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.