About the Journal
American Tanka seeks to present a small selection of some of the most well-crafted English-language tanka being written today, in a visually calm space that allows the reader’s eye to focus on the single poem and linger in the moment it evokes. It publishes twice a year.
A great tanka evokes a moment so vividly–with such precision of language and image–that the reader may feel as if he or she is experiencing that moment too. Therefore, like any good work of literature, a well-written tanka illuminates the human condition and can connect people across time, space, and cultures.
History of the Journal
American Tanka was founded by Laura Maffei in 1996 as a print journal. Seventeen print issues, edited by Maffei, were produced from 1996 to 2008. In 2010, Maffei revived American Tanka as an online journal that keeps the one-poem-per-page aesthetic of the original print form.
History of Tanka Poetry
Tanka is the name of a form of Japanese poetry (called waka before the 20th century) that has been the most popular form of poetry in Japan for over 1300 years (much older than haiku). A tanka evokes a moment with concision and musicality. It is subjective and lyrical, and may even contain an element of narrative. In Japanese, tanka are written in five syllabic units of 5-7-5-7-7, totaling thirty-one syllables. While topics have expanded from traditional expressions of passion and heartache, and styles have evolved to include modern language and even colloquialisms, the thirty-one syllable form has remained the same in Japan.
Original English-language tanka have been published since the 1970s, but one may see their roots in the five-line poems of some early 20th-century Imagists. (See Michael McClintock’s Introduction to The Tanka Anthology, Red Moon Press, 2003.)
The Form of Tanka in English
There are some English-language tanka writers who adhere to a thirty-one syllable form, but most use fewer than 31 syllables, divided into five lines that sometimes use a short-long-short-long-long pattern, and sometimes use other patterns according to the needs of the poem. The reason for this arises mainly from differences in the Japanese and English languages, including vast differences in the number of syllables used to express the same idea, and, perhaps most importantly, the essential stressed and unstressed pronunciation of syllables in English, which is not found in Japanese and which in English makes a strict syllable count less meaningful than meter.
Often, tanka in English that are forced to thirty-one syllables will be overloaded with images or will stretch the poem beyond the “moment in time” that is the most important element of a tanka. That is not to say, of course, that some English-language tanka may require exactly thirty-one syllables, or even a few more than that. American Tanka welcomes well-crafted five-line submissions of any syllabic length that are true to the purpose and spirit of the tanka form. (For a far more comprehensive discussion of tanka mechanics, see again Michael McClintock’s Introduction to The Tanka Anthology, Red Moon Press, 2003.)