Jeffrey Woodward invited me to the world of tanka prose in 2007; it was through a blog he oversaw. That was the year I first began publishing haibun, and at the time I was a neophyte tanka writer. I wasn't skeptical so much as insecure. I was still fumbling with the relationship between prose and haiku. There seemed to be a distinction being made between haibun and tanka prose, but I was hazy on the details. I read a lot and tried to keep my mouth shut.
The first tanka prose piece I wrote, “Strategies,” and one that was eventually published in Modern English Tanka and later included in The Tanka Prose Anthology, was entirely fictional. It grew out of a discussion my wife and I had about what to eat for dinner: a variation on chilequiles made from odds and ends in the fridge. I wrote it under pressure of a sorts. Others on the blog were posting with regularity, and I thought I'd better jump into the fray or quietly bow out. So, I made it up. Pure fiction. And at the time this seemed something that distinguished tanka prose from haibun, which I held to some factual accountability, some autobiographical anchoring. Of course, like in confessional poetry, facts can get in the way of the truth the poet is digging for. The point is, this freedom to make things up, to go fictional, in tanka prose, was liberating, even though it was the result of much ignorance.
I had luck with “Strategies,” a kind of beginner's luck. I did work on it, revised and revised again, but there was no compelling reason to write it. It began with an image of an almost empty refrigerator and a snippet of conversation with my wife. There's nothing wrong with this; much of the poetry I write begins with an image or a sound, a phrase. But haibun and tanka prose are something other than poetry, even something other than prose poetry. What that is still vexes me at times. When I look at the tanka prose and haibun I've written, it's clear to me that the ones that have some merit are the ones that needed to be written. I'm not sure what that need is and what is satisfied by the writing, but certain incidents, images, turns of phrase, surfacing memories and dreams have me scribbling away on paper or pecking at a computer. Usually what follows is days or weeks or months of revising; sometimes what I've written sits and molds a bit. Some of what I've written never gets submitted. A fair bit gets rejected. I tend to rewrite every rejected piece and submit it elsewhere . . . . Sometimes nothing I do can make a piece publishable.
And that brings me to the tanka prose piece below, “Topic Unknown, Amherst, Summer 2008,” which was published the same year as “Strategies.” What I'm about to say is what no writing instructor ever wants to hear: It's more or less a first draft and I did it in about an hour. The only revision was to remove the punctuation from the prose and, at the suggestion of Woodward, who was editing a special tanka prose edition of Santa Fe Poetry Broadsheet, change one verb tense. However, I walked and drove around Amherst for three or four days shaping the piece in my head, after writing the opening tanka the day of the bar mitzvah.
And that's another thing: This is a true story. Of all the tanka prose pieces I've written, this is the one closest to the facts and nothing but the facts. The only thing missing is my wife, who was with my son and me the entire time—at the B&B, at the bar mitzvah, at Emily Dickinson's house. I would have no difficulty using the tanka prose piece as notes for a creative nonfiction essay. But I don't think that would be as interesting, which is one of the reasons I took the punctuation out of the prose. In fact, I wanted to push the prose toward a prose poem, and in my mind it would stand as such if I removed the enveloping tanka. I like it better as a tanka prose piece.
Topic Unknown, Amherst, Summer 2008
my nephew’s baritone voice
strong and clear—
stumbling on a passage
he exclaims, “Jesus!”
after the noshing and schmoozing I take my son on a tour of Emily Dickinson’s house though he claims not to like her poetry which is not unusual for a young man but nevertheless we go on this tour with a couple in their twenties mumbling verses as we are herded from one room to the next and three Italians a middle-aged couple and an older gentleman who I find out the next morning at our B&B is an intellectual or poet perhaps because the other Italian man has a book with the older gentleman’s picture on the cover to which I point and say Emily Dickinson but he laughs and says no though what I meant was is the older gentleman a scholar of Emily Dickinson because in her house there is a mannequin wearing a dress that the poetess may or may not have worn and the elderly Italian gentleman sees it and says Reina Vitoria and I think that’s something one is not likely to say unless he knows something anyway I discover that everyone staying at the B&B except me is a Jew even my son even the Italian couple and I feel a bit self-conscious about eating my bacon so keep trying to hide it under the toast
beneath a tree
that shaded Miss Dickinson
the tour guide
ends her spiel and fans herself
with laminated poems
“Strategies.” Modern English Tanka 7, 2008. Reprinted in The Tanka Prose Anthology (Modern English Tanka Press, 2008).
“Topic Unknown, Amherst, 2008.” Santa Fe Poetry Broadsheet #55, Sept. 2008.