LONDON – A British schoolgirl has become the 13th foreign winner of a Japanese tea company’s poetry competition with her ode to a newly cut lawn in autumn.
Gracie Starkey, a 14-year old student at Wycliffe College, Gloucestershire, submitted the poem in the English-language category with the rest of her Japanese class following a workshop with haiku poet Paul Conneally last October.
Walking across the school lawn with her friends, a flash of inspiration led to the words: “Freshly mown grass/ clinging to my shoes/ my muddled thoughts.” Gracie was among more than 18,000 entrants to Ito En’s annual competition.
“The grass was clinging to our shoes and it just kind of came. It was literally just what was there in the moment,” Starkey explained. The poem was described as “unique and fresh” by the judges.
Starkey and her mother were secretly flown to Tokyo for the award ceremony at the Imperial Hotel in July, where she gave a short speech in Japanese, along with winners in other haiku categories.
She was initially not allowed to tell her friends about the prize and said she was going on holiday to Wales instead, leading to some surprised messages later.
“After I was allowed to tell everyone I was there, my best friend was like, ‘No you’re not, you’re in Wales!’ ” Only photo evidence of her in Tokyo was enough to convince her friends otherwise.
As well as the trip, Starkey received a cash prize of £1,500 ($2,000) and a copy of her poem in calligraphy form. It will also be featured on the company’s green tea bottles over the next year.
Despite her early success, Starkey has chosen not to continue studying Japanese this year, although that will not necessarily mean the end of her interest in the country. She said, “It (Japanese) was a bit too difficult! Still, I would like to go back to Japan because I feel there is a lot more to see.”
Wycliffe College, which includes a high school for ages 13 to 18, is one of a small number of schools in Britain to offer Japanese as a subject, which according to the British Council is currently the 10th most popular language taught.
Although some pupils have the opportunity to study anything from Arabic to Urdu, the majority of schools offer only the most popular choices of French, Spanish and German.
Ito En Ltd. has been holding the competition every year since 1989. According to the company’s website, the decision to run the contest was motivated by a revival of interest in haiku after the success of the best-selling “Salad Anniversary” tanka anthology by Machi Tawara and the 300th anniversary of Matsuo Basho’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North.”
Haiku is a short-form poem originating in Japan and now popular around the world. Although traditionally consisting of three lines in a 5-7-5 syllable pattern and including seasonal words, the Ito En competition regulations are nonprescriptive.
According to Ito En, though the competition only attracted 673 entries in its first year, it has since ballooned in popularity. For 2017, 18,248 submissions in English were received from 47 countries, including Japan, the highest ever. This means roughly 1 percent of the nearly 2 million entries received in both Japanese and English were submitted for the English-language category.
Ito En has been awarding a major prize to the best English-language submission since the fifth year of the competition in 1993. Gracie is the 13th person to have won from outside Japan and the third from Britain, making the country the most common winner ahead of Belgium, Romania and the United States, with two apiece.
When asked how she felt about her daughter’s success, Starkey’s mother, Victoria, said, “I didn’t really know what the competition was or what it would mean to win, so it has all been an amazing surprise. It’s so exciting; everyone is very proud.”
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