Preface to Fire Pearls 2 : Short Masterpieces of Love and Passion

by M. Kei

Introduction: The following Preface to Fire Pearls 2 gives considerable information about the history and practices of sequences in tanka. It is reprinted here to make it more accessible. -Editor

In 2006, Keibooks brought out Fire Pearls : Short Masterpieces of the Human Heart. An instant classic, it ushered in what Michael McClintock has called the ‘Little Age of Anthologies’ (MET 7). Although tanka anthologies had been published before, it was the first themed anthology in English with the contributions sequenced into an overarching structure. I consciously imitated the Kokinwakashū and its division into seasons. Four seasons were accompanied by a fifth season where the poems did not readily fit into the other seasons; this section had some of the most interesting and challenging poems I’d seen. Fire Pearls was followed by numerous other themed anthologies, but few attempted an organizing scheme other than alphabetical by author’s name.

Sequences have been written as long as tanka has existed. The fungible nature of tanka allows them to be arranged in larger groups according to whatever organizing method the poet or editor cares to use. The earliest book of tanka composed in English, Jun Fujita’s Tanka : Poems in Exile (1923), is sequenced into four seasons, each ending with a haiku envoy, plus a fifth section featuring various types of poetry in addition to tanka. Short tanka sequences appear in Tanka (1975), the membership anthology of the Tanka Chapter of the Chaparral Poets of California. Sequences were published in increasing frequency during the New Wave of tanka during the latter part of the 20th century, including single poet sequences and collaborative sequences by two or more poets. Lynx, a journal of linking poets, was founded expressly to publish collaborative work in short form poetry and continues to do so to this day.

Most sequences are organized intuitively by the poet and generally have loose structures; Sanford Goldstein calls these ‘strings.’ Little formal discussion of sequences has been written, and most of that has been by Goldstein. However, other authors have also offered articles on the topic, such as Carmella Braniger’s ‘Responsive Tanka Trios & Quartets : A New Twist on Collaborative Composition’ (ATPO 11). More recently Brian Zimmer authored ‘The Tanka Sequence & Tanka-Prose As Introduction to Tanka.‘ (SKYL 1). Previously, the editorial team of Denis M. Garrison and Michael McClintock offered two anthologies of sets and sequences (The Five-Hole Flute and The Dreaming Room) in which they introduced the terms ‘collage’ and ‘montage,’ but these terms did not catch on.

‘Sequence’ remains the only universally accepted term with other terms used less often. ‘Sequence’ in its simplest meaning is a group of tanka arranged in a specific pattern due to authorial or editorial intent. Tanka placed into a group together simply because they happen to treat a similar subject or category are referred to as ‘sets,’ not sequences. A set may have its members rearranged or changed without damaging the set. A set on the theme of ‘autumn’ remains a set regardless of how the individual poems are placed. By contrast, a sequence on the theme of autumn develops a logical structure, even if that structure is not immediately apparent. To rearrange the poems changes the structure. It is no longer the same sequence, even if the poems themselves remain the same.

Sanford Goldstein has championed a division between ‘sequences’ and ‘strings’:

To briefly state the differences between tanka string and tanka sequence: A string is a group of poems that are transitionally connected and focus on a major topic, but there is usually no chronological order, and no conclusion—earlier I said there might be a change in the poet or his view of the world, but I have changed my mind on that. As for a tanka sequence, it focuses on a problem, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the end or conclusion shows a change in the poet’s character or his way of seeing the world. (ATPO 5)

Thus Goldstein’s definition of a ‘string’ is very similar to what I call a ‘set,’ with the difference as I see it that a set might be made up of poems by different authors. Editors compose sets constantly by choosing to put various poems together on a common theme; GUSTS, the journal of Tanka Canada, uses this as a major method of organization. However, few editors choose to compose sequences. Fire Pearls in both volumes does so, and does so deliberately.

A criticism of the practice of editorial sequence composition, or perhaps a defense of editorial failure to do so, is that the tanka are autonomous. To group them into sequences changes their nuances, and in some cases, even their meaning. If the poet is the authority on the meaning of the poem, then his or her submissions ought to be printed in the order received since to rearrange the order is to violate the poet’s intent. I don’t agree. If a certain order is required, the submission is a sequence. A sequence is titled while a group of individual poems is not.

Tanka are not solely the work of the poet; the reader brings their own imagination and experiences to the poem and will read it in the context of their own reality. That can make a dramatic change in the meaning of the poem and there’s nothing the poet can (or should) do about it. In his essay ‘Dreaming Room’ (MET 3), Denis M. Garrison offers a tanka of his own composition, then invites us to

[. . . ] do an exercise. Read the poem as a drug addict. Now, read it as a political prisoner. Now, as an abused wife. Now, as a soldier. Now as a concerned ecologist. Etc., etc. ad infinitum.

I certainly am not suggesting that a tanka, to be tanka, must be capable of a full range of alternate readings. I am suggesting that a tanka gains potency through multivalency; that ambiguity is a positive value; that readers need room to dream their own dreams.

Yes. Just so. I now propose an alternate definition for ‘tanka sequence’: a sequence exploits the multivalency inherent in tanka with deliberate effect. Sets do not.

Likewise, a string, as Goldstein defines it, does not. Yet Goldstein’s definition of string is unsatisfying; if there are only two ways of organizing groups of tanka, and sequences have all the facets that he lists, then a string is something that does not. Yet there are groups of tanka that don’t meet his definition for a sequence, but they do require a particular order and are not merely sets. Under his definition they are neither string nor sequence. Or perhaps they are both. This ambiguity is why I think the term ‘string’ has not been adopted more widely.

The definition of ‘sequence’ as a set of tanka that has an organizing structure is not incompatible with the notion that a sequence is a group that exploits the multivalency of tanka. I think multivalency is exactly what a sequence utilizes to create its structure. Sets do not make use of the multivalency inherent in the poems and that is precisely why they can be freely rearranged. Sets exploit the fungibility of tanka to reorder them as desired. Multivalency is sticky; fungibility is slippery. Multivalency causes tanka to stick together in groupings that are found satisfying, but fungibility causes tanka to slip and slide into new configurations that offer new perspectives. The poet’s challenge is to harness both these aspects to achieve the intended effect for a given group of poems.

Fire Pearls 2 is a sequence. It exploits the multivalency of the poems to create a structure that runs the length of the anthology, subdivided into ten chapters of approximately seventy-five poems each, give or take a few. Each chapter has a structure of its own, but all the chapters fit together into the larger structure of the anthology. To accomplish this, I depended upon the slipperiness of tanka to take poems offered by approximately one hundred different poets and rearranged them into various patterns.

Those poems whose literary quality was high enough to consider for publication I printed out on paper and cut apart. Each poem appeared alone without the author’s name attached. Like building blocks, I sorted and organized them until threads of narrative began to emerge. At this point the stickiness of tanka took over as they began to accrete in coherent subgroups that said something in particular. Poems in these subgroups developed ideas, images, and emotions from one to another in a coherent fashion. Certain poems did not fit the emerging narratives and were omitted. In other words, each chapter and the anthology as a whole conforms to the Goldsteinian definition of ‘sequence.’ They have a problem (loosely defined), a beginning, middle, and end, and they show a change—not in the character of the poet because ninety-three poets had work selected—but in the character of the work itself.

Nonetheless, the anthology is not a novel: it does not have a plot. The editor can only arrange what he receives. The more than 1100 poems submitted provided a generous fund from which to choose, but with nearly a hundred poets submitting, even a unifying theme like ‘love’ could not create perfect matches among them. Therefore, not all the threads that emerged are of equal length or orderliness. Furthermore, because tanka are fungible, their placement within the sequence is sticky but not indelible; the links from one poem to the next are not always obvious. Sometimes the poems link, but sometimes they leap.

The strongly imagistic nature of tanka is reflected in their sequences. The proximity of tanka invites exploration and tangents, just as the tanka themselves do. Therefore, the structure that emerged in my editing was not the only possible way in which the poems could have been arranged. Given the same body of submissions, a different editor would have made different choices. That’s an asset, not a flaw. It’s the nature of tanka.

Tanka fascinates because of its interactive nature. Poet, editor, and reader combine together to create multiple works of literature from the foundation of the written word. This differs from the didactic nature of much of Western art. In the Western tradition, the poet-expert creates, and the reader solves the puzzle of the poem to find the correct answer, the answer the poet intended. Tanka eschews this hierarchy of interpretative authority to privilege the reader and acknowledge their role in creating the living poem.

Love is a complex and varied thing, and tanka is a fitting vehicle for it. The stickiness and slipperiness of tanka parallel the slippery-sticky nature of love itself. We have it, we lose it, then find it transformed. Love is multivalent and fungible. Lovers come and go, but experiences accumulate and stick together in patterns that lead from one development to the next, just like a tanka sequence.

The poets of Fire Pearls lead us from the delights of first love to the fury of betrayal, the mourning of death to the rage of vengeance. Along the way they yearn, court, marry, divorce, have children, have parents, grow sick, grow old, travel, lust, regret, repent, celebrate, survive, have second chances, get lucky, and die. Their experiences range from the luminescence of love to the violence of rape, and their decisions range from the choice of jewelry to the agony of abortion. Poets of all different races and colors depict all sorts of relationships: romantic, familial, dysfunctional, friendly, clandestine, faithful, adulterous, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, single, married, divorced, widowed, lonely—even bigamy. The ten chapters of Fire Pearls cover the breadth and depth of the human heart. The reader will find their own loves and hates within these pages.


M. Kei, Editor
Perryville, Maryland, USA

Note: previously published in Fire Pearls 2 : Short Masterpieces of Love and Passion, edited by M. Kei, published by Keibooks, 2013.