet it is an extremely short poem by Western standards. As has been made clear in previous posts, English-language tanka that adhere to the 5-7-5-7-7 form for tanka provide too much information compared to the Japanese tanka; poets who want longer, lusher opportunities in a Japanese form should consider sedoka because a Japanese sedoka carries about the same amount of information as an English-language tanka.

    The lack of calcified rules governing the form also provides an attractive opportunity for experimentation, while those poets who are intent on producing pseudo-Japanese verse in English, can, if they wish, adopt the Japanese convention of short-long-long-short-long-long lines, strictly divided into upper and lower verses.

    Saturday, May 13, 2006

    Waka - Fun Example

    Lest you think that all of the old waka were erudite and lovely paeans of lyricism, I want to share an example by an early courtier named Okimaro. He was an obscure member of the court, living and writing his verses around about the year 700 AD. At the time there was a game of composing poems that included various improbable items; Okimaro was good at it. His poems composed for the game have the natural rhythm of colloquial speech and present the aristocrats at home, letting their hair down. He gives us a picture as life as it was as opposed to the staged formalities of the royal court.

    He was challenged to write a poem about chaps (leather leggings used to protect men while riding horseback), greens, a dining mat, and the beams of a house.

    Sukomo shiki
    Aona nimochiko
    Utsuhari ni
    Mutakbaki kakete
    Yasumu kono kimi
    ~Naga no Okimaro, c 700 AD

    Spread the dining mat--
    Boil the greens and bring them on--
    The lord is waiting,
    Resting with his chaps off and dangling
    Where he hung them from the beam.
    ~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

    Nonetheless, he was a courtier and attended his Sovereign in the palace. Palaces in those days were modest affairs with thatched roofs, but all the same, they were large and elegant places compared to the hovels of ordinary people.

    Oumiya no
    Uchi made kikoyu
    Abiki su to
    Ago totonouru
    Ama no yobikoe
    ~Naga no Okimaro

    Here in the palace,
    Even here there comes the sound:
    Shouts of the seafolk
    Keeping the netmen in rhythm
    ~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

    This is not pastorialism, that would come later when the court became truly wealthy and lived separate enough from the ordinary folk to view them through a hazy ignorance that allowed room for Romantic fantasy. Okimaro's Sovereign lived in a palace close enough to see and hear fisherfolk at work, Okimaro was human enough to enjoy the sound and sight for what it was without any hint of condescension. This is a far cry from The Tale of Genji, written three centuries later, where Prince Genji, depicted as a compassionate man, is not entirely certain that the common folk are even human.

    Hachisuha wa
    Kaku koso aru mono
    Okimaro ga
    Ie ni aru mono wa
    Umo no ha ni arashi
    ~Naga no Okimaro

    Lotus leaves--
    So this is the way they look~
    What Okimaro
    Has at home turns out to be
    Nothing but leaves of taro!
    ~trans. Edwin A. Cranston, A Waka Anthology, Volume 1: The Gem-Glistening Cup, 1993

    The lotus is a beautiful flower, the taro is a homely vegetable. Okimaro is not talking about horticulture! I wonder if his wife hit him with a frying pan when she heard this one?

    Later such down to earth and humorous poems would be dropped from the canon of courtly poetry, but they could not be supressed. The humor would simply come out in a new genre: kyoka.

    Waka Example - modern

    There are various groups that admire the classical poetry of the imperial anthologies; they are trying to maintain those virtues in their own modern English-language poetry. Unfortunately, they tend to have rather narrow ideas about exactly what the courtly poetry was, resulting in an even more restrictive genre than the already limited genre of waka. I think it is entirely possible to maintain the lyricism and good taste of the courtly genre while expanding its subject matter and techniques.

    For example, the classic 5-7-5-7-7 form does not have to be -- and should not be -- maintained in English. The Japanese language is polysyllabic, therefore the number of words in a waka is much smaller than an English-language poem and the content is therefore more compressed. Waka have a haiku-like succinctness that permits more ambiguity than the carefully spelled out English verses of 5-7-5-7-7. Simply put, 31 English syllables say too much and are not a true analogue to the Japanese originals.

    Items such as punctuation and capitalization are also non-essential -- Japanese has neither. Punctuation is through verbal markers, such as 'kana' (a verbal exclamation mark), and other particles. When it is realized that Japanese punctuation uses up some of the syllables of the waka, then it must be understood that the actual content of a waka is even smaller than generally realized.

    in winter
    the pale sun and moon
    share the day sky
    leaving my heart
    darker than ever
    ~M. Kei

    The above poem is classically formed: an observation of nature comprises the upper verse and an emotional expression the lower verse. The two meld together to give a lyric description of a personal place-time. The number of syllables is 3-5-4-4-5 -- irregular and shorter than the traditional form. While some modern waka poets will accept non-standard lines, they still look for a pattern of short-long-short-long-long, which this poem does not meet. Yet to me, the counting of syllables is not nearly as important as the structure of the ideas and images. The poem is classical in its content, not its trivial details. Because it is shorter than the usual 'classic' English waka, it is closer to the Japanese originals in the amount of information it carries. When read aloud, it reads smoothly and could easily be chanted.

    This latter point is one frequently overlooked by English language poets. The word 'waka' means 'Japanese song.' Waka were meant to be chanted or sung aloud and this is still an important part of the modern aesthetic. When the Emperor and Empress of Japan host their New Year's poetry reading party, the selected poems are chanted, not spoken. Western authors, influenced by free verse no doubt, do not give as much attention to rhythm and meter as they should if they intend to write truly 'classical' Japanese waka.

    Waka Example - classical, courtly

    My early poetry was written very much in imitation of the Kokinshu models. Though criticis of the work regard it as deadly artificial, I do not find it so. On the contrary, I found in it a model whereby I could graciously express my own feelings. The poem below may not be great literature, but it sure beats writing depressing angst-ridden diary entries like, "I can't believe he won't even email me, after all I've done for him. You'd think blah blah blah." Given a choice between poetry and somebody's emotional nosebleed, I'll take the poetry. I'm way too old to find anything interesting about angst.

    For a certain man.

    Though I was sure you
    would not be coming, I still
    waited at the door;
    The cicadas' shrill singing
    echoed in my empty heart.
    ~M. Kei

    The above poem illustrates another element of the waka tradition that was also picked up by other genres: The headnote. Headnotes were used in the Man'yoshu as well, but with the brevity of the five lines they provided essential context to help understand the poems. During the time of the Kokinshu -- and most of Japanese history -- exchanging poetry was a proper way for people to share their feelings, conduct courtship, enjoy the pleasures of life, express their condolences, etc. Poetry was not a solitary business and the Western image of the tormented poetic laboring in a garret does not apply. The poets of the Japanese courtly tradition were respectable members of society who believed that graciously expressing themselves was an essential requirement for all educated, well-bred people. A view I happen to share, but one which is admittedly not the majority view in North America.

    But look at it from another angle: Hallmark didn't exist. Japanese courtiers couldn't run to the drugstore and grab a card; they had to actually write something of their own to comfort the bereaved, profess their love, or otherwise express their emotional life. They couldn't buy it pre-canned. I started writing poetry to other people for the same reason: I couldn't stand the banality of Hallmark cards.

    Hint for men: If you want to get women, write poems. Keep it short and as long as it's not too awful, your ladylove will be impressed. Trust me. It works. I speak from experience.


    Waka is the most important genre of Japanese poetry. Nowadays it is called 'tanka,' a change in nomenclature that will be explained later. Yes, waka/tanka is even more important than haiku! It's certainly been around longer... more than a thousand years longer. It is also the bulk of the official imperial anthologies compiled over the centuries. In order to understand waka/tanka's longevity is is necessary to explore what it was the early waka poets and editors thought it was and why it mattered.

    In the early 10th century two things happened. One, the Emperor Daigo gave orders in 905 that a collection of Japanese poetry (waka -- 'Japanese songs') be compiled and that it be written with the new kana syllabary. Kana had been evolving over time, but it was given its final form at this time. Prior to this time everything Chinese was the fashion and considered superior to everything Japanese. Nonetheless, there was a strong indigenous poetry tradition already, and Daigo, wanting to elevate the Japanese language and Japanese literature in stature, commanded the compilation of the Collection of Old and New Poetry, the Kokinwakashu, or as it is more usually known, the Kokinshu. The principle editor was Ki no Tsurayuki, a fine poet himself and the author of the first work of poetics in the Japanese language.

    In the Japanese preface to the Kokinshu (there was a Chinese preface too, which is ignored because it has little interest), Lord Ki described the origins of poetry and critiqued several of the most famous poets of the Man'yoshu -- a heresy, given the great prestige of the early work and its principle authors. Ki's full article can be read in English translation at:

    It is worth quoting Ki at length as he defines the nature and purpose of Japanese poetry at this time. Given the immense influence of the Kokinshu right up to the present day, his definition forms an important basis for understanding Japanese poetry. Even those who reject his premises and work differently do so fully cognizant that they are rebels against orthodoxy and thus he continues to influence them even as they reject him.

    "Our native poetry springs from the heart of man as its seed, producing the countless leaves of language. Multitudinous are the affairs of men in this world--what their minds think, what their eyes see, what their ears hear they must find words to express. Listening to the nightingale singing amid the blossoms of spring, or to the murmur of frogs among the marshes in autumn, we know that every living thing plays its part in the mingled music of Nature.

    "Our poetry, with effortless ease, moves heaven and earth, draws sympathy from invisible demons and deities, softens the relations between men and women, and refreshes the heart of the warrior. Its origin goes back to the origins of heaven and earth, but its transmission to our time with regards to sunbright heaven began with the work of Shitateruhime and with regards to the earth, mother of metals, with the work of Susanowo no Mikoto. [The deity Susano-o is credited with being the author of the earliest Japanese poem to be recorded.--Kei]

    "Thus, the heart of man came to find expression in the various modes of speech for its joy in the beauty of flowers, its wonder at the song of birds, its tender welcome of the spring mists, its mournful sympathy with the evanescence of the morning dew. As step by step, from the first movement of the foot, distant journeys are achieved in the course of time, as grain by grain high mountains are piled up from the mere dust at their base until their peaks are lost in the drifting clouds of heaven, so has the verse of our land, little by little, become rich and abundant."

    If you're reading this, you must like poetry, and if you like poetry, how can you fail to be moved by Lord Ki's vision? The appeal is obvious and the 1111 poems of the Kokinshu -- all of them waka -- embody his editorial influence. Ki's admirers regard the Kokinshu as the greatest work of literature Japan has ever produced.

    Unfortunately, the Kokinshu has its flaws as well. By Ki's time only the educated upper classes were able to participate in the literary life of the nation and their poetry reflects their culture, limits, taste, and biases. One of the things that made the Man'yoshu such a remarkable work is that it included poetry by common folk as well as Emperors; the songs of lonely frontier guards posted far from home are just as moving if not more so than the imperial elegies. No such lowly soldiers show up in the Kokinshu. The entire thing is in exquisitely good taste.

    As an anthology it is extremely readable, Lord Ki and his team of editors (he didn't do it alone), arranged the poems by subject matter and with each topic, certain strands of logic and mood weave the poems together. A highly successful anthology, it became the mold for all other imperial anthologies to follow. Alas, the model became a straightjacket.

    While the poems of the Kokinshu are the colloquial speech of the people who wrote them, they are not the colloquial speech of ordinary Japanese, and as time went by and the Japanese language evolved, the Kokinshu became more and more obscure, which required people with specialized education to be able to understand and appreciate, which in turn meant that the audience for Japanese poetry became increasingly rarified, elitist, conservative, and moribund. By the 19th century, it was petrified. A handful of waka families were engaged in making imitation Kokinshu poems that nobody but other waka families (...all six of them...) could understand. This would be the equivalent of scholars of Middle English writing imitation Chaucer stories and having that officially declared 'the one true literature of the United States.'

    Nonetheless, the original works of the Kokinshu were not straightjacketed and obscure, they were lively and tasteful expressions of the people who wrote them, and many of them were extremely good. Translated into modern Japanese, they are still admired, and since poetry is so important to the Japanese people and the Kokinshu is a major work of world literature, a fair number of Japanese people make the effort to grapple with the poems in their original language.

    Waka was my introduction to Japanese literature. I admired their lyricism and suppleness and still do, though I admit that they are, when looked at from a certain angle, rather 'mannered' poems. While this causes many modern readers to reject them, I ask myself, 'what is the purpose of the mannerism?'

    Japan, like all nations, was afflicted with various disasters ranging from floods and hurricanes, earthquakes and fires, to epidemics and wars. The poets and editors of the Kokinshu, fed up with bad news, deliberately turned their back on such unpleasantness and excluded it from their poetry. Nowadays we often hear people lament, "Why is there only bad news on tv? Why don't they ever report the good things?" The mannerism of the Kokinshu is part idealism and part escapism, it is a deliberate rejection of the ugliness and misery of the real world and an attempt to create, at least in literature, a genteel utopia.

    Impressed with the poems of the Kokinshu, I started off writing imitations of the courtly waka.

    How many nights spent
    lamenting with the fireflies
    of Cloud Mountain,
    hoping one will prove to be
    an approaching lantern light?
    ~ M. Kei
    Previously published in the 'Tanka Forum,' Simply Haiku Journal, Summer, 2006.

    'Cloud Mountain' typifies the genre; the natural world is blended with human emotion. Love and nature were two major topics for the genre and continue to be major topics for modern poetry in every country, not just Japan. The poem is divided into the 'upper verse', composed of the first three lines, and a 'lower verse,' composed of the last two, with a pause at the end of the third line. This was an extremely common structure for waka, although others were used.

    Full well do I know
    that this transient pleasure
    is like foam on the sea;
    Yet even so I want it
    to last a thousand years.
    ~ M. Kei
    Previously published in the 'Tanka Forum,' Simply Haiku Journal , Summer, 2006.

    This is also a typical waka, and demonstrates another technique that would become extremely common in the genre: Reference to older, more famous works of literature. In this case, Mansei's boat.

    yo no naka o
    nani ni tatoemu
    kogiinishi fune no
    ato naki ga goto
    ~ Sami Mansei

    Our life in this world--
    to what shall I compare it?
    It is like a boat
    rowing out at break of day,
    leaving not a trace behind.
    ~trans. Steven D. Carter, from Traditional Japanese Poetry , 1991.

    This is one of the most famous poems in all of Japanese literature and justifiably so. It shows how the human and natural worlds can be melded for great subtlety and depth. My verse was directly inspired by it and shows several features typical of such verses. First, it demonstrates that the poet is an educated person: he knows the classics. Second, it is a pretty good poem in and of itself. Third, it is a member of a growing class of derivative works. In this we can see individual excellence sowing the seeds of destruction for the genre. Over the course of 1300 years, how many original reworkings of Mansei's poem can be made? Eventually the subject is exhausted, and if only traditional subjects are permitted, the genre decays. By the late 19th century, waka had nearly aphixiated itself.

    To a Western audience that has not overdosed on Kokinshu imitations, this poem has a certain appeal. I doubt it would go over nearly as well with a Japanese audience sick to death of yet another Mansei rerun.