Tanka in Australia 2009
a Eucalypt article
[A paper for the International Tanka Festival, presented at the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan on October 11, 2009]
President, Mr. Shiro Akiba, and officials and members of the Kajin Club, fellow delegates, convenor of the 6th International Tanka Festival, Ms Yuhki Aya
This is an exciting time to be invited to speak in the country in which waka originated 1300 years ago, about how tanka in English
is emerging in Australia. In the last decade, more than ever before, Australian poets are discovering this lyrical poetry genre
and learning to love it. Some have become quite addicted.
Mina-sama, konnichi wa
Watashi wa tada ima shoukai saremashita Ousutoraria no Beverley desu.
Kyou koko ni o-maneki itadakimashite, Kokoro uyori kansha shite orimasu
I thank you for this opportunity to tell you a little about it.
At this early point I would like to acknowledge the support of Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) in Australia who, under their
professional development cultural funding scheme, have awarded a grant to assist me to attend this festival.
The earliest examples of tanka in Australia of which I am aware occurred in the 1970s when Janice Bostok came home from
the United States of America, having met William J Higginson and other luminaries, who supported and enhanced her enthusiasm
for Japanese poetry. At first Janice wrote mainly haiku but later she became more aware of tanka and found this her preferred genre.
She was to publish tanka, for a while, in magazine titled, ‘Hobo’.
In 1997 Patricia Kelsall introduced a magazine known as Yellow Moon which published haiku and tanka. It was also the
first magazine in Australia, to my knowledge, to publish haibun. Yellow Moon also contained various forms of terse verse
including cinquain, and limerick, and often short nature poems. Patricia Kelsall published 8 issues of the magazine before ill
health prevented her from continuing.
In 2000 Patricia asked me to take over publishing and editing Yellow Moon magazine which I did for the next 12 issues
2000-2006. During this time I greatly expanded the content of the magazine. There were 10 regular categories and a competition
for a specific western poetry genres in every issue. These included sonnets, odes and villanelles. Yellow Moon sought
to be a teaching magazine to encourage new writers as well as provide a publishing opportunity and there were at least three
articles in every issue on techniques for writing a particular genre.
For many Australian poets Yellow Moon provided their introduction to tanka. In every issue there were four categories of
Japanese genres. In addition to tanka these were haiku, haibun, and a fourth one that varied between haiku sequences, kasen
summer renga and tanka sequences. These four categories were open internationally while all categories were open to Australian
and New Zealand writers. A primary aim for Yellow Moon was to encourage poets, who were drawn to the magazine because
of the western poetry genres it contained, to explore the Japanese genres in English as well. Many people have told me that
Yellow Moon was the catalyst that drew them to tanka.
Sometimes it is possible to pinpoint the element or event that triggers one’s interest in a particular genre. For me, a mild
interest became a passion when I read ‘The Ink Dark Moon’ the poetry of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu translated by
Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani. The way the voices of these women of the Heian Era still engage us from 1,000 years ago
and a distinctively different culture is a source of delight and the primary reason for my love of tanka.
Another influence was a book launch I attended in Canberra of a collection co-authored and translated by Amelia Fielden
and Hatsue Kawamura at which event I had the great privilege of meeting Kawamura san and her husband.
I have been greatly impressed by Amelia’s efforts over the past several years in translating the works of 8 Japanese
contemporary women poets and making them available to an international English-speaking audience.
I enjoy the international aspects of tanka and the friendships forged this way enrich my life. I have had the pleasure of
meeting Kitakubo Mariko several times now, correspond regularly with Sanford Goldstein, co translator with Seishi Shinoda of
Takaboku’s ‘Romaji diary’, and I write collaborative tanka sequences with people from France, New Zealand and America as
well as in Australia.
Eucalypt: a tanka journal
During the Yellow Moon years I was content to play an overall editorial role. I was on an intense learning curve and
did not consider myself an authority. In the 12 issues I produced there were 21 judges over all the categories
But by the time I decided to conclude Yellow Moon and publish one genre only, my confidence had grown and I wanted
to concentrate on producing the first Australian journal for tanka to the finest editorial standard of which I was capable.
The result was Eucalypt, so named because of the hardiness of these trees, the way they regularly regenerate after fire,
and because the oil they exude gives a mauve haze to the mountains or holds white mist in early morning. Eucalypts come in many
varieties and are found all over Australia. They are not deemed precious or celebrated in the way that
Japanese people celebrate sakura in spring. But they are part of our landscape and to me they say home. When we lived
in England for two years I asked a friend to bring me some eucalyptus leaves so I could crush them in my hand and smell them.
So Eucalypt for me says endurance and longevity. And I hope that Eucalypt, the tanka magazine will have a long life,
well beyond my own. To this end the magazine contains poems only. All discussion and news are in a separate complimentary email
newsletter. I think the poems speak for themselves and I believe this approach gives the magazines longer life. Copies of
Eucalypt are lodged with the National Library of Australia and other leading libraries. Three US university libraries also subscribe.
For each issue I receive around 700-750 poems to consider for publication but select a few over a hundred of for each issue from
what I consider to be the outstanding ones. Poems are sent from up to ten countries, again demonstrating the international appeal
of the tanka genre even when not written in its native language. Editing is a time-consuming task as is the careful arrangement
of the poems. It isn’t a matter of categorising them but more of placing them so that the reader can stay basically in the same
mood while perusing any one page. This technique has been frequently noted in reviews of Eucalypt which may be read on
The current scene
The current scene is heartening although still quite embryonic when compared with numbers from countries with larger populations.
More Australian poets are submitting their work overseas, with marked success.
Tanka activity tends to centre around Sydney, the Central Coast and Canberra in the ACT and also in Adelaide, South Australia. There is a
simple explanation for this. This is where the face to face workshops are occurring. I believe the coming together of people to discuss
tanka and critique each others’ work is vital to a high standard of writing.
The Bowerbird Tanka Group of about 16 poets have for several years now, met at irregular intervals for a full-day session at my home
at Pearl Beach. I almost always work with a co-presenter, usually Amelia Fielden, but on occasion, Julie Thorndyke. The most recent
workshop was co-presented by Kathy Kituai, Amelia Fielden and me.
Spawning from the Bowerbird workshops at Pearl Beach two smaller regular tanka groups have been set up, each of which meet monthly.
One is Tanka Huddle, an enthusiastic group of writers who meet on the first Saturday of the month to workshop each others’ work.
This group is led by Julie Thorndyke, an established tanka poet whose work is receiving favourable attention here and overseas.
Her first tanka collection Rick Rack was published recently by Ginninderra Press. I was asked to launch it and it was very fortunate
that Kitakubo Mariko was able to attend and perform.
The other is the Bottlebrush Tanka Group, led by Jan Foster, which meets monthly, sometimes with a guest presenter. The group
produces a chapbook of members’work.
The Australian Capital Territory [ACT] Writing Centre has been the venue for a series of workshops led by Amelia Fielden over several
years and these have been well received. Recent general poetry readings in Canberra include tanka segments by Michael Thorley and Kathy Kituai.
Dawn Bruce, a widely published poet, has recently concluded a short series of tanka workshops for Harbourside Poets, a well
established group who meet monthly.
From Melbourne University comes news of a lecture on tanka as part of a poetry syllabus, and in South Australia tanka will be
celebrated again this year at the Salisbury Festival.
Some time ago I was invited to give a tanka workshop at the Adelaide Writers Centre. Adelaide’s Friendly Street Poets conducted
their first national competition for tanka earlier this year.
Over the past four years I have given a series of presentations for U3A (University of the 3rd Age) on the Central Coast, which have
been met with interest.
Murrurundi is a small country town in NSW. Recently I was invited to present a tanka workshop there to a group of sixteen, and have been invited to give a follow-up one again next year as well as an address to another group further inland.
Planning the Future
My personal goal regarding the development of tanka in Australia is to continue to produce Eucalypt at the highest standard
of which I am capable and to try to visit as many small groups of poets as I can, particularly in country areas, to share with them
the many delights and possibilities of tanka.