Month: May 2011

Across the Haikuverse, No. 19: Summer 2011 College Tour Edition

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Hi all,

Forgive me if this edition is a little light. I’m running around getting ready to drag my son on a week-long two-thousand-mile college tour, because apparently while I wasn’t looking he outgrew his footie pajamas and learned to drive and do calculus and now he’s ready to light out for the territories. But I didn’t want to leave you hanging without any news from the Haikuverse until I get back.

While I’m out and about I’m planning to briefly abandon my family and drop in on the annual Haiku Circle gathering in Northfield, Massachusetts. I’m really excited about this because I’ll get to meet a whole new set of haiku poets than the wonderful Midwestern set I already know. I love being able to put faces and voices and personalities to the names of the poets I read, and I love that the haiku community is so small that it is actually possible to meet and hang out with most of the poets whose poetry makes your heart skip several beats when you read it. Maybe I’ll drop you a line from the action on Saturday.

Okay, let’s get on with it. I still have maps to print out and stuff…although not sure why I bother, I’m gonna get lost anyway.

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Haikai of Note

What’s everyone been writing lately? Anything good? Is the coming of warmer weather inspiring to you or does it just make you want to go to the beach and read stupid novels and forget about subtle Japanese poetry for a while? Personally, I think I tend to write more in the winter, when it’s dark and cold and there’s nothing else to do. All this bright light is distracting.

There’s still plenty of good poetry appearing every day on the Interwebs, though, so apparently everyone isn’t affected in the same way I am. Here are some of my favorites that have showed up since the last edition.

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Milky Way . . .
the way the cow path
rings a hill

— Michele Harvey, DailyHaiku

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mare’s tail
yeah, sometimes
i still think of you

— Mark Holloway, Beachcombing for the Landlocked

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水飲んで天上くらき夏あした  酒井弘司
mizu nonde tenjyõ kuraki natsu ashita
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drinking water
a dark ceiling
of a summer morning

—  Hiroshi Sakai, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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shooting star –
between dreams
reality

— Stella Pierides, Stella Pierides

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white and purple –
the scent of lilacs
is a ladder too

— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust

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pear blossoms . . .
which one of these houses
was yours?

— Laura Garrison, DailyHaiku

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interlocking tiles
two mockingbirds
share a worm

— Gillena Cox, Lunch Break (This is a wonderful haiga, check it out.)

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strip-lit
in the headache
of a high-rise
I poke a gummed nib
into Keats’s Nightingale

— Liam Wilkinson, nearaway

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Journaled

Haibun Today just released a really great issue for June, and I swear I am not saying that just because I am in it. Some of my favorite from this issue: Colin Stewart Jones, “Should Rules Be Broken; Steven Carter, “Montana“; Glenn G. Coats, “Expectations“; Katherine Cudney, “This World of Dew“; Bob Lucky, “Butter-Less in Ethiopia.”

 

Mu

There are so many haiku journals now that even people like me who actively seek them out and spend way too much time looking at haiku on the web anyway keep stumbling over journals that have existed, in some cases, for years, but that they (meaning me) never even heard of before. The terrifying thing is that most of these seemingly invisible journals are full of really good haiku, which makes you wonder if there is an alternate dimension that opens up periodically and releases clouds of haiku … or maybe there are just a lot of really good haiku poets in the world.

Anyway, my latest stunned discovery is the online journal Mu, which has its very first issue out, filled with great poetry like this:

 

fence line —
the flowers belong
to themselves

— Jennifer Gomoli Popolis

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Web Wide World

Um, so I only have one article to share with you this week, but I think it should count for, like, ten. It’s a more-or-less mind-blowing article by Charlie Trumbull (current editor of Modern Haiku), published in Simply Haiku in 2004, called “An Analysis of Haiku in 12-Dimensional Space.” If the title makes your head hurt you should probably skip the article, but if you think it sounds like the coolest thing ever you should probably read it, because it more or less is. Set aside a little time though. And a little space in your brain. You’ll need it.

Basically, it’s what amounts to a mathematical or scientific analysis of the vast array of definitions of haiku that have been given by various commentators, owing a heavy debt to the work of research-biologist-cum-haiku-poet A.C. Missias, and incorporating several diagrams labeled “Highly Technical Figures.” But don’t let that scare you away. It’s also moving and thoughtful and funny, and I promise you don’t need any advanced scientific degrees to enjoy it, especially if you skip to the end where Charlie describes the relevant “12 dimensions” of haiku. What is your “Haiku ID”? Read and find out.

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Dead Tree News

Just a little word from R.H. Blyth again this week. (I am gonna get through all four volumes of Haiku this summer if it kills me.)

One thing I desperately love about Blyth is that, unlike most commentators on haiku, he is utterly unafraid to compare and contrast haiku with Western poetry or even Western prose. People generally tend to emphasize how different haiku is from most Western writing, and of course in many ways it is quite different, but after all, Basho and Wordsworth (to name two of Blyth’s favorite writers) are members of the same species — it’s not like they have nothing in common. I think it can be too easy to get caught up in the myth that the Mystic East is a whole different world that runs according to alternate laws of nature or something. Blyth (although, yes, he does romanticize haiku in some ways) doesn’t fall prey to this particular myth.

I love this commentary of Blyth’s on a haiku of Issa’s, for instance, which has us all looking at the same sky:

assari to haru wa ki ni keri asagi-zora

Spring has come
In all simplicity:
A light yellow sky.

— Issa, translated by R.H. Blyth

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“We are constantly astounded at the simplicity and complexity of Nature. An infinite number of phenomena, and we call it by a single word, spring. Spring, in all its variety, is contained in a single phenomenon, the thinness of the colour of the yellow sky. This colour is commonly found in the evening sky; it is to be seen in a well-known colour-print by Hiroshige, small billowing clouds on the horizon. This ‘yellow’ is probably the ‘green’ of Coleridge’s verse:

The green light that lingers in the west.”

— R.H. Blyth, Haiku, vol. 2, p. 38

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Okay. The oil’s been changed in the car, we’ve got someone to feed the cats…what am I forgetting? Oh yeah! (Waves frantically) Bye everyone, see you next week!

Tanka? Okay, I Can Do That

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I check
to see what’s sprouted
we’re separated now
by the life span
of squash and cucumbers

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on the way
to see the apple blossoms —
I admire how
your story changes
with every streetlight

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(Ribbons: Tanka Society of America Journal, 7:1, Spring 2011)

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Tanka. I keep mentioning tanka in what I know is this extremely skeptical tone of voice. I spent a long time trying not to think about them. I think I was having a hard enough time trying to understand haiku (not that that process is or ever will be over for me) and seeing these tanka things, which looked kind of like haiku but were the wrong length and sounded very different, confused me. And kind of annoyed me, too, because a lot of them (although not, by any means, as high a percentage as I used to think) are flowery and dreamy and romantic and … I’m not. Flowery, dreamy, romantic things usually just make me want to go balance my checkbook or something. Or throw up. (Yes, I am a fun date. Thanks for asking.)

So I was all grouchy about tanka and didn’t even want to learn anything about it, which is unusual for me because generally I want to learn everything about everything, and the sooner the better. I sneered at and winced about and cast aspersions on tanka … and then, at some point this winter, I started writing it. Still without having the slightest idea what it actually was. Don’t ask me what that was all about. I think I was just having one of those days where haiku seemed too short. You know those days. Where you’re like “Seventeen syllables? Max? Give me a break.”

I wrote a bunch of these things and eyed them warily, and then heaved a weary sigh and went crawling humbly around the web to find out what I had done. I was thrilled to find this essay about the origins of tanka by Jane Reichhold, because it’s very funny and made me feel like maybe I didn’t have to worry so much about tanka but could just enjoy it:

“From tanka’s long history – over 1300 years recorded in Japan — the most famous use of the poetry form of tanka was as secret messages between lovers. Arriving home in the morning, after having dallied with a lover all night, it became the custom of well-mannered persons to write an immediate thank-you note for the pleasures of the hospitality. Stylized into a convenient five lines of 5-7-5-7-7 onji, the little poem expressing one’s feelings were sent in special paper containers, written on a fan, or knotted on a branch or stem of a single blossom. These were delivered to the lover by personal messenger who then was given something to drink along with his chance to flirt with the household staff. During this interval a responding tanka was to be written in reply to the first note which the messenger would return to his master.

Usually under some pressure – the writer had probably been either awake or engaged in strenuous activities all night – to write a verse that related, in some manner, to the previous note, that expressed (carefully) one’s feelings, and which titillated enough to cause the sender to want to return again was not an easy task. Added to this dilemma was the need to get the personal messenger on his way with a note so written that he couldn’t know exactly what was what but that the beloved would understand and appreciate. Then the giggling servants would get back to work.

“…Looking at tanka history it seems that the only infallible way of writing great tanka is to have an affair. Go ahead! Do it now. But that doesn’t mean that it must be a behind-the-bushes affair in the no-tell motel. Let yourself fall in love with anything or anyone you want to. It can be nature, a scene, a place, an activity, persons; your own kids, grandkids or even – your mate, or just life itself. Whatever feels good and right for you.

Because of their original use as a way of privately expressing emotion and especially between friends and lovers unhappy because they are separated, the feelings expressed in traditional tanka were usually either longing for better time, more faithful lovers, younger years or grief because of old age, lack of lovers, or hard times. You get the picture. When reading a great many tanka you realize you are hearing a lot of bitching. For some writers this is just the outlet for which they have been looking.”

— Jane Reichhold,  “Tanka for the Memory

So that was my first tanka breakthrough. My second happened when I humbly sent a bunch of my lame tanka off to be edited by Aubrie Cox, who graciously refrained from telling me I had no idea what I was doing and with her magical touch lightly and deftly transformed the least lame of them into something that a tanka editor might not be too appalled to see appearing in his or her inbox. The two above are the first I had accepted for publication. It felt pretty weird, I have to tell you. “Wait — I’m not a tanka poet. Am I? Oh God. I guess I am. Can I go throw up now?”

I’ve gotten over it, though. For one thing, I’ve actually read a lot of tanka since then, and a lot of it I like a lot. Also, some of my best friends are wonderful tanka poets, so I’ve really had to force myself to examine my unwarranted prejudices. If you get this issue of Ribbons, for instance (which I highly recommend you do), you will find the following stupendous tanka by my buddy Margaret Dornaus of haiku-doodle gracing the back cover, and being wonderfully and lovingly dissected inside the journal by its editor, Dave Bacharach:

at Toad Suck
I contemplate syllables
and old ponds
like a child puddle-jumping
loudly through soft falling rain

— Margaret Dornaus

And right next to it you will find another stupendous tanka by Jeffrey Woodward (Haibun Today editor extraordinaire), which Bacharach has deliberately placed in counterpoint with Margaret’s:

sweet,
but with a slight tang,
the rejected
and twisted little
apples of Winesburg

— Jeffrey Woodward

Even I have to admit that there is nothing romantic, dreamy, etc. about either of these tanka, and that they are, in fact, quite brilliant and thought-provoking poems that just happen to be two lines longer than your typical haiku and to be attempting something rather different though not entirely unconnected. If you’re looking for a better explanation than I or probably anyone else but R.H. Blyth could provide of what exactly that something is, check out this essay by Don Wentworth over at Issa’s Untidy Hut, which gives us plenty of Blyth for our delectation.

For even more tanka information, Tanka Online and American Tanka are good places to look, and Charlotte Digregorio has recently written an essay on her blog that is a good, brief introduction to the subject. Besides Ribbons, the print journals Moonbathing, Eucalypt, and red lights publish tanka exclusively; bottle rockets publishes it among other Japanese verse forms, and so does the online journal Notes from the Gean. I’m probably forgetting someone. As I so often do. Feel free, as always, to tell me what I’m missing.

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[Note: If you subscribe to this blog, you are not imagining things. Another version of this essay appeared a few days ago. It was an accident — it wasn’t finished yet — and I promptly deleted it. Sorry about the confusion.]

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Across the Haikuverse, No. 18: Here Comes the Sun Edition

So. It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. (That’s a line from some song we sang at our third-grade choral concert. Amazing that I still remember it.)

This is how long it was: Have you ever had one of those dreams where the whole time you knew something really great was about to happen, something really fantastic you could hardly wait for, and the dream went on and on and all kinds of other humdrum, boring things happened, and you were thinking, “Okay, isn’t it about time the really great thing happened now?”, and then it was just about to happen, oh man, and … you woke up. And it never happened.

Yeah. I was seriously afraid this winter was going to turn out to be like one of those dreams. There was the cold. And the snow. And the more cold. And the unrelenting brownness and grayness. … Did I mention the cold? All through March. All through April. Into May. May!

Everyone else in the world (it seemed) was writing these cheerful blossom haiku and I kept looking out my window wondering if this was one of those dreams after all. Cold rain. Bare branches. Me shivering in my sweaters and occasionally even long underwear still, the grass like straw, the cold! so painful it felt like some kind of bone disease! (Should I go to the doctor?)

Well. So okay, it was still only about fifty degrees today with a stiff breeze. But there was sun! There’s supposed to be sun all week. And there are flowers everywhere. There are blossoms! There are lilacs! The grass is green, the leaves are green. …It finally happened!

Not only that, but I handed in my last assignments of the semester last week. Another thing I thought would never happen. And my son finally got his driver’s license, which means I don’t have to drive him everywhere anymore. [Though he will kill me if I don’t mention that he’s been getting himself practically everywhere on his bike since he was like ten, so it’s not like I’ve been a slave to his transportation.]

And my husband finally got over whatever microbial infestation had him in its death grip for the last month, so he can do something besides sit around making exploding-lung noises. Like take me to the Arboretum to look at apple blossoms. And wait patiently while I scribble illegible things about them in a notebook. Cold and lonely no more. So glad that dream is over.

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falling in love with a memory apple blossoms

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Haiku of the Month: All Spring and Summer, All the Time

I’ve mentioned before how you can follow the world’s weather patterns by observing the haiku that is posted on the Internet. Well, I was looking through all the haiku I had collected over the last three weeks and noticed that not a single one referred to autumn or winter. (I must not have been hanging out on enough southern hemisphere blogs or something. I apologize to that half of the globe.)

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river sunrise
a girl’s shadow
swims from my ankles

— Lorin Ford, Mann Library’s Daily Haiku

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as it lands
the mallard shatters the house
in the river

— Polona Oblak, Crows & Daisies

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migrating geese
the shapes of chins
in a crowd

— an’ya, DailyHaiga

(Please go visit this very lovely haiga.)

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spring dusk –
the river pauses
for a moment
to take the weight
of a swan

— Paul Smith, Paper Moon

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twilight
settling on all
the unfound eggs

— Pearl Nelson, Pearl Nelson

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Palm Sunday
a card game called
‘doubt’

— Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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summer rain I’m still a fool around gravity

— Johannes S.H. Bjerg, scented dust

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a careless butterfly:
lost among thousands
of heavy raindrops

— Vladimir Devide/haiga by Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

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“The typhoon rain seems to have stopped this morning here, but the clouds are still pretty heavy. People walking on the street are taking umbrella along. Small insects, however, are sometimes careless and venture into the pouring rain only to be slapped down on the ground.

I heard that when the tsunami was approaching, quite a few people actually went out to the pier or seaside to watch the wave. How careless I thought, but I guess that is what happens when one underestimates the real power of the nature. Being curious and being careful are both the working of the mind. It makes a big difference which working one chooses in time of danger. I certainly choose not to be a careless butterfly.”

— Kuniharu Shimizu, see haiku here

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春寒の山のひとつがはぐれけり   齋藤愼爾
harusamu no yama no hitotsu ga hagurekeri

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spring chill
one of the mountains
goes astray

— Shinji Saito, translated by Fay Aoyagi, Blue Willow Haiku World

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it has to end:
the wind
to cherry blossoms

— Alegria Imperial, jornales

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in tranquility
cherry petals are falling
abyssal fish

— Taro Kunugi, from Donna Fleischer’s Word Pond


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secretly
still expecting
the living
that life owes me
– lupins !

— Mark Holloway, Beachcombing for the Landlocked

(I had a hard time choosing between this tanka and several others Mark posted this week that were equally wonderful. You should really go over there and decide for yourself which is your favorite.)

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between tour groups
the garden
just the garden

— Sandra Simpson, DailyHaiku

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open scissors beside a vase of water

— Eve Luckring, from A New Resonance [6]: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, Red Moon Press, 2009, quoted on Basho’s Road

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This is the toy theatre room. You’ll notice the wooden Lawyer. Took forty-two hours to get his jaw right. We’re staging Visions on Wednesday. You should come.

— Ben Pullar, a handful of stones

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(You’re right, this is not a haiku. It’s a small stone, which is sometimes the same thing and sometimes not. You should let Fiona Robyn tell you about them if you don’t already know. And this reminds me — Fiona and her fiance Kaspalita, who are getting married on June 18, are asking for a wedding present of small stones written on their wedding day. They are lovely people and if you write them a poem I promise you’ll get some good karma. Shhhh. Don’t tell them I told you.)

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Web Wide World


So much fun stuff to read this month, so little time…

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Understanding Modern English-Language Haiku” from Winning Writers, April 2010

This is a fascinating essay that features the editors of five haiku journals speaking about the process they go through when writing haiku in general and one specific haiku in particular. The introductory remarks feature a discussion of one of my pet peeves, how profoundly haiku is marginalized in the wider world of poetry and the serious ignorance and misunderstanding of what haiku is among mainstream poets.

It’s encouraging that this essay appears on a mainstream poetry website. I hope that the remarks of Jane Reichhold, John Stevenson, George Swede, Linda Papanicolau, and Colin Stewart Jones do something to enlighten at least a few writers about the real nature and potential of haiku.

cold night
the dashboard lights
of another car

— John Stevenson

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Serendipiku

Speaking of Colin Stewart Jones…I got the link to that last essay off his blog, serendipiku, which is very interesting, as is his static website, also, slightly confusingly, called serendipiku. (It’s called branding, I guess. I must get with the times. Nice work, Col.)

Colin is a wonderful poet and artist. His one-word bird haiga are really fun, and I especially like his graphic haibun, which are unlike any other haibun you’ve ever seen. I recommend in particular “Menu” and “Burberry” and “Midsummer Moon.” The last, about insomnia, contains one of my favorite poetic lines of the month: “Can’t even conjure up a pathetic fallacy.”A possibly crippling ailment for some writers of haiku, probably including me.

secret promise…
almost thirty years now
since I was
the twelve-year-old boy
looking over a high wall

— Colin Stewart Jones (originally published in Muse India 37, May/June 2011)

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Insect Haiku From the Shiki-School

You can download this unpublished manuscript from 1959, by Harold J. Isaacson and Helen Shigeko Isaacson, from the Internet Archive (an amazing collection of online texts, images, and audio which if you aren’t careful will suck you into its orbit and never let you go).

It’s an excellent collection of classical haiku about insects, with commentary. What makes it really interesting, though (to me, anyway, big geek that I am), is that the translations incorporate (untranslated, because they have no real translation) the kireji or cutting words (ya, kana, and keri) that the Japanese employ in many of their haiku for emphasis and/or as a way of marking a pause between the two parts of the poem.

Here are a couple of examples:

Ownerless
the helmet on which sleeps
a butterfly kana

— Choi, tr. Isaacson
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Golden flies ya
Where on the ground has spilled
a melon’s entrails

— Chikuba, tr. Isaacson

At first I thought this manner of translation was very strange and awkward and disliked it. But now I kind of like the rhythm it gives and feel that in some ways it helps me understand better what these poems must be like in the original. I wouldn’t want these to be the only translations I read of these haiku, but I think there’s definitely a place for them in the world. That’s my final answer.

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Women Poets of Japan from The Green Leaf

“The Green Leaf”  has a lot on it, from mainstream poems by contemporary authors to classical haiku in translation to vast quantities of photo haiga to contemporary haiku to…the works of women poets of Japan, which is what I feel like featuring today because I just do, okay? The whole site, though, is well worth rummaging around in, though it feels incomplete and uneven (but who am I to talk) and also it does something which drives me completely out of my mind, which is fail to credit the translator of translated poems.

I hate this because it’s inconsiderate not only to the translator, who has done a very difficult job that deserves to be acknowledged, but to readers who might like to know where they can seek out (or, ahem, avoid) other translations by a particular translator or compare translations between translators. So I was feeling a strange mixture of annoyance and delight as I browsed around here. But then I came upon this tanka and forgave everything.

Gazing across the fields,
at Taketa I hear the cranes
ceaselessly crying:
not a space not a moment
of pause in my longing.

Lady Otomo-no-Sakanoue (8th century)

(There’s a haiga of this poem, too, if you follow the link from the poet’s name above.)

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Bare Bones Haiku

So Jane Reichhold has done it again. Last year when I was just getting started writing haiku I used Jane’s list of 24 haiku-writing techniques to help me understand what haiku were all about and all the different ways they can be written. You can find her list here on the web and also in her excellent book, Writing and Enjoying Haiku.

Jane is great at explaining how haiku work and breaking down the process of writing them in a way even a more-or-less clueless newbie can understand, as I can attest. She does have her own particular understanding of what haiku are, which is not necessarily everyone’s understanding, but hey, who doesn’t.

Anyway, what she’s done now is create this series of fourteen quite brief lessons that take a beginner through the process of learning what a haiku is, what the various parts of a haiku are, what a good haiku looks and feels and sounds like. You could do way worse as a beginner than start with these lessons and their exercises. I really like this one, for instance:

“Find a haiku that you really admire and write it [down]. It would be kind to the author to record his or her name and where you found the poem.

Then begin to rewrite the poem. Maybe start by just changing one word. Or changing one line. Or take a phrase of image you greatly admire and see how many ways you can make it work with other images.”

— Jane Reichhold, “Bare Bones Haiku, Lesson Two: Before Writing Your Own Haiku

(Disclaimer: Obviously, this is just an exercise for your own poetic development — you wouldn’t want to try to publish the results of this exercise or pass them off as your own poetry unless they ended up really, really, really different from the originals.)

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The Haiku Foundation Contest Archive

Once again The Haiku Foundation has created a very cool resource for readers and writers of haiku, which is this archive of past winners of most of the major haiku contests. If you are looking for an online collection of excellent contemporary haiku, needless to say this would be a good place to start.

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“Repetition in Haiku

This is an older (2001) essay by Florence Vilen, discussing when and how repetition makes haiku more effective. Most of the essay is taken up by examples, which really is my favorite kind of essay. And haiku with repetition are some of my favorite kind of haiku, so this made me very happy.

the sound they make
the sound I make
autumn leaves

— Gary Hotham

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Dead Tree News

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tea’s aftertaste,
by Aubrie Cox,
graphic design and illustrations by Katie Baird,
published by Bronze Man Books ($12)
(ordering information)

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So you wanna see the most adorable haiku book ever published? Do you? Do you? You do? Yay! Okay…here’s the cover:

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Cover of the haiku chapbook "tea's aftertaste"

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Yes…that is a hand-sewn Japanese binding in red thread, thanks for asking. And that is a tiny little sketch of the moon reflected in a teacup. I did say it was adorable, didn’t I?

… Not sold yet? Looking for some more substance? Okay, here are a couple of the inside pages:

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distant galaxies / all the things / I could have been

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… I know, right? All the pages are like that.  Aubrie’s haiku are amazing, and Katie’s illustrations are awesome, and you just keep looking through the book going, “Why don’t more people write more haiku that so movingly combine the personal and the universal, that are filled with such astute and original observations of the concrete world, that are simultaneously mercilessly honest and lovingly generous?… And then why don’t they have an artist with the same rare sensibility draw touching little illustrations to go with their haiku… And then why don’t they put the whole thing together in a lovingly designed package and sew it up with red thread?”

It’s a mystery, really. But I wouldn’t spend too long agonizing over it. Just get the book and enjoy it. You’re welcome.

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Sigh. No matter how much I write it always feels like I’m forgetting something. If you figure out what it is, let me know, okay? I’m getting old, I need help with these things.

what I meant to say
still folded into
unopened blossoms

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things to wake up for

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full moon
her water breaks
silently

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April 2011 Moon Viewing Party, Haiku Bandit Society

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(I woke up for what I thought was no reason last night and then realized that I must have been wakened by the full moon, which seemed to be taking up most of my window. It reminded me of one night in September 1994 when I also woke for what seemed like no reason, except that when I stood up my water broke and fourteen hours later my son was born. So that was a good reason to wake up.)

Blossoms (and Blossoms, and Blossoms, and Blossoms)

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ki no moto wa shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana

— Basho (1654-1694)
1690
Season: Spring
Kigo: Cherry blossoms

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Under the cherry-trees,
On soup, and fish-salad and all,
Flower-petals

— R.H. Blyth, 1950
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Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
Cherry blossoms.

— Makoto Ueda, 1970

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Under the cherry–
blossom soup,
blossom salad.

— Lucien Stryk, 1985

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From all these trees,
in the salads, the soup, everywhere,
cherry blossoms fall.

— Robert Hass, 1994

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I spent part of this semester completing a class assignment by developing a structure for a database of classical haiku, using XML and related markup tools. Don’t get too impressed. It’s pretty primitive. And at the moment it contains fourteen haiku. And I don’t have any real enthusiasm for spending the hundreds of hours that would be required to expand and refine it enough to make it at all useful.

But I do think it would be really, really cool if such a thing existed. As you can see from my example above, there’s the Japanese (romaji) version of the haiku, accompanied by numerous translations (love, love, love comparative translation), and information about the season and kigo associated with the haiku, which can easily be indexed using markup tools. I can’t even imagine how useful and fun that kind of database would be, if it had enough haiku in it.

But barring some really bored person coming along with a fondness for both haiku and data entry (do such people exist?), this dream will probably not come to fruition any time soon. But I felt like I had to get some kind of real-world satisfaction out of this project, so here’s one of Basho’s more delightful spring haiku for you to enjoy, in all its delightful versions. (I’m kind of fond of Lucien Stryk’s translation. You?)

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first apples
sniffing for the lost scent
of blossoms

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Monostich

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wolves howling no obstacle to finding the words

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the moons of Jupiter this is a life I didn’t know existed

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between your words the last few stars disappear

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not without a last look back salt lick

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There’s a new blog in town that may appeal to those of you who have always felt that three lines was about three times as long as a poem should be. It’s called Monostich (http://monostich.blogspot.com), which is a fancy word for a one-line poem. Depending on what your definition of haiku is, you may think some or all of the poems on this site are haiku and then again you may not. It doesn’t really matter. We’re having a great time writing them anyway.

Did I say “we”? Oh right…maybe I forgot to mention that this new blog has (currently) ten authors and I am one of them. The nine others are Johannes S.H. Bjerg (whose brainchild this was and who hounded, um, encouraged the rest of us to participate, which I think we’re now all very glad he did), Costis Demos, Claire Everett, Mark Holloway, Angie LaPaglia McNeill, Polona Oblak, Paul Smith, Alan Summers, and Liam Wilkinson. In case you’re not familiar with any of these poets … well, you should be, trust me.

It’s a lot of fun to share a blog, I’ve decided. Less pressure, more variety. We don’t have a formal arrangement or schedule or anything for who posts when, we all just post when and if we feel like it. Each of us, obviously, has a different style but we have enough of a shared aesthetic that the blog feels like a coherent artistic effort. I like it a lot. But then I might be biased. Let me know what you think.

May Day: One Year

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May Day
every nest
has a voice

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anniversary new cells in my writing hand

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Beltane
in the rear-view mirror
a faraway fire

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A year ago today I started this blog. I’d written a few haiku over the previous few days — something I’d practically never done before — and for some reason felt that they needed to be inflicted on the world. And that I needed to write more — every day, in fact — and inflict all those on the world as well.

I’m not sure what I was thinking. Maybe it was something to do with it being May Day, which has always seemed like one of the year’s pivotal days to me. Well, it is, of course. In the Japanese conception of the seasons, this is approximately the day that summer begins. (It ends, of course, in early August, when you first begin to sense that melancholy in the air. You know that melancholy? The Japanese love that. They call it autumn and get all weepy and happy. Me too.)

This was also true of European cultures until fairly recent times, which is why we call the summer solstice midsummer. The first of May went by a variety of names for the pre-modern Europeans: Beltane, Walpurgisnacht. It was about purification, fertility, all that useful stuff. There were bonfires to symbolically cleanse things, and dancing to get sexy. The harvest was going in, the thaw was finally complete, the layers of clothes were coming off…time for a party.

Here in southern Wisconsin, and also in southern New England, where I was raised, May is the month when you finally feel like you can breathe easy, because now there’s practically no chance that there will be any more significant snowfall or lengthy cold spells until November. (Practically no chance, I said. This year, I wouldn’t put it past May to dump a blizzard on us or something.)

So for those of us around here who spend most of the winter weeping quietly in a corner, the beginning of May is the time when we creep out of our corners and put away the boxes of Kleenex and admit that, just possibly, life might be worth living. New projects start to seem as enticing as new clothes.

Hence, I suspect, my more or less insane undertaking of last May 1. I remember feeling a sense of great satisfaction at seeing my first post go up, with that big “1 May” on it. It made the whole thing seem much more real than all the previous times I’d started blogs, on whatever forgettable days I started them on. And right from the beginning, this blog felt different than all those other blogs, which lasted only until I figured out that I didn’t actually have anything to say, typically after three or four days.

Writing haiku, I found, especially once I started to figure out what haiku actually were, made me feel like I did in fact have something to say, that there was actually an infinite universe of things to say, because, of course, there is an infinite universe — and if you keep your eyes open you will always be able to observe something worth observing, and worth telling someone else about.

I still feel like that. I sometimes go crazy, in fact, from the number of things there are to say about the world in haiku. Not that I have really figured out how to say them well most of the time, but that challenge is always there. Those possibilities delight me. The whole world, passing by in a predictable but novel-seeming cycle year after year, trip after trip around the sun — how could that ever not be enough for anyone to write about?

Haiku can be thought of as time-tellers or time-markers — a large part of their original function was to announce the season that a particular string of linked verse was beginning in — and now that I have spent an entire year with haiku, have written all the obligatory leaf-falling and snow-falling and blossom-falling verses, have marked all the changes of the moon, and come back around to the beginning, that aspect of their nature is beginning to intrigue me more than ever.

The year is a cycle; it’s good to know when you are in it. It’s also good to know when you are in your life. When was before this? When’s after it? Most importantly — when is now? Writing haiku — I won’t say always, because I never say always, and I reserve the right to change my mind about everything — is a way of saying: I was here, then. That was now. And since time keeps flowing, there is always another now to write about. I feel very lucky about that.

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Thanks for hanging around with me this past year and listening politely while I wandered around babbling incoherently. I appreciate it immensely. I mean, no matter how great I thought haiku were, I doubt I would have kept writing a blog that no one ever read or commented on. Or one of those blogs where people are always arguing and yelling at each other.

Fortunately, instead of one of those sad, dysfunctional-family kinds of blogs, I have the kind of happy-family blog that is constantly filled with the pleasant voices of many kind visitors. It never feels like work to hang out here. Practically everything else feels like work, but not this. (She says, staring gloomily at the pile of end-of-term projects that she’s way, way behind on.)

I have some vague thoughts for fun things we can do together this summer. But right now, I’m a little too busy and sleep-deprived to form these thoughts into coherent ideas, let alone coherent words. Give me a couple of weeks, okay?

Happy May Day. Go build a fire. And do a little dance. Come on, you know you want to.

Cities of Green Leaves Ginko-no-Kukai

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Garden scene

As a blogger-inspired initiative to honor
the spirit and sacrifices of the people
in Japan’s stricken Tohoku region,
we are pleased to announce

Cities of Green Leaves Ginko-no-Kukai, May 14 and 15, 2011

We encourage everyone
to join in an international nature walk
to be held May 14 and 15
followed by an international haiku contest.

We invite you to walk with us on those days, collaborating with like-minded poets and bloggers in combining their skills and talents, enter your haiku in a peer judged contest, and take the opportunity to offer aid and support to our friends in Japan in a consensus of thought, well wishes and kinetic energies to occur simultaneously around the globe.

It’s no surprise the kukai’s topic will take its cue from Sendai, Japan’s annual Aoba Matsuri Festival, an event held originally to honor the city’s founder, Date Masamune. The date has now become an annual celebration with thousands of visitors, a parade, sparrow dance and tree lined streets as part of the festival each year to rejoice in the arrival of spring’s new greenery and rebirth.

You may choose any place to hold your ginko walk, as long as it holds the attributes to inspire many to compassionate action in the beauty of poetry, and the celebration of the renewing power of nature’s seasons.

The address to submit your poems will be posted here this third weekend of May. Please return often until then for further updates and poetry. We look forward to walking with you!

Charitable Donations

Architecture for Humanity

Ngo Jen Official Website

Salvation Army in Japan

Participating Blogs

Area 17

Green Tea and Bird Song

Haiku Bandit Society

Red Dragonfly (that’s right here, folks…)
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Please join us!

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So here’s the deal. A few weeks ago I was hanging out on my friend Willie Sorlien’s amazing blog, Haiku Bandit Society, which is where he likes to hang out when he isn’t hanging out on his other amazing blog, Green Tea and Bird Song, or in the real world in the Upper Midwest not too terribly far from where I hang out in the real world. And the conversation turned to Japanese gardens, which are awesome, and I said, “Hey, Willie, how about when you and I are done with our horrible school semesters we invite a bunch of upper Midwestern haiku poets to join us at this fantastic Japanese garden in Rockford, Illinois, which I have been meaning to visit for like ten years now and have somehow managed not to do even though Japanese gardens are one of my favorite things in the world and I only live an hour and a half away from this one?” And he said, “Yeah, sounds great!” and I said, “Really? Okay, let’s do it!”

And then I wandered away all happy thinking about what a nice time we would all have hanging out together in Rockford in May, little knowing that I had let loose an unstoppable avalanche of saving-the-world in Willie’s brain. He started sending me emails with these incomprehensible words in them like “ginko-no-kukai” and “Date Masamune” and talking about how everyone in the world was going to somehow be joining us on our little nature outing and we would all write poetry together and it would all tie in with a festival in Japan that I’d never heard of and it would cheer up basically the entire world population, especially the part of it that lives in Japan.

And being me, I started to whine and complain that I didn’t know what he was talking about and I didn’t have time to organize an international poetry festival to help save the world and he could just plan the whole thing himself and then send me the announcement about it to put up on my blog, because that’s all I felt like doing. I’m gracious and helpful like that sometimes. And he just put his head down and kept steamrolling ahead and waved his hand at me and said, “No problem, have fun, I’m on it.” Then he went off and started emailing people on four continents to rope them into his plan, and since most of them were a lot more gracious and helpful than I am, this is what has come of it my mild-mannered suggestion, no thanks whatsoever to me. I stand abashed and amazed.

So my suggestion is, have a little more gumption than I did. Just do what Willie says, because he has good ideas. Find someplace nice to take a walk in a couple of weeks, meet some friends, write a little poetry, think good thoughts about Japan, send them some money to help clean up the mess they’re in … really, is it that complicated? Do you have to whine so much? Oh, wait, that’s me. Sorry.

Anyway…stay tuned for more announcements…

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blossoms
we fall through a hole
to Japan