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
http://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/9781512361124/debbie-strange/warp-and-weft?blnBKM=1#.VyPLiGNlui6

Keibooks via atlaspoetica.org
https://www.createspace.com/5520311

Amazon.com
http://www.amazon.com/Warp-Weft-Threads-Debbie-Strange/dp/1512361127

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:

http://haiku.mannlib.cornell.edu/category/author/debbie-strange/

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:

http://www.debbiemstrange.blogspot.ca

http://www.twitter.com/Debbie_Strange

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

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

in the highlands
we are standing stones
leaning
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

blues

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

layers
of this blue life
winnowed
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

snowflakes
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.

 

Authors for Indies Day 2016

bookstore b and wPlease come out on Saturday, April 30, and buy a book or two at your favourite independent bookstore in honour of national “Authors for Indies Day”.

Don’t know what to buy? Doug Whiteway—better known as C.C. Benison to mystery fans—and I will be at “Whodunit”, 165 Lilac St., April 30 from 11:00AM to 3PM. Doug and I look forward to chatting with you about our favourite mystery writers, our own books and anything else that fellow lovers of mystery and crime fiction care to shoot the breeze about.

This is the second year that writers from across Canada will be out in their neighbourhood bookstores on “Authors for Indies Day”. The idea is to shine a light on those stores that care about Canadian books and Canadian readers. They hold readings and in-store events and host writing and book groups. So much more happens in these places than the word “store” suggests; they foster community in many small but important ways. We value them but we can also take them for granted. That’s what “Authors for Indies Day” is about. The Canadian writing community gets to spend a day raising awareness about the stores that have given us so much.

So come out on Saturday. We’ll have a blast.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/41346951@N05/17157662649″></a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

 

Manitoba Book Awards 2016

stacked books bookplateThe short lists for the Manitoba Book Awards have just been posted.

See them here. http://manitobabookawards.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Shortlists.pdf

I’m very happy that Put on the Armour of Light is nominated for the Michael Van Rooey Award for Genre Fiction.

It’s also particularly good to see that both indigenous writers and books on indigenous issues are strongly represented.

Congratulations to all the nominees and a special shout out to two who have appeared on portage and slain:

Alison Preston, also nominated in the Genre Fiction category for Blue Vengeance. See my   e-chat with her about Blue Vengeance below, posted Nov. 7, 2014.

Catherine Hunter, nominated in no less than three categories—notably the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction—for After Light. I mused here about Catherine’s mystery fiction in the post of July 16, 2014.

 

April is Poetry Month

Everyone needs more poetry in their lives and so during April I’m presenting a poem or two by Manitoba poets. “Spring in Winnipeg” by Carmelo Militano could hardly be more timely.

Carmelo Militano was born in the Italian village of Cosoleto and immigrated to Canada at an early age with his parents. The family ended up in Winnipeg, where he still lives. He won the F.G. Bressani award for poetry for his collection, Ariadne’s Thread in 2004. He has since published several chapbooks and poetry collections: The Minotaur’s Keys, Feast Days, Weather Reports, and Morning After You. His latest poetry collection is The Stonemason’s Notebook, forthcoming in May 2016 from Ekstasis Editions. His prose includes the travelogue and family memoir, The Fate of Olives, and the novel Sebastiano’s Vine. Many of Militano’s poems grapple with the tensions in his dual inheritance: the Mediterranean sun versus the chill of a raw spring day in Winnipeg.

Thanks to Ekstasis Editions Canada Ltd. and Carmelo Militano for permission to present “Spring in Winnipeg”, originally published in Morning After You, Ekstasis Editions Ltd., 2014. Photo credit: Renee Beaubien.

Spring in Winnipeg

No quick poems a la Williams for me
written on small medical pads
between choleric babies
and listening about the joint aches of a New Jersey woman
in a deep and cold December.
I am here writing inside the silence of this room
a different kind of whale’s belly
outside the March sun grows with deeper urgency
announces its age with curled hot fingers
but the death of winter is ugly.
Streets are slick with malice
dirty sand and frozen mud have formed an alliance.
The change of light still feels weary
empty trees grey bark greyer
wet a newspaper on the lawn
lies like a wounded and despondent animal
trapped by imperfect snow.
Pooled black water by the curb reflects
a wide sky   fast grey and white clouds.
At night between the thumb and index finger of Orion
the slow spin of stars continue to write for the end of winter.

Winter Hangs On

snow 1b

Much talk yesterday, amid new snow, of the April 5, 1997 blizzard that brought on the flood of the century. Which inevitably leads to thoughts of other great storms. There was the epic March 4, 1966 blizzard, of course. But almost forgotten is the storm of Jan. 10, 1975. It had all the prerequisites too: zero visibility, wind chills dipping to -90 degrees at times, and waist-high drifts of snow. The city was paralyzed for three days. Unlike in 1966, when Eaton’s and the Bay became overnight havens for people stranded downtown, the department stores closed early on Friday night when the 1975 storm began and did not reopen until Monday. The Winnipeg Tribune issued this playful souvenir, which turned up recently during a cleaning binge in a friend’s basement.

Books Have Birthdays Too

fullCoverFront Armour 1On Nov. 29, Put on the Armour of Light was one year old. I’m using the occasion to talk a bit about the second book in the series, which will take up the story of Charles Lauchlan about a year after we last saw him. The book is as yet untitled but because it’s set in Scotland, and because I have to call it something, I’ve been referring to it as “Scotlandia”. It will get its proper title in due course.

I don’t like to talk much about work in progress—in case there isn’t much progress. But I did want folks to know that there is a second book well on the way. All I can divulge at this point is that it will involve bicycles, picnics, considerable Highland scenery, rather less than optimal Scotch whiskey consumption and Charles and Maggie—not to mention the redoubtable Sergeant Andrew Setter—once again caught in the talons of murder most foul. And I’m not just talking about Scottish weather.

Loch Tummel
As to when you might be able to read it, I can only quote the Scotch play. “If it were done when tis done, then ‘twer well it were done quickly.” And no, I don’t know what that means either.

Another Look at Josephine Tey

Anne Morton is one of the most discerning readers I know. Now she’s giving a class at Creative Retirement Manitoba on Josephine Tey, the British crime novelist best known for The Daughter of Time. Though Tey’s books are long out of print, Anne thinks they still have much to offer 21st century readers. See why below.

Anne Morton worked for 25 years in the Hudson’s Bay Company Archives. With degrees in Classics, English and Theology, she has given courses in English history at the University of Winnipeg’s 55+ program.

The class is on Nov. 9 from 10am to 12 noon. Course information can be found here: https://crm.mb.ca/programs/79

The_Daughter_of_Time_-_Josephine_Tey

CM: Tell me a little bit about Josephine Tey and her crime novels.

AM: Her real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh. She was born in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands in 1896 and spent most of her life there. She was educated in Scotland and England, becoming a qualified physical education instructor. In 1923 she returned to Inverness to look after her dying mother and then stayed on with her widowed father. Life at home gave her the freedom to pursue her true avocation—writing. Her father died in September 1950 and she herself died of liver cancer in February 1952, at the age of 55.
She published her eight crime novels under the name Josephine Tey. She was also a successful playwright, using the name Gordon Daviot.

As it happens, a biography by Jennifer Morag Henderson, Josephine Tey: A Life, is to be published in November by the Scottish firm Sandstone Press. Here’s the link.   http://sandstonepress.com/books/josephine-tey

CM: What are the qualities in Tey’s books that most appeal to you and deserve a second look from readers?

AM: I first read Tey, along with other Golden Age crime writers, as an adolescent during summers at the cottage. Even then I found her worth re-reading. “Who did it?” is not much of an issue so knowing what happens does not spoil the books for re-reading. To use a theatre term, her ability to create the mise en scène is remarkable. You get a strong sense of the circumstances in which the characters live—the surrounding countryside, the household, or, as in Miss Pym Disposes, which is set in a college, the institution. These circumstances are often restrictive—The Daughter of Time begins with Inspector Grant confined to a hospital bed, for example—and over the course of the novel you see the main character or characters achieve some kind of liberation. This liberation, by the way, is almost never found in marriage. Like her younger contemporary, Barbara Pym, Tey is very interesting on the value of ‘aloneness’ as opposed to ‘togetherness’. And, perhaps not coincidentally, both Pym and Tey wrote novels that are not quite like anybody else’s.

CM: The Daughter of Time, Tey’s most famous novel, was published just before her death in 1951.  What do you suppose drew Tey to write a book about the alleged murder of the young princes by Richard III and why does this incident continue to fascinate people six centuries after the event?

AM: Tey was a Ricardian, that is to say, she believed that Richard could not have been responsible for the deaths of his nephews because he was too fine a man to have done such a dreadful thing. Even in her first novel, The Man in the Queue, we find the theme of an innocent man assumed to be guilty because ‘the evidence’ is against him, and this theme occurs in other novels. In Richard she had what she believed to be a real-life example of this unfairness. As Gordon Daviot she also wrote a play about Richard, titled Dickon.

There’s more than one reason for this continued interest, I think. Shakespeare’s Richard III is obviously one. It’s a great part for a great actor. You can’t take your eyes off Olivier in his 1955 film—he is utterly compelling. The play keeps before our mind the question “Was the real man actually like this fascinating monster?”

Another factor is the pathos of it all – Edward V was 12 and his brother Richard only 9 when they were ‘disappeared’. The two children were a popular theme for 19th century painters such as Millais and Delaroche. Finally, the Richard III Society, which has been around for almost a century, has done an excellent job of keeping the Ricardian flame alive. Their web site pays tribute to Tey for the help her novel has given to their cause. The recent discovery of Richard’s grave and the re-interment of his remains have also kept him in the public eye.

It seems to me that it’s significant that a play and a novel should have so much influence on popular views of Richard. In 2012 the Winnipeg Art Gallery hosted an exhibit called “Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination.” It included a set of disconcertingly grotesque paintings of Henry VIII and his wives. My first reaction was “But these people actually existed! They weren’t characters in fairy tales.” But then I reflected that in our culture the Tudors have somehow acquired an alternate and ahistorical life. And the same thing seems to have happened to Richard, though his is a dual identity, wicked to some and an injured innocent to others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for having kings and queens; those of us who live centuries later can get an enjoyment out of them probably not available in their own times to their actual subjects.

CM: What can people who sign up for your class expect to get out of it?

AM: I hope they will come away wanting to read Tey, whether again or for the first time.   While the novels don’t seem to have been re-printed since the late 1990s, they are available in the Winnipeg library system. Second-hand or remaindered copies are not hard to find. I have all the novels and will bring them for people to see.

The Daughter of Time gets the star billing. It’s an interesting mixture of historical fiction and a crime novel. I want to put it into context with Tey’s other novels, so that the class might ask themselves if it perhaps tells us more about Tey than it does about Richard. I will also discuss how Tey used, abused and even made up her sources. While I believe, that Tey, like Shakespeare, was free to write as she pleased about Richard, it concerns me that people often refer to her book as if it were a reliable source of information. I enjoy historical fiction (as did my father, who was a professional historian) and appreciate the insight into the past it can offer us. But we shouldn’t ask of it what it doesn’t have to give.

CM: Tey is praised for the quality of her writing. Can you give me a sentence or two that you particularly like?

From the opening chapter of The Franchise Affair, here’s a description of a local High Street, in the late 1940s, apparently little changed by the passage of centuries:

“True, the scarlet and gold of an American bazaar flaunted its bright promise down at the south end, and daily offended Miss Truelove who ran the Elizabethan relic opposite as a teashop with the aid of her sister’s baking and Ann [sic] Boleyn’s reputation.”

The issue of women’s reputations is central to this novel; notice how cleverly it is introduced.