Like the haiku, the Japanese tanka counts syllables. A total of 31 syllables exist in the poem. The first three lines follow the haiku form of 5-7-5 syllables. Lines 4 and 5 of the tanka are each seven syllables in length.

It originated in the 7th Century. Not only did the Japanese nobles write tankas, but ordinary men and women wrote them when courting. They were a note of gratitude—a thank you note for time spent together. The shift in the topic occurs between Line 3 and Line 4. This pivot moves from examining the image to examining the personal response to the image.

Neal Henry Lawrence, an American academic scholar and poet, wrote this tanka:

Black as night, Fuji
Mountain rising in the dawn
As the sun appears.
Peace returns after the storm;
All is ready for the day.

Notice the shift from night to day (Lines 1-3) and from storm to peace (Lines 4-5).

Ruby Spriggs, a Canadian poet, wrote this tanka:

a sudden loud noise
all the pigeons of Venice
at once fill the sky
that is how it felt when your hand
accidentally touched mine

Count the syllables in Sprigg’s poem. Notice Line 4 has eight syllables, and Line 5 has six syllables. The syllabic count of the lines is different than the original form, but the count of syllables for the entire poem is still thirty-one. Notice also the shift from pigeons to her hand being touched.

So how do writers actually write tanka poems? No two writers have the same process for drafting a poem, but these steps may be of help:

  • Brainstorm a list of topics. You may start with something in the natural world, but remember you need to be prepared to make the shift in the topic as well.  Remember to be microscopic in listing the possible images.
  • Choose one of the topics from your brainstorming list. Save the others on the list for another poem or other piece of writing.
  • Without consideration to the syllabic count, write the first three lines like a haiku.
  • Again, not being concerned about the syllabic count, write the fourth and fifth lines. Be sure to make a shift in the scene, a surprise that is completely different than the previous lines.
  • Next, read the five lines and ask yourself the following questions:
    • Is the focus narrow enough on the topic?
    • Do the lines work together?
    • Does the fourth line create an element of surprise, enlightenment, or demonstrate a shift in thought?
  • Next, begin the work of revision.
    • Rewrite lines that didn’t work.
    • Rework the lines to fit the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count of the tanka. You may need to choose synonyms if the words you have do not work.
    • Check to make sure your verbs are in present tense.


  • Set it aside for a few days. Read it again. Make necessary revisions until it works the way you want it to.
  • Finally, submit it for possible publication. Many literary journals specialize in short poems.
  • In the comment section below, list a topic (image) that could be a tanka poem?

Works Cited

Lawrence, Neal Henry. “Black as Night, Fuji.” Six Tanka Poems. Saint Johns Abbey. 1997-2004. Web. 14 March 2013.

Sprigg, Ruby. “A Sudden Loud Noise.” Notes on Form, Techniques, and Subject Matter in Modern English Tanka. Tanka Online. 2003. Web. 14 March 2013.










Haikus, which originated in the 9th Century in Japan, are three-line nature poems. They capture an image from the physical world. They are like a window into a scene.

When looking at the Japanese haiku, the first and last line consist of five moras, a sound unit much like a syllable but not identical to it. The middle line has seven moras. Since the moras do not translate well in English, syllables are used instead of moras. Thus, the traditional line format of an American haiku is this:  five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables.  At the end of the first or second line, is a kigo, a seasonal word to specify the time of year. It is not an overt word, but rather a subtle word that represents the season.

Basho Matsuo is considered a great poet of the Japanese haiku in the 1600s.  Here’s one of his poems translated by Harry Behn:

An old silent pond.
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

Notice Matsuo’s poem focuses on the frog in his natural world, the pond. Notice the verb jump is present tense, so that readers feel as if they are watching the scene as it unfolds. Notice also there is a division in the poem at splash. The shift is from a silent pond to splash to silence again. Notice also that instead of saying how the scene makes Matsuo feel, he shows the details. It’s like placing the scene underneath a microscope and observing it minutely.

So how do writers actually write haiku poems? Although no two writers have the same process for drafting a poem, one or more of these steps may be of help to you:

  • Brainstorm a list of topics in the natural world.  Be microscopic in listing the possible images. You might even take a walk in the natural world to observe possible topics.
  • Choose one of the topics from your brainstorming list. Save the others on the list for another poem or other piece of writing.
  • Without consideration to the syllabic count, write two lines about the scene.
  •  Again, not being concerned about the syllabic count, write the third. Be sure to make a shift in the scene, a surprise that is completely different than the first two lines.
  • Next, read the three lines and ask yourself the following questions: Is the focus narrow enough on the topic—microscopic on one scene in nature? Do the lines work together? Does the third line create an element of surprise, enlightenment, or focus on the natural world?
  •  Next, begin the work of revision. Rewrite lines that didn’t work. Rework the lines to fit the 5-7-5 syllable count of the haiku. You may need to choose synonyms if the words you have do not work. Check to make sure your verbs are in present tense.
  •  Set it aside for a few days. Read it again. Make necessary revisions and continue the pattern of setting it aside and revising it until it works the way you want it to.
  •  Finally, submit it for possible publication. Many literary journals specialize in haiku or other short poems. For a list of possible journals and contests, consider The Haiku Society of America at http://www.hsa-haiku.org/.

 In the comment section below, list topics (images) that could be a haiku poem.

Work Cited

Matsuo, Basho. “An Old Silent Pond.” Famous Examples of Haiku Poetry. n.d. Web. 14 March 2013.

Whether writers get their rejection letters in their U.S. postal mailboxes or whether they receive them in their email InBoxes, the initial reaction is universal—one of disappointment.

However, what writers do with rejection after that initial disappointment can be quite divergent. Here are some of the possible responses:

Some writers quit writing. It’s not the letters that cause writers to end their careers, but rather it is the response to the letters. The rejection and disappointment are too strong for some writers to handle, and their unique voice is lost. Quitting is a choice, but it doesn’t have to be the decision writers make. Other alternatives exist.

Some writers continue to be prolific writers, but they don’t submit their work for publication. Emily Dickinson did this. She wrote hundreds of poems that were published posthumously.

Some writers revise their drafts and then send them out again. This is particularly helpful if an editor gave constructive feedback. Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, received 60+ letters and with each rejection, her response was revision.

Some join or start a writer’s group. Regularly meeting with other writers, sharing manuscripts for feedback, and writing together advances a writer’s career and hones their writing skills.

Some study literary journals to find a better fit for their work. This is an essential part of the process for all submissions, but it can be particularly true if a piece has been rejected multiple times.

Some hire a writing coach. The writing coach provides feedback that the writer then uses in drafting revisions. Sometimes the revision recommendations are global to the piece; other times they are more focused on individual parts of the piece. Usually a writing coach is also well read and can recommend possible places to submit the work.

Some hire an agent. An agent studies each manuscript to decide which publishers or literary journals they should be submitted to. The agent receives the rejection letters and resubmits the work to another possible publisher or editor.

Some self-publish their work. With today’s technology of desktop publishing software and print-on-demand presses, self-publication is an option. However, if writers do this, they need to be prepared to do many other things in order to print and sell their work.

All writers, who want to publish, need to embrace the rejection as part of the process. Be disappointed, yes. However, move beyond that by noting that a rejection letter means you are on the journey that every writer experiences.

My response to rejections is generally two-fold: revise my work and study what editors and publishers are looking for. What has been your response to rejection letters?

Every writer—even the ones who we consider famous—have had their work rejected multiple times before it found its home with publishers or editors of a literary journals. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s true. Over the years, I’ve kept a list of prominent writers whose work was rejected.  Here are a few for you to consider:

Publishers rejected The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, so many times that Potter eventually self-published it.

Fifteen publishers rejected E. E. Cummings’ first book The Enormous Room. He eventually self-published it, and the dedication page listed the fifteen publishers who rejected it. The book became a poetic masterpiece.

Twenty-six publishers rejected Madeleine L. ‘Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time. Yet, it won the 1963 Newbery Medal. I bet those publishers wished they had the contract with Engle.

Twenty publishers rejected Frank Herbert’s book Dune. Herbert went on to become a well-loved science fiction writer.

One publisher said this about George Orwell’s book Animal Farm: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” Wrong. This book has stood the test of time and sold millions.

An editor said this about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” Good thing Fitzgerald didn’t do that.

One publisher said this about The Diary of Anne Frank:  “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.” Readers proved that publisher wrong, too.

And more recently, big publishers like Penguin and HarperCollins rejected J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. London publisher Bloomsbury only accepted it because the CEO’s eight-year-old daughter pleaded with her dad to print the book. Children, youth, adults, from around the world, validated that decision again and again.

And there are many more famous writers and books on my list. So what should this list say to us, who are aspiring writers?  For me it says:  Don’t give up. Don’t give up until your work has found its home with a publisher or literary journal. Don’t give up until your work has found its readers.

What does the list say to you?

Over the years as a middle school teacher, college professor, and writing coach, I’ve helped a large number of writers—young and old—get their work published. I find as much reward in doing that as seeing my own name in print. And I’m hoping that this post will help you get your work published in a well-established and well-liked Minnesota literary journal titled the Lake Region Review.

Lake Region Review publishes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry by writers in Minnesota and eastern Dakotas. They have a fondness for pieces that have a connection to the region, but it is not required. The cover of each journal features the artwork of a local visual artist. Four hundred copies of the journal are sold or distributed each year by mail order, to public libraries, in bookstores, and at events.

Audrey Kletscher Helbling, the Minnesota Prairie Roots blogger, mentioned the Lake Region Review and Talking Stick, another Minnesota literary journal in her January 15, 2013 blog post. She said, “Both [journals] feature a diversity of fine, fine regional writing.”

Past Lake Region Review editors Mark Vinz and Athena Kildegaard wrote in the second edition:

Our aim in selecting writing for this issue is simply to look for the best writing that engages and enlightens through attention to language. In these pages you’ll find characters challenged by circumstances (and weather), poems charged with vitality (and weather), and essays that will provoke and move you.

My poem “Meltwater,” which was one of the poems that had weather in it (i.e.: melting snow), was published in the second issue.

Currently, the Lake Region Review has a new call for manuscripts for Volume 3. Writers can submit up to three poems, a short story, or a creative nonfiction piece. Writers can even submit in more than one genre. The deadline for submission is June 1, 2013. To read more about the Lake Region Review and the submission guidelines, go to http://lakeregionwriters.net/lake-region-review/.

Then, check your writing folders, the ones with unpublished or in-process pieces. Select one or more pieces, do final revisions, and submit them to the Lake Region Review.

If you have questions, feel free to contact me or post them below this blog, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

All forms of art—paintings, music, sculptures, literature—explore the nuances of life. Because all forms of art do this, it’s not surprising that the art forms cross over and draw inspiration from each other. Ekphrastic writing is a piece of literature that is about a piece of art, for example, a poem about a painting.

Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night” has inspired two works. Don McLean, an American singer and songwriter, wrote “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night).” The song starts with the color in the painting in the opening stanza:

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Anne Sexton, an American poet, wrote the poem “The Starry Night.”  Her poem starts with the tree in Van Gogh’s painting:

The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.

Not only do writers write about art; painters have also painted as a result of inspiration from a piece of writing. When I was a high school, I was introduced to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Great Figure.”

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

“The Great Figure” prompted Charles Demuth, an American painter, to create his work The Figure 5 in Gold.

Have you ever thought about writing about art? Next time you visit a museum or an art gallery, bring your notebook or journal. Or next time you’re at the library or a bookstore, get a book with photographs of works of art.  Try Ekphrastic writing by giving someone or something in the artwork a voice.

Works Cited

McLean, Don. “Starry, Starry Night Lyrics.” Van Gogh Gallery. 2012-2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Sexton, Anne. “The Starry Night.” Poetry Foundation.  2013. Web. 30 Jan. 2013.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Great Figure.” Sour Grapes: A Book of Poems. Boston: Four Seas Company, 1921.

Whether writing a poem or a creative nonfiction vignette, it’s not easy to write about a loved one who has died. Yet we, who grieve, the loss often feel compelled to put words about the person or experience of loss on paper. Meghan O’Rourke, in “Story’s End” an article published in The New Yorker, writes:

My mother died on Christmas Day, at home, around three in the afternoon. In the first months afterward, I felt an intense desire to write down the story of her death, to tell it over and over to friends. I jotted down stray thoughts and memories in the middle of the night. Even during her last weeks, I found myself squirrelling away her words, all her distinctive expressions: “I love you to death” and “Is that our wind I hear?”

Recording a person’s words—a person’s story—is a natural response. We want the individual to live on through the words. We want to show our connection to him/her. We want to make sense of the loss in our life.

Deb Marquart did just that in her poem “My Father’s Wallet.”  If you’ve never read it or if you’d like to read it again, take a moment to click on the title, which is a link to the poem on the Writer’s Almanac website.

Marquart portrays her father’s life through one of his personal objects.  Through his wallet readers learn he’s a typical American farmer, one who drove his pickup “to auctions every Tuesday” and to the local café to discuss “grain yields, corn futures” with other area farmers. Through the wallet readers learn he was a frugal man; he had “unused lines of credit.” And through the wallet readers learn her father has died because the wallet “rests now in the cupboard,” the one thing Marquart’s mother kept “packed as he left it.”

I’ve often wanted to write about my mother in the same way Marquart did her father. Someday. Maybe. And if I do, my poem will be titled “My Mother’s Headscarf.”

What about you? Who would you write about it? What object would you use to tell the person’s life story?

Works Cited

Marquart, Deb. “My Father’s Wallet.” The Writer’s Almanac. 14 Sept. 2010. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

O’Rourke, Meghan. “Story’s End.” The New Yorker.  (7 Mar. 2011): n. pag. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.