Name: Sugawara no Naeme
Location: Barony of Carolingia
Sometimes a project is something you have planned from start to finish, and sometimes a project grows and blossoms into something more wonderful than it’s humble beginnings would suggest. And sometimes there is a distinct reason why one takes on a project.
This project is bookended by grief.
During the pandemic, I lost my companion parrot, a yellow crested Amazon named Loretto. He was in his late 60’s and had been the light of my life for nine years. But he got sick, and crossed the rainbow bridge. I began my travelling outfit project in honor of my companion. During that project, I wanted to do things that helped to create a period mindset. I kept a daily blog of the project on my website, heianhaven.com, somewhat in the style of the nikki or journals kept by noblewomen during the Heian period of Japan.
Many of these diaries include poetry. Some diaries are entirely poetry.
On Oct 31, 2020, I announced in my blog that I was going to start writing poetry, specifically tanka.
It started with the annual November Tanka Challenge issued by Saionji Shonagon of the West Kingdom. I had watched the challenge take place before, and this time, on a bit of a whim, I decided to join in. It was my first time taking part in the challenge and I thought it would be a lovely addition to the daily blogging I was already doing for my travelling outfit, a way to feel more in touch with the period. I wrote one tanka each day and posted those in my blog and on Facebook in the SCA Japanese group.
At the end of the month I didn’t want to stop.
I decided to continue writing a tanka each day in conjunction with my travelling outfit project, then in progress for the Calontir Clothing Challenge and East Kingdom A&S Championship. It only seemed right. I finished that ensemble in early January, winning my division in the Calontir Clothing Challenge, and securing a finalist spot before being selected as the Consort’s Champion of A&S for the East, but I didn’t want to stop writing tanka. And I wanted another project.
Having completed A great task I find myself Wanting something new
The focus of adventure And thrill of exploration (116)
I wondered how much my skill could improve with a year of daily practice. I had already written more than 100 tanka, and I wondered if I could write 1000 tanka. What kind of mastery would I hold then? It needed a challenging goal. Maybe one year? I did the math, using November 1st as a start date, and it seemed doable. It would have been relatively easy, had I had the idea and started the project with intention, but this project had come into being in a rather organic way, an embracing of scope creep, and I felt behind as soon as I decided that 1000 was the goal. I announced the project in a blog post on February 9th, 2021, just over three months into the timeline and was at that point at 241 poems. I was one quarter of the way through before I really knew it was a thing. I continued writing tanka, at first four poems each day, for months, then three tanka each day, and with just a month left, I was writing two tanka each day and on target to finish a couple days early.
I had counted the poems to know how many I wrote over the course of the travelling outfit’s creation, but I didn’t start numbering the individual poems until around 400. While preparing the document to be published upon the completion of the project, now close to 800 poems, I went back and numbered all the tanka as I prefer them that way. I found one counting error that was shortly self corrected. And then I discovered that I had skipped right over 388. I did not want to renumber 600+ poems. So I wrote a poem to suit both that day, September 14th, and March 25th (the day of the missing poem). It may be the 909th poem written for the project, but this is 388.
As fall approaches Thoughts drift slowly back to Spring And flowers now gone
Oh to recapture what’s lost! How dear a price I would pay (388)
So, what are tanka?
Tanka is a Japanese classical poetic style, popular in the Heian period (794-1186). It was usually written in two lines, an upper phrase of 5-7-5 on and lower phrase of 7-7 on, on being something similar to syllables. When written in English, tanka are typically written in 5 lines. Tanka during the Heian period were full of word play and references to other poems while capturing the fleeting, ephemeral beauty of life.
In my tanka there are three “styles” of poem. One is decidedly modern. Another is written from the perspective of a Heian noblewoman, Sugawara no Naeme, my SCA persona. The last falls somewhere in between. My goal was to become familiar enough with the form that I could craft a poem within a few minutes of one being demanded, as could happen to a Heian noblewoman.
I was not immediately aware that I was sharing a lot of myself, very publicly. A kind friend thanked me for sharing it, and I had doubts about what I was doing. Was I sharing too much? Did I really want people to know me this way? I decided that I had made the decision when I made the first poem public, and that there was no use in fretting about it now. It was done, and it would be fine.
And now the other bookend. Near the end of the project my father became gravely ill. I had difficulty keeping up with the poems, but poured everything I was feeling into their continued creation. On October 7th, my father passed. I had three weeks left and less than 50 poems to go. I channeled my grief into my work. It helped. I am so grateful that I had this project to help me through one of the hardest times of my life.
I finished the project on October 25th, 2021, several days early.
There are people to thank for their help over the past year. My partner, Ogawa-dono, most of all for being understanding every time I didn’t come to bed because I still had tanka to write. I’m grateful for friends new and old on Facebook that reacted to every shared poem, offered regular encouragement, and even wrote the occasional poem in response. Their support helped me on the days that inspiration was lacking. Knowing that there were people looking forward to each new poem made all the difference.
I shared selected poems, almost every day, in two places, my SCA persona (Sugawara no Naeme) and mundane (Dawn Morningstar) Facebook pages, and I typically included a poem in each blog post on my website, HeianHaven.com. And now I’m sharing my completed work, a diary of a year in my life in the form of poetry, an uta nikki or nikki bungaku, inspired in part by the court diaries of Heian noblewomen. It’s nearly 150 pages, so it may take a moment to load: 1000 Tanka. Enjoy.
And I’ve decided to continue writing tanka, everyday. It has become a necessary daily meditation. And I did achieve my goal. I can now write a tanka within minutes of one being demanded.