On Hats and Haibun

So. Lunch is over. (It was very pleasant — I hiked across the street to the Red Rooster, where I always go when I’m in Mineral Point, to eat Cornish pasty. [Big Cornish population in Mineral Point.] Randy Brooks, his wife Shirley, and his student Aubrie saw me when they came in and invited me to eat with them. The conversation ranged from iPads to haiku poetry slams.)

We’re back at the Opera House for the afternoon’s workshops. The first one was fascinatingly titled “Hat Haiku.” I had no idea what that was all about. It turned out to be a small-group haiku critique session, in which everyone anonymously puts a haiku they’ve written into a hat and then draws out someone else’s for the group to discuss.

Francine Banwarth led this session — she is a well-known haiku poet from Dubuque, Iowa, which is even nearer to Mineral Point than Madison is. She was one of the co-coordinators of the conference and is an extremely kind person. (Dubuque has an active haiku group and Francine very nicely invited me to meet with them — there is already another Madisonian who drives over there once a month. I don’t really think that I’m up for four hours of driving even for the sake of haiku, but I appreciated the invitation.)

One thing that didn’t really appeal to me about this workshop was the emphasis Francine placed on getting your haiku published. It does seem that just about everybody there except me seemed to see this as an important goal. Most of them are published already, in fact. (I know because Francine asked for a show of hands.)

I don’t know, maybe it’s just sour grapes or something (though I’ve barely even tried to get published and I’ve only been writing haiku for four months so I’m hardly offended that editors are not falling over themselves to publish my stuff), but I get very nervous when I think about trying to shape my haiku to meet an editor’s preferences or expectations. I feel like I am really still trying to find my voice as a haiku poet and I don’t want to be trying to write like everyone else in every other journal (not that there is not wonderful haiku being published in the journals).

What’s interesting is that Francine talked about how important it was to have your own voice to “stay true to our art and to ourselves” and to keep haiku from dying out over time, and at the same time talked about reading journals and studying what editors want, which seems to me to be somewhat antithetical to the ideal of finding your own voice. At one point she asked how many of us knew when we’d written a good haiku, and her criteria for a “good haiku” seemed to be one that an editor would accept.

I guess I just feel like at this point I want to experiment as wildly as I can, and not get overly bogged down in whether my haiku are “good” by an editor’s definition — I want to find my own standard of “good haiku.” Which isn’t to say that I don’t feel I can learn by reading the haiku of others or talking to other poets. I was seriously inspired by the wonderful haiku I encountered this weekend, and the critique session that followed Francine’s introduction was wonderful. The discussion was lively, intelligent, sometimes contentious but always respectful.

I learned an immense amount, not least because both Lee Gurga and Randy Brooks were in my group — both wonderful poets, though with somewhat different approaches; both, I believe, with more years of haiku writing experience than I have years of life — and they kept bringing up subtle points about word arrangement and vocabulary choice that had never crossed my mind. It was extremely humbling, but I felt very honored to have the opportunity to sit there and have a discussion with them.


The second workshop was led by Roberta Beary, another wonderful poet from Washington, D.C. The topic was haibun, something that frustrates me immensely. I always feel like it should be a natural fit for me — I write prose, I write haiku, why can’t I write a combination of prose and haiku? But every time I’ve tried I’ve known I was very wide of the mark. I was hoping this workshop could show me where I was going wrong.

Robert’s emphasis was on taking risks in haibun, journeying to the “back of beyond” (a reference to Basho’s famous long haibun, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”). By taking risks she meant exposing yourself, talking about personal matters, exploring your feelings and memories. Her haibun are very autobiographical. Right away I was beginning to sense where my problem might lie with haibun. I don’t really like to write autobiographically. I don’t like to expose myself! I don’t want to be personal!

I was cheered a bit by a couple of haibun that Lee Gurga wrote, because even though they definitely were personal, they had a more intellectual stance and didn’t take quite the same risks in terms of personal exposure that Roberta’s did. I could, sort of, begin to see myself writing something like those.

I did also find a lot of Roberta’s specific advice about composition useful — I wrote a lot of it down verbatim so I’ll share it:

“I try to keep it very short and get rid of unnecessary words. I also like stream of consciousness because I like haibun when it takes you to this place, ‘the back of beyond.’ You’re not confined by the rules of grammar.

“I try to use an experience that’s deeply affected me, either in a good or bad way. I’ll try to get a handle on it by writing about it.

“It’s important to keep a flow going so that you draw the reader in and that it also be able to be a spoken form so you can get up in front of an audience and read your haibun.

“I know people that start with the haiku but when I write I do the prose part, I do the haiku, and then I do the title. The title is really important in haibun. You don’t want something that is telling you the whole thing in the title. I want the reader to do some work. I don’t want to give it away. You can also use the title to bring in another texture or dimension to the haibun. It’s another element of risk-taking. Sometimes I make the title the first sentence of the haibun prose.”

Roberta has a strong antipathy to flowery language in haibun (me too), dislikes the “travelogue” kind of haiku that is just a description of a place or situation with no real emotional impact, and almost without exception prefers the present tense (she feels it lends more immediacy and draws the reader in more effectively). She thinks haibun should be quite short, a couple paragraphs at most.

She made the interesting observation that writing haibun is “an effective way to get into mainstream poetry publications,” most of which are not interested in haiku.

I left definitely feeling like I was ready to give haibun another try, but still with some trepidation about whether I could really do it. But after seven hours of lectures and workshops I felt I needed to give my brain a rest. Back to Gayle’s flowery porch!

16 thoughts on “On Hats and Haibun

    • I was really glad I brought my computer on Saturday because trying to take notes on Friday on my little iPhone keyboard was really not working for me. I need to write down EVERYTHING. 🙂

  1. Sounds like you had a terrific time.

    I can see the benefit of reading published works, learning from them and getting a sense for what sells. And I can definitely see the value of critical feedback. But, I’m inclined to agree with you about the importance of being able to experiment and write without worrying about whether the work makes the grade.

    It’s hard enough, for me, staying creatively loose knowing my words are bouncing about on the interwebs!

    Anyhow. Oh, and now you’ve got me intrigued by haibun. I’m going to have to read up on it and give it a shot. From the little bit I’ve read concerning the style I think I can see part of why it maybe fights you. It seems to be a style of prose which favors terseness and stream of consciousness and ambiguity (I think – I’m still reading up on it). From what I’ve seen, you write prose very, very well but you like structure and solidly correct grammar and you are not terse. 🙂 So, I can see where you might feel thwarted. But I’m also sure you can make it work for you and your taste and your voice.

    That’s just my take; That and 25 cents and then another dollar will get you a cup of coffee!

    • Oh, you know me WAY too well, Mitchell. 🙂 “Solidly correct grammar” … I’m still squirming a little about that. Also the “not terse.” (That was a way nicer way of putting it than “unbelievably wordy,” though, so thanks for that.) But yeah … that’s me and I must accept it. 🙂 Maybe haibun is not going to be my thing, but I feel sort of stubborn about continuing to try it because I love the idea so much.

      I am thinking I will not make any more attempts to get my haiku published until my experimental year is up (I originally made this commitment to write a haiku a day for a year; I have seven and a half months left — not that I’m counting). I’m hoping I’ll have something resembling a personal style by then. Although I reserve the right to change it whenever necessary. 🙂

  2. Aaarghh!

    Okay, haibun is not gonna be easy.

    I’ve just read a bunch of haibun, from around the webs, and I’ve got to say it’s a mixed bag. I guess the quality of haiku spans a large range, too, but haiku are so short I can easily read and gloss over uninteresting ones. Bad haiku don’t make many demands.

    But, bad or boring haibun are tedious and maddening. I still don’t have any solid foundation for deciding what makes a good haibun (or even a standard, mediocre haibun), but every haibun I read where the haiku exactly mirrors the words and phrases of the prose makes me want to scream. I don’t want to fight through a bunch of boring prose just to have the haiku summarize the boring prose! And did I mention the boring prose?

    Is that too harsh?


    So, anyhow, I can see where the pitfalls are magnified, as compared to haiku.

    And, umm, sorry for ranting all over your comments page!

    • Yeah … I have that problem with haibun too. Not only do I never write any that I think are any good, I actually rarely read any that I think are any good.

      I do think it’s possible that haibun might work better read aloud — there were lots read at this workshop that I thought were great but I might not necessarily have appreciated them in written form. But boring prose is definitely pretty much par for the course as far as I can see, even in the journals. The haibun editors that were there, though, said that the most common problem they saw with submissions was that the haiku were weak. So maybe it’s just us? 🙂 (Come to think of it, you are pretty big on the structure and solidly correct grammar yourself …)

      The whole “haiku mirroring the prose” thing was discussed in the workshop and it was unanimously agreed that that was a bad idea.

      You are not too harsh. Actually it’s kind of a relief to hear someone else expressing what I’ve been thinking. And rants are always welcome here at the Dragonfly, they spice things up. Rant on!

      • I can believe spoken haibun would be more engaging, but still, boring is boring. So much of it seems to be telling rather than showing (not that I’ve done any better, never actually having written a haibun).

        And yeah, I guess I am also pretty big on structure and solidly correct grammar. 🙂 I’d rather write entirely without grammar than with deliberately wrong grammar.


        The challenge is to write strong, non-mirrored haiku *and* non-boring, grammatically correct, terse prose while fitting within the traditions of haibun (I’m still trying to figure those out) and pushing and expanding the form.

        How hard can that be?


        • We should form a support group: Haibun Writers For Grammatical, Interesting Prose (HW-GIP).

          We could publish our own journal! … Of course, first we would have to write something. Damn these petty obstacles.

          I hereby challenge us to have one haibun that we don’t hate written by the fall equinox. (You are free to reject this challenge, naturally. But I bet you won’t. 🙂 )

  3. Okay, after revising and revising for three days, I pulled the trigger and posted my first ever haibun. I can’t say whether I hate it or not – I haven’t really stepped back from it yet – I won’t know until I view it with fresh eyes. Before the equinox I should have a better idea how I feel about it.

    But, it is as finished as I can make it, so I posted it to get it out of my hair!

    • Okay, I’ll go for it too (she says with a tremble in her voice).

      I think the one I’ll post will actually end up being one of a series. But it can stand on its own for now.

  4. Pingback: September 18: Giving haibun another shot « Red Dragonfly

  5. Pingback: September 21 (Fever chart) « Red Dragonfly

  6. So enjoyed comment of perplexity of writing with one’s own voice but reading to see what editors seek. Thank-you for information re. haibun. Wish I had read before first attempt. A challenging form and Roberta Beary’s instructions/observations inspire me to give it another try. Thanks for post.

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