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TANKA TAKE HOME - 14th Dec, 2022 | poet of the month - Tom Clausen

hosts: Firdaus Parvez, Kala Ramesh, Priti Aisola & Suraja Menon Roychowdhury

Introducing a new perspective to our Wednesday Feature!

poet of the month: Tom Clausen

Tom Clausen / Tanka

we work briskly into the momentum of the day a long list of what to do, once all there was was to fall in love

Poetry in the Light (online site) 2000


the rise and fall of the cicada's song, my own heart quietly recording what it can

Lynx 2000 (first online issue)


We had the pleasure of asking Tom Clausen a few questions, and he graciously took the time to answer them.


TTH: How did you get started as a poet? What was it about tanka that inspired you to embrace this ancient form of poetry? In short, why do you keep writing tanka.

TC: I fell in love with poetry in my early 20's when I was working at Mann Library and was influenced by friends who were reading Walt Whitman, Rilke, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Marge Piercy, Sylvia Plath and others. These friends and these writers and their writings inspired me to try writing my own poems. Stream of consciousness writing had a strong appeal to me and my writing had an excessive, just for fun, run-on, quality that was exuberant and playful but lacked discipline. I didn't aspire to submitting my writing since I was just writing for myself and a few friends. It was just writing for the pleasure of it as well as for some confessional and cathartic mental health benefits that I derived from getting out bottled up emotions.

It was after college when I turned to letter writing and trying to write poetry. I wrote lengthy letters to friends near and far that were experiential rambles that had become my way of sharing my life with friends... it was a sort of sending my journal entries out with the hope that I was writing something that was of interest!

In the early 80's I took a poetry class at Cornell with Phyllis Janowitz. My submitted poems kept being returned to me with big red X's and lines crossing out whole sections of my poems. Little did I know but what was left of my submitted poems were almost like haiku... little kernels here and there! A friend in that class even mentioned to me one day; " I think she wants us to write haiku!"

It was meant to be!

Shortly after this poetry class I picked up a copy of the Ithaca Times one day discovering an article profiling a local naturalist and haiku poet, Ruth Yarrow. Reading about her and her haiku had an almost instantaneous awakening for me. I loved her haiku cited in the article and it suddenly made sense to me. The resolution of my overly wordy repetitive run-on writing could be in the haiku form! It totally excited me that in haiku there was a challenge to select carefully the very few best words to convey an 'experience'/ 'aha moment' to a reader and give the reader the wholly decent chance to reach their own feeling and sense of what I had written/experienced.

Falling in love with haiku led to senryu, renku, haibun and soon enough tanka! A big reason I have remained interested and in love with short forms of poetry is the discipline of refining the poem to avoid being overly wordy! I tend to go 'overboard' in my writing and have found that haiku, senryu and tanka are the perfect antidotes to my natural excessiveness!

I have remained in love with reading and trying to write haiku, senryu and tanka and every now and then a haibun or a renku too. watching leaves fall I consider for the rest of my life this little plan poem by poem

The first tanka I read were in journals like Mirrors, Woodnotes, Lynx, Raw Nervz, American Tanka and Five Lines Down to name just a few. I was entirely drawn to those that told a little story in five lines sharing something personal and direct from real experience and often with poignancy and intimacy. Those that had a confessional quality were those that I hoped to emulate in my own attempts. It was the tanka of Takuboku Ishikawa that left the most profound impression on me. In reading his collection of tanka, 'Poems to Eat', translated by Carl Cesar, I felt a deep sense of empathy and admiration for his candid honesty and the cathartic expressions that many of his tanka are. I can remember feeling that tanka could be a form that would allow me to expand my writing range at a time I was primarily focused on haiku, senryu. I began experimenting in writing 5-line poems some of which may have qualified as being a traditional tanka but many if not most were simply 5-line poems that were more experimental, free form in content and creative origin. Several editors who I submitted to at this time; Jane and Werner Reichhold, Sanford Goldstein, and Dorothy Howard were wonderfully generous in publishing my early attempts at tanka and giving me the confidence to keep writing.


TTH: How do you develop a tanka? Please guide us through the stages of a poem.

TC: I do not have any formula or consistent method in writing my tanka or any other of the forms of poetry that I love. At times I have worried that my attempts fall rather far from what some may consider to be a traditional tanka. Through the years I have become less self-critical and allowed myself the leeway to write what feels "me" without trying to conform to any prescribed tanka ingredients. My writing usually comes on the heels of a direct experience that speaks enough to me that I pause and scribble some notes to later refine. Every now and then, when I'm lucky, the poem writes itself... 'speaking' so clearly and immediately that it actually feels just right as I first wrote it in the moment. Other times I will look at the notes in my little pocket notebook (I always carry a pocket notebook and pen or pencil for the moments that 'need' my poetic attention) and sit puzzling with them as to how they might best present something that a reader, including myself, would find something of interest or something worthy of sharing with friends.

One technique or stage of a tanka for me has been to essentially see it in two parts... almost as if the first three lines were a haiku and the last two lines were a reflective or emotional response in some intuitive way. I have written many five-line poems simply by letting the flow of the little 'story' unfold line by line.

More About Tom:

Tom Clausen (Ithaca, NY) is a life-long Ithacan living in the same house he grew up in with his wife Berta. He became interested in haiku and related short forms of poetry in the late 1980's after reading an article about naturalist Ruth Yarrow, profiling her haiku. There was instant recognition that haiku was a form that might help with his tendency with wordiness, repetition, and overstatement. He has been reading and trying to write haiku, senryu, tanka and haibun since then. Tom is the curator of a daily haiku feature, online, at Mann Library, Cornell University where he worked for over 35 years before retiring in 2013.

In 2003 Tom was invited to join the Route 9 Haiku group that formed in 2001. The group publishes twice a year a journal, Dim Sum, featuring selected work by members John Stevenson, Hilary Tann, Mary Stevens, Yu Chang, Tom Clausen and a guest poet as well as haiga by Romanian artist and poet, Ion Codrescu. Tom enjoys walking, biking, photography and simply going about observing and documenting what is there to be found. He especially cares for cats and deer.


Links to his books:

a worn chest by Joy McCall & Tom Clausen (tanka pairs 2022) here

Interchange haiku, prose & photos by Tom Clausen and Michael Dudley(2022) here

My Own Heart, 25 Years of Tanka by Tom Clausen ( 2021) here

Growing Late (tanka - 2007) here

Challenge for this week:

Two more of Tom's beautiful tanka that squeeze the heart a little. He says things simply and so effectively. Keeping that in mind, here's your challenge: Look back on those halcyon days of first love, and weave a poem around them. Interpret it as you like. Most of all, have fun!


And remember – tanka, because of those two extra lines, lends itself most beautifully when revealing a story. And tanka-prose is storytelling.

Give these ideas some thought and share your tanka and tanka-prose with us here. Keep your senses open, observe things that happen around you and write. You can post tanka and tanka-prose outside this theme too.

An essay on how to write tanka: Tanka Flights


1. Post only one poem at a time, only one per day.

2. Only 2 tanka and two tanka-prose per poet per prompt.

Tanka art of course if you want to.

3. Share your best-polished pieces.

4. Please do not post something in a hurry or something you have just written. Let it simmer for a while.

5. Post your final edited version on top of your original verse.

6. Don't forget to give feedback on others' poems.

We are delighted to open the comment thread for you to share your unpublished tanka, tanka-prose (within 250 words), and tanka-art to be considered for inclusion in the haikuKATHA monthly magazine.

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