The Tanka of Debbie Strange

Poet and photographic artist Debbie Strange uses the Japanese minimalist forms of haiku and tanka to explore her responses to the landscapes she encounters. Last month she launched Warp and Weft, Tanka Threads, a collection of tanka triptychs that editor M. Kei calls “primal poetry with a pagan heart”. A recent interest unites her two passions; at the launch she presented a slideshow of her photographic and artwork images into which poems from the collection were embedded.

Here’s an example.

going back

Debbie Strange makes her home in Winnipeg after having lived in each of the four western Canadian provinces. She is a member of the Writers’ Collective of Manitoba and the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, as well as several haiku and tanka organizations. Her short form writing has received many awards, and has been translated, anthologized and widely published internationally.

Debbie’s photographic images have been exhibited and published, and she is currently working on a collection of haiga (haiku with art) and tanka art.

Warp and Weft, Tanka Threads, was published through Keibooks by M. Kei. Find it at these retailers:

McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg

Keibooks via

Read my e-chat with Debbie Strange below.

CM: I know a bit about haiku but nothing about tanka. Can you explain the conventions of tanka composition?

DS: Many Westerners were taught to write haiku in grade school, and most of what we learned was based on the misconception that haiku must be written in 17 syllables! Although tanka is not as well known in Canada, this form is also often thought to be based on syllabic count (31 in this case). The confusion stems from the fact that Japanese sound units differ from English syllables. If you would like to read a selection of my haiku, please visit the featured poet archive of the Mann Library, in Cornell University, Ithaca, New York:

The term “short song” is commonly used to describe tanka, and this well-respected Japanese lyrical form has been written for more than 1300 years. A basic description of contemporary tanka is that it is generally composed of five unrhymed metrical units or poetic phrases, using approximately 20 words or syllables that are arranged in a rhythmic short/long/short/long/long pattern. The poems often contain juxtapositions of the natural and the human world, and each line must be able to stand alone, or perform a critical function. Tanka allows more metaphor and simile than haiku, and tanka often have a turning point which belongs equally to the first and last halves of the poem, and which builds to the last line, with only one clear grammatical break. Individual tanka are usually untitled, with little or no punctuation and capitalization, and few articles. That said, modern tanka is still evolving, and so are the “rules” of writing these quintains!

CM: How did you come to write haiku and tanka? Had you written other kinds of poetry before?

DS: I have written poetry and songs since I was a child, only beginning to share my work after joining the Writers’ Collective of Manitoba in 2000. I entered their annual contests, and I was fortunate to receive a few awards for free verse poetry, fiction, and non-fiction over the years.

In 2013, via social media, I discovered a thriving Japanese short form community, and instantly fell in love with haiku and tanka. I began focusing exclusively on these forms, and I practice writing them and creating haiga and tanshi (small poem) art on a daily basis. The example of my tanka art reproduced above contains a prairie tanka sequence which was first published in 2015 in Ribbons, the Tanka Society of America’s journal.

Since I narrowed my writing focus, opportunities to publish have expanded beyond my wildest imaginings. This is completely astonishing to me, and I am grateful every day for the amazing turn in my writing life!

If you are interested in discovering more about my published work, I invite you to visit my blog archive and Twitter feed:

CM: Tell me about your new collection, Warp and Weft.  The title encourages the idea of threads. Can you describe the threads running through the book and present some of the poems?

DS: Warp and Weft is a collection of over 200 individual tanka, written in both traditional and modern styles, and presented as themed triptychs.

In sorting through my published tanka, I was interested to find that although the works had appeared in a variety of journals, there were recurring themes, phrases and word choices. There was also a nearly equal division between light and dark moods.

Each triptych in this tanka collection contains poems taken from different publications, but sharing a common thread. A word or phrase from the last poem in each triptych also serves as its title. The work is arranged so that readers shuttle back and forth between the light and dark tanka fibres. Poems tracing my family history are woven into the book’s underlying fabric.

The following selections were inspired in part by my experiences in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park (Bannock Point), Riding Mountain National Park, Steep Rock, and by my love for our Canadian winters!

the altar of air

on sacred stones
scarred with lichen
we listen to the chanting wind

in the highlands
we are standing stones
toward each other
f r a g m e n t e d

tobacco bundles
tied to jackpine bones
prayer fragments
hanging deliverance
in the altar of air


a blue fan
unfolding in the distance
so many hills
we meant to climb before
they became mountains

of this blue life
by the hour glass
my furrows deepen

we replay
our lowest notes
over and over
these blues wailing
through harmonica bones

turning season

winter winds
play an aeolian harp
of barbed wire
a lone coyote and I howl
at the long night moon

lying in sage
on limestone cliffs
sunning myself
with ribbon snakes
emerging from hibernation

mercurial wind
in this turning season
my body
a weather vane tilting
in a new direction

filling up winter

a lullaby
of snow fluttering
against the tent
unzipping our cocoons
we emerge into winter

ice dancing
between frozen waves
on winter’s lake
silver blades carve initials
in the diamond dust of snow

in my open hands
the slow drift
of our memories
filling up winter

CM: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

DS: I have a haiku chapbook called A Year Unfolding to be published in November 2016 by Folded Word Press.

I also have work forthcoming in More Grows in a Crooked Row: Tanka Conversations with 15 Canadian Poets, edited by Angela Leuck, as well as in Wild Moons: The Canadian Tanka Anthology, edited by Angela Leuck and George Swede. Hopefully these two publications will help to further the tanka cause. It would be wonderful if more people in Canada discovered the joys of writing and reading tanka!

Thank you for the interview, Catherine, and for this opportunity to discuss my creative processes.