Sunday, August 20, 2006

Poetic Peccadilloes -- I am not amused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


History of Tanka in English

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

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

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


Ships and Poetry

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Haiku and Rust

Someone sent around the following poem and exerpt:

this deserted mountain
the aged farmer
digging wild potatoes

-- Bashô

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Love Tanka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~K~ 2004

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

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

~Sami Mansei

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

~trans. Steven D. Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

~K~ 2005

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

~K~ Jan, 2006

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

~K~ Feb 2006

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

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

~K~ Apr 2006

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

~K~ Jun 2006

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

~K~ Jun 2006

Her going
is a bright loss
from which I
will never

~K~ Jun 2006

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

~K~ Jun 2006

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

~K~ Jul 2006

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

~K~ Aug 2006

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

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Catching Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanka Books in English (omits journals and websites)

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

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

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

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