Reception, remembrances, readings

Highlights of last night’s festival events (which I was way too dead on my feet to post about last night):

The reception that opened the festival took place in Gayle Bull’s home, which is attached to the back of her store. It’s almost as full of books as the store.

I, unfortunately, am not the ideal person to report on reception-type events, because despite the impression you may get from this blog that I am the kind of person who never shuts up, I am actually paralyzingly shy in large crowds of people. Three at a time is about my maximum. Several dozen? None of whom I’ve ever met before? Most of whom seem to know each other? Not so much.

This is not to say that people weren’t friendly. Everyone I actually managed to meet and talk to was extremely welcoming and warm. Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, with whom I corresponded earlier this summer about the conference, gave me some great tips about starting my own haiku group in Madison, and also some pointers about submitting my haiku to journals (which I have just recently, and very tentatively, started doing). Charlie Trumbull, a wonderful haiku poet and the venerable editor of what is probably the most prominent haiku journal in America, Modern Haiku, was kind enough to endure the gushing admiration of a newbie haikuist without throwing up.

(There was also really good chocolate at the reception, including one designed for the conference (by whom? must find out) called “Haiku.” It was in the shape of a leaf and was spicy and why didn’t I get a picture of it?)

During the reception Charlie was running around handing out sheets of haiku by Robert Spiess, the late editor of Modern Haiku whom the conference was commemorating. Everyone was meant to pick two from their sheet to read in the next phase of the evening …

We moved outside to take over the microphone of the singer-guitarist who had been quietly playing country and soft-rock standards all evening in order to present remembrances of Bob Spiess. I knew pretty much nothing about Bob at the start of the evening but by the end I almost felt I’d known him personally. Everyone emphasized his kindness and generosity, including Gayle’s two daughters who remembered his frequent visits to their home and the way he doled out quarters to them (at a time when a quarter would have been a much bigger deal to a kid than it is now).

Possibly the funniest story involved the time Bob visited Japan and was riding the bullet train with some other haikuists, and was very eager to see Mount Fuji. Then he had to use the restroom. The other poets watched in dismay as Mount Fuji flashed by while he was gone. He got a haiku out of it though, a very funny one which I am going to track down and add here.

Several people read Bob’s thoughts about what haiku is or should be. Lee Gurga, another amazing haiku poet who is Bob’s literary executor and took over the editorship of Modern Haiku after his death, read Bob’s list of what annoyed him in haiku, a lot of which are the same things that annoy me in haiku, including the overuse of words like “suddenly” and “silence.”

Someone else read an observation of Bob’s which really struck me (maybe because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately myself): “Haiku is the poetry of the healing of culture by nature.” Bob’s poetry is definitely heavy on nature imagery, which I have recently disparaged, but it feels very natural in his poetry because he has clearly spent a lot of time observing and thinking about it:

around the bend
a log lying in the stream
— the turtle’s ears

Not that he doesn’t closely observe human beings too:

some sticks and pebbles
and a place with mud
a child by himself

a high mountain path
the guide saying that monkey
tastes better than goat

He wrote a whole series of haiku, in fact — Tall River Junction, inspired, obviously, by Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology — with titles that were people’s names:

Fr. Augustine Confesso, Paris Priest
Smiles, “The pear you eat,
snitched from the tree, my neighbor boy,
be it doubly sweet.

This last poem illustrates something that I found interesting about Spiess’s haiku, which is how often it employs rhyme — and how well the rhyme works:

drifting in the skiff …
names of all the swallows now:
tree and barn and cliff

The rhyme almost always follows this pattern of the first and third line rhyming.

One of the most touching moments of the evening occurred during the reading of Spiess’s haiku. A Korean woman with a strong accent stood up and announced she was going to read only the shortest poem on her sheet because she knew her accent would be difficult for us to understand:


Then she added: “I have the pleasure to know Bob Spiess and he was the pure kindness.”

We had a brief break before the next phase of the evening, which was readings from our own (or others’, if we preferred) haiku. Many poets seemed to take this opportunity to further lubricate themselves with the local beer and wine that was for sale. (I don’t drink, not because I have any moral or health objections to alcohol or am a recovering alcoholic or anything, just because I have never acquired a grownup taste for the stuff. Or for coffee, for that matter. Or liver and onions. All equally disgusting as far as I’m concerned.)

Anyway, by the time the readings began, the poets were becoming kind of rowdy. Rowdy haiku poets. Heckling each other. It was quite a scene. Lots of the haiku involved double entendres or just subtle (or frank) references to sex, which all got great reactions.

Most of the haiku that were read were frankly wonderful; I wrote lots of them down thinking I would post some of them here and then realized I really can’t do that without the permission of the authors. If I can get that, I may put some up later.

Lee Gurga read a great haiku by Peter Yovu, and some commentary about it (some of which is reproduced in the link above), and announced he’d give everything he’d ever written to have written it. Everyone was familiar with the ku before he even read it, except, of course, me. But now I am and I also love it.

I really liked the Korean guy who got up and told us about the article he’d just written about how the origins of haiku were in Korea. I believe it’s traditional for the Japanese and Koreans to argue about who invented pretty much every cultural phenomenon they share, so that was entertaining.

I chose to read my “Full Moon” sequence, although, as I announced beforehand, this was completely inappropriate because we are at or near a new moon right now. This was politely, though not wildly enthusiastically, received. We all have to start somewhere.

Which reminds me that I never actually posted a new haiku yesterday. But I did write one! I swear!

new moon
haiku poets can’t forget
when it was full

4 thoughts on “Reception, remembrances, readings

  1. Enjoyed reading your post. Yes, I do feel awkward in my commitment to write daily this year (damn, I even wrote each of the two days framing an overnight hospital stay), and as you, mostly because I worry about quality. My blog was mainly daily life, musings, and political commentary until I stumbled on ReadWritePoem in the beginning of April. My original feeling was very much, I think, like the young John Updike’s impetus to write a novel, because he wanted to “make a book”. Now it’s morphed into poetry and often silly or disingenuous brief comments – to the point that right now I am working on a serious political essay, and I am considering posting it elsewhere/elsehow because it may be too abrupt a departure for the atmosphere on my blog now.

    Most of my edification on haiku I’ve actually gotten from you, this blog, I’ve never did it outside school before. I want to stick the the spirit of the idea that a haiku should be about epiphany from observing nature, and from going quickly, in three lines, from the large and universal to the small and experientially unique.

    As for the UU church, I come there off a lifetime of atheism and 27 years of Buddhist practice (though I was raised a Roman Catholic in the most Catholic city in America). I bristle at some of it. But it is a very progressive socially conscious group of people (to the point of silliness – they declare, with a large plaque screwed to the stone wall beside the entrance doors, that the church is a nuclear-free zone), , and I’m told 23% of the congregation also declare themselves atheists. The real reason I joined? More about community and challenging myself to be with people, than about faith. In other words – to meet women.

    opening the window
    as usual today
    bright red berries on the bush outside
    so fleeting I never noticed before
    or my taking notice so fleeting I never saw

    • Okay, Lawrence … I like that poem possibly better than anything else I’ve ever read of yours. And I really like a lot of your poems.

      I feel both flattered and a little panicked that most of your knowledge about haiku has come from this blog, because I am really just stumbling around in the dark here myself. 🙂 I knew nothing about haiku until May. I owe huge debts of gratitude to all the really good poets and essayists out on the web who have been educating me, but I have a long, long way to go before I will feel like I am any kind of expert on this subject.

      I think your motivation for joining the UU church is excellent. 🙂 I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor. 🙂

  2. Melissa:
    Thanks so much for your coverage of the event!

    We’re so happy you joined us. Don’t be a stranger. We’d love to see you again.

    Please keep in touch. We appreciate your taking the time to come to the Festival with your very busy schedule.


    • It was great to meet you, Charlotte! You and everyone else at the festival were so kind and welcoming. I’m already making plans for Haiku North America in Decatur!

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