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An Insight Into the Judging Process

Judging ReportFirst of all, congratulations to all the winners of the Inaugural Tanka Fest 2013: Tanka'way at Mandy's Pages.

The judging process at Mandy's Pages has been different from most contests, and yet, similar to the International Tanka Festival Competitions at Tokyo, Japan.

Two judges (David and Brian) were to grade the tanka and select a 1st Place winner each, of their choice.  In addition, they were to select 4 finalists each towards the Encouragement Award and the Certificates of Merit.  After that, Kathabela Wilson was to select the Encouragement Award Winner from the 8 finalists. 

In the best interest of all contestants who participated, I have now deleted the submitted tanka from Mandy's Pages. Only the winning entries are displayed at the site.  The respective poets of the remaining entries are free to post their tanka at other venues or submit them to tanka journals. I congratulate all of you for participating in this contest.  You have brought an added spark and life to Mandy's Pages with your lively competitiveness, your good and fresh sportsmanship and your eagerness to learn despite the lack of time, for those new to this genre. I could sense your excitement right from the start until the time the results were announced. 

Kathabela, over the past few weeks, has conveyed her interest in having you join her tanka group 'Tanka Poets on Site'on Facebook.  Those of you who have a desire to pursue tanka are free to contact her on Facebook.  She goes by the name Kathabela Wilson and is eager to share in your interest for tanka. 

Those who would like to have other sites and journals consider your work may contact Mandy's Pages for reference and I would be happy to assist you with information.

Steve Wilkinson, Editor of "The Bamboo Hut" invites tanka submissions for the next publication of contemporary tanka. The closing date for submissions is June 30, 2013. 


 Meet the Judges

Now a look at the judging process and what went on behind the scenes ...  

Brian Zimmer, has been most gracious in selecting the following tanka as one of the 1st Place winners and also the finalists. He describes them as 'elegant in construction'. 

It would have been
pink --
the water lily
now nourishing a doe's
unborn fawn.

(1st Place: Alexis Rotella) 


In spring on hillsides
Overlooking crowded straits
Purple judas trees
Betray long held secrets of
Many-storied Istanbul

(Kerry Wood)


spring: again
the glittering
of a mother’s
broken rose womb

(Otsenre Ogaitnas)



bulging lilies
about to unzip
—in the bright sun
you reveal yourself
to me

(Sondra Byrnes)


those trees
what are those trees
jacaranda bloom
small purple velvet gloves
fall to earth

(N.E. Taylor)

David Terelinck selected entry # 4 as his choice of 1st Place with four finalists as indicated below. 

turquoise-blue hyacinths
the color of sky
i visit my sister
who just miscarried

(1st Place: Pamela A. Babusci)

high above me
an eagle soars
into the sky...
I think of you today
behind those iron bars

(Josie Hibbing)


this storm
spells the end
of sultry nights
will history show
how hard I tried

(Clive Oseman)


the split-second
flash of a hawk's swoop
I wait
for the sky to return
to its own blue

(Kala Ramesh)


still trying
to bench-press
this weight
the debt
my father left me

(Susan Burch)

Kathabela Wilson selected the Encouragement Award Winner from the set of eight finalists.  Her choice is ... 

bulging lilies
about to unzip
—in the bright sun
you reveal yourself
to me

Sondra Byrnes

David Terelink's Judging Report

David  gives a detailed insight into his impression of the tanka at this contest. His judging report describes the positive and negative sides of the entries with suggestions on how to write a winning tanka. Here is his report. 

I was honoured to have been asked by Amanda Dcosta to be involved in the judging of the Inaugural Tanka Fest 2013: Tanka'way competition hosted at Mandy’s Pages. 

Unfortunately the overall quality of the entries was not high. 

This is disappointing considering the vast wealth of resources available to people today. There are many reputable journals and books available, both on-line and in print, that explain what tanka is and how to write it. Mandy’s Pages itself has many resources and links as a starting point. I would encourage all entrants to subscribe to journals and to read widely of excellent published tanka. It is only through extensive exposure to well written tanka that one learns and appreciates the nuances that comprise tanka of award-winning and publishable quality.  

There are many things that tanka is not. And it is not simply a five line poem. Nor is it five random lines thrown down together in a S/L/S/L/L format. There must be structure to the poem, and this is not captured in five discordant lines that are not linked with cohesive meaning. It is not necessary to capitalise the first word of each line, nor to add full stops or other unnecessary punctuation. Several submissions also had intentional and forced rhyme at the end of lines that was laboured and detracted from the quality of the writing. 

All good tanka should conform to the basic principle that should be inherent in all types of creative writing – show, don’t tell. Readers and judges do not want to be told the subject of the tanka feels happy or sad, grief-stricken or pensive, excited or bewildered, and so forth. And do not tell the reader the sun is out, or the subject is crying. Show this emotion through action and lyrical description. Anton Chekhov conveyed this best when he said “don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

Many submissions clearly showed people writing on topics they are passionate about. But that passion did not necessarily translate into good tanka expression. Some used their tanka as a vehicle to proselytise; unfortunately this severely detracts from the quality of the poem if it becomes a vehicle for finger-wagging. 

The guidelines for tanka are just that; guidelines. The premise of writing in a 5/7/5/7/7 (or short/long/short/long/long) syllable format is a place to begin. Judges do not spend their time counting syllables. That said, in the underlying structure of a tanka they are as important to rhythm and flow as the original onji (breath sounds) of the Japanese court poets from centuries ago. And they are vitally noticeable if their over-abundance contributes to the downfall of a tanka. If you are going to submit a tanka with 47 syllables (10/8/10/10/9), then you need to ensure that it “works” as a tanka. 

It is clear that not only have most of those people who have submitted not read widely on the subject of tanka, but they have also not read their own writing aloud. If they had, they would have detected the many obvious flaws in rhythm and meter. They would also be able to hear the absence of poetry in many of the poems. Tanka evolved from waka which means short song. It was originally meant to be chanted aloud – as such it should be lyrical and engage the audience aurally. Sadly, many of the entries fell far short in this regard. It is felt that many entrants in this specific-genre competition had little understanding of the tanka form itself. 

The following tanka is awarded first place: 

turquoise-blue hyacinths
the color of sky
i visit my sister
who just miscarried 

The reason this tanka stands out is because it is not overworked with adjectives and flowery phrases or description. It does not seek to lecture to us, but provides a clear picture that alludes to emotion. The poet does not tell us how to feel, but allows us to draw our own emotive conclusion from the tone of the tanka and word usage. In short there is much of what has widely become known as “dreaming room” within this tanka. There is the space for the reader to interpret, and perhaps even place themselves within the picture.  

We have a traditional format of short/long/short/long/long that is visually appealing on the page. But more importantly, when read aloud the tanka does not trip the reader up. There is no awkward rhythm or meter to be found. There are no redundant words to be found within this tanka. 

And like good tanka from the Heian Court masters, the tanka builds line by line to a satisfying conclusion. It starts in active mode with cutting of flowers. And we are shown turquoise-blue flowers that resemble the colour of the sky. It is revealed in the fourth line these are a gift for the poet’s sister. And the climax is reached in the last line as we find out the reason for the visit and the flowers – the recent miscarriage of a pregnancy. The lines are not disparate, but sensitively linked and each is relevant to the other. There is no random putting-down of lines with this tanka, but a careful structure that is ordered and logical.  

There is also no predictability about this tanka. It takes us from a larger-framed expanse – a garden and wide-open sky – into the smaller, private world of a woman who has lost an unborn child. This narrowing of focus draws our attention to the theme of the tanka – that of loss and grief. We do not need to be told either person is sad; we can see this in the act of flowers given as condolence. And even in the colour of the flowers – blue being a colour of sadness. Not only the hyacinths are blue, but the entire sky. This indicates a depth of all-encompassing grief.  

And although the tanka is about loss and grief, there is no mawkish sentimentality in how this grief is portrayed to us. There is empathy to be found in this poem. There is much that is not said, but that is one its inherent joys. Like a linocut, it is often what is missing that gives shape to the outline that remains. We know nothing of the miscarriage; why it happened, at what month, what the woman who lost the baby is feeling. Therein lies the beauty of allowing the reader to draw those conclusions, and allows greater access to this tanka for many people. 

Congratulations to the author of tanka #4. It is a fine tanka that embodies much of the essence of true quality tanka. 

Other short-listed tanka of merit include: #7, #11, #29 and #35

© David Terelinck, 2013 

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My deepest gratitude to the three judges David Terelinck, Brian Zimmer and Kathabela Wilson for their contributions to this contest in more ways than one. 

My special thanks to Kathabela who helped get me started, to David for believing in me and in this event, to Brian for his added special touch of support, friendship and subtle guidance. I would never have been able to conduct this contest at such short notice (three weeks planning) without your help.

Special mention should also be given to my good friend Darryl Rozario (Bunty) for his instant monetary contribution towards the contest prizes and to Jim Bessey for his monetary support as well as encouraging nudge to get this contest started.  

M. Kei, author and poet of numerous novels and tanka journals, has awarded the two first place winners with a book each - Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka, Volume 1.  I am greatly indebted to him for his support, friendship and willingness to guide me along this event, and for encouraging me to take more steps towards establishing tanka awareness among my readers.

I thank Adam Clark for his instant creativity in designing the certificates for this contest. Your support means a lot to me. 

Special thanks to Mike - my good friend, co-admin and muse at Mandy's Pages, for working behind the scenes so that we can establish a user-friendly and appealing community atmosphere at the site. 

I also thank all the contestants who participated with true sportsman spirit, dedicating their time and support to Mandy's Pages. 

In conclusion, I also thank each and every one of my readers who have lent their support by way of networking and passing the news of this contest across the internet. 

 Contest Results: Inaugural Tanka Fest 2013 - Tanka'way 



Image Credit: Judge by John T. McCutcheon at Wikimedia Commons

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