Poet and Tanka – Julie Thorndyke


Another poet asked me recently how long I’d been writing tanka, and I was lost for words, because it seems like I’ve been writing these little five line verses for ever. I did remember that my discovery of tanka gelled with the toddler-hood of my daughter, the years following my father’s death and also the process I underwent in allowing myself to know that I was a writer, after many years thinking I was somehow locked out of that magic circle.

I went hunting through my journal collection for dates, the early poems. The answers of course were in Yellow Moon. Like many poets, both in Australia and overseas, I found Yellow Moon a terrific vehicle for learning. I still remember my bewilderment at the unfamiliar names of short Japanese poetry forms the first time Beverley George put an issue of the journal in my hands, sometime in 2003. Don’t worry, she assured me. You’ll soon catch on.

I did catch on, labouring over early drafts of haiku which Beverley corrected and critiqued for me, mostly over email. Some of these haiku can be found in Yellow Moon 16, Summer 2004:

eucalypt forest—
the child’s lifted arms
wanting home

the tilt
of your chin
looking at stars

I didn’t linger with haiku for very long. These days it is a real struggle to think in only three lines. But these early attempts at haiku indicate quite clearly what was to be a major theme in my tanka: my family in the Australian landscape.

I wrote my first tanka in a workshop at the local Fellowship of Australian Writers, one quiet Saturday afternoon, from a first line writing prompt Beverley provided:

I didn’t know rain
could sound so lonely
10 am
and you won’t be home
for three more days

I was hooked.

That first poem was published in the UK in Tangled Hair. I succeeded in getting a tanka placed in Yellow Moon 17, and this one followed in 18 Winter 2005:

as for me, I am
content to live quietly—
as the rain
drips into small puddles
and glints in the sun

It was a personal sort of poem and I nearly didn’t send it. But the acceptance of this poem, that reflects very much the meditative mood of the poet, somehow freed me to be myself in tanka. After that I never looked back.

There is something about the honesty of tanka, the ability to suggest a complete back-story in five lines, and the emotional freedom to say something real, that I find irresistible. No other poetry form provides such a swift journey from image to understanding. The container of the poem provides a discipline to work against, and the struggle to contain the thought in five lines results in a poem that is concise and uncluttered. For a long time I counted syllables on my fingers, but the day came when, scribbling in my journal, I knew that the shape and rhythm of tanka was written on my heart, because I did not need to check the syllable count anymore.

I like the way tanka looks on the page: so much like free verse yet with a subtle envelope shaping the words. I like the clean, direct, un-poetic English that uses everyday words and avoids cliché. I like the unexpected, the real, the sensory. I like the subtle way repetitive sounds and allusions creep unbidden into my tanka and make the words poetry without my knowing it. I like the freedom it gives me to take a leap into the poetic dark.

Eucalypt has been a great joy to read, and I was proud to be one of the Australians in the first issue. Tanka editors everywhere have been most kind and encouraging to me.
I have also been very fortunate to link up with a wonderful, international group of tanka poets who critique poems on a monthly basis by email (I won’t embarrass any of them here.) There is also a growing community of tanka poets in Australia, and I am fortunate to meet monthly with a lively group of them to share poems, learn form each other, and critique our work. Being part of this community of poets has, for me, been one of the most rewarding aspects of tanka writing.

pouring my thoughts
into this tanka mould—
those mud pies
we made together
in rusty cake tins

Toward the end of 2007, I realised I had a large number of tanka, many of them published in journals, some unpublished, that I could gather into a collection. This was a kind of a marker of my development as a tanka poet. As I went through the process of gathering and arranging, I could see how my poems had changed over time. I held back from adding the newest work, which seemed different, less personal perhaps, and ranged into other subject areas, probably reflecting the influence of poets I met in my university courses. Ginninderra Press published my first tanka collection in book form in 2008 under the title rick rack.

In 2009 I completed my studies in the Master of Creative Writing programme at the University of Sydney. I studied poetry as well as prose and gained the confidence to call myself a writer. I think my newer tanka reflect this development as a poet, as my imagination roams into new possibilities and discovers new rooms in my writer’s house. But I do not think I would have arrived at this point of confidence in writing without tanka.

The tanka form has become an integral part of my life.

When I jot down ideas in my notebook they automatically arrive on the page in a tanka shape. Whether they remain in five lines or are padded out into prose depends largely on the task at hand. But one thing is certain: the easy way these five lines can incorporate a thought, or an emotion, that springs effortlessly from the most common everyday image, is a magic I never want to do without.

they continue
to spill sand, these shells
lined up on my desk
…so many words
fall from my heart

© Julie Thorndyke
First published in Ribbons Volume 5 Number 4 Winter 2009 pp 39-41