Report on Bowerbird Tanka Workshop #8 2011

On Sunday 19th February seventeen eager participants flocked to the central coast haven of Pearl Beach for the 8th Bowerbird Tanka Workshop. Beverley George, convenor of the group, graciously opened her bower to us all once more as a relaxing and inspiring venue for the day.

The day commenced with a session that is always held in high regard by regular participants; three attendees are invited to present a prepared appraisal of a favourite tanka by someone they have never met.

Sylvia Florin spoke of the following tanka by Margaret Chula (6th International Tanka Festival, 2009):

yesterday’s desires
what were they?
a vase
without flowers
holds only itself

Marilyn Humbert shared with the group why this tanka by Pamela A Babusci (Ribbons, Vol 7, NO 3, 2011) moved her:

i walk for miles
after your betrayal
my black beret
white and heavy
in the endless snow

Gail Hennessy completed the trio by bringing us back home with this very Australian tanka by Keitha Keyes (Grevillea & Wonga Vine, 2010):

gashes of lightning
summer storm in the mallee –
smell the first raindrops
exploding on red earth . . .
the dams have their mouths open

These three sensitive and insightful appraisals were deeply valued as they gave a depth of interpretation others may not have appreciated on their own reading of the poem. It is through this sharing of what moves another colleague that we are able to see the poem through new eyes and different life experiences. These appraisals will feature on the Eucalypt web site and are well worth reading for their astute observations upon excellent tanka.

Following this all eighteen Bowerbirds then read aloud one tanka each, from any person or tanka age, that particularly resonated with them. Without comment or critique, this session allowed total immersion into the magical and lyrical passion of this addictive poetic form that is even more captivating when spoken aloud. Even the magpies and lagoon waterfowl were inclined to trill a short song to add to the ambience of this session.

Kathy Kituai then facilitated a fascinating workshop titled Get Real: the Art of Shasei. We were all amazed by the extent of what we took away from this session, especially surrounding the life of the tanka reformer, Shiki. Kathy expertly demonstrated to us that shasei, small portraits of life, do not have to be one-dimensional. We discovered that even in depicting something from daily life just as it is, there can be many avenues and multiple layers of meaning not initially considered. And even though, as poets, we can “paint what you see with your eyes” we still bring our past experiences into this. The trick is to step back and allow the reader to bring their interpretations and experiences to the tanka.

The following tanka, by Shiki, was used as an example and generated much discussion:

set free
from the cage I kept it in
the sparrow darts off
into the last rays of the setting sun
lighting up the yellow forsythia

From this, participants not only appreciated the surface intention of this still life – a bird released in late afternoon – but imbued it with personal interpretations of loss, longing, illness, end of life, determination, death poetry, hope, despair, acceptance, relief . . . the interpretations were literally endless.

The enduring message that I have taken from this session is that shasei does not necessarily mean shallow. Like all life sketches, done either with oil, watercolour, or words, when one steps back it allows great scope for light, shadow, depth and layering of personal interpretation from the audience.

After lunch Dawn Bruce enthralled us with Tanka Takeaway: an interactive workshop. This extremely practical session gave everyone present a portable toolbox of tanka tips for busting through writing blockages, finding creativity, and pushing our tanka beyond the ordinary to that next level with an undeniable WOW-factor.

Dawn planted many seeds that we saw germinate in the exercises she had set for us. One valuable key she gave us to unlock those blockages was the simple message “think in fragments.” So simple, but oh so effective. Too often I have tried to think out a complete tanka all at once. Perhaps I should have taken a fragmentary approach and allowed just one fragment to direct the course of the tanka.

These fragments are around us all the time . . . in snippets of conversation, a phrase we have read, a photo in a magazine, a children’s picture book. As Dawn astutely said, “a word can spark you off.” Dawn gave us very concrete examples of how a recent tanka of hers was sparked from a child’s book . . . a single word became a fragment, then an associated memory of family and childhood; and before too long, a tanka was born.

If we are having trouble, perhaps try an image. Haiga begins with a picture. Look to your photo albums – old photos of family can often give rise to inspiration in many forms – emotion, memory, desire. And try to not be too restrictive in your ideas. One idea can flow into another. It is at this time you perhaps need to give your idea its head and let it lead you where it wants to go. As Dawn said this, it made perfect sense to me: these are the tanka that need, and sometimes demand, to be written, regardless of what we want to write.
Dawn showed us how to take our everyday writers’ block and turn it into something useful. Imagine you are in your study and your muse is anywhere but with you. Look around you and quickly jot down, on the left side of a sheet of paper, ten nouns of items you see around you, for example desk, paper, books, rose, and so forth. Then pick one other word, such as moon, that is used a lot in tanka. And then marry up with lines the words on the left that you feel have an association with moon on the right. Is there something different in how you perceive the moon by doing this, a new way of writing about it? This may be the very fragment that generates your tanka. Neither word may necessarily feature in your tanka, but it may be the kick start you need.

And instead of associations, try oppositions. A quick list of five words on the left of the page, and what you perceive to be their immediate opposites on the right. Again, does this opposition plant a seed or germinate a fragment that may lead to an outstanding tanka? Can they be used together for impact? Do they take you on a journey elsewhere?

Excellent tanka often marry up “interesting concepts” not usually thought of. They write of the usual in unusual ways, and Dawn’s exercises certainly give much latitude to encouraging this within crafting our own tanka.

Everyone left this session invigorated with much hope for combating those days when the muse cannot be contacted and the blocks appear overwhelming. With a little help from Dawn, we all realised there are practical and easy tools at our disposal for assisting with our writing.

The day concluded with a wrap-up of latest news from the leaders and facilitators of tanka groups in NSW and south-east Australia. It is heartening to know that tanka is spreading and being embraced by many groups, and bringing joy to more people than ever.

Sincere thanks to Kathy Kituai, a Bowerbird stalwart, who travelled a great distance from Canberra to Pearl Beach for this workshop. I am certain everyone appreciates and values this effort as much as I do. And thanks to Dawn Bruce for her stimulating takeaway session, and also to the three wonderful presenters who shared a favourite tanka with us all.

And Beverley . . . Bowerbird would not be Bowerbird without you – both in spirit and inclusiveness, and also in hosting these workshops. Each time I leave Bowerbird I am richer for tanka knowledge, supported in the company of like-minded persons, and sustained by five short lines of poetry that give me a whole new world.

Can I put my hand up now for Bowerbird number 9?
David Terelinck

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