Sunday, May 27, 2007

Asking Passage

I submitted a very long tanka sequence (39 verses) to Lynx and they were kind enough to accept it for the Fall, 2007 issue which comes out in October. Most of the verses are tanka, although there are a handful of shorter verses as well. This is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the longest tanka sequences in English to be published in a journal. Sanford Goldstein and Amelia Fielden have each published longer sequences in books.

Goldstein's 'At the Hut of the Small Mind' is probably the longest sequence in English, unless we include sequenced books. This calls into question the difference between a sequence and a book. In Fire Pearls I sequenced the poems so that the nearly 400 poems form a structure; yet perhaps we mean something different when we use the term 'sequence' for tanka. 'At the Hut of the Small Mind' is the narrative of the author's journey to interview a Zen farmer and his experiences there, as such it is tied together by the experience of the farm. Likewise, 'Asking Passage' is a set of verses culled from about 80 that I wrote while making the hike described in the poem itself.

Is a 'sequence' then a coherent set of tanka composed together in time and place and so imparting a unity based on the poet's experience at the time? Or can tanka sequences be assembled later out of tanka that might have originally had nothing to do with one another, but are assembled into a larger sequence? I have created them both ways, although I am more likely to have done the former than the latter. Usually I find myself writing about something that manifests itself in multiple poems; it occurs to me then that I can cull a set of poems out of what I have written that form some kind of sequence.

I am here using 'sequence' in its most general form to imply a set of tanka held together by some kind of structure. While the term 'set' has been proposed as a generic term for tanka in groups, a set might be very arbitrary in nature, encompassing, for example, unrelated poems drawn together in an anthology where they are sorted by author's last name. It is coincidence that brings these poems together. A sequence is, I think, a group of tanka that co-exist because the poet intentionally put them together and thought about which poems to include and what order to put them in. Simple throwing together poems to submit to a journal qualifies as a 'set' but not a 'sequence.'

In this I differ from Sanford Goldstein, the grand old man of tanka himself, who regards a 'sequence' as having a particular kind of structure. That is to say, that the poems build on one another to address some dilemma and result in some sort of change, usually in the poet's viewpoint or experience. While some tanka sequences adhere to that structure ('Asking Passage' certainly does so), I think it runs the danger of imposing narrative. There are many tanka sequences that do not have the classic structure Goldstein describes. He himself has therefore come up with a variety of other terms, such as 'cluster' and 'string' to describe other ways of organizing tanka. To this vocabulary Michael McClintock has added 'montage' and 'collage' which diversify the names for kinds of structures, if not the structures themselves. This has led Denis M. Garrison to speak of tanka in 'sets and sequences'. Implied in this usage is some sort of meaning for 'set' other than 'random luck.' Which then causes us to fall back on the term 'group' as a generic term for groups of tanka with or without structure . . .

Such diversions are of academic interest, but not yet sophisticated enough to offer any help to the reader or critic. So, when I say 'Asking Passage' is a sequence, I mean that it was deliberately assembled as a set by the poet with the deliberate intention that they should be read together.

I'm not so sure that long sequences have a future in English language tanka for the simple reason that they take up a lot of space in a journal. If the journal is hard copy, that is precious space that could have been used for an article or several poets' worth of poetry. Online journals have theoretically unlimited space so could easily post such, but few of them do. Lynx, a journal for linking poets, being notable as showcasing linked poetry, including both solo and multi-author works. Sequences, period, do not get much publication space in English.

Long sequences more than say six poems in length also demand an investment of time and effort from a reader that six random tanka do not. Arguably, part of the appeal of tanka in English is its modularity. That is to say, the reader can pick up and put down tanka at any point he wishes without disrupting anything. There is no compulsion to 'read to the end of the chapter' because there aren't any chapters. Even a book length work of tanka is scarcely longer than a chapter or two in a novel. Even a solid book like Fire Pearls can be polished off in an hour, unless one wishes to linger.

Still, the short attention span of the modern reader is hardly likely to sit and read an entire book or journal cover to cover. No, more likely they are going to cherry pick, reading this to not disrupt this method of reading. Or it has to be compelling enough to elicit the reader's commitment even when the reader was prepared to give only a few minutes to the work. A long sequence runs the risk that it will simply be skipped or skimmed.

All that being said, here are a few excerpts from 'Asking Passage' with the hopes that it will tweak the reader's interest into wanting to read more.

“nothing in haste”
the brambles remind me,
gently, slowly,
ease through
the difficult parts

walking through
tall weeds beside
the highway,
the white bones of
a deer skeleton

a faint perfume
from a tree with
pale flowers,
this too is a thing for which
I have no name

clumps of
yellow blooming weeds
in this field
it is I am who am
useless and unwanted


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