Month: January 2011

Across the Haikuverse, No. 12: The Imperative Mood Edition

I’m feeling a little bossy this week, maybe because I’ve spent so much of it being bossed around now that I’m back at school and work after my long winter break. “Read this! Write that! Discuss! Answer these questions! Learn this XML syntax! Go to this meeting! Hand in the proper forms! Scan these photos!” Yes, yes, I know it’s the way of the world. And of course, all these things I’m being commanded to do are tons of fun and highly educational. It’s for my own good, really. But it does get a bit wearying. And I start to think, “So why can’t I give people orders to do things that are entertaining and edifying?”

So as your tour guide this week I will be issuing firm commands rather than making quiet observations or gentle suggestions. Obviously, you’re always free to ignore me and wander away to find a cup of coffee and a slightly more soft-spoken guide. But try to just go with it, okay? Pretend you’re taking, I don’t know, Haiku 101, and if you don’t do your assignments, a door will be opened and a man-eating tiger will be released … no, wait, that’s a Monty Python skit. Well, whatever. Humor me, is all I’m saying. I’m tired.

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Read These

That is, the haiku (and tanka) I stumbled on this week that made me stop and go, “Wait…what? That was cool. Say it again!”

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From Morden Haiku:

winter rain
sometimes it’s hard to know
if it’s ending or beginning

— Matt Morden

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From Daily Haiku:

twilight
the silver statue of a man
i don’t know

— Dietmar Tauchner

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From scented dust:

biting an apple
the silent sky
of midwinter
— Johannes S.H. Bjerg

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Two tanka from jars of stars:

Who is to say
that the restlessness
will end

after I tear a few pages
and break a few things?

@sunilgivesup

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I love you
she’d said until
the words were hieroglyphs
faded, in need
of interpretation

@myearthgirl

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From Mann Library’s Daily Haiku:

monarch
folding and unfolding
its shadow

– Christopher Herold

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From Blue Willow Haiku World:

毛糸編はじまり妻の黙(もだ)はじまる            加藤楸邨

keito-ami hajimari tsuma no moda hajimaru

knitting starts
my wife’s silence
starts

— Shuson Kato, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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From The Outspoken Omphaloskeptic:

the past
lives
where lightning bugs flash

— Max Stites

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From Beachcombing for the Landlocked:

old obsessions
fall away, and yet …
pine needles

— Mark Holloway

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From Yay words!:

raspberry jam
grandma asks
if I’m still
doing that
poetry thing

— Aubrie Cox

A note about this one: As with all good poetry, you can easily understand and appreciate this piece without having any additional knowledge of the backstory. But in this case, the backstory happens to be really fun. And there is actually a long tradition in Japan of publishing haiku with explanatory commentary (according, anyway, to Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice, a book I’ll talk about more in “Dead Tree News” today). I’ll let Aubrie do the explaining, since it’s her story:

 

“My grandmother has never understood much of anything I do. On several occasions when she asked what classes I was taking I’d say something like, ‘Haiku writing roundtable,’ being exceptionally vague. I’ve always been apprehensive about showing her anything, because I know she’d take everything at face value. A couple times she picked up one of the collections I’d made of my work and opened to a random page, only to grill me for answers as to what the micropoems meant. So when I published my first haiku:

confessional
alcohol breath
from his side of the grate
(bottle rockets #21)

I wrote a senryu that reflected how I thought she’d react:

first serial publication
grandma asks
when I started drinking
(bottle rockets #22)

“One day she said she had Googled me and found my haiku. For a moment, my brain just shut down. It’s not that I don’t love my grandmother, but I had a really hard time trying to think where to begin when she started asking what this and that meant. Even more so when she asked, ‘So how do you write a haiku?’ She noted on her own that all of them seemed to have two images, but couldn’t figure out the significance. Mum and I tried to explain it to her, but I felt hard pressed where to start. That was probably about a year (or more) ago.

“This last Friday, I went over to my grandparents’ to pick up some dishes my mother had left at Christmas. While handing me the dishes (saying there was a surprise for me inside), my grandmother asked about school. I glossed over my tanka and renga courses by calling them, ‘Writing classes.’ That’s when she asked, ‘So are you still doing that poetry thing… sudoku?’ Immediately, she caught herself when I started to crack up and I told her the word she was looking for. I told her yes and left it at that. When I got into the car, I peeked inside the bag to find a homemade jar of raspberry jam. And thus a kyoka was created.”

— Aubrie Cox

Me again: I think from now on whenever anyone asks me what kind of poetry I write I will say “sudoku” and see how many of them register any kind of confusion.

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Check It Out

The journals published recently, that is. First, Contemporary Haibun Online. This is one of my favorite places for haibun, always worth perusing for an hour or three. Most haibun are really too long to post here in their entirety (I mean, you already think this column is way too long, don’t you?), but my favorites in this issue by author’s last name were these: Baker, Coats, delValle, Felton, Harvey, Kessler, Lucky, Myers, Rohrig, Rowe.

Oh, okay, you talked me into it, I’ll just throw in one here because it’s really short.

Mindfulness

Nothing lasts. Closet doors, light bulbs, refrigerators, paint, jeans – they break, burn out, quit, fade, fray. Even the breath dies. In my fifth decade, I try to pay attention, but mostly, my lungs go unnoticed.

crescent
waxing moon disappears
in a wisp of cloud

— Deb Baker

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LYNX also published this week — you may have noticed. This is the journal edited by Jane and Werner Reichhold, and I am thrilled to be published by them since Jane was so instrumental in inspiring me to write haiku and helping me get started learning about it.

LYNX focuses on collaborative and linking forms of poetry, as well as sequences by individual poets, but it also publishes some stand-alone poems. I’ll start with some excerpts from the collaborations — although they are well worth reading in their entirety, again, they’re a little too long to post here. Consider this an amuse-bouche. (I had dinner at a fancy restaurant last night, can you tell?)

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From “Four Elements Cycle: Cleaved Wind” by Claudia Brefeld, Heike Gewi, and Walter Mathois:

Traffic jam
at the lilac bush
breathing deeply

— Heike Gewi

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From “Doors” by June Moreau and Giselle Maya:

the name
I was trying to remember
came to me
just as I put my hand
on the doorknob

— June Moreau

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From “Making Soup” by Alex Pieroni and Jane Reichhold:

only the best tea
is drunk
from an empty bowl

— Alex Pieroni

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And some verses from solo efforts:

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From the sequence “The Woods Road“:

the woods road
never going
to the end of it

— Jenny Ward Angyal

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And a couple of untitled tanka and haiku:

my mother and I
in fading summer light—
stand still, she says
adding a pin
to the jagged hem

— Lisa Alexander Baron

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first frost—
the last of the roses
have lost their names

— Alegria Imperial

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Be There

In the Chicago area, that is. So close to where I live! Charlotte DiGregorio, the Midwest Regional Coordinator of the Haiku Society of America, has announced a couple of fun events to take place there in the next few months. In all likelihood I will be at both of them. Come see me! Really. I’m not scary at all, except sometimes when I’m really tired and first I start bossing people around and then I cry. But I probably won’t be doing that at these events.

Here’s the scoop, from Charlotte’s press releases:

Jan. 12 event:

 

“You can learn to appreciate and write haiku in English from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.,  Saturday, Feb. 12 at the Winnetka Public Library, 768 Oak St., Winnetka. The program is free and open to the public. …Pre-registration is required.

“Three haiku poets will speak on topics for both beginning and experienced haikuists. …[The presentation ] ‘Learning The Fun Art of Haiku’ [will be given by] Charlotte Digregorio. The second presentation will be ‘Hey, Sparrow! The Poetry of Issa,’ given by poet Heather Jagman. … Haiku poet Michael Nickels-Wisdom will speak on ‘Beneath The Waterflower: Currents of Haiku in Lorine Niedecker’s Poetry.’ … After the presentations, participants may read some of their haiku to be critiqued by the group.

“For more information and to pre-register, contact Charlotte Digregorio, 847-881-2664.”

 

May 7 event: Haikufest

 

“Beginning and advanced poets will learn to appreciate, write, and enhance their haiku skills, from 1 to 5:30 p.m., Saturday, May 7 at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave., Evanston, IL. The event with lecture, discussion, and exhibition of poetry and art, is free and open to the public. … [P]re-registration is required.

“The first presentation, [by diGregorio], ‘Haiku: A Path Leading to Conservation Thought,’ will integrate a lecture on haiku style, form, and history with a discussion of the underlying thought of reverence for nature. … ‘A Writing Life in Seventeen Syllables or Less,’ will follow, by award-winning Iowa poet Francine Banwarth. She will discuss what inspires her to write haiku, and her methods of writing with multi-layers of meaning. … Subsequently, Randy Brooks … will speak on ‘The Role of Kukai in The Haiku Tradition.’ … Preceding Haikufest, attendees may submit from three to five haiku by April 23 to Brooks at brooksbooks@sbcglobal.net. These haiku will be exhibited at Haikufest and judged. … The last presentation will be ‘Haiga: History and Technique.’ Poet and artist Lidia Rozmus  will  reveal the art of haiku accompanied by an ink painting. She will exhibit and discuss her work.

“For more information on Haikufest, and to pre-register, contact Charlotte Digregorio, 847-881-2664 or the Evanston Public Library, 847-448-8600.”

 

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Enter Here

Just a reminder … The Haiku Foundation‘s HaikuNow contest is still going on, deadline March 31st, and you want to enter because if you win you could get money for nothing and if you don’t, all you’ll be out is the three minutes of your time it will take to paste your best haiku into the submission form. Don’t be lame, enter.

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Listen Up…

… to this brand-new podcast from The Haiku Chronicles about (YES!) Issa! I don’t think I should really even have to say any more than that, unless this is the very first time you’ve read this blog, in which case you should click on the picture of the dragonfly off there to the right and get the scoop on my relationship with Issa. (We’re very close.)

This edition was written and read by legendary haiku poet Anita Virgil (it was originally published in the Red Moon Anthology in 1998 and is available at the Haiku Chronicles site as a PDF download). It is both scholarly and profoundly moving, in the details it reveals about Issa’s life and in Virgil’s response to his poetry. While deeply admiring of much of Issa’s work, Virgil feels that the extreme difficulty of Issa’s life (wicked stepmother; lifelong poverty; the early deaths of his wife and children) and the fact that he tended to use his writing as an emotional catharsis as often as an artistic outlet means that many of his haiku are either second-rate or can’t be properly considered haiku at all:

“Issa’s sheer volume speaks more of catharsis than of craftsmanship. Of the variety of Issa’s poems available to Western readers, it appears to me he wrote three very different kinds of poetry. Unfortunately, it is all presented under the umbrella of haiku. One kind manifests the aesthetic constraint which does belong to the special province of haiku. Another whose primary focus is clearly on human nature (whether treated humorously or not, containing so-called season words or not) is senryu. And the third which, no doubt, is responsible for Issa’s broad appeal as a vulnerable human being to whom all can relate, is a pure cri de coeur that cannot seriously be considered as haiku when characterized by unrestrained emotionalism, intellectualization, and a failure to stand alone without explanations. These run counter to Bashô’s advice: ‘But always leave your old Self behind, otherwise it will get between you and the object.’ Too often, Issa cannot.”

— Anita Virgil

I can’t say I really disagree with Virgil on these points — I am one of Issa’s biggest fans, and I too think that the vast majority of his 20,000 haiku are not really worth reading. But I guess I tend to think that the same is true of most poets. Maybe the effect is magnified with Issa, because he wrote so much and has had so much popular appeal, but really, poets tend to get judged by their greatest hits, and get forgiven (thank God) for the bulk of their work, which is usually not nearly to the same standard. Most of us aren’t “on” most of the time. Most of us, to one extent or another, use our poetry to help us work through what’s going on in our hearts and minds. Most of us probably feel, in retrospect, that the majority of our work would better not have seen the light of day. (Or is that just me?)

Still, this is an amazing listen and read and I highly recommend it.

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Think About It

Okay, here we are back at The Haiku Foundation again. This time for Essence #6, the latest installment of a column that “explores the roots of the ‘haiku movement’ in North America.” And, wow, is this amazing stuff: Carmen Sterba interviewing Canadian haiku poet Rod Willmot. I must humbly admit that I’d never heard of Willmot before but he appears to have lived a fascinating life and he certainly has plenty of fascinating things to say, some of which you may find controversial. I’m just going to quote a whole bunch of it and make you think about it. Discuss. Optional: Three to five page essay, properly cited, due next week.

“Let me emphasize that I never had any interest in things Japanese, that romantic enchantment that infects haiku circles across North America. Discovering haiku, for me, was like coming across an old tin can at a time of need. I need a drum—there’s my drum!  I need a scoop—there’s my scoop!  I need a knife, an amulet—there they are!  I’ve got no need for an old tin can from Japan, to be preserved and worshipped and imitated.

“The best readers know how to let themselves fall apart as if they knew nothing.

“Haiku takes the four dimensions (including time) and smashes them into a point; well, it may not always seem that way, but when it does, it can make you feel as if you’re trying to spend your life standing on one foot. This is when poets bust out of the box and start stringing haiku together, whether alone or with others, to create a kind of living-space. In the early days we didn’t need that, were incapable of it. We had to start by getting to the point. But gradually a need evolved that was not mere imitation of Japanese renga, but rather a sign of maturity: an insistence on taking the point and extending it, giving it context, connecting points and connecting poets. In this vein, I consider the haiku sequence to be an American invention, from the hand of Marlene Mountain.

“Canadians have always had a more individualistic, experience-based approach to haiku. Americans have a tendency to be dogmatic, traditionalist, rule-oriented. I first saw this when [Bill] Higginson came to Toronto in the late sixties, making himself out as an authority because he could read Japanese. Fast-forward to the bunk about season-words, and the proliferation of Japanese terminology in writing about haiku. I’m talking about the overall picture; the brightest lights in haiku have been American, but they are an infinitesimal minority, swamped and drowned out by the noisy religiosity of dead-tradition preachers. Unfortunately, the fog has drifted into Canada. The amount of publishing activity is incredible, but for quality and originality—will any of it be remembered?

black dog
snatches a tulip bulb
and tears off down the street

“This is my version of Blake’s ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright.’ It is the seething energy at the heart of existence, the source of everything, death as well as life. It’s the wild joy I live for. And looking over my work, I see something emerging in my haiku that gives me hope, what I think I’ll call a nexus of narrative. This is different from haiku as distillation, experience imploded to a point. A nexus of narrative is the intersecting shafts of multiple dimensions, not just the four of physical experience but our countless human dimensions and others besides. Narrative, because in each shaft you sense a ‘comes from,’ a ‘oes to,’ the possibility of an entire person, a story, a mystery. This gives me hope, knowing that where I am in life now, I can write haiku as a witness, seeing with all my eyes, attentive to haiku that do not implode, do not stand still, but extend in rich and unpredictable ways . . . the ways of this reality.”

— Rod Willmot

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Save the Trees. But Wait, Aren’t Books Printed on Pieces of Dead Tree? And Aren’t We Supposed to Revere Books? Oh, God, The Moral Conundrums of Modern Life Make Me Crazy.

I didn’t get around to reading any more of Donald Keene on the development of haikai this week, because I was too busy reading textbooks and stuff, but I do have some stuff from Abigail Freedman’s The Haiku Apprentice I’ve been meaning to discuss with you all for a while, so I will seize this opportunity to do so.

I’ve mentioned Freedman’s book several times before, but apparently not for a long time. This seems strange to me, because I’m constantly thinking about it and rereading parts of it and, you know, planning to write about it, but I guess I always get overwhelmed by how much I have to say. I need to stick to one topic at a time. And the topic that feels closest to my heart right now is what Freedman (or really her Japanese mentors in the art of haiku) have to say about making sure that haiku are “the vessel into which you pour your feelings.”

That phrase comes from Momoko Kuroda, Freedman’s haiku master, who critiques one of Freedman’s haiku about cooking noodles for a family dinner by pointing out, “It isn’t just the noodles, but what they evoked for you that is worth pointing out, in this case a feeling of family harmony.” She also refers to haiku as “a piece of one’s soul.” These things are clearly even more important to her than the technical details of writing haiku — the syllables, the kigo, the kireji — though she also takes these very seriously. For her, a haiku can meet all these technical requirements and be highly proficient, and still fail at the deepest level if it does not express something that is meaningful to the writer.

Another haiku poet friend of Freedman’s, whose haiku name is Traveling Man Tree, tells her that “if you write a haiku about your personal experience, it’s impossible to express the whole experience. So you have to think about what is the most deeply impressive part — the true essence of the thing or the event — and write about that.”

And later, yet another poet friend called Professor Kotani, in trying to decide why one of her haiku had been judged a failure by Momoko, finally realizes, “Perhaps I have put too much intellectual rumination into this poem. … It lacks the sensibility of a really good haiku.”

Various other people Freedman meets tell her about the experiences and, most importantly, feelings that led them to write some of their best haiku. They don’t talk about how they chose the kigo, or made the syllables come out right, or used the kireji to good effect. They talk about a profound emotional experience — love, loneliness, severe illness — and how a profound haiku grew out of it.

So. Here’s where I abandon my humorous, carefree air and admit that I have been feeling, for quite a while, that haiku have become too much of an intellectual exercise for me, something I was using to display verbal virtuosity (insofar as I possess such a thing, which is not very far) and superficial cleverness, rather than digging down inside me to get to the really good stuff that makes poems living things instead of dead artifacts. I really need to change that, both because I have a lot of other outlets for intellectual achievement and relatively few emotional outlets, and also because haiku means too much to me for me to treat it with so little respect.

There will probably be a few changes around here in the near future, is what I’m saying. In fact, one change that I am going to announce right now is that this column will be posted less frequently — it’s been every seven to ten days, and I’d like to make it fortnightly. (You know I just really needed an excuse to say “fortnightly.”) So the next edition will be Feb. 13. Don’t worry, it will still be insanely long. Probably even longer. More stuff to write about. But this will hopefully give me a little more time to, you know, write haiku itself, rather than writing about it.

Then I’ll need to be thinking about how else to adjust my life to make more room for the writing of non-trivial haiku. I don’t have much time to think, but I’ll try to get back to you soon with my plans. I’m sure you’ll be waiting with bated breath.

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Okay, class, that’s about it for this week. I really enjoyed our little time together — the sharing, the learning, the giving out of onerous assignments, the stern warnings about academic honesty and citation procedure…I think we’re going to have a wonderful semester. But the tour’s over, so get back on the shuttle and go home. Shoo. That’s an order.

January 29: First Snow (again)

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one
empty barn
first snow

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first snow
the footprints of the neighbors
we’ve never seen

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first snow
and again
the owl

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First published in LYNX, XXVI:1, February 2011

Why do I say “again” in the post title? Because there are also these here.

Also, for a stunning graphic interpretation of the final haiku in this sequence, go take a look at Kuniharu Shimizu’s haiga at see haiku here: http://seehaikuhere.blogspot.com/2011/02/haiga-491-mellisa-allen-haiku-3.html

Across the Haikuverse, No. 11: Snail Mail Edition

Whoosh! That was the sound of my time flying by. The semester’s started up again, so no more spending Saturdays pottering around the Interwebs and lovingly polishing this column to a high sheen. Get in, get out. That’s my new motto. Excuse me, I need to go throw some laundry in the washer. You can get up and get a snack if you want. Make sure you’re back before the tour begins, though — you don’t want to miss anything.

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Dead Tree News

Contrary to my usual practice, I’m starting out this week with my section on print resources, in order to do justice to the great snail mail I’ve been receiving lately. You see, I finally got around to subscribing to a ton of print haiku journals, which I really should have done a long time ago. But better late than never.

You can’t find this stuff online, folks. I know it seems like everything is online these days, but this is a mirage. A whole world of otherwise invisible but glorious haiku (and other short poetry) awaits you if you will take the time to send a few hard-working editors a few bucks. In return, they will send you their lovely printed-on-actual-paper collections of lovingly selected poetry, in nice big fat envelopes that do not, praise the Lord/Allah/Buddha/Zeus, contain credit card solicitations.

So just this week I got bottle rockets No. 24 (brand-new), Lilliput Review #177 & 178 (from December), and Acorn No. 25 (from last fall, but new to me). Bottom line: They’re all worth it, get out your checkbook. More details:

  • bottle rockets: a collection of short verse. Edited by Stanford Forrester, this snazzy-looking journal the size of a trade paperback contains copious amounts of haiku, tanka, and haibun. A few examples that stood out for me:

beginner’s mind …
an afternoon spent
with back issues

— Jennifer Gomoli Popolis

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next to the temple
the industrial plant
swept spotless

— Michael Fessler

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the kitchen clock
trying to keep
up w rain

— john martone

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cicadas the itch under the cast

— Bob Lucky

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first violets
it’s all about
staying small

— Peggy Willis Lyles

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early snowfall
places the flakes miss
at first

— Jay Friedenberg

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the most respect
we can show the dead
is not to tell them how it is:
the candle I lit
flickers

— Mike Dillon

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still waiting
for an apology,
on my walking route
passing a garden
of forget-me-nots

— Charlotte DiGregorio

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and I won’t quote the whole thing, but I enjoyed the haibun “To Wondering Eyes” by Liz Fenn (among others).

  • Lilliput Review: In keeping with its name, this is a tiny (3.5″ x 4.25″) stapled-together zine-like publication. It’s edited by Don Wentworth (see also: Issa’s Untidy Hut), who sends two issues out into the world together to keep each other company, and contains not only haiku but short poems (up to 10 lines) of whatever form. A couple that especially struck my fancy (of the many, many I enjoyed):

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From # 177:
snow flurries
yes and no
melt away
— Scott Watson
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From #178:
at home
a full two hours
before I remove the hat
— paul m.

  • Acorn: a journal of contemporary haiku: An attractive, minimalistic publication, about the size of a rack-sized paperback, printed on high-quality paper and laid out with care and lots of white space. Edited by Carolyn Hall, it contains only haiku, which is somewhat of a rarity for haiku publications, but makes for a nicely focused journal. Again, just a few of the poems that impressed me here:

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rain all day
I carve the darkness
from a peach
— Marilyn Appl Walker
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before I know it
my mind has changed …
whitebait shoal
— Lorin Ford

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the cherry blossoms arrive without a god
— Gregory Hopkins
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the need
to need
gull shrieks
— George Swede

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a shadow under the pier
what it is
and isn’t
— Francine Banwarth

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where does the time go squids of Wyoming
— Dave Russo
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Arcturus
a pine cone glows
in the campfire
— Allan Burns

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Haiku in Ones and Zeroes

Back to the digital world. It all feels so ephemeral now, I must say. But no less worth reading for that. Here’s some posts from this week you might want to take a look at, starting with a couple about this week’s full moon, which haiku poets will never, ever be able to let alone:

Stop and Glow

She gets off the bus
where I’m waiting. Time to view
the moon together.

— Elissa

  • And speaking of viewing the moon: Instead of trying to pick three favorites from the entries for the January Moon Viewing Party over at Haiku Bandit Society, Bandit (and his dog Dottie) threw in the towel and found a moon haiku by Issa that’s way more worth reading than any of ours. (I also HIGHLY recommend that you watch the video here of Dottie snoring.)

a toy flute trills
a cane click-clacks…
winter moon

-Issa, translated David G. Lanoue

stacking my coins
two for the ferryman
rest for the laundromat

— Johannes S.J. Bjerg

  • From Andrew, Twitter name @coffeeperc, at jars of stars (originally posted on Twitter):

The swish of parting grass
as she searches
for a reason

— Andrew Rossiter/@coffeeperc

  • From Tomoya Tokita via translator Fay Aoyagi at Blue Willow Haiku World, complete with fascinating translation notes:

人参を並べておけば分かるなり 鴇田智哉

ninjin o narabeteokeba wakarunari

.

if you arrange

carrots in a line

you’ll understand

— Tomoya Tokita

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Fay’s Note:  This haiku has several ‘issues’ when it is translated; 1) it sounds like ‘a sentence,’ because there is only one image; 2) because Japanese does not use ‘subject,’ this could be ‘if I arrange…’ Even in Japanese original, a reader will not know what one will understand. About a carrot? About a poet himself? Yet, I am attracted to this haiku….

— Fay Aoyagi

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You Must Submit

This edition of the Haikuverse is going to mention Issa’s Untidy Hut a lot so you might as well get used to it. I am very excited about Don Wentworth’s upcoming new regular feature, Wednesday Haiku, for which he invites readers to send in their haiku for consideration (wednesdayhaiku AT gmail DOT com). One at a time only, folks; previously published poems okay. You’ll get a couple of copies of Lilliput Review (see above) if your poem is selected, which should be more than enough motivation for you to get something sent off to Don posthaste. As far as what qualifies as haiku, well, if you’re reading this you and Don are probably more or less on the same wavelength in that regard, but it’s still entertaining to read what he has to say on the subject:

I will not be supplying a definition of what a haiku is.  You are all big girls and boys.  I will simply say it is not what passes for haiku in the popular media; this site’s occasional patron and consummate poet/artist /curmudgeon, Ed Baker, likes to call them shorties, and I defer to that, since he doesn’t know so much more than I don’t know or am likely to ever not know.

— Don Wentworth

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Another forum for publication that just sent out a call for submissions is MOONBATHING: A Journal of Women’s Tanka. This is a print journal that just published its third issue and is accepting submissions for Issue #4. Submission instructions: 
Send your tanka IN THE BODY OF AN E-MAIL TO: Pamela A Babusci … 
moongate44 (at) gmail (dot) com…PLEASE NO ATTACHMENTS!!! E-mail submissions only. (And oh yeah — in case this wasn’t sufficiently obvious from the journal’s title, they only accept submissions from women.)

And I know I haven’t provided much help on this blog in terms of explaining what exactly tanka are and what they do, but I’m hoping to rectify that soon because I have been writing a ton of them lately, which freaks me out a little because for a long time I had a staunch anti-tanka stance. In the meantime, a quick Google search should be able to help you out if you don’t already know what the whole tanka deal is.

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A Review. Wait, Two.


1.

Ever since I first heard about Fifty-Seven Damn Good Haiku By a Bunch of Our Friends, the brilliantly-titled collection edited by Alan Summers and Michael Dylan Welch which Michael’s press, Press Here, released at the end of last year, I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first reviews. Well, here (again) is Don Wentworth, giving us the lowdown. The book sounds great, I think I’ll be whipping out my checkbook again soon. Here’s a fantastic sample of one of what Don calls “the many strong voices” among the collection’s poets:

a cloud across the sun
and suddenly
I am old

— Helen Russell

2.

The other day I was hanging out in the poetry section of my local Giant Chain Bookstore Whose Poetry Collection Is Not Exactly Stellar, But It Could Be Worse, and I came across a book called Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart, by Patricia Donegan. I looked through it and thought that the selection of haiku was wonderful, but felt kind of “eh” about the commentary appended to each one, which seemed a little too, um, enlightening for me. (I tend not to be so much about the cultivating awareness and opening your heart, more about the cultivating skepticism and keeping an open mind. I have a slight allergy to anything mystical or inspiring.) Anyway, I ended up passing on it in favor of a couple of other books (which I brought home and instructed my husband to give me for my upcoming birthday, so I’ve already officially forgotten what they are and I can’t tell you anything about them. Yet.).

But then I read, in the Autumn 2009 edition of Modern Haiku online, a review of this book by Mark Brooks (who is, besides being the editor of haijinx, a wonderful haiku poet in his own right and also not exactly a sucker for mystical treatises). First off, I knew Mark and I were on the same wavelength as soon as I read the first sentence of the review: “I own multiple copies of books I love, that way I am unencumbered enough to gift a copy whenever one matches a friend.” I do that too, you may remember. Anyway, Mark’s in-depth analysis of what exactly was contained in the commentaries for each haiku made me reconsider my quickly-drawn impression that they were all about spiritual enlightenment — apparently there is also a significant amount of scholarly information included. As Mark says,

Every haiku includes the English text, an informed discussion, and a paragraph of biographical data. Donegan even includes the headnotes for the Japanese haiku when they exist. Reliably, case by case, Donegan the teacher enriches the material for every level of reader.

Mark further suggests that this book is a good one for sharing and explaining haiku with those who are unfamiliar with it, since it does so much to clarify and expand on each haiku. So now I’m reconsidering my decision not to buy this book — I may have to head back to Giant Chain again before my birthday. Thanks, Mark.

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Essays About Fun Stuff You May Never Have Thought About Before, Or Even If You Have You’ll Want to Read These Anyway

Not long ago I had a little discussion with someone about the phenomenon of the appearance of haiku that seem uncannily similar to other, previously published haiku, which if you’ve spent a fair amount of time reading haiku you know is not a rare phenomenon at all. (I have had the experience both of writing haiku that I later discovered were remarkably similar to other published haiku, which I’m pretty sure I had never read, and of reading haiku that I thought were remarkably similar to haiku I had written earlier.)

My thoughts on this subject kind of boil down to: Perhaps occasionally this is a matter of deliberate plagiarism, but far more often it probably involves either unconscious recall of the previous haiku, the fact that haiku poets are not always fantastically original in choosing subject matter (see also: full moon; falling leaves; crows; geese; butterflies; cherry blossoms; sunset; sunrise; snowfall; cicadas; and I could go on interminably but you get the idea), and also the fact that haiku are so short that if two poets happen to independently come up with more or less the same, slightly unusual image, that image will take up enough of the space of their separate poems that they will give a strong impression of being more or less the same poem.

In his very interesting essay “Some Thoughts on Deja Ku” (which is a great name for this phenomenon), Michael Dylan Welch gives many examples of uncannily similar haiku and explores what he thinks is the reason for the similarity in each instance (or asks the reader to speculate on the reason). He explores the topic in much more depth than I have here and it’s well worth a read.

*

Here’s another interesting essay from Modern Haiku, this one not a review but a scholarly examination, by Paul Miller, of the work of Japanese haiku poet Ban’ya Natsuishi, specifically his well-known series of “Flying Pope” haiku. (I originally heard about this essay while eavesdropping on a Facebook conversation about Michael Dylan Welch’s entertaining series of “Neon Buddha” haiku, which were partly inspired by the Flying Pope, and which are also briefly considered in Miller’s essay.)

This essay, too, has a great first line: “As more and more modern Japanese haiku arrive at our shore, it is worthwhile to look closer at some of them before fully stamping their passports.” This sets the tone for Miller’s essay, which is respectful of much of Ban’ya’s work while remaining skeptical that all of it is effective or even particularly comprehensible. Falling squarely in the Japanese gendai tradition, haiku such as those about the Flying Pope, which often use language in non-straightforward ways and present confusing, incongruous images, frequently bemuse and infuriate Westerners (and I’m not claiming always to be an exception to this trend). As Miller says tartly,

[I]f all the reader is looking for is clever juxtapositions or clever wordplay, then randomly picked words/images from a dictionary will suffice—and the poet is not needed. Poets are needed to convey some sense of purpose to the chosen images, and in doing so they need to be conscious of the readers. Many modern Japanese haiku do not seem to do this, and one has to wonder how Japanese editors parse such mysterious verses for publication.

Miller goes on to discuss in more detail what qualities he feels makes for effective haiku, including examples from both classical and modern Japanese haiku and modern English language haiku such as Welch’s. Most centrally, Miller feels that “a successful haiku is one that moves from the known to the unknown. The shift from realism to strangeness can be an exciting adventure, but it can also be a risk…” I find this idea fascinating, and if you agree with me, you will certainly want to read all of Miller’s excellent essay.

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The News in Haiku

NOTE (2/9/11): HNA 2011’s final resting place is Seattle, Washington. The conference will take place from August 3-7. Details at the above link or at the HNA website.

You may remember that a while back I featured a news story about the moving of next summer’s Haiku North America conference from Decatur, IL to Rochester, NY. Well, the latest news out from conference organizers Garry Gay, Paul Miller, and Michael Dylan Welch is this:

“Regretfully, Rochester, New York will not be able to host Haiku North America in 2011. Since the conference is such an important part of the haiku tradition in North America, and because so many poets, scholars, and editors look forward to the biennial event, work is underway to quickly find a suitable replacement location. We plan to have more news shortly.

This is unfortunate and must be very frustrating for the conference organizers. I wish them luck in quickly finding another hosting site. (Hint: Madison, Wisconsin is lovely in July …)

________________

So wait a minute …. wasn’t this supposed to be a short one? How does this keep happening? Someday I’m going to go too far and find myself out in some part of the Haikuverse that’s previously unexplored, having forgotten my GPS, maps, and compass, and with no one around, not even a dreamy, impractical haiku poet, to ask for directions…

This must stop! Just you wait and see, next time I will be positively terse. Terse, I’m telling you! You won’t even recognize this as the same column!

(You can start the betting pool now on how likely you think this is. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended.)

January 21: Belated Rabbits

new year
a new friend becomes
an old friend

.

folding
away the year
paper rabbit

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new year
opening the door
for a friend

.

new year
friends multiply
like rabbits

.

Year of the Rabbit
I give away
the litter

.

New Year
last year’s mistakes mended
with snow patches

 

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Yes, New Year’s was three weeks ago. But frankly, classes and work started this week for me and I haven’t had a lot of time to write so once again I’m plagiarizing from myself, in this case from the haiku that I included with the book that I sent to the winner of my present giveaway in December, Alegria Imperial, which just arrived at her home in Canada even though I sent it several weeks ago. I think the customs officials took the book out and read it before sending it on to Alegria, personally. I commend their literary taste.

I think the theme(s) here are pretty obvious. But in case you’re unsure, Alegria was kind enough to take pictures of the contents of her package and post them on her lovely blog, jornales, so if you’re interested in visuals, hop on over there and take a look.

I hope the Year of the Rabbit has been a lucky one for you so far.

January 20: Different Melodies

New Year’s Eve —
the fiddler tries out
an unfamiliar tune
.

birdsong
from the pine branches
evergreen

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mountain snow
trying to sing loud enough
for you to hear me
______________________
These were my entries in Origa Olga Hooper’s recent “Calico Cat” contest, in which she asked haiku writers to use this sumi-e painting of hers as a prompt.

I really enjoy Origa’s sumi-e, but I was primarily attracted to this contest because of its bilingual nature: Origa accepted entries in both English and Russian and translated all of them into the other language. Then all the haiku appeared in both languages on her website for several days for everyone to read and discuss before the contest results were announced.

Russian geek that I am, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have some of my haiku translated into Russian by a native speaker. You can see the translations of my entries on this page (they’re entries number 173 to 175). They’re very clear, natural, faithful translations.

The contest produced a lot of great haiku and reading them all in two languages was a fun field trip for my brain. I learned a lot about both Russian and haiku this way.

If you know any other languages, I highly recommend that you try to find haiku written in them. The structure of other languages often makes possible different poetic effects than are available to us in English, or at least different than we normally employ. Forcing your brain out of its well-worn language ruts can help you find new ways to think about and express ideas. And that makes for more exciting poetry.

 

January 18 (A Fly Buzzing)

a fly buzzing
in the room where he died —
did he hear it?

_____________

With apologies, of course, to Emily Dickinson.

The Japanese aren’t shy about including literary references in their haiku; there is a long tradition in Japan of poets carrying on a poetic dialogue with their predecessors, echoing each other’s lines, paying tribute to them or making fun of them, enlarging on them or playing with them. I think it’s much more difficult for Westerners to feel comfortable doing this. We want to be original, we want to come up with our own words. We want to be individuals.

I’ve been trying lately to take poems (not other haiku) that are important to me and use them as source material for haiku — not “found haiku” as I’ve done sometimes in the past, but my own haiku, building on or responding to the original poem. Mostly I haven’t been very successful, maybe because although I believe in this endeavor in theory, I am enough of a Westerner that it makes me very uncomfortable. I feel like I’m cheating. I feel like I might be trivializing the source material or creating trivial haiku.

I’m still not sure what I think about this one but I like it better than any of my other efforts. You can definitely read and appreciate it without any knowledge of Emily or her fly, but if you do have that knowledge, I think your understanding of it deepens.

And just as an aside, I am pretty sure that the last stanza of Dickinson’s poem might be the best description of what it’s like to die written by someone who hadn’t actually done so yet (but I hope I won’t have any occasion to find out if I’m right anytime soon):

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

– Emily Dickinson

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(Oh — and sorry if this post was a little bit of a downer for you. I am the kind of person who often gets very cheerful when I read sad poems or books or see sad movies, especially when they are amazing works of art. But I know not everyone feels the same way. Maybe you would feel better if I told you about the parody of Emily’s poem that my eleventh-grade English class (American Literature, natch) wrote to entertain one of our classmates who was home ill for a while. It began:

I heard a fly buzz – when I had mono –

Yeah — that was a great class. Thanks, Ms. Bryan, if you’re out there anywhere.)

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(in memoriam bradford allen reynolds 1/18/1964 – 7/1984)

See Me There: Kuniharu Shimizu and Me (Times Two)

An inspiring story of faith, hope, and survival! Tune in to hear one woman’s testimony of how her lousy day was transformed by the power of Art …

So I was having kind of a blah day yesterday, feeling sorry for myself for no good reason (I like to do this, instead of, you know, drinking or something — everyone needs a vice). Hadn’t slept well the night before. Came home from a kind of wearying family event (love my family, but it was a five-year-old’s birthday party, enough said) and passed out on the couch for a two-hour nap without even checking my email (I normally check my email ninety-seven times a day). Had weird dreams of birds flying around and people speaking strange languages. Woke up feeling remarkably refreshed. Immediately checked my email.

The name of the sender of one of the messages was in Japanese characters. Intriguing. The name of the sender in English, when said message was opened, turned out to be Kuniharu Shimizu. Kuniharu is one of my favorite haiga artists and is the proprietor of one of my favorite blogs, see haiku here. A few days ago, I sent him some of my haiku because he had mentioned on his blog that he was sick of looking around himself for haiku to illustrate and wanted people to send him some. He replied thanking me for sending them but letting me know that he had a large backlog of haiku to work on so it would probably be a while before he decided on these.

But YESTERDAY (he wrote me to say) he posted his haiga of one of my haiku on his site! Me! Mine! My haiku! Kuniharu Shimizu! [Incomprehensible joyful babbling.] So much for feeling sorry for myself. It TOTALLY made my day, even before I actually looked at the haiga and realized how unbelievably beautiful it was.

In case you missed the link above, here’s the haiga:

http://seehaikuhere.blogspot.com/2011/01/haiga-476-melissa-allen-haiku.html

The haiku (which, unusually for me, is a pretty exact description of my son’s reaction to Comet Hale-Bopp back in 1997) is a rewritten version of a haiku that appeared on this blog back in June. Back then I wrote:

slash of a comet
the two-year-old’s
finger

The version I sent Kuniharu was:

comet
the slash of the two-year-old’s
finger

And I know you have already clicked on the link and gone to look at the haiga yourself so you know this already (right? right?) but he did an amazing job interpreting this haiku. I love the colors. I love the shapes. It looks like something out of  a dream. It reminds me a little of Chagall, who is one of my favorite painters. Also, I love what Kuni had to say about his inspiration for this image. It is a poem all on its own.

In my imagination, a comet is like a swallow swishing in the sky…

— Kuniharu Shimizu

So now I have resolved never to feel sorry for myself ever again. Let me know if you catch me at it.

Thanks again, Kuni san.

_____

Addendum, 1/17, 9:00 p.m.: He did it again!

http://seehaikuhere.blogspot.com/2011/01/haiga-478-melissa-allen-haiku-2.html

I love this one too. Kuni! You are spoiling me!

The haiku is another rewritten one, from this post. Originally it was:

the year’s hottest day
her dress
is made of bees

but it became

the year’s hottest day
she dreams that her dress
is made of bees

Slightly less surreal, I suppose. But surrealism and I only occasionally get along.

We’re having a snowstorm here today, the idea of dreaming about heat and bees is very appealing to me. I might have to go to bed soon and do that.

Across the Haikuverse, No. 10: Bleak Midwinter Edition

One of my favorite Christmas songs (I remembered recently, when I was part of a hastily-thrown-together chorus that sang it for a New Year’s Eve celebration) is “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is a setting of a poem by Christina Rossetti. The first verse, in particular, is really a masterpiece of English poetry, full of humble but strong Anglo-Saxon words, not a single one unnecessary and no necessary one left out:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long, long ago.

— Christina Rossetti

There are obviously too many words and too much meter and rhyme and too many metaphors in this for it to be a haiku, though it does have the requisite elements of simplicity and clear, evocative images, and I think there’s some wabi-sabi and yugen going on here as well. And I see possibilities in that third line for some kind of avant-garde haiku:

snow had fallen snow on snow snow on snow

Really, I think probably someone could rewrite this verse, or part of it, into an effective haiku, though I’ve been trying and not finding it so easy. Any of you like to give it a shot? Let me know what you come up with.

Anyway. It is definitely bleak midwinter here. Snow on snow indeed.  It’s nice that it’s not for so many of you — you dwellers in the tropics and subtropics and summery Southern Hemisphere. I like to imagine your lives, walking outside barefoot, wearing short sleeves, smelling flowers. (Well, those of you who aren’t flooded. I’m sorry about the flooded part. I hope no one has floated away.) I’m not really jealous, it will be our turn soon enough. And though I complain bitterly about the cold and can never seem to get really warm, there is something about this downtime, for both the earth and me, that I grudgingly appreciate. Cycles. The world is full of them, and best just to accept them.

Which reminds me. Aren’t we supposed to be taking a spin around the Haikuverse? Best get started on that before you get bored with my waxing philosophical and wander away, never to return.

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Haiku of the Week

That’s haiku, plural. As in, the haiku I saw on the Internet this week that most struck me as interesting for whatever reason (could be my discerning literary taste, could be the state of my digestion) and that I actually managed to remember to bookmark. (This whole process is an art, not a science.)

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Mark Holloway over at Beachcombing For the Landlocked has been on a roll this week. You should really just go over there and read everything he’s written lately because I had a hard time choosing just one. I settled on this one in the end:

moss growing on the roof tiles      unsuspected      metastasis

Mark Holloway

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This wonderful piece from a handful of stones isn’t a haiku, I suppose. Do I care? Not really.

A mushroom sprouts
from the base of the locust tree,
and it will not be distracted
from its small brown task.

— Tamra Hays

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In this piece Angie Werren from feathers did a nice job responding to the same ku on this prompt that I did this morning:

sometimes the rain
I stand behind this window
counting trees

— Angie Werren

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This wonderful offering at Jars of Stars was originally posted on Twitter by @cirrusdream, otherwise known as Polona:

winter thaw
i ignore
his white lie

— Polona (@cirrusdream)

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Another one of Bill Kenney’s “afters” appeared at haiku-usa (maybe I appreciated this one because I’ve been having weird dreams lately myself):

piercing cold
I kiss a plum blossom
in my dream

— Soseki 1867-1916

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Also at haiku-usa, Bill points us to a collection of his “urban haiku” recently featured on Gabi Greve’s Haiku Topics and Keywords blog. Gabi also links to works by many other authors of such “urban haiku” (i.e., haiku that reflects the reality of the lives of most modern writers of haiku, who live not in pastoral Japan or pastoral anywhere, but in bustling outposts of the global economy). An example from Alan Summers:

Waterloo sunset
the Thames disappears
from the Tube map

— Alan Summers

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Every week there’s at least one something at Blue Willow Haiku World that I feel like reading over and over — usually several somethings. This week my favorite was this one:

月の汚れやすくてかなしき手   黒田杏子
ichigatsu no yogoreyasukute kanashiki te

January
hands that are easy
to get dirty and sad
— Momoko Kuroda, translated by Fay Aoyagi

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And while we’re on the topic of Fay Aoyagi (I never mind being on the topic of Fay Aoyagi), someone on Facebook (MDW — was that you?) recently reminded me about the wonderful series of essays she wrote several years ago for Frogpond about non-traditional use of kigo in haiku. I could swear I’ve read this entire series on the Interwebs, either on Frogpond’s site or Fay’s own, but I can’t seem to find any of them now except this one: “Haiku Traditions: Flowers and Plants.” But just this one will take you a long way. Fay discusses how traditional Japanese kigo like “cherry blossoms,” which are so evocative in their own culture, have given way in her own poetry to seasonal terms or keywords that are more meaningful to the American culture she now inhabits:

While cherry blossoms symbolize where I came from, roses represent Western culture and where I am now.  I think roses demand a lot of care.  To have a gorgeous, perfect flower, one has to tend them with water, fertilizers and pesticides.  Roses are somewhat the manifestation of my borrowed culture.  “Rose” itself is a summer kigo, but I prefer to use it in a winter setting.  I can put contradictory feelings or images together in this way.

winter roses—
I am tired of reading
between the lines
— Fay Aoyagi

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OtherHais (Haiga, Haibun)

Every week I am amazed at how many cool haiku-related sites I have yet to discover. Since I have been thinking about venturing into haiga territory in collaboration with my amateur photographer husband, I went noodling around this week looking for haiga online and discovered … Haigaonline. (Warning: this link will lead you to a page where there are sounds of sparrows twittering and some music, which is sweet and pretty but if you’re in a quiet place or just not in the mood, you may want to hit the “mute” button.)

The December 2010 issue of this online journal features lots of good stuff, including a feature on “family haiga” — lots of husband-and-wife teams, so I appreciated that. What I really loved, though, was an exhibit of “experimental haiga” by Renee Owen — they’re colorful collages with intriguing haiku, such as:

waiting for God
to finish creation
leftover rocks
— Renee Owen

And yes you MUST go look at the picture! That’s the entire point! Click! Click! I think the link will just bring you to a page of thumbnails, all of which are worth looking at, but the one I’ve quoted above can be found if you click on the picture of columns in the bottom center.
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And I’m always looking for good haibun, so I was excited to stumble on Hortensia Anderson’s site The Plenitude of Emptiness. All haibun, all the time! I’m trying to write more haibun so I will be dropping by here often.

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Tanka Corner

I’ve been making some headway lately in my ongoing quest to get over my fear of tanka. I was helped recently in my endeavor by my discovery of this mind-blower over at Michele Harvey’s site. This is not only one of my favorite tanka I’ve ever read, it’s some of the best poetry I’ve read lately, period.

a fall cricket
sings alone on the porch
I too, wonder
about being born too late
or too soon

— Michele Harvey

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Alegria Imperial also published some wonderful trilingual tanka (English, Spanish, and the native Philippine language Iluko) over at qarrtsiluni this week. I have long been a fan of Alegria’s multilingual poetry, it is so amazingly dense with meaning and emotional resonance. And as usual at qarrtsiluni, there is an audio file so you can hear Alegria reading her beautiful words. Please check it out!

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Renku Everywhere

With the new year, the thoughts of many seem to be turning to starting new renku. Over at Issa’s Snail, Ashley Capes has done a nice site redesign and, after a long hiatus, has started up a couple of new junicho, with a third possibly in the works. I think most of these have filled up with participants already but it’s still fun to watch the process of a renku in the making, which you can do by reading the comments on the site. The “sabaki” or renku leader guides the group in choosing subject matter and making sure the poem flows and doesn’t repeat itself in theme or language, which is no easy task, but Ashley (I know from personal experience) is great at doing this. Plus he is just an all-around nice guy who is easy and fun to work with.

The same can be said of Willie Sorlien, who is currently guiding the development of a shisan renku at Green Tea and Bird Song. Again, don’t think they’re looking for new participants, but it might be worthwhile watching how it’s done by the pros before you leap in on your own.

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Haiku in the News

Haiku made an appearance in the mass media this week in the form of a lengthy radio interview on NPR’s “On Point” show with haiku venerables George Swede and Dylan Tweney and an economist named Stephen Ziliak, who wrote an article making a fascinating connection between economic models and haiku. An excerpt from Ziliak’s article:

The typical haiku budget constraint is limited by three lines of seventeen syllables. Basho himself understood well the joyful paradox of haiku economics: less is more, and more is better!

Stephen Ziliak

This was a fun interview to listen to — I especially enjoyed George Swede’s anecdote about his son, who as a fifth-grader took up a position as a conscientious objector by refusing to do as he was instructed by his teacher and write a haiku in 5-7-5. He wrote some twelve-syllable haiku instead and got them published in Modern Haiku (which at the time accepted haiku from students). Then his teacher was all impressed and wanted to put them in the school yearbook, but the young Swede told her (I’m sure in very well-mannered language) where she could put her yearbook. Go ahead and stream this one while you’re making dinner or something tonight, you won’t be sorry.

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The News in Haiku


Is everyone getting psyched up for NaHaiWriMo (remember, that’s the thing where you can sign up to write a haiku a day in the month of February)? Michael Dylan Welch has put together a website for the event so now you don’t need to be on Facebook to sign up (although go ahead and like the Facebook page too if you want). Think about it.

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A call for submissions for a new issue of haijinx has gone out (deadline: March 1), along with the exciting news that Roberta Beary will be their new haibun editor. Roberta is one of the best writers of haibun around so I can’t wait to see what she picks out. Also new on the haijinx website: Richard Krawiec’s latest installment of his column “Shooting My Poetry Mouth Off.” This month he implores us haiku poets not to try to publish everything we write but to be selective and try to recognize our best work, which will not only benefit us personally (since our poetic reputations will not be sullied by inferior work), but also haiku as a genre, since the journals will not be flooded with mediocre work. Worth reading and thinking about.

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Dead Tree News

Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694. The first great master of haikai/haiku. Where on earth did he come from?

It’s a little like asking where Shakespeare (1564-1616) came from, in my opinion. I mean you can see how before and all around Shakespeare, English writers were producing supple, lively, image-rich poems and plays, much of it in a natural and flexible blank verse — really, nobody could do English like the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, at the moment when modern English was brand new and no one had gotten around to inventing rules for it yet so writers had no compunction about bending the language to their will. That was the glorious and fortunate tradition Shakespeare was working in, but nobody else was Shakespeare, before or after.

So pity poor Donald Keene, who in chapters four and five of World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 1600-1867 has the unenviable job of explaining how the often-pleasant-and-skillful, but usually not much more, haikai of the haijin that preceded Basho produced the unparalleled haikai genius that is Basho. In the end, about all he can do is trace the literary movements that Basho’s work responded to and grew out of, and then throw up his hands and say, “The rest — that’s just Basho.”

As I discussed in Haikuverse No. 8, Basho was influenced by both the careful craftsmanship of the Teitoku school of haikai and the iconoclasm and experimentation of the Danrin school, as well as by his intensive study of Chinese verse and by his interest in Zen Buddhism. But he didn’t just sit around studying and writing poetry; he spent much of his life traveling around Japan, living at various times both in the city and in the country, meeting people, seeing things, gathering material. As Keene points out, “Haikai shared the literary spirit of the great Chinese and Japanese masters, and the Zen quality of … poet … Han Shan, but it had its own domain too, in the familiar and even vulgar activities of contemporary life.”

It’s when Keene discusses Basho’s masterpieces that his efforts to relate Basho’s genius to his poetic predecessors break down. Basho was just Basho; his vision was unique. In his most famous poem, the frog pond haiku furuike ya, Keene points out, “The ancient pond is eternal, but in order for us to become aware of its eternity there must be some momentary disruption…This verse is about stillness, yet only by sound can we know silence.” He contrasts Basho’s first line here (“old pond”) with the well-meaning and not unskillful suggestion of one of his disciples, “the yellow roses”:

[A]lthough the picture of yellow flowers surrounding the frog … is visually appealing, it lacks the eternity of ‘ancient pond.’ … Only by suggesting the age of the pond, its unchanging nature, is the momentary life of the frog evoked. This was the kind of understanding Basho demanded. He believed that the smallest flower or insect if properly seen and understood could suggest all of creation, and each had its reason for existence.

— Donald Keene, World Within Walls

By the end of his life Basho’s poetic ideal was karumi, or “lightness,” “a word used in contrast to technical finish or decorative effects.” Basho was seeing ever deeper into the hearts of things, in a way no haikai poet had done before and few if any have done since. He was going past the words into the essence.

What Keene’s discussion made me want to do more than ever was just sit down with Basho himself and engage with him, rather than the ideas about him. So that’s what’s on the agenda for this week. Feel free to join me.

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And thanks again for letting me ramble on at length; special thanks to those of you who actually made it to the end of this post. Love, love, love making these trips with you. It may seem like I’m the guide but I assure you I’m learning the territory as I go. There is still so much more of the Haikuverse left to explore, hope you’ll keep me company as I wander.