Writing Exercise

by | May 6, 2013 | Writing Exercise | 11 comments

by Ashley Lister

Back in November we discussed haiku here – the traditional Japanese poetic form. Haiku, as you may remember, is a form that is typified in Western writing as three lines of poetry with a distinctive 5-7-5 syllable pattern. Well, now it’s time to look at the tanka – five lines of poetry with a syllable pattern of 5-7-5-7-7.

To illustrate:

You undress for me
Exposing hidden contours
And then the fun starts
We explore our nudity
Until our climaxes come

For many writers the middle line is the essential balancing part of the tanka. Sometimes called the pivot line, this middle line can end the sentiment of the first three lines of the poem and it can begin a separate sentiment for the final three lines.

We’ve fucked for an age
Our bodies fluid with sweat
Orgasm evades
Yet seems to linger so close
Tantalisingly nearer

Of course there are ways to interpret the tanka for writers who don’t care to be bound by the rigidity of counting syllables. There are also ways to incorporate the tanka into renga poetry – collaborative writing in a similar form. But this version, as disciplined as the traditional haiku yet with a little more scope for narrative and lyricism, is well worth attempting.

I look forward to seeing your tanka in the comments box below.

Ashley Lister

Ashley Lister is a UK author responsible for more than two-dozen erotic novels written under a variety of pseudonyms. His most recent work, a non-fiction book recounting the exploits of UK swingers, is his second title published under his own name: Swingers: Female Confidential by Ashley Lister (Virgin Books; ISBN: 0753513439) Ashley’s non-fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Forum, Chapter & Verse and The International Journal of Erotica. Nexus, Chimera and Silver Moon have published his full-length fiction, with shorter stories appearing in anthologies edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Rachel Kramer Bussel and Mitzi Szereto. He is very proud to be a regular contributor to ERWA.


  1. Remittance Girl

    Back-seat fucks are good
    the quick heat, the cramped passion,
    but better by far
    the after-glance across space
    on the journey home.

  2. Ashley R Lister

    RG – lovely to see you poeming 😉 This has your typical no-nonsense vocabulary and makes good use of the pivot.

    Is your last line deliberately missing two syllables?


  3. Rachel Green

    a line of blood
    follows the curve of your spine
    the fall of the whip
    breathy moans
    filled with need

    salt on my tongue
    a love letter spelled out
    on moist labia
    you lost track of the words
    but enjoyed the sentiment

    a skirt hitched up
    the glimpse of a stocking top
    on the underground
    An Angel at Islington
    minding the gap

  4. Rachel Green

    Love the heat of Remittance Girl's

    Mine? bugger the syllables.

    • Ashley R Lister

      Rachel – there are few things sexier than someone throwing the rule book out of the window and producing something of quality. You and RG are proof of that 🙂

      Bugger the rule book
      Focus on the excitement
      Think only of sex
      Don't fret about syllables
      Don't count passion on fingers.

    • Rachel Green

      Exactly so — and what a superb rejoinder 🙂

  5. Ashley R Lister

    Rachel – I think there's a book of poems in the title 'bugger the rule book' 🙂

  6. Lisabet Sarai

    Ok, here's my attempt. I don't think it scans well at all, but the syllables are right. (I've always been good, alas, at following rules.)


    Eyes lock. Knowledge sparks
    the gap. Cascade of fingers,
    tongues, entangled limbs,
    sweat-slick, breathless, yielding. One
    endless night. The light turns green.

  7. Lisabet Sarai

    Also, a question to Ash, RG, Rachel –

    How much of the tanka-writing process is inspiration, how much analysis, for you? I started with an idea, but the process of fitting the syllable counts felt quite mechanical.

  8. Rachel Green

    Lisabet – lovely. I remember fast kissing at traffic lights 🙂

    The mechanics is why I rearely write to the rules. I've written a tanka a day (plus a cinquain, haiku, senryu and sevenling) for the last ten years (too few of them erotic, alas) and the flow is always more important than the syllable count. Syllables are a very clumst way of interpreting Japanese rhythm, anyway, whatever the American Haiku Association thinks.

  9. Ashley R Lister

    Lisabet – sorry for the delay in replying.

    Love the hook-up, especially the enjambment of those internal lines. It's saucy and has the suggestion of a narrative.

    In answer to your question: I have to agree with Rachel. The flow is always more important than the mechanical adherence to the syllable count. However, the process of thinking in syllables (rather than the usual mindset of thinking solely in words with conventional connotations/denotations) usually gets the imagination considering new ways of phrasing things.


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