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.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pirates of the Narrow Seas

For those of you who have been frustrated by the bug disconnecting Chapter One to Chapter Two, it finally appears fixed. Emailing the host didn't work, but re-uploading the chapter appears to have done the trick. For those of you who are reading it, comments are appreciated!