FIFTH ANNUAL SENRYU CONTEST
We received a record number of entries for our annual senryu contest this year. Our judge, Robin Anna Smith, had to choose the winning poems from over 170 submissions. Thank you so much to everyone who participated and for sharing your hilarious and, at other times, thought-provoking pieces. We asked you to break new ground, and you did just that. Big round of congratulations all around!
About Robin Anna Smith:
Robin Anna Smith (she/her/Mx) is a writer and visual artist, who has won awards for her senryu, haiku, and haiga, and received a Pushcart nomination for one of her haibun. She is the founding and chief editor for Human/Kind Journal, a journal of topical and contemporary Japanese short-forms and art, and an Associate Editor at Yavanika Press. Website: www.robinannasmith.com
Thoughts on the contest:
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this contest. It was such an honor to read your words and it was so fulfilling to be able to choose a small handful that resonated strongly with me and comment on them. I had to really nitpick as there were many excellent submissions. My long list consisted of 36 poems and my shortlist contained 11. Out of 172, I think that’s a pretty impressive showing! I believe every senryu stands on its own merit and therefore every piece will have different redeeming qualities that might not be found in the next. They don’t all need to have the same elements to be successful—in fact, just the opposite. I was very pleased with the amount of variety in the submissions received.
urBANization THE opPRESSion of fresh asphalt
- Julie Bloss Kelsey, USA
stretching my versatility
an em dash
- Aparna Pathak, India
let me fini
- Sanela Pliško, Croatia
Engin Gülez, Turkey
mahjong all my infidelities
- Marilyn Ashbaugh,USA
bear claws believing what I want to believe
- Christine L. Villa, USA
I wasn’t sure on the first few readings that this senryu was accomplishing what I felt it was trying to accomplish and looking at it was a bit uncomfortable (and rightly so, given the context). As I let it steep, the more I saw what wasn’t there versus what was readily apparent, that was when this piece really began to speak to me.
urbanization / the oppression / of fresh asphalt & BAN / THE PRESS
The first part conjures images of city expansion via deforestation, displaced wildlife, increased pollution, and all that comes with it. It also brings to mind gentrification, which displaces locals, by quickly magnifying inequities of income and increasing homelessness. “Oppression” might not be what some think of when they imagine a new road or urbanization—they might prefer to think of the benefits it might provide. But who will reap those benefits and at what cost?
The second part speaks to the frightening idea that a group or person in power can ban anything/anyone who doesn’t agree with them or challenges them, in this case the press. There is a long history across the globe of governmental groups censoring the news in order to spread propaganda and control the masses. Juxtaposed with part one, this second part imparts the visual of a steamroller coming through—ready or not, and despite protest—to take what it wants by force (e.g. “grab them by the pu$$@”).
This poem has multiple strong juxtapositions that create a discord that resonates as potently as any harmony, and is topically a timely reflection of current events. It creates an internal stir that makes it impossible to overlook. The impact of its message is compounded and leaves us with a senryu we will continue to think of and reflect on for years to come (hopefully with change).
Oh, the many wonderful things an em dash can do! Comparing the narrator’s versatility to an em dash is an apt way of reflecting on the constant need for us, as humans, to adapt in these times, and the pressure of feeling we need to be everything to everyone.
When I was growing up, my parents’ generation commonly said, “A Jack of all trades is a Master of none,” but that sort of thinking has been phased out in our rapidly-changing, technology-driven world. Many people who are considered successful today are not necessarily the experts in their fields or those with the most education, but they are people who are driven to try new things, who adapt quickly, and who have the willingness and ability to take risks.
The concrete nature of extending L1, as opposed to breaking it into two lines, highlights the idea of the narrator stretching themselves, almost visibly showing us their effort. There are a lot of things this versatility could be referring to: adapting to the job market, learning new skills for pleasure, generally trying to be a people-pleaser, et cetera.
There is, of course, a way to look at it more negatively, in that our society is awfully pushy about labeling us and putting us in boxes. This is type of control mechanism. To find personal fulfillment beyond the approval of others, many of us have to keep striving outside those limitations to continue to grow in the directions of our own choosing.
Overall, this senryu’s greatest power lies in its openness; we are given plenty of space to interpret it in our own ways. The reader can substitute nearly anything in that space to create their own juxtaposition.
The first thing that struck me about this senryu was how, despite its first words being “it’s over,” it can create an endless loop. That is exactly how it can feel to be around someone who constantly talks over you, interrupts, or shuts you down.
L1 lets us know from the start that the narrator is putting a stop to something, L2 is a hint of the beginning of the end, and L3 drives home the point, while leaving us hanging just a bit with “fini.” If we read “fini” as a cut-off of “finish,” it brings the senryu to an end, just as the narrator is doing with this relationship. That said, L3’s “fini” could also be interpreted as fini, French for “finished.” If read that way, with a natural pause between “me” and “fini,” it takes us right back up into L1, creating a potentially unending loop of this disruptive tactic.
it’s over / you never / let me . . .fini / it’s over / you never / let me . . .
In some cases, this behavior might just be an annoying habit someone has, but the narrator is telling us that, in this case, it is enough to cut this person off. This makes it feel like there is more to the story. Oftentimes, the type of person who employs such methods will not take “it’s over” or “no” as an answer (they are clearly not listening), and the cycle becomes even more difficult to break due to intimidation or even violence. This potential to continue the cycle within the senryu and the contrast of the fragment and phrase are reflective of this.
It is important that there is a choice in the reading of this poem as either unending or as something that is halted. It reinforces the idea that we have the ability to stop abusive behaviors and relationships, despite how difficult it might be—that there is hope.
First Honourable Mention:
While this senryu’s words hint at its meaning, the concrete nature of it amplifies some of those potential meanings and adds an additional shift (literally and figuratively).
quake / my sphere quake my sphere quake / my sp here
At first read, one might take “quake” as a noun, like an earthquake or moonquake, but it could also be read as a verb. “My sphere” could be interpreted as the world as a whole, or the life or body of the individual. Juxtaposing the two gives us a feeling of the narrator being shaken globally/as a whole.
The choice of placement of the line break at the end of L2, as opposed to leaving the word whole (either on L2 or L3) lets us know that the effects of this quake are significant. The sphere has been broken and shifted to the extent that it is no longer functioning properly. Additionally, L3 as “here” further emphasizes how close the epicenter of the quake is and that there is no escaping it.
It is a powerful senryu that leaves us a bit shaken, giving us ample space to interject ourselves into the poem and feel it firsthand. With the big changes and conflicts of international proportions in the past several years, this senryu feels like a timely response to the stress, displacement, and physical harm many individuals and groups of people are experiencing in society and at the hands of those in power.
Second Honourable Mention:
This senryu feels pretty direct in what it tells us—there have been infidelities; though we don’t know whether they are romantic or sexual. They could potentially be infidelities to one’s religion, one’s culture, one’s parents, a boss, et cetera. The juxtaposition with “mahjong” implies that there is some kind of score-keeping going on, as well as secrecy, and possibly intricate planning and strategy to keep up with everything.
There are many different rules to mahjong, but for the most part, players try to complete a certain number of matching sets, worth different points. When the game begins, small tiles form a wall which is dismantled piece by piece over the course of the game. Players keep their working tiles secret, always scouting for the next one to complete a set, and trying to figure out the other players’ strategies to try and stay ahead of them.
Perhaps this poem is about one primary relationship with its wall now down, requiring no more hiding. Or perhaps it is about a general life-long score across many different kinds of relationships. Misreading the senryu straight through as a sentence, “mahjong all my infidelities,” sounds like the narrator is collecting and categorizing a variety of betrayals. In the game, when a player completes their sets and has a mahjong, it is announced, the game ends, and scores are calculated. It feels like the narrator of this senryu is ready to call it.
This poem’s deceiving simplicity leaves plenty of room for readers to consider a variety of topics related to faithfulness, promises, and things they hide from others, allowing it to become quite complex.
Third Honourable Mention:
At first read, this poem is a humorous commentary on the little fibs we tell ourselves to allow for simple pleasures. Who among us hasn’t told ourselves a “white lie” knowing full well what we are doing? And really, any excuse to eat one of these lovely pastries!
However, reading further into it, it takes on quite a different tone. There is a growing unwillingness of people to engage in civil conversations that might foster understanding between individuals and groups with whom they may have differences of opinion. From this perspective, there is a lot to delve into for this senryu—too much to discuss here.
While one type of bear claw is a delicious treat, another type can be a deadly weapon. Willful ignorance can be relatively harmless when applied to some situations, but quite a danger in others. “Bear claw” can also be read as an action, where the bear strikes out to defend its position.
This senryu’s turn of phrase and juxtaposition pose a really great prompt for self-reflection for the reader. It allows enough space for us to examine the lies we tell ourselves, and to think about the effects of those lies versus what we shrug off as trivial or unimportant.