Bowerbird Tanka Workshop #9 2013: Report

On Saturday 16th February 2013 Beverley George convened the ninth Bowerbird Tanka Workshop at Pearl Beach. Once more Beverley’s generosity was greatly appreciated by the 20 attendees as she opened her home to us for the day. With the speakers presenting in front of picture windows facing onto the lagoon, the venue was in perfect harmony with the program.

The day began with what has fast become a favourite segment of all who attend. Beverley invites three people to bring a pre-prepared talk on a favourite tanka written by someone the presenter has never met. These positive critiques are rich in their analysis of what makes excellent tanka sing. The presenter shares insights into why a particular poem and poet moves them. In this session there is much to be gained by everyone from these considered appraisals.

Dawn Bruce spoke about the meditative state, and the beauty created in simplicity of word use, in the following tanka by Max Ryan (Eucalypt 7, 2009):

work boots
on the sand . . . he sips
from his thermos lid,
drifts on the endless blue
of a lunch-hour sea

Keitha Keyes then spoke of the simple and concise language, and the effective use of punctuation, in this tanka by Chen-ou Liu (GUSTS 16, 2012):

I used to be . . .
from an immigrant’s mouth
stretches his story –
the pin-drop silence
fills an ESL classroom

Catherine Smith completed the trinity with sharing the beauty and moving language and imagery of this tanka by Claire Everett (twelve moons, 2012):

by the breath of your love
I am no longer sand
scattered to the wind
but the beauty of blown glass

Following this the group shared poems that linger. Everyone present read a tanka that had meaning for them, without commentary. Attendees shared tanka from contemporary poets all the way back to the Heian Court masters. This total immersion in the power of tanka created a serene and receptive mood to launch into the following session where Julie Thorndyke talked about Metaphor and Meaning. This was a brief but tantalizing exploration of the centrality of metaphor in tanka texts both ancient and modern.

With carefully chosen examples, Julie explained the importance of the role of metaphor in crafting excellent tanka. We learned that metaphor is not an add-on poetic device or a frill, but rather an essential element that drives the effectiveness of the poem. In short, metaphor provides the magic in the tanka.

At the end of Julie’s session, and working through her chosen examples, the Bowerbird members gained valuable insights into recognising extrinsic metaphor, intrinsic metaphor, synecdoche and metonymy as poetic devices to bring our tanka to life.

Everyone was then treated with the pleasure of hearing one of the 2012 Blake Poetry Prize short-listed poems read aloud by the author. Carmel Summers read her poem Breathing and then shared the inspiration for how her poem came into being. It was a wonderful reminder that tanka poets also have gifts outside the constraints of five short lines; and that we should not forget to appreciate all forms of poetry as they speak to us. Congratulations to Carmel for being a short-listed entrant in the Blake Poetry Prize – a really wonderful achievement.

David Terelinck followed with a discussion on Social Media: An Impact on Values. David spoke about the shift between traditional print journals and the 21st Century explosion of social media venues for publication. He explored the difficulty now with defining what is considered published and what is not. He mentioned how unmoderated and unedited web sites have the potential to impact upon the value of tanka if there is no editorial oversight to review and control quality. This session prompted some healthy debate and discussion among attendees.

In the last session of the morning Amelia Fielden related her experiences of the Nakaya Ukichiro Museum of Snow and Ice in Japan, and the genesis of the trilingual tanka book Snow Crystal * Star-shaped. The book contains tanka written in Japanese by Konno Mari. They have been translated into English by Amelia Fielden, and then into Latvian by Viktors Kravcenko & Liga Busevica. Amelia shared her interesting experiences at the museum, and the launch, through tanka prose.

Following lunch on the lanai, with views of the lagoon, calling waterbirds, and peach-coloured trumpet flowers, the afternoon session commenced. Everyone was delighted to be in the presence of Judith Beveridge, a well-known Australian poet. Judith’s prizes include the NSW, Victorian and Queensland Prizes for Poetry, the Grace Levin Prize, the Wesley Michel Wright Award and the Josephine Ulrick Prize. She is the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at post graduate level at the University of Sydney. Her new volume of poems will be published in 2013.

Judith spoke on “The Gold in the Ore.” This is the name Robert Frost gave to sound in poetry. In her talk Judith taught everyone how to make the most of the sonic qualities of the human language in creating poetry that sings. In listening to Judith we realised that often sound is the element that tends to be overlooked in modern poetry. It can be sacrificed or given over to imagery.

But this does not have to be the case. As Judith explained, “sound can affect emotion profoundly.” So in order for our poems to have the most impact, we need to be aware of how they sound to the reader. We need to look for the “emotional resonance of sound” in what we write and tap into the personality of sound.

Judith gave those present a toolbox of tips to help with writing all poetry, not just tanka. Some of the areas explored in this fascinating presentation included:

• the power of consonants to add shape and energy to speech
• poetic devices: alliteration, simile, metaphor, language, composition
• types of sounds: smooth, fluid, nasal, plosive, onomatopoeic
• the intellect of the poem as music
• when you start a poem, play with sound as this can be a starting point of great revelation
• examples of poets to read to mine the gold in the ore

As Judith summed up, it is often how it is said that is far more important than what is said.

At the end of the day there was a summation of happenings and news from the tanka groups around the south-east of Australia from Sydney to Canberra and through to Geelong and Adelaide. It was with great sadness at this time we were advised of the death of Merle Connolly. Merle was a founding member of the Bottlebrush Tanka Group in Sydney, and passed away quite suddenly the day before the Bowerbird meeting. She will be greatly missed by her tanka family and writing colleagues.

I will close this report with a favourite tanka by Merle that appeared in Grevillea & Wonga Vine: Australian Tanka of Place (2011):

country town . . .
sheep and cattle
roam the hills
I wind back
my father’s watch

Merle Connolly

© David Terelinck 25/02/2013