The Garage, Not the Garden : Tanka of Urban Life

Edited and with an Introduction by M. Kei
Garage tanka is tanka of urban life. It can be literal garage tanka: poetry written about the place where we store our cars and garbage cans at home, or the immense concrete structures where we store our cars at work. By extension, it is about streets and factories and buses and shops and office buildings and all the places where we live our lives. It is about skyscrapers and pollution and the sun reflecting its dazzling brilliance off a neighbor’s window. The gardens in this world are likely to be potted plants sitting on an apartment’s balcony, but they can also be public parks, or weeds coming up through the pavement. Where houses and lawns appear, they belong to workers and their families.

It looks forward, not backwards. It views reality through a cracked window pane, not rose-colored glasses. When it looks to the past, it does so to process the wounds of existence at either the personal or the national level. It is urban, global, and built by human hands. It is gritty realism, not gentle romanticism. It is youthful in outlook, and often written by poets who are young. It has gender parity with men and women contributing equally.

Garage tanka are blue collar and pink collar. They feature the struggles of ordinary men and women, struggles that often end in defeat. Garage poets know despair, but they also know courage. Carrying with them the scars of their existence, they resonate to the hardscrabble beauty they find in the streets and in the alleys. They don’t trust perfection. They like their warts and they value their scars, scars that are trophies of their challenges. Often sardonic, sometimes cynical, they keep their wits about them. They enjoy dark humor and parody.

Garage poets are tough, but they have compassion. Their own challenges make them sympathetic to the challenges of others. They are more likely to release a spider than to kill it, and they feel an existential guilt when they use bug spray. They know that for every living thing trying to live its own life, there’s somebody who doesn’t want them in the neighborhood. They are as likely to read Kafka as the Kokinwakashū.

Garage poets are not nostalgic for the past. For them, the past wasn’t that great. They carry the burdens of Faulknerian families and they know why a streetcar is named ‘desire.’ They are eager participants in the new world and interested in everything from body modification to space exploration. They read. Oh yes, they read! They read Saigyo and Goldstein, manga and Mother Jones, Plato and politics. And they write. They write poetry. They are sensitive souls, so they have grown tough but not callous from the constant chafing of life. They are old souls in young lives.

They live everywhere, in every city, every suburb, every small town, every state, every country, and every continent. They meet themselves in the avenues of Philadelphia and Kaula Lumpur. The suit and the sari both pass through their streets. They come in wheelchairs and speaking Sign Language. They come in every color, nationality, religion, gender, and sexual orientation and they like it. They are immigrants and natives, and they feel the artificial borders of the world crossing their flesh and leaving marks. They transcend boundaries. They overcome limitations. But sometimes they’re just so damn tired they sit down and hold their heads.

Through the Internet, through word of mouth, through books, they have discovered tanka, waka, kyoka, and gogyoshi, and in them, found a lens with which to view their world. It is a magnifying lens that allows them to see in great detail exactly what is in front of them and why it is so extraordinary by being ordinary. They have taken the tools of ancient tanka and, with a keen appreciation for their power, applied them to their own time and place. They have made tanka new by keeping it real.

Poets that typify this modern style are found among those of the 20th and 21st centuries. First, the hard-working Jun Fujita and the other Japanese North American tanka poets in Canada and the United States who wrote about their lives and their worlds. To them, Japan was not an Oriental fantasy, and although they’d seen cherry blossoms, they were a natural part of their lives, not an exotic Other. They compiled an anthology called Sounds from the Unknown edited by Lucille Nixon and Tomoe Tana.

Some of the poets featured in the anthology went on to publish personal collections, the most notable of whom was Kisaburo Konoshima. Writing in Japanese, he published Hudson, but much later, his grandson David Callner translated the work into English. Konoshima’s life spanned Japan, Brazil, and the United States. He was everything from a teacher in Japan to a farmer in California to a blue collar worker in New York City. Although his tanka acknowledge hardship, Konoshima himself had the ability to appreciate simple pleasures. The following are from Hudson:

When I reply, “I don’t do anything!”
the cabbie laughs, “That’s a fine position!”

Dressed up not to look like denizens of the slum
young men and women are holding hands

How much has this little spider to hope for?
shamming death on the backhouse floor

~Kisaburo Konoshima

Fujita and Konoshima are not the only poets to bring the tanka sensibility to the New World. A number of contemporary tanka poets working in English, such as Andrew Riutta, Denis M. Garrison, Tom Clausen, Matsukaze, Grunge, Sanford Goldstein, Joy McCall, Bob Lucky, and Alexis Rotella know how to keep it real. Rotella wrote her Italian American husband’s autobiography in tanka, Black Jack Judy and the Crisco Kids : Bronx Memories:

My grandmother
who only speaks Sicilian
has a long animated talk
with a neighbor woman
who speaks only Yiddish

Radish belch—
what’s that smell!
Cousin Margaret shrieks
as I slither sideways
out of the room.

~Alexis Rotella

Keeping it real means no subject is taboo. Reality affords the greatest freedom to poets who don’t need to confine themselves to conventional tropes, methods of expression, or subject matter. That may explain why ‘The Garage, Not the Garden’ received nearly five hundred submissions—almost double any other special feature at Atlas Poetica. That’s why we have decided to offer a special feature that is almost double in length. Forty-eight poets representing fourteen countries and five continents write about crime, coffee, highrises, holidays, and goddesses of the digital age. They remind us that the trope of the dead man is as old as the Man’yoshū, and that the seemingly eternal night of the city is as transient as a dream in spring. Their color is the grey of the buildings, the streets, and the people, but also the popping red of firetrucks, flowers, and passion. They speak a Babel of languages, but wherever they go, the commonality of our human existence underlies the surface differences.

1) Alexis Rotella, United States of America

summer afternoon
a check arrives
my dead mother’s insurance policy
just in time
to pay our bills

2) Amada Burgard, United States of America

sitting on the
corner, my face
in my hands,
after a mugging,
police never show

3) Amelia Fielden, Australia

at Joe’s cafe
the coffee afternoon
grinds on, while
flies laze around the dregs
of poetry

4) Barbara A. Taylor, Australia

misty mornings
high-rise towers
I park my bicycle
and clock-in

5) Bob Lucky, Ethiopia

only Muslims at the bar
drinking juice
and double shots of Jack—
paradise is always near

6) Britton Gildersleeve, United States of America

no farming for me
a brownstone on a thin lot
festooned with trees
loud with conversation
to either side of right, left

7) Bruce England, United States of America

I roll out of bed
crawl to light switch
pull my blankets and
pillow down to the floor

8) Carole Harrison, Australia

wagga summer—
cinnamon leaves
a pied piper wind
and a sleek sports car

9) Carole Johnston, United States of America

once I followed
the popping red sunset
off the chrome wheels
of a screaming fire truck
down hot city streets

10) Chen-ou Liu, Canada

a factory girl
pressing her face against
the window . . .
by gray tenement housing
unknown red flowers in bloom

11) Claire Everett, United Kingdom

all the same
he still scurries past
the police station—
just another floral dress
in this quiet market town

12) Dawn Bruce, Australia

two moths
zig zag between
what dizzy heights
will our affair reach

13) Debbie Strange, Canada

a busker
plays cello at the market
his little dog
wears a sign
“will play for dog food”

14) Diana Teneva, Bulgaria

a red spot
on the 15th floor—
my potted pelargonium
seeing me off
with a gentle move

15) Eamonn O’Neill, Ireland

trying to resurrect a self
damaged by church
and addiction
some days
have two nights

16) Ernesto P. Santiago, The Philippines

city birds . . .
treating with contempt
the winter
ardently against
low-rising slum(bers)

17) Fiona Tsang, Australia

Venus incarnate
from a distance, her pink heels
look like scallop shells
a goddess in mortal flesh
striding down Fifth Avenue

18) gennepher, United Kingdom

driving down the motorway
I notice a speed camera on a bridge
automatically I slow down
but then, as I approach
a pigeon flies away

19) Genie Nakano, United States of America

after 911
I flew to Kuala Lumpur
the airport empty
silence on the shiny floors
terror scratched on the walls

20) Geoffrey Winch, United Kingdom

the luckless
victims of crime
sufferers of injustice
sick, humiliated, deaf, blind
this city is theirs, is mine

21) Gerry Jacobson, Australia

at the bus interchange—
two teenagers
waifs and strays
flotsam and jetsam

22) Grunge, United States of America

they say birth is
the greatest miracle
but in her agony
all I see is
an exorcism

23) Jenny Ward Angyal, United States of America

an amber alert
on my cellphone
at midnight
the child in me
goes missing

24) Joanne Morcom, Canada

I wave
at new neighbors
and hope
that we never
become friends

25) Johannes S. H. Bjerg, Denmark

ain’t I just
the biggest and meanest
bug around
a fly on the telly walks
across Branagh’s face

26) Joy McCall, United Kingdom

in the doorway
of the mustard shop
a boy sleeps rough—
boys have done that here
for a hundred years

27) Kath Abela Wilson, United States of America

not here but there
a huge attendance
for an Eastern European fest
bowed head devotees
at the classical opera street show

28) Lauren Mayhew, United States of America

on the #85 bus
until now . . .
her bag of red apples
spills at my feet

29) LeRoy Gorman, Canada

dwarfing a factory
built when Victoria was queen
a digital goddess
pitches underwear
for a perfect world

30) Liette Janelle, Canada

crossing the bridge
with the sun in the eyes—
water on fire
shines from one side
to the other side

31) M. Kei, United States of America

false dawn
the slow radiance
of the computer
coming to life
when no one is awake

32) Margaret Chula, United States of America

the latest victim
of a gangland shooting
lies on the sidewalk
his head at the end
of a chalk rainbow

33) Marilyn Humbert, Australia

in the tunnel
on our motorbike
between the crosshairs

34) Matsukaze, United States of America

some kid
incarcerated for child-killing—
after being on the news,
being on trial; his dead body
later found in an alley

35) Matthew Caretti, United States of America

no one watching
early morning traffic lights
turn green, amber, red
nor the roadside trees changing
under autumn’s falling spell

36) Michelle Brock, Australia

latin lovers
serenade the suburbs—
frogs and crickets
woo clotheslines
of moonlit lingerie

37) Nu Quang, Vietnam/United States of America

opens its first flagship store
in Ho Chi Minh City
the Mermaid skin-diving
in the Mekong

38) Patricia Prime, New Zealand

twelve young poets
question the status quo
as we listen to poems,
the bones and skin of them,
the grit and bite of everything

39) Pravat Kumar Padhy, India

early dawn
with tender sunrays
I wish
light to reach the huts
of the slum-dwellers

40) Randy Brooks, United States of America

a refreshing conversation
with a gorilla
at the zoo
I think we can be
best friends

41) Richard St. Clair, United States of America

a deaf woman
signing to her friend
though I don’t understand
I find myself weeping

42) Roary Williams, United States of America

a Mexican man and I
bump into each other
and we say we’re sorry
in different languages

43) Sanford Goldstein, Japan/United States of America

outside the garage
the brother and sister
set up a card table,
lemonade five cents or ten,
their clenched fists opened for their mother

44) Susan Burch, United States of America

calling 911
my mother screams
my baby’s missing
shit, I think from the toilet
she’s forgotten me again

45) Sergio Ortiz, United States of America

I breed sparrows
that build altars beside my bed
wake to the smell
of his hair without recalling
his name or my own

46) Sylvia Forges-Ryan, United States of America

Monday morning
wakeup call
as I roll to my other side
the garbage truck brakes
heave a sigh

47) Terry Ingram, United States of America

the cameras
at the stoplights
take images
of the pace of life
and exact a toll

48) Vasile Moldovan, Romania

the home with girls
is always locked
but a ladybird
ignoring the iron padlock
enters and comes out when it wants

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