Monday, December 21, 2009

Going to Sea

I haven't written here lately. I've been swamped with work, recovering from surgery, moving house, and various literary projects. However, I've made a big decision: I'm quitting my job at Wal-mart and going to be a substitute teacher while I look for permanent work. That will give me my weekends and evenings back, which I plan to use to volunteer with the tall ship, Kalmar Nyckel.

I have been accepted as a volunteer and tentatively accepted for sail training. Assuming I can afford it, I'll be taking the summer off to crew on the Kalmar Nyckel. I'm very excited and looking forward to it, I can tell you that!

Meanwhile, January will be devoted to finishing Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Modern English Tanka (5) with the kind help of Alex von Vaupel's technical assistance. It will appear in March. I will also be finishing Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka, Vol. 2, which will appear in print in April.

I have also decided to put the Pirates of the Narrow Seas novels into print via a self-publishing POD arrangement; I need cover art, but otherwise PoNS 1 is mostly laid out.

In short, I'm going to be very busy in a good way. The downside is that I won't have much money, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices to do the things you want to do. The choice is between being poor and happy and poor and unhappy, so the decision is pretty simple. Since Wal-mart has changed its insurance to be so bad, the difference between having insurance and not having insurance isn't that great. It will only matter in the event of a catastrophe. Here's hoping for no catastrophes, eh?

I am also looking for a laptop or tablet computer that I can do serious writing on, access the Internet, do email while aboard the ship. It needs long battery life and to be rugged enough to survive conditions at sea -- saltwater humidity is notoriously bad for electronics. Preferably a Mac (looking forward to seeing what the new Mac tablet looks like). We stick to the coast so a cell phone link as opposed to a satellite link is probably sufficient, although I might look into the satellite cost for the summer only.

Looking back on my sailing career, I have only crewed on wooden boats. I have been a passenger on a few other vessels, but I'm probably one of the last people in the world that learned to sail on a wooden workboat. The Kalmar Nyckel sail training program is well-regarded, and graduates of the program work on a variety of other tall ships. With a little luck, perhaps I will be able to change my career to tall ship sailor. If so, I will be able to make a living writing poetry and sailing old wooden vessels. Wouldn't that be a dream come true?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pirates of the Narrow Seas Wins Sweet Revolution Award

The Sweet Revolution Award is for same sex romances published on, the archive for the original draft of Pirates of the Narrow Seas. PoNS 1 was nominated and won in the category of 'best full cast' and was a special judge's pick as well.

The complete series is now hosted at Pirates of the Narrow Seas, PoNS 2 : Men of Honor, and PoNS 3 : Iron Men.

Thank you, readers. I'm glad you're enjoying the novels.


Friday, September 18, 2009

How I Decide to Buy a Book

Recently I've been musing over posts on Twitter's #writechat related to blurbs and associated marketing materials, and perusing their blog posts and comments on the same subject. That got me to reflect not just on blurbs, but the whole process of deciding whether or not to buy a book.

The first thing is the type of book. If I go in to buy a nautical adventure, I'm probably not going to come home with a Harlequin romance. On the other hand, if Harlequin ever published a romance with a picture of a sailing ship on the cover, I would stop dead in my tracks to check it out. I would probably buy it just to see what Harlequin has done with my beloved ships :)

This brings us to covers. A good cover represents the book and gives the reader some inkling as to what's inside and how its treated. If the cover features a naked male torso and a swooning woman, that tells me something. In my case: keep moving, not your kind of book! Don't get me wrong, I like naked male torsos. I like them quite a lot. (We're talking about the aesthetically pleasing male torso, of course; the rest of us can keep our spare tire to ourselves!)

The title matters, too. The title shows if the writer can come up with an original idea, or at least one that isn't hoky and hasn't been done a million times before. This is much harder than you think. First time authors often have amateur titles. There's nothing wrong with being a first time author, but I'll weigh that in my decision-making. I (usually) prefer somebody who is a master of their craft. It can be neat to see a new voice in a familiar field, but again, I want them to be a GOOD voice. There's a reason why most first time authors don't earn out their advance and don't publish a second book.

Sometimes titles are just way too clever or obscure, which indicates that the rest of the book is probably much the same, and I'm not keen on that sort of thing. No, I'm not a follower of whatshisname and his DaVinci Code and other obscure historical thingamubobs, even though I love history. Then again, if it twigs my interest, I might go for it after all.

Next I flip to the back cover and read the synopsis, look at the art, and any blurbs or comments there. I want to know what this book is about, what makes it special. I don't want to be told, "It's a fantastic story with engaging characters" because it damn well ought not be in print if it isn't! I do want to know that it's "Adventure on the high seas when the brave but self-doubting Lt. Horatio Hornblower battles the French."

Okay, now I'm hooked. I like the high seas, and given the cover art, I'm pretty sure we're talking the Napoleonic Wars--classic British naval action--but 'self-doubting?' Here is an imperfect hero, and they are much more interesting than perfect heroes.

If the book has flaps I'll read what's on them, and I'll be particularly interested in the author's bio. If it's the usual academic sort of bio about what university posts they've held, awards they've won, and books they've published, it will put me off. I'm not interested in the Academy. No, I'm much more interested in an author who has actually lived something having to do with what he's about. Alan Villiers actually crewed aboard sailing vessels, so when his book tells that he spent 1938 crewing aboard dhows in the Indian Ocean before writing Sons of Sinbad, that matters!

Academic credentials do matter if they're germane to the subject; if for example, you teach forensic psychology and you're writing a murder mystery, that's going to pique my interest. I'm going to wonder what you know about a well-worn genre that the rest of the writers, who aren't forensic psychologists, don't know. I'm going to assume you're going to show me something new.

I also like a biography that gives me a sense of the personality of the writer. Is this person witty or stuffy? That will probably manifest in his/her prose. Can this person write an engaging biography? If s/he can't retain my interest in a short piece whose subject they know very well, that doesn't augur well for their ability to maintain my interest through 300+ pages.

I open the book and read the front matter and the back matter. If reader comments are included, I skim them. I look to see if the author has written other books and what sort. How many printings has this book had? Was it translated from another language? The more it has been reprinted, the more people have liked the book and bought it. I'm particularly intrigued by books originally published in 'obscure' languages. If the book has made the leap from Romanian to English, there must be something special about it. I also like originality, and I'm pretty sure a Romanian author is going to be approaching the material in a different way.

I also read the dedications--does the author acknowledge those who helped him? That indicates that s/he did the research necessary and has the human consideration to share the glory. Somebody who cares about real human beings probably cares about his characters, too. On the other hand, if the dedication or acknowledgment is pat, hackneyed, and insipid, that makes me fear that maybe the rest of his writing is, too.

I read any notes the author has included. I like it when authors take the trouble to inform the reader about something they think matters. That shows attention to detail and concern for the reader. I may not really care that the author has rearranged the sequences of events in the War of 1812 for the sake of his/her novel, but I'm glad that s/he did it on purpose and not through blundering ignorance. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief to see what they've wrought because they've done me the courtesy of thinking that I'm an educated reader who will notice.

On the other hand, if the author's note is way too long and pedantic...

Next I open the book to a page at random. I don't open to the first page because first pages are often misleading. Some authors--especially modern ones--begin in the middle of some whizbang mysterious action to get you hooked. When I was young that worked on me. Then I discovered that just because you have an exciting beginning doesn't mean you have an exciting middle or a satisfying ending. Way too many modern authors think you have to keep throwing in exciting things to keep the reader's interest. In this cinematic age, maybe you do.

But I like novels in which the characters engage me. I want to know what happens to them--the little stuff, the funny stuff, the odd stuff and the sad stuff, as well as the big stuff. Captain Frederick Marryat's nautical novel Frank Mildmay, Or, the Naval Officer, is a string of trivia and anecdotes--and it works. His hero is present for the Battle of Trafalgar, which action he renders as, "But everybody already knows what happened there, so there's no need to repeat it."

Yes, by god, we do know! The British whipped the French. There were lots of booming cannons and Nelson died. All hail Britannia. It's been done a million times--except that, it hadn't been done a million times when Marryat was writing--he was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. Still, he didn't feel compelled to give us exciting scenes of things blowing up and men dying and so forth. No, he tells us things nobody had talked about: how the frigates--whom we all think of as dashing and heroic--scuttled along behind the lines, fished survivors out of the water and delivered dispatches and tried not to get run over by the big boys. It's singularly unheroic and riveting because it's real.

Marryat is a guy that can make a boy stealing chickens hysterically funny. And he is the same guy that can make a man's death quietly tragic and irrational, without spending lots of fulsome words to paint the horribleness of war. All of this with a personableness that makes you feel like you just sat down next to your best friend from high school.

The passage that made me decide to buy Frank Mildmay was one I opened to at random. Two boys on the ship have captured one of the ship's kittens. They proceed to hold a court martial, put the hood over the kitten's head, use a flute full of flour to imitate the salute gun, and hang the cat. They carry out their mock court martial and execution in full solemnity. They are not cruel or boisterous. They are boys, imitating and practicing what they have seen their elders doing. They are boys learning to become men.

What a chill went up my spine! I flipped back to read the court martial and execution, and then I had to buy the book.

The book is witty, funny, and in places, laugh out loud amusing. Our hero gets into scrape after scrape, experiences a variety of colorful and interesting situations, beds and deceives numerous women, meets remarkable individuals (who are believable people with their good points and their bad), and suffers the often simultaneously tragic and comic consequences of a hormonal young man acting without thinking. The book is a romp.

Yet by the end of it, the reader is not only entertained, but has been convinced of Marryat's underlying thesis: that the traditional way of 'forming character' in the navy has the opposite effect and produces men in whom all decent feeling has been stripped and debased, and it is a rare man who can rise above it. Slowly, the British came to agree, and the naval system evolved into a more humane and decent institution.

And this was the man's first novel!

When I was young I read everything cover to cover. Now that I'm old I don't have the time to spend on books that aren't worth my time. I spend a lot of effort looking at books before deciding which ones I'm going to buy. I get very annoyed when a book doesn't live up to my expectations. (Yes, Dudley Pope, I'm talking to you. Ramage and the Saracens was crap! Rad Marryat and try again.)

I spend a lot of money on books, and I make use of resources to help me find books I want to own. I found Frank Mildmay through a Google booksearch and bought it. (Publishers, please make your books readable and searchable online! I'm not going to buy your book if I can't tell what's in it for me.) I read reviews (when they exist). Even a bad review is not necessarily going to put me off as long as it's a fair review; something that doesn't appeal to somebody else mighty very well appeal to me. Effusive praise or unbounded condemnation doesn't tell me anything about the book. (Book reviewers: your job is not to write free marketing copy for your author friends. Your job is to help the reader figure out which books they want to read.)

But there's a role for readers, too. Especially with the Internet. Don't just be passive consumers of books. Make a comment. Post to your blog. Comment on somebody else's blog. Post a review on Discuss it in your e-list. You can make it as short or long as you like. You make a few casual remarks or a full blown review. All that matters is that you identify something noteworthy about the book and describe it. "It kept me turning pages" doesn't really say anything, "Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger so that I can't wait to find out happens next" is much more descriptive.

You don't even need to use your own name. Create a handle and be brave. Authors want to know what you think and so do other readers. There's so much out their in the world that we can't possibly read it all, so if you have read something that struck you, take a few minutes to say so. That's the best way of all to encourage the writing and publication of the sorts of books you want to read.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

#Gayfiction on Twitter

Hey, if you're a fan of gay fiction, and you're on Twitter, let's use the hashtag #gayfiction to chat. I know there are other gay authors out there, as well as fans of gay fiction, so let's network!


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heart of a Sailor reviewed online

Hyperbole Poetry Magazine online published a short review of Heart of a Sailor by M. Kei at <>.

"you'll find M. Kei's tanka poems to be as full of passion as they are nature and beautiful language" -- read the complete review at the link above.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Heron Sea, Short Poems of the Chesapeake Bay

I have decided to make my first collection, Heron Sea, Short Poems of the Chesapeake Bay, available for free online through You can access it by clicking on the title of this post.

Blurbs for Heron Sea:

“Heron Sea is a rich word-tapestry of the Chesapeake Bay area. M. Kei’s attunement to environment and the life it engenders is remarkable. Here is a sensual experience so lovingly detailed that the reader is left with a sense of being there. Do visit the world of Heron Sea, see/feel for yourself.”

Larry Kimmel, editor of Winfred Press

“M. Kei’s collection, Heron Sea, is a wonderful read on several counts. The poems, primarily tanka and haiku, add up to more than their sum; each is a pleasure to read but all together they comprise a startlingly moving look into the heart of the poet and at the incomparable beauty of the Chesapeake Bay. A Bay dweller, myself, I can attest to the accuracy of M. Kei’s eye and pen. Kei has tapped into the magic of short verse and presented the reader with a collage of amazing depth and insight. Poetry lovers, sailors, everyone in Bay country, and anyone who wants a powerful and beautiful read, should buy this book!”

—Denis M. Garrison, Editor, Modern English Tanka

“M. Kei’s collection is a gem. The personal anthologies of haiku/tanka that I think are best contain a sharp picture of the poet. His is among the best. An authority on Chesapeake Bay, an authority on certain types of boats, an authority on the history of oyster fishing, he is a modern who knows the importance of global-warming and saving the environment. He is never sentimental, and his poems have a special quality of honesty and integrity. The last section on ‘Threnody’ is totally moving. In other words, Kei has written a unique collection whose voice is like that of no one else. I admire it enormously. Kei is coming into his own, and should become one of the best haiku/tanka poets of the decade.”

—Sanford Goldstein, co-translator of Midaregami, Tangled Hair

“In Heron Sea, M. Kei has crafted a poetry of place with lyrical intensity, placing the reader somewhere between the author's heart and the Chesapeake Bay. No cheap sentimentality here—the verse within these pages is filled with hard-earned love, adventure, tragic loss, and wry humor. Kei’s prose Introduction to the book is every bit as moving as the poems that follow. It’s hard not to read this collection without thinking, ever after, that you've been to the Chesapeake Bay area. An impressive achievement.” —Dave Bacharach, tanka poet

I hope you enjoy reading it!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Montserrat Review Honors Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

September 1, 2009 Perryville, MD

Montserrat Review, one of the most prestigious literary journals in America, publishes 'Best Reading' each spring and fall in which the Book Review Editor Grace Cavalieri presents her recommendations for the best reading in a variety of categories.

With the tens of thousand of poetry books published by presses small and large in North America, selecting works to recommend is no easy challenge. Best Reading for Fall 2009 honors Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka in the category of Best Tanka Poetry.

Take Five was edited by a literary team consisting of M. Kei as editor-in-chief, Sanford Goldstein, Pamela A. Babusci, Patricia Prime, Bob Lucky, and Kala Ramesh. They set themselves the goal of reading all tanka published in English during 2008 with the goal of selecting the best to present in an anthology showcasing individual tanka, tanka prose, and tanka sequences. 321 individual poems and 138 poets were honored with publication.

Grace Cavalieri is the host of the 'Poem and Poet' program at the Library of Congress, as well as having published fourteen books of poetry of her own. She has been honored with the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Medal, and many others.

To read the complete recommendations, visit the web page at

For further information about TAK5, visit the publisher's web site at . For interviews, contact M. Kei, editor-in-chief, at Take5Tanka (at) gmail (dot) com.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Saigyo Awards for Tanka 2009

I just received the list of winners from the Saigyo Awards for Tanka for 2009. As usual, the winners are Orientalist. As usual, I have a poem that is an honorable mention.

not the great white whale
but your restless heart
I'll take with me and
bury in the sea


Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Asking Passage

Two years ago I went for a walk in early spring in the abandoned lot outside my window. Although it is much smaller than Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood, it is a place with its own mysteries. I wrote all the tanka poems below on the spot. The sequence was published by Lynx, a journal for linking poets. During the hike, I was struck by how much the Japanese aesthetic of aware (the pathos of transitory beauty) resembles the Western momento mori.

Asking Passage

asking passage

of the briars,

I step deep into

the hollow forest

trash tells me

that other feet have

trod this trail,

but today

I am the first

windchimes —

tall saplings

bare of leaves

sway and rattle

their branches

a moss carpet,

greening before

the trees

acquire new leaves

and close the forest roof

two dark birds

hopping through

the underbrush,

slated-colored, like storms

without names

last year’s

brown weeds

slowly sink beneath

a rising tide

of new green

“nothing in haste”

the brambles remind me,

gently, slowly,

ease through

the difficult parts

Twitter. 4 August 2009.


the blackness of

their heads


the mating season

yellow blooms

of woodland strawberries

darkened for just a moment

by the flicker of

a bird’s passing shadow

woodland hiking —

the youngest shades

of green being born

shining like a mirror:

the end of a discarded

beer can

before the weeds

cover it

try as I might,

these boots

trammel green things;

the crack of sticks

rebukes my heavy ways

stones at the root

of tall trees

covered in moss;

the bones, sinew, and skin

of earth himself

something large

and not human

laid down in these weeds,

made a nest,

and rested a while

looking back,

the trail I have left

is ragged

and wandering,

a stranger to this land

a sunny thicket —


I cannot find my way

in shadows

unless I too am shadow

that trail

through a tunnel

of greenery

wasn’t made for

human beings

an orange stake

labeled “control point”

flagged with

blue and white ribbons

in the middle of the woods

discarded soda cans,

“Moon Mist” flavor

next to the stake

that calls itself

“control point”

again that

barking birdsong

I know so well,

but never have I seen

the one who sings it

walking through

tall weeds beside

the highway,

the white bones of

a deer skeleton

surprisingly human

these vertebrae,

legbones scattered

in all directions

hollow ribs,

empty of marrow,

hollow vertebrae,

empty of will,

all things come to this

no skull nor pelvis,

but an empty soda bottle

where a heart should be,

the bones disturbed

before I ever found them


I take a path

never taken

that can never be

taken again

tall brown weeds,

their toppled stalks

point the path of

the prevailing winds

the remains

of another dead deer —

the stench drives me back

to view gnawed legbones

and a torn pelt

a nest of dead grass

where the doe first lay,

her legbones torn away

and licked clean by

something hungry

those first bones

were so very small —

without the dead doe

I would have never

known the fawn

a bramble rose

snags my sleeve —

a reminder of

this living world

about to bloom

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

I want to go home now —

this forest no longer

gives me passage,

brambles and deadfalls

block my way

thorns grab

my clothes and

hold me back,

but this rock

offers me a place to rest

this cool breeze,

this bed of wild

strawberries in bloom,

bird calls all around . .

perhaps I shouldn’t leave

in these

freshly toppled weeds,

I recognize my own trail

and follow myself back

to whence I came

after the woods,

the bleeding hearts

planted by

a previous tenant

are pleasantly domestic

pungent green air —

the smell of the woods

clings to my shirt

my black boots

still in the shower,

drying off

after hiking

through the woods

'Asking Passage.' Lynx, a journal for linking poets, XXII:3. Gualala, CA:, October, 2007.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Heart of a Sailor -- free PDF

Anyone who would like a free PDF of my latest work, the chapbook, Heart of a Sailor, can email me at kujakupoet at gmail dot com to request a copy. The PDFs can be freely shared, provided they are not altered in any way. (Full details of the shareware license are included with the ebook.)

You can get your free copy with one caveat for me -- you have to come back to the blog and leave a comment about it! That's a pretty low price to obtain a handsome little e-book like this.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Skip a Stone for the Poet of the Chesapeake Bay

The Heart of a Sailor, a tanka chapbook by M. Kei is available through the WCP Toolbar by World Class Poetry. These short online chapbooks are free to read and share using the WCP toolbar. Heart of a Sailor by M. Kei, blends his famous watermen poems with a tinge of homoeroticism as a sailor yearns for love amid the beauty and dangers of work on the water.

The introduction by Allen Taylor, publisher of World Class Poetry:

M. Kei has a distinguished following. His Japanese short forms are as extraordinary in their language as they are in their form. But even more extraordinary than his writing on the sailing life is his living it. A resident of Chesapeake Bay, he is as close to the beaches and the lifestyle that he writes about as a poet can be. A volunteer aboard a skipjack, he has learned firsthand how to catch the spirit of sailing. I suppose experience truly is the best mentor.

A lively voice on Twitter, M. Kei doesn't just post his poems. He engages with his followers on a conversational level as well. He is widely published and edits a tanka journal so he's busy in the literary world, not just a casual observer. These poems prove his worth.

The cover photo was snagged from gterez on Flickr and can be found at The stones and the steps against the backdrop of weeds illustrates the rocky depths of a lonely heart and perfectly compliment M. Kei's final lines: "i don't want / to move heaven / and earth, / just the heart / of a man."

I hope you enjoy these poems from M. Kei as I have. And if you're ever at the beach, skip a stone for the poet of the Chesapeake Bay.

Allen Taylor
aka @WorldClassPoet

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pirates of the Narrow Seas

A little over a year ago I was reading nautical fiction and became annoyed with yet another book in which any reference to a gay character was fleeting and derogatory. This annoyed me, and I decided to write a story for my own amusement featuring a gay hero. It struck me that with the formulaic structure of this most ancient of genres, a gay hero would an an interesting twist. How would a man resolve the conflict between his innermost nature, his honor and sense of duty, and the draconian law that prescribed death if he was true to himself?

I started to write with no idea where I was going. Within six weeks the rough draft was done. I then worked on revising it to clarify and polish it and posted the second draft online at I was also working on a second novel because the events and personalities of the first begged continuation. After that was done, a third novel wrote itself.

While has certain benefits, such as a built in audience and stats counters, the software is awkward and buggy. When I completed the revision, I decided that instead of posting it to Fictionpress and risking technical problems, I would publish it in the much more stable technical platform of a blog. Thus was the NarrowSeas blog born. Its sole purpose is to be a home for the novels, and whatever ancillary material I may post relating to it.

The first volume is posted. Meanwhile I am editing the second novel and scheduling the chapters to be posted August 1. Feel free to link to it, and leave comments!

Happy reading,


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Tanka Round Table Passes the Torch

Denis M. Garrison, founder and moderator of the Tanka Round Table hosted by Googlegroups, has announced that he is stepping down to attend to personal matters. The new Moderator is yours truly, M. Kei. I know you will join me in wishing Denis will and expressing thanks for all that he has done for the tanka community. The Tanka Round Table is a precious resource that brings intelligent and thoughtful poets, critics, and editors together to discuss issues in tanka. Posts are private and can be seen only by members, promoting the frank and vigorous discussion of ideas. The previous incarnation of the Tanka Round Table produced the Recommended Reading List now hosted at the Research Desk of, and other useful material.


Star Poems

Novices have just asked me questions about tanka, such as 'why five'? And why isn't a poem tanka if written on four lines?

The reason for five is because that's the way it is and has been for fourteen hundred years. 'Tanka' is the name we put on that kind of poem. Just like a sonnet has fourteen lines, you can't write something with eight lines and call it a sonnet and expect that most people will agree with you.

Fundamentally five is a very sound choice. Five is both simple and complex. It provides enough elements that they can be arranged in nearly infinite patterns, yet, those patterns are not actually infinite; some of the patterns are more successful than others. This is essential for setting up 'yuugen' or 'mystery and depth' or what we call in English, 'dreaming room.' A tanka is complete in itself as a pebble thrown in a lake, but like the pebble, it creates ever expanding ripples. What is not said is as important in tanka as what is said; it is like photography in which positive space (the text) interacts with the negative space (the unspoken).

This allows/requires a tanka to be multivalent; it has multiple readings that bring various thoughts to mind, all of which complement and expand each other. This is what we call 'controlled ambiguity.' It has been variously described as 'vagueness' or 'haziness,' but these terms do not adequately convey what we mean here. A vague poem is one that can be interpreted in multiple ways, but the artist is not in control of the poem or the interpretations. Yet it differs from Western poetry in which the poet controls the message.

The reader of a tanka is co-equal with the poet in creating meaning from a tanka; but that doesn't mean the reader gets to make an arbitrary reading. It is something like a choreographer and a dancer--the choreographer makes the patterns that the dancer interprets.

The essential article on the topic is Denis M. Garrison's 'Dreaming Room,' in MET 3. Read it here He offers the following poem as an example:

mounted butterfly
hanging under hardened glass
floating over cork
just enough room for your dreams
meadow breeze . . . a sapphire flash

— Denis M. Garrison, Modern English Tanka

Garrison instructs, "Let us do an exercise. Read the poem as a drug addict. Now, read it as a political prisoner. Now, as an abused wife. Now, as a soldier. Now as a concerned ecologist. Etc., etc. ad infinitum."

That is dreaming room. All the possible interpretations differ, but they harmonize with one another. They support and enhance each other. By contrast, uncontrolled ambiguity is often vague and contradictory. It confuses, not enlightens.

Not all tanka achieve a broad range of interpretation; sometimes the dreaming room is narrower and more subtle. That's all right. In fact, a lot of tanka don't leave much dreaming room at all. Many of those are shassei, or 'sketches from life,' but I'll leave them for later.

The five parts of a tanka permit multiple meanings to be set up by the poet. The five parts can be subdivided and arranged in various ways, and the five parts themselves may have even small structures within them. The five parts combine together to form larger parts, and that in turn becomes the whole. With the negative space incorporated in, the possibilities for multiple layers and complex structures becomes apparent.

A haiku in three parts cannot achieve such complexity, but longer poems with their infinite number of lines often lack the rigor enforced by the much shorter tanka form. Because tanka are so short, each word matters. There is no room for redundancy -- redundancy, when present, must be deliberately chosen by the poet as the best technique to make his or her point.

across the valley
- thunder -
the sound
the sound
the sound

--Francis Masat, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Masat uses only five different words: 'across' 'the' valley' 'thunder' and 'sound', yet he manages to convey the immense rolling grandeur of thunder reverberating across the land. More is not necessarily better! St. Exupery's maxim applies here, "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

Note that this does not mean a poem should be as short as possible! It means it should be as short as necessary. You could take the wheels off an airplane, but it would be a bad idea.

Masat's words trigger unspoken associations which expand the poem from its printed words to the mental experience of thunder. Above and beyond the sensations evoked, Masat also manipulates the white space with his formatting. The use of the dashes to set off - thunder - and the staggered indents of 'the sound' help to visually evoke the crack of thunder and its rolling reverberations. Some editors object to 'formatting tricks,' but this is not a 'trick,' it is an attempt to make full use of the allotted space. The spaces and pauses of a poem are just as important as the letters that make up the words.

In Japanese tanka, the calligraphy used to write the poem is an important part of the sensory experience of the poem. Illustrated tanka books were common. This is less so in English; yet clearly we have an urge to manipulate the visual experience of the poem as well as the literary aspect. (Humans like visual art -- see my previous post about rice paddy crop art.) Why should a poet forgo the visual impact of his poem and confine himself to writing only poems flush left against the margin?

Tanka especially must make use of all available resources and the white space of the printed poem is a powerful part of how it achieves its unspoken effect.

this past August,
all at once, the abuse of a decade
condensed into a bullet—
there's a house for sale
in our neighborhood

--Larry Kimmel, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

But I digress. Let us return to the contemplation of five poetic phrases. Kimmel's poem shows us that a 'poetic phrase' can be made up or one or more grammatical phrases. The line breaks cannot be placed anywhere else and have the same effect. Kimmel has constructed his poem perfectly. To alter it is to damage it.

Each line is a 'poetic phrase.' Each poetic phrase is a unit of meaning and prosody that makes a coherent statement of its own which combines with the others to build the poem. The poem also exhibits dreaming room; although the scene is very clear in our minds, the details each person imagines will differ. The poem brings to mind a variety of situations we may have experienced or heard about. Each is unique and the perspectives of the readers will vary, but they are pinned together by the poem. All those different views, if laid together, would build a large and complex mosaic.

The poem does not answer the questions is raises. Who shot whom? Man? Woman? Parent? Child? Did the police come? Did somebody die? Did somebody go to prison? We don't know. We can't know. Moreover, we don't need to know. Good tanka are cliffhangers. They leave us dangling on the precipice. And we like it.

Poems in the Western tradition tell us what to think. They grant closure. They require the reader to be a detective to ferret out the poet's meaning; they are a sort of game in which the goal is to figure out the 'right' interpretation of the poem. In the mid-20th century 'New Criticism' challenged this and asserted that "If it's in the poem, it's in the poem," thus justifying all sorts of interpretations, but this is not the same as dreaming room. Tanka are sufficiently short they resist such deconstruction. Perhaps New Criticism could be effectively applied to longer works such as tanka prose or tanka sequences, but larger works remain a minority of tanka publication.

Which brings us to another point. A tanka is complete. It may deny closure, but it is not unfinished. They are often described as 'fragmentary,' 'unfinished,' and 'incomplete,' but they are not, any more than a pebble is. A pebble may be rough and unpolished, but it is not 'unfinished.' It is what it is. The various poems above illustrate that a tanka is in fact, complete. What they are not is dictatorial. When tanka are described as 'unfinished' what is generally meant is that the reader's participation is required. A lazy reader will be an unsatisfied reader. Likewise, a reader that is trying hard to find the 'right' meaning will be a frustrated reader.

Tanka are best experienced like art: with a contemplative state of mind open to the suggestions of the artist, suggestions which then trigger chains of thought and reaction in the viewer. The best tanka bear repeated viewing. Indeed, they require it. The best tanka, like paintings, continue to reveal things about themselves--about ourselves--over time.

This idea of the tanka as visual image leads us to shassei, or 'sketches from life.' I will skip over how this came into existence in Japan, but read the works of Shiki and learn about his life for elucidation. The dictum that the tanka poet should be faithful to the lived experience is taken to heart by many tanka poets working in English. They present us with images from life. These images are like photographs: they present an image without any explanation. The poet-photographer notices something and records it. Some of these appear extremely banal, and yet, upon closer examination, they reveal that they are the product of a different sort of seeing.

Lucille Nixon, the editor of Sounds from the Unknown, remarked about how she noticed horse mint had tiny lavender flowers at the center--and always had, for thousands of years. She had never noticed it until she had been writing tanka for about two years. Tanka, by focussing on detail, makes us more observant. I am unsure whether it teaches readers to be more observant, but the appeal of these sketches from life is that they bring details into sharp focus that we had not noticed before. Or if noticed, had not seen them in quite that way. Just as Georgia O'Keefe took very small flowers like pansies and blew them up into gigantic canvases that forced us to notice them, so too do tanka.

in the end,
it comes down to
the inadequacy of poets . . .
tiny blue flowers
unnoticed in the grass

--M. Kei, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Many tanka make the mistake of trying to meld an external image with an internal state. This is so common that it has become a cliché of the genre. Many such linkages try too hard. Such connections between the external and internal should flow naturally. Often times such connections are trying to tell the reader how to interpret the poem. The poet should control the message, but not dictate it. When the poet's intention is all too obvious, the poem suffers.

Mother has sent
a photo of her facelift—
behind her an ancient
French cathedral
covered with scaffolding

--George Swede, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Juxaposition is sufficient for Swede to make his point. Yet, exactly what is his point? We can spend quite a bit of time wondering about Swede's opinion of his mother's facelift. After all, cathedrals need their scaffolding to repair them and help them last longer. Maybe he approves of his mother' facelift. Or... maybe he doesn't. The reader will probably have their own instant reaction as to what message to take away from the poem, but if they contemplate it longer, it will open up other possible interpretations and lead us to musings about age, beauty, preservation, health, and so forth.

never learning Italian
because my parents
were discriminated against
now, i listen
to Puccini & weep

--Pamela A. Babusci, from Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka

Highly subjective tanka can be effective--and are extremely popular. Babusci's tanka tells us how to interpret the poem, but it goes beyond that. It is a shassei because it is sketching a moment of life, but the image evokes a train of thought that leads to history, discrimination, opera, and family. Even though the author's message is clear and unambiguous, the tanka itself has dreaming room because of the chain of thoughts it launches.

The best way to learn about tanka is to read good tanka. has links to many reputable journals and websites. publishes tanka by well-known poets and provides lessons helpful to the poet. Take Five : Best Contemporary Tanka is an anthology that lives up to its name. Buy it at

Rice Paddy Crop Art

This beats crop circles all hollow! Using different colors of rice plants, farmers create amazing images in Japan.

The human urge for creativity is evident in every activity -- if only we let it be so.


Tanka Non-Fiction

Because some of you have asked. Here is a listing of non-fiction about tanka that I have written, with pointers on where to read it. Most of it is available free online. Abbreviations are from the 'Tanka Venues' list approved by the Tanka Society of America for use in their publications. Find it at the Research Desk of

Kei, M., '11 Good Kyoka; Experiments in English.' MET 1:1. Autumn, 2006.
—'Alternate Lineation in Tanka.' MET 2:4. Winter, 2007.
—'American Gothic Tanka.' MET 3:3. Spring, 2009.
—'The Art of the Book : The Anthologies of Giselle Maya.' MET 2:4. Winter, 2007.
—'The Autobiography of the World.' [editorial] ATPO 2, Autumn, 2008.
—Bibliography of English-Language Tanka., 2006-2008. ; Tanka Teachers Guide. Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007.
—'Earth as Poetry.' [editorial] ATPO 1. Spring, 2008.
—'A History of Tanka Book Publishing in English.' MET 1:2. Winter, 2006; AJTS. Spring, 2007; [Revised] MET 2:4. Winter, 2007.
—'Introduction.' Jun Fujita, Tanka Pioneer. Denis M. Garrison, ed. Baltimore, MD: Modern English Tanka Press, 2007.
—'The Labyrinth of Tanka.' MET 2:3. Spring, 2008.
—'LILR Index.' LILR, 2007.
—'List of Anthologies Containing Tanka in English by Date.' Baltimore, MD:, 2007.
—'Structure and Autonomy in Tanka Sets and Sequences.' MET 2:1. Autumn, 2007.
—'Tanka and Duende.' MET 1:4. Summer, 2007.
—'Three Qiuestions (Tanka).' Blogging Along Tobacco Road. 5 April 2009.
—'Twitterati, Or Microblogging Tanka Poets.' [editorial] ATPO 4. Autumn, 2009.
—'Two and Three Line Tanka.' MET 2:4. Winter, 2007.
—'You Can't Take a Bus Up a Cliff.' [editorial] ATPO 3. Spring, 2009.

Modern English Tanka journal online:
Atlas Poetica online:

Saturday, July 04, 2009

LGBT Bookshelf

Mel Keegan has launched a new website to promote Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender books. Inspired by the AmazonFAIL campaign in which LGBT books were omitted from's promotional practices, Keegan decided to harness techonology to circumvent traditional booksellers that are seen as less than supportive of LGBT works. The site is the joint creation of participating authors and editors who create pages to link to their own works. As a result, fans of LGBT books can search the Wiki-style website to find things of interest.

Independence Day

On this, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the usual diatribes by left and right have been launched. As for myself, I was raised with a fundamental faith in the Constitution, and it is this adherence that creates my political views. There are those that believe the United States is the best country on earth and that those who don't agree can go back where they came from so that we can bomb them. There are those that believe that the United States is a fundamentally flawed nation due to the myriad shortcomings of the (white, educated, propertied) Founding Fathers who implemented a system little different from the one they had overthrown.

The great truth of this day is the absolute revolution that occurred, and which has been so powerfully manifest in this country and all the countries around the world that it is now accepted as a basic reality, no matter how harsh regimes attempt to suppress it. That revolution was the radical change in thought that perceived human beings as having innate rights, not rights given to them by the grace of a power on high, either God or King. This belief in the dignity and value of the individual has leveled the tyrannies of the world and ensured that wherever petty tyrannies raise themselves up, they cannot long endure. While their regimes might seem interminably long to the living, they are the merest flicker of a page in the book of history.

The system built on the belief in the innate value of the human being was compromised and incomplete as established by our Founding Fathers, yet it contained within itself the seeds of its own improvement. Having once embraced the notion that human beings have rights, it was inevitable that more and more men, and eventually, women, should claim those rights. The liberation of white men of property lead to the enfranchisement of white men without property, which lead to the emancipation of the slaves, the affirmation of civil rights regardless of color, suffrage for women, the notion that people with disabilities ought to be able to participate in society the same as any one else, and most recently, the clamor for equal rights for gay people.

Some of these rights are more firmly established than others; who today expects to be faced with a literacy test at the ballot box? We have reached the point in our society that to even suggest such a thing is a preposterous impossibility, and would be taken as evidence that the proposer was a member of the lunatic fringe even more daffy than Flat Earthers. Other of these rights are poorly implemented: 70% of our adult citizens with disabilities remain without employment, while of those that have jobs, 50% are underemployed, working hours and positions less than their qualifications. Still others have not yet been established in any broad way; while states may grant the right for same sex couples to marry, federal law bars their recognition.

Once upon a time the notion that women should vote was a radical and gross offense that threatened the social order--why, if women could vote, they might want to work outside the home, too! Critics and fearmongers were right, women's rights DO change society. Repressive regimes understand perfectly well that women must be kept ignorant and at home in order to maintain their power; intelligent, educated women are not going to accept a system that dispossesses them, and are therefore a threat to the status quo that maintains their oppressors. It is no accident that women have played a major role in the civil protests in Iran. Why should Iranian women be conservative and support their government?

The real genius of the Founding Fathers was to create a method to harness social evolution constructively, without revolution, riot, and civil war. The notion that human beings ought to have rights was not truly new; democracy (usually limited to men of property) had been tried in a number of societies; the military republics of North Africa (the Barbary States) were fierce meritocracies in which ability raised a man up. The problem in each case was transition. How does the current regime hand over power to the new regime, which it inevitably must, because no politician is immortal? Even if he was, changing conditions would force a regime change sooner or later.

The US Constitution instituted a system which balanced its powers, provided a method to redress grievances, and to amend itself in response to change, while at the same time providing stability that would not be easily buffeted by the usual exigencies and cycles of political life. While it has manifest imperfections, what system in the world performs better? The most successful nations have incorporated its principles, modified in whatever way seems to fit their situation better. Not all attempts to implement representative government have been successful; but these failures do not invalidate the great success of the American Constitution.

Not all successful systems are modeled on the American one--on the surface. But consider even Communist China. Even if we look at the days of Mao when the system was at its most repressive we can find the American Principle at work: that people, not Gods and Kings, have rights. The Communist system is simply a different method to implement the underlying principle. It hasn't been around long enough to judge whether it has the staying power and can provide the necessary longevity, flexibility, and stability to be a truly successful state, but it has been around long enough to show that it works better than say, theocratic tyrannies.

Not all theocratic states are oppressive. Islam as taught by Mohammed was a liberating force that leveled barriers based on color, ethnicity, race, nationality, class, and other factors. All men are 'brothers in Islam' and a Muslim cannot own another Muslim as a slave. Implementation was imperfect; non-Muslims were second class citizens in Islamic states, but the vast majority of the population had greater rights and prosperity than what they had experienced under previous regimes. The Qu'ran, if followed faithfully, curbs excesses and creates improvement. The so-called 'Islamic states' of the modern world are not following the Qu'ran.

Not surprisingly, the energy needed to oppress their own people in 'Islamicist' states impairs economic and intellectual activity, causing them to fall behind the rest of the world. The same thing happened in the American South: slavery impoverished the entire region while enriching a very small elite. Why hire a free man if in the long run it is cheaper to own a slave? Slavery was a brake on the economic and intellectual activity of ordinary free people as well as slaves. Only slavelord prosper in such a system.

The American Principle, that people have innate value and are entitled to rights just because they are human, can be discerned when people are able to earn a wage sufficient for their needs. If people are not entitled to rights, there is no obligation to pay them wages necessary to support a dignified life. The Nazis moved Jews and others into concentration camps and exploited them as slave labor because they were subhuman; they were not entitled to the rights and dignity of human beings. Poverty is the condition of not having enough money to obtain the necessities of life: shelter, food, medical care, education. Thus, where poverty afflicts a large number of people, we can infer that they are considered to be subhuman by the powers that be.

In short, poverty is a CHOSEN condition, those in power CHOOSE to inflict it on those who do not have power. Those who do not have power cannot change it. They can only beg the powerful to change. Giving up power means giving up comfort, and few people are willing to do so. Therefore they have to justify their refusal. The simplest way is to say that they deserve what they have and other people don't. In short, to deny the equality and humanity of those they disadvantage.

Protestations of liberalism, of equality, of justice, of progress, mean nothing at all compared to the facts on the ground. Who has adequate shelter, food, medical care, and education? Who doesn't?

The American Revolution was motivated by economics. 'No taxation without representation' is an economic platform. The Americans were economically disavantaged by a wide variety of taxes and regulations that were intended to channel the profits of economic activity into the British homeland economy, not the colonial economy. Ships wishing to do business with American colonies had to touch at British ports and pay British duties -- no independent business between a British colony and any other country. The homeland had to get her cut. The Stamp Tax -- no business requiring paperwork could be conducted unless the homeland got a fee. Imagine trying to sell your house, but the sale could not go through unless you bought a stamp which accomplished nothing at all except to send your dollars to a faceless bureaucrat in England. There were many such provisions, which is why the opening protests of the American Revolution, such as the Boston Tea Party, were economic in nature.

Money is the counter that tells us who has rights and who doesn't.

There are those who argue that the obscenely rich have 'earned' their money. It is possible that certain noteworthy individuals have done so, but the average rich person has not. The scandals of Wall Street have revealed that a lot of people have made a lot of money by suckering other people. By exploiting people. By treating them as being less than human, not entitled to fair play and adequate information. Democracy does not guarantee equal outcomes, but it does guarantee a certain minimum standard, a standard which has not been met in this country. Only a few European countries can demonstrate the adequate care of all their citizens that affirms the innate worth and dignity of the people. This is called 'socialism' and is fiercely opposed in the United States.

Let's see. Everybody has adequate shelter, food, clothing, medical care, and education, and obtaining good jobs is more dependent upon your personal abilities and education and less dependent on having a rich and powerful family that can afford to send you to a fancy school. If disaster strikes, a safety net sees you through so that you do not go bankrupt.

Isn't this the ideal subsumed in the notion that all people are human beings endowed with certain innate rights? To say it is not is to say that some people deserve to live in poverty and hunger, that some people deserve a better education than others, and that it is only right that people with advantages get better jobs than those that don't.

On this Independence Day let us pledge ourselves to the radical notion that we are all human beings endowed with certain innate right and work for social justice. It's the American thing to do.