Poet and Tanka

David Rice, the current Editor of Ribbons (journal of the Tanka Society of America) invited me to write an essay on the “Poet and Tanka” theme that has been featured in the journal for some time, I was honoured to be asked and the following appeared in the most recent issue (summer 2013):

Poet and Tanka

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free

                                                 —Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Michelangelo spoke of being able to see, in a block of marble, a statue, perfect in shape and form as clearly as if it stood before him and by chipping away at the stone that held the “lovely apparition” captive, he could not only unlock it, but reveal it to others as it appeared through his eyes. For me, this is very similar to the art of writing tanka. As poets, we are presented with the soapstone, the heartwood, of a particular moment, emotion or experience and by taking up the tools of our trade we endeavour to chisel away at that raw material in order to create something that will resonate with others. And yet, a tanka is capable of shape-shifting; that liberated life-form, sculpted into being, can be viewed from many angles; very much depends on the way the light falls. A good tanka, set on a dais in the Dreaming Room*, might remain obscure until that a-ha!moment when the dust sheet slips away.

I began writing poetry as a young child. William Blake, W. B. Yeats and Dylan Thomas helped me to make sense of the world. I favoured rhyming Western poetry, but my head was later turned by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. I was familiar with haiku and tanka, but these were not forms I pursued. For a decade or so, during a traumatic period of my life, I didn’t write at all. Shortly before I was wooed by my second husband— and Asian short-form poetry —I took my children to The Lowry at Salford Quays in Greater Manchester. I was astonished by L. S. Lowry’s brooding seascapes and tortured self-portraits. Of course, I was familiar with the artist’s grim industrial landscapes, the scenes of matchstick men that portray a stereotypical view of industrial, working-class life in Northern England, but I was completely ignorant of Lowry’s artistic genius and talent for draughtmanship. I was never a great fan of those crowd scenes and their abstracted, stylized figures, but in retrospect, I have come to see these paintings as Lowry’s tanka; in departing from photo-realistic compositions, Lowry discovered a way of capturing the essence of a scene with a few simple brushstrokes. Not only did he evoke the smell and the din of a particular moment in time, he also highlighted the loneliness inherent to the human condition. He said that all his people were lonely; all were wrapped up in their own private sorrows; “crowds”, he said, “are the most lonely thing of all”.

and so to this

seemingly unpeopled sea:

coral factories

and the industry of gulls . . .

the whale’s spume and siren-song

(unpublished)

Many of my tanka have their roots in nature. This makes sense to me as I believe that we are not merely a part of nature, weare nature. One of the first tanka I wrote was awarded second place in the Lyrical Passion Poetry “Think Tanka” contest, 2010:

unshackled from myself

I am just

a passing thought

in the mind

of the forest

I often find that tanka written “in the field” retain the numinosity of the original experience, months, years later. I am immediately transported to a certain glade, the edge of a stream. In this way, tanka are a means of bookmarking a moment of my life. Shortly after I received the above award, I discovered Michael McClintock’s tanka and was instantly captivated. This one has remained a firm favourite:

one at a time,

I step on stones

and cross the stream—

when I’m across, the stones

go back to what they were doing

—from Meals at Midnight, MET Press, 2008

Therein lies some of the magic of tanka: the fantastic in the seemingly ordinary; the interconnectedness of all that exists. And it is my belief that all that exists lives. In the words of Dr Graham Harvey, Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University and author of Animism: Respecting the Living World (Wakefield Press, 2005):

“. . . many of our closest kin are human, while the closest kin of oaks are oaks, so we talk most easily with humans while rocks talk most easily with other rocks . . .”

—from “The Animist Manifesto”, first published in The Strange Attractor. co.uk

But the rocks and the trees, the hills and streams, will speak to us, if we care to listen. Don’t all children like to imagine that the toys in the nursery come to life when no one is looking? Tanka is the keyhole through which I peep. Blow the dust away and a moment, a memory, an emotion, is thrown into relief:

I rest my mind

with the world

there

in the stillness

of the heron’s raised foot

Notes from the Gean, September 2011

Moreover, I want to know what makes a tanka step out to drink across sun-silvered distance. Who pilots the biplane through the mists of dawn, flushing those elusive words, of softest tread, out into the open?

a flash of white—

wishing I, too

could make

spring’s heart leap,

roe deer in the thicket

Presence, 46, 2012

Writing tanka is meditation; it has become something akin to spiritual practice. It is transformative and many of the tanka I write are about transformation.

by what alchemy

is a memory made?

sunlit dust motes . . .

the cat climbs into the warmth

you left in the chair

red lights, 9:1, January 2013

It is also cathartic. Sometimes a tanka arises from a long-buried hurt, from a watershed moment, or a glint of recollection that I barely knew existed,

wishing I’d savoured

that last mouthful of childhood . . .

moments before

laughing at my reflection

in the bowl of the spoon

A Hundred Gourds, 2:1, 2012

In the sculptor’s hands, hammer and chisel may excise pain. I find few tanka as moving as this by David Terelinck:

I trace the outline

of your mastectomy scar

the raw edge

of making love again

for the first time

—from Casting Shadows, Alexandria, Cedar Press, 2011

Often, a tanka, whether it is destined to be read or not, is my only confidante:

unable

to whisper it in your ear

shell-like

in the depths of night

a tanka hears my sadness

Simply Haiku, Autumn 2011

But tanka is also celebration. It is the summer breeze that awakens the dancer in the Standing Stone. It is the lover’s kiss:

from another world

a hint of patchouli . . .

you’re back

from your dawn meditation

warming your hands in my dream

Gusts, Spring/Summer 2012

I have come a long way since writing my first tanka in 2010. I was fortunate to serve on the editorial team for Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, (Volume 4, 2011), and in December of the same year I was invited by Jeffrey Woodward to become Tanka Prose editor for Haibun Today. On January 1st 2013, I founded Skylarka UK tanka journal for English-language tanka in all its forms.

And so, the day begins with a fresh block of marble. Whether it is an angel, a demon, or a ghost I see, I will begin to carve in the hope I might set him free.

_________________________

* “Dreaming Room” an essay by Denis M. Garrison first published in Modern English Tanka (Spring 2007), and available to read online at: http://www.themetpress.com/dengary/essays/dreamingroom.html

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976)

twelve moons reviewed by Amelia Fielden

twelve moons

by Claire Everett (2012)

 

Reviewed by Amelia Fielden.

Atlas Poetica 14, Spring 2013

 

Here is a collection for the romantics amongst us! The tanka in Claire Everett’s twelve moons collection are beautiful, twenty-first century echoes of the classical Japanese waka of love, longing and loss.

 

My heart and mind are taken back to the world of the Heian era women poets by its very title twelve moons, and then the division of Claire’s book into these chapters: spring; awakening moon; egg moon; lilac moon; summer; corn-tassels moon; mead moon; barley moon; autumn; harvest moon; leafdance moon; whitefrost moon; winter; long nights moon; wolf moon; hunger moon.

 

The world of tenth century waka/tanka was opened to English readers in 1990 with the publication of The Ink Dark Moon, Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Otani.

 

Indeed, one of Claire’s harvest moon tanka directly relates to that wonderful book of translations:

 

cloth-soft edges . . .

whose hands held you before mine?

my heart

a rice-paper sky

for The Ink Dark Moon

 

In twelve moons, we find four pieces which include the word ‘tanka’, another three which sing of poems and the writing of poetry in general, and this one in the autumn moon chapter which references the first great collection of waka/tanka, the eighth century Man’yōshū, the Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves:

 

until, my love

our days have the ink

of autumn

drying in their veins . . .

ten thousand leaves in the sun

 

A characteristic of Japanese collections, also, — even in the modern era — is to include a number of poems about the creative process, and the comfort to be found specifically in reading and composing tanka. It is clearly a comfort which Claire, too, enjoys, in addition to the delights in contemplating the natural world around her. One of my favourite tanka in twelve moons is this:

 

spring’s first iris

I watch her unfold

her blue kimono . . .

the comfort of rituals

in this shaken world

 

There is strong resonance in some of Claire’s tanka with japanese imagery: here we have the unfolding of a kimono; in another poem her heart is likened to a koto (Japanese harp); while the night as a black flower is an enduring makurakotoba (fixed epithet) in traditional Japanese tanka. This is Claire’s ‘black flower’ love poem:

 

scent of breaking light

the shortest day

this night

a black flower

we have pressed between us

 

And, in the long nights moon chapter, decorated with Japanese terms is this charming shasei tanka:

 

from the tip

of the breeze-brushed fir

red sumi-e

a robin’s calligraphy

this roll of kinwashi sky

 

Yes, there are many Japanese connections in twelve moons; but there are also poems which sing of the English countryside and many original metaphors, such as this whole tanka, another of my favourites:

 

miles away

a piece of the stream

is still singing

of the loss

of the heron’s reflection

 

Outstandingly, this is a collection throbbing with universal emotions, expressed in the fresh voice of Claire Everett.

 

It is a life-loving voice, frequently wistful — proportionately there are more which could be classified as ‘poems of longing’ than any other type of tanka in this collection — yet it is a voice which reflects the joys as well as the griefs of ‘everywoman’.

 

Delicate black and white ink nature drawings by Claire’s daughter, Amy, enhance the pages of twelve moons. The lovely fox in the snow cover is also the work of this talented young artist.

 

An introduction by David Terelinck gives an excellent analysis and summation of this book, which I recommend wholeheartedly.

The Reviewer:

Amelia Fielden is an award-winning, internationally published poet and a professional translator. A graduate of the Australian National University, she holds a Master’s degree in Japanese Literature. Amelia has had 6 volumes of original English tanka published, the most recent being Light on Water (2010). In addition, she has collaborated with fellow Australian poet Kathy Kituai, and with Japanese poet Saeko Ogi, to produce 4 collections of responsive tanka, including the bilingual Word Flowers (2011). Amelia has also published 17 books of Japanese poetry in translation.

twelve moons . . .

As you know, I recently published my first collection of 100 tanka, twelve moonsI’d like to thank everyone who has bought a copy and I also wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the wonderful comments and feedback I’ve received. It’s this kind of support that has inspired me to keep writing, submit to journals and come as far as I have today. Thank you all!

You can read more about twelve moons here:

http://twelvemoons.weebly.com/

This is an amazing book. The work is delicate and light as the touch of a feather, but profound at the same time. This is a first work by this author who clearly possesses a remarkable gift for the tanka form. It is extremely reminiscent of the very famous work in the same form, Tangled Hair. It has the same elegant, fragile quality whilst still having a modern sensibility. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Violette Rose-Jones  (Amazon.com Customer Review)

twelve moons is, quite simply, the best tanka collection I have ever bought. I have been an admirer of the poetry of Claire Everett for quite a while, and this eagerly awaited book not only lives up to my expectations, it exceeds them. I very highly recommend  what I believe will come to be viewed as a classic work.

Clive Oseman (Amazon.com Customer Review)

Got mine yesterday! Never really read tanka before so what a nice introduction to the form. Folks were trying to explain it but reading this gem makes more sense. Congrats, it’s wonderful.

Haiku Rue

Our copy was in our welcome home mail… from Createspace when we got home from Seabeck Haiku Gathering! So beautiful and I know my heart will be full of your visions… as always… so beautiful to have it in one place, and in my hands.

Kathabela Wilson

I’ve just received my copy today, Claire – and it’s beautiful and delightful to read. I’m no expert on poetry or Tanka but it touches my heart and colours my emotions…Thank you.

Sara May

Claire, I received my copy of “twelve moons”, your lovely tanka collection. As I was reading, and sighing, my husband asked what pleased me so. I read him this: transformed/by the breath of your love/I am no longer sand/scattered to the wind/but the beauty of blown glass. He let out a long “ooooooooooh” and looked at me with dewy eyes. He said he really gets why I love tanka so, and why I love the work of Claire Everett. I hope many writers will experience this poetry by ordering your book.

Carol Judkins

__________________________________________________________

twelve moons

Having been asked on several occasions when I was going to bring out a collection  . . . I’m pleased to announce that I’ve done just that!

twelve moons spans a year of my life in tanka. David Terelinck kindly wrote the introduction and my daughter Amy has provided the illustrations. I hope you will enjoy it and I thank everyone who has inspired and encouraged me along the way.

You can read more about the collection here:

http://twelvemoons.weebly.com/

Claire

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