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A Hundred Gourds 4:1 December 2014

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page 4    

Conversations in Tanka - Amelia Fielden, Jan Foster


reviewed by Susan Constable




book cover


Conversations in Tanka
Amelia Fielden, Jan Foster
Ginninderra Press, P.O. Box 3461, Port Adelaide 5015, Australia (2014)
125 pp, 5½’’ x 8”, perfect bound, limited edition
$15 US + postage from anafielden@gmail.com
ISBN 9781740278744







As Amelia Fielden says in her preface to Conversations in Tanka, “Responsive tanka writing and linked verse composition have a very long and honoured tradition in Japanese literary life.” In English language journals, multiple-versed, collaborative works are published less often than stand-alone tanka, but that’s changing. Looking at Ribbons, the Tanka Society of America’s publication, responsive tanka were not even included until David Rice became the editor in 2012. At that time, only two or three were published per issue. In 2014 that number has grown to seven or eight.

As for a definition of responsive tanka, I find it hard to pin down. The form appears, however, to be the result of two poets’ simple reactions to a word, phrase, or mood as they move from verse to verse. The connections can be quite obvious or, as found in good examples of renku, very subtle. Some poets consider a theme before they begin writing; others simply let it evolve as they write. According to Jan Foster, the responsive form opened up a whole new set of challenges for her. “Considering the thoughts of another person and replying to them, but carrying the conversation into a new direction, brought an added spice to the process of composing tanka.”

Following the preface, Patricia Prime offers an introduction to the book – its layout, themes, and many strengths. One thing I really appreciate about the format that Prime doesn’t mention, is the constancy of font. Responsive tanka generally state each poet’s name (one in regular font, one in italics) below the poem’s title. The font used in each stanza matches that used for the poet’s name. In Conversations in Tanka, Fielden’s poems are always in regular font, Foster’s in italics, rather than adhering to the way the poem may have been published originally. This makes it much easier for readers to identify each poet’s voice.

The first section includes three conversations between the two featured poets, beginning with a 44-tanka sequence ‘Loop Line.’ This is the longest poem in the collection – most having between five to fifteen verses. Some of the links are easy to identify; others are more intuitive – like renku, but without all the rules.

like a stone glimpsed
in the pond’s depth
the memory
of your face
with each passing year

that expression,
those words when we parted,
held no hint
of needing to last forever –
far off, a bird’s forlorn call

Opening with a simile, Foster’s verse adds emphasis to the feelings of loss following a person’s death. Over time, even a very familiar face can become blurry in our memory. Fielden links her verse to the face in the previous one, skillfully turning from facial to verbal expressions. She then shifts away from human relationships to a bird’s call, while retaining the same sense of distance and emotion.

Although I’ve read a number of Fielden’s books, this is the first time I’ve noticed her use of repetition.

words, words, words –
the Southern Cross sparkles
way up high
and a smile lights his face
when I arrive home again


This verse seems particularly effective, not only for its use of a staccato style of repetition, but also for its sound effects. The alliteration of W’s (words, way, when), the assonance of long I’s (high, smile, lights, arrive), and the sibilance – especially in lines one, two, and four – tie the poem together.

With so many tanka poets represented in this collection, it’s difficult to comment on only a few. I am, however, particularly fond of this one by Genie Nakano.

I want so much more
than memories …
touch me now
I am here, shoulders aching
under a misty dove sky



as well as this one by Jan Foster, much later in the book, but also concerning the sense of touch.

that first touch
soft as a dream
the promise
from looming thunderheads
of drought-breaking rain



The section titled Tanka Chains provides a stimulating challenge for Amari Konno and Amelia Fielden. Each tanka was originally published bilingually in English and Japanese – surely making the exercise even more difficult.

rays
of the summer moon
illuminate
a hidden dream
in the depth of my heart

heart to heart
we lie these cool nights
so many years
since we ran together
along deep-leafed trails

The last word in every tanka becomes the first word in the next one. Konno’s verse follows a tanka ending in the word ‘rays’, Fielden’s begins with ‘heart’ (matching the last word in the preceding verse), and Konno’s response to it will begin with the word ‘trails.’ The form provides a challenge for writers, yet is far less restrictive than rengay.

Foster’s tanka continue to appear in italics when she’s in conversation with six other poets, as in this excerpt from the sequence ‘Tides’ written with Anne Benjamin.

waves
crash and surge –
her first bikini
all polka dots
and goose bumps

your breath
ebbs on a sigh
silence
filled with echoes
of questions left unasked

I particularly enjoy Benjamin’s humour followed by Foster’s more serious response. Linking the two together are the one-syllable words in each of the opening two lines, yet the mood changes with the vocabulary and subject matter in the final three lines of each stanza – a delightful pairing! Conversations in Tanka concludes with tan renga and rengay by Foster, Marilyn Humbert, and Michael Dylan Welch. In two of the tan renga, there’s a verse for each season. This one by Welch and Fielden moves effectively from a literal seedpod serving as a rattle in the hands of a child, to the metaphorical straws which are unable to save a drowning adult.

fading light –
a seed pod rattles
in the baby’s hand

    clutching at straws
    I repeat his words to myself

Suffice it to say that anyone who enjoys tanka should find something appealing in this collection, with verses by other tanka poets including Owen Bullock, Margaret L. Grace, Keitha Keyes, and Giselle Maya. There’s not only quality in the writing, but also a pleasing variety in form and voice. Find a copy and enjoy!

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