Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pen a Poem at Bay Weekly

'101 Ways to Have Fun - Summer 2007', the summer supplement to Bay Weekly Magazine has just come out. Bay Weekly is a regional newspaper serving the Chesapeake Bay. Freelance writer Dotty Doherty found my poetry online and asked permission to reprint three tanka from Heron Sea, Short Poems of the Chesapeake Bay in the article 'Pen a Poem'. Of course I was delighted to agree.

Dotty did a lovely job introducting tanka to the readers of the magazine, and I was surprised and gratified to see that 'Pen a Poem' ranked #5 on the list, just after hula hoops and just before watching fireworks. I believe that poetry consists of reporting what is extraordinary about the ordinary, so I was glad to see that Bay Weekly apparently thinks so too.

The entire summer supplement is filled with wonderful ideas, so I hope you'll hop on over and drop them a line to let you know you enjoyed it.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Asking Passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Review: The Salesman's Shoes

The Salesman’s Shoes: Tanka
James Roderick Burns
copyright 2007

Modern English Tanka Press
Baltimore, MD
Price: $13.95 USD.
ISBN 978-0-6151-4396-5
Trade paperback. 96 pages, 6.00" x 9.00", perfect bound.

Review based on galleyproof. Printed edition may vary.

With his first book of tanka James Roderick Burns has established himself the Willy Loman of verse. Adhering to a strict syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7 for his tanka, he has melded the classical Japanese form with the discontent of a civil servant lost somewhere in the grey concrete of modern Britain. Burns’ work is proof that tanka is not all cherry blossoms and tea.

The civil servant
breaking at nine twenty five
stirs discontentment
into papery coffee
like a dollop of fresh cream.

Anyone who has attended work only because they dread being out of work will relate to Burns’ saga of life in the service lane. Yet even though the majority of the poems record the life of a nameless bureaucrat, the book is dedicated to Jack Burns, and is he who is presumably the salesman that gives the book its title.

In the corridor
the elderly salesman’s shoes
wait despondently
like lizards on a creek bed
for some long-vanished polish.

Such poems are typical of Burns’ eye for the oddity of ordinary detail. Such details first caught my attention and made me ask, “Who is this guy?” when I read it in Modern English Tanka.

Along the roofline
between the gaps in new shingles
down the builder’s chute
and out into the chaos
of the rough yard—an orange.

This is the sort of startling event that we can make sense of if we stop to think about it (the roofer dropped his orange while eating lunch, we presume), but the initial impact is a moment of disorientation as if we had accidentally wandered into a Magritte painting. It looks right, but makes no sense. It requires us to pause and verify our grasp of reality before placing the experience safely in the realm of the normal and harmless.

Moods, fluctuations—
sometimes the stack of mailbags
by the post room door
seems like boiled sweets, other times
dogs in a Chinese market.

Burns isn’t talking about the grocer’s pet pooch here. While such dark comparisons might cross anybody’s mind on occasion, they cross Burns’ mind rather frequently. The surrealistic tinge that colors many of his poems is his signature.

Like a white tiger
or a stone fish on the reef
this dread siren song
from the staff restaurant walls—
ships, rippling seas, escape.

The sea is Burns’ escape route: an escape he never quite takes. He cannot quite bring himself to believe that something better might actually be real. It remains a hazy dream.

Look across to Fife—
beyond the shit-studded wharf,
the filthy tugboat
working this stevedore’s world
lies the faint glimmer of kings.

Yet Burns can find a lyric beauty in even the most wretched of experiences.

On the fresh-laid tarmac
by Welch’s Quality Fish
the cottony hand
of an ear infection lifts
and I hear the bus singing.

Burns’ world is not without its more corporeal pleasures, either.

When after an hour
you appear in low-key style
between the butcher’s
and the green neon bar sign
my heart empties like a vault.

Unfortunately, the 5-7-5-7-7 pattern does not always work. There are a number of poems that are simply too long, and other poems where the poet chose a polysyllabic word for the sake of the count when a shorter one would have served just as well. Case in point, the following poem is one line too long:

Remembrance of sins—
blind man at the T-junction
surveying nothing
as I breeze along in dreams
raises his cane forever.

This and other poems show that Burns has not quite mastered his chosen form; material of this nature needs a deft touch or it becomes plodding. There are times when the reader wishes that the poetic persona would rebel against the dreary world he inhabits or else suffer a bit more grandly. Nonetheless, the book did put me in the mood for dystopian bureaucracy, so I went and ordered Brazil.


M. Kei
Chesapeake Bay
15 April 2007

Review: On This Same Star

On This Same Star, selections from the tanka poetry collection WILL
by Mariko Kitakubo
translated by Amelia Fielden
copyright 2006

Kadogawa Gakugei Shuppan Ltd.
5-24-5, Hongo Bunkyo-ku
Tokyo, 113-0033 Japan
ISBN: 4-04-651667-4
$15.00 USD
8” x 5” 190 pps

On This Same Star is a bilingual Japanese/English edition of poems that were originally published (2005) in Japanese in the collection WILL by Mariko Kitakubo. Included in the selection are 263 tanka, out of the 330 tanka that make up the original. Kitakubo is one of the best known and most popular of the Japanese tanka poets working today; her translator Amelia Fielden is well known as both a translator and a tanka poet in her own right.

The works included in On This Same Star are arranged chronologically in sections. As Fielden states in the English introduction to the book, “contemporary tanka are customarily arranged in sections, under headings relating to one or more of the poems within the sections. I use that term, rather than ‘chapter,’ because there is no continuous narrative even within a section—albeit the overarching theme of the poetry here is Kitakubo’s life.”

Not explicitly stated in the introduction, but learned from the translator through private correspondence, the works are not strictly autobiographical. Although many are, some are fictional, or fictionalized. With a poet of Kitakubo’s stature there is no way to tell which are which, but the poems about her mother’s finally illness carry with them the unmistakable truth of authenticity.

ah, there’s nothing
in particular
I want to talk
with Mother about—
and yet, and yet

Having attended my own mother’s death bed, I know exactly what it feels like when there is nothing to be said, but you wish you could think of something to say.

For those readers who are used to modern English-language tanka that is heavily dependent upon nature imagery, Kitakubo’s work will be a challenge. Nature in her poems is frequently present, but treated far differently than the Romantic tradition that is a major topos in Western tanka.

through my hollow body
a breeze blows
gently shaking
my one frail altar
to the gods

the water
in the cistern
remains silent—
from my weary brain
a single bubble floats up

Not only are her images strong, they often feature striking juxtapositions and turns of phrase:

just like lips
storing hatred, then opening—
white lilies
come into bloom

in the hollow
of my palm
aromatic cashews
the shape of foetuses

Both poems are excellent examples of ‘controlled ambiguity.’ The cashew poem is anything but vague, yet it does not yield its meaning to the casual reader. Is the fetus-shaped cashew a metaphor of the beginning of life, as both nuts and fetuses are the seeds from which new beings grow? Or is it a metaphor for death, the cashew an aborted fetus? Or does it mean nothing at all, simply being one of those “things that make you go ‘hm’? “

While Fielden eschews calling the ‘sections’ sequences, they are indeed ‘sequences’, if by that term we mean autonomous tanka joined together by an invisible thread. ‘An Unfinished Letter’ contains the cashew poem mentioned above and is immediately followed by:

my ring finger
once showed that
being bound
and being loved
were one and the same

Each of the poems is a worthy poem by itself, but when juxtaposed with each other, the Labyrinth of the poems grows more complex. Like the Labyrinth of Greece, there are mysteries lurking here, and monsters too. That sets Kitakubo’s work apart from most Western tanka poets today; while many of her poems are beautiful, they are also disturbing and unique.


Review by M. Kei
9 February 2007
Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA

Review: Growing Late

Growing Late
by Tom Clausen
edited by John Barlow
copyright 2007

Snapshot Press
Liverpool, UK
ISBN: 1-903543-13-4
$14.00 USD $17.00 CAN
5 x 7.75 inches, 80 pp, perfect bound

Growing Late is the latest masterwork for Tom Clausen and edited by John Barlow. Winner of the Snapshot Press Contest for tanka, the physical production values are elegant, understated, and classy. The tanka contained within the book are all winners, with each poem displayed one per page on crisp white paper. Growing Late is a highly recommended addition to your tanka collection.

Clausen’s opening poem is the perfect poem to begin the collection:

my wife asks
what it is that I want—
there it is, that question
not even I
can answer

What follows are still more questions, answers, discoveries, and mysteries as the author grows old and feels the lateness of his hour.

all these years
in one house, one job
one town and in me—
too many changes to fathom
as I sweep away autumn leaves

we work briskly
into the momentum of the day
a long list of what to do,
once all there was
was to fall in love

This awareness of the passing of time and of things–and relationships–lost includes a melancholy nostalgia with a tinge of bitterness.

for years I had desire
to purchase things
that reminded me of my childhood
but now, even that
is gone

wondering if this
is what my parents felt
in their own time
seeing a better past
slip ever farther behind

Poem after poem demonstrates the mastery of a highly skilled poet willing to engage the unsentimental realities of his existence.

so much to do
I sit here
doing nothing—
below zero outside and
so much blowing snow

lunar eclipse
it comes to me
what is wrong at home—
something I did
or didn’t do

Each poem has the fluid lines and solid grace of a sculpture. With the same sense of immovable permanence as a block of granite, they document the swiftly fleeting passage of our lives. Clausen is the rare artist that can make stone float. For that reason there is really nothing for a reviewer to say, all that is necessary is to open the book and let the poems spill forth at random, each one saying more about the poet’s skill than any reviewer ever could.


M. Kei
Chesapeake Bay, USA
20 March 2007

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


I've joined del.icio.us, so add me to your network!


Saturday, May 19, 2007

Tanka Venues

Modern English Tanka press has compiled a listing of tanka venues and standardized abbreviations that have been approved by the Tanka Society of America. These abbreviations are intended to simply citation and facilitate scholarship. I have now adopted them in my links, and wil be making a habit of using them in my posts. The link above leads to the list, and can be used to reference any unfamiliar venues.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Heron Sea Reviewed by Lynx

Dave Bacharach wrote a wonderful review of Heron Sea which is posted at Lynx, the online journal for linking poets.

However, as evocative as his three line poems are, it is in his tanka that Kei truly excels. In the wider five line form he is able to focus sharply on image and object, and then expand their meaning outward, with a kind of telescoping effect. This skill is apparent in a poem that recalls his Native American roots, the age-old sustenance the Bay area has provided, and the loss of a personal and collective future:

in a small museum
i stroke my hands over
Native stones,
weights for nets
empty of dreams

These little museums exist all across America-musty, unfrequented, one-room bastions doggedly holding onto a small town's past. On a visit, the poet touches an artifact, triggering a realization that suddenly expands to encompass past, present, and future. Again, the charged last line works both literally and as metaphor: The nets are empty of fish, empty of hope, empty of a viable future, not only for the first people that fished these waters, but, with a reference to environmental devastation, for all of us. It is no accident that in this poem, Kei uses the small "i."

You can read the entirety of the review at the link above.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Lulu Delivers at Last

After seven months, Lulu.com is finally replacing defective books shipped with black ink on the spine during October - November 2006. Several individuals have let me know they received their replacement books, and I also received mine. Hopefully everybody who received the defective books has/will receive them.

One of my reader was quite surprised at what a difference the proper color made -- the gold really does stand out much better than the black. The cover colors -- background, text, image -- were coordinated and the black ink on the spine simply didn't fit. I labored a lot over Fire Pearls and spent a great deal of money to create the best book I could, so I was very unhappy when a Lulu error damaged that.

Hopefully there will be no further problems.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tanka Resources for Educators and Students

Denis M. Garrison, Editor of Modern English Tanka, has been compiling resources for educators and students at the secondary, university, and post-graduate levels. They included recommended reading lists designed with a pedagogic purpose in mind, a copy of my Bibliography of Works Containing Tanka in English with a Creative Commons copyright, and some other resources.

These and various other works will eventually be able in a hardcopy version for a nominal fee. Check out the website for additional details.