Saturday, December 29, 2007

Atlas Poetica Deadline

Atlas Poetica : A Journal of Poetry of Place in Modern English Tanka is nearing its deadline. Very little space is left. I have been pleased and impressed by the quality of the submissions and the number of international and indigenous submissions. Atlas Poetica aims to be a true 'atlas' of the tanka world, and we are well on our way to that goal.

Also noteworthy are the number of sequences submitted, some quite lengthy, as well as the use of prose with tanka. I deliberately designed Atlas Poetica with a large format to permit more flexibility in the types of poetry that could be effectively presented, and I'm pleased to see that coming to fruition.

There have been only a handful of submissions that clearly did not read the guidelines, but let me make it clear. We are a tanka journal. We are quite flexible about the tanka form and definition, but we will not publish things that bear no relationship to the tanka form. Your forty line free verse rant about the political situation in the Third World doesn't qualify. Turn it into tanka, which means also turning it into poetry and we'll consider it. Some of the poems we received addressed concerns of indigenous peoples in realistic ways, such as reporting poverty, alcohol abuse, and the effects of international adoption or natural disaster, and we welcome more poems upon these and other themes. Tanka need not be all rosy hued romanticism.

Nevertheless, we did receive many poems that present loving views of particular places and cultures, some in idealized forms and others with more realistic views of a place's merits and faults. There is a place for all such poems in the Atlas Poetica. Rant or paean, as long as they are poetry of place in the tanka form, they are welcome.

What we did not receive much of were sequences that incorporated other forms of verse with the tanka. There were no Wilsonian sequences, in which haiku alternated with tanka, no sequences with envoys or other techniques, and no tanka in alternate formation. We did get a little bit of sedoka, but since it didn't meet other requirements, it was declined. Thus the first issue appears as a very powerful endorsement of traditional English format of five phrases on five lines, but we wish to emphasize that this is an artifact of the submissions that came to us.

We encourage multiple forms, and are happy to consider cinquains and cherita (tanka derivatives) as well as other forms in combination with tanka. We are also willing to consider forms that were not derived from tanka, but which share characteristics of tanka, such as the word sonnet. Tan-renga, linked tanka, and renga are also welcome, where renga is understood to be the old style in which verses of three and two lines (total five) are written by multiple poets, with or without formal schema in the Japanese style.

The reading window for Atlas Poetica 2 will be March 1 to May 31, 2008. Please don't wait to the last minute to submit!

Atlas Poetica 1 is on schedule to be release March 1, 2008. It will be available through our publisher's web site,

For more editorial information about the journal, please visit our blog at

Thank you for your support,


M. Kei

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Further Thoughts on Lineation in Tanka

My article in the current issue of MET (#6), scratches the surface of the subject. I had not yet figured out for myself exactly what I was trying to get at when I wrote it, but went ahead with it on the assumption that if I stuck my neck out, somebody would respond by trying to chop it off, and that this would advance our understanding of the subject. I was right, somebody did, and it has. Here then is the response I made to him:

Japanese doesn't have meter; it does not stress or accent syllables. There is no variation in sound that determines line length, and in fact, spoken Japanese does vary from its written form. What the Japanese count are the kana, the written form. Thus, a word like 'desu' is written with two kana, and is counted as two kana, but is pronounced as 'dess', one mora. That the pronunciation varies from the written form is of little concern to the Japanese.

When dealing with classical waka, we never know what the originals are because old Japanese had many sounds that have disappeared from modern Japanese, and waka are always translated into strictly formal modern Japanese, which eliminates any irregularities. Thus, when we see Saigyo in Japanese romaji, we are seeing a modern Japanese translation of what Saigyo actually wrote. It is very rare -- and quite befuddling -- to confront the romaji inscriptions of classical waka. Translating from classical Japanese to modern Japanese is just as difficult and perhaps more so than translating from Anglo-Saxon to modern English. When we read Beowulf in English, we are not reading what the bard wrote. Yet if we are to confront the bard's word directly, we can make very little sense of it. So in reality, all our supposed adherence to the aesthetics of classical waka is complete poppycock: we are adhering to some translator's notion of what old waka were like. As far as I know, no one has ever made a direct translation from classical Japanese to modern English. Anything passed through a double layer of translation must depart far from the original.

Yet even in the strictest period of waka writing, under Ki no Tsurayuki and his influence, waka might vary by a syllable or two. When I was first writing tanka and adhering to the 5-7-5-7-7 format, I had a good friend from Japan who was a published poet. She constantly nudged me to not worry so much about counting syllables, telling me the Japanese didn't mind if it was off by a bit.

In the more flexible periods, eg, the modern era and the earliest eras, there was/is considerable flexibility. For example; the ancient form appears to have been alternating long and short lines, with lines varying from 3 to 9 syllables. When it was adopted by the courtiers, they seem to have settled on 5 and 7. Such a pattern is now seen as 'inherent' in the Japanese language, but it is long custom that has made it so. And yet, as noted, variation was still permitted.

I speculate that the Japanese settled on 5 and 7 for reasons having to do with Chinese influence, which saw the world made up of as sets of five -- five musical notes in the scale, five elements, five colors, five directions, etc, and natural harmonics, eg, the seven note scale, and so forth. Gagaku, the classical music of the same period as waka, is quite eerie to Western ears. It's based on the five note scale.

What sounded musical to a Japanese courtier of the Heian period will set the Westerner's nerves on end -- if you dislike bagpipe music, then gagaku will cause real suffering! I do not think we can import the Japanese classical musical system to our tanka and win any admirers. The Japanese model simply does not translate, either in syllables, rhythm, or sound.

See A Waka Anthology, Vol 1, for more details on ancient Japanese prosody.

Another thing to keep in mind is that tanka was not the only form, merely the most popular form. All kinds of forms were in used in ancient Japan, and the Japanese kept inventing new ones, like the ko-uta ('little song'). Thus, a thing that did not adhere to the tanka form might appear as a sedoka or ko-uta or Buddha's footstep poem or one of the many other forms. So the tanka poet was not confined to the 5-7-5-7-7 form; if a poem needed to be something else, it could be. Hell, even the acrostic survived in the courtly anthologies. When we fixate on tanka, we are ignoring the context which provided many more options to the Japanese poet than just 5-7-5-7-7.

Alas, we hear next to nothing about other forms. Thus, if I present a six line poem in a tanka context, the great majority of readers are not going to recognize it as a sedoka, they're going to think it's a defective or experimental tanka. If I use four lines, they aren't going to ask if I'm trying to do a Chinese quatrain or a ko-uta, they are going to see it as a radical tanka.
A Japanese reader would have no such problem.

Japanese rhythm is built on phrases, rather than words or lines. Generally speaking, waka have a single phrase per line. Japanese grammar being what it is, particles of various sorts demark groups of words as belonging together. In Japanese, these words are run together with no space between them, and are pronounced without pauses. This is very different from English with space and pauses between each word, no matter how important or unimportant they are. Thus a Japanese auditor can easily tell where the line breaks fall -- there is a pauses in the flow of sound. How many syllables are in that flow of sound doesn't matter. They aren't counting. They're registering the pauses between groups of syllables, along with certain grammatical markers, to know when a phrase ends and the next begins. English-language tanka is not built on phrases at all, which is why we can have enjambment and single words on lines, and other things. Our language is simply too different.

I could, if I was to imitate the Japanese rhythm, write tanka by eliminating the spaces between words. Thus the lineation would be completely irrelevant. Consider this:

thewoods thatseemedimpenetrable insummer arehollowin December'swind

Voila. A Japanese tanka in English. Written on one line with the breaks appearing at the ends of phrases. Counting syllables or morae is completely irrelevant; the breaks between phrases are obvious. Thus it becomes clear why the Japanese need not be too exacting when counting syllables. It also becomes clear that the need to take a breath is going to break the poem into 'utterances' if we can use that term to refer to the group of words sung between breaths. In poem of these size, two or three breaths is natural to an ordinary speaker; to utter a poem of this length in one breath or five is out of the ordinary, but perfectly feasible. To manipulate the breathing places is part of the poet's technique.

The above poem's breathing pattern is:

thewoodsthatseemedimpenetrableinsummer arehollowinDecember'swind

Such issues are given no attention by poets in English, except for a few who mention 'one or two breaths.' There is no discussion of the impact that such breaths give to prosody, or how such breaks might be exploited for literary benefit, or how they balance one another, or any such thing. The break at the end of L3 does have the virtue of dividing the poem into two roughly equal halves. Such a break is certainly easily accomplished by a singer with no special training. But why limit ourselves to what is simple and obvious?

When you get right down to it; the vast majority of tanka poets and readers working in English -- including most of the well known ones -- haven't a clue what really makes a Japanese tanka work, or what the equivalent is in English. As long as we keep on with our absolutely meaningless rubric of 'five phrases on five lines', we haven't a chance of learning anything about either Japanese tanka or English-language tanka. My article on lineation is primitive, I know, but I operate on the theory that sticking my neck out may provoke discussion, education, and improvement.

I thank you for raising the issue. I had not quite figured out for myself in any conscious way what I was getting at in 'Alternate Lineation,' my thoughts on the matter are much clearer now.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Tanka Bestsellers at

Tanka Bestsellers at is becoming the de facto home of print on demand publishing of tanka. While tanka books continue to be published with small presses and other print on demand services, no publisher makes public the sales figures for their titles. Since each publisher uses his own method for establishing sales ranks (if they do it at all) it is impossible to compare from publisher to publisher.

The following ranks have been culled from the sales ranks, and are based solely on those rankings. Thus the list can capture only those works published through

1) Kei, M., ed. Fire Pearls : Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart.
2) Garrison, Denis M., & Michael McClintock, eds. Modern English Tanka 1.
3) Bacharach, Dave, ed. Ribbons : Tanka Society of America Journal, 3:3.
4) Garrison, Denis M. & Michael McClintock, eds. Landfall : Poetry of Place in Modern English Tanka.
5) Garrison, Denis M. & Michael McClintock, eds. Modern English Tanka 3.
6) Garrison, Denis M. & Michael McClintock, eds. Modern English Tanka 2.
7) Garrison, Denis M. & Michael McClintock, eds. The Five-Hole Flute : Modern English Tanka in Sets and Sequences.
8) Garrison, Denis M. & Michael McClintock, eds. Modern English Tanka 4.
9) Blankenship, Gary. A River Transformed : Wang Wei’s River Wang Poems as Inspiration.
10) Goldstein, Sanford, ed. Sixty Sunflowers : Tanka Society of America Members' Anthology for 2006-2007.
11) Garrison, Denis M. & Michael McClintock, eds. Modern English Tanka 5.
12) Woodward, Jeffrey. In Passing: Selected Poems, 1974-2007.
13) Burns, Roderick. The Salesman's Shoes.
14) McClintock, Michael, & Denis M. Garrison, eds. The Dreaming Room: Tanka in Collage and Montage Sets.
15) Millcock, Allison. pausing for a moment . . . haiga and tanga.
16) Garrison, Denis M. and Michael McClintock, eds. Landfall : Poetry of Place in Modern English Tanka.
17) Garrison, Denis M., ed. Haiku Harvest.
18) Rotella, Alexis. Lip Prints : Tanka Collection 1979 - 2007.
19) Garrison, Denis M., ed. Five Lines Down : A Landmark in English Tanka.
20) Kei, M. Heron Sea : Short Poems of the Chesapeake Bay.

Small press tanka publishers, editors, and poets are loathe to share publication figures. I have been able to obtain only a handful of numbers, and most of those under a pledge of confidentiality. Refusal to share number of units sold makes it extremely difficult to track which works are actually being sold, and presumably, read. Some critics argue that 'sales' differ from 'readership', and that readership is the more important criterion. That is certainly a valid point, but not many publishers are willing or able to give me readership figures, either. And how does one calculate 'readership', anyhow? A useful figure, it is far more slippery than units sold.

Units sold also performs a valuable function: it puts a monetary value on tanka poetry. I suspect that is why so many people are uncomfortable with it. Yet it's an important measure; if tanka is to sustain itself as a legitimate genre it needs financial support. It needs readers who are willing to pay out cold hard cash to support the small presses and self-publishers who are making the effort to publish and promote tanka.

As much as we might like to sit in our ivory tower and declare ourselves above pecuniary motivations, the truth is, poetry must be paid for. It is the readers that decide how it is paid for, and therefore, what kind of poetry gets printed. While the barriers to self-publishing are getting lower all the time, it still requires an investment of time, money, and skills, a combination that describes a minority of tanka poets. The skills referred to here is not literary skills, but practical skills: book design and layout, cover design, publishing software, marketing, sales, legal (copyright and copyleft), and related efforts, such as packaging and mailing. Does tanka belong only to those who can afford the investment?

The ordinary reader, by choosing which books and journals they buy, determine which poets and consequently, what kind of poetry is worth publishing. Or put it this way: how many poets are going to publish a second book if they only sell twenty of their first book?

Yes, the Internet offers the opportunity to publish for free, or nearly free publication, but you can't wrap up the Internet and put it under the tree. You can't write your own personal inscription to a beloved on the Internet's flyleaf. You can't take the Internet with you when you're sitting in a doctor's office, waiting for an appointment. And there is absolutely no guarantee that any given page or poem will still exist on the Internet tomorrow, next week, or next year. And worse yet, read the fine print on many of those Internet hosting sites — you will discover that by posting your material to that site, you have given ownership of copyright to the website, to do with as they will.

Support literature. Buy books. Buy books by poets you like. Take a chance on poets you're not familiar with. Subscribe to journals. This Christmas, when you're trying to figure out what to buy for all the people on your list, why not buy one of them a book of tanka?


M. Kei

Sunday, December 02, 2007

New Email Address for Atlas Poetica

Effective immediately, Atlas Poetica has a new email address for submissions .

Please use this address when submitting to the journal.

The web address remains the same

Thank you.


M. Kei
Editor, Atlas Poetica