September 2016
Featured Poet

UHTS collected works


UHTS Featured Poet
Marilyn Shoemaker Hazelton, USA
President, Tanka Society of America

My Journey

The House I Live In

I am very grateful to an’ya, to Peter, and to UHTS for this opportunity to look back at early influences on my work as editor of red lights, on decisions I’ve made as TSA’s President, and my teaching and writing.

The city where I grew up was working class and hyper-religious—a shaming culture, dismissive of girls and women, with societal straight-jackets for boys and men as well. It was difficult to develop an authentic sense of self there at that time. Authenticity was challenging for other reasons during my years of military service. However, I turned to poetry in 1970, while stationed in Thailand as a U.S. Air Force historian, as an escape from collating records of “trucks killed” on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That pivot toward creativity, on the edges of dehumanized language and massive destruction, lies at the heart of my creative awareness.

within the music
of Vietnamese women
asking?? answering??
the manicurist takes my hand
her nails unpolished, cracked

Freedom Bird
among the duffel bags—
a cargo of caskets
my cousin at Cam Ranh Bay
killed by booze last year

Leaving the military, marrying, having and raising children affected the time I was able to spend on creative work, but enriched the efforts as well. Beginning in 2002, after being rostered as a teaching artist by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, I was trained to analyze my creative process and develop lesson plans. The purpose was to teach from my own creative center in a way that invited school students and workshop participants to write from theirs.

A theory that describes Five Stages of Creativity developed by a German physiologist and physicist, Herman Helmholtz, a French mathematician, Henri Poincaré, and an American psychologist, Jacob Getzels, guides my poetic process. I teach this theory as often as I can because it has given me an understanding that has been formative and inspiring, especially in working with the Japanese poetic forms.

Simplified (from the original scientific terms) into wording 5th graders can understand, the theory involves a rhythm of five stages:

1. Beginning
2. Gathering (thoughts, memories, facts)
3. Letting Go;
4. Ah Ha! (the creative idea arrives)
5. Continuing (revision, completion, perhaps a return to Beginning)

At the end of the second stage in a writing project, I often experience doubt and sometimes anxiety about the possibility of continuing. But the rhythmic structure of activity and pause helps me understand that doubt and anxiety (no matter how powerful) can be temporary. During the Letting Go time the unconscious keeps working often resulting in a flash of insight (Ah Ha!).

The three-part tanka form, with a setting described in the first 2-3 lines, followed by a pause, then pivoting toward an insight or realization, seems to follow the rhythm of the creative process theory described above. I’ve written many tanka that don’t succeed. The poems that result in realization or insight change my life. And the creative process theory keeps me returning to paper and pen. Because the Ah Ha’s do arrive and have the ability to change the past, the present and the future.

they are shy
these women prisoners
we write poems
open the windows
of our convictions

watching the news
as she said, he said . . .
recalling his hands
below my breasts
I cross my arms tightly

how is it
tanka revises
personal history?
into this pivot
my heart leaps

how our lives
shift and change
the years
when I was speechless
are done

Childhood now is even more confusing than when I was growing up. To invite young people to explore their own creativity, I often give examples of poems I’ve written especially for them.

to be a fool
for spring
daffodils too
begin their honking

is the house
I live in
it teaches me
how to be strong

The rhythm of tanka has been a companion in terrible and easier times.

sending my son’s
death certificate
to his creditors
leaves rain down
after the storm

light finds light
this winter morning
and I
thankful in my grief
to have known love

in the haze
of tiny snowflakes falling
my anger eases
like all creatures
it rests now and then

this is why
I love violets in the spring
sturdy and wild
they redeem
our broken world

in line
at passport control
I receive blessings
in several languages

so many prayers
Jewish, Muslim, Christian
who can say
which are answered?
such hunger for God’s love

It was a great joy to attend the 2016 Japan Tanka Poets’ Festival in Karuizawa in June. I was impressed by the intensity of attention that participants gave to the poetry of fellow members. And how normal and usual the writing of tanka is for them. I enjoyed the opportunity to address the Festival and to thank those who were there for nurturing the tanka form and for sharing it with the world.

Finally, I anticipate that tanka will continue to craft and companion me on my journey.

there is a moment
on summer mornings
when I reach the shore
where the river of time
bends quite briefly

the shape
of my sadness changes
like a cloud drifting
fraying, taking form again
oh, but I love this life

Original versions of the tanka in this article have appeared in moonset, Atlas Poetica, Simply Haiku, Gusts, Take Five, Vol. 3, Ribbons, Moonbathing, and red lights.